[Feature] How My Hero Academia confronts shonen sexism

The second season of Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia was one of the most hyped anime for the Spring 2017 season, no small accomplishment next to titles like Dragon Ball Super, Attack on Titan, and Boruto. Horikoshi has built a story that is now considered an inheritor in the pantheon of Weekly Shonen Jump blockbusters now that Bleach and Naruto have both reached their conclusions.

The success of My Hero Academia can be attributed to many factors, but most prominent among them, at least to me, has been Horikoshi’s immense familiarity with both western superheroes and mainstream shonen genres, utilizing the strengths of both while showing a willingness to break from tradition to create a truly unique story. One such example is in his handling of female characters in that shonen staple: the tournament arc.

SPOILERS: for the tournament arc of My Hero Academia, up to episode 22 

The progress for women in shonen has been slow, but it’s there. Since the days of Dragon Ball Z, women have become progressively more prominent characters in male-dominated casts, taking on more dedicated fighting roles among the primary characters, but series consistently fall short when it matters most. Women are inevitably matched up against one another in tournament arcs, take on healing, utility, and room clearing roles while the men take on the major villains.

In a way, it can be even more frustrating to see a growing number of great female characters relegated to secondary roles within the narrative. Horikoshi seems well aware of this dynamic and confronts it directly through the sexist perceptions of the characters in the story, most prominently in the second season’s tournament fight between gravity-controlling Ochaco Uraraka and the explosive Katsuki Bakugo.

Iida speaks to Deku while indicating Ochaco. Subtitle: "But, well, I don't think even Bakugo would use a full-strength explosion on a girl..."

The matches leading into the fight set a foundation for our expectations. We’re presented with four fights featuring male characters versus female characters. Kaminari and Aoyama each approach their bouts certain of their own victory, promising to swiftly end the fight only to be summarily crushed, in Ashido’s case notably due to her physical superiority. Despite being provided with an advantage in his fight, Iida is little more than a set piece for Hatsume’s tech demo before she drops out of the tournament.

Only Tokoyami emerges truly victorious from the boys’ camp, driving Yaoyorozu out of bounds before she can make use of her creation quirk. The final result is 2-2 (really 3-1) and we are shown the girls are just as capable as the boys, with the boys who failed to respect their opponent suffering humiliating defeats despite their powerful quirks.

My Hero Academia takes place in a world where physical capability is only one tool in a kit that fighters have available to them. Size and strength can be useless against opponents who use mental powers or are composed of intangible shadow. Any physical advantage a male character might have in a fight is reduced to insignificance.

Yet, moving into his match against Ochaco, Bakugo is labelled a villain before he even steps into the ring because his opponent is female. Women are implicitly considered beings too fragile to handle roughly, so Bakugo’s willingness to use his violent quirk on a girl can only mean he is cruel. More than appreciating that the odds are against Ochaco given their respective capabilities, the fight itself is treated as a farce.

Two professional heroes stand up from their seats in outrage at Bakugo's actions. Subtitle: "Stop bullying and playing with the poor girl!"

Ochaco rejects Deku’s offer for aid in recognition that they are all rivals and must rise based on their own merits, even though Deku himself received coaching from Ojiro before his fight with Shinso. We quickly learn that she didn’t even need the help.

Her plan at first is identical to the advice Deku would have given her, but no one knows her quirk better than her. Where Deku’s plan stopped at trying to avoid Bakugo’s blast and close in to touch him, Ochaco had thought several steps further by using Bakugo’s own quirk against him, taking advantage of the smoke and rubble of his explosions to set up her decisive move. Not even Ochaco realizes just how close she came to victory.

Bakugo's hand shakes after he holds off Ochaco's attack. Subtitle: "That was close..."

Bakugo appears to acknowledge Ochaco as a real threat, using his quirk to blast her away and work her down slowly, fighting her at range despite his specialization in hand-to-hand combat. After several minutes, the crowd begins to boo him.

His slow strategy is perceived as nothing more than bullying. A professional hero demands Bakugo end the fight. Even their classmate Tsuyu, who is normally quick to call out chauvinistic comments, thinks Bakugo is merely toying with Ochaco.

Tsuyu watches the fight with her equally horrified classmates. Subtitle: "Even though you're fighting a girl, you have no mercy, do you, Bakugo?"

Eventually, their teacher Aizawa-sensei shouts them down on the loudspeaker, calling out the audience’s sexist perception that Bakugo is picking on a frail girl rather than participating in a match between peers.

Aizawa sternly addresses the professional heroes booing Bakugo. Subtitle: "Do home, and look into changing careers!" Aizawa continues to lecture the professional heroes booing. Subtitle: "Bakugo is being careful because he's acknowledged the strength of his opponent."

But even Aizawa wasn’t entirely correct. Bakugo had been fighting so cautiously not out of respect for Ochaco, but because he was sure that Deku had provided her with a scheme to defeat him.

Bakugo speaks to Ochaco through the smoke his attacks have created. Subtitle: "Since you're friends with Deku,"Bakugo continues to speak to Ochaco through the smoke created by his attacks. Subtitle: "I thought you'd be up to something."

After losing to Deku’s strategy during their mock trials, he was playing it safe until Ochaco was forced to play her hand. Even expecting a sudden turn, he is only just barely able to escape her trap. Believing Deku’s plan foiled, he begins to close the distance between them, unafraid of Ochaco on her own. It’s only after the match that he learns Ochaco had refused Deku’s help and he must confront the fact that he had very nearly been beaten by her alone.

