Summary: One hundred years ago, humanity came under attack by enormous, man-eating, humanoid mutants known as “titans.” The few remaining survivors retreated behind tall walls and did their best to live on the limited resources they had left. One hundred years later, the titans have returned, doggedly tearing down the defenses that the humans have worked so hard to build up.  But the situation is not hopeless; the military works tirelessly to keep the human race safe, and a fierce young man named Eren Jaeger finds he may hold the key to winning back the world from the titans.

Potential Triggers: Violence, attempted rape

Would I recommend it? Not really, but I’m in the minority here.

Note: This review is based on the anime series (in its entirety, so spoilers abound) and does not take the manga into account.

Attack on Titan has garnered a reputation as a feminist anime, one that I don’t believe is entirely deserved. It’s true that it has many feminist-friendly elements to it, but it is also deeply problematic in many ways.  After so much build up, I admit I was disappointed by what it had to offer.

In a perfect world, the feminist-friendly parts of Attack on Titan would barely merit mention.  Unfortunately, we live in a highly sexist, imperfect world, so I’ll discuss them anyway.  Most of the equitable treatment of women comes from the show being set around the military. Yes, that’s right.  In fantasy pseudo-Europe, women are treated more fairly within the military than in most modern-day nations.  Their uniforms are identical and the girls are just as capable, physically and mentally, as the boys, if not more so.  Male characters, thus far, have been more prone to open displays of extreme emotion.   Usually, even in manga that have prominent female characters who are ostensibly on equal ground with the men, they lack physical strength or behave in stereotypically feminine ways, and Attack on Titan has none of that behavior.  There hasn’t even been a whiff of fan service – although there is official art of Mikasa baring her midriff, it was drawn in a way to show off her raw physical power, not to titillate.

mikasa 01

It is notable that, despite the unusually equal gender distribution among the new recruits and, to a lesser extent, the middle ranks of the military, the upper levels are still completely dominated by men. In the early episodes, when the protagonists are still children, there are no female soldiers to be seen. Furthermore, though we get only a few glimpses into civilian life, those that we do see follow traditional gender roles very strongly. Eren’s father works as a doctor, while his mother cares for the house. Mikasa’s mother teaches her a form of embroidery passed down in the family.  It is my understanding that the manga is slightly different, with more visible women in the military even before the timeskip and Mikasa’s mother giving her a clan tattoo. I don’t know why the director Tetsuro Araki decided to make these changes, but considering his poor track record with depicting women, I consider it very suspect.

mikasa 02

Equal treatment of women and no objectification isn’t inherently feminist; it’s really the bare minimum that media should be held to, and it’s saddening that it’s uncommon enough that it is celebrated when it occurs.  Much more interesting and exciting is that Hange Zoe has been confirmed as nonbinary.  It’s been a point of huge contention in the fandom, and I admit that I was skeptical.  The lack of gendered pronouns and androgynous character design doesn’t point to much, considering the way pronouns are used in Japanese and the overall quality of Isayama’s art.  As far as I know, this is the first example of a truly nonbinary character in a major manga series and, handled correctly and with sensitivity, has the potential to be groundbreaking.

mikasa 03

The single biggest point of contention for me in whether or not Attack on Titan can be considered feminist or not is the character Mikasa Ackerman.  Mikasa is the physically strongest of the human cast, highly protective of Eren, and a keen strategist.  She is also not in any way, shape, or form, a feminist character.

