By Barry Neenan
After my unusually vicious article last week, you may be wondering why I watch Boku no Hero Academia at all. But while Mineta is just… really awful, in every sense of the word, he is an outlier. Most characters are entertaining, and some are even commendable.
So to balance the books a little, let me praise the characterisation of BnHA’s actual hero, Deku. And also Steven from Steven Universe. Him too.
Izuku Midoriya is in many ways a typical anime protagonist. He’s a teenage boy who must Try His Hardest. Circumstances throw him into a very important role which places a lot of responsibility on his young shoulders. His hero name, Deku, means ‘useless’ – he’s reclaiming it after being bullied with it for many years. He’s an underdog in a strange and dangerous world, but more than capable of forming friendships and alliances that help even the odds. He’s got a big heart and, of course, weird hair.
But what makes him more effective is that they actually demonstrate that quality. The big heart, I mean. His hair is below average in weirdness.
Anime is well-known to be heavy on melodrama. Characters scream at each other on a daily if not hourly basis, treating every obstacle as a life or death problem – which, to be fair, it usually is. They celebrate by dancing around and argue by flailing their arms and grieve by falling to their knees and shrieking into the rainy sky. But for all this overblown emotion, there’s one display that’s frequently absent in protagonists. One that Deku demonstrates almost comically often.
Deku cries. Deku cries so much. My god.
When Brooklyn 99’s Rosa Diaz came out as bisexual, the show seemed to go out of its way to say the word ‘bisexual’ as much as possible. In isolation, the rhythm was a little odd. But in a context where TV shows are weirdly averse to saying ‘bisexual’ aloud – even shows known for a LGBT+ focus, like Orange is the New Black – it felt vaguely like B99 was doing its damnedest to bring the average up by itself. I put Deku in the same bracket.
‘the average anime boy cries twice’ factoid actualy just statistical error. average anime boy cries never. Tears Dek, who is constantly overwhelmed by negative and positive feelings alike, is an outlier adn should not have been counted
The thing about crying is that it’s not just a response to sadness or grief. It’s a universal mechanism for venting large amounts of any emotion. We’re all familiar with the concept of ‘tears of joy’, but there are also tears of anger, of love, of and indeed for fears. It’s a natural process, one the body kind of expects to go through at least sometimes. If, like me, you haven’t cried since February of 2012, when watching through Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time and sweet Jesus the Iroh portion of ‘Tales of Ba Sing Se’ even just thinking about it gets me, you’re being very unhealthy and should stop. So I hear.
Unfortunately, on this patriarchal bitch of an earth, too many of us have conflated crying with an inability to handle our problems. A man should be able to solve any problem he encounters; crying is only acceptable when a problem cannot be solved; ergo, it is very rarely acceptable for a man to cry. This is incredibly dangerous, as it reinforces the unattainable goals of toxic masculinity. It negatively impacts men everywhere.
(I don’t buy into it, I’m just keeping my streak going. I’m a different kind of crazy.)
It’s very difficult to change attitudes like this, since they’re enshrined by culture. It’s omnipresent and powerful, but invisible, so it’s difficult to point to it. It’s hard to notice the problem, let alone solve it. But that’s where stories come in.
Narratives shape and inform culture. In discussions of what ‘masculinity’ actually is, sociologists frequently point to the stories we tell. People, or more accurately the mythical figures we turn them into, inform our ideas. Raewyn Connell’s seminal work Masculinities (1993) points to the deification of actors like John Wayne and Clark Gable. These are Men, capital M, the blueprint for us lesser schlubs to follow. They are strong and handsome and smart, but not too smart. And they don’t cry.
But while stories reinforce these problems, they also have the power to counteract and even fix them. And stories aimed at children and young adults are especially important. In the words of Derek Landy, young adult fiction gives the author the opportunity to “get them when they’re young”, warning young people of dangerous or unhealthy beliefs early on. The longer you live with them, the harder they are to change. It’s like learning a language, except instead of verbs and conjugation, it’s not dying of depression aged 32.
