[Discourse] Strong Girls Doing Strong Things: Moe, femininity, and being your own hero

SPOILERS: minor spoilers for K-On!, Yuri!!! on ICE and Food Wars!

Mio from K-ON! looks with an affectionate smile at her guitar.
K-ON!

A wide-eyed innocent is staring at you through the screen, her lashline shimmering with tears. “Take care of me”, she appeals without words, to a hero on screen, perhaps you as her hero. Or maybe even to the part of you that’s fragile, which you protect from a world of strangers. Many of us would recognise this as moe, what some would suppose a ‘moeblob’; a character that exists only to be vulnerable and sweet, an empty sugar shell we long to keep safe. But many of us will find something deeper to relate to in this trembling dear, kind to all, yet afraid of some imagined danger.

Western media is coming into more female characters that kick ass, and while it’s joyous to see fictional women more of us can aspire to, I find many of them difficult to identify with. In moe girls, or shows where ‘cute characters do cute things’, I’ve found young women with whom I can see eye-to-eye, giving myself a realistic starting point for working up to the martial arts and twin pistols. Perhaps. Eventually. Until then, I might sometimes want to run and peek around the corner too. But it’s because they are courageous in their fear that I’m finding inspiration in these girls, who step out from hiding to stand victorious beside their friends, or charge into battle for the sake of love.

Mio from K-ON! crouches in the corner of the music room in a panic, while her bandmates look on in concern
K-ON!

Feeling the fear

The light music club of K-ON! is nowhere near a battleground, but bassist Mio has one big block to tackle: she can’t stand being the centre of attention, and so has preferred to stay in the background no matter what’s happening, or how much she wants to take part. She chose to play the bass in her high school rock band Houkago Tea Time for this same reason, but can’t bring herself to take the stage without racking herself with fear and doubt.

Nonetheless, because Mio is the most mature and dependable band member, she pushes past her fear time and again to do what she loves and perform with her friends. This play-off against fear and determination is something I’ve been seeing appear much more prominently in anime over the past few years. But that’s not to say it’s rectified past mistakes of profiting from the cuteness of shallow, dissociating or exploitative characters in every case.

Close-up of Yuri Katsuki from Yuri!!! on ICE looking panicked as he fights his anxiety before a skating competition performance.
Yuri!!! on ICE

Cute slice-of-life shows like K-ON! have been dismissed as the trivial and idealistic frolickings of schoolgirls, many times from valid, feminist perspectives that call them out for being alienating. But aside from having an older main character, Yuri!!! on ICE depicts a young man going through the same insecurities as Mio. Although an established elite figure skater, Yuri Katsuki can’t bear the thought of making mistakes on the ice. Of course, this fear makes him stumble out of his jumps far more than his talent warrants.

Even off the ice, Yuri’s struggling to define who he is as the skater teetering at the edge of his career, and the man for whom the sport has been his all. He has difficulty asserting himself, has no faith in his own designs for the self he wants to express when he skates, until Victor Nikiforov comes along. It’s only then, bathed in his new coach’s ego, that he finds the courage to project confidence. Through his dance to On Love: Eros, we realise in time with him that the playful sexuality he performs for his audience is a true, hidden part of himself.

Yuri Katsuki from Yuri!!! on ICE practises feminine movements in his old dance studio the night before his first skating competition against Yurio.
Yuri!!! on ICE

Strength in the feminine

In channelling the feminine that he believes is most embedded in his dormant eroticism, Yuri comes to empower himself. LGBTQ+ viewers and allies have been praising his explosive awakenings on the ice, which become entwined in the way he handles relationships with fans and loved ones. He finds strength in the love he learns to accept from others, which sometimes spills over as paranoia and a certain neediness, especially where Victor is concerned. By the time of his free performance in the Rostelecom Cup, the round that confirms the six skaters to advance to the Grand Prix Final, Yuri has begun to let go of his coach as his crutch. But when they are reunited later, the yearning he’s held back is released in a plea for Victor to stay by his side.

