Emma’s Choice: The gender-norm nightmare at the heart of The Promised Neverland

By: Dee September 12, 20180 Comments
A black-and-white sketch of two girls (Emma and a young Isabella) back to back. Emma is crouched and looking determined; Isabella is standing and looking sad.

Content Warning: Discussions of sexism and violence against children; disturbing imagery.

Spoilers: For The Promised Neverland, Volumes 1-5 (Chapters 1-38).

Since it began serialization in Viz’s Shonen JUMP, The Promised Neverland has garnered well-deserved praise for its twisting narrative, tense story beats, and compelling characters. But this series is more than a page-turning thriller. What begins as a sharply crafted horror story soon reveals itself to be a sophisticated critique on restrictive social practices—including the hellishly limited roles expected of girls.

The Promised Neverland follows Emma and her foster siblings, who live a seemingly idyllic life with their foster mother Isabella as they await adoption. Their paradise is abruptly shattered, however, when Emma and Norman witness the truth: they’re not being adopted, but shipped off to become high-grade food for literal monsters. Horrified, they and their siblings plan their escape.

A manga panel showing a young girl, dead, in a jar with a flower growing out of her. Text reads "The human flesh produced on this farm is all high-quality meat for the rich."

The most effective horror stories aren’t about the monster itself, but about the fear that monster represents. These fears can range from the neutral (death), the regressive (xenophobia), or the progressive (the effects of bigotry), but they’re always tapping into some broader anxiety felt by the target audience. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but a good monster is never just a monster.

Because monsters serve as metaphors, they also have the potential to map onto a variety of ideas or concerns. The nightmare depicted in The Promised Neverland serves as social commentary, but that doesn’t mean it’s only one social commentary.

A manga panel of a variety of kids sitting at school desks, intensely working on tablets in front of them. Text reads "The daily test.'

On a general level, the series addresses fears about growing up, entering “the real world,” and realizing the adults in our lives aren’t always truthful (or even good people). On a more culturally specific level, Neverland’s competitive education system and concept that “smart kids taste better” likely reflects the pressures kids in Japan feel to succeed in school—only to one day be “devoured” by a job that might work them to death.

You could also read anti-capitalist and pro-diversity stances in the series, given that the children feed “the rich” and the foster family is comprised of kids from a variety of racial backgrounds seeking a world where they can live together in peace. There’s a lot going on in Neverland, which allows its monster story to resonate with different readers for different reasons.

But for Emma (and much of the series’ female audience), there’s another, even more specific fear bundled up in this horror story: the traditionally limited options available to women, and the restrictive gender norms many girls must fight against to live the way they want.

Three split-panels showing Emma, Norman, and Ray. Emma says that she'll teach the younger kids how to use their bodies while Norman and Ray teach them how to use their brains.

As a protagonist, Emma stands out in the landscape of Shonen JUMP, not just because she’s a girl but because she has a lot of traditionally masculine qualities. Rather than serving as the level-headed “brains” of the group, as is often the case for female characters in action-oriented series, Emma’s greatest strengths are her athleticism, courage, and conviction.

Like Deku in My Hero Academia, Emma is The Protector and Moral Core, the one who refuses to lose hope or compromise her values. She’s clever, yes, but she’s too honest to manage all the twists and lies required of the team’s escape plan.

Instead, she entrusts Norman and Ray, her closest male friends, with the bulk of the scheming. And, when one of them hesitates or tries to give up on saving the whole family, Emma’s there to push them forward again.

Manga panels of Emma talking and working with the younger kids. The text on-screen explains that the kids were able to join in "with full belief" because Emma asked them to. It goes on to say that she's "reckless and unreasonable, but straightforward" and able to say she's "save everyone" and mean it.

Emma is undeniably admirable, but also not what many people think of when they hear the words “female character in a shounen.” Her “tomboy” personality also stands in sharp contrast to the ideal of the “good wife and wise mother” (良妻賢母) that’s been pushed onto women in Japan (and much of the world, though maybe not in those exact words) for over a century.

So it’s no surprise that, in Neverland’s dystopia, that’s exactly the role offered to her.

A manga panel showing a young Krone standing next to an older woman, her face in shadow, as the two stand inside a gated archway. The text explains that some girls have two options "One, continue as they are and die. Two, to aim to become a Mom."

A few volumes into the series, we learn that not every child is destined to become food. The highest-performing girls are given a “choice”: they can die, or they can help the monsters with their harvest. (I suspect the highest-performing boys have a similar option, given that we see adult men working with the monsters, but as of Volume 5 we don’t know for sure.)

Through flashbacks, Neverland depicts an academy where the “elite” girls compete to survive. Those who make it become “Sisters” and, if they continue to excel, give birth and become a “Mom” on one of the farms. They then spend their lives raising new generations of children to eventually turn over for consumption, thus continuing the cycle.

It’s a dramatic but emotionally effective representation of living as a girl in many parts of the world. Even today, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure placed on young women to marry, bear children, and teach their kids the “right” way to live. And while literal death might not be the alternative (though sometimes it is), economic and social barriers often make it feel that way.

A manga page showing a young Krone being led into a room full of frightening-looking girls. The text explains that Krone's "grandmother" told her that she had to compete with the other girls, because "that is how we survive."

