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.

Kirishima my hero

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*.

angry Rini

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.

I’m no Mikasa but I’m a little closer

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!

happy fang Rini

16 thoughts

  1. I can relate to this post, but as I grew older I care less about what people think of me. I know that I am strong. I don’t need to prove to anyone because at the end of the day, the only person who needs to accept myself is me.

  2. Size really has little to do with strength. I’m 6′ 2 and 16 stone (224 lbs) yet I am constantly beset with anxiety, paranoia, lack of self-esteem, and of course my Autism symptoms, which account for much of my issues.

    I avoid conflict as much as humanly possible, and have found myself victim to many depressive episodes that have driven to me to want to end my life, yet I only survive through stubbornness more than strength – though I imagine it could be argued they are somehow related.

    Unlike you, I don’t think a specific anime had encourage or influenced me to be stronger but I do alway find myself relating to the “weaker” or timid characters, like Sawako (Kimi ni Todoke) or the flawed hopeless types, such as Sato (Welcome to the NHK) and cheering them on. Of course the butt kickers are more entertaining but they are less relatable – when was the last time you saw someone hit a Kamehameha in a street fight? 😛

    Anyway, glad to hear anime has helped you in your life and thanks for sharing this with us. 🙂

  3. I was in a different situation growing up. I was never athletic, though I probably could have been. I can’t judge my build, but I probably always looked stronger than was. Basically, people were always surprised at how weak I was. I heard often that I didn’t put the effort in, and it’s true: I didn’t put the effort in. Not being strong felt like a fair trade-off. I was going to be smart instead. And, well, I was helping a few peoplge get passing grades, either by helping them study or by arguing with teachers over mistakes that weren’t mistakes.

    It’s only later that I realised strength wasn’t only supposed to be physical: there are different aspects to it, like persistence for example. I was sorely lacking in perstistance. But I was very stubborn: If I didn’t understand something I wouldn’t believe the teachers until I did. If I didn’t want to do something, didn’t see the point, I’d refuse to do it. The result was that I was a weird kid: no clear goal, but very strong-headed. My parents tell me, when I was learning to speak, I never repeated words after them. I’d be silent and refuse, no matter how much they coaxed me, and then much later I’d just say the word, and not make any mistakes. They don’t know if I practised secretely, and I can’t remember. But knowing myself, I probably played it back in my head silently whenever I had a spare moment.

    Now for social life: when it came to playing with other kids, if I didn’t want to play the games they wanted to play, I wouldn’t. I’d sit it out. I’d throw silent tantrums that they dared have a taste of their own, but I didn’t let it show. I don’t know if anyone noticed, but I suspect few people actually cared. At the same time, though, I never really tried to get my way either: if they didn’t want to play what I wanted to play, I just thought “okay,” and that was that. As a result I ended up a bit of a loner, but not exactly isolated.

    Then puberty hit, and that’s when all the little boys were playing I’m-stronger-than-you-are games: play-fighting, establishing hierarchies, that sort of thing. I didn’t get it. I mistook some of that for bullying and started crying a lot. Since I was that weird kid (a my-pace character, in anime terms), I didn’t feel ashamed about that. I wanted to cry, so I cried. I wanted them to leave me alone, but – well – crying is losing those hierarchy games, and before long I was actually a bullying target, but not a prime one. There was this strange rumour that I’m secretely strong. See, I always cultivated a look of weakness and indifference. They tried to taunt me by calling me weak, and since I tended to reply with “Yeah, so?”, I obviously had to be so confident in my strength that I didn’t care about the taunts. Except I really was that weak (the issue was physical fighting strength). I’m not sure to this day how people re-conciled this with my crying.

    In any case, the sort of stength I did have was endurance. I may cry easily, but I don’t break easily. I may not be confident in having solutions or anything, but I’m fine with the risk. I may be constantly nervous, and I may complain a tad too much, but when it comes down to it I can take it. That’s basically why I never tried to get physically stronger. That’s also why I didn’t really fight back if people did unpleasant things. I’d tend to accomodate others – and the concept for this is “I’m a pushover.” People run into my limits found out that’s not quite it, but few people did.

