When Creators Strive to Improve Female Representation: The case of Sword Art Online’s Kawahara Reki

By: Frog-kun May 24, 20190 Comments
Two young women in tight-fitting fantasy clothes smile and flash victory signs

CONTENT WARNING for discussion of sexual assault; NSFW images.

Sword Art Online is the textbook definition of a “problematic fave.” I love the worldbuilding, the science fiction concepts, and the endearing romance between Kirito and Asuna. But that series has also had some high-profile screw-ups over the years, like turning its female characters into damsel-in-distress figures and multiple cases of poorly written sexual assault scenes. In many ways, it’s about what you’d expect from a power fantasy light novel aimed primarily at teenage boys.

I’m not here, however, to rehash the flaws of Sword Art Online, which you’ve probably already heard about a million times. The reason I’m bringing up SAO is because its author Reki Kawahara has publicly stated that he wants to improve the representation of female characters in the series… and this is something that’s already observable in his more recent novels. Let’s take a closer look at what Kawahara said and how the series has improved its handling of female characters over time.

A group shot of the main characters of SAO season two

What did Reki Kawahara say?

In an interview with Dengeki Online from January 18, 2019, Kawahara stated the following:

  • Female characters should not be treated as trophies.
  • He didn’t initially think about the roles of the female characters in the story and just kept expanding Kirito’s heroines (love interests).
  • In the future, he wants to include more parts where the female characters live their own lives separately from Kirito.

This isn’t the first time he’s spoken along these lines. When Kawahara went to Sakura-con in Seattle in 2013, he spoke of how he regretted his handling of Asuna’s character in the Fairy Dance arc. If you’ll recall, that was the arc where she was put into a damsel in distress role, and although she tried to escape on her own, she failed, and ultimately it was up to Kirito to rescue her.

Even at the time Kawahara wrote it, he thought it was a bit much, and wrote the Mother’s Rosario side story in 2004 to make up for it. In that arc, which is adapted in episodes 19-24 of the Sword Art Online II (2014) anime, Asuna makes a female friend and they have their own touching adventure together. It’s quite a well-regarded story even among SAO’s critics, and some fans consider it the highlight of the series.

Cover art for Sword Art Online Volume 7: Mother's Rosary

Nevertheless, up until he went to Sakura-con, I don’t believe Kawahara had thought deeply about gender issues in his writing. Being asked about it made such a deep impression on him that he told Dengeki Bunko Magazine in 2014:

“There were scenes that [American fans] probably felt strange due to cultural differences, like how in Hollywood films, women would never just wait for help when kidnapped, but actually fight, for example. It seems that evolved from the desire to avoid being linked to misogyny, though. Hence, it was quite a shock that Asuna stayed captured in the ALO arc. When they asked ‘Wouldn’t having Asuna caged for the whole ALO arc after fighting so much in the Aincrad arc make people find it as an example of male chauvinism?’ I was so surprised I couldn’t think up of an immediate answer.”

(English translation via tap_trans)

In the 2019 Dengeki Online interview, Kawahara said that his experiences in North America represented a turning point in how he perceived gender issues in his storytelling. So you can roughly split Kawahara’s writing into two categories: before and after 2013.

A bound naked woman being licked by a man with wings

Did the female character writing really improve after 2013?

First, let’s establish what Kawahara wrote when. Almost the entirety of the Sword Art Online series, up until the end of the Alicization arc, was first written between 2001 and 2008. The stories were posted on Kawahara’s personal website, called Wordgear, before they were compiled into book form by Dengeki Bunko. Although the writing was edited and some details were changed, the broad strokes remain the same, and are faithfully replicated in the anime as well.

In other words, anyone watching the TV anime is only seeing the old Sword Art Online stories. So I’m going to disregard the anime entirely for now. Instead, I want to highlight the following projects:

  • Sword Art Online: Progressive (2012): This spinoff light novel series, which shows how each and every floor in Aincrad was conquered, first launched in 2012, but each subsequent volume was written after 2013. There are currently six volumes out in Japan.
  • Sword Art Online the Movie: Ordinal Scale (2017): Kawahara wrote the story outline for the anime-original movie, while the director Tomohiko Ito wrote the screenplay. They began working on this film together in 2014, straight after Sword Art Online II finished airing.
  • Sword Art Online: Unital Ring (2018): The 21st volume of the main light novel series is the beginning of a new arc, and the first one Kawahara has written since the ending of Alicization. Kirito and his friends get caught up in a mysterious new online game.
Cover art for Sword Art Online Progressive, Volume 1

Judging by those three projects, I would say, generally speaking, that the female characters have indeed improved. Mercifully, there aren’t any attempted rape scenes. The various female characters get more scenes narrated through their point of view, along with more action scenes.

For example, Progressive delves into Asuna’s growth as a swordswoman and her personal insecurities. Meanwhile, Unital Ring has a subplot where Silica has to take on a leadership role and prove her worth. Taken together, these two series contain some of the best character development in the franchise.

Movie cover art for Sword Art Online: Ordinarl Scale.

That’s not to say that modern Kawahara is perfect, though. The main star of the show has always been Kirito, and it will continue to be that way. In the same 2019 interview where Kawahara claims he’s been striving to improve the female characters, he also says that he won’t be downplaying Kirito’s role.

Also, both Progressive and Ordinal Scale sexualize the female characters for the sake of “fanservice” for a straight male audience. But the most widely criticized aspect of Kawahara’s female characters—the way they are often turned into trophies for Kirito’s benefit—has clearly been addressed.

A blue-haired girl and a purple haired girl smiling and giving the peace sign

Baby steps?

On one hand, it’s heartening to see a successful creator take feedback into account and strive to make their work more inclusive. On the other hand, even as a Sword Art Online fan, I don’t want to give Reki Kawahara more credit than what is due. Even at its best, I would not describe SAO as a female-centric story. No matter how much the series evolves, I doubt that it will ever cast off its harem trappings.

This can especially be seen in the various video games that Kawahara supervises, such as Hollow Fragment and Memory Defrag, which amp up the sexual fanservice and harem antics. It’s also worth noting that the rough elements of the original web novels remain intact in the modern anime adaptations, including a particularly graphic sexual assault scene in Alicization that is even more voyeuristic in anime form.

Sure, Kawahara has said he won’t be using sexual assault as a plot device anymore in his novels. But for the anime viewers who had a potentially triggering scene sprung on them simply for the sake of developing the male characters, that seems like a hollow comfort.

Kirito blushing and looking at a blond girl's breasts resting against him

As feminist anime fans, it may be tempting to give Kawahara a pat on the back simply for acknowledging that there are sexist tropes in his works. A successful male author in a privileged position like him never needed to acknowledge feminist critique to appeal to his fanbase.

Meanwhile, female and queer authors are routinely scrutinized and criticized disproportionately whenever they don’t measure up to arbitrary standards of “wokeness.” I don’t want to promote these double standards when I highlight or praise Kawahara’s improvement as a writer over the years.

A white haired girl giving a blong girl a kiss on the cheek

But I just want to say this: as a Sword Art Online fan, I’m pleased. The series may be aimed at teenage boys, but it never had to go out of its way to alienate those outside of the target demographic. By steadily improving the female characters while retaining the core appeal of the series, Kawahara proved that.

SAO was always a problematic favorite of mine, and even its recent improvements won’t win over everybody, but I hope to see more writers do what Kawahara has done and strive for more inclusivity. It is, quite frankly, the least authors can do for their readers.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated slightly after publication. In the summary of Kawahara’s statements, we replaced “harem” with “heroines (love interests)” to more accurately reflect his words.

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