Fire Balls & Ice Rinks: How My Hero Academia reflects inequality in competitive sports

By: Ashley McDonnell September 29, 20177 Comments
Two people in blue track suits face each other in an arena. The brunette girl has her back to us; the white-haired boy faces us. Subtitles: "You won't get off with just an 'ouch'."

SPOILERS: Discussion of events in My Hero Academia up through Episode 25.

Many fans of My Hero Academia love it for its twist on Western superhero tropes, presenting a world where those with “Quirks” (super powers) are no longer the quirky ones wearing weird, gaudy costumes, but have become the new normal. But when I watch these heroes-in-training attend U.A. High (the top hero high school) and compete in an elaborate sports competition that dwarfs the Olympics, I’m much more impressed with its commentary on the inequality sports competitions breed, particularly in regard to gender.

You don’t have to look that far in either MHA or real life to find abundant comparisons between superheroes and sports. Watch just about any sports competition, and talk of athletes making heroic plays with superhuman skill is certain to come up. Top players and teams also often have fans engaging in hero worship (case in point: the two example sentences for “hero worship” on Merriam-Webster involve sports).

Meanwhile in MHA, during a class competition, protagonist Izuku Midoriya agonizes over how to throw a baseball with enough force so that he’s not last in the rankings but also doesn’t break his entire arm (he has recently inherited a Quirk he can’t control yet). The way Midoriya is allowed to and is implicitly admired for competing despite excessive injuries reflects the way athletes are (problematically) considered heroes and warriors for playing through the pain (see: Pittsburgh Penguins’ Nick Bonino finishing a Stanley Cup Finals game with a broken leg).

An open-air stadium with a wide, slightly raised platform in the center. The stadium is crowded with fans, some with hands raised as if cheering.

But if you’re going to reconstruct a sports hierarchy, one that overtakes the mythos of the Olympics, you’re also going to reconstruct lots of problems that currently exist in that hierarchy. Within the world of MHA, there are those with Quirks and those without Quirks, and we’re led to believe they play by different rules.

This mirrors how real-life college athletes sometimes get special treatment (their grades don’t have to be quite up to snuff), or the absurdity of pro athletes’ pay compared to, say, military personnel, teachers, or doctors (they get paid how many millions to throw a ball in a hoop over and over?). Heroes may always be pursuing justice and fighting to help others, but there’s still tons of inequality inherent in recreating a tiered athletics system.

Since Midoriya starts the series without a Quirk, MHA often feels like a classic underdog tale. His lack of special abilities is the source of all his misery, given how badly he wants to be a hero. Even before his favorite hero, All Might, takes him under his wing and gives him his Quirk, Midoriya plans to challenge the system by taking the entrance exam to U.A. High, hoping that his time spent extensively studying heroes will somehow get him in. Inheriting All Might’s Quirk makes his passage into U.A. far easier, but he’s still an underdog who can’t control his newfound power, plucked from the undercaste of Quirkless people.

A boy with messy green-black hair looks at the camera with a pained smile, one fist held up. His index finger is badly bruised. Subtitles: "I can still move!"

Midoriya’s story feels a lot like what it’s like for women playing sports with men, at any level. Women, in real life, still unfortunately have a lot in common with the Quirkless people of MHA’s world, such as being constantly told by those in dominant positions (like Midoriya’s rival, Katsuki Bakugo) that they’ll never be able to compete because they can never be strong enough (or any number of other reasons). As Jessie Graff, who does stunts for Supergirl and has broken records for women on American Ninja Warrior puts it in an article fittingly titled “How Ninja Warrior Jessie Graff Became a Real-Life Superhero”:

I always picture gym class. A guy has to climb a rope, and he can’t do it. All the other guys make fun of him, so he goes home and learns how to climb a rope. A girl tries to climb a rope, can’t do it, and she’s told that it’s OK, girls can’t build upper body strength. So she goes and does something else.

As a woman who’s played ice hockey in mixed-gender leagues (read: mostly with men) for the better part of 20 years as a goaltender, I have a lot of surface-level affinity with Midoriya, particularly when it comes to his contentious friendship and touching rivalry with Bakugo. When they were younger, Bakugo constantly bullied Midoriya, almost solely for being an outsider without a Quirk. When I was younger, I endured relentless teasing and tried very hard to assimilate to male behavior, so much so that when my coach told me I looked “cute” in a dress that my mom forced me to wear to a team banquet when I was seven, I cried. (He did genuinely mean it as a compliment.)

Yet despite his physical disadvantage, Midoriya never stops helping or admiring Bakugo, much to Bakugo’s annoyance. Even if the boys didn’t want me on their team—and most of them didn’t—we also didn’t have a choice but to look out for each other on some level. We were teammates, after all. If an opposing player tried to poke the puck away from me after I covered it, a teammate would come to my defense, telling the opposing player not to touch me or they’d get decked.

A brunette girl framed from above runs forward, looking determined. Subtitles: "Withdrawing isn't a choice!"

Still, this frenemy relationship just makes Bakugo more determined to beat Midoriya into the ground, which is also something I experienced while playing hockey with men. If a woman shows that she has any decent level of skill, it tends to just make men more determined to show off their skills so she understands the hierarchy of power. One time, I was held back, without a tryout, from moving up with my proper age group (Bantam, 13-14) because the lower age group (Peewee, 11-12) needed a goalie. So I won the championship with the peewees, who loved me.

