The Crimson Alchemist, Solf J. Kimblee. The Iron Blood Alchemist, Basque Grand. The Fullmetal Alchemist, Edward Elric. The Flame Alchemist, Roy Mustang. The Strong-Arm Alchemist, Alex Louise Armstrong. What do they have in common? Each of these five characters are strong, masculine, powerful, gifted, and intelligent (well, you have to be if you have a state alchemist title!).
Wait a minute, where are the female state alchemists? Do you have to be a man in order to have this title? Maybe so, but this brings it back to what these men have in common. They are powerful, yes, but they also have limitations. “State alchemist” is often paralleled with “dog of the military.” With that title comes a short leash.
My purpose here is to analyze three women in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and take a look at how their roles in the anime pit them against the gender ideologies associated with females.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (FMAB) is an animated series based on a manga created by Japanese author Hiromu Arakawa. The anime was produced by BONES, a Japanese studio, and recreated in English by Funimation. The plot revolves around alchemy, a science of understanding, deconstructing, and reconstructing matter. Alchemists in the series use it for many different purposes, from healing to weaponry. Amestris, the primary country in FMAB, often recruits alchemists for military use, which fuels the anime’s storyline.
FMAB, like many Japanese anime, is very graphic, which puts the target audience in an older range (17+). Because the anime is available in Japanese, English, and Spanish, there is a wider range of people who can access it. As far as interests go, you do not necessarily have to enjoy science or science fiction to love this series, but those who do may find the scientific elements fascinating.
The target audience is pretty limited; most people who do not identify as “anime fans” would not consider watching FMAB. Among anime fans, however, FMAB is very popular, which makes it that much more important to analyze. There is no specific gender target; both men and women can enjoy this anime. Though FMAB has a niche audience, it’s important to occasionally step away from what is typically analyzed (i.e. Disney, popular films, etc.) in favor of something more specific.
In FMAB, there is no limitation to what characters can do based on their gender. Female characters are just as important—and just as powerful—as male characters, as you will see with the three women I will be looking at here.
#3: Riza Hawkeye: The “Hawk’s Eye”
First Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye is the personal assistant to Colonel Roy Mustang, the Flame Alchemist. Despite her status as his subordinate, she saves his life numerous times throughout the series. In their early military days, Mustang tasked her with watching his back and, if necessary, shooting him in the back if he goes down the wrong path.
Women are often stereotyped as weak and useless, but as you saw in the video, Hawkeye is anything but. When her superior becomes overconfident in his abilities, Hawkeye jumps in at just the right moment to save his life and drive the attacker away with her sharpshooting skills. More than just a supporting character, Riza Hawkeye is a heroine, but not necessarily in the traditional sense.
In their book, Gender, Race, and Class in Media, Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez define “heroine” as “a bright and determined woman” who is “beautiful, defiant, and sexually immature.” A heroine is a woman who is usually portrayed as bright, quirky, naïve, innocent, and sometimes confused. Hawkeye, though young, has experienced far more than most characters her age.
That experience primarily came from the Ishvalan War of Extermination, which drastically affected both Mustang and Hawkeye. Despite being a woman, Riza Hawkeye is part of the anime’s empowered group; Amestrians are considered a dominant race, as opposed to the minority group known as Ishvalans. The horrors of the war and the people she was ordered to kill became a burden to Hawkeye, and though she has great strength and power as a character, the war continuously haunts her.
For a majority of the anime, the Ishvalan survivors are repressed, disempowered, and forced to live in the slums. Hawkeye, determined to right the wrongs of the past, works side-by-side with Roy Mustang to overthrow the oppressive Amestrian government and give power back to the oppressed Ishvalans.
As Mustang pursues his ambitions to disband the military dictatorship and lead Amestris, he often thinks of Hawkeye as his “queen” in the hypothetical game of chess in which he takes the “king” role. Officially, she is four ranks beneath him, but he still sees her as a partner and a friend. Even though the military positions Hawkeye as Mustang’s subordinate, the two characters interact with a constant undertone that the military-style formalities are simply protocol; beneath the surface, they consider themselves equals.
#2: Izumi Curtis: More Than Just A Housewife
Izumi Curtis is a skilled alchemist who trained the two main characters in FMAB: Edward and Alphonse Elric. She does not appear very often, but when she does, she either has a kind, gentle demeanor or a loud, commanding presence. Although she continuously refers to herself as as simple housewife, she is nothing like the ideologies associated with housewives.
