In the months since I’ve started watching it, My Hero Academia has quickly become my favorite battle shonen series. It’s not particularly mold-breaking; it uses the same genre tropes as most other series of its ilk. Its main strength is that it brings the genre’s strengths to the forefront, with a supremely likable ensemble cast and exciting battles, while leaving behind many of the genre’s typical weaknesses. One of battle shonen’s greatest struggles has long been how to incorporate its female characters, and My Hero Academia handles the situation with rare grace and aplomb. However, no work of art is free of biases, and while My Hero Academia avoids many issues associated with the genre, there are still many sexist biases deeply encoded in the series.
“Battle shonen” refers to the subgenre of action-driven manga aimed at boys that focus on battles between characters, as the name implies, and are structured around arcs with the series’ overarching goal being only vaguely defined, if at all. They’re dominated by a number of conventions the audience have come to expect, such as a young male protagonist with a core group of friends, a rival, tournament and training arcs, and a series of increasingly powerful villains. Popular battle shonen like Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, and Fairy Tale can run for decades. My Hero Academia is a relatively new entry to the genre, drawing much of its inspiration from Western superhero narratives and synthesizing that with the typical ideas of the genre.
These series have long tended to struggle with what to do with their female characters. They are often introduced early in the series, when the protagonist has yet to set themselves apart from the pack, and become part of the core cast. However, as the male protagonist gets more and more powerful, the girls on their team often lag behind them in ways that the boys don’t. They become relegated to healers or support duties, but rarely get the spotlight in battle. They get designated female enemies to fight against, before they are neatly removed from the conflict. They become damsels for the boys to rescue. On the rare occasions that women are powerful fighters or mentors, they are often sexualized to the point of disrespect.
My Hero Academia neatly sidesteps most of these issues by treating its female characters as interesting, integral members of the ensemble cast. They have varied, likable personalities and appearances, with useful quirks that make them valuable contributors to the team both in and out of battle. No one embodies this more than Ochaco Uraraka, Izuku’s cheerful friend with the ability to make things float. She’s a clear choice for the love interest – a friendly girl-next-door type who meets Izuku by using her quirk to prevent him from tripping and falling on the day of the entrance exam – and he does indeed develop a crush on her. Despite his feelings, friendship defines their relationship, rather than attraction, and they thus far remain close but platonic. His crush on her is so secondary to their camaraderie that it’s easy to forget that it even exists. Such relationships between male and female characters are rare in any genre, but I honestly can’t remember last time I saw it in a battle shonen series; they tend to be mentor-student or focused mainly on romantic feelings. Rather than treating her as a means to an end or an object of Izuku’s affection, mangaka Horikoshi writes Ochaco as a person first, with same amount of interiority and individuality as any of the male characters.
The aniblogger sphere has heaped praise on the episode “Bakugo vs. Uraraka” for its approach to pitting Ochaco against Katsuki Bakugo, Izuku’s longtime rival, and for good reason. Bakugo, whose quirk allows him to combust his sweat made of nitroglycerin, is one of the most powerful and dangerous competitors in their school’s sports festival tournament. Izuku tries to help Ochaco by coming up with a strategy for her to fight him, worried that she’ll be immediately and thoroughly beaten by the volatile Bakugo. She enters the ring with a quavering smile that fails to cover up her nervousness. Once the fight gets going, it becomes clear that she never needed Izuku’s help; she develops her own strategy based around getting Bakugo to blow up the ground and making the rubble float above his head, crashing down at a key moment. She’s a bright girl who has been using her quirk for close to a decade; she is perfectly capable of coming up with her own strategy.
It seems possible that Horikoshi scripted this fight specifically to call out the sexism endemic to the genre. As the fight continues and Ochaco takes explosion after explosion, the onlookers jeer at Bakugo, angry at him for “picking on” her and imploring her to send her out of bounds. Ochaco is cute and harmless-looking, causing them to perceive her as less capable. Their teacher Aizawa jumps onto the mic, calling them out: “Was that a pro saying he’s playing around? How many years have you been a pro? If you’re saying that with a straight face, there’s no point in you watching anymore, so go home! Go home, and look into changing careers! Bakugo is being careful because he’s acknowledged the strength of an opponent who has made it this far. It’s because he’s doing everything he can to win that he can’t go easy on her or let his guard down.” Ochaco may be cute and lacking in raw physical power, but she has made it this far on her own strength; the audience asking him to knock her out because they’re uncomfortable seeing her fighting all-out against a clearly powerful male opponent is selfish and disrespectful, on top of making assumptions and not taking her seriously. Aizawa points out their implicit biases, that they assume she is not a worthy opponent because she is female, and this particular bias rears its ugly head over and over in battle shonen as the female characters are relegated to the sidelines. Even after the fight, their classmates tease Bakugo for looking like a villain beating up on a frail girl – it’s still an uphill battle for female fighters to be taken as seriously as male ones.
