SPOILERS for the entire Tower of God webtoon to date.
Content Warning: Discussions of past trauma, toxic relationships; images of misogynistic comments
NOTE: Images read from left-to-right.
Every anime season has their proverbial hype train, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a show to rival Tower of God to claim the title for Spring 2020. Boasting a vibrant art and animation style, opening and ending themes from Stray Kids that are nigh un-skippable, and nary a leering fan service camera angle in sight, the Crunchyroll Original was my perfect popcorn entertainment these months in quarantine.
The base premise is this: main character Bam follows his only companion Rachel into an enormous Tower, where people compete to climb to the top and have their wish granted. That is, until Rachel pulls a 180 and tries to kill Bam. Then things get a LITTLE more complicated.
Naturally, a little over halfway into the anime’s run, I was determined to find the source material. I discovered a ten-year running Korean webtoon by SIU, with a supporting cast of colorful characters larger than a Costco-sized variety bag of Halloween candy. The one I want to focus on, though, is the now infamously contentious antagonist, Rachel. Rachel is a character looked on fondly by the series’ own creator, but with malice and vitriol by fans. While Rachel did do many things wrong, and this is definitely not a defense of that (especially as she is coded as a blonde white woman in the art), her character’s depiction can open a larger discussion about portrayals of female antagonists, and patterns of online fandom misogyny.
Bam, Rachel, and Toxic Co-Dependency
Hwa Ryun: “Why are you going to such lengths to see the stars?”
Rachel: “…I’m afraid of the night. *”
*“Bam” also means “Night” in Korean.– Tower of God [Season 1] Ep. 77
Tower of God is definitely a series about the journey and not the destination. The highlight is in the relationships Bam forges with his newfound friends. This is in part because Bam’s only relationship prior to this was with Rachel, and both are incredibly codependent to a point of toxicity.
Rachel, in pursuit of her goals, is the first one to try to break from this. Her methods later on become increasingly more questionable/wrong, but her original request is simple: for Bam to stop following her. Even when she is deceiving him, she attempts to push him away multiple times both verbally, and through social distance, to avoid taking the violent task of killing him that has been assigned to her by Headon. Bam, still shaped by his dependency, refuses to allow this distancing to happen. Things are then made worse when underground organization FUG purposefully manipulates their toxic relationship to pit them against one another.
This gets exacerbated later on in the webtoon as well, when Bam finally confronts Rachel looking for answers after her initial betrayal. Rachel is cruel, but the scene gains uncomfortable subtext when Bam becomes angry and violent because Rachel doesn’t tell him what he wants to hear. The possessive traits he displays began to eerily remind me of former toxic “friendships” from my past. It takes over a hundred more chapters, and Rachel putting his closest friend in a comatose state, for Bam to actually break away from his dependence on her.
A Human Among the Inhuman
Lero-Ro: “Hey, do you know what is the most important to move up the tower? It’s luck. The luck of having a strong body. The luck of being smart, the luck of being rich. The luck from escaping death. The luck of saving a teammate. The only reason you got this far…is because you were lucky.”–Tower of God [Season 1] Ep. 11
Tower of God is a world of super-powered beings, in all shapes and forms. The inner Tower itself is structured around a class system that banks on a philosophy that you are either born lucky or you aren’t. It essentially shames anyone underprivileged who dares aspire to more. It is more rare to have “regular people” participate in climbing the tower, like Shibisu, Bam in the beginning, or Rachel. However, Rachel is the only character in this situation who isn’t fighting for/with protagonist Bam. Shibisu’s lack of power is occasionally used for slapstick comedy, but his perseverance is seen as endearing by the other characters in contrast to Rachel.
Creator SIU has stated in his blog and interviews that Rachel is one of his favorite characters. He finds her to be the most human and relatable in the series. Rachel’s motivations, while selfish, are at their core not different to any shounen lead or even most people: she wants to succeed.
Rachel is a great example of a character who is a product of a greater societal problem: she faces discrimination from birth because of factors she can’t control, and no one but Bam shows any empathy for her. At first, Bam is shown as a parallel journey on the side of “good,” but as soon as he unlocks his mass amounts of power, he fulfills the Tower’s societal requirements for success. Unlike Bam, the series never gives Rachel the opportunity to grow her power beyond the prologue. She is written off by the caste system and is only given the option of manipulation. The story doesn’t openly condemn the society that created her until a powered up Bam starts fighting against it for his personal goals.
To add insult to injury, characters in power will often berate Rachel on her physical appearance. This manifests into a self-loathing so extreme that at one point Rachel desperately takes advantage of an opportunity to try and make herself “beautiful.” The realistic sexism she faces emphasizes that the more fantastical oppression she faces are intertwined. It is hard to say Rachel should have done the same things as Bam when she is up against multiple hurdles he isn’t through no fault of her own.
Motivations and Backstory (Or Lack Thereof)
Rachel (To Endorsi): “I’m surprised. You being jealous of me? You already have a lot of the stuff that I want, Endorsi. How could someone like you be jealous of someone like me? This is such a strange feeling…[You have] Beauty, power, plus you’re a ‘princess,’ like a heroine in a fairy tale. I just wish I had been born like that too. We’ve both had somebody’s blood on our hands to climb the Tower, but I’m a nasty b!tch and you’re a beautiful, cool-headed princess. And you’re forgiven for everything, isn’t that right? Ahh it must be nice, being pretty, I mean. I would love you too if I were Bam. I can’t understand why Bam follows someone like me around, you know?”– Tower of God [Season 2] Ep. 261
Absolutely nothing is wrong with having a female, or femme-coded, character that does awful things. In fact, I would love MORE morally-gray ladies in my media. However, like with any character, these actions need to be justified and feel realistic in the realm of the story.
