CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of sexism, sexual harassment, and NSFW screenshots. SPOILERS for Darling in the FRANXX Episode 8.
Studio A-1’s teenage mecha show, Darling in the FRANXX, was one of the most anticipated series of the winter 2018 season. With a post-apocalyptic setting, thick psychosexual symbolism, and mecha action scenes directed by Studio TRIGGER’s Hiroyuki Imaishi, there was a lot to look forward to and a lot of room for thoughtful exploration of adolescent sexuality and gender relations.
However, fans hoping for that thoughtful exploration were quickly disappointed, as the show didn’t seem interested in challenging expectations at all. Darling in the FRANXX purports to have something to say about sex, gender, and adolescence, but as illustrated in the “battle of the sexes” plotline in the episode “Boys x Girls,” thus far it only rehashes outdated stereotypes and an antiquated “boys will be boys” attitude.
From the start, fandom discussion around Darling in the FRANXX focused on how the show would handle heteronormative gender relations and attitudes. The premise had a lot of viewers (including our own premiere reviewer) wary: teenage children pilot girl-shaped giant robots in male-female pairs, with the boy standing behind the girl in simulated doggy-style sex in the cockpit.
Hiro, the main character, couldn’t pilot with his assigned partner, but defeated a Klaxosaur when paired with Zero Two, a girl from another base called a “plantation” who has a history of killing her partners. They emerge from the cockpit victorious, but Hiro is unconscious and has no memory of the fight. The premise leaves no room for queer pairings or transgender pilots, much to the chagrin of many potential viewers, though some remained hopeful that the series would engage with its heteronormativity.
Thus far, Darling in the FRANXX has shown absolutely no interest in challenging viewer expectations or gender norms. Underneath the heavy-handed symbolism and vaguely dystopian post-apocalyptic setting lie old-fashioned attitudes, even when the plot seems to indicate otherwise.
For example, in the first few episodes, it became a popular prediction among viewers that Zero Two and Hiro were piloting with their positions reversed. Jokes about “pegging anime” popped up all over Twitter. However, when we finally did get to see them in the cockpit, they were indeed in the usual positions—Hiro just needed to find his confidence in order to perform.
No episode thus far has illustrated the show’s problems more than Episode Eight: “Boys x Girls.” It starts with Klaxosaur goo getting into the cockpits and conveniently only falling on the girls, melting their uniforms and exposing their naked bodies to the boys.
Upset and humiliated, the girls—Ichigo, Miku, Kokoru, and Ikuno—divide their house down the middle into a girls’ side and a boys’ side. Hi-jinx, of course, ensue, until an adult steps in and the pilots are sent to think things over in their respective quarters. There, they talk amongst themselves and each side independently decides they should apologize to the other.
It doesn’t sound too bad, but as always, the devil is in the details. Currently, the plot is focusing on the teens’ burgeoning sexuality, which is instrumental in them piloting the FRANXX and fighting the Klaxosaurs. One adult comments to the doctor supervising them that they’ve never seen all the members of a team reach “puberty,” i.e. their sexual awakening, at the same time like this group currently is.
They’ve been raised in a sexually sterile environment, without even the concept of kissing, so ideally their awakening would be free of the baggage and expectations that would typically be passed on to them by society. However, the writers seem unable to think outside that paradigm, because they follow the exact patterns of sexual norms as seen in most anime.
From the very start, the premise behind this episode is flawed. Supposedly, these children have been raised without knowledge of sex or intimacy, but they exhibit the same kind of sexual attitudes that come from living in a society with plenty of cultural baggage about sex. They seem to view nudity and each other’s bodies as inherently sexual, and the girls feel ashamed and embarrassed when the boys see them naked.
However, concepts such as “perverted” and “ogling” are cultural, not innate; nor are bodies necessarily sexual outside of specific contexts. In fact, historically, many cultures have regarded partial or total nudity as unremarkable, including Japan before the Meiji Restoration brought Christian values to its shores. Their behavior would only result from growing up in a society that regards certain bodies as primarily for others’ sexual pleasure.
The characters’ burgeoning sexuality reflects expectations and assumptions about gender roles as well. The boys’ relationship to sex is primarily defined by scopophilia: the derivement of pleasure and power from looking. Although most of them haven’t yet had any real sexual contact – they don’t even really understand what kissing is—they look at the girls’ bodies and understand them to be sources of pleasure.
