“I Can’t Wait Around Anymore”: Civilian women’s agency in My Hero Academia versus Fullmetal Alchemist

By: Caitlin Donovan May 6, 20220 Comments
winry looking serious, with Ed and Al to either side of her

Spoilers for Winry’s arc in Fullmetal Alchemist, light spoilers for My Hero Academia

We’ve all seen it play out before: a male hero comes home battered from his latest action-packed adventure to a girlfriend or mother who’s dutifully waiting for him at home, hands clasped in worry. She’ll ask him where he’s been and what he’s been doing, maybe even while patching his wounds, but either he won’t say anything or he’ll outright lie to her. Often, this silence is justified as something that somehow “protects” her, but sometimes it’s simply just how things are. 

There’s no need for the hero to consider his loved one’s feelings, but it’s her duty to give endless emotional support without even being let in on what’s happening. The emotional strain a woman experiences in a relationship with someone who’s so often in danger yet doesn’t communicate is rarely treated as a real issue. A woman’s opinion apparently doesn’t count if she’s not involved in combat. In fact, it’s almost implied that she doesn’t count.

This is a pattern repeated in both shounen manga and superhero stories. So when My Hero Academia had an episode focusing on the protagonist Deku confronting that he hadn’t considered his mother’s feelings during his dangerous, superheroic exploits, it piqued my interest. Was MHA engaging with and challenging this narrative?

Deku approaching his mother as she cooks at the stove

Deku’s mother, Inko Midoriya, is—like a lot of shounen mothers—sidelined in the narrative. She exists largely in the background. While she supports Deku’s dream to be a hero, she’s often distressed by his repeated injuries, like any caring parent would be. But she’s repaid for her constant support by being repeatedly left in the dark about her son’s life. Inko thinks that Deku just miraculously developed superpowers, but he was actually granted them by his idol and the world’s #1 superhero, All Might. When All Might chose to train Deku as his successor, neither of them considered discussing this with the woman who raised him.

It wouldn’t have been surprising for the story to never follow up on this, as it’s fairly common in YA stories for the teen protagonists to break away from their parents and keep things from them as they find other adults to emulate. It shows that the character in question is coming of age and “leaving the nest”. However, it’s certainly noticeable that the adults who mentor children in their grand adventures tend to be men (like All Might) and the nurturing, civilian characters destined to be ignored and sidelined are generally women (like Inko). Even if it falls in line with the tropes of a coming of age narrative, these stories still give a message that civilian women don’t count.

That’s exactly why it was such a pleasant surprise when MHA did choose to examine and center Inko’s feelings about her son’s situation. When Deku is injured yet again, she puts her foot down and tells Deku she’s considering pulling him out of the school for his safety.

Closeup of Inko's face, with a determined look and tears in her eyes. Subtitle text reads: This was an obvious consequence of ignoring my mother's feelings.

What’s more, she takes All Might to task for not adequately caring for and protecting her son as a teacher. Inko is framed sympathetically in this moment, and Deku confronts that he’s been ignoring the emotional strain he’s been putting his mother through while relying on her for support.

All Might, too, finally acknowledges the recklessness and impropriety of recruiting a child to his cause without even bothering to meet said child’s family. He gets down on his knees and apologizes to Inko, saying he should have told her about this from the beginning. He promises to do better. Inko, knowing how much being a hero means to her son, gives permission for them to continue training. The status quo is ultimately maintained, but with a narrative stop-off that highlights the importance of Deku and Inko’s relationship and reminds the audience of her impact on the story.

Closeup of Deku with a worried, apologetic expression. Subtitle text reads: I promise I won't make you worry!

However, even if this scene was satisfying, it was noticeable that things with Inko hadn’t been completely resolved. Despite the dramatic emphasis the scene had put on All Might finally confessing to Inko, he left out some crucial details.

For one thing, All Might didn’t tell Inko that he was the one who gave her son the dangerous superpowers that were destroying his body. He also did not mention that when he granted Deku this power, he didn’t just put a target on her son’s back, but Inko’s as well: in classic superhero fashion, putting Deku in the spotlight puts her in the path of All Might’s nemesis, All-for-One.

But, considering the emphasis this first confession scene put on the importance of communicating with Inko, I hoped that this betrayal of trust would be followed up on. Inko confronting both heroes about their lack of transparency could lead to interesting conflict and development for all the characters involved. Inko’s feelings could be valued and the story could really follow through on the idea that her involvement is important even if she’s not an action hero.

All Might, in his scrawny, regular form, bowing deeply to Inko. Inko says: If you can promise me that, then I'll allow it."

Unfortunately, it’s been over one hundred chapters since that scene, and that has yet to happen. Inko doesn’t feature much in the next few arcs. Deku avoids serious injury for a while, but due to luck rather than actively remembering his promise to his mother.

