Trigun Re-Watch: Gender Problems

Remember the ladies?

Recently, I began a quest to re-watch Trigun, spurred on by the impending removal of the series from Hulu, as well as a previous decision to re-watch it… at some point. It has been about eight years since I first saw the show, and it seemed that a new viewing of it was in order; after all, I’m in such a vastly different place now versus then, and I was curious to see how my own attitudes and beliefs had shifted. As a fourteen year old, Vash’s extreme pacifism had appealed to me strongly. But would his idealism now strike me still as admirable, or merely stupid? And, actually, did the show even ultimately support his stance? Enough time had passed by that I could not longer precisely remember what happened in the final episodes of the show, beyond that Vash is forced to kill Legato, that Wolfwood dies, and that Milly may or may not have slept with him. But, mostly, I was curious – did Vash’s killing of Legato constitute a repudiation of his personal code to that point or not? I would have to re-watch.

I haven’t completely finished re-watching Trigun yet. The episodes have expired on Hulu, although I can watch it on Netflix fairly easily. I managed to plow through twenty-three episodes over the course of three days, but was unable to bring myself to watch the twenty-fourth episode. I stalled. I stuttered. I did not want to see what happened next. Why? Well, very simply, I am apparently too… well, I’m not sure what term would describe it adequately. Put into more words, I did not want to see Nicolas D. Wolfwood die.

However, I’m not exactly interested in delving into that in this post. No, rather, I wish to address one of the major problems I had with the series upon re-viewing it: the women and the attitudes the series held towards women. Because, quite frankly, it ain’t all that hot.

First off, I want to say that problematic attitudes held by characters towards women are not inherently bad. For example, it would be strange if, in a show about the Shinsengumi, everyone was a raging feminist. It just wouldn’t make sense for the historical context. For another example, if a bad attitude about women is depicted as a flaw in the character possessing those beliefs, that is also fine. What I do have a problem with, however, is when these misogynistic ideas are presented as being correct. *That* is what I have a problem with.

And, oh, does Trigun love its patriarchal beliefs about women.

Vash, our hero, condescends to women many, many times throughout the show. When he is cornered by a bunch of women who are attempting to catch him, he doesn’t simply try to flee or try to outsmart them. No, he berates them for brandishing guns while wearing aprons, and admonishes them for their actions – after all, what would their children think? Later on in the show, when confronted with the sole female Gung-Ho Gun, he starts off the fight by plucking buttons off of her shirt, treatment that, mysteriously enough, none of the male Gung-Ho Guns receive. He also tells her that what she really should be doing is working hard to please her man at home, not fighting him at all.

And this, all of it, coming from our esteemed hero of the piece.

Of course, the larger problem is that the women and girls of Trigun are sketched so lightly as to barely be present at all. When they do appear, it is most often as objects to be saved or lusted after. Prostitutes are common, as are damsels-in-distress. A female engineer appeared in two early episodes, a very encouraging sign, although her dress served to highlight her hefty breasts. There was also a female government agent who was largely competent, although apparently not competent enough to not require Vash’s savior routine. But women like this are gone within five episodes, and none that come after come anywhere near them in terms of breaking with the usual tropes and stereotypes.

At this point, it is an excellent time to bring up Meryl and Milly, our insurance “girls”. Just the language used to refer to them is telling enough – they are “girls”, not women. They are continuously in over their heads, trying to use doughnuts to cajole criminals they believe to be Vash, forever playing catch up. Ultimately, they are the running gag of the show; what would really change were they removed from the narrative? Less jokes about people disbelieving Vash’s identity, less of an awareness that Vash really loves doughnuts… Not much else.

Put another way: do you notice when Meryl and Milly aren’t around? Do you care? Does anyone walk away from the show wishing we’d spent more time with their antics?

No – because the two do not matter in the grand scheme of the show. Why is there a forced romance angle from Meryl toward Vash or Milly toward Wolfwood? What on earth does this add to the show? Maybe if it were even executed at all one could make an argument for the inclusion of both. But it feels more obligatory to have any hint of romance at all rather than organic, as if someone looked at the cast and said, well, there are two guys and two women, so obviously…

I take especial issue with the entire Milly and Wolfwood thing. I quite frankly find the idea that Milly does sleep with Wolfwood gross. Milly for the entirety of the show has been played as an innocent, as an overgrown child. She loves pudding and speaks and thinks in simplistic ways. She does not know her limits on alcohol. Meryl essentially plays the role of her mother, ensuring everything from making sure she wakes up on time to that she remembers to pack everything. Milly demonstrates little to no ability in caring for her own self.

Someone who is functionally a child should not be having sex with someone. And someone who is an adult should know better than to have sex with someone who is functionally a child.