That is not reciprocated by the girls. Their sexuality is defined by being looked at, which makes them feel embarrassed and ashamed. Although some of them appear to be developing some romantic feelings—Ichigo clearly likes Hiro and Kokoro seems drawn to Mitsuru—they have not expressed any interest in sex at all, other than Zero Two, who is presented as an anomaly.
Even when they see the boys in states of undress, they never express desire like the boys do. By tying the girls’ sexual development to the boys’ gaze, the series expresses the viewpoint that the dynamic of looking/looked at and feelings of shame are natural parts of human sexual development.
Close to the end of the episode, the boys and girls convene separately after Nana, an adult, has to step in and tell them to cut out their childish feud. One member of each group gives an impassioned speech advocating for peace. Hiro says:
“Pistils let stamens handle all the controls, but their frail bodies are the ones bearing the brunt of each battle. Even so, they connect to the FRANXX and do their best, placing all their trust in us. Watching her like that really made me think… I want to be stronger and take better care of her.”
Piloting the FRANXX is literally and metaphorically linked to penetrative sex, through the positioning of the pilots, the desirability of the stamens (girls) to be “pervy,” and a whole lot of unsubtle dialogue. However, this also creates an uncomfortable subtext to the stamens’ role. In the cockpit, the stamens connect to the FRANXX, seeing through the robots’ eyes and speaking through their mouths.
They literally become objects controlled by male characters during the sexual act, incapable of their own movements. Viewed in this context, Hiro’s speech isn’t advocating for treating the girls with respect because they’re human beings who deserve understanding, but because they’re fragile, precious objects to be treasured, like porcelain dolls.
Meanwhile, the normally soft-spoken Kokoro gives a speech of her own:
“I really think this can’t go on! There are things we can’t do alone, but can do if we work with the boys! And there are lots of things like that, aren’t there? Piloting the FRANXX is one of them! Yeah, the boys are perverts, and I have no idea what goes through their heads. Boys and girls are nothing alike, but that’s why it’s good for us to be together!”
Kokoro’s speech reeks of gender essentialism, heteronormativity, and apologism for boys’ bad behavior. Her speech is reactive; while Hiro spoke of what the boys should do differently, Kokoro advocates for responding to them differently.
Her argument boils down to the idea that women and girls should learn to tolerate how men and boys treat them, rather than standing up for their own rights and humanity, because they’re just too different to come to a true understanding and it’s useless trying to change them. In fact, it’s a good thing for men to treat women poorly, because otherwise nothing would happen. It’s reminiscent of the people opposed to #MeToo, arguing that if men treated women with respect, then the human race would cease to function.
And what of Zero Two? She expresses disinterest in the conflict, using it only as an opportunity to have a little fun and spread some chaos. She crosses the boundaries the girls set up and pranks the others by switching the sign on the bath so that the boys accidentally go in while the girls are bathing, then takes the opportunity to steal everyone’s clothes.
I suspect it’s supposed to be about bucking gender norms, but instead she reminds me of the “Cool Girl” speech in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. She doesn’t care about when the boys look at her body—she even enjoys it—because she’s hot and sexy and uninhibited. She’s above it all. She steals everyone’s clothes and cartwheels through their house and sits with the boys because she gets it, and gets them.
In the first few episodes, there was an element of her being dangerous and unpredictable, but as the episodes have gone on, she’s shifted more towards a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who exists mainly to spice things up and help Hiro feel more confident. Thus far, she has yet to truly defy gender roles beyond being sexually aggressive, and femdom is not the same thing as progressive.
There’s still a chance Darling in the FRANXX could pick itself up, dust itself off, and find something truly interesting to say. After all, the show is only one-third of the way through its run, and the writers are starting to drop hints that Ikuno, one of the girls, is a lesbian. However, the way the show fails to examine implicit biases, instead only presenting an affirmation of “boys are from Mars, girls are from Venus,” fails to inspire much faith.
In order for a world like this to genuinely make sense, the writers must think about what things would look like in a culture where boys and girls are raised alongside each other without any real contact with adults or exposure to sex, and what is innate and what is learned. Otherwise, Darling in FRANXX can never truly challenge sex and gender the way it seems to want to.