Yuri and Victor embrace at the airport in Yuri!!! on ICE, after being separated for a few days during a competition.
Yuri!!! on ICE

If anxiety, vulnerability and strength in feminine expression can be a point of such elated discussion in Yuri’s case, why aren’t other such characters who happen to be female given the same acclaim? Many moe girls face similar conflicts in which they learn to level their fragility with a little self-belief. Just as Yuri isn’t forced to ‘man up’, the fact that these girls refrain from being hardened into a Strong Female figure is their distinguishing facet as empowering characters.

There are grounds for the complaints about moe which point out its flat ideals of women. Because of the nature of art, there will always be some guys getting off on what they could get away with. Hopelessness alone cannot translate as any kind of representation of a real woman. But although at moe’s heart there is an image of a girl who is nervous and easily frightened, this checklist can set the foundations for a kind of tender empowerment that’s currently under the radar within most western media.

Soma stands in the background of a kitchen with his arms folded, watching Megumi as she looks worried.
Food Wars!

Growth from failure

Take Megumi in Food Wars!, a girl from a fishing village who comes into the series as modest and subdued as her upbringing. She, like Yuri, has no faith in her talents and lacks the confidence for self-expression in her cooking. She latches onto hotshot Soma from day one at the exclusive, dictatorial Totsuki Culinary Academy, leaning on his ability to scrape through each challenge, until she inevitably has to present a dish on her own. After facing failure for the first time, she blossoms. Soma’s kindness stays with her and calms her fears, reminding her of the home and community that first inspired her.

Putting her mother’s advice to work and making the Shokugeki judges reel, Megumi stands before them and explains that she thinks of someone special when she cooks. It might read like an old wives’ tale, but her faith in the lesson she was taught as a child informs her self-expression. Her leaps from strength to strength in the first season of Food Wars! show us that the warmth of the heart that made her afraid when she had to stand alone is not weakness. Again, like Yuri, she learns it’s quite the opposite; that when you open the floodgates, love becomes more powerful as it’s shared.

Mio stands at the front of her band, in full performance costume, holding her guitar close and looking self-assured.
K-ON!

Let’s face it, not many of us can see ourselves snarling in the face of near certain defeat like the Strong Female Character who’s been mocked as often as seen. But away from this appeasement token of a woman who takes on a hyper-masculine toughness, anime has a multitude of young women and girls who might not be comfortable in their fragile minds and bodies, but aren’t going to hide or defy them to appear less useless. They’ll look a challenge clear in the eye, and though you know they’re feeling the fear, you’ll see them move forward to face it. The line between courage and sheer fearlessness is thin, but in many cases, it’s the marker between staring agape at feats you wish you could accomplish, and being inspired by a character defeating anxieties like your own.

 

Comments are open! Please read our comments policy before joining the conversation and contact us if you have any problems.

Not sure where to begin? Some questions to kick-start conversation:

  • What is your personal response to moe?
  • Do you also identify with moe characters for these, or different, reasons?
  • Which moe characters and/or series would you recommend to feminists?

 

Blogger by trade, Elisabeth O’Neill is co-founder of little anime blog where she loves talking anime (obvs) and its links with feminism, mental illness, and other such SJW nonsense. Say hi to her and their other lovely readers on Twitter @littleanimeblog, or find her personally @LittleTinMiss, where she’ll be geeking out over Star Wars and her various alien/android crushes.

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  • Aah, I love this article! I am all about feminist interpretations of moe (while still leaving room for the very valid criticisms, of course), and I’m fond of all of the shows mentioned in this article! Food Wars definitely has a lot of great and badass female characters, as long as you can deal with the show’s, uh… other aspects. I love recommending it to people (food porn with a side of real porn and surprisingly endearing characters!), but with about 80 grains of salt. (heh)

    I definitely could go on about moe series I think are potentially empowering, but the one that comes to mind first is Yama no Susume, which is a short-format series about a timid girl learning about mountain-climbing (and the magic of friendship, naturally)! It’s cute, educational, and has major yuri overtones as a bonus. (I haven’t watched it in a while, so it’s possible I’m forgetting something potentially problematic, but there was nothing major IIRC!)

