Gender roles in Gundam and Macross

In a previous essay about otaku identity and militarism, I mentioned that the issue of gender was a central one to understand the development of otaku identity, and most notably, its construction as a dominantly male, SF-oriented narrative. Most of Japanese feminist and queer anime criticism (most notably the work of Mari Kotani) has sadly not been translated in English, and considering that I do not yet speak good enough Japanese, I am at the moment unable to provide a satisfying enough account of the female anime fandom. But it is however possible to retrace how the male otaku narrative has emerged (which I partly did in my last essay) and why it has dominated otaku discourse in general. One of these causes might the fact that male-targeted real robot shows (among others (1)) integrated shoujo elements, most notably romance, all the while building male model figures.

The aim of this essay is therefore to provide the first step for a comparative analysis and history of female characters in mecha anime. The key concept here will be that of bishoujo, that is literally, “beautiful girl”, but which means more precisely in otaku linguo an attractive (both physically and emotionally) character ; in other words, the bishoujo is where moe elements conglomerate [Azuma, 2009]. The association of bishoujo and mecha obviously brings to mind the bishoujo senshi studied by Takao Saito, aka the “beautiful fighting girl” or “phallic girl”. However, my objective is not just to study female characters in position of power ; indeed, as Macross shows us, the most powerful girl is not necessarily the one endowed with military might (Misa), but the one with the most charm and moe potential (Minmay). 

The concept of the bishoujo was still in inception when Mobile Suit Gundam first aired : historical accounts [Galbraith et all., 2015, Saito, 2011] tell us it developed between 1979 and 1984. Its main fictional figures were Clarisse and Nausicäa, from Miyazaki’s 1979 The Castle of Cagliostro and 1984 Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, as well as Lum, from the anime adaptation of Rumiko Takahashi’s manga Urusei Yatsura which ran from 1981 to 1986, and finally Minmay, from the Macross franchise (2). Therefore, it is not from this angle that I will approach it. I will rather attempt to highlight how female characters were progressively attributed the function of bishoujo, that is of an attractive figurehead for mecha shows.

Hiromi Mizuno [2007] points out that the issue was already present in the seminal SF anime, Space Battleship Yamato. The work’s subtext as a redemption of postwar Japan is shown to entail two related problems : first, that of the “feminized” (sic) position of Japan towards the victorious United States ; and the rehabilitation of the Japanese male, who had to compromise between military behaviour and technologies, and the constitutional pacifism imposed to Japan by the US. It is in framing war as a just and legitimate endeavor that Yamato reconciles the two : 

“Despite Kodai’s lament, the battles and deaths that filled Yamato’s journey are justified at the end for the ultimate peace and love of family and humanity. The militarism of Yamato is coated with the message of peace and love. Kodai’s (and Yamato’s) masculinity is not compromised by his desire for peace and love. The anime depicts the hero Kodai as a man who is loving and peace seeking yet is willing to fight when necessary.” [Mizuno, 2007, p.111]

Moreover, Mizuno shows that this in extremis rescue of traditional masculinity goes hand in hand with a clearly gendered division in tasks and social roles. For example, “unlike the male Yamato crew members who bear historical names, the only female crew member stands for nature : Mori Yuki, forest and snow” [Mizuno, 2007, p.112]. And while she is able to fight when necessary, her role is often a motherly one, associated with caregiving and nurturing : “she also helps the doctor as his nurse and is expected to provide warmth and mothering to male Yamato members.” [Mizuno, 2007, p.112]

Five years after Yamato, Gundam’s portrayal of women is a step more complex. The first reason for it is that there are simply much more female main characters : among the most important characters, those that go through the most of screen time and character development, I count 4 women (Sayla Mass, Mirai Yashima, Frau Bow and Lalah Sune) for 5 men (Char Aznable, Amuro Ray, Bright Noa, Hayato Kobayashi and Kai Shiden). This list may obviously be open to discussion, but secondary female characters must also be accounted for, among which figure most notably : Matilda Ajan, a female military officer, which is both Amuro’s love interest and role model, and an exemplary and saviour-like figure for all of the White Base crew, and Zeon’s charismatic female commanders such as Hamon Crowley and Kycilia Zabi. The most notable figure among those two is the latter, considering that she is involved in no romantic relationship with a man which may put her in a position of inferiority, as might be argued for Matilda, idealized by Amuro, and Hamon, who stands out less than her lover and commander, the charismatic Ramba Ral. The fact is that women in position of command is anything but rare in the Gundam universe – and the same could be said of Space Runaway Ideon.

