Cop-Out Characters: The Fall of Sword Art Online’s Asuna Yuuki

Cop-Out Characters The Fall of Sword Art Online's Asuna Yuuki

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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XOXO

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  • I agree. I hate the second season of SAO

    • Katie Conigliaro

      I was so hoping it would get better, and it so didn’t. I would recommend watching one of the mini-series archs they’ve released that focuses on her; it gets much closer to her original characterization.

  • Mia Moore

    Oh man, you perfectly summed up my feelings about Asuna! The whole first half is just significantly better than the rest, but this is one of my biggest issues with the series. I maybe could have dealt with damsel-in-distress Asuna if that’s who she was from the get-go, but changing her character completely was a mis-step. Great post!

    I’d also never heard of “cop out characters” — what a great term to add to my vocabulary when discussing these things! 🙂

    • Katie Conigliaro

      I was so, SO into this show and then it disappointed me so hard. Like…it was a tangible disappointment. The kind that you run over in your head for weeks and get really angry about randomly throughout the day.

      I was pretty happy to stumble upon that term! I actually discovered the term the same summer I watched this show, which is probably why Asuna really stands out as an example for me.

  • gamerwife

    Excellent article! I haven’t watched Sword Art Online myself, but I am also totally annoyed by the trope you are describing. I think I’ve also heard it referred to as “The Trinity Effect”.

    • Katie Conigliaro

      Thanks so much! The sad thing is that the show is really genuinely cool and worth watching…until it isn’t anymore. It was so, so upsetting for me. I really loved it.

      I’ve never heard that term before, but I’m definitely going to look into it! Thank you for sharing!

  • This was a great article! They really fucked up with Asuna’s character, for serious! 🙁

    • Katie Conigliaro

      Thank you! And yes, yes they did. The sad thing is they do the exact same thing with another female character in the Gun Gale season. It was mildly improved, but not much. The writer has a weird fixation on having Kirito save an otherwise super capable female character from being raped; there has got to be a psychological complex at work there.

  • Ah yes….heartbreaking. I haven’t had a chance to watch the season after Alfheim, but that season with her locked in a cage irks me.

    • Katie Conigliaro

      I’m so sorry I’m just responding. I swear I responded before; maybe Disqus at my comment.

      The season after Alfheim is pretty good, really. I mean Asuna is not really in it at all. And to be honest they replayed the exact same trope all over again. I’m honestly starting to wonder if the writer had a loved one get sexually assaulted and he’s living out his fantasy of saving her through Kirito because the repetition is getting ridiculous. The Gun Gale (I think that’s what the game is called?) season handles it a bit better though in that the girl is not nearly as passive or helpless as Asuna is portrayed as (though it is still a bit irritating)

      Following that season there are a number of short story arcs and one actually focuses heavily on Asuna and it is super good.

      • Logan Hollis

        The second half of Sao 2 is all Asian though. She is the main character of that arc.

  • Samantha

    Great analysis! This is the very reason why I decided not to watch this show. I have no interest at all. At first I thought it was going to turn fanservicy, but it looks like the creators/writers of the show totally undeveloped her character and her character arc. Just really left her as a body and no personality.

    • Katie Conigliaro

      I so thought I responded to all of these aahh sorry!

      It was super disappointing, especially since the premise of the show itself is SO cool and interesting and she starts out so, so freaking well.

  • Kayla Cox

    Such a great post. I haven’t actually watched the show but I’ve done two cosplay photoshoots for a friend. She posed as Asuna and loves her. So sad to hear she’s a cop out character though. 🙁

    • Katie Conigliaro

      Thank you! Honestly I’d still recommend watching it, even if just for the first half when they’re in Aincrad. That arc is super cool. I wish they would have kept it going longer instead of switching over.

      • Kayla Cox

        I’ll definitely look into it when I eventually have time. Thanks!

  • It is sad to see how they changed the character of Asuna so much. I couldn’t stand the show once they left the first game. I was though the relationship between Kirito and his cousin was just strange and then they ruined Asuna. I pretty much stopped watching as soon as Kirito went to the new game to find her.

    • Katie Conigliaro

      Alfheim was….strange. I definitely liked everything about the Aincrad arc much, much better.

  • Katie Conigliaro

    I swear Disqus ate my comments! So sorry I’m just responding!

    Thanks so much for your comment though! I would still recommend giving it a watch, even if just the Aincrad arc. The first half is genuinely really phenomenal if you can get past Kirito’s male savior complex lol.

    I’ve been gone for ages but I definitely have more pop culture analysis planned now that I finally have time to blog again! Thanks for the motivation!(:

  • LordTerminal

    “she almost always leans towards using support magic- filling the stereotype of yet another female healer- rather than actually fighting”

    You clearly dropped Season 2 half way through or you’d know this is a fucking lie. Yet another SAO critic who has their info wrong. What a surprise.

    • Katie Conigliaro

      Actually, it really isn’t.

      The fact that you took the time to copy and paste that line suggests to me that you did in fact notice the word “almost” in it. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you understand the meaning of that word.

      I’m not sure whether you are talking about the maybe 2 fights Asuna pulls her rapier out in near the end of the gun gale season, or the mini-story about her with the other guild (which btw I do readily acknowledge is a HUGE improvement in my comments to other people), but either way 4-5 episodes is not nearly enough to counter the immense disrespect she is shown for at least a season and a half of that show. You cannot point to one or two examples of her actually fighting again and honestly expect it to outweigh the way she is portrayed throughout the majority of the show. It simply does not work that way.

      Judging by the fact that you seem to seek out SAO critics to shout and swear at them, I feel pretty safe in assuming you’re a big fan of the show. So am I. And I respect your passion for it. You’ll notice that I continued to encourage people to watch it in the comments, despite its flaws, because it is such a fantastic concept. But we have to be willing to think critically and acknowledge that even our favorite stories have flaws that could have been improved upon. Blind loyalty and a refusal to recognize faults in our favorite things is dangerous and irresponsible. And personally, I find it very disturbing that you are more angry with me for pointing out a flaw in SAO than you are about the fact that Asuna was repeatedly sexually assaulted on screen, turned into a trophy for Kirito to win back, and stripped of nearly all of her agency just so Kirito could be the hero. Especially considering the sexual assault trope gets repeated AGAIN in the gun gale season. I love SAO, but I think it’s pretty obvious that the writer clearly has some issues to work out.

      I get how easy it is to lash out when you feel like someone is bashing something you love. I’ve done it before too. It’s hard because it feels like they are bashing you too. But I’ve come to realize that the fans who love their favorite stories the most are the ones who are willing to recognize its flaws, because they want it to be the best it can be. They want to say look you created this really amazing thing, and here is how it could be even better. We have to be willing to think critically about the stories we immerse ourselves in, because they have very real impacts on how we interpret our world. That is a proven, scientific fact. So please continue to love stories with a passion. I know I sure as shit will. But also be willing to really think about the messages they are sending, and to acknowledge that ever our absolute favorites are not perfect.

  • IcyDarkness

    No i agree with her, she was known as one of the top people in the guild i like to see a strong woman able to fight with her own power at first that is what she was, and still now at the end yes, but for half way in season 1 she was nothing but a prize for the winner which pissed me off, and in season 2 didn’t do anything much in the first half.

    But yes at the end of the season we see the warroir the powerful Asuna back to who we love, I loved her Character, and seeing her become what she did all because of the writer annoys me, she didn’t need to be turned into that, the Character herself would never allow it the writer made that happen.

    I’m a guy irl, but I still wish to see a girl able to fight with us side by side, not just take a back seat and turned into a prize and close to being raped, the writer had many ways to go with this Character and this was not one of them, it was stupid to make her into what we seen in half way season 1 and first start of season 2.

    I wish to see Asuna from the first part of season 1 and the end part of season 2, that is the one I wish to see from now on.

  • ConnorRiley

    No i agree with her, she was known as one of the top people in the guild i like to see a strong woman able to fight with her own power at first that is what she was, and still now at the end yes, but for half way in season 1 she was nothing but a prize for the winner which pissed me off, and in season 2 didn’t do anything much in the first half.
    But yes at the end of the season we see the warroir the powerful Asuna back to who we love, I loved her Character, and seeing her become what she did all because of the writer annoys me, she didn’t need to be turned into that, the Character herself would never allow it the writer made that happen.

    I’m a guy irl, but I still wish to see a girl able to fight with us side by side, not just take a back seat and turned into a prize and close to being raped, the writer had many ways to go with this Character and this was not one of them, it was stupid to make her into what we seen in half way season 1 and first start of season 2.

    I wish to see Asuna from the first part of season 1 and the end part of season 2, that is the one I wish to see from now on.

    I love to hear what you have to say about this Katie Conigliaro, let me know if you agree with what I have put. I loved the anime I just was really annoy at that I hope she is never turned into that again seeing it once annoy me, and I was looking for a page like this.

  • Logan Hollis

    While I do agree that the characterization in Fairy Dance was somewhat detrimental, the arc wasn’t there to develop her. She is still the strong female character that she was in Aincrad, she simply is being held prisoner and is not able to escape. It’s not like she really had a choice in the matter either given that she never woke up. Also, Alfheim was meant to develop Suguha as a character and to highlight the actual relationship between Kirito and Asian and highlight the fact that neither of them can properly function without the other.