Halftime Leisure

The Closet Otaku: The embedded misogyny of Sword Art Online

April 14, 2015


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



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John

I’m sorry but I disagree. I have seen many sexist animes and this is not one of them. Here are several points that you made

1. “The man hunts, the woman cooks” the only two characters ever seen cooking are Asuna and Agil. Asuna maxed her cooking skill and Agil is a guy…

2. “The females exist only to love Kirito” you completely forgot to mention SAO season 2 with Sinion who has the most interesting and intense backstory in the anime and Zekken who falls in love with Asuna. Plus this happenes quite a lot in anime and if you want to see a actual sexist example of this check out “Absolute Duo”

3. “There are many sexist/rapist characters” well this I agree on but this is why they are the villains.

4. “Woman showing skin” I hate to say this but this happens in 99% of anime. In fact SGT.Frog the most popular kids show in Japan has more nudity then SAO…

5. “Asuna wants to abandon her future and marry Kirito” she never says she does not want to go college or get a job. She says whatever she wants to do she would want to do with Kirio because they are married… If I was married and my wife wanted to get a job somewhere I would go with her.

I also notice you seem to hate the anime is revolved around Kirito well he is the main character… But the entire second portion of season 2 is about Asuna. Which is more time given to the non main character I have ever seen. Also the women in this anime are not weak. In fact Asuna has strength that rivals Kirito and Zekken even beats him in a duel, twice.

So yeah I honestly don’t see this as a sexist anime. A actually sexist anime is “Absolute Duo” what really annoyed about this title is that it was fine until the last two episodes. Then it turned full blown sexist in the last two episodes. Another example is “Assassination Classroom” episode 20. While the entire anime was amazing and not sexist in any way for some reason that episode turned sexist…

FactorialFall

I agree with you. Plus Asuna is literally about to get a huge amount of screen time next season or 2. She’s going to be awesome and kick ass.

h8GWB

Well, happen I disagree with you. Sinon is one of the most badass members of my anime harem and my favorite SAO character, but it’s almost certain she also falls in love with Kirito, since it’s heavily implied, even if not alright admitted.

Also, you can pretty much justify anything by over-analyzing it. Maybe Kirito isn’t a true misogynist if you appreciate his achievements and depreciate his faults, but he does show a strong impression of being one at first and that’s what matters. It’s like a person with terrible driving habits trying to demonstrate he’s not an asshole by saying “But you don’t know what I do the rest of the time!”

IMO it shouldn’t take so long for a writer to try to prove to people he isn’t a douche. I literally was going to give SAO a FOURTH CHANCE by sticking around to the beginning of Season 2 Part 2…..well until I saw Kirito pull ALO Sinon’s virtual tail (which I construed as HIGHLY inappropriate virtual touching), for like NO FUCKING REASON whatsoever. That was my “That’s it, I’m done with this anime!” moment, from which point on all my SAO games were to be F2P or rented, and all my other SAO merch were to be bought used to prevent as much of my money as possible from flowing back to Mr. Kawahara.

Reem

Sinon is no in love with Kirito….. not implied nor said in anyway please be careful spreading misinformation, the only people who liked kirito in a romantic way (excluding Asuna of course) were Sugu and Liz and both moved on quickly so.

Cat

Yeah, when Asuna’s not being forced into a creepy arranged marriage, that’s totally un-sexist.

Disappointed

I so agree. This makes me so freaking sad honestly because SAO could’ve been so much. I still watch it, ashamedly so, because I’m still intrigued by the whole thing. I miss Asuna being the powerful person she once was. I hate the incest and the rape. Why do I keep watching? I don’t know. Maybe one day in the future SOMEBODY will reboot SAO and really make it shine and explore what could have been. Sigh

Reem

None of this was true this Article is pure BS
1. “The man hunts, the woman cooks” the only two characters ever seen cooking are Asuna and Agil. Asuna maxed her cooking skill and Agil is a guy and how is cooking Sexist wth even was this point.