It’s not hard to see why the characters would assume girls are weaker; there’s plenty of in-universe evidence to uphold that. Thus far, we’ve only met four female professional heroes: the elderly healer Recovery Girl, Mount Lady, Uwabami, and Midnight, compared to about a dozen male professionals. In the Unforeseen Simulation Joint, not a single villain is female. Even in Class 1-A, under ⅓ of the students are female. In early planning stages, it was only four; two of them, Tohru and Tsuyu, were originally planned to be male. He changed them to make the gender balance more even, but that did not come close to fixing the problem. The rest of the school appears to suffer from the same imbalance. It’s an oft-quoted statistic that men perceive groups as majority-female once more than ⅓ are women, and My Hero Academia perpetuates that issue.
My Hero Academia has a relatively low level of fan service for the genre, especially compared to series like One Piece and Fairy Tail, which delight in regularly displaying the mostly-naked bodies of their female cast. The aforementioned Mount Lady and Midnight are both highly fetishized; Mount Lady, a literal giantess, introduces herself with a coy, “Nice to make your ass-quaintance!” and Midnight bases her whole aesthetic around sadomasochism, with the epithet “The R-Rated Hero” and a flog whip as a weapon. Uwabami makes her much of her living as a TV celebrity and hires her female interns on the basis of their looks. While the students of Hero Academy are quite realistically proportioned, those two are very busty with costumes that highlight their curves. Class A’s Mineta is particularly an affront, so much so that hating him has become a meme on social media. He routinely attempts touch or peep on his classmates without their consent. While the girls may retaliate, especially Tsuyu, these moments are played off as jokes. When he tricks the girls into dressing in cheerleader uniforms, they become angry, but they continue to wear them anyway, to the delight of the boys in the class.
A look through the series’ supplementary material reveals more of Horikoshi’s biases. Each character receives ratings in five different areas, including power, speed, technique, intelligence, and cooperation. Across the board, the girls of Class 1-A have low ratings in power, with an average of only 1.83 out of five, and high ratings in cooperation. While the female cast is truly a delight and I enjoy how they’ve worked together in risky situations, I’d love to see a female character as ornery and temperamental as Bakugo. Instead, this continues to prop up the stereotype that women are naturally better at working together than men, and that they must be sweet and gregarious. In a universe where the majority of people have supernatural powers, there is no reason for a lack of physical strength among the female cast as well. Many of the male characters’ quirks are so powerful we never see them throw a punch, including Todoroki, one of Izuku’s chief rivals. Even if you buy into the idea that women simply lack the physical strength of men, it would be simple for a girl to have a power that strong in combat.
These criticisms are not meant as an indictment of Horikoshi or My Hero Academia; everyone has biases they subconsciously insert into their work. “Bakugo vs. Uraraka” demonstrates a level of awareness that most battle shonen lack in addition to an effort to improve how girls are portrayed in these kinds of stories. Coexisting with the issues discussed above doesn’t make Horikoshi a hypocrite, nor should it necessarily reduce anyone’s enjoyment and excitement all the show’s myriad strengths.
My Hero Academia is a delightful series, and it has merited much of the praise it has received. However, that does not mean it’s immune to criticism or doesn’t have its own unconscious biases encoded in it. Weekly Shonen Jump’s readership is almost at parity; while it may be aimed primarily at boys, its writers and editors should still be aware of the female readers and takes steps toward inclusiveness. My Hero Academia is so close, but we should not simply ignore or excuse its shortcomings.
17 thoughts on “Confronting Biases in My Hero Academia”
THANK YOU! I love this anime a great deal, which is unusual for me as I often HATE Jump titles due to how much dismissive and gross their treatment of the female cast tends to be. But My Hero has done a pretty bang up job thus far. That said, as always, there’s room for improvement. And even IF girls weren’t part of the fanbase, it should still be improved! It’d be better writing to improve it, after all ^^
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Yep. I’m enjoying the heck out of MHA but the imbalance between the male and female characters definitely bugs me. Momo is one of the 2/3 students who got in on a recommendation, like Todoroki. Yet judging by her performance in season 2 that I’ve seen so far, she may as well have been in the supporting course. They sicced the stupid pervert on her and then had Fumikaga beat her without breaking a sweat. It made me confused really, since it was acknowledged that the academy’s entrance process favoured physical over mental abilities.
