On Twitter you lovely folks told me you wanted to see more pop culture analysis, so here we are! Today I am deconstructing the very unfortunate character progression of Asuna Yuuki from Sword Art Online. If you are unfamiliar with Sword Art Online and would like a quick summary of the show’s premise, you can find that here!
I absolutely love Sword Art Online. The premise is unique and interesting, the romance is adorable, and it really speaks to the part of me that’s get emotional when people work together to fight against a malevolent power- which is basically all of me. But, really, when I say I love Sword Art Online, I really mean I love the first half of Sword Art Online, when Kirito and Asuna are kicking ass together trying to escape Aincrad. You know, before they completely ruined Asuna’s character by removing all of her agency…that part.
Let’s talk about cop-out characters, shall we? A cop-out character is a (female) character that is fairly progressive at the beginning of a story, but suddenly becomes a regressive, stereotypical character near the end. In many ways, cop-out characters upset me even more than characters that are obviously problematic from the beginning, because I feel so betrayed when the switch happens. It is upsetting to see stereotypical, poorly written female characters, but it is much more upsetting to have a character I have come to love and celebrate be so disrespected and ruined by their creators; it just leaves a particularly bitter taste in my mouth.
Asuna the Warrior
So what does this all have to do with Asuna and Sword Art Online? Well, from the very first episode Kirito is set up to be a textbook example of the male savior trope. He is completely convinced that he and he alone can save the thousands of people trapped in SAO by beating the game; it is his responsibility, his burden to bear. Of course, anyone who plays MMORPGs knows that it is pretty much impossible to solo an entire campaign; the games simply are not built that way, and as Kirito starts to realize that he cannot actually beat the game on his own, the show starts to move away from this male savior plot line. It never rejects the trope entirely, mind you- Kirito continues to show up just in time to save the girl- but he does eventually, albeit begrudgingly, join The Knights of Blood (the main guild fighting on the front lines) rather than staying the broody lone wolf he starts out as.
Sword Art Online moves away from the male savior trope even further as Kirito’s relationship with Asuna develops. Asuna is a certified badass; she’s arguably one of the strongest fighters in both the guild and the game in general, and as she and Kirito spend more time together, it becomes very clear that she and Kirito are a team. When Kirito is poisoned by a member of the dark guild Laughing Coffin, for example, he only survives because Asuna arrives in time to save him. In boss fights they compliment each other naturally, hardly even needing to speak. And without fail, she protects him just as much as he protects her.
None of this stops Kirito from trying to act like the typical male savior, of course- prior to one particularly dangerous boss fight he actually asks Asuna to stay behind where she’ll be safe- but the point stands that Asuna acts as a largely successful counterbalance. She refuses to let him fight without her. She recognizes that he cannot do everything by himself, even if he’s too busy admiring his own stats and HP counter to realize it for himself.
Asuna the Damsel
But then…the story moves to Alfheim. I hope you’re all strapped in because the flip in Asuna’s characterization from here on out comes with a high risk of whiplash. In the span of a single episode she goes from fighting by Kirito’s side to another princess (literally) locked away in a tower, waiting for her prince to come and save her.
After they succeed in defeating the creator of Sword Art Online (both sacrificing themselves in the process), Kirito escapes Aincrad and wakes up in the real world, along with almost all of the other trapped players. Asuna, however, is pulled into a different game by Sugo (username Oberon), the man her family expects her to marry, who is creepily obsessed with her to say the least. The rest of the season is centered around Kirito’s attempts to rescue her. Despite all she proved capable of in their three-ish years trapped in Aincrad, once she is trapped in Alfheim she loses almost all claims to personal agency, and must resort to waiting in her cage for Kirito. In the rare instances that the show offers her perspective, her thoughts and words all focus on her trusting that Kirito will come to her rescue, with only a select few notable exceptions.