Of course, it also doesn’t help that there has been nothing to really build up to this. Why does Milly sleep with Wolfwood? Why does Wolfwood sleep with Milly? There are some one-liners from Wolfwood about Milly’s attractiveness (and by some, I mean perhaps three at most), but these are thin at best for supporting evidence of attraction between the two. The better answer for why they sleep together? Because the writers wanted some insta-drama. Better writers would’ve at least actually bothered to give some pretense for the incident, even if the base dynamic remained downright creepy. Add in the fact that Wolfwood has a lot of affection for children (which, taken alone, is wholly innocent), and it all just gets more and more distasteful.

Moving along, I wish to consider Mary, a woman who exists solely to have the violence of the men around her projected upon her. Mary is sexually harassed several times by one of her fellow co-workers on the spaceship, a man who then goes on to rape her. Another of her co-workers kills her rapist, but murders Mary when she rejects his marriage proposal. She is fully the victim of male violence. She has no other identity. The only time we spend with her at all is right before she is raped, when she is supposing that it isn’t so bad to have two guys interested in her. (Of course, it is disappointing in and of itself to see unwanted physical advances in the form of groping to be thought of as not so bad given that the man is signaling his interest in her. Curiously enough, I myself nor anyone I’ve ever met has taken unwanted physical advances as a positive sign.)

And then the madonna to Mary’s whore (after all, she did admit to enjoying the attention!), Rem. Rem is basically an ideal. She exists as the reason behind Vash’s beliefs. She spends much of her screentime tending to children (another strike against Mary, it would seem, is that she doesn’t spend any of her time taking care of Vash or Knives). Her final act is heroic, and Vash may base his life around her vision, but that doesn’t alter the fact that she is, as I said before, an ideal.

So we come back to the same problem: the women in Trigun aren’t depicted with any depth. If you take away most of them, it makes no difference to the core plot of the show (Rem is our exception in that regard). The poor quality of the female characters renders any romance within the show contrived at best, unsettling at worst. Vash is an interesting character; Wolfwood, a fascinating one. Surely they could’ve remembered the ladies?

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11 Responses to Trigun Re-Watch: Gender Problems

  1. Chronolynx says:

    Re: Meryl and Milly. They are “girls” in the sense that they have not yet matured into “women.” Which arguably has happened by the end of the show. I will admit it’s been some time since I watched it, but I recall those two starting to be more proactive near the end. I mean very near the end. The last two episodes, maybe? I remember Meryl and/or Milly digging a well at some point, at least, which I took as some sort of character development.

    As for Milly specifically, one of the key parts of her “appeal” was how though she appeared and acted childish, she had her big gin hidden under her cloak. What I’m saying is she had a penis. Okay, not really. But still! Since we’ve got to scrape the bottom of the barrel for any characterization for these two, might as well look into her (literal and metaphorical) gun.

    And this last point really should have gone first, but eh. I always took the show’s general tone toward women as an homage to the Westerns it is so imitating.

  2. Hogart says:

    > I always took the show’s general tone toward women as an homage to the Westerns it is so imitating.

    Exactly. It’s not like the women in the show were on some wonderfully egalitarian paradise – they were on a vile, scorching desert world populated by some very shady men.

    In fact the show goes through extreme contortions to vilify men, not make them out as “superior”, just domineering. Even Vash is willing to treat women misogynistically in order to preserve his pure ideal of pacifism.

    In fact when I first watched the show as a teen, it was little hints like Vash’s odd act around women that made it clear that he wasn’t the fun goofball you’d suspect. And by the end of the show he had to grow up just like the ladies did.

    But this is all from memory – I’ll really have to rewatch the show to substantiate anything, so I’ll just leave it at that.

  3. TWWK says:

    That’s an excellent analysis…I haven’t watched Trigun in years (beyond rewatching an episode here or there), and definitely didn’t notice these ideas when I first saw it years ago.

    I would have to say, though, that the depiction of Meryl and Millie isn’t entirely anti-woman. In fact, they’re introduced as quite the opposite of helpless women – the boys the in bar think that they’re anything but the gun-toting ladies they reveal themselves to be. And in several episodes, they show their abilities. Remember, their insurance adjusters (seemingly more at home in front of a typewriter than in front of a group of thugs) – adding the gunfighting to their repertoire actually strengthens their depiction.

    Meryl, particularly, seems to have a chip on her shoulder – maybe from being subjugated time and time again because of her gender? While she falls for Vash, it’s not without considerable attempts not to on her part. She is the voice of reason not just for Millie, for for Vash’s attitudes sometimes – I think she’s more than the woman who gets angry when the object of her affections is flirtatious – I think she’s a moral center for those characters’ actions, which we as the audience both scoff at and enjoy.

    You also mention historical context…and frankly, I believe that’s the reason why Vash acts as he does. While set in the future, the setting is wild west-ish. My guess is that Yasuhiro Nightow imbued Vash with those beliefs not only because they brought laughs, but because they matched less modern ideas about women, presenting a contrast with the strong (albeit questionably as per your analysis) Bernadelli insurance girls.

    As for Wolfwood and Millie…I tend to agree with your point, and though I always considered their relationship strange, I pretty much chalked it up to “they must be getting along well off-screen.” That was how I made it all less weird and gross in my mind. Yeah…that must be it.

