I no longer feel comfortable with Sword Art Online’s very existence.
SAO is based on a fascinating science fiction premise. A mysterious video game developer, Kayaba Akihiko, decides to trap 10,000 players of a virtual reality game, called Sword Art Online. They cannot log off. If they die in the game, the VR headset will fry their brain. If someone in the real world removes or disconnects their VR headset, they will also die. The only way for the 10,000 players to escape the game is to beat its 100 levels. While their minds are trapped in the digital nightmare, their bodies lie rotting in a hospital bed, kept alive by the Japanese government with IV drips. Cool, right? (This was also the very first anime that I ever watched, and loved.)
The unlikely hero of this digital tragedy is a boy from the suburbs of Tokyo called Kirigaya Kazuto, who, in the game, is called Kirito. As he gains notoriety as a “beater” of SAO, he falls hopelessly in love with Yuuki Asuna, the vice-leader of a powerful guild called the Knights of the Blood. Not only do they fight epic digital battles together (for where is the romance without the sacrifice of life?) and eat digital sandwiches, they also buy a digital log cabin by a digital lake, catch digital fish, adopt a digital child called Yui (actually an AI program in the game gone rogue), and start a digital family.
Unfortunately, SAO became caught up in a brutal and systematic misogyny that, I argue, stops viewers from enjoying the show. See, most anime series already give the entire category an awful reputation by including sexualized gags about breasts or having a woman unnecessarily strip down to her bare necessities. SAO does both, and goes much, much further than that. The show’s writers decided to include an endless torrent of characters and narrative tropes that exact sexual violence towards women while firmly enshrining the dominant place of males in the social hierarchy of the human kingdom. This hatred and belittling of women is so embedded and nuanced that I didn’t even notice it until the idea of writing this column came into my mind in the past week.
Let’s explore four major ways in which SAO hates and hurts women.
That women exist at the mercy of a man’s love
photo taken from: http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/swordartonline
Take away the shallow shroud of their purportedly different backgrounds, and you are left with the fact that every female character exists to fall in love with Kirito. And it’s probably very hard to not fall in love with Kirito. An intense combination of his messy hair, his renegade swordsman’s cloak, his slick voice, his intense warrior screams, and his egregiously arrogant demeanor creates an irresistible chick magnet.
Ultimately, woe betides all the ladies who become sexually aroused by Kirito’s presence. Sachi, a person with fears for her death in the video game, cannot sleep with Kirito’s presence in the bedroom and his soothing voice. (She later dies after Kirito leads her guild into a trap, and a monster kills her.) Lisbeth, an amazingly talented blacksmith (pictured above), confesses her love to Kirito after spending a night with him in a dragon’s cave. (Kirito pretends not to hear, and Lisbeth hides beside a bridge and sobs.) Even Kirito’s own sister falls in love with him before both of them realize that they’re about to commit digital incest. (They then log off and confront each other in a tearful scene. In a final twist that blurs whether said potential incest was legal, they’re also actually cousins.)
Even Asuna, Kirito’s one and only genuine love interest, devolves into a pathetic, one-dimensional character in the second part of SAO’s first season. Under mysterious circumstances, she becomes a damsel in distress, quite literally in the sense of the idiom. In those twelve episodes, she disposes of the depth and development that the show decided to build for her, spending her days trapped in a birdcage in the sky waiting for Kirito down below to come up and save her. Meanwhile, Kirito gets to bask in the glory of his arrogance by showing off his expert video game skills and his unending masculine drive to rescue the love of his life in the most unforgiving circumstances. Because he’s Kirito.
The never-ending presence of male sexual predators
photo taken from: https://armchairmadcap.files.wordpress.com
For some reason, unscrupulous middle-aged men like to get hold of Asuna and do things with her. One of them, called Kuradeel, becomes Asuna’s bodyguard when she leads her guild. Of course, for Kuradeel, the perks of taking a bullet (or, in this case, a sword jab?) for your guild’s leader is an unending opportunity to be in close proximity to her beautiful body. Thus, Kuradeel creepily hangs around Asuna’s guild-provided mansion for her “protection” and lodges a very violent protest when she tells him that his services are no longer needed.
To drive home the fact that Asuna is fundamentally an object of desire, Sugou Nobuyuki, a chief executive of a company who has ties to Asuna’s rich family, becomes a fairy king and is the antagonist responsible for locking up Asuna in the birdcage. In perhaps one of the most disturbing animated sequences in the history of television, Sugou hangs Asuna from the ceiling with chains, rips her dress into shreds, rubs her fingers across her belly button, fondles her breasts, licks the tears off Asuna’s quivering eyes, then proceeds to digitally rape her.
