The Sketchy Feminist

Staring down the male gaze, or: Looking at looking at women in popular culture

Tag: heroines

Anime Heroines to Root For: Yona of the Dawn / Akatsuki no Yona

I’m updating my “Anime Heroines to Root For” list with two new characters from last season’s crop of anime: Kohina from Gugure! Kokkuri-san and Yona from Yona of the Dawn (Akatsuki no Yona).

I struggled with whether or not to add Kohina to the list. While she’s an awesome character, her anime, Gugure! Kokkuri-san, has some SUPER problematic stuff in it. (For example, one adult character who self-identifies as the elementary-school-age protagonist’s “stalker”. But that person is the vengeful ghost of a dead dog, so that’s … not really better.) However! Kokkuri-san also has some of the zaniest humor and best-timed jokes out there in anime-land, along with some pitch-perfect deadpan deliveries from its voice actors. And as the quirky main character Kohina herself has some surprising nuance for the lead of a gag show, in the end, Kohina made the cut. (But she comes with a warning!)

Of all the new anime that came out last season, the only ones that really caught my interest were Parasyte, Gugure! Kokkuri-san and Yona of the Dawn. Of those three, the only one I stayed current with as it came out was Yona of the Dawn.

Title: Yona of the Dawn / Akatsuki no Yona
Original Mangaka: Mizuho Kusanagi
Producer: Pierrot
Where to Watch: Crunchyroll, Funimation, Hulu

Yona is about a sheltered princess whose life takes a dramatic turn when her cousin, childhood friend and longtime crush (yes, all one person) murders her kingly father in Episode 1. Yona goes on the run with her preternaturally strong, handsome and talented bodyguard Hak, and they go about collecting other handsome and talented men (some of whom are reincarnations of dragons, which is cool) who will help Yona on her quest to survive and/or eventually face her father’s killer, who has in the meantime crowned himself king.

I have been trying to decide exactly why I like Yona of the Dawn so much. I mean, some of it’s obvious. It has some tropes that I like in general. In general, I’m a fan of female-led “harem” anime (also known as “reverse harem” anime, which is such a common term for this particular sub-sub-genre these days that I’m seriously about to give up and start using it unironically), especially when the female lead in question ends up with power over some or all of her harem of men. And Yona of the Dawn is nothing if not a “reverse harem” show about a girl in a position of some power. (Note: I’m not making any claims that reverse-harem-with-the-girl-in-charge is a feminist thing in and of itself, just that it’s a thing that I happen to like. The heart wants what the heart wants.) So, there’s that. But Hiiro no Kakera has that trope and I find it unwatchably boring. Yes, I know Hiiro no Kakera is based on an otome game, but so is Harukanaru Toki no Naka de – Hachiyou Shou, and it’s is at least watchable.

So “reverse harem”? Check. Girl with some power over at least some of the dudes in the show? Check again. Look at me, I’m your target audience! Because I’m a big fan of pandering to the female gaze (in this case, the straight, bi, etc. female gaze), in part because it happens so rarely.

But I’m greedy. So even though I’ll openly admit that pandering will get you a surprisingly long way with me, I still want more.

And somehow, Yona does manage to offer more. More than pandering. More than bishounen. Even though it basically has one female character (with the exception of some minor roles) in a world of handsome boys and men, and (as far as I recall) has yet to pass the Bechdel Test as of its most recent episode.

More about the more after the cut:

Read the rest of this entry »

Recommended Reading: The Girl of Fire and Thorns Trilogy

So, I just finished reading Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy, and I recommend that you do too. Minor SPOILERS ahoy.

Cover image of the first book in the Girl of Fire and Thorns Trilogy.

Cover image of the first book

Elisa, the protagonist, is by far my favorite heroine in the recent crop of YA Fantasy* novels.

Elisa starts the first book as a “sedentary” princess with self-esteem issues relating to her weight and the presence of her slender, athletic, poised older sister, whose very existence tends to make Elisa feel terrible about herself by comparison. Elisa’s father and sister marry her off to some king she’s never met, and so her adventure begins.