    • Rory More

      Couldn’t stomach food wars myself. Ah well, glad people enjoy it for more than… well you know!

      • GreyLurker

        Food Wars had a very VERY bad first episode and kind of a rough start but it did actually get better, particularly once the “impact” of good food applied both genders. Plus Isshiki bare buns were welcomed by many.

    • Elisabeth O’Neill

      Thank you! I know that liking moe can sometimes feel like you’re only viewing your own weaknesses as something to be fetishised or exploited. When I first identified the anime girls I related to as moe, I wondered whether I should be uncomfortable with that as a feminist. But having any character make you feel stronger and more positive in yourself should only be seen as a good thing, so I wanted to share that point of view with other female moe fans who might have been having their doubts. As with any other media, it’s being critical of where female characters are objectified, and realising that there are positive and negative interpretations of moe as well.

      I’ve been hearing about Yama no Susume a lot lately, the descriptions remind me of Amanchu! only with diving replaced by mountain climbing. Considering how much I loved the character dynamic between Futaba and Pikari in Amanchu!, I think I’m going to have to give this one a go. Cheers for the recommendation!

  • Love this post! I’ve struggled a lot with Western “Strong Female Character” archetypes, and the idea that a woman is only allowed to be feminine if she’s a badass on top of it. I remember cringing so much during the first season of Legend of Korra, when the character Asami was only deemed likable once it was shown she could kick butt.

    Anime has always been a more relatable view of women for me, because it’s women who are allowed to be silly and a wee bit dumb and useless but still clearly valuable to the group dynamic because of who they are as a person, not as a strong fighter.

    • Rory More

      In defence of Korra, their audience was one with very different expectations. For many kids, it would be their first “serious” show. I feel for that reason alone, being a little heavy handed in that regard to leave no possible interpretation is somewhat forgivable.

      With anime, I never knew anyone who just watched one so I assume during their production, they have a lot more leeway due to ideas, terms and characters being easily identifyiable tropes (find me an anime fan who doesn’t know what Yandere means XD).

      That’s just my thoughts

      • If anything, LoK’s younger audience makes it even worse, as it’s teaching girls at a young age (though I’m not sure how young–that show seemed at least in the tween demographic) that it is only the physically tough and traditionally masculine qualities that are of value. I do love the later complexities they gave their female characters (especially when putting them in a relationship), but I dislike that in order to prompt this exploration into the character, she first had to be shown as something other than frivolously cute. My issue isn’t in their heavy-handedness but in their need to do that as part of a character at all.

        I’m not entirely sure what tropes have to do with my point, to be honest with you, so I would welcome further explanation. For me, it’s more that anime tends to allow more female characters to be the focal point of the story, and said female characters don’t need to meet a masculine/toughness quota in order to be there with the boys, so to speak.

        Granted, a lot of this is because those shows are actually targeted TO men for them to then pick out their “best girl” or whatever, which does lean into tropes frequently. That does tend to be my main issue watching moe shows and relating to them, knowing that regardless of what I pull from it, the show might have been for a completely different audience with a very different view of it.

        • Rory More

          I just meant that in western media, highly feminine females are the norm so I liked that off the bat, they are offering a “hey she isn’t just that!”. I get that her feminine qualities shouldn’t really be downplayed as much as they were at first but that’s what I meant by the heavy handedness. I think they were trying really hard to get

          “You dont have to be traditionally feminine to be a woman”

          To an audience that likely hadn’t ever really seen that before. That’s all I’m saying 🙂 I think it seems a little drab to us because, well we’ve seen far better and more articulated versions of the same thing. Many Korra watchers aren’t nesacarilly anime watchers! that’s all I’m saying 🙂

    • Alex Erde

      Don’t forget, its not a Strong female character in the west if she doesn’t have a blue hair stripe.

  • Alex Erde

    I love Moe, I prefer watching cute shows and comedies then action and adventure shows. I love Umaru Chan, Non Non Biyori, K-On, Nichijou, Anohana, Wagnaria, Hanasaku Iroha, Nagi-Asu: A Lull in the Sea, and Shirobako (which I still am not sure it really counts as Moe).

