Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for the Attack on Titan anime up through episode 31, and also vaguely alludes to events from the Attack on Titan light novel “Lost Girls.”
Since the first season’s debut in 2013, Attack on Titan has become a phenomenon. You don’t even have to like survival horror to be captivated by its complex characters, gruesome yet compelling world, or cascade of plot revelations. But perhaps one overlooked area of Attack on Titan‘s popularity is its popularity with women. This brutal, seemingly dude-centric series also has a substantial female fandom, who often praise its complicated and realistic female cast.
Attack on Titan joins other shonen megahits like Fullmetal Alchemist and Tokyo Ghoul that draw in female fans by portraying a world where women can be as interesting and powerful as men, but I think Attack on Titan even goes a step further than its brethren through the roles its female characters play in the story. While those other two shows have plenty of fascinating and relatable female characters, they tend to be defined by their proximity to men: as sisters, maternal figures, and love interests. Attack on Titan‘s women often occupy spaces that could just as easily be filled by men, with some even becoming substitute protagonists when Eren is out of the picture.
Attack on Titan also writes women in a similar way to its men, with arcs that could just as easily be given to a character of either gender. That