2. “The females exist only to love Kirito” you completely forgot to mention SAO season 2 with Sinion who has the most interesting and intense backstory in the anime and Zekken who falls in love with Asuna. Also the only people that liked kirito (besides asuna) were Liz and Sugu so no the female characters are not here to only love kirito

3. “There are many sexist/rapist characters” but this is why they are the villains, kind of a useless dumb point

4. “Woman showing skin” this happens in 99% of anime. In fact SGT.Frog the most popular kids show in Japan has more nudity then SAO… there are a ton more shows that have worse Nudity than Sao

5. “Asuna wants to abandon her future and marry Kirito” she never said she does not want to go college or get a job. She says whatever she wants to do she would want to do with Kirio because they are dating / planning to get married…

– Asuna has always been powerful even in her weakest moments in Fairy Dance she memorized the code and broke out, till the scientists found her and lock her up again she never stopped fighting. In Sao 2 the 2nd part she was still a badass even though it showed her more insecure moments with her family, also she’s gonna get the spotlight soon in S3

Rat Master

Oh please. To begin with, you’re not Japanese. Quit placing wherever your values are from(assuming it’s America) on a work of fiction that originates from Japan. Secondly, from what I’ve picked up from various LN and Manga it’s not really considered incest in Japan if it’s cousins. The existence of male sexual predators is not misogynistic. If anything it unfairly portrays men, although I won’t deny their existence. Also, if you’re gonna get worked up on the concept of Fan Service or the concept of “harem” than you better stop watching anime or reading manga/LN from Japan. Their target demographic is men, and it’s quite clear that Japanese women tend to be much less sensitive towards it. In addition, Asuna comes from what you’d consider “false nobility”, which are basically extremely wealthy Japanese families.

I’m not wasting anymore time on this, as I can completely refute everything you have on this article. Quit trying to put things from “other boxes” into your “own box”.

Gao

Like…you didn’t refute a single thing. This isn’t a cultural ‘Oh those wacky japanese’ difference; rape of any sort is considered a more heinous crime over there than it is in the US. Sexism likewise is a serious problem that has had this kind of perspective railed against regularly. Hell, part of the reason that japan has such a severe population decline is Women won’t tolerate.
Then again, you can look at other Actual haremm anime like…say, High School DxD and see everything that SAO fails at on the issues the author brought up done without the disgusting elements. Plus, HSDxD is commonly considered to be softcore porn, and yet has a better standing because it’s not baseless wish fulfillment, but a Guy working towards a goal despite being a pervert and earning it through strength of character and kindness, not ‘just because it’s wish fulfillment’.

JustAGuy

Complete and utter exaggeration…

“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.”
Asuna states that the reason she fell in love with him was because of his outlook on the world of Aincrad, seeing it not as a lost opportunity but as an opportunity in itself. “He wasn’t missing a day in the real world, he was gaining a day, here”. Lisbeth heavily implies that her feelings were due to how she’d been “looking for something real in this world, and felt like she found it that day, in Kirito”. Suguha doesn’t even know about her brother’s feats as the Black Swordsman when she develops feelings for him.

Both Lisbeth and Suguha’s feelings were a way of character development; is has less to do with them liking the protagonist, and more to do with them developing and growing thanks to the protagonist’s influence. This is something that even anime near universally acknowledged as great such as Boku No Hero Academia do (Todoroki is able to grow past his hatred of his right side thanks to Deku. Bakugo’s personal development is tied closely to Deku. Uraraka looks up to Deku and uses this to motivate her to work harder and grow as a hero etc).

Sachi’s feelings were never stated as being romantic.
Not a final twist- that was stated all the way back in the initial episodes when Kirito and Silica are chatting.
They never were about to commit it… Kirito was focused on Asuna, and Asuna alone.
Asuna’s character was never ruined- it would be more accurate to say that it was paused. Being in a position of helplessness doesn’t delete your motivations and character development. In some cases, it can further augment it, like Mother’s Rosario did for Asuna.

Kuradeel is never implied as bearing a sexual attraction.
Complete reversal of the situation. It isn’t to show that Asuna is an object of desire- it’s to show that Sugou is a creep. Eg: Your logic would be like saying “To drive home just how weak the Hulk is, he gets defeated easily by Thanos”…it’s a very poor interpretation of the source.

And how are the above negative. It’s very clear that sexual harassment is a bad thing… so SAO is in no way condoning it. Just because a show has murder, for example, it doesn’t mean that the show promotes it.
And I’m pretty sure that 2 isn’t equal to an “endless number”

A single point, because the evidence is so sparse.
“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.”
You clearly didn’t do your research. Kirito and Agil outright state that since Kirito was lucky enough to encounter an S-Class ingredient, it would require a high cooking skill to properly cook it (“If we tried to cook it, it’d be burnt to a crisp”).

“On the other hand, Asuna offers to cook this super special digital meat, because she—well, duh! ”
Because she’s friends with Kirito and wishes for half of it herself? Again, a clear lack of research.

Asuna’s cooking is tied to her character development (made clearer in the Light Novels. She goes from hating the world she’s trapped in to acknowledging its simple beauty- thus, cooking). And even if you ignore that, the simple virtue of a woman cooking doesn’t make it sexist. What of Lisbeth, then? She works in a male dominated industry (blacksmithing) but is never hailed as feminist.

