Saturday, February 15, 2014

Crona (Soul Eater) and Dealing with Gender in Fiction

"...I don't know how to deal with this!!"

From the supernatural adventure Soul Eater (2008), this is Crona's compulsive catchphrase.

Well, when it comes to gender, I guess one way to deal with it is... don't.

Amidst all of anime's androgynes, here's one of very few who can be called truly, thoroughly ambiguous. Not only in looks, or in attitude, Crona really is effectively genderless: never revealed as either male or female.

(Even so, the pronoun problem strikes again. The official English dub chooses to use he as a gender-neutral pronoun, so for the sake of convenience I'll do the same.)

In the world of Soul Eater, people called "weapon meisters" partner up with anthropomorphic "weapons" in order to collect souls.  If a team of them can collect a total of 100 souls (from 99 evil humans and 1 witch), the weapon can achieve the ultimate prestige of becoming a Death Scythe for the Grim Reaper himself.

Crona is initially introduced as an antagonist, a meister who harvests non-evil souls with a demonic weapon that lives inside of him.  He acts under the orders of his literal witch of a mother, Medusa, who has raised him since birth to be a ruthless killer and a tool for her sinister plans.

With black blood flowing through his body that denigrates his sanity, Crona's personality is extremely reclusive, edgy, and pessimistic.  But though he was brought up to be a monster, he guards a sensitive heart.  In time, he slowly opens up to the show's hero, Maka, the first one to sincerely reach out and try to understand him.  Struggling against conflicting loyalties, a person who has been manipulated his whole life must now learn how to trust.

…Did you get all that?  Have you internalized that fantastic backstory?

That fantastic backstory that has nothing to do with the theme of this blog at all?

As a meister and a weapon and weapon in one (especially considering that most such partnerships featured in the series happen to be male/female pairs) it makes symbolic sense for him to be presented with another aesthetic duality.  Even so, his actual gender identity is more or less irrelevant, so I feel almost guilty for wanting to talk about Crona in the context of gender.  There are a few – so few – offhand comments made by other characters about the ambiguity, but he is never reduced to that gag.  He isn't in the show to be "that one with the gender issues."  On the contrary, Crona is important for a much deeper role.  This character is simply not about his gender whatsoever.

And that... is amazing.

Would you have even thought it possible to write a well-rounded character whose gender is entirely unaddressed?

Story aside, then, we can turn to the contextual implications.  Dealing with gender in character design is often very demographically purposeful.  After all, anime and manga are very consciously gendered in their subgenres, with many series explicitly classified as either shojo ("for girls") or shonen ("for boys").  The lead of nearly every shojo romance is female, so female readers can emotionally invest in her perspective.  The center of nearly every shonen harem is male, so male readers can self-insert themselves into his lucky shoes.  Even in boys'-love manga, aimed clearly at women while starring male homosexual leads, at least one member of the couple tends to be – guess what? – androgynous, appearing more stereotypically feminine than the average man, in a way that supposedly allows females to better relate.

But when androgynous design is geared toward truly inconspicuous ambiguity, rather than geared toward making a boy look like a girl, then what is that genderless character's role?  Maybe such a character is meant to relate to anyone?

One could just as easily argue that they're meant to relate to no one.  This indeed is one possibility: one invoked, for instance, in old videogames where your generic enemies are hordes of faceless, vaguely-defined creatures, easily dehumanized.  A gender gives a character a social status, a more relatably human life.  When enemies are humanized, and especially when they're gendered, suddenly the drama of the situation intensifies; otherwise, you're just dealing with unfamiliar creatures that stir no sympathy.

Still… just… look at Crona.  Crona is a completely different case.  If the ambiguity served to deliver an aptly detached first impression of a strange and psychotic enemy, that characterization is soon subverted.  He is a precious, complex, and incredibly sympathetic individual.  If you would watch through the series and think for a second to dehumanize him, you must be as heartless as Medusa.  Anyone else watching will have a character that they can genuinely feel for.  They can connect with his anxiety, his misanthropy, his troubled upbringing, his friendship-guided triumph over adversity.  Not everyone will necessarily find themselves having anything in common with him, but they can.  And it will be on a level even more purely human than gender.

To be able to relate to a character certainly shouldn't have to rely on gender (or lack thereof), but even in a media culture that is growing slowly more progressive it remains something of an unwritten rule.  In terms of less gender-restricted marketing, there are increasingly more exceptions, but still relatively rare.

The original Soul Eater manga ran serially in a shonen magazine.  So on top of the fascinating deal with Crona, this makes it one of those rare shonen series to star a (non-sexualized) female, Maka Albarn, as the primary protagonist.

Considering how insanely popular the series became among both male and female audiences, I'd say dealing with gender in this way works pretty well.

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