For many Americans in the late 1960s, Speed Racer (known in Japan as Mach GoGoGo) was a landmark television show, marking their first exposure to anime. The show followed the adventures of Speed Racer, a young man striving to become the world’s best racer and conquering dangerous courses along the way.
But Speed Racer was also exceptional for the way it depicted its primary female character, Trixie (or “Michi Shimura” in the original Japanese release). At a time when most female characters on television were barely allowed to have careers, Trixie was an action star in her own right, a racing professional and hero on equal footing with the male characters.
While Speed Racer is the primary protagonist of the show bearing his name, the spotlight was often on Trixie. She has an important place on Speed’s racing team as his safety spotter, alternately riding along with Speed in his trusty Mach 5 race car, utilizing various gadgets to ensure the track’s safety, and flying her very own helicopter from overhead.
When other characters do attempt to devalue her as being “just a girl,” she stands her ground, proving her knowledge of the tracks as well as the Mach 5’s mechanical parts, safety, and technology. She comes to the rescue of the Mach 5 racing team multiple times, such as in the episode “The Most Dangerous Race: Episode 2.” Better still, when Speed’s little brother Spritle tries to reject Trixie’s help because he doesn’t want to be saved “by a girl,” the series explicitly calls him out on it, depicting him as immature and in the wrong.
The characterization of Trixie as a strong and capable woman was unusual for anime heroines at the time. In Japan, most female characters in the ‘60s adhered to strict gender roles and were typically mother figures, love interests, or damsels in distress. Other anime heroines from the same period include Mari Yamatone in Ōgon Bat (1967), a young girl whose main job is to cry for Ōgon Bat (her father) to save her, and a pair of female heroines on the five-person team in Rainbow Sentai Robin (1966). One is a motherly character, serving as a nurse and caretaker for the main hero. The other is a cat. While admittedly the cat’s ability to scramble radar is useful to the team, the female characters are not there to be a direct part of the action.
One possible exception is the series Princess Knight (1967), where the heroine, Princess Sapphire, is a talented swordfighter who can go toe-to-toe with the male cast members. However, Princess Knight has been criticized by some modern-day critics because Princess Sapphire’s power comes from her “having a boy heart.” When she loses her “boy heart,” she loses both her sword fighting ability and the respect she previously commanded.
In Speed Racer, Trixie’s strength isn’t tied to rejecting her femininity. She has a traditionally feminine hairdo, wears makeup, and is often decked out in pink racing gear. If anything, the fact that she embraces her femininity is part of her strength; she is often underestimated for it and still proves she can save everyone.
In addition to being exceptional in Japan, Trixie’s character was exceptional on American television as well. The 1960s and ‘70s were decades when new roles for women were just starting to emerge in popular media. Women on television had traditionally been portrayed as idealized domestic housewives throughout the 1950s, a trend that continued into the ‘60s and ‘70s but began to be challenged.
These decades saw the introduction of characters such as Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970). Mary Richards was an independent single woman working as a TV news producer. The idea that a show could be based entirely around a woman’s career was thought to be radical at the time. Other emerging characters at the time subverted the expectations of a wife and mother, such as the single mom Lucille Ball played on The Lucy Show (1962).
Of course, even these exceptions were not without their issues. Neither Ball nor Moore’s characters were allowed to be divorced, as the producers worried this would be too controversial. They were also expected to show a level of respect to their male superiors that wasn’t required of their male coworkers. For example, Mary Richards always refers to her boss as “Mister” or “Sir.” This was largely unquestioned in-universe.
These issues weren’t unique to live-action U.S. television, either. Implicit biases against strong women can be found in a number of animated shows that aired around the same time as Speed Racer. The Jetsons (1962) was set in the far future, but their vision of the future still saw women as homemakers or maids while men remained the breadwinners. Other action shows featuring female love interests, such as The New Adventures of Superman (1966) and Popeye (1960), used them as classic damsels in distress, rarely if ever utilizing a plot where the women saved themselves.
By contrast, while characters on Speed Racer do underestimate Trixie, she frequently proves them wrong through her skill and moxie. She never refers to the male characters by anything but their first names and has no problem arguing with them (and usually gets her way). Speed largely sees her as an equal and often chooses her as his ride-along partner, picking her over his little brother Spritle and even his mechanic Sparky.
Trixie was a different kind of heroine on animated television. Quick-witted, spunky, and self-sufficient, she stood out from the crowd, a feat she is still remembered for to this day.