What really makes Neverland’s social critique so sophisticated and terrifying, though, is how well it understands the mechanisms in place to keep its oppressed characters in line. Not only are the girls provided with a non-choice (“join us or die”), but that choice doesn’t even guarantee their safety. They aren’t automatically selected as Sisters and Moms, but rather as “candidates” who must battle each other for those positions.

The forced competition turns them all into enemies, ensuring they’ll be too busy fighting a fake opponent to band together against the real one. Sister Krone demonstrates the effects of this conditioning when she arrives on the farm and immediately starts plotting against Isabella, hoping to take her Mom position.

Krone’s relationship with Isabella contrasts sharply with the camaraderie between Emma and her foster sisters, further highlighting the fabricated nature of the adults’ antagonism. There’s nothing “natural” about the stereotype of catty women forever in competition with each other, and the series takes pains to show that.

A manga page showing a young Isabella being presented to a looming monster. She looks angry and frightened. The text talks about how she became a Mom "in order to survive," and also as a form of revenge. She wanted to become someone the monsters could not eat.

Yet while the adult women in Emma’s life have done undeniably monstrous things, The Promised Neverland depicts them as distinct from the actual monsters. Over the course of these early volumes, the audience learns that Krone and Isabella hate the system as much as Emma does; but, unable to escape it, they found ways to justify their participation within it.

Although there are significant issues with Krone’s character design and position as the only prominent Black woman (a conversation that’s outside the scope of this article, but AniFem welcomes pitches), she is ultimately written as a fierce survivalist and sympathetic figure. The same is true of Isabella, who decided the best she could do was help the kids live as happily as they could before their deaths.

When first Krone and then Isabella realize they’ve failed in their tasks (and failure in this world always means death), they reveal their true feelings and throw their support behind Emma. Their last acts are ones of rebellion, as they provide what help they can to increase the kids’ chances of escape. With their final lines of dialogue, they pray that Emma’s family finds a way out of this broken world.

A manga page. On top is a shattered image filled with people and looming monsters. Text reads "And then destroy this awful place of a world we live in!!" On the bottom is a young Black girl shown from behind. Text reads "There's no way to live on the farm. Only the daily life of pushing death on each other."

The smartest social commentaries understand that most of the people who perpetuate a harmful system are themselves victims of it. While Neverland never excuses Krone and Isabella’s complicity, it also offers them sympathy and a form of redemption. They might have been forced into this system, but that doesn’t mean they have to be loyal to it.

(And, as a cheerier aside, there’s a bonus comic at the end of Volume 5 where Krone and Isabella, freed from their constant anxieties about survival, sit down, complain about their jobs, and soon become friends. It’s a joke comic, but it’s also an effective depiction of how quickly barriers fall when the forces that erected them are no longer present.)

Manga panels. On top, a group of kids run off into darkness. On the bottom, a woman waves and smiles warmly. Text reads "Go on. Be careful. And I pray you an find the light."

While it’s hard to fault Isabella and Krone for wanting to live, they still serve as cautionary tales about the dangers of giving in to a toxic system and becoming a part of the very thing that’s hurting you. They thought their options were “join or die,” but in truth their hopeless rage was a kind of living death—and, in the end, they were still destroyed by the monsters they’d tried to appease.

Emma sees these non-choices for what they are and rejects them both. When Isabella, in a skewed attempt at kindness, suggests that Emma “accept despair” because it’s less painful than fighting a doomed battle, Emma flatly refuses her.

Isabella and Emma sit on a bed across from each other. Emma has her foot in a cast. Isabella leans forward, one hand on Emma's cheek, and says "Live and become a Mom, Emma. Accept despair and free yourself from the pain."

Emma won’t die, nor will she submit to a restrictive role that continues to destroy others. She won’t resign herself to being defined solely by her place within a traditional family structure—to being a Sister or a Mom and nothing else.

She may get hurt along the way (and she does, both physically and emotionally), but she’ll keep fighting even so. Unlike the adults around her, Emma will find a better path.

And, with the help of her foster siblings and some unexpected assists from her Sister and Mom, she does exactly that. After four tense volumes, Emma and her family make it to the outside world.

A manga panel that shows Emma from behind and a few of the younger kids ahead of her, under spotlight surrounded by darkness. Text reads "A society where we can exist. I have to take everyone there right now!"

They almost don’t make it all out together, though, because Emma isn’t the only one struggling with gendered expectations. During their escape, the oldest boy Ray tries to violently sacrifice himself to help them succeed. It’s as if he’s attempting to slot into the traditional role of the absent father- or brother-figure who nobly gives his life (whether on the battlefield or at the office) “for the sake of the family.”

Emma rejects this role as soundly as she did her own narrow options. She stops Ray from killing himself and encourages him to live as an active part of their family going forward. Instead of a one-sided sacrifice, both Emma and Ray give themselves the same injury to ensure their escape.

Once outside, they promise to protect and build their family “together.” It’s a vow that suggests a new familial structure based on equality and mutual aid, rather than the narrow (and harmful) gender roles of “breadwinner” and “homemaker.”

Manga panels. Ray tells Emma she won't have to do everything along. They'll create "a world where we can live as a family" "together.'

Emma’s story is far from over and her family’s journey just beginning. If the outside world is synonymous with freedom, then freedom has its own share of dangers and (sometimes literal) pitfalls. But they have a choice, and they have each other, and that means they have hope. This new path may not be easy, but it’s a damn sight better than the roads they took before.

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