    And this is where gender comes in: in fiction, endurance is a feminine value. Girls grow into women who marry and support a husband, while husbands attain goals. Now, in Western fiction, “strong women” tend to achieve their goals: the same yardstick for men and women, with the side-effect that the type of strength my personality gravitates towards being devalued rather than just gendered. Fiction wants to try to tell me that achieving a goal against adversity feels good, and that getting your way is a reward. But that’s not my experience. On the few occasions that actually fought to get my way, the endresult was that I didn’t enjoy what I got. It was tainted by the exhaustion of the fight, and to top it off I then felt for guilty for taking something away from someone else when I didn’t want what I got anymore. The conflict model just doesn’t work for me.

    Anime? There is value in the hang-in-there attitude. Anime does praise that as strength. There are downsides to this, but it’s also a relief to see the personality trait valued. As a result, people I relate to in anime are often girls (Kuronoma Sawako in Kimi ni Todoke) or feminine coded boys (Shun in Kimi to Boku). I’m actually mildly put off by the shounen-protagonist spirit. I’m like it in shows like Haikyuu, where it feels like it comes from a place of love for the activity in question, but often it just comes across as pointlessly stubborn to me. (I mean, did Naruto ever actually care about being Hokage, or was he just overcompensating for his outsider status until he grew into the role? – I didn’t watch all that far, so I literally don’t know the answer.)

    The problem with celebrating endurance, though, is that it’s easy to abuse. There’s a relationship between power and endurance that favours the point-of-view of the powerful, but if you fight back you against your grain. It’s difficult. How do you organise a societies values so that everyone, regardless of personality, is up to scratch? Is it possible? Seeing people overcome adversity to “make it” isn’t a comfort to me.

    It’s especially strange in Idol shows, where people tend to put a lot of effort into rising to the top in an industry where you have to put up with a lot of nonsense from both fans and the industry. It’s like the worst of both worlds. It’s why I’m fond of Rin from Idolm@ster Cinderella Girls: she’s training to take over the family flower shop when she’s scouted by a socially awkward oaf of a manager who tells every girl he scouted her for her smile (including Rin, who he hasn’t actually seen smile). She’s skeptical but decides to try it and finds she likes it, but there’s always the sense that she has her limits, and if she doesn’t become an idol the guys who invested in her lose more than she (she’ll just go back to being a florist), and it doesn’t feel as if she’s feeling remotely guilty about it. There’s none of that singlemindedness you get in shounen protagonists; none of that live-my-dream propaganda, with her. At the same time she puts up with a lot of nonsense she didn’t have to if she’d stuck with being a florist, but there’s still a sense of limits, a sense of go to far and I’m out, and don’t you dare call me ungrateful – whithout us girls you have no business. Sadly, the show is a regular idol show and doesn’t ultimately have the guts to actually do much with this. But even just having a character like this in that genre is great. (I remember a single idol show, where one of the main girls decides – after basically succeeding – that the business isn’t for her and she quits. I wish remembered the show’s name, but I don’t.)

    There are many types of strength, and not all of them are always valued equally, and depending on how society is organised, any one of them can be disadvanatageous. It’s so complicated. But if you’re naturally low on power and persistance, but somewhat higher on endurance, a constant harping on how everyone needs a dream, i.e. a goal to accomplish, and how that’s what makes life worthwhile, makes you feel like dropping out of what seems a pointless grind. Not everyone is or wants to be an achiever.

  4. I love that anime taught you how to define your owner inner strength! I am tall, but I am also have a small build so I do not look very strong. When I was younger this irritated me because I thought that strength equaled physical strength. I define strength now as more having resolve such as having the strength to overcome obstacles. I think a good example of a character that has strength for me is Full Moon Wo Sagashite’s Mitsuki. She has throat cancer, but she is absolutely determined to have a career in singing and won’t let anyone stop her! It was one of my first manga and I just loved the story and rooted for Mitsuki to achieve her dreams!

    1. I remember that manga – I cried so much! Great pull and thank you for reminding me of a wonderful story

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