First, let’s be clear: when I use the phrase “strong female character,” I am not referring to her physical or even emotional strength. A strong female character might not even seem strong in any discernible way. In this instance, the word “strong” is a stand-in for complexity and agency. To me, the strongest characters feel almost real, like they’re made up of more than just lines on paper or pixels on a screen.
Character complexity cannot be determined using a rubric or formula, but the key here is crafting a character the audience can empathize with and whose perspective we can easily adopt as our own. When assessing a character, particularly one of narrative importance, I ask myself: do they have a story of their own or are they merely an accessory in someone else’s tale? Do they make their own decisions or do outsiders determine their fate? Do they exhibit a multitude of behaviors or do they act the exact same way in every scene?
Amongst many female characters, including the supposedly significant ones, the answer to these questions is often no.
Considering the public’s heightened awareness and recognition of measurements such as the Bechdel test, this is likely of little surprise to most of you reading now. But one of the odder observations I’ve made in recent years is that many strong female characters come from an unexpected source: anime targeted at young men.
Some of the most interesting female characters that I’ve come across in all of fiction are hypersexualized love interests, women who are so frequently and consciously depicted in an erotic manner that fanservice becomes a regular distraction from the plot. These are the anime shows that contain the sort of lewd imagery that non-fans use to stigmatize the entire medium and that inspires instant discomfort — or disgust — from many women, even those reluctant to label themselves feminists.
One of the biggest offenders I’ve encountered is the Monogatari series, and to those familiar with the show, you know exactly what I’m referring to. The random and all too frequent glimpses of sideboob or bare buttcheeks. The creepy toothbrush scene involving the protagonist’s little sister. The relentless fanservice that sometimes consumes an entire episode, or in the case Nisemonogatari, an entire season.
Yet Monogatari also features some of the best female-centric storylines in all of anime. It has females who develop from shy victims to bitter antagonists and back, females who learn to care for one another over time, females who refuse to allow their past traumas to dictate their future behavior, and so much more. Most importantly (for me anyway), Monogatari has the always wonderful Senjougahara, who is one of the first female anime characters that I instantly and wholeheartedly loved.
Monogatari Second Season remains one of my most favorite anime series to this day, in large part because it is the entry that best develops its cast. There are whole episodes in which the male protagonist is entirely absent, the focus instead shifting to the blossoming friendships between the female leads or seemingly tertiary characters who are abruptly thrust into the spotlight. It’s a level of attention and care that is often difficult to find, particularly for a show that can be reasonably labeled a harem anime.
I struggle to reconcile this contradictory treatment of females.
On one hand, they are portrayed under a blatantly pornographic lens, one which prioritizes them as sex objects. On the other hand, they are written with such respect and affection that I can’t help but love them.
Ultimately, I cannot in good conscience recommend these shows to other people, and especially to other women, without attaching a laundry list of caveats. Yes, these shows have some of the best written female characters you’ll find anywhere. But their sexualized depictions also serve as a magnet for the type of people who are all too eager to objectify these girls’ lovingly depicted, nubile bodies.
There’s a part of me that wants to shower these works with praise and to enjoy them freely, without embarrassment. Instead, otherwise excellent shows such as Monogatari are forever tucked away in my guilty pleasure bin. And it’s a shame.