Fullmetal Alchemist was one of the most successful speculative fiction works of recent years. It was written by a woman, Arakawa Hiromu. The 20th century saw many excellent female sci-fi and fantasy writers in the English-speaking world (C. L. Moore, C. J. Cherryh, Andre Norton, Tanith Lee, the list goes on) but writing seems to be in decline in the English-speaking world. Arakawa is one of the women to whom I point when people tell me that the entertainment world is biased against women.
Fullmetal Alchemist offers several interesting female characters. I want to point out just three of them.
Zhang Mei is literally a princess, but she encounters a little bit of hardship in her early life, because she has many rivals to her throne. Nonetheless, she is a classic wish-fulfillment character, suitable for children. She has exotic super-powers, a cute pet, and princess status.
I won’t spoil the ending, but if you watch the whole show, including the final episode, you’ll get a hint about the ending of Zhang Mei’s story. It is neither pro-feminist nor anti-feminist, because Zhang Mei manages to get some good aspects of both worlds. However, she is just a supporting character; she doesn’t steal the spotlight.
Riza Hawkeye is a classic feminist “Strong Independent Woman” stereotype. She has it all – romance, professional success, excellent skills. The only way she could be more of a stereotype would be if she were to have a trophy baby with her lover. She has no exotic super-powers, but she is so personally strong-willed that she trains her natural strengths and her firearms skills to the point where she can face super-villains on battlefields.
Like Olivier Mira Armstrong, Riza Hawkeye is such a strong and powerful character that she easily steals the spotlight during many of the episodes in which she appears. As a male viewer, I think this is a feature, not a bug.
Unlike Olivier Mira Armstrong, Riza’s tremendous strengths come from her personal, individualistic character. Olivier could never be a heroine to doctrinaire feminists, because she puts duty to her family bloodline above her personal feminist pride. (So, gentle reader, if you are reading this and protesting that you are a feminist but you still idolize Olivier – you are clearly diverging from your Comintern puppetmasters.)
And finally Winry Rockbell is perhaps the most female of all the female characters in Fullmetal Alchemist. This is a story dominated by super-powers, monsters, exotic settings, and beautiful visual designs. Amid these super-soldiers, super-heroes, and super-dangerous perils – Winry is an ordinary girl. She’s highly skilled at a technical job, but there’s nothing unrealistic about her skill level – she was trained and she practiced and so she has skills. While Zhang Mei is a princess saving herself from peril with some help from friends, and Riza is a shootist saving her friends from peril by means of her guns, Winry mostly avoids peril altogether. Winry is mostly concerned with whether Ed is her loyal boyfriend, and she’s willing to walk across a battlefield to make sure of that, but once she’s been reassured, she’s not going to steal the spotlight by dominating combat. Winry gets into Ed’s emotions. Winry must be bribed with presents from Ed, lest she scold him. Winry is entirely happy to engage Ed in a traditional girl-and-boy romance. Winry doesn’t need to be the greatest hero in the story, so long as she gets to marry Ed, who is the greatest hero in the story.
Fullmetal Alchemist has several wonderful female characters who stand and fight on various battlefields. These characters can be seen as typical feminist fantasies that challenge the traditional patriarchal sex roles. But it also has Winry Rockbell, who avoids battlefields. Winry is an anti-feminist fantasy, written by a woman. Riza Hawkeye plays the feminist stereotypes straight; Winry Rockbell subverts the feminist stereotypes.