Deku speaks to Bakugo in the corridor. Subtitle: "If you thought that was annoying, that was because..."Deku continues to speak to Bakugo in the corridor. Subtitle: "...Uraraka was leading you around by the nose!"

In the aftermath, it seems the match, even with Aizawa-sensei’s interjection, has done little to affect anyone’s perceptions. Bakugo returns to his classmates and is greeted by further criticism and labeled a villain for doing what was absolutely necessary to win.

Even when faced with their own misogynistic thinking, the majority were unable to change their way of thinking. There is something terribly believable about this unfortunate outcome. But, just as the fight was a showcase of Ochaco’s determination and unrealized potential, it may also represent a crucial step in Bakugo’s growth as a character.

Bakugo sits down among his classmates, frowning and murmuring to himself. Subtitle: "What part of her was frail?"

My Hero Academia isn’t perfect. It has its problematic moments and it would have been wonderful if one piece of the primary triadic rivalry could be female. It remains to be seen whether the female members of class 1-A will be able to remain relevant as the stakes are raised or whether they will fall to the wayside as they do in so many other shonen, and as they sadly did in this very tournament, serving predominantly as a means to progress the male characters’ arcs. However, this event shows a very real awareness by the author of the traditional roles female characters are relegated to in the genre, which gives me hope that this series may allow its female cast to break free of these archetypes.

 

Peter has been an anime fan for 20 years and a professional writer working in anime, video games, and esports for five years. You can follow him on Twitter @peterfobianThis post represents the independent views of the author, with no connection to his employer.

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  • Flaze

    Yay! I was waiting for an article like this from the day the episode came out. This was actually one of my favorite fights in the whole series, not just because it’s one of the first times we get to focus on Uraraka and she gets to show off her own skill, but cause it’s also the first time Bakugou isn’t the biggest asshole around, it was nice seeing that even if he still has a lot to learn he’s still got some good points to him.

    This is a bit of spoiler territory but I do wish all of the girls got the same amount of attention, while a few of them get to have their own arcs, some of them like Ashido kind of end up being relegated to comic relief (though the same can be said about most of the guys too).

    Still, MHA really stands out because even then it’s female characters feel so fresh and interesting and I like to think that it embodies that new wave of shonen style that’s more inclusive than in the olden day and I’d compare it to series like Assassination Classroom, Gintama and Shokugeki no Soma (when it’s not too busy strippinig its characters off)

  • GreyLurker

    One of the interesting reslts of the Tournament is afterwards when the characters go on to do internships. Ochaco decides that even though her main goal is to be a disaster relief hero, there is something to be gained by training under a combat hero named Gunhead, giving her more options and experiences.

    • Peter

      They’ve been talking about evolving Quirks recently so I’m hoping she stays in the combat cast moving forward. Getting to see how each character bounces back from their loss in the sports festival is so satisfying.

  • Amy Notdorft

    One of my favourite parts of this match-up is when Bakugo calls Uraraka by name. At the beginning of the battle he only refers to her by her quirk, something he still does for the majority of his peers, but part way through he uses her name instead. To me, it seemed such a significant gesture of respect especially considering she’s one of the only people he’s offered it to.

  • lmd84

    I’m not familiar with the series, but your perspective on how it treats its characters makes me inclined to try it at some point. Sounds like it could be fun, and perhaps do something more with its female characters than is the norm for shounen series. That would be worth watching.

    Thanks for the article.

    • Peter

      It’s far from perfect but it has by far the best female cast of any major shonen and many of them show considerable agency in the story. It’s also immensely sincere in its emotional narratives. I encourage most people to try the first two episodes (chapter 1) and if you connect with Deku then you’ll probably love it.

  • Caitlin

    Why is it so unlikely that women develop quirks that make them physically more powerful than men? It doesn’t defy the internal logic of the show. Super-strength is a perfectly viable quirk for either gender. Plus, there are plenty of characters whose fighting styles do not depend on their muscles – Todoroki’s quirk is so powerful that he got entirely through the tournament without ever having to throw a punch iirc. Tokoyami’s lack of physical strength was his eventual downfall, but he still made it to the semifinals. That’s nothing to sneeze at. “Men are just stronger than women” is a thin excuse in a series based around literal superheroes.

    Your first explanation, that the series is aimed at boys and thus features male characters in all the leading roles, has more truth to it. But why does it have to be that way? Girls are expected to enjoy media featuring boys all the time, and WSJ’s readership is almost at parity. There’s no hard and fast rule that boys can’t enjoy action in which one of the major players is a girl, only conventional wisdom, which is often wrong.

  • This position has a foundation of preconceptions from social norms that intersectional feminism is invested in challenging. Let’s end this conversation here, as it’s not going to go anywhere productive.

  • Well, it’s not like ending the discussion here means the discussion will never happen! There are other places where such a debate on the validity of intersectional feminist basics is welcome. This forum is just not one of them. We’re not responsible for evolving society, only for providing a safe space for people who already understand and buy into intersectional feminism to be able to discuss anime through that lens. One way we do this is in shutting down conversations we know will not be of benefit – or could even be stressful to read – for those people, our target readers, many of whom could be challenging social norms on gender identity in some way. Conversations on “males are like this and females are like that” will never be supported by the moderators here for that reason. I hope that makes our reasoning clearer!