I might as well warn you right off the bat, this is going to be one of those posts. A little weird, a little personal. I hope you still like it.
“Strong” was never really a word that applied to me in any way growing up. I was, and still am, rather smaller than average and a girl at that, so no one really expected me to be *strong*. People would (and do) instinctively rush to help me carry things or open things or reach things….That last one may not have much to do with strength. It wasn’t just the assumption that I was physically weaker than most, there was an unspoken agreement that that’s what I should want.
A bit of frailty is cute in a girl. You don’t want to be some muscle bound gorilla. That’s not feminine and it’s unattractive. No one ever spelled it out like that of course but little comments get dropped in certain situations. Whoa she looks like a guy, that’s scary. Isn’t it sweet when a girl asks you to open a jar… And the media I consumed enforced that greatly. I grew up in a time and places that weren’t super progressive on such questions.
It got quite annoying when the assumption and expectation went beyond the physical though. When my meek appearance and generally introverted personality got immediately typecast as a delicate shy disposition. When in certain situations insisting on my preferences or simply wanting to solve a problem by myself was seen as arrogant and undesirable or stubborn and bratty, instead of independent or admirable. When expressing opinions could be considered insolent. And the idea I might want to get stronger on any level was just silly.
Anime is a medium with a wide range of views. To this day there are shows (a lot of shows) that glorify frailty and helplessness in female characters. They treat rampant vulnerability almost like fanservice. It’s obviously framed as a desirable trait. And despite having watched a fair bit of pretty boy shows, I have yet to see the equivalent in male characters. It can get a bit disheartening when you’re a little girl and you also want to be a hero.
Thankfully, there are just as many bad*ss strong ladies in anime who have no issue kicking some behind and make tight muscles look mighty fine indeed! There was always a place for strong beautiful ladies in anime and the fans embraced them. Even back in the day! You know… like the 90s.
This was already a bit of a relief to me as a kid. But there was still a problem you see, I *wasn’t strong*.
The heroines I saw in early anime were either natural born bosses who got their way through sheer strength of will or arms, or everyone was compelled to do their bidding due to their irresistible delicacy. But I was in fact a very introverted kid who jumped around countries a lot and didn’t really know the language half the time. As a result I always assumed other people knew more than me about any given topic. Forget strength of will. As for strength of arms, I’m in decent shape for my size but let’s face it, 5 feet are only going to get you so far. I was also way too impatient to wait for someone else to decide to make my dreams come true. Besides, those fragile girls seemed to be sad a lot and that’s not my thing.
So what was I supposed to do. I wasn’t dainty enough to get by on that, and I didn’t really want to be but I was too weak for the alternative and I had somehow understood that wanting to change that was not how things should be. After all trying to be strong when you weren’t was kind of lame. You are who you are and that’s that.
But something changed along the way. Those strong powerful ladies didn’t all just start out that way. Suddenly, they had to put in the effort. And not because they had no other choice or because they were abused. They actually wanted to for their own sake.
I remember a scene in the first season of Attack on Titan, when jumping through rooftops the patrols worried about what could come next and Mikasa simply put them to ease with an “It’s going to be o.k. because I’m strong”. I’m paraphrasing as I don’t remember the exact sentence but the sentiment really stuck with me. It wasn’t some posturing bravado or an attempt at comforting self-delusion. It was a simple statement of fact from a character that had paid her dues. A character that had started out not so different from the little girl I remember. It felt powerful and resonated with me. Mikasa was going to be o.k. because she was strong. Maybe I could be as well.
More recently, I was watching Log Horizon and the tiny Akatsuki frequently repeats to herself that she wants to be strong. It’s not a lament or a call for pity. It’s just a declaration. It’s what she wants for her own ends to help her accomplish her own goals. She doesn’t whine to others about it she simply reminds herself that she can’t rest yet. She still has something to strive for, she wants to be strong. It’s a noble and realizable goal and presented as such even for a character that is vulnerable and sweet. The fact that she has to work at it is fine. It’s ok to want it and to go get it.
In a similar way princess Lenessia is trying hard to find her voice in a world where women were meant to be silent. Even princesses. And she struggles and stumbles. Sometimes she gives up for a little bit but she comes charging back in. That’s o.k. too. If you don’t find your inner strength right away or if you loose it for a bit. It’s not an all or nothing situation.
I know that for some of you what I’ve written is completely obvious. That the idea of not wanting or seeking strength seems ridiculous to you and that you’ve never felt any social pressure in that regard. I hope it’s the case for most of you. It would make me happy to find out no one could relate to my experience and this post is utter nonsense.
I eventually grew out of my fears and hangups. I happily seek out both physical and intellectual strength. The 5 foot thing is still a bit of an obstacle though. But I’m a bit embarrassed that it took me a while to figure out that strength was a goal and not a state. A goal I could chose for myself. So this is what anime thought me about strength. It means different things for different people but as long as you take the time to figure out what it means for you, then work hard until you’ve earned it, then no one can take it away from you!