At a glance, she has great potential to be one, and even seems to be.  After all, she’s at the top of her training class: their instructor even admits that her combat skills are flawless.  She is a keen strategist on top of her physical brilliance, and shows none of the flightiness or over-emotionality that the female segment of the standard shonen trio tends to have, such as Sakura from Naruto or Orihime of Bleach. The idea of Mikasa as the damsel in distress is unthinkable; it’s in fact far easier to conceive of her as the rescuer, since that is the role she is most prone to play.

mikasa 04

All that is spoiled by the fact that she has no inner life or emotional depth outside of her extreme devotion to Eren.  Despite her brilliance, she is prepared to follow Eren anywhere.  When it appeared that Eren was completely incapable of handling the three-dimensional gear and was doomed to wash out and be forced to work the reclaimed land – implied to be little better than a death sentence – Mikasa was entirely prepared to follow him.  This wasn’t too off-putting on its own.  After all, he had saved her life when they were young, and she had been by his side ever since.  That she was devoted, even to the point of self-sacrifice, seemed only natural.

mikasa 05

Mikasa’s semi-arc during the Battle of Trost was what clinched her failings as a feminist, or even feminist-friendly character.  Up until she hears of Eren’s death, Mikasa shows great leadership throughout the battle: forcing a greedy merchant to move his overloaded cart and let people through, giving inspirational speeches, and so on.  When her fuel runs out, Mikasa simply… gives up. Without Eren, she has no will to live.  Even when a titan comes to attack, she moves only involuntarily.

mikasa 06

I did not find Mikasa’s instinctively dodging the titan’s attacks inspirational or touching.  It leads to the realization that she wants to survive, yes, but only so that she can continue to remember Eren.  After this, her character arc stalls out.  Eren, in titan form, rescues her and is soon revealed to be himself.  Mikasa soon disappears quietly into the background, surfacing only occasionally to lend support to him.  Had her epiphany been a part of a larger character arc, Mikasa’s survival could have been truly something great.  Without Eren, Mikasa would have had to learn how to stand on her own emotionally and find her own reasons for living.  Even with Eren alive, she could have realized that living only for the sake of another person is unhealthy and struggled to figure out her own motivations and desires. But instead, she gets him back and proceeds to disappear quietly into the background, playing only bit parts in the ensuing story arcs.

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The Female Titan arc also has potential, but that too is wasted.  Annie Leonhart was, to me, the most potentially fascinating character of the series: mysterious, cynical, and pragmatic, but with unexpected soft spots, such as Armin’s faith in her.  Nonetheless, due to the show’s poor pacing, her arc is cut off unceremoniously, and it’s impossible to tell whether or not she is a strong or well-written character. Her titan form’s design did bother me: although the fanservice wasn’t to the point of being excessive, she was still completely idealized, albeit without skin, and at times the camera lingered too lovingly on her sculpted ass, perfect breasts, and symmetrical, delicately feminine features. Contrasted with the monstrous masculine titans, the effect is wholly incongruous and shows a clear double-standard.

mikasa 08

vs

mikasa 09

Attack on Titan is not the worst, most misogynistic, or most objectifying show of 2013, it’s true. Not by a long shot.  Still, considering all the hype, it was a titanic disappointment.

  • Guest

    I do not believe that being dedicated to someone makes you a “non feminist”.

    “Feminism: the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.”

    I’ve never seen the entire show, but from what I have seen and what you have written it seems that all feminists need to be strong individuals who cannot devote themselves to men. That is seriously not the case. Who are you to say someone cannot be a feminist if they are in love with a male?

    I understand that the anime world has a terrible time portraying women, but she undoubtedly is one of the very few women in any anime to hold power without having D cups. That within itself, is a victory.

    Also, while she is in titian form, there is nothing wrong with being beautiful. She’s a beautiful character. You cannot bash a woman or mask her beauty in the name of feminism.

    Ultimately, my point is that she could have indeed been a powerful figure for feminism but in the end, she is neither for or against feminism because in that world your talent provided for your future. Not your sex.

    • David Taranto

      I actually think the article contains the answers to your points already. The female titan looks markedly less gruesome (in the writer’s opinion) than the special male ones, as well as other generic female titans. Why is that? Why should that be?

      And, as she said, Mikasa could have been in love with a male… if she still retained the power and development she showed in the beginning of the series. When you minimize someone to a trope, as it seems like Mikasa was later on, you take some of the strong potential of her character away.

