(note: this article is from an anime-only perspective, and is primarily aimed at anime-only viewers)
Medieval fantasies often have trouble with the agency they give to women in their worlds, from societies over-populated with passive princesses to ‘strong female characters’ that have little complexity beyond being, well, strong and female. These stories are always under the shadow of period of history that saw the height of a patriarchal social structure and the treatment of the ‘fairer sex’ as little more than property. Modern writers should feel encouraged to subvert tropes and cliches in order to find new room for characters other than knightly men to flourish. Yet, one show this season has stumbled when it comes to handling a large part of its cast.
Goblin Slayer, a light novel adaptation under the direction of Girls Last Tour’s Takaharu Ozaki and scriptwriters Yousuke Kuroda and Hideyuki Kurata, caused an uproar from its very first episode after an opening segment of typical fantasy fare (wrapped in the cowl of an erroneous PG-13 rating) led anime-only viewers unaware into a rape scene. The latest episode of Sword Art Online has sparked similar controversy, but in SAO’s case complaints have been leveled both at the inclusion of the scene and at the attempts at censorship that left the sexual assault feeling even more dramatic and extreme. Goblin Slayer’s scene was less detailed, but it turned many people off the show just as it had begun, as fears abounded that sexualized violence would be the show’s only way of marking itself as ‘hardcore’.
Unfortunately, that seems to be all too much the case. In the ten episodes that have aired so far, Goblin Slayer has drawn practically every conflict towards the subject of the violation of women. In addition to the goblins putting young girls in peril in order to reproduce, and capturing and torturing many of their victims, the Demon Lord’s sect in episode 6 also had to have a naked girl bound up in order to look evil enough. The ogre in episode 5 threatens to violate our heroine if she survives; the hobgoblin in episode 7 makes her piss herself before biting off part of her arm; the Slayer’s backstory is directly rooted in the goblins using his sister ‘as their plaything’, so every bit of his motivation in battle could be said to have the memory of rape behind it. While our hero focuses entirely on slaying goblins, something similar could be said for how all our villains concentrate their nastiness towards women rather than men.
Sexual violence is a central part of Goblin Slayer’s plot and thematic map. As a child, the Slayer was told by his master that ‘it all begins with whether or not you’re going to do something, so do something’: he has to be an active hero, in order to save what are figured as passive victims. He is the stereotypical chivalric knight who has to rescue the damsels in distress. As much as there are female warriors in the story, their agency is diminished by the sexualized power of the goblins, as the Sword Maiden exemplifies with her fear of them. She defeated the Demon Lord, she is terrified of goblins because they took her virginity, and so her incredible power is undercut. ‘Women are weak creatures’, she says to the Slayer, an ultra-masculine knight who embodies the antithesis of fear with his unfeeling, armour-clad, calculated slaughter of her greatest enemy.
Though the party that defeats the Demon Lord is shown to be entirely female, their great battle is subverted into an aside for the ‘real’, down-to-earth struggle against goblins that the Slayer has devoted himself to; the Demon Lord might threaten the world, but goblins wage war against the sanctity of life itself. As we see in episode 8, the ‘miracle of resurrection’ requires the virginity of a woman. The preservation of bodily health is grounded in a traditional value of feminine purity, and the goblins exist as a force to corrupt that value. There are no female goblins, so their reproduction necessitates the violation of human women.
The myth that envy turns you into a goblin also co-operates with their identity as little green rapists. Their existence is a corruption of a domestic order that the Goblin Slayer – haunted by his past failure of protecting his own domestic order – must protect at all costs; an order ultimately grounded in the value of sexual consent. But when every monster victimizes women in order to emphasize its evilness, the goblins lose their status as the prime corrupting force of natural life, and it makes less thematic sense for the Slayer to exclusively focus on them.
Having a particular monster species terrorize women in order to survive is one thing, but Goblin Slayer constructs very few other varieties of evildoing in its worldbuilding. The demoted scout in episode 5 still has to be shown to have the desire to murder an innocent lady, and the Slayer has to once again be a manly hero who prevents the suffering of women in the world; he’s even compared by Uketsuke-jou to other perverse men she’s met, reinforcing an idea that chivalric values are ultimately rooted in how one treats the ‘fairer sex’. We see this repeated in episode 8, as the shopkeeper leers at our heroine before being interrupted and intimidated by the Slayer, noticing his silver rank.
While embracing the DnD paradigm of ‘lawful’ vs ‘chaotic’, ‘good’ vs ‘evil’, the ‘good’ for men is rooted in their treatment of women much more than their homosocial ties with other men. We even see this in the side characters at the guild – most of the groups are paired boy and girl, man and woman. There’s little to talk about in terms of developed relationships between male characters, and we’re ten episodes into the show. It’s also disappointing that domestic bonds are figured as being fixed in the heteronormative, men acting unto women in order to prove their worth. It’s rare that women save other women, or men other men.
The paradigm is set in stone – the Slayer is the masculine strength that must protect the world, but the women around him must teach him to be more human, more feeling towards others. It’s a hegemonic approach – men must be strong but unfeeling, and women weak but caring. The Slayer could be read as a site of identification for men who feel skilled at their jobs while being unable to connect to the world they’re serving with those skills, but such a parallel doesn’t have to be established with women positioned as an inferior ‘Other’. Our heroine is always looking to the Slayer for the next move, and the female elf of the party isn’t even named, which emphasizes how little impact she has on the larger plot at all. While the dwarf and lizardman are also without names, they are always steadfast in battle: it’s the elf that’s regularly shown to be dealing with fear.
What disappoints me the most is that medieval narratives of chivalric ‘Romance’ weren’t restricted to this treatment of women back in the days when they were first formed: they did not even necessitate the forging of ‘romantic’ bonds between man and woman in the modern sense of the word. In Gawain and the Green Knight, what defines Gawain is mainly his engagements with other male knights, and this does not rely on a simply binary of ‘good’ knights treating women with respect and ‘bad’ knights being rude or harmful towards them. Even at a time when women were considered much more as property than today, chivalry was as much about your oaths to other men; your loyalty, your prowess at defending your honour and that of others. Like many other stories of its kind, Goblin Slayer falls into the trap of donning the medieval attire but losing sight of the complexities that made the original knights in shining armour so compelling.
Violence against female characters should remain an important part of what can code masculine villains as villainous, but we need to have more dimensions for evildoing in medieval fantasy worlds. The threatening of women is commonplace for any warring tribe, but their victimization in Goblin Slayer has overstayed its welcome, and this problem is exacerbated by the Slayer’s identity being founded upon how women perceive him as something greater than other men – and themselves – because of his unfeeling slaughter of little green rapists. When chivalry is limited like this, it limits the role and agency of female characters, and becomes rotten at its core.
A lot of tropes and cliches in anime are a blast, but the stereotypes that make up Goblin Slayer’s storytelling structure are crumbling columns that have borne the loads of hundreds of years of hackneyed representations of female characters. The story needs more weight to keep itself upright – modern medieval fantasies can’t be built on the idea that women need men to be their strength.
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