SPOILERS: Minor discussion of events in K-ON!, Yuri!!! on ICE, and Food Wars!.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Strength in the Feminine
In channeling 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.
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.
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.
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.