In no way is it implied that Asuna wants to abandon her future. Seriously.

The moral implications have always been a theme in the series. Kirito’s mental state after killing in SAO is covered, and so his is PTSD, in the Phantom Bullet Arc. You didn’t see these points because you were looking with your eyes shut.

“SAO’s world is a terrifying one for its female characters”
Really? Because for almost every example of a female character suffering, it is outnumbered by males. Asuna’s was almost raped? Yeah, and 1000’s of gamers (majority of whom were male) died”.
“Forced to cook?” What? She chose cooking because women can make their own choices. Man, what an utter dystopia, where women have a choice in whether they want to cook or not.
I get the idea that your brand of feminism would equate to women never doing anything even remotely feminine, and shunning anything else, like a women wanting to cook, or a woman wanting to wear makeup, as sexist.

They exist to all love one single over-confident boy to the point where incest is involved.
What? Your maths might be a little rusty, man. Asuna loved Kirito. Lisbeth started to develop feelings but immediately quashed them. Suguha had feelings that she knew were wrong, and she grew over it over the course of the arc. Which brings us to a total count of 3. And even then, they have character aside from those emotions if (and this is an important ‘if’) you are bothered enough to look for it.
Off the top of my head, I can name Asuna, Sachi, Lisbeth, Silica (who, by the way, mentions in her inner monologue that she considers Kirito to be something of a brother), Suguha, Sinon, Yui and Yuuki (if we were counting Alicization, I could name about 10 more). So that’s 8 female characters, only 3 of which ever had feelings for Kirito.
And how is Kirito over confident? His arrogant persona is mostly a ruse so that he could deflect all of the ill-will towards beta testers towards himself. Look at him when he’s talking with friends, or with the Moonlit Black Cats Guild, and there’s basically no arrogance.

But in the end of the day, this article makes no sense. How does SAO hurt females, or our interpretations of them? Do viewers gain the impression that women are weak and inferior? No… but people such as yourself seem to think that they viewers do. Honestly, it’s not even half the horror against women you say it is.

Reem

Kenneth Lee you are dumb and absolutely obvious have paid no attention watching the show, please quit writing while ahead
None of this was true this Article is pure BS
1. “The man hunts, the woman cooks” the only two characters ever seen cooking are Asuna and Agil. Asuna maxed her cooking skill and Agil is a guy and how is cooking Sexist wth even was this point.

2. “The females exist only to love Kirito” you completely forgot to mention SAO season 2 with Sinion who has the most interesting and intense backstory in the anime and Zekken who falls in love with Asuna. Also the only people that liked kirito (besides asuna) were Liz and Sugu so no the female characters are not here to only love kirito and their feelings were to develop their characters.

3. “There are many sexist/rapist characters” but this is why they are the villains, kind of a useless dumb point

4. “Woman showing skin” this happens in 99% of anime. In fact SGT.Frog the most popular kids show in Japan has more nudity then SAO… there are a ton more shows that have worse Nudity than Sao

5. “Asuna wants to abandon her future and marry Kirito” she never said she does not want to go college or get a job. She says whatever she wants to do she would want to do with Kirio because they are dating / planning to get married…

– Asuna has always been powerful even in her weakest moments in Fairy Dance she memorized the code and broke out, till the scientists found her and lock her up again she never stopped fighting. In Sao 2 the 2nd part she was still a badass even though it showed her more insecure moments with her family, also she’s gonna get the spotlight soon in S3

College liberals truly are something everything to them is sexist y’all don’t even know the meaning of the word <.<

Runya

Kenneth, I’m 4 years late to the party, but you’ve summed up the issues with SAO nicely. It’s sad to note that 4 years later, these issues are still pertinent in Alicisation.

Camille

How many of you in the comments are actual women? I agree that SAO is misogynistic, and many of my friends would agree and actually stopped watching the show for that very reason. I stomached through it, but at the end I could not enjoy it as much as I would have liked because of how the show treats women. Just because you like it doesn’t mean you have to deny the fact that it’s trash when it comes to women. I like it, I like Asuna, and I say, it’s trash with its women.

Kazuto Kirigaya

What did Reki Kawahara say?
In an interview with Dengeki Online from January 18, 2019, Kawahara stated the following:

Female characters should not be treated as trophies.
He didn’t initially think about the roles of the female characters in the story and just kept expanding Kirito’s heroines (love interests).
In the future, he wants to include more parts where the female characters live their own lives separately from Kirito.