The show does still have a lot to offer and I adore the animation in the closing ED. May one day we get a shonen title that puts characters like them in spotlight.
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Momo’s Quirk isn’t about physicality, it’s about use of her mind, so you’ve arguably missed the point as to what makes her a strong potential Hero compared to Todoroki who shoots fire and ice from his hands.
There’s a limit with her not only with being unable to create organic material, but also that it’s based on her knowledge of it. She can’t just make a gun, it’s too complicated to just generate in a pinch. We do see her improve later, don’t worry and it’s even in the anime, so you don’t have to read the manga version when this season inevitably ends.
Tokoyami beating her wasn’t meant to disparage her as a woman or even stereotype her as weak because of that,since Tokoyami’s Quirk is based on having significant advantage as far as we’re aware with range and power, but we do know there are limits even to it that Bakugou exploits when he beats the Dark Shadow user. Momo getting in on recommendation could’ve just as easily been because of her excellent grades rather than having an especially impressive demonstration of her Quirk (which isn’t to say she can’t use it well, because she definitely can and arguably gets better)
Personally even if only 1/3 are women I don’t mind as long as they are good characters.
Mt Lady – I love her – is Mrs Fanservice and she’s great at it. But the problem comes when too much women become that and only serve this purpose.
Only two teachers are women. One is from a SM club, literally. The other one is an old lady give healing kiss. That’s could even sound like a joke, right?
And the heroin who gave Momo a recommendation chose her because… she was a cute girl? Yes. That’s the reason. (E15S2) And what this heroin’s teaching her? Communication. By that, she means also taking sexy photos.
That’s pretty sad…
Personnaly I like fanservice. But after you must use those characters after that. The best example for me is Soul Eater. We have sexy times, sexy characters but they weren’t here only for Fanservice (except maybe Blair).
Erza the most powerful character in Fairy Tail? What are you drinking? One could easily make a case for her not being in the top 5 of her own guild, let alone the whole series.
As far as BNHA is concerned, I think that it is one of the series that have dealt with their female cast in the best/most realistic way possible. Kudos to them for that.
The argument that stands out to me most is, in that world, of the 80% with quirks anyone, regardless of sex, should be able to have an explosive power like bakugo’s or todoroki’s. It would be more realistic (in that world) to see at least one top female hero (or villain) have an explosive power. So… why don’t we? Even in our real world there are impressive women athletes with explosive power. The mangaka created the MHA world, so I do have to chalk it up to bias.
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I mean, we have Ryukyu, who’s #10 and can turn into a dragon, not to mention Mirko, a Bunny Hero that seems to have some serious physical power. And even Nejire, not yet a Pro Hero, has a Quirk that utilizes energy waves, so I’d say there’s a lot of potential from what we’ve seen in the manga for her to be pretty powerful.
It’s true that many are set up like the femme fatale or otherwise more subtle in their usage (Midnight for an obvious example and even Lovelover with her Quirk that’s pretty much entirely based on her emotional investment in someone), but it’s not like there aren’t some males that have a similar limitation, like Eraserhead or Shinsou.
I neglected to mention that I’m only newly familiar with the anime (currently in season 2). I look forward to these characters you list. Still, there’s something nice about seeing the main, explosive male powers mutually grow with and learn from each other from the beginning (I’m thinking Todoroki, Midoriya, Iida, Bakugo). So far where I am in the anime, none of the main female characters that we’re supposed to love and watch grow interact with the male characters (or even each other) this way. I really want to emphasize this lack of mutual growth: Uraraka in her fight with Bakugo had a good learning experience and set the goal of achieving more practical combat skills; Bakugo did not, to the same extent, learn anything from her. Yet Bakugo, Midoriya et al are constantly learning from each other and setting goals based on equalling each other.
I’m not familiar with all the works in this genre, but Sakura of Naruto fame is an “almost there” example. We saw her grow and interact with Naruto and Sasuke from the beginning (which is great!!) and she did become very powerful (though, of course, some of her strengths played into the typical female healer trope). But the extent of her growth and learning, I would argue, was not mutually reflected in the way Naruto and Sasuke interacted with her. She was always chasing the other two in terms of setting goals and becoming better. Apart from sporadic episodes/chapters where Naruto would acknowledge Sakura’s growth, or his awe of her strength would be played for laughs, the two male characters did not think of her as someone to base their goals on. I was always waiting for them to think of her as seriously/deeply/prolong-edly as she thought of them, or they of each other, but that never came.