The gendered aspect of Asuna’s imporisonment is heavily emphasized, further reducing her to a two-dimensional stereotypical female character. Nearly every interaction she has with her captor(s) includes some form of sexual harassment or sexual assault- Oberon is particularly fond of licking her face. Additionally, the one time she briefly escapes her cage (which I give her complete credit for), one of the monstrous slug like creatures who finds her attempts to rape her before his companion notes that Oberon wants her returned to her cage. Throughout this second half of the season Asuna becomes a sexual plaything. She is not a character, but a female body. There is no way to more completely strip a female character of agency than to take away her claims to her own body, which is exactly what Asuna is forced to endure.
Essentially, Asuna goes from being an active participant in the plot to an object Kirito and Oberon are fighting for ownership of, the prize to be won. More than once Sugo taunts Kazuto (Kirito) in Asuna’s hospital room in the real world by implying that, regardless of Kazuto’s relationship with her in Aincrad, Asuna belongs to him now.
This culminates in the final confrontation between Oberon and Kirito in Alfheim. In this scene Asuna is in the background, scantily dressed, hanging from the ceiling by her wrists. An uncomfortable and disturbing amount of time is spent showing Oberon sexually assaulting Asuna while Kirito watches on, growing more and more enraged. It is clear that we as viewers are meant to focus on Kirito’s growing anger while this takes place, rather than on Asuna’s being assaulted; Asuna is violated not to develop her own story, but to further Kirito’s, to build up the anger and tension that explodes during the final fight. In this scene she is not a character in her own right; she is the catalyst through which Kirito is given the strength to win and the trophy waiting to be given to the victor.
This final scene had a brilliant opportunity to redeem Asuna and avoid her being labeled a cop-out character. At one point Kirito is incapacitated and she is no longer chained up. If she had taken up the fight against Oberon, reclaiming her agency, proving once again that she and Kirito are a team and that she is more than just a damsel in distress, this entire story arch could have been (mostly) redeemed, at least in my opinion. Instead, however, the fight ends with Kirito finally unleashing all of the rage he built up while watching Oberon assault Asuna, thereby saving the day and reclaiming his girl.
Sword Art Online starts as a show about a couple working together to save themselves and their friends, but becomes another show about a guy saving his poor helpless girlfriend from the pervert who wants to violate her, and in the process Asuna goes from being Kirito’s equal and partner to just another damsel in distress. Even later on, in season two, the show fails to redeem her character, as (in the rare episode she appears in) she almost always leans towards using support magic- filling the stereotype of yet another female healer- rather than actually fighting. Could an argument be made that she chose this switch in response to her countless traumatic experiences? Absolutely, but that only redeems her character if the show actually fleshes that part of her character out. In later episodes Kirito has multiple flashbacks to traumas he endured inside Sword Art Online, but Asuna is given no such complexity.
Cop-out characters, including Asuna, are in many ways even more frustrating than characters who are just problematic from the beginning, because they offer the allure of progress. Throughout the first half of the show Asuna stands as a proud and brilliant example of a complex woman who can hold her own in battle, but who also experiences terrible fear and powerful love. She is a warrior, a chef, a lover, and a friend, and even more importantly it is never suggested that any of these traits contradict each other. By the end, however, she is more of an object than a character, and is reduced to waiting helplessly for Kirito to rescue her while being repeatedly sexually assault by Oberon. When taken in its entirety, the message being communicated through Asuna’s story is that, sure, a woman can be a strong, intelligent, skilled fighter, but at the end of the day she still needs a man to save her. This is really at the heart of why cop-out characters are so dangerous. It is easy enough to dismiss female characters that are weak and helpless from the beginning as being unrealistic or overly simplified- this is not to say they are not problematic, but still. Cop-out characters like Asuna, however, suggest that no matter what a woman accomplishes, no matter how strong, or intelligent, or capable she proves herself to be, she can never overcome the shortcoming that is being born female. As a result, we need to be very careful about what characters we label as progressive. You will often hear me say that I am refraining from judgement until a story is finished; characters like Asuna are a big reason why.
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