“I’m okay, Kirito,” Asuna manages, putting on a brave face to her helpless boyfriend. “This won’t hurt me.” Sugou’s grin only widens. “Once I’ve had my fun here, I’ll go to your hospital bed. I’ll play a recording of today on a big monitor, and we can enjoy ourselves. With your real body.” Asuna is so attractive, apparently, that a man would still want to rape her paralyzed body in a hospital and commit borderline necrophilia.
Man the hunter, woman the homemaker
photo taken from: stuffpoint.com
In SAO’s world, the man hunts, while the woman cooks.
Kirito casually picks up a super rare and super expensive type of digital rabbit meat in his inventory after killing some type of digital rabbit, and because he has two (digital) testicles between his legs, he has no idea what to do with the meat, because he can’t cook. There’s a lot of eating involved in this video game, but Kirito never enters the kitchen once.
On the other hand, Asuna offers to cook this super special digital meat, because she—well, duh! Why wouldn’t she?—has already maximized her cooking skills. So she stews the meat, while all Kirito does is oohs and aahs at her kitchen equipment and her chopping abilities.
The inferior prospects of a woman’s future
photo taken from: tumblr.com
Although a quarter of SAO revolves around its original premise, the characters remain on their digital adventures for no good reason. . But by episode 19 of SAO’s second season, Asuna’s mother, Kyouko, has had enough. In an intense dinner that epitomizes the pinnacle of SAO’s misogyny towards women, Kyouko berates Asuna for continuing to date Kirito after all these years. Kyouko wants her daughter to go to an elite prep school to prepare for college rather than stay at a joke of a school where the Japanese government can monitor the children “who spent two years killing each other in one place.”
Asuna resists. “I don’t necessarily have to attend college,” she says. “It’s up to an individual to decide how they’ll live, isn’t it?” But Asuna would rather condemn herself into her digital log cabin, with Kirito, her digital child, and her digital family. She rejects the path to college, to success, to a prosperous, independent life that her parents have laid out for her, and would rather spend the rest of her life cooking digital rabbit meat in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the man is already leaving the house to work. Kirito is busy learning English, and wants to be a software developer, which would just make Asuna even more happy to be around him.
The alternative Kyouko gives, however, isn’t that much more appealing. “I want you to have a career you can be proud of, no matter to whom you’re speaking,” she says, and ominously continuing, “Marriage is part of your career.” To Asuna’s ultimate disgust, Kyouko tries to arrange a marriage with the son of a banker, who promises to provide a stable financial life … while Asuna stays at home, cooking real rabbit meat in a future kitchen. Kyouka, too, perceives that a woman can only go so far herself as an independent societal entity. Thus, to protect Asuna’s future, she would rather pair her daughter to a groom-in-waiting.
Chase a boyfriend for the rest of your life and abandon your career prospects in the process, or endure an arranged, unhappy marriage for the rest of your life and get access to your unloving husband’s bank account so you can afford to abandon your career prospects. Such are the only two future pathways to life for a young Japanese lady in the year 2026.
What does this all mean?
SAO’s world is a terrifying one for its female characters. They exist to all love one single over-confident boy to the point where incest is involved. They are stalked. Licked. Fondled. Raped. Subject to close-ups of their breasts. Made to cook. Forced into marriage. The misogyny is saturated to the point where we lose what potential SAO could have had. What happens when you are trapped in a game when you kill to protect? What are the moral implications of creating such technology? Why is Kirito’s post-traumatic stress disorder, after he had digitally (and therefore in reality) murdered so many people, so delicately terrible?
The anime could have explored all this, and more, but chose to focus on misogyny and sexual violence. And yet, for the almost two years since I had known this anime, I had happily sat through hours of these silly digital sword fights, unaware of all this hatred, violence, and belittling of women. Perhaps my initial reactions reflect the intensely embedded misogyny that permeates like a hand that suffocates society just enough for it to be unnoticeable today, whether that be Gamergate, or former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard seeing opposition leaders standing next to signs that scream, “Ditch the witch!”
A friend of mine remains a hardcore fan of SAO. When he came to stay at my apartment during a holiday, he told me to keep watching SAO while I stopped out of frustration for where the show was going, because, “Asuna is so empowered in the end!” But why can’t female leads come empowered by default? Why does she need to be extra-empowered?
I invite all of you to reconsider the reasons for loving SAO. Because I no longer have any.
Featured photo taken from: http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/swordartonline