I first ran into Cross Ange when my husband tried to hide that he was watching it. Knowing I’m a feminist, he assumed I would be scandalized by the cheapness and frequency of the show’s fanservice. He wasn’t exactly wrong. The fanservice in Cross Ange begins before the opening credits on the first episode, and doesn’t stop until the main character spends most of the final episode completely nude. In between, she fights dragons on a giant robot. What’s not to love?
I know I sound sarcastic, and it’s true that the show is basically a mash-up of unrelated anime tropes. It can seem sloppy and tone-deaf at times. For instance, in the first episode Ange wears a sheer negligee as she sings on her balcony before bed. Her mother arrives wearing a robe she’s apparently forgotten to tie, and the two have a conversation where neither feels the need to point out that Ange’s mother’s breasts are fully exposed.
However, in spite of its flaws, Cross Ange does something I’ve never seen an anime do before: It wraps openly feminist themes in a package of fanservice. Once I finished the series I wondered if it had been a trick. Did the creators intend to create a feminist anime and populate it with scantily-clad women in order to attract viewers? And if they did, is that cynical, or brilliant? I’m still not sure I have the answer.
Ange, the main character, is the princess of the Empire of Misurugi. The empire is built upon the magical power called mana. Not all citizens can use mana, and those who can’t are classified as “norma”. The prevailing belief, and one that Ange voices early in the series, is that norma are dangerous and barbaric. The government carts them away to locations unknown as soon as they’re discovered.
Of course, Ange turns out to be a norma herself (bummer) and gets carted off to Arzenal, the government’s secret lair for norma (double bummer), where she is expected to ride giant robots and fight mysterious dragons that pop up in the sky for no discernable reason (triple bummer).
Even after she arrives at Arzenal, Ange is still in denial about her status as a norma. The other norma there, curiously all women, are not the barbarians she believed norma to be. (Okay, a few of them are, but they get killed pretty early on.) At this point Ange should “learn” not to be so bigoted about norma, seeing as how she is one and meets many others who don’t fit the norma stereotype. She doesn’t though, at least not for a long while.
This is actually what I love about Ange: She’s a tough but deeply flawed female protagonist who never really learns her lesson. Her strategy is always to double down on her own stubbornness. She succeeds not in spite of her stuck-up princess attitude, but because of it. Ange’s unshakable pride is the driving force for the show. She rarely, if ever, wavers from her mission, even when she doesn’t fully understand it.
Ange is sexually abused and harassed multiple times in the series, and yet she refuses to be cowed. She is forced into one of the dragon-fighting mechas after being told it’s a “coffin for normas” and discovers that she’s a brilliant pilot. She demands respect from the people around her no matter how often she’s told that she doesn’t belong, that she’s not fully human, that her very existence is just some kind of accident of birth. She demands respect before her own execution.
Even Ange’s relationships with the (few) men in the series highlight feminist themes. She takes up with Tusk, a male of the “ancient race” who declares that he is her “knight” sworn to serve her. Tusk is a fascinating love interest for Ange because he never asserts his masculinity over her. Despite a running gag where Tusk trips and lands with his face in Ange’s crotch, she is the one to initiate their first romantic encounter (and their last, for that matter). He may be a warrior sworn to protect her, but he’s not a typical “alpha male” character type and doesn’t try to control Ange the way the other men in her life do.
The show’s villain is a total foil for Tusk: the all-powerful Embryo. While Tusk is mindful of Ange’s personal boundaries and treats her with a respect bordering on reverence, Embryo is…into sexual mind-control. Of course, he does find that Ange is strangely resistant to mind-control (apparently because she’s such an asshole) but that only makes him want her more.
Embryo’s relentless pursuit of Ange is in direct opposition to Tusk’s respectful distance. The message in the show is clear: Men who are controlling are best avoided. The man with the real power is Tusk. Even though he can’t use mana and has none of Embryo’s god-like omnipotence, only his self-effacing honesty and open-heartedness can connect with Ange.
The show also features some relatively heavy lesbian scenes and characters. Three of the norma fighters are in, essentially, a lesbian polyamorous triad. One of them, Hilda, later falls for Ange (after bullying her for most the show). Hilda and Ange share the same stubborn streak and they only truly bond when they find something they can both hate.
The sexual tension between Ange and Hilda, complete with a shower scene, feels like queerbaiting until the last episode, when Ange implicitly returns Hilda’s affections. Here the audience experiences the truth that lesbians and bisexual women are real people, not objects to be sexualized. They can form real relationships; they are not just props for sex scenes. In spite of Ange’s obvious attachment to Tusk, she’s not above admitting that she needs Hilda, too.
When the show is over, the audience has seen Ange go through a lot. Just to name a few:
- She was beaten, abused, raped, molested, and forced into a life she didn’t want.
- She was called upon to save the world.
- Her flight suit exposes her entire torso and most of her rear, which means she must have had some significant chafing.
- Several of her friends somehow turn out to be dragons.
- She nearly shoots her own little sister.
- She’s forced to sing the same terrible song several times because, uh, it has something to do with her mecha? Plot reasons?
- There’s a magic ring she must wear. It glows and such. Does magic stuff.
- Lots of communal showering.
This show shouldn’t be good, and it might not be. Cross Ange is a delightful contradiction, one that almost defies a feminist viewing. It dares the audience to try to champion it as a feminist show…because you really can’t. Sure, Ange isn’t cowed after being molested, but each sexual attack is drawn in graphic, gruesome detail and played as though it’s supposed to be erotic. There’s no way for me to condone the depiction of sexual assault as sexy. Rape is rape; it’s not entertainment when women do it to each other. It’s not hot. There is no reason for a flight suit to feature a thong. Not all powerful women are total assholes. The list could go on.
But for all that, it also features a flawed, even unlikable heroine and persuades the audience to believe in her. It depicts a male hero as a gentle guy comfortable enough with himself not to dominate the women around him. Female characters are complicated, human, and varied in their stories and personalities.
The lesbian norma girls do get sexualized, with lots of steamy flushed-face closeups, but they are also rounded out over the course of the show. They aren’t just there for the sexy stuff; they have a real connection that breaks, and they must fight to find it again.
When I watch Cross Ange now, I have to let it be what it is. It’s flawed, like Ange herself. But I just can’t help myself. I love the show’s gleeful depravity.