It’s very true that there are main male characters with limited powers. Considering how male characters make up the majority though, it seems to me that their number as a percentage of all main males is still less than limited main female characters as a percentage of all main females. Overall, I can appreciate when an explosively strong female character appears at any point in a work. Yet I can’t help but find their appearances an after-thought, and even slightly pandering, when it takes many chapters or many episodes for them to show up. Why not see them from the start, mutually growing with their peers, as we see their male counterparts do?
I’m glad it was acknowledged that some of what we could perceive as biases can very well just be subconscious at play, and I think that’s the case here, especially with things like the male-female proportions in Class-A. In different cultures, it’s easy to assume things were done intentionally with how shocking they can come off as, and even though I think it’s important to recognize these things, it also helps to give scrutiny to the fact that some of the things you notice aren’t always to push some idea. I don’t know how I found this site or this piece, but I’m really glad I did. You’re very good at analyzing and very clear, too. And you gave me a new reason to love the whole Ochaco versus Bakugo fight.
In regards to how the adult heroines all ply their looks or sexuality in their careers, I actually repercieve that as fairly double edged. Is it lame the girls seem too lack adult heroine role models that aren’t sexualized? Yes, yes it does… That’s sort of the point.
A major component of MHA is that the world adapted to superheros by making them celebrities supported by corporate sponsorship. This is why so many are preening egomaniacs that you have individuals like Stain foaming at the mouth with anger about how much of a problem there is with “fake” heroes… But BEYOND that, this isn’t just detrimental to the public, but aspiring heroes… They don’t just need to prove their capability and determination, they need to establish marketability as a brand. Consider the tournament arc… The kids push themselves to injury and openly weep at defeat in the finals, when there is literally NOTHING at stake outside the fact it’s a known reality sponsors watch the games… With semi-quantifiable feedback coming in just a few episodes later in the form of internship authors. You have characters like the mind control kid who by direct discussion would be a better hero than most but isn’t marketable… He might never get a job because his fights DON’T involve collaterally damaging fisticuffs. Momo gets an internship based on her looks rather than her skills. The kids choose their names in class with teacher input, and they get costumes BASED off designs they submit but ultimately finalized created without their oversite… Basically there’s a reality that’s very present (but I wish they’d openly discuss more) in the setting that branding and popularity is so important that even skill and a premiere degree often aren’t enough, and part of why UA is premiere is it grooms kids to “play to the system” as it were… After all, any higher education institution wants to have an impressive record of alumni success… But this involves conditioning for things less rooted in heroism than marketing.
The jokes about how pandering Mt. Lady is or how much of Uwabami’s schedule is preening for cameras aren’t just jokes, they’re a lens to a very dark reality about the setting… Girl heroes just don’t GET “successful” other than the ones willing to be glamorous or even borderline smutty. Scarlet Johanson is on record for a lot of interviews reguarding frustration with things producers/directors/etc just expect attractive actresses to be willing to do without complaint involving being sexualized in films… And while I don’t hold it against her, even though she’s famous FOR complaining/disliking it, her most prominent recurring role involves a bodysuit and a really offensive side plot in one of the more recent films, and she shows even more skin in some other roles… It seems like there’s nit much getting around it if you want top tier success as a woman in our world… I think the lack of non-sexualized adult heroines, heroes being MHAs celebrities, is primarily to highlight a reality that their world never escaped that same problem… Maybe Aizawa gets so angry about the crowd underestimating Uchaku because he’s just seen way too many female students qualified to be great heroes wash out of the industry, and is sick to death of it as one of the truly good intentioned major heroes. Midnight at least seems like a qualified and justly motivated heroine who is simply “into” being a bit fetishy to her great convenience, but I think the fact the only other two female famed heroes we see are a beauty queen sort who spends more time on product plugs than crime, and Mt Lady, who we the audience are actively lended 3rd person perspective explicitly to show us how she’s pretty awful isn’t a subconscious slight, but a very intentional display of how the system is warped and our young female protagonists might really have their work cut out for them…
Anyway, just wanted to point all that out… Not sure if it escaped the author or they just didn’t get into it, but I felt like it warranted mention. Agree with greater thesis… This theory could even go so far as to explain why only 1/3 of the students are female, but would really have liked to see (and SHOULD see realistically) more of those girl students and adult heroines be true powerhouses on par with Cementoss and Ectoplasm, if not at the top competing with All Might and Endeavor (though why NOT at that level, at the same time?) in terms of their abilities, if not their success…. The latter can be a commentary on a glass cieling… The former feels hard to interpret as anything but a somewhat disrespectful oversite.