What is striking about Gundam is diversity ; apparently not bearing an overtly feminist agenda nor overcompensating by only putting women in positions of power, it acknowledges the possibility of different kinds of femininity, that is, seemingly abandons caricatural gender normativity. Indeed, while Frau Bow’s role is comparable to that of Yuki Mori in Yamato, that of the supportive, mother-like nurse, she is but one of the three main female characters in the White Base crew. Mirai, most notably, is the ship’s pilot and therefore second-in-command ; she does assist captain Bright as a spouse-like figure (something emphasized by their unrealized romance), but this is reciprocal, and there never appears to be a hierarchical relationship between the two. Moreover, Mirai is independent and resolute, as her refusal of an arranged marriage in episode 33 illustrates.

The charismatic and very masculine Lt. Sleggar

However, the image of Mirai as a strong and independent female figures faces a strong objection, in the character of Lieutenant Sleggar, with whom she shares a tragic love. Among Mirai’s three suitors (the other ones being Bright and Cameron), he is the only one she directly expresses feelings for, and who are answered. However, Sleggar’s character embodies a very specific type : that of the ideal manly figure, arguably even exhibiting traits of toxic masculinity. Indeed, he is very patronizing towards Mirai : if he does appear as a knight on a white horse, saving Mirai from what he calls Cameron’s “harassment”, it is to reduce her to her “womanly” functions, as he calls her the “mother” of the White Base. But the most important scene is in episode 34, where Sleggar appears as a paragon of dominating male power. Indeed, when Mirai and Cameron starts arguing, he intervenes, criticizing Mirai for her lack of sensibility and Cameron for his absence of virility (!) as he lowers himself to arguing with a woman. But most importantly, he hits Mirai and defends his gesture when Cameron deems it barbaric. He brazenly says :  “If necessary, you’d have to hit her. […] It’s all about determination”. Moreover, lingering shots of Mirai looking at Sleggar leaving after these words imply that it is at this moment precisely that she falls for him. In other words, the show validates the fact that hitting a woman is a proof of love for her.

What’s also worth noting is Sleggar’s character design : he is tall and muscular, blond, has a big nose and has a nonchalant air about him. All these characteristics bring to mind the stereotypical figure of the American occupation soldier that the Japanese had to put up with after WWII. This becomes even more interesting when we consider that, in Macross, the character of Major Focker is very similar : same long, golden hair, same nonchalant demeanor, same air of exuberant manliness. Focker’s design is quite obviously a nod to Sleggar’s ; but more importantly, the fact that the origin of such a character type can be retraced to the Yankee stereotype is telling, especially in light of Mizuno’s comments on the “feminized” [2007] position of Japan towards the US. Indeed, both Sleggar and Focker act as father/big brother figures towards Amuro and Hikaru (even though Sleggar dies too soon for his influence to be very lasting). In a way, it is the Yankee that acts as a male referent and a teaching figure for the Japanese boy who needs to be taught how to kill enemies and win over women – that is, who needs to learn manliness.

Sleggar’s little brother, the handsome womanizer Focker

But before we conclude from this that Gundam is an overtly sexist show, I’d like to focus on another prominent female character, Sayla. As one of the fighter pilots of the White Base, she figures among the “beautiful fighting girl” category of characters in the series ; but a scene in episode 16 highlights the ambiguity of that role. In this episode, Sayla independently launches in the Gundam to check if antagonist Char is really her lost brother ; considering it’s her first time aboard it, she has a hard time piloting the robot, but manages to come out of her encounter with Zeon forces alive. Considering that she later exhibits competent fighting capabilities, I believe that this moment is not enough to conclude that the message is that, because she is a woman, she is unable to fight or to pilot a robot. However, unable to state her real reason for going out, Sayla claims that she did it precisely to prove her combat abilities, as a woman. Bright’s answer is equally interesting : “I can’t believe it… Someone as clever as you…”

The question then is : what does he mean by that ? Does he imply that, as a self-conscious woman, Sayla should be aware of her inability to fight ? Or on the contrary that, because she is intelligent, she should know that having to prove such a thing is useless ? There is no clear way of telling what is implied here. From the context, and the fact that Sayla is punished just “to make an example”, I believe that the second interpretation is the most believable, but this is barely proof. If anything, it shows that Gundam’s stance on gender roles and positions is as ambiguous as its take on the Newtype.