But this victory felt hollow. I had gotten a shutout in the championship game against kids who were two to three years younger than me, and with that much less experience. At the time, it was fun to show the adults they’d made a mistake putting me in the lower league solely based on my gender. As I got older, though, I saw more clearly the trap I’d been put in, and how winning in that way didn’t feel honorable at all.

Which is why, despite initially having a lot in common with Midoriya, I actually relate a lot more to Bakugo and find his rantings about the sports hierarchy justified, even if he is the dominant player.

Close-up of a white-haired boy with an exaggeratedly furious expression. Flames are behind him and the frame is cluttered with katakana text. Subtitles: (top) "angry angry angry" (bottom) "Even if the world recognizes it, if I don't recognize it myself, then it's trash!"

The struggles and power dynamics between Midoriya and Bakugo switch once Midoriya receives his Quirk and is readily accepted at U.A. High. Midoriya used to focus on fighting a system designed to keep him powerless, but now his conflicts are highly personal as he tries to hide his connection to All Might and gain control of his Quirk. Bakugo, on the other hand, struggles with the inequality he perceives in the hierarchy system at U.A. High. Beyond his bullying behavior, what makes others think of Bakugo as a “villain” instead of the hero he aspires to be is his insistence on not “going easy” on anyone, and a desire for others not to go easy on him. He wants a level playing field where everyone is judged based on merit.

There’s no better example of why Bakugo’s complaints are highly relatable (or a more explicit instance of gender inequality) than his matchup during the Sports Festival against female classmate Ochaco Uraraka. Throughout the tournament, other competitors have been toning it down against opponents with an obvious disadvantage so their classmates won’t get hurt, but everyone is particularly concerned for the female students. Many people tell Bakugo that he shouldn’t go all-out against Uraraka.

A woman in a fluffy pink top, arm warmers, and a poodle-looking hat raises her arms and looks angry. A man behind her in a cape and helmet points his thumbs downward. Subtitles: "Stop bullying and playing with the poor girl!"

Instead, Bakugo tells Uraraka that if she wants to withdraw, she should do so before the match begins; and when she doesn’t, he refuses to hold back. When others berate him after the match for being too harsh on her because she’s a “frail” girl, Bakugo mumbles to himself, “What part of her was frail?” It’s a line that shows deep respect for his opponent and a disregard for the stereotypes surrounding her gender. Indeed, it’s more annoying to me that the other characters in MHA would discredit Uraraka based on her gender in the first place. (Did they not all get into the same school program based on having similar skill, strength, and competence?)

Bakugo eventually goes on to win the sports festival, which was his stated goal at the beginning of the tournament, but he’s still angry at the outcome. In the final match, Bakugo faces Shoto Todoroki, who tries to defeat Bakugo using only half of his abilities. This sends Bakugo into a rage, convinced Todoroki is “underestimating” him. As the fight goes on with Todoroki still acting too chill for Bakugo, he shouts, “Stop screwing around. Am I not strong enough to make you use it?” over a melancholic lull in the battle music. I genuinely feel bad for him as he continues: “I want an indisputable first place! I can’t get that even if I beat scum that underestimates me!”

And isn’t that what made me so mad about winning a championship against younger kids? It wasn’t an “indisputable first place.” It’s not an honorable win when opponents go easy on you. You want to have fun, but it’s not fun to be underestimated and looked down upon.

A young boy with blond hair grins smugly at the camera. "No matter what Quick you get, you'll never beat me."

In the end, Bakugo’s rant is played for laughs. He gets gagged while he’s on the podium receiving his medal, and All Might mostly comments on his silly angry face. All Might tells Bakugo, “In this world where people are constantly being compared publicly, there are not many who can keep aiming for the top of an unchanging scale. … Take this medal, okay? Think of it as a wound, so you never forget!”

It’s a loaded statement not given the gravitas it deserves. Is there such a thing as an “unchanging scale” in sports or superhero tournaments or anything else? Does the most skilled or talented competitor always come out on top? Bakugo yearns and fights for that ideal future where there’s no systemic inequality, where the greatest hero always wins, even if he doesn’t know how to get there.

And I love Bakugo for articulating what I so often feel as a female athlete: an anger at the current system and a desire for a better one. Because female athletes have become pros at playing by different rules and being looked down upon—women play softball, not baseball, and in women’s hockey leagues you’re not allowed to body check each other because people believe women are frail (not that it makes the game any less dangerous). The path to equality requires taking down this stark divide between the sports we play.

A man with spiky blonde hair wearing a skin-tight blue suit looks to the side, smiling, one fist raised. Subtitles: "there are not many who can keep aiming for the top of an unchanging scale."

There will always be a hierarchy in sports, of course, with the best athletes (and the wealthy ones) competing on national travel teams while those with average skills play in local in-house leagues. The bigger issue is that many of the traits that make up the current hierarchy don’t necessarily make sense. Factoring in gender is certainly one of the things that doesn’t. Uraraka doesn’t lose to Bakugo because she’s a woman—she loses mostly because, as others in the show point out, her Quirk (the ability to make objects she touches float) was less effective in the artificial, barren battle arena (which is, arguably, a different systemic issue).

Do I believe most female athletes could compete against men at a professional level right now? No. But I do believe some of them could, and current stereotypes and stigmas keep them from doing so. I believe playing softball instead of baseball and creating gender-specific leagues ensure women’s sports will retain their second-class status, and women will keep being locked out of the highest levels of play. And I also believe it’s going to take troubling allies like Bakugo right alongside tenacious female athletes like Ochaco to help bring it all down.

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