    If i was going to recommend a Moe series to a feminist it would have to be Hanasaku Iroha, it’s a great dramatic series (there is one not great moment in the second episode) about a girl coming find herself working at a Ryokan with a fantastic cast of strong female characters and growing up as a person, which I guess is the standard definition of Moe.

    • Rory More

      I’ve never really gotten into Moe types of anime really. I find that the characters who exemplify the idea can be found in so many other places that I’ve never searched out a show for that reason. Maybe I need to change my ways

    • rugose-appendage

      I’ve started watching Hanasaku Iroha ‘cos of this comment.

      I really enjoyed Shirobako’s upbeat portrayal of a character coping with and developing in response to the challenges of her job. And I definitely found her unsure and friendship-based responses to the challenges more relatable than a “strong female character” response. I’m always looking out for more like that.

      • Alex Erde

        I love Shirobako, Hanasaku will probably be another favorite if you liked Shirobako. It definitely felt like Shirobako in spirit and art so I was happy.

  • Ooh, also YOI has some strong female personalities in it too (Minako as enthusiastic retired Japanese ballerina who received the Benois de la Danse (prestigious ballet award) and Yuuri’s mentor, Mila as a figure skater who can lift Yurio up in the air, Lilia Baranovskaya as Yurio’s strict ballet teacher)

  • AsteriskCGY

    I was definitely drawn to anime when I was seeing characters different than the rush of animation mid to late 90’s had in american television? My memory of the time was a bunch of girls that were this carbon copy tomboy archetype. But I think any time there’s a glut there’s going to be comping of ideas.

  • 0utf0xZer0

    The article mentions Mio and Megumi, I am very curious which other moe characters appeal to women and why. Some of the speculation I’ve heard on this topic from women I know in the fandom in the past has been genuinely interesting – for example, a fair number of the Love Live cosplayers have said that they think Nozomi is the most popular Love Live character with female fans, which is definitely not who I would have guessed.

    I may have other thoughts later but I wanted to get this discussion rolling while the article is fresh.

  • Blusocket

    Props for being willing to offer an alternative perspective that’s sometimes unpopular in feminist circles. I don’t personally agree, but no genre or marketing label is able to perfectly describe everything that falls under its general umbrella, and you should absolutely love what you love. Interestingly, K-ON was actually directed by a woman, Naoko Yamada! Obviously that’s not something that always makes a difference in how feminist-friendly a text is, but it is still interesting. I’d love to hear more about gender on the industry side of moe in the future.

    • Elisabeth O’Neill

      What I love about Naoko Yamada’s characters is that she treats them all as real people, regardless of the archetypal umbrella they happen to fall under. It’s irritating that we still need to talk about treating female characters as humans as though it’s this radical concept, but more than that, Yamada seems to acknowledge that we do identify and present ourselves as archetypes. It’s how we make sense of ourselves, and sometimes how we protect or empower ourselves, and she seems to affirm through her characters that there’s nothing wrong with that. Even though each character in K-ON is still ‘the shy one’, ‘the ditzy one’, ‘the rowdy one’ and so on, she uses that as a basis for how they express themselves and then delves into the nuances of their characters from there. I love that approach.

  • Watch Magical Girl Raising Project. Messed up survival but the main character is a useless Moe idealist annoying female archetype but the others aren’t. However by the end she is no longer that sad useless female sort. Idk. Moe means cute but I don’t like weak Moe characters that depict Female stereotypes. But anyobe can be moe

    • Will Raising Porject ever gonna get a Dub? Magical Girl shows are among the hardest for me to watch Subbed, because there are so many visuals I wanna pay attention. Flip Flappers I did watch Subbed, but I’m only gonna revisit it if there is a Db.

      Slice of Life are the easiest for me to watch Subbed. Yuru Yuri and Engaged to the Unidentified I’ve watched multiple times.