When Deku is inevitably seriously hurt again, Inko finally learns the truth both he and All Might have been keeping from her, but it’s all handled as rather perfunctory. Neither All Might nor Deku acknowledge the wrong they’ve done in denying her this information and she doesn’t call them out on it either. Nor do either of them acknowledge they’ve broken their respective promises to Inko.

In fact, the opposite happens. Deku decides to cut himself off from everyone, including his mother, by leaving both his home and his school to “protect” them. When Inko cries and protests, he reassures her that this will be temporary, but he also makes it clear he’s going to ignore her wishes and there’s nothing she can do to stop him.

Inko weeping in Deku's arms as he tells her he has to leave home.

Now, the manga definitely frames Deku running off on his own as a bad thing. His superhero friends drag him back to school eventually. But while there’s a dramatic scene where he confronts the wrong he’s done in cutting his friends off, he doesn’t do this for his own mother. In fact, there isn’t even a conversation between them when he gets back. Inko is relegated to the background again, crying happily that at least other heroes were able to get through to her son.

Inko’s feelings are only central when she’s an obstacle to Deku getting what he wants. Now that she can’t stop him, there’s no need for him or All Might to worry they’ve been taking her for granted or for them to confront the wrongs they’ve done to her. She’s not a superhero, after all. She must accept that all she can do is wait and worry while her son does what he wants.

Not only is this a bummer for Inko as a character, this directly contradicts My Hero Academia’s overall themes. The manga declares at one point that it’s about how everyone “became heroes”, civilians included. Yet because she’s a civilian woman, Inko’s agency, feelings and input are disregarded. In fact, the only things readers know about Inko are in relation to how she supports or worries about Deku on his path as a hero.

Manga panels of Inko confronting Deku tearfully about his injuries.

We don’t know what her hobbies are, if she has friends or what she even does when she isn’t worrying about Deku. This is in stark contrast to how the superheroic fathers in the series are treated. They’re all complex figures with their own inner worlds. All Might, who becomes Deku’s father figure, even retains his complexity and central role after losing his superpowers and passing the torch to Deku. He doesn’t fade into the background like Inko—he’s still out there as a hero and mentor prominently involved in the action.

If Inko had always been a static character, this wouldn’t have stuck out quite as much. But the story specifically called attention to how Inko felt about being left out and forced the  main characters—and by extension, the readers—to assess how they’ve been dismissing her perspective. It offered hope Inko might emerge as a more prominent, fully rounded character, but ultimately didn’t follow through and put her back in a passive role.

It’s disappointing to have such a promising arc fizzle out and return to the status quo, because I know an arc like this can be handled well. Winry Rockbell’s arc in the Fullmetal Alchemist manga (and the anime adaptation Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood) deals with similar themes, but doesn’t drop the ball.

Closeup of Winry from Fullmetal Alchemist, smiling and shielding the sun from her eyes

Winry is the childhood friend and surrogate family of the protagonists Ed and Al, alchemists on a dangerous journey. Winry is the mechanic who builds and maintains the automail (a super-advanced prosthesis) Ed uses, so she sees firsthand how often Ed ends up injured. Despite the fact she’s the one literally repairing him, Ed doesn’t confide in her much about the dangers he’s in, and this obviously weighs on her.

Like Inko, she fits into the role of supportive, civilian female character: not directly involved in the action, but she’s a caretaking presence the heroes return to after their climactic battles. However, unlike Inko, the narrative works to construct Winry as a layered person who exists outside of her role as mechanic and emotional support to Ed and Al. What’s more, the author weaves an interrogation of this trope into the story itself and explores its consequences on everyone involved.

Manga panels of Winry discussing her feelings with Maes Hughes, who shrugs the lack of communication off as "just the way things are"

The story directly explores how this dynamic is fueled by underlying gender expectations and exposes how these expectations are counterproductive. When Winry discusses her distress about the situation with an adult, Maes Hughes, he tells her that men don’t like to talk about their feelings and communicate with their actions rather than words.

Winry rejects this, however. She demands Ed and Al talk about their feelings, and it has a positive outcome. She then notes to Hughes that this demonstrates how important communicating with words is, tacitly saying she’s not going to accept that’s just “how it is.” He agrees with her.

The manga continues to emphasize the importance of respecting and communicating with Winry. Whenever Ed fails to communicate with Winry or consider her emotional needs, there are consequences, and as their relationship develops, he becomes better at this. What’s more, it’s emphasized that it’s important for Ed to support Winry emotionally and consider her problems.

Manga panel zooming in on Ed's hands, one metal and one flesh and bone, cupped around a coffee mug, as he worries about not considering Winry

When Ed and Al learn that the man they’re fighting is responsible for the murder of Winry’s parents, they don’t tell her this even though it directly involves her. Unlike with Deku and his mom, there’s at least an explanation given for this lie by omission. Ed doesn’t want to tell Winry something that would cause her pain, feeling that he couldn’t handle “seeing her cry.” It’s selfish, but it’s an understandable reaction for a teenager struggling with navigating relationships.

