Gender Inequity in My Hero Academia

By: Marion Bea February 23, 20180 Comments
Six young women shown from above as they lie outside on grass. They're all wearing the same school uniform and smiling. One is pink, one has fluffly brown hair, one has short hair and their hands on their ears, one has long hair and a frog-like mouth, one is invisible, and another has dark hair in a ponytail

My Hero Academia is one of my favorite series in recent years. Thanks to its compelling, lovable cast and exciting world-building, it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had with shounen and superheroes. Regrettably, though, it’s not entirely free of some of the most frustrating (and typical) shounen stereotypes that frequently undermine its strong female cast.

To some extent, My Hero Academia goes against conventions by giving the female characters diverse Quirks (superpowers) that rarely conform to those of supporting roles. Yet it doesn’t push too hard when it comes to putting them into action.

Most characters have limitations that prevent their Quirks from getting too overpowered, but when there are exceptions, they’re all remarkably male. Even without taking One For All—a special quirk that accumulates power passed down through generations—into account, male characters like Todoroki, Bakugo, or Endeavor are portrayed as being far above everyone else.

The girls from the main cast receive far less recognition, mostly because they’re often relegated to the background. While there are also boys who don’t have much time in the spotlight, the series still finds endless opportunities to highlight plenty of its male characters, which hardly ever happens with the girls. As a side effect, this also means that MHA, perhaps unintentionally, doesn’t always take the girls’ Quirks seriously, resulting in limitations that sometimes don’t even make sense.

A Quirk as deadly as Ashida’s acid production should be regarded as a serious threat, but it never seems to do much. Toru, the invisible girl, is basically an ongoing joke. But even more glaring is how the series fails to realize the true potential of Momo, who can create anything as long as she knows its components. At the end of the day, no girl is portrayed as anywhere close to the power levels or growth potential of many of their male peers. Compared to them, the girls are hardly ever provided with opportunities to distinguish themselves.

This is even more noticeable in the tournament arc, when plenty of characters finally get a chance to shine, including the girls. Ochako’s fight against Bakugo focuses on confronting the audience’s sexism while acknowledging Ochako as an opponent worthy of respect. In the other matches, the boys that underestimate their female opponents suffer quick, crushing defeats.

This implies a self-awareness of one of shounen’s most common tropes: boys are stronger and more capable than girls. The first stage of the tournament seems focused on challenging this particular trope, but while it succeeds in highlighting this inequity, it ultimately does nothing to resolve it, and instead perpetuates it with full awareness.

While Ochako emerges from her defeat motivated to expand on her skill set, her match doesn’t leave any lasting effects. As the tournament advances toward the finals, the rest of the girls are quickly eliminated, leaving the serious, exciting fights to the boys. Even though the girls show notable talent, when the tournament ends, it’s the boys who get all the top spots.     

My Hero Academia’s shortcomings with the girls from its main cast are also present in the professional field. Midnight and Mt. Lady are the most prominent pro heroines introduced to the audience thus far, and neither of them shows competence comparable to the male pro heroes, nor do they inspire the same level of admiration.

We have yet to see pro heroines get things done (in a way that’s also taken seriously by the series) like we have with All Might, Endeavor, Eraserhead, and so on. With Mt. Lady and Midnight, we mostly just get moments of clumsiness or flirtation, all meant to serve as comedy or fanservice.

The internship arc introduced pro heroine Uwabami, yet it regrettably didn’t give her anything to do on the field. She only serves to give us a little look into the commercial side of heroism—an aspect of the hero profession that’s later portrayed as fundamentally destructive and corrupt during the Stain arc. This lack of pro heroine action in the field gives the impression that they aren’t as capable and exciting as pro heroes. This is further reinforced by the first-year students’ internships. Most of those who had it under pro heroes got productive, exciting experiences. Meanwhile, those under pro heroines ended up disappointed.

