Content Warning: Discussion of queerphobia, sexism
Spoilers for Black Clover
If you’ve ever watched a shounen anime, you’re probably familiar with at least some of the tropes that their female characters are typically burdened with: the damsel in distress, the “strong” female who gets mocked for being too “manly,” the faux action girl who’s talked up as badass but never seems to do anything important, etcetera. Women in shounen battle anime and manga have traditionally been sidelined, even as it became more and more common to include women as fellow fighters. When the guys go in to fight the final boss, the girls stay behind to help with some B-plot battle no matter how competent they may seem. In a new era of shounen, we’ve seen some of these tired tropes be turned on their heads. However, even when series like Black Clover make some strides, they still end up repeating tired cliches.
Black Clover has often been compared to popular titles of the last generation since its debut in 2015, with protagonist Asta often labeled a Naruto clone, and some of his devil abilities equated to Ichigo’s hollow in Bleach. Mangaka Tabata Yuki is open about the influence that the previous era had on his work, and playing to certain beloved story devices isn’t always a bad thing. Unfortunately, those “traditional shounen tropes” extend to its female characters as well.
The start of Black Clover gave me some reason to be excited for the women onscreen. Women fight competently alongside the men instead of being cast aside. The main female lead Noelle, a water mage, showed some surprising depth early on, as she dealt with the trauma caused by her abusive family by learning to lean on those around her and learned to control her previously unruly magic. Vanessa, the drunk with a dark past, also gets an interesting character moment relatively early on when she decides that she’ll no longer give in to the whims of her mother, the Witch Queen, which activates her Red Thread of Fate ability.
However, character development for the women really ends there. The Black Bulls, the Magic Night squad that Asta belongs to, has five female members. While we get to know Noelle, Vanessa, and late-addition Secre, we still know almost nothing about the stories or motivations of two female Black Bulls — the food-loving dwarf, Charmy, and the shy shape-shifter, Gray — even though both characters have been around since the beginning. Despite Vanessa’s development early on, she hasn’t done much since since.
Black Clover boasts an enormous cast, the majority of whom are men, so one could argue that women might not be getting as much screen time simply because there are fewer of them. However, the kind of screen time girls and guys get are clearly different. Many men, including the secondary characters, show significant character growth throughout the series, and almost all of the male Black Bulls have had their own arcs. Minor recurring characters leave the story and return with new perspectives and beliefs, showing that they’ve developed even off-screen. Yet, only one woman in the series has been developed comparably to even the male secondary characters: Noelle, despite being a part of the main cast.
Even women that have been around since the beginning of the series are undeveloped compared tomen that appear in the middle of the series, with little thought given toward their histories or motivations. Mimosa Vermillion, for example, was introduced early in the series as a member of Golden Dawn, the same squad as Yuno, Asta’s rival. Although she has been a part of some major battles, her only real personality trait so far is her crush on Asta. Her superior, Klaus, on the other hand, who is frequently depicted alongside her, has an arc where he learns to overcome his own classist prejudices and instead champion talented non-royals like Asta and Yuno throughout the series.
The character writing in Black Clover tends to cling to battle shounen archetypes, which can also make female characters feel much more inconsistent than their male counterparts. Asta, for example, is a classic dim-but-loveable, headstrong underdog protagonist. Noelle follows the tsundere princess archetype who hides her true emotions behind her status. As the series progresses, though, she confronts her abusive family and learns to be brave, stand up for herself, and express her feelings. Yet, when she returns to the Black Bulls, she reverts back to her tsundere princess self.
The Noelle that is a secondary character in Asta’s story seems to be wholly separate from the Noelle who survives trauma and grows as an individual. Asta’s growth remains consistent and doesn’t get walked back when it’s convenient. In one powerful scene, he declares that he will not give up despite losing the use of his arms, inviting the audience to reflect on his true character and how far he’s come. No such moment of reflection occurs at the climax of Noelle’s arc, after she unlocks her mother’s power and is finally acknowledged by her siblings. Instead, she just pretends she didn’t miss her friends in yet another gag about how “tsundere” she is. Despite her significant character growth, Noelle still feels shallow because of the disconnect between how much she’s overcome and her everyday behavior.