Gender, Race, and Class in Media defines “ideology” as an emphasis on “the way ideas embedded in all our social institutions (legal, educational, economic, military, etc.) create a dominant commonsense understanding of reality that supports the status quo.” In plain English, an ideology is a socially-constructed idea or stereotype about a certain group of people.
Housewives are often portrayed as docile, submissive, and mindlessly hardworking, but Curtis takes these ideologies and repeatedly smacks them into shape. This WordPress writer takes a closer look at Izumi’s character, along with the other women in the anime.
In the video, Edward Elric refers to Izumi as “teacher.” Because Edward’s mother died when he was a young boy, Izumi practically raised the Elric brothers and taught them everything she knew about alchemy. Along with those lessons, Izumi instilled her own personal values into the boys, so even though she does not appear often, her values play a significant role in the anime through the Elric brothers’ actions and decisions.
The overarching value of FMAB is, above else, the value of human life. Throughout the series, Edward blatantly refuses to take the life of another person despite the multiple occasions in which the military calls upon him to do so.
On separate occasions, both Edward and Izumi committed a taboo among alchemists: human transmutation, which involves scientifically manipulating human souls. Before Izumi met Edward, she tried to bring her stillborn child back from the dead; as a result, she faced the dire consequences and quickly learned that even science could not create or bring back a human soul.
Devastating as the event was, Izumi carries the weight of the action on her shoulders and continues to move forward. When Edward commits the same taboo, he moves on with the same strength and resolve as his teacher. Housewife or not, Izumi Curtis is a strong woman with even stronger values.
#1: Olivier Mira Armstrong: The “Ice Queen”
Major General Olivier Mira Armstrong is a force no one wants to reckon with. Of all the characters, both male and female, Olivier is by far one of the most aggressive. She heads Fort Briggs, a snowy fortress at the northernmost point of Amestris that serves as the only line of defense against the powerful northern country, Drachma. At Fort Briggs, the number one rule is survival of the fittest, and Olivier’s strict enforcement of this rule earned her the title “ice queen.”
Olivier is not the only powerful member of her family; her brother, Alex Louise Armstrong, is the supposed embodiment of hypermasculinity. Hypermasculinity is defined in “The Selling of Masculinity” as “the ideology of exaggerated male traits as the epitome of masculine identity.”
Simply put, hypermasculinity is every trait associated with macho manliness: strength, power, dominance, and aggression. In FMAB, Alex constantly removes his shirt to flex his impressive and overexaggerated muscular physique. He is a powerful opponent in battle, and his title as the Strong-Arm Alchemist is appropriate.
Despite all of this, Alex is known for dramatic displays of “feminine” emotion as well as occasional cowardice. Instead of fighting through the Ishvalan war like Mustang and Hawkeye, Alex fled the battle scene, which branded him as a coward. Olivier, on the other hand, would never turn her back during a fight; as you saw in the video, Olivier is clearly the dominant figure in the sibling relationship. The anime puts Olivier on a hypermasculine pedestal by flipping the ideological personalities of the brother and sister. This graduate research thesis goes into more depth.
Olivier’s ambitions are similar to those of Roy Mustang. Despite her role as the powerful leader of Fort Briggs, she has her sights on the highest rank in Amestris. She suggests this in her few interactions with Mustang, who she also perceives as weak, soft, and spineless. The only characters she feels any real respect for are her own men, all of whom were trained harshly and precisely by Olivier herself.
Why does this matter? Think of these three women as unique representations that shed a light on female empowerment. Sure, maybe you can’t use alchemy to prove yourself, but two of these three women are not even alchemists, yet they can do things many of the alchemists cannot. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has a plot and character set that is very deep and complex, which leaves room for a lot of critical thinking.
An understanding of gender portrayals in entertainment media can and will shape gender perceptions in the real world. Riza Hawkeye, Izumi Curtis, and Olivier Armstrong all pull away from the typical cookie-cutter depictions of women, yet they each do so in their own unique way. This drives home the point that no two people are exactly the same.
The sooner media creators realize that each woman is a unique individual with her own personality and perceptions, the more open our society will become. Because we gather a lot of our perceptions from the media we watch, the change needs to start there.