  • 0utf0xZer0

    A number of posters here have commented they like seeing a different perspective on moe, as a hardcore moe fan I will add that I appreciate a moe character with a mature personality getting the spotlight in an article like this. A lot of people seem to have this impression that a moe girl has to be childish and airheaded. Which I will admit many, including many that I like, are. But my favourite moe characters are often the more mature ones. And if you ask which ones I actually find attractive, then I definitely tend more away from Yui and towards characters like Mio and Azusa.

    (As to why the childish and airheaded archetype is the one that seems to get associated with moe most often, I think that’s partly historical: the term was first popularized in the west by Mikuru from the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, a character that was pretty much intended to lampoon that particular archetype. And Haruhi drove western interest in KyoAni’s adaptation of Kanon, the title that essentially popularized the archetype Mikuru was parodying. In retrospect, it’s actually not surprising that other moe archetypes aren’t as well known.)

    • Elisabeth O’Neill

      It’s interesting you picked up on that, it’s made me think that maybe I like mature and immature moe characters for different reasons. In general, I find the more mature characters inspiring, and they’re the ones I look up to in terms of how I want to become stronger. With the more childish and hopelessly vulnerable moe characters it’s something I turn to for comfort, to be reminded that there are people out there who feel the same as me, and that it isn’t the end of the world if I’m having one of my more fragile days.

      It is strange that a parody of moe is what ended up defining the general archetype in the western consciousness. As much as it irritates me that Mikuru is always being bullied and manipulated by Haruhi, I can recognise myself there too, so maybe that’s partly why I find it annoying. Despite all that she is irresistibly cute, like a little dress-up doll, so maybe it was a combination of those two aspects of her character that captured an audience of awkward, introverted western anime fans.

      • 0utf0xZer0

        I feel like my girlfriend might have a similar view of stronger and weaker moe characters – she’s well known on the local cosplay scene for her excellent cosplays of Hanayo from Love Live, a character she suits so well that a friend recruited her to play the role. But her favourite character from Love Live is actually Eli, and she has tried cosplaying Eli on a few occasions because she wants to “play against type” on occasion too.

        Two “meek” moe characters I’ve really liked in the past few years are Jun from Anthem of the Heart and Chisaki from A Lull in the Sea. Anthem is a great film in general and Chisaki is interesting because she’s the rare moe character we get to see grow up – she’s fourteen in the first half of the series, but we also see her as an adult due to a five year time skip midway through. (Chisaki is also one of my girlfriend’s favourite characters, she has cosplayed both 14 and 19 year old versions.)

        It’s pretty rare for me to like Mikuru type characters, but there are exceptions – Clannad’s Kotomi Ichinose comes to mind. Actually, Kotomi might be one of those rare occasions where I do feel a protective instinct towards a character. I’m definitely a little more… “defensive” about liking such characters because they can make me feel like I’m living up to the stereotype of a moe fan.

  • Alex Erde

    My bad, It’s been so long, but yeah, that kidnapping subplot is such a weird out of left field story in such a grounded series. And thanks for the rec, I didn’t even know the movie was a thing, I’m super pumped now.

  • Elisabeth O’Neill

    I’m glad my writing helped you. Your response is precisely the reason why I wanted to write this piece, because I’ve come from having the same conflicting feelings about moe. Just be sure that having characters you relate to can only be positive. It’s not inviting the idea of anyone using your weaknesses, or being unable to break free of them. It’s acknowledging the roots of your fears, and using that to discover your strength.

    I think Rei could be moe. She’s so downtrodden at first, you just want her to know that you’ve already let her into your heart. That empathy in itself is uplifting, and that feeling is part of why moe has been important to me.

  • I’m excited to see more Feminists giving props to K-On. Last year there was a LadyGeekGirl post on K-On that really aggravated me.

    • Feminist opinions are divided on a number of things, and this is no exception! I personally struggle with moe shows, but I commissioned and edited Elisabeth’s piece and am really happy we got to publish it here. Anime Feminist was designed to showcase a range of opinions under the broad umbrella of intersectional feminism, I’m pleased that it means a larger group of people feel served by our site.