At its worst, My Hero Academia doesn’t just ignore its female cast: it brings them forward solely for the purpose of reinforcing tired stereotypes. One example is the talk show segment from one of Season 2’s cold opens, which manages to commit several offenses despite its brevity. Featuring Mt. Lady and Midnight as guests, we learn that the latter’s debut was seeing as so scandalous it inspired a costume regulation bill. Then, Midnight starts discussing the difficulties the censure imposes on heroes whose powers are obstructed by clothes (which brings characters like Momo to mind).

The segment seemed like an interesting idea at first, especially considering the series’ poor treatment of “sexy” female characters up to this point. We can see that with Midnight herself, who doesn’t have much development outside of being a BDSM-themed pro heroine. And, on the student side of things, other characters often leer at Momo’s costume—while she’s either unaware or embarrassed if she notices—and she’s targeted by Mineta more than the rest of the girls, mostly because she shows more skin for the sake of her Quirk.

Discouragingly, the TV show segment decides to keep ignoring those issues and instead prioritizes tropes that further undermine the pro heroines. Mt. Lady and Midnight end up in a cliche “cat fight” before actually having a discussion, reinforcing the harmful idea that powerful women are unable to get along. To add insult to injury, the scene ends with a “punchline” as we cut to Mineta, of all people, watching with excitement.

It’s an especially frustrating conclusion given that Mineta’s very existence is My Hero Academia’s worst crime. He is the personification of one of the most troubling tropes in shounen storytelling: sexual harassment and assault as a source of humor.

The series tries to utilize this archetype with some attempted self-awareness. It acknowledges that Mineta’s disrespect of the girls’ boundaries is a bad thing, and he’s constantly called out by his classmates. When he crosses the line with the girls, they usually punish him. However, none of this means anything if the series shows no meaningful consequences for his actions, especially from individuals of authority such as the school faculty.

With Mineta’s final exam, the series takes an even more unsettling stand. There, he’s portrayed as a surprisingly hard-working student, just like the rest of his classmates. His motivation to “become popular” with women is even treated with certain levels of sympathy. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to impress the gender you’re attracted to, of course, but promoting such motivation in a character who frequently sexually harasses (if not outright assaults) his female peers perpetuates ideas that threaten women’s comfort and safety. Instead of correcting his behavior, the series silently approves of it by continuing to portray him in a humorous rather than malicious light.

My Hero Academia certainly has issues with the way it treats its female characters, which takes something away from my enjoyment of the series. However, I must also acknowledge that, at times, it does seem to have its heart in the right place. We can see that in Ochako’s motivation to become a pro heroine and earn money to help her family, in her fight against Bakugo, or in the very relatable character arc that Momo had after under-performing in the tournament.  

It’s also notable in the characterization of most of the girls; they feel like well-rounded people that I would love to hang out with. Whether it’s their cool personality and judgment, sense of humor, kindness, or the general positivity some impart to others, the girls have qualities that make it easy to connect and care for them.

I love My Hero Academia despite its flaws, in part because of how much I like its girls, but also because it truly understands what makes the concept of “heroes” so appealing. The heroes it promotes are hardworking people, moved by their desire to be the best version of themselves and help those who need them. MHA realizes that a hero can’t always save everyone, but it encourages them to keep fighting for those they can. Those ideals can motivate everyone, regardless of gender, to always give their very best. It’s a series with a lot of heart, which is why so many of its characters resonate.

A round-faced teen girl smiles with determination at the camera and gives a thumbs-up.

As much as I love it, I still believe the series would greatly improve if it allowed its female characters to take on bigger roles in the action. However, simply giving them more time in the spotlight wouldn’t fix the problems the series has with them. For that, it would need to maintain the same level of insight it had when Ochako stood in front of Bakugo during the tournament, despite her fears and everyone’s doubts about her abilities. Very much like it challenged the audience’s low expectations of her, the series needs to more often challenge its own hesitance to let its female characters stand on their own, outside of comedy and fanservice, when it matters most.

My Hero Academia is an ongoing series. I believe that it can do better, and I’m glad it has the chance to do so.

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