Nevertheless, the manga takes pains to show that Ed keeping Winry in the dark was the wrong decision. It results in Winry finding out the truth in the most painful way possible. This forces Ed to confront his responsibility for the situation. He promises to tell Winry everything, and much like Deku did with Inko, he vows not to worry her, saying the next time he makes her cry, it will be tears of joy.

Unlike Deku, however, Ed consistently strives to follow through on this promise. He’s always distressed when he comes close to breaking it (even when that’s beyond his control). He also engages with how he’s failed to consider Winry’s own loss and failed in giving her the support she needs.

Ed pointing determinedly at the camera. Speech bubble text reads: The next time I make you cry, it will be tears of joy!

When Ed’s enemies threaten to use Winry as a hostage if he doesn’t comply with their demands, Ed briefly lapses back into old behavior by not immediately informing her of this. However, this time he quickly realizes he was wrong for doing this and insists on making amends, calling the way he’s been keeping things from her a “betrayal.” 

The way Winry’s agency, and Ed’s respect of that agency, are centered are what makes the narrative work. Throughout the story, she struggles with the fact that “all she can do is wait” when her loved ones are in danger. But because Ed genuinely changes his ways and communicates with her about what’s going on, she’s able to use that information to act and resolve that feeling of helplessness.

Manga panel of Winry grinning conspiratorially, glad to have been let in in the plan

After being informed she’s a hostage, she decides “I can’t just wait anymore”. She insists on accompanying Ed and Al. She demands Ed step back when she confronts the man who murdered her parents, and he listens to her. The choice she makes not only allows her to get resolution and demonstrate her commitment to her own principles, but it positively impacts several characters. During this moment, Ed emotionally supports her the way she’s always supported him, showing their relationship is no longer a one-way street.

The manga also refutes the idea that lying to a woman somehow “protects her” when a fully-informed Winry comes up with a clever plan to escape her hostage situation. When she takes control and calls the boys out for their past treatment of her, it’s not just a satisfying moment for the character, it drives this point home.

Closeup of Winry's angry face. Subtitle text reads: You guys, stop always, always taking everything on yourselves!

Much like My Hero Academia, one of Fullmetal Alchemist’s themes is that all people are important. Anyone can be heroic, regardless of whether they’re combatants with amazing powers. But while MHA’s treatment of Inko comes to contradict this message, Winry’s arc allows the theme to shine. Communicating with Winry, valuing both her emotional support and her opinions, and giving her the opportunity to have a say in both her own life and that of her loved ones, is repeatedly shown to be the best course of action. She’s not a combatant, but she matters. Her strength of character is shown to be just as impactful and inspiring as any physical feat.

Most importantly, Winry matters beyond what she can do for Ed and Al. She doesn’t just exist to support or worry about them. When she’s struggling with how powerless she feels waiting for Ed and Al to come back to her, receiving a call from her friends and clients who depend upon her reinforces her sense of purpose. She has her own path to follow and things that only she can do that are just as valuable as what Ed and Al are doing.

Manga panels of Winry receiving frantic calls from her mechanic customers

Winry’s arc sticks out because while there are action-packed shoujo titles that place importance on non-combatants (and even feature protagonists who aren’t battle-oriented yet are determined, inspiring and fully developed characters) it’s become increasingly uncommon to see this in battle shounen, especially with female characters.

It’s even rarer to have the emotional needs of a female character who exists outside the sphere of battle to be truly centered in the plot, and for the story to interrogate the importance of communicating with her, of not taking her emotional support for granted, and of giving her support in turn.

Stories like Winry’s are valuable. Not just because they emphasize that men should communicate with and value the women in their lives, but also because they can be very resonant and affirming.

Manga panel of Winry looking mournfully out the window of a train. Speech bubble text reads: Waiting is hard. And scary...

Most everyone can relate to feeling powerless, feeling left behind, and feeling frustrated you’re not the action hero who can fix the world in an epic, flashy finishing move. So when a story highlights what someone who’s not a fighter can do, that there are still ways she can take control of her own life, and that she deserves respect and honesty—it can be incredibly cathartic.

I want to see an even greater variety of these resonant stories. Both Fullmetal Alchemist and My Hero Academia don’t allow civilian mother figures to be fully rounded characters, but more shounen moms should get arcs at least on par with Winry’s. I’d also love to see battle shounen start to feature non-combatant heroes in important roles with at least the frequency shoujo does. There’s so much untapped potential in these stories and characters. As Winry says, there are some things you have to say out loud. So I’m saying it here—I don’t want to wait any longer for these characters to get their due. Nobody should have to sit on the sidelines.

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