      The writer also says at the very end of the article that Attack on Titan’s not the worst – not by a long shot – it’s just not what it could have been or is being made out to be. Which I think you agree with at the end of your comment.

    • Artemis

      Hi there,

      Starting off with a dictionary definition is a poor rhetorical tactic! The dictionary is useful if you literally don’t know what the word feminism means, but a one-sentence definition will never successfully reflect the complex theories, disciplines, philosophies, and histories that make up the feminist movement.
      I feel like you are very seriously misconstruing or at least misunderstanding what I said in the article. I do not have problems with women who are devoted to men or dedicate themselves to protecting men. However, Mikasa shows no depth beyond that. I want to know how Mikasa thinks and feels and relates to others than just, “I will follow Eren”. People are complex. I agree that her largely gender-neutral, nonsexualized portrayal is excellent, but she herself is a boring character lacking in the criteria I use to define what I consider feminist-friendly.
      With regards to female titan – and that is Annie Leonhart, not Mikasa – I am not basing her for being beautiful. I am criticizing the people who designed her and made the conscious choice to draw her that way and to focus the camera on those parts of her anatomy. All the male titans are monstrous or malformed in some way, but Annie just looks like a model without any skin.
      It’s true, the world of Attack on Titan is far more egalitarian than our own, but that’s not the only way to look at media, and real criticism must look at all elements of a production – character design, character relationships, art direction, and so on – because it was produced in a society that is not egalitarian and none of us are without bias. A world without sexism is meaningless if the prominent women are motivated solely by the men in their lives or all look like they’re about to step onto a runway.

  • Irk

    IT’S AN ANIME! It is an animated television show made for the entertainment of all genders and various age groups. Stop over analyzing it. That. is. all.

    • Artemis

      No one’s forcing you to read the column dude.

      • Irk

        I read the column and I understood it’s points. I’m just tired of people over analyzing everything. Be it an anime, a movie, a video game or anything else. The world is so busy being offended or trying to find something that isn’t there instead of enjoying things as they’re meant to be enjoyed.

        • Artemis

          Yeah, how dare I think critically about things???

          Look, I’m going to assume your picture is of you and you are in fact white and male. Congratulations on being the most represented demographic in Western media! Good choice in parents, you really went for the “optimal privilege” package.

          For everyone else – women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and so on – things aren’t so rosy. There’s relatively little representation and what there is, is often full of insulting stereotypes. So we can either kick back and let ourselves be fed messages that are damaging to our psyches, our self esteem, and our position in society, as you think we should. Or, we learn to think critically. We point out the shitty messages and nasty stereotypes and we teach ourselves and each other how to be aware of them so that, when they inevitably crop up in the media we enjoy, we have mental safeguards. And maybe some of us will go on to create content ourselves, and know how to avoid falling back on ignorant cliches.

          I leave you with Moff’s Law, which I linked above but obviously you couldn’t be arsed to click:

          “As comments continue in a feminist [social justice] discussion of pop culture, the probability of someone saying “why do you have to analyze it? it’s just a movie/cartoon/book!” approaches 1.”

          • Irk

            Oh spare me the “Congratulations on being born a white male!” Drama. It’s the most childish argument any form of activist can take. Look, I’m not stupid. I don’t live in a plastic bubble. I understand how outrageously stupid, racist, sexist and stereotypical this world can be. I know people can be ignorant. My race and gender have a particularly high percentage of it, don’t they? That doesn’t mean you can use me being a white male against me anymore than I can use you being a female of undisclosed nationality against you. Statistics are not a reason to assume somebody doesn’t understand your angle.

            I know many women who deal with the way society is the way they should; Being proud of who they are and helping empower other women and girls civilly. Others still just live their lives and only make a big deal if a big deal is made. I know a small handful of LGBTQ+ people as well and I love every one of them. Great people; some of them among the best people I know. Not one of them felt oppressed. They know the way some people perceive them and that’s that.