If Gundam was the first real robot anime, then Macross can be called the first bishoujo mecha anime. Indeed, the idea of adding a love triangle and idols into a male-oriented SF series created an explosive cocktail whose consequences on gender dynamics have been far from minor. Even though romance was present in Gundam and other works works (cf. Ideon, where romantic relationships are an essential thematic element, but are not as fully explored as in Macross), it was not a key part of the plot nor an essential aspect of its appeal ; moreover, the worship of the female character, as it is presented and legitimized in Macross, was not yet as present in mecha shows.

First, as I already mentioned in my previous essay, the adding of the bishoujo and love triangle has a major thematic effect : it diverts attention from war to romance. In Gundam, the main issue for character development was always related to fighting ; in Ideon, romance was an (impossible) way of reaching peace between two warring peoples. Even though this idea is used in Macross in the Max-Milia couple, the main romantic trio does not involve Zentradi and is sometimes more of a hindrance to fighting. However, fighting is quickly taken for granted, whereas it takes the whole 36 episodes of the TV series for Hikaru to decide which woman he will end up with.

But most importantly, Macross, with its focus on civilian life and the aftermath of the war, introduces non-combatant women, and therefore the idea that a woman’s calling may not be in the military. This is obviously the case for Minmay, her idol career, and the fact that, in the end of the series, she asks Hikaru to leave the military. But Misa’s character arc makes it even more obvious. Indeed, her most noticeable trait, that is often joked on by other characters, is the fact that she is not “womanly”. Most notably, the first to make this point is Hikaru himself, as in the first few episodes of the series, he refers to Misa as an “old lady” (obaasan), referring probably less to her actual age than her straight-laced airs and commanding tone. In other words, as soon as Misa is introduced, her military tasks and most notably celibacy are associated with unfeminine behaviour that she would have to change. Later, in episode 33, Hikaru directly uses this to insult her and calls her out on her absence of femininity, that is cuteness (as he says in Japanese, kawaiikunai yo, which can also be translated as “you’re not being cute”).

Hikaru’s sweet and charming words to Misa

And this is not just the case of a few isolated scenes : on the contrary, Misa’s arc is one of so-called self-discovery, that is of her coming to terms with her tender, feminine side, which means acknowledging her love for Hikaru. But even then, considering her own refusal of it and Hikaru’s selfish behaviour, it’s not an easy thing to do ; leaving aside Hikaru, she has to be “taught” romance and gentleness by her friend and colleague Claudia who, even though she is also a female military officer, has a man and therefore is more conform to ideals of femininity – especially when one considers that her lover is none other than the paragon of masculinity, Focker.

All of these elements are once again pushed to eleven in Do You Remember Love ?  Let’s first go back to the character of Focker. He has significantly less screentime than in the TV show, but precisely because of that, his appearance and character are all the more striking. The scene where he has the most lines is in the first third of the movie : he’s in a bar with Claudia, Misa, and Hikaru. Just after Hikaru’s arrival, he embarks on a drunk rant that is first directed towards Misa : “Listen, Hayase, even though you’re an officer, you’re also a woman. So even if what a man says is wrong, it’s important to sometimes pretend he’s right.” The image of men-women relationships that Focker carries with him is already abundantly clear ; but he goes even further as he turns towards Hikaru and starts what can only be described as an encouragement of rape. Already  in the TV version, Focker exhibited these traits of toxic masculinity ; but he was an overall positive figure, something which his father role towards Hikaru and the trauma of his death only made stronger. In the movie however, his death goes almost unnoticed in the extremely rapid rhythm of the plot, and his image remains the one he gives off in this uncomfortable bar scene.

You may have noticed that Focker’s rant starts with him calling Misa out : the theme of her discarding her femininity and most notably the possibility of marriage remains present. But the way she “recovers” her femininity, even though it necessarily goes through her love for Hikaru, is presented in a slightly different manner. First, it is necessary to acknowledge that, in the TV show, Hikaru acts as an awful jerk towards Misa. In episode 33, he starts hitting on one of her younger colleagues, in front of her, just to make her jealous, and then acts surprised when said colleague tells him that Misa loves him ; and even though he seems to regret his actions, one episode later, he prefers to lunch with Minmay rather than go on a previously planned date with Misa, and stands her up. Finally, he ends up with Misa anyways, which seems to justify his actions ; but the reproaches from all the characters not taking part in the love triangle do testify to the fact that Hikaru’s conduct is lacking the most basic form of respect towards Misa.