So, I already like that the first book starts off with a plus-size heroine. I like slightly less that, yes, weight loss is a big part of the character’s journey. However, my dislike for this move is mitigated by two factors: (1) It’s brought about pretty organically by the plot. After using food as a crutch most of her life (and it’s clear that she eats when upset, not just when she’s hungry) Elisa does a lot of being force-marched through the desert on minimal rations. (2) Even by book 3, Elisa (who is our narrator) still describes herself as “with a tendency toward plumpness,” so I never felt the need to imagine her as rail-thin.

I also like that most of the main characters, including Elisa, are described as having dark skin and dark hair. (The Others of this world, the Inviernos, are pale, tall, fair-haired people** who may or may not be descended from tall, three-fingered aliens.) I would love, love, love for this series to be made into a movie (or, better, a trio of movies) someday. And if/when that ever happens, my hope against hope is that Elisa will not be portrayed by a thin white girl.

UK Cover for Fire and Thorns

The UK cover both shows a clearly non-white protagonist and does not include the word “Girl” in the title. It also more accurately implies the desert culture described in the book itself.

Moving on! OK, so what really makes me all giddy about these books is that Elisa herself is kind of incredibly awesome. She learns and grows over time, and she gets progressively more awesome with every book. As an adventurer, she learns to face danger and hold her own in a crisis situation. As a ruler, she learns to make tough, life-and-death decisions, often weighing life against life, and she can be ruthless when she has to be. I like a female lead who can order a man killed for the greater good.

Elisa is pretty much the Boss of Everybody. She’s a queen and all, so throughout most of the second and third books, at least, the people around her are her followers. I like stories about women in power. I realize that woman-in-power does not necessarily equal empowered woman, but in a genre in which a lot of girls are being seduced by mysterious men with mysterious power over them, it’s nice to see the girl on top. And Elisa’s pretty damn empowered. She both thinks things through and gets shit done. She’s all about the negotiating and the seeking out of non-violent resolution to conflict, but she will resort to aggression when she thinks it’s necessary. Elisa is basically your Captain Jean-Luc Picard of your Adventurer Queens.

While Elisa does have romantic experiences, and while they are important to her, and important to the books, they are not the be-all and end-all of her world. She’s a queen, and her people always come first.

On a side note, and just to give you fair warning, a lot of the magic (and/or mysterious far-future tech) in this world revolves around the living Godstone, a gem in Elisa’s navel that grants her access to possibly-divine power. That’s the faceted jewel that shows up in all the US covers, with Elisa’s partial face peering through them.*** I expect that this is by far the best series you could hope to read about a girl with a magic belly button.

Amazon link for Book 1, The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Amazon link for Book 2, The Crown of Embers Hey, look! The Kindle version is only two bucks at the moment. I don’t know why that is, but I’m pleased.

Amazon link for Book 3, The Bitter Kingdom

* * *

* Technically, The Girl of Fire and Thorns is far-future Science Fiction. Y’know, the same way Star Wars is set in the distant past. However, the magic in the world of The Girl of Fire and Thorns is never fully explained, so it reads more as F than SF.

** No, they’re not elves. This is technically far-future SF, remember?

*** And doesn’t she look disappointingly a bit like a thin white girl? I admit that the stone’s color washes out her own color, making her race hard to read, but I am afraid that people who do not crack open the book will read her as a thin white girl by “default,” because we are used to YA fantasies starring thin white girls. However, apparently both the US and UK covers are better than the original US Advance Reader’s Copy cover.

The ARC cover for The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Because seriously WTF

See a review of the first book which covers the covers over at The Book Smugglers. The Forever Young Adult review (where I first learned about the book), also briefly discusses the ARC cover. Pitch Dark, which appears to be another YA book review site, looks at the various international covers of the first book. My favorite is the German one.

German cover for The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Which looks like this.