Furthermore, Black Clover’s women’s personalities tend to be defined by how they relate to the male characters, especially romantically. Though Charlotte Roselei, the captain of the Blue Rose knights, is purported to be competent, her main character trait is that she’s embarrassed about being in love with Black Bull captain, Yami. She never gets to show off her competence as a Magic Knight captain or participate in any major battles, even though she’s the only female captain shown in action until much later in the series. To be honest, it’s pretty insulting.
Her only major fight so far comes in the Reincarnation Arc, when she fights Yami while possessed by someone else. While it is Charlotte’s power that she is using, it is notably not Charlotte that is using them. In fact, Charlotte later sees her possession as a failure as a Magic Knight. Even in a fight that occurred recently in the manga, though she was portrayed as powerful and competent, her arc was still motivated around her feelings for Yami.
Even if it’s cliche and a little disappointing, it’s not the worst thing for a female character’s arc to revolve around her relationship with a man. The problem here is that, while this is the case for many of the female characters, it never is for the men. Noelle, Mimosa, and even Bell, Yuno’s little wind fairy, are all similar in this way. On the other hand, while certain men in the show can be flirty, it is never their main personality trait. They are also prone to lust rather than romance, a gendered division that oversimplifies how certain genders are “supposed” to feel attraction.
Many of Black Clover’s issues with how it portrays female characters are summed up by the all-female Blue Rose squad. The squad is portrayed as a group of man-haters, as opposed to a group of people that has one of many other legitimate reasons to prefer working with other women. The joke, however, is that Charlotte is actually hopelessly in love with Yami. Part of her inability to express her feelings toward him is because she feels like she would betray the integrity of her squad if she were to do so, and whenever he saves her she feels it undermines the Blue Rose’s creed to “achieve acts of valor, without the help of men.”
As it turns out, though, all of the Blue Rose knights had been hiding boyfriends and crushes while faking their hatred of men out of fear of how Charlotte would react as their man-hating captain. The only squad member who is genuinely disappointed is the only woman in the series who is heavily queer-coded: Sol Marron, Charlotte’s right-hand woman. Sol is a stereotypical tough, man-hating butch, and the only female character with short hair or a muscular build. She’s obsessively in love with Charlotte and jealous of her relationship with Yami.
Intentionally or not, Black Clover implies that women either act coldly towards men to hide their feelings, or because they’re man-hating lesbians. This version of the tsundere archetype ties into some damaging ideas about women: that women mean “yes” even when they say “no,” and the only reason they’d actually hate men is that they’re evil, lesbians, or both. The lack of diversity in Black Clover’s female characters’ personalities, makes it seem like a statement on what all women are like, rather than their individual personalities.
The ultimate lesson is that the Blue Rose squad’s ideal of “achieving acts of valor, without the help of men” is a sham, and women do need men. But it’s never the other way around. The male characters never look to women for help or inspiration, only other men or within themselves. The women, on the other hand, are constantly looking toward men for help and inspiration. Much of Noelle’s advancement as a mage is spurred on by her admiration of Asta’s work ethic. His bravery is also why she, and every other woman with a crush, falls in love. Asta, however, focuses only on catching up to Yuno.
Women who perform similar acts of bravery to the men don’t receive the same level of admiration. Mereleona, who is supposedly stronger than many of the men combined, wins three major fights in the Reincarnation Arc, but then disappears from the series and doesn’t reappear until much later. The story simply moves on without her and nobody even falls in love with her or anything, despite multiple women in the show falling for men because they perform acts of valor. While a handful of female characters like Mereleona aren’t inexorably connected to the men around them, they are the exception to the rule. The fact remains that the series overall is male-centric, preferring mostly to use its ladies to highlight the merits of its male characters as they idolize their bravery. Black Clover constantly tries to tell us that its world contains strong, independent women but simultaneously undermines that very idea by linking women’s merits to the men they gain inspiration from rather than to their own abilities.
Black Clover is far from the first shounen battle anime to use tired cliches about supposed man-haters and tsunderes for “humor.” It is also far from the first to sideline its female characters and use them primarily as love interests. While Black Clover offers a lot of trashy battle shounen fun, it’s disappointing that it perpetuates tropes that have made me, as a lifelong female fan of shounen trash, so weary—especially since it seemed, at first, like it might subvert some of those tropes. It’s disappointing, too, that it is likely to carry on these tropes for years to come, just as its predecessors did.