The initial reasons given to readers for Rachel’s resentment of Bam are incredibly petty, almost to the point where they are difficult to believe. It isn’t that envy and selfishness don’t exist, but Rachel’s behavior whenever she is confronted about her motivations and actions result in tantrums and a lack of self-awareness that feels out of character. We have seen Rachel successfully manipulate others, and although Khun does outsmart her often, she has proven to be able to catch him off guard.
If the series’ intention is to explicitly explore Rachel suffering from internalized misogyny and how it harms her, then it needs to be made clear that it’s a writing decision rather than an unconscious assumption that all women secretly want to “be special” and physically beautiful, and are willing to be cutthroat to do it. If her reasons truly are petty due to an internalized misogyny imposed on her by society, then that needs to be made clear and the society that inflicted it condemned.
It is often hinted that Rachel’s backstory would provide more explanation for this childlike behavior when it comes to Bam, but we’re still waiting despite the comic running for ten years. The most we have received is that she had some relationship with Bam’s mother, and that was provided towards the end of Season Two in 2018. Drawing out a plot is fine, but the extent of this vagueness is sucking away her agency. A story ultimately has to be judged on what it is, not what it might (or might not) be in future.
The lack of either form of justification makes Rachel’s character have a shallower development in comparison to other women in the story such as Anaak, Endorsi, and Yuri. All three are dynamic female characters, whose backstories and motivations the audience has seen. Regrettably, it appears the female characters only get that development if they are on Bam’s side. Due to the surface level appearance of Rachel’s motivations, her character can easily fall into the tired trap of portraying women as naturally skilled manipulators and schemers.
Rachel (to Bam): “That’s right! You would never be able to understand me! You have everything! A strong body, mind, and even the destiny to have been chosen for everything! That’s why you’re different from me! You’ll never ever understand me! So what if I killed Khun!? I competed fair and square just like everyone else! You’ll never feel desperate! That’s why you can act like you have friends!-Tower of God [Season 2] Ep. 312
There is a buffet of valid reasons to not like Rachel’s character (faking a disability, murder, petty behavior) but there are also reasons I would often see given in comment sections that seemed to hold a double standard. There is frustration that Rachel doesn’t actually do anything herself, and has everything handed to her in the story. This harkens back again to the class system of the Tower. Rachel already has all the odds stacked against her. If she is disliked due to being “given everything” then that same argument also has to be applied to the series’ protagonist, Bam.
As a main character, Bam has a striking lack of individuality for well over 200 chapters, which is only partly explained by his grooming/abuse under FUG. Many characters in the series have described Bam as “godlike,” and his power-ups come non-stop. It is not to say he doesn’t work at all, but many characters are quick to devote themselves to and assist him, even though he is very much a blank slate.
The other popular argument is that Rachel’s devious methods are a good enough reason for the extreme vitriol she receives from fans. But there are other characters in the series that have historically at times employed similar tactics and are beloved — namely, Khun.
Khun has softened throughout the series, due to his proximity to Bam, but he openly states his willingness to kill and manipulate others to achieve his goals. In fact, Khun’s devotion and friendship with Bam could be argued as a showcase of what Rachel and Bam’s relationship could have become if allowed to mature in a healthy way.
Rachel and Khun actually have many traits in common, and form a rivalry throughout Season Two due to Khun’s desire for revenge. Unfortunately, every time the two face off, the odds are always slanted in Khun’s favor rather than creating a back and forth that equally develops both character’s arcs. When Khun makes cruel comments to get a rise out of Rachel and then outsmarts her every time, it infantilizes her character rather than provide a compelling rivalry.
This setup had the potential to create depth and agency in Rachel’s character due to her similarities to Khun. Unfortunately, the execution actually takes this away from her, and puts her even further in the sights of more vicious fans as she threatens a very popular character. It’s hard not to notice a major difference between the two characters when it comes to how their actions are judged by fans: one of them is a woman.
Fandom: Loving to Hate vs. Verbal Violence
Everyone loves a good villain, that can’t be denied. Regardless of whether SIU sees Rachel as the villain, she clearly takes on a predominantly antagonistic role in relation to the other characters. Regrettably, instead of being praised for being a fascinating, dynamic character, the lack of clarity at key points in Rachel’s portrayal have opened the gateway for a subset of the Tower of God fandom to flood comments with near misogynistic vitriol.
It isn’t wrong to “hate” Rachel. It’s fun to hate characters with friends in the same fandom. I should know; my cousins and I had many-a living room rant about Kaname in Vampire Knight in middle school. However, in this era of social media, it can be easy to get swept up, and if we aren’t careful our fun discussions among friends can very easily become fuel for a more violent rhetoric and mentality.
I say all this because I have noticed a disturbing amount of comments calling Rachel any manner of slurs, and desires for violence upon her character that are almost macabre in their glee. There is a dangerous precedent where Bam can easily fall into the “nice guy” and Rachel the “ungrateful, manipulative woman” tropes in incel ‘culture.’
Tower of God isn’t a misogynistic webtoon. But it can be argued that there are elements of its storytelling and portrayal of Rachel that are subconsciously sexist and/or open the door for harmful rhetoric. As stated previously, this article is by no means a justification of Rachel’s behavior. Rather, Rachel is a great example of what can happen when a female antagonist is not given as thorough development as her protagonist (often male) counterparts.
How can Rachel, a rare case of a female antagonist that has been in a decade-long running series, be used as a jumping off point for discussion around what makes a good female villain in pop culture? Or even further, how has social media discourse contributed to toxicity in fandom that demands absolute loyalty to a series/character/theory, and refusal to engage in critique when it comes to non-white cis able straight male characters?
Meanwhile, I’ll continue climbing the Tower with SIU, Bam, Khun, Rak, their friends…and Rachel.