One of my favorite series My Hero Academia just wrapped its second season today. Over this past few months, I definitely enjoyed watching new episodes each week, and it saddens me to see it end. As a lover of both shonen and the superheroes genre, it almost seems like MHA and I were meant to be. It’s not perfect, of course, not even close. In fact, even though I’ve been a big fan of both genres since forever, as a woman, they aren’t always easy to love.
Like its name says, the target demographic for shonen are boys, and the two biggest companies –DC and Marvel– making superheroes comics today still prioritize its male audience. Most of their creators are also men, and one of the downsides of that is that sexism is far too common in a lot of the stories they tell.
The most typical shonen rarely portrays relevant, compelling female characters with motivations where no men are involved. Female characters that aren’t exploited for fanservice are rarer still. But the girls of My Hero Academia not only feel like real people with their own lives: they’re girls I would love to hang out with. The series handles female character better than a good part of its predecessors, yet it’s not without its flaws (like Mineta’s existence, for instance). The second season in particular displays a lot of the sexism the series can struggle with, which requires its own in-deep analysis. But’s that’s a discussion for another day (edit 23/02/18: I wrote about that here). The subjects I want to focus on are mentors and representation in particular, which came to me after watching episode thirty-five: “Yaoyorozu: Rising.”
While Momo Yaoyorozu doesn’t have as much protagonism as other characters, I’ve been paying attention to her since season one. It wasn’t until the tournament arc that I could see why: a tall girl, academically overachieving, yet slow in practical situations. Momo’s smarts are no joke, but she’s not the kind of quick thinker Deku or Bakugo are. As a result, she underperforms in her fight against Tokoyami, which severely damages her confidence. In Momo and her conflict, I could see a part of myself. Having the ability to do well, yet losing the chance to do so thanks to your perceived weakness; it’s a problem I’m familiar with. And when you’re someone with big expectations on yourself, failing to achieve them can be mentally draining.
“Yaoyorozu: Rising” brings her internal conflict into focus, and attempts to resolve it. For her final exam, Momo is paired with Todoroki against their homeroom teacher, Eraserhead. After Todoroki gets caught by the teacher’s trap, watching Momo indecisiveness and reluctance to take the lead isn’t easy, yet at the same time, it feels real. As a manga reader, I’ve been wanting to watch the moment she overcomes her insecurities animated for months, but after finally seeing it, I noticed that something’s missing.
After pondering for a while, I realized two things. First, Todoroki’s words are what spring her into action. Second, when she thinks her plan wasn’t successful, Eraserhead’s words are what finally gives her the confidence to enjoy her victory. Now, I take no issue with classmates motivating one other, or teachers comforting their students, regardless of gender. Being her closest teacher, I can’t think of anyone better suited to guide Momo. However, that’s exactly the problem. Excluding All Might, I can’t, for the life of me, think of a different mentor that could have helped her, much less a female mentor, since they’re practically non-existent in MHA world. Just take a look.
Out of ten instructors, only one is a woman. If we take a look at the students from class 1-A, out of twenty students, only six are female. Let that sink in for a moment. MHA is telling us that only six girls were good enough to have a place at the top class in the best school for heroes, while fourteen boys made it.
This leaves me with the impression that the hero profession is a male-dominated field. Even the villains are practically all male, with the exception of Toga, one of the show’s most recent additions.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that this doesn’t bear any resemblance to reality: we could make an alphabetized list of all the fields women struggle with professionally, based only on gender. What the show ignores, however, is that gender-based discrimination, even if unintentional, can have a real impact on our lives.
And Momo isn’t the only case where this issue becomes noticeable either; just take a look at Ochako’s admiration for Deku. There is nothing wrong with it per se: Deku and Ochako’s relationship is based on camaraderie and mutual respect. I have no doubt that just how Ochako admires Deku’s determination to become the best hero, Deku also finds admirable qualities in her. Yet unlike Ochako’s feelings, this never takes the spotlight, mostly because a big part of Deku’s character centers around his admiration for All Might.
As the symbol of peace, All Might perfectly embodies ideals of pure heroism and is well deserving of the praise and admiration he receives. It’s also clear that he made strong impressions on Deku and Bakugo, since he’s the kind of hero both are aiming to become, albeit for different reasons. Yet who is a girl like Ochako aiming to become? While Deku is a source of inspiration, as a classmate, he’s still on her level. We know Ochako wants to become a rescue type heroine, yet when looking for examples, only male hero Thirteen comes to mind. When she wants to become more versatile, she is shortly trained by male hero Gunhead. In other words, when it comes to inspiration and training, no women are involved. And how about the rest of the girls? Who inspires Momo? Who inspires Tsuyu? Ashido? Jiro? How about Toru?
Sure, we don’t know who inspires the majority of the male cast either, but we do know there are male superheroes like All Might, who generally inspires everyone, or Crimson Riot, who Kirishima admires so much it inspired his hero name: Red Riot.
Even when we look outside of UA, we still have trouble finding heroines. During the internship arc, everyone has male mentors, with the exception of Mineta, Momo and Itsuka (from class 1-B). Mineta has an internship with Mount Lady, who makes him clean her house while she enjoys her free time, and Itsuka and Momo spend their internship with Uwabami making commercials. It’s not like Mineta deserves any better, and it’s reasonable to search for profitable side jobs. Like Uwabami says, you have to make a living. Yet it’s hard to ignore that while the students with exciting experiences on the field are those with male mentors, those with female mentors barely do anything (on the field) and even end up disappointed.
Taking all of this into consideration, the pro heroes ranking becomes even harder to ignore. Thanks to Bakugo’s internship, we know Best Jeanist is number four on the list. The top hero is All Might, of course, followed by Endeavor, Todoroki’s abusive father. Meanwhile, as far as we know, there are no women on the top five. Their absence, plus Endeavor’s place on the ranking serves as a painful reminder that in the real world, there are far too many abusive men in positions of power, revered by the societies they live in, while many women struggle just to get better job opportunities.
My Hero Academia often emphasizes how the characters are constantly working hard to become the best heroes they can be. However, the lack of female role models for the girls to look up to and take inspiration from, makes me think of our own struggle with female representation in our media. In my life, I had heroines like Wonder Woman and The Powerpuff Girls to inspire me while growing up, yet they were exceptions. Most of the cartoons and comics I consumed were so male-dominated that at some point I reached the conclusion that girls were less because I was rarely shown a girl who was good enough to achieve what their male peers did. I even remember acting “like a boy” because I thought that was the only way I could pursue the things I liked. It took me years to unlearn that. And the kind of stories that convinced my younger self that girls aren’t good enough also influence many people who are still convinced of that. While lack of representation is not the sole culprit, it does help perpetuating those stigmas, and they can manifest as obstacles for women.
That’s why, based on my experience, I find it hard to believe that the lack of heroines doesn’t have any significant impact on the girls that grow up on MHA world. When kids or teenagers are unable to see themselves recognized in any way on the world that surrounds them, they notice it.
While I don’t really expect the show to acknowledge the struggles women can face, I have come to expect more than what it’s currently giving us. I expect pro heroines saving the day, heroines little girls can look up to just like little Deku looked up to All Might. I expect to see women making the same impact men do, showing aspiring heroines they can also reach those heights. Of course, for this to happen, the show would have to give its female characters more spotlight than it’s used to. But the girls from My Hero Academia deserve that much.
Edit: Out of consideration for the readers that only follow the anime, please refrain from discussing detailed manga spoilers in the comments.
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