            Thing’s aren’t rosy? Give me a break. They aren’t rosy for anybody. ALMOST EVERYBODY has some form of adversity in one way or another. Is there a picture being painted by the media? Maybe, maybe not. However, if you honestly believe that any relatively intelligent person is going to think any less of women in real life because Mikasa Ackerman is obsessed with Eren then you’re just as foolish as you believe myself to be. My point is you’re wasting your energy. You’re fighting the wrong monsters. If there’s a problem you need to work on improving it, not bashing something that has nothing to do with it.

            Don’t misunderstand my position. There is a depressingly large abundance of injustice and evil in this world. I just can’t stand you pretending that your psyche is threatened by Mikasa being devoted to her childhood savior or by Sakura being a weak willed girl.

            Fun fact; Sakura moves on to be one of the most powerful characters in the manga and possibly the most powerful female definitely. Why? Because she refuses to be left behind by the boys.

          • Artemis

            Alright, one last thing before I go to bed.

            Media. Representation. Matters. Mikasa is not an isolated case, but one of thousands of female characters whose lives revolve solely around the male character. I teach preschool, and it scares me sometimes that these little girls who I love dearly are growing up receiving messages that women are accessories to men or serve mainly decorative purposes. Art reflects life, but life turns right back around and reflects art.

            I don’t have any delusions that I’ll change the world by pointing out the ways I was dissatisfied with Attack on Titan. I’m not going to revolutionize media with what I do here. I write this column in part for my own edification, in part to start discussions with others and maybe open up a few people’s eyes and encourage them to think as well, and in part because I enjoy it. I like critically analyzing media! And to say that I should think less is really fucking insulting. You are under no obligation to read my column if you don’t want to. You can continue to enjoy your anime without considering any sexist or homophobic or transphobic implications it may have. But if you think for one second that your desire to be intellectually lazy will do anyone any good, other than satisfy your sense of entitlement to have your completely useless opinion heard, you’re an idiot.

          • Irk

            It seems despite my best efforts you have misunderstood my position once again. I didn’t mean for you to stop doing what you love. I didn’t ask you to stop believing in what you believe in. If I wanted that, I’d be the problem. I’m not going to waste time spewing out more pointless arguments. I’ll end it on pointing out one last thing you said that was wrong.

            One person CAN make a difference. You may not revolutionize the media world with an article about Attack on Titan’s characterization… but do not sell yourself short, ever. I don’t argue because I hate people and I didn’t post what I posted because I wanted to start an argument. Sometime it’s easy to forget that the person who wrote the article is on the other side of your comment and I was just putting out a simple thought.

            One last thing to say. God bless you for being a teacher who loves her students. Especially at such a young and important age. I may not agree with all of your views but I do agree that perceptions are a mess on all sides.

          • Artemis

            Thank you for your kind words on my profession. It’s rewarding and I love it, but it’s tough job and it’s always nice to be appreciated.

            Now that things have calmed down, I do want to point out why I was so irked (see what I did there?). You said you just wanted to state an opinion, but what you called your opinion was an imperative statement telling me not to write things like this. I welcome discussion and have no problem with people disagreeing with me – a lot of my friends like Attack on Titan and Mikasa. What you posted, however, was unproductive and contributed nothing. You may not have intended to silence me, but when you tell someone to “stop overanalyzing things” (which in my liberal arts loving feminist social justice activist opinion is impossible), that’s the effect. You were in effect telling me to stop saying things because you don’t like them. I hope that you’ll think about this next time you want to comment on something.

          • Irk

            I certainly will think before I comment next time. If this has taught me nothing else, it taught me that. I’ve always criticized people for leaving comments without thinking and I regret doing so myself. Have a pleasant day.

        • Artemis

          Seriously, if you don’t want to read critical analysis, why in the world would you have clicked this? I use both the word “feminism” and “feminist” in the title. What were you expecting?

          • Irk

            On a side note, to address the question of “why read this if you saw feminist and feminism in the title?” I suppose I was hoping to find something slightly different than I read. Not sure how to put it to words without portraying it wrong.

    • Artemis