In the movie, such complications are avoided ; there is indeed a misunderstanding where Misa believes that Hikaru is back with Minmay, but it is just that, and is quickly resolved. Moreover, in this scene, Hikaru manifests a remarkable sense of restraint and fidelity towards Misa : even though he could run after Minmay, he chooses to stay with the former ; the camera lingering on Hikaru’s hand about to open the door emphasizes the dilemma. That’s not to mean that Hikaru’s role has radically changed or that gender dynamics have been reversed : if anything, in Hikaru’s case, they’ve become more insidious as he changes from an indifferent and reproachable womanizer to a romantic and tortured hero.

Then, there’s the case of Misa and Hikaru’s reciprocal falling for each other. The moment where it happens is quite important, as the differences in their presentation highlight the differences in Misa’s portrayal. In the TV show, it is a gradual process, by which both characters progressively get to know each other ; but the key moment is arguably episodes 11 and 12, when they are captured by the Zentradi and have to make their escape. Even though in this situation, Misa is alienated (most notably as she has to kiss Hikaru to make a psychological attack on the Zentradi), it is an occasion for her to reveal her leadership skills and show that she’s not just a weak and vulnerable woman. However, in the movie version, it is Minmay that is captured and taken hostage by the Zentradi ; Misa and Hikaru’s bonding happens among the ruins of a devastated Earth. Misa’s behaviour as they attempt to survive is quite telling. First, she attempts to pilot Hikaru’s Valkyrie fighter by herself, but is unable to and in the end almost destroys the plane ; this way, she apparently proves women’s inability to fight and master military technologies. But more importantly, their wandering in Earth’s empty landscapes slowly chips away at Misa’s physical and psychological health. She is vulnerable, incapable of taking care of herself – just like a child. Then, apparently at the end of her wits, Misa starts playing house in a ruined city, going so far as to welcome Hikaru as she would her husband ! The fact that they kiss just after this moment serves as proof that it is in Misa’s newfound vulnerability and housewife-like acting that lies her charm. In other words, we here have the confirmation of the fact that, according to Macross, women shouldn’t fight to be themselves, but should maybe become idols or spouses.

Misa “recovers” her femininity as she welcomes Hikaru as her husband

In both cases, women only exist through the medium of men’s agency and gaze. The idol, obviously, only exists through her fans, and Minmay’s return to Hikaru in the end of the series is a logical consequence of her loss of popularity : she needs a man to support her, and it can neither be her dwindling fanbase nor her now alcoholic manager. It therefore has to be Hikaru. As for the (beautiful) fighting girl, she is not something exceptional in Macross ; however, for her to be validated, she has to be in a couple, as Claudia, Milia, and finally Misa’s love lives illustrate.

Notes

(1) Obviously, a corresponding essay would have to be made following the rise of shoujo manga and anime and their progressive integration into mainstream otaku culture ; Takao Saito’s Beautiful Fighting Girl is, available in English, the best attempt I know, but it still lacks precision and detail

(2) Even though Gundam was apparently not subject to the budding bishoujo craze, Jonathan Clements [2019] notes that during the famous screening of the Gundam movie trilogy, fans were ready with cameras during Sayla’s evocative shower scene

Bibliography

Azuma, H. (translation J. Abel and S. Kono, 2009) Otaku. Japan’s Database Animals. University of Minnesota Press.

Clements, J. (2019) “The Day Anime Changed”. Retrieved from https://schoolgirlmilkycrisis.com/2019/04/04/the-day-anime-changed/

Galbraith, P., Huat Kam T. and Kamm, B.-O (2015) Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan. Historical Perspectives and New Horizons. Bloomsbury Academic.

Hiromi, M. (2007) “When Pacifist Japan Fights : Historicizing Desires in Anime”. Mechademia. Vol. 2, 2007, “Networks of Desire”. University of Minnesota Press.

Saito, T. (translation J. Vincent and D. Lawson, 2011) Beautiful Fighting Girl. University of Minnesota Press.

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