When Deku reacts to overwhelming sadness or joy or fear with tears, the show presents this as a valid response. It doesn’t mock him for it.
…I didn’t say there weren’t jokes. I said he isn’t mocked. I’d argue there’s a subtle difference. There’s no escaping that Deku’s emotionality is a definite quirk (heh), but it’s not one he needs to tame or remove. It’s part of who he is. And that’s great.
There’s an implicit message here that 15 year old boys are ‘allowed’ to cry. Hopefully, this will be absorbed by the 15 year old boys watching at home. While my generation happily watched the characters of Dragon Ball Z blow each others’ organs out at age five, anime is… generally supposed to be consumed by somewhat older children, aged 14 to 40. This is still an important time for forming beliefs, but it’s also necessary to have these discussions in more traditional cartoon formats. Which brings me to Exhibit B, where the B stands for Boy: Steven Quartz Universe.
Steven Universe is a show from Rebecca Sugar, the woman behind the best, most emotional, and gayest moments of Adventure Time. Nominally the adventures of a nice young man and his alien aunts, the show is doing its utmost to champion progressive values and milestones in mainstream children’s entertainment.
‘the average cartoon network show contains two ethnically diverse lesbians’ factoid actualy just statistical error. average cartoon network show contains zero ethnically diverse lesbians. Lesbians Steve, who befriends an entire species of ethnically diverse lesbians, is an outlier adn should not have been counted
Part of me feels that Steven was a practical necessity; it’s easy to imagine that Sugar devised this wonderfully sapphic product but made an inoffensive white boy the protagonist in order to sneak it through Cartoon Network’s mediocrity filters. But Steven is no mere Trojan horse. As someone with a general aversion to protagonists, I think Steven serves the show and its messages wonderfully. Because as much as SU may be enjoyed/discussed/hatefully ripped apart by strange adults online, it is ultimately a product for children. And it tells those children that boys can cry.
Steven inherits much from his mother, Rose. This includes her superpowers, most of which are traditionally feminine; floating, healing, pink shields emblazoned with roses. The show never squeezes humour from this, nor does it mock Steven for being ‘soft’. While there’s the occasional gentle joke about, say, Steven’s lament for snakes, these are also never meanspirited. On the contrary, his empathy and emotion are explicitly his finest qualities. Steven isn’t some supersoldier who happens to be emotionally healthy. His emotional health is what makes him super.
By way of a quick counterexample; recently I’ve been watching FullMetal Alchemist, specifically Brotherhood. It’s good and I like it. Among many other iconic moments I now recognize in context, Colonel Mustang processes grief by shedding a single tear and blaming it on rain. Don’t think I mean to call this moment Bad; beyond being emotive and powerful, it’s also accurate, showing how a man like Mustang would cry. If you’re in the market for open weeping, the indefatigable Major Armstrong wears all his emotions on his sleeves, because a non-toxic conceptualisation of masculinity has been PASSED DOWN THE ARMSTRONG LINE FOR GENERATIONS! However, the idea of such a man’s man crying tends to be presented as at least a little funny.
Note the sparkles.
As woke as FullMetal Alchemist is for an mutilation-based anime – in fact you could say it is the woke mutilation-based anime, if like me you love absurd sentences – its depiction of male tears veers between comedic and realistically reserved. And it’s easy to imagine it’s far ahead of the curve on this, compared to manful fare like DragonBall Z. This isn’t much of A Thing, in anime, in animation, or in media in general.
This may seem small. But the fact Deku and Steven cry so often, and the fact it’s rarely treated as a joke, strikes me as potentially having an important impact on young viewers. Mental health is not a numbers game. There are no hard rules for instilling sound cultural values around how we express emotion. But I like to imagine characters like this do make a difference, however small. Take a break from saving the world to give yourself time to cry. You might need it.
As for me, I’m still waiting for whatever’s gonna break my ridiculous streak. Doesn’t help I tend to laugh at characters’ emotional pain, but, uh… we’re all built different?