More than Just Numbers

I went with my family to watch Mockingjay: Part 1 over thanksgiving break. As I filed into a movie seat, I was prepared to take the movie seriously. After all, the book series and now the movie trilogy tetralogy has gained massive following, specifically in the realm of feminism. To summarize, Katniss Everdeen, our female action/survival hero lead character, is forced to compete in a fight to the death called the  Hunger Games. There she exhibits not only physical bravery and strength, but courage, compassion, and an unshakable mental sense of self. It is mainly for these non-physical characteristics that much of the media is centered around praising Katniss as a feminist role model.

I would agree wholeheartedly with the prior description, but only until the start of Mockingjay: Part 1. From then on, Katniss becomes, to put it bluntly, useless. Throughout the movie her main role is to be a puppet for the revolution on camera and off camera hysterically cry for Peeta, her now-captured boyfriend-ish former huger games partner. The only times she stands up to anyone about anything are when she’s yelling into a camera and when she’s arguing for Peeta’s full pardon. Original Katniss may have been quite the feminist role model, but now I have to wonder where that Katniss went. Aside from Katniss, we have her family who are too shaken up to stand for much of anything (unless it’s Prim’s cat, that is), and President Coin, the cool pseudo dictator leading the revolution. Perhaps there is an argument to be made for Coin taking up the feminist torch, but given that her main characteristics are being cold, manipulative, and power hungry, she doesn’t exactly make for a good role model of any gender. To say the least, I’m slightly confused how Mockingjay: Part 1 is in any way the “end of men” movie of the year. The movie left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Feminism is a cause I believe in too, but it seems like the only aspect of Mockingjay: Part 1 that is remotely feminist is that there are more women on screen than men. Surely a step in the right direction, but there has to be more to feminism than simply the number of women, right?

While scrolling through Neflix to find a series to binge watch, I stumbled upon Sword Art Online, an Anime I had vaguely heard of. Nothing else was appealing, so I clicked start and promptly watched the entire first arc of 15 episodes. The premise of the show is that in the near future (2020) a company develops the first fully immersive virtual reality system, and quickly creates a MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) game to utilize it. The Sword Art Online MMO depicted is fairly traditional; players level-up by defeating in-game enemies and progress up the world (shaped like a tower in a series of layers) by defeating bosses. The twist in the game comes almost immediately at the beginning, halfway through the first episode: once the official launch has begun, the creator removes the ability to log out – the players are stuck in the game. Furthermore, dying in the game will cause the Virtual Reality headgear to kill the player’s body, thereby killing him or her for real. The only way to escape is to progress to the hundredth floor of the tower and defeat the final boss residing there, thereby ending the game and releasing all of the players who are still alive.

From just the premise it is clear that Sword Art Online shares the forced-game plot device with The Hunger Games. Players in both stories are forced to participate in a life-or-death game, and are only able to escape by repeatedly putting their life on the line in combat. This leads to many of the same thematic elements appearing in both stories: physical strength, courage, sacrifice, dedication, and many others. In both stories we have one female and one male lead. In The Hunger Games we have Katniss and Peeta, whereas in Sword Art Online we have Asuna and Kirito.

Here, however, the stories diverge. One of the main hurdles feminist characters have to jump is when they enter a relationship of any kind with a male character. Usually, when we hit this point, the female character goes from being strong in every sense of the word (physically, emotionally, mentally), to basically being baggage. It’s an awful stereotype and one that we as a culture and a race need to break. So why, then, does Katniss, one of the most feminist characters in recent memory, do just that? In the first book Katniss is inspiring on multiple counts. While fighting for her life she manages to show compassion and mercy when it is due, and stays stalwart against the real enemy: the Capitol and President Snow. Somewhere during Catching Fire (book two), however, a switch is flipped, such that this entire side of her personality is turned off. In Mockingjay she loses sight of the real enemy (Snow), loses her mental resolve, and even loses her combat awareness as she is nearly crushed by a falling pillar. I get that she’s dedicated to Peeta and wants him back more than anything, but if you want to paint a feminist female character, your job isn’t done as soon as she meets a guy and then loses him – that’s when the real challenge begins.

Sword Art Online faces a similar situation near the middle of the arc. The Kirito-Asuna relationship that everyone has waited for finally becomes reality. If everything went according to stereotype, Asuna would transform from her brave, strong, wise-cracking, leader-of-a-guild self to a wet noodle who’s only purpose is to be Kirito’s cheerleader. In the first conflict they face as a pair, however, we get exactly the opposite. Watch through 19:35 (just over a minute).

The tension builds until 19:20, when Asuna is the first to break the standoff. Not only is Kirito holding Yui (already a few feminist points there), Asuna shows that just because she’s with Kirito doesn’t mean she’s changed at all. It would have been really easy, and perhaps (regretably) even the default choice for Kirito to hand Yui to Asuna and then take on the Liberation Army men himself. Whether conscious on the part of the author or not, that’s not the way the plot goes; Asuna kicks the crap out of the head Army soldier and sends them scurrying on their way. Besides showing that her physical edge is still sharp, Asuna proves that she isn’t just handing over all responsibility to Kirito from here on out – a point that is really hammered home in the rest of the arc.

Sword Art Online barely focuses on feminism, however. The main questions it raises are ones that have puzzled philosophers for centuries, pertaining to reality and the meaning of life. If you had a choice between living forever in a paradise that you knew was only an illusion while everyone else struggled in the real world, or to return to the real world to struggle with them, what would you do? Now toss love into that equation, and make the decision again. While in that world, is that love even real? Is courage, or pain? Do you have a duty to try to escape that perfect illusion, even though the attempt may cost you your life?

Kirito and Asuna struggle through the challenges that Sword Art Online throws at them to try to beat the game and save everyone in it, and through those struggles come to trust one another. The most moving scenes are when they fight together. Not him protecting her, or her protecting him, but as one against a common enemy. Most of the characters in Sword Art Online are male (which is probably accurate, given that only around 15% of MMO players are female), but Asuna alone gives the show more feminist presence than a whole command room full of one-dimensional female characters featured in Mockingjay. Feminism is more than just numbers, a lesson that Sword Art Online proves with flying colors, and that Mockingjay will hopefully learn by the time part two comes around.

Edit: I have since finished watching the full of SAO. The second arc of the show is terrible. Do yourself a favor and don’t watch beyond episode 15 or so.


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