As a final note though, can I say how much I love Hatsune Mei, especially in relation to this topic? I found an insightful comment on the recent Black Panther film to be one reviewer pointing out how it’s cool and all for little girls to be able to say “I wanna be Wonder Woman/Black Widow!”, but it’s also cool they can now say “I wanna be Shuri!” While Bond is the glamorous one, many guys would be really excited to be Q…. Because kicking ass is the main way to be bad ass in action films, it gets the most attention involving the fact we need more ladies in those roles… But breaking up the sausage party in the roles of characters that are badass without kicking ass being their primary trade is a trend worth pursuing too.
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Thank you for bringing up Hatsumei! Totally forgot about her, but do very much like her role.
This is a rather well made article you have created but that isn’t what i am going to be addressing. What i will be talking about is the “Female characters are lagging behind while the boys are getting stronger”. Now, keep in mind, This is true. The girls are kind of lagging behind in terms of strength but you have to understand. Most of the girl characters do not have battle oriented quirks while a lot of the boys do. Take Deku for example, He has One For All, and up to season 4 he has been propelled into a new league of power because of it, Though with Eri’s assistance. Now that was simpily one example but the boys are almost completely stronger than the girls in every class (Besides maybe Ibara but she is an outlier). This is not a real big problem for a few reason(s). The show, though a Battle Shounen, is mainly oriented towards showing the lives of the fledgling heroes rather than being just all fights. The girls (besides Ibara,Mirko,Midnight, etc) do not have offensive quirks for the most part and end up fulfilling a support role. The girls don’t NEED to be smacking down ultra dangerous city ending threats like Nomus to be useful. The way they use their quirks to fulfill a support role MORE than makes up for their lack in offensive power.
So yes, You may be right about the girls being weak compared to the boys for the most part but this is because of 3 factors:
1). They do not have super strong offensive quirks.
2) . They do not need to be ultra powerful to be a useful,important character.
And, a third factor that i didn’t even mention before
3). The Males SEEM to work harder in developing their offensive abilities.
Deku,Bakugou,Todoroki,Tokoyami and Kirishima didn’t get where they are now sitting on their asses. their main focus during their Hero Studies was developing super moves and becoming stronger in battle rather than other areas. There may have been a female student who was oriented towards training offensive power but to my knowledge the boys worked harder on becoming offensively better.
That’s… all exactly the problem. The female characters are relegated to support roles, and the author CHOSE to focus on the male characters and their efforts and their character arcs. They’re not real people making their own decisions; there is a human creator with his own biases that are being encoded into the story. Fiction isn’t created in a vacuum.
You should put a new piece to compliment this with one of the most badass fights from a heroine in MHA.
The recent chapters with Miruko destroying the high-end Nomu is awesome. I don’t see any other hero shrugging off tearing their own arm off!
I’ve fallen behind on MHA, but really, almost immediately after this arc the writing for the female characters grew worse and worse. They’ve been repeatedly sidelined at times when it made no sense, and Ochaco (not to mention poor Iida, who I also love) was pushed out of the main three in favor of Todoroki and Bakugo.
I know this is an older article, but it’s still kinda relevant today. Hori is still pretty wonky when it comes to female characters, especially Ochako. Reading all the praise for her character in this article feels so bittersweet now because the degradation of her character over time is probably the biggest fumble of the series for me.
She’s gone from the badass in the Bakugou match with her own goals and dreams to practically being defined by her feelings for Midoriya. Sure, there’s some lip service paid to other people in her life, but you’d be kidding yourself if you think Izuku doesn’t eat up the lion’s share of her development now.
It wouldn’t be so bad if she was as integral to Izuku’s arc as he is to hers, but she isn’t. She was at the beginning, with her redefining “Deku” as his hero name, but at this point, she’s as important to him as pretty much everyone else; she no longer stands out to him, aside from the occasional flustered blushing over her that… he’s actually done with other girls too, so not even that is unique to her anymore.
I still love this series, it’s been the bright spot for me amidst the shitshow this year has become. But good lord, watching one of my favorite characters plummet like this after initially showing so much potential… it just hurts.
It’s amazing how almost immediately after I wrote that, the story crashed and burned with its female characters. I was crushed when in the manga, Ochako, Tsuyu, and a female hero who can turn into a MOTHERFUCKING DRAGON were forced to stay outside and tend to the victims!
After that, I just… couldn’t anymore. I felt so betrayed. These girls deserve better.