  4. Caddy C says:

    Ah, you’ve touched on so many reasons why I never want to re-watch Trigun.

    I have this idea in my head of how much I loved it as a green anime fan, and I don’t want to have those dreams dashed – is that bad of me? I know it’s a terrible depiction of women, and yet I want to keep my nostalgic head in the dark about it.

    I always had a problem with Rem, even back when I was willfully ignoring sexism in anime I liked. Beyond the idyllic virgin mary problems, she just doesn’t work as a character. The villains in that show are cardboard cutouts, and even some of the main characters, but Rem is built up so much that when she is revealed, it’s a huge letdown. She isn’t a character. She doesn’t function as a character, but more of a stand-in for Vash’s morality and it makes her into a flat 2-d caricature of a person. There are never any reasons for her to act the way she does, but she’s supposed to be revered for them. Not that actions can’t be intrinsically good, but I think it undermines the supposed love that the audience is supposed to feel for this person because it doesn’t feel real.

    I didn’t like the Milly/Wolfwood romance for many reasons, but mostly because it just felt so cheap – like the writers didn’t think that Wolfwood’s death would be tragic enough by itself (it is) and so they threw together a liaison to make his death have more “oomph.” It seems to cheapen the bond the audience has made with the character, because it seems to me that the writers were just trying to manipulate us into feeling just that much when he dies. It’s unnecessary! His death is fucking epic and terrible and tragic! Don’t throw Milly into the mix for no reason!

    But yes, great post! I’m glad you did it, because I don’t think I have the heart to go back to Trigun like this. It’s still my gateway anime, and I want to keep that nostalgia for it alive 🙂

  5. Yi says:

    “I quite frankly find the idea that Milly does sleep with Wolfwood gross.”

    Wait, Milly sleeps with Wolfwood!? Wow, I watched this way too long ago… Did not remember that at all. Or maybe I just don’t remember much about those two in general. They were such forgettable characters. Even Amelia from Badlands Rumble have a little more character than them. But yea, the original series is pretty crappy in its portrayal of women.

  6. Aorii says:

    I don’t think I remember enough of Trigun to rate the details (although I do agree with you on those parts I still remember xD); it’s one of those shows to be watched just because it’s become a westernized anime classic. But one thing is… hey, it’s one of those ‘space cowboy’ shows with a setting stylized over the old west… what do you expect on the gender portrayal? I sure don’t remember many ‘old west’ TV/movies that use much role balance =\

  7. hearthesea says:

    I saw ‘Trigun’ years ago, so I have a very hazy memory of what actually happens. I do find it interesting that Wolfwood’s death feels (to me) like the most emotionally impacting moment of the series, rather than anything Vash does or is subjected to.

    I remember disliking the whole Milly/Wolfwood thing too — it really does feel, as Caddy C was saying, like something that they cheaply threw together in order to boost the dramatic power of his death. It also just feels very odd in general, to see such a seasoned, anti-hero type character sleeping with this frankly baby-like individual. It becomes even stranger when considering the lack of real build-up.

    I don’t think the people behind the show were deliberately trying to downplay/patronise the female characters in the series — there is no real agenda I can recall — but I do think that their approach could definitely have done with some changes. As for Rem, I agree about her being an ideal or symbol of morality, but could it be argued that she comes across as this Romanticised figure due to the audience seeing her through Vash’s (naturally biased) perspective? I don’t actually remember the episodes well enough to explore that angle, but it’s just something that occurred to me.

    I’ve never really felt the urge to rewatch the series, probably because I want to warmly preserve it in my memory as one of the things that first got me into Anime/Manga as a whole, along with Rurouni Kenshin. It opened the door, and for that alone I can think well of it.

  8. ojisan says:

    It’s been a long time for me, just like everyone else above. And to extend Aorii’s point, the poor gender tropes of westerns play right into the hands of the poor gender tropes of anime.
    But. Vash is set up as a genre-breaker, a loveable trickster who thinks outside the box and makes impossible, naive hopes come true. Which is why it comes as a disappointment that he’s the type who thinks he’s a gentleman while acting like a jerk.

  9. inushinde says:

    In retrospect, it bugged me as well that each time they were in trouble, Milly and Meryl had to be saved by Vash. Still, he was a fun enough character for me not to pay attention until a month or two afterward. Milly sleeping with Wolfwood felt a bit off, since she didn’t seem mature enough to play the part.

    Still, taking inspiration from westerns and some still traditional expectations held toward women in Japan, it’s easy to let it slide. Still, it does present an interesting point to dissect.

  10. Mitch H. says:

    Man, I never looked past the show’s infantile morality-play pacifism and trendy ecological scientism to look for gendered issues. The whole show is barely tolerable taken at its shallow surface value, don’t make me dig down into the rot. (This may be why the last two discs have been sitting on my to-watch shelf for the last year and a half. Hard to take it lightly from that point onwards…)

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