A lot of shonen anime do not have well-written female characters. There are exceptions, of course: Bleach, for all its flaws, had several memorable and cool women who played an active role in their plots (when they weren't being kidnapped). Bulma in Dragon Ball is an instrumental character who contributes to the plot of every arc she's in.
But most of the time, when you look at the leading ladies in an anime, you find characters who function as just the love interest or the load the heroes have to save. They end up being a burden to the heroes making their arcs defined by their male counterparts. Sakura from Naruto is a great example of this.
But My Hero Academia has a great array of female characters, all of whom possess internal and external character drives that are not defined by their male co-stars. Chief among them is Ochaco Uraraka, who might very well be the strongest breaker of the shonen female-lead curse that characters like Sakura always seem to stumble into.
WHY ARE CHARACTERS LIKE SAKURA DISAPPOINTING?
Anime has a vast array of terrific female characters, even in anime geared primarily toward a male audience like shonen is. FullMetal Alchemist, Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion -- all of these amazing anime and more have amazing female characters. Why is it, then, that the shonen genre in particular struggles to present strongly-defined, well-written ones, then?
It would be dismissive to say shonen anime fails to present strong female characters because its written primarily for boys. The readership for Weekly Shonen Jump has a huge female demographic. The problem seems to be that the writers and artists either prioritize the actions of the male leads, depend on gender stereotypes when writing, or simply don't know what to do with their female characters.
Many female characters in shonen manga tend to have either a periphery impact on the plot or are a goal for the male hero to obtain. Characters like Rukia from Bleach or Erza from Fairy Tale are powerful, yes, but they usually are not the core focus of the conflict. They play an important role but usually they're still less important to the resolution of conflict when compared to the central, male protagonist.
THE LOVE INTEREST PROBLEM
This is assuming, of course, that the female lead isn't simply the love interest. Kaoru in Rurouni Kenshin is one of the strongest sword fighters in her city, but when compared to the absurd skill of Kenshin, Sanosuke, and all the antagonists to cross their paths, she's basically useless. This relegates her to the role of love interest, and, while she is a multi-faceted character who leads a dojo, her arc is so tied to Kenshin that, after awhile, she almost fades into the background of the story.
By interacting with the shonen hero, these female-leads lose something, especially if their characters are presented as competent from the beginning. While other characters grow, they shrink.
HOW URARAKA BUCKS THE TREND
The elements that make Uraraka defy this negative stereotype are immediately apparent. For one, Uraraka's arc is not defined by her relationship with any male character. Yes, Uraraka has a crush on Midoriya, but she's still able to drive her own story that's not led by his decisions.
Uraraka came to U.A. to be a hero in order to earn money. She wants money to help support and repay her family, but this act is entirely self-motivated. It informs every action she takes long before her first appearance. Because of this driving force, she meets Midoriya, Iida and the rest in Class 1-A. But, even after making her new friends, her goals don't change. She simply refines the way she wants to reach them.
The same can be said of most of her classmates -- male or female. Interactions with other students don't reduce the qualities of their characters, they only enrich them. When Uraraka is with Midoriya, nothing is taken away from her character. Things are only added.
URARAKA CAN HOLD HER OWN
Another huge problem with female leads in shonen anime is that they tend to fade into the background. As the central hero, usually male, grows stronger, their female counterparts can't keep up. This happens to Videl and Android 18 in Dragon Ball Z, Sakura in Naruto and Nami in One Piece, to name just a few.
But Uraraka constantly improves herself and grows in pace with the rest of the cast. Midoriya and Todoroki are stronger, but Uraraka figures out new ways to hold her own. Even at her weakest, she manages to compete with the more powerful characters in the series -- and almost win.
The best case of this is during the School Tournament arc. Uraraka makes her way to the semi-finals of the tournament, facing off against the far superior Bakugo. Bakugo, from the very beginning, is revealed to be one of the strongest students in Class 1-A. He ultimately ends up winning the tournament. However, he has a harder time defeating Uraraka in the semi-finals than Todoroki in the finals. This is because Uraraka cleverly utilizes her quirks in creative ways that play to her strengths. Granted, she loses, but she proves she is at least on-par with the strongest in the series -- and that's before she takes up martial arts and develops her quirks.
Ultimately, many people might not care much about this given that shonen anime is traditionally about male characters and for a traditionally male audience. To those people, consider the following.
In many respects, My Hero Academia serves as the next chapter in the shonen genre. Following the conclusion of two of the "Big Three" Shonen Jump titles -- Naruto, Bleach and One Piece -- the shonen genre has been in search of replacements to continue its legacy. Beyond just "of the moment" hits that come and go, truly great shonen series change the genre in some way.
My Hero Academia is definitely a contender for the title. It's widely read, and reinvigorates established tropes while never taking any radical departures from the beloved battle-manga formula. It tells an exciting story with characters audiences love.
But the manga and anime also go out of their way to create a diverse cast of characters who all play important roles in big or small ways. Many of My Hero Academia's female characters were originally going to be male (case in point, Tsuyu and Toru). But Kohei Horikoshi, the creator of My Hero Academia, changed their genders to deliberately diversify his cast.
His treatment of Uraraka is a hopeful sign that future titles looking to ape the series' success might take greater care in featuring similarly diverse characters who make equal contributions to the plot. She's the proof we need that shonen stories are maturing with the times.
KEEP READING: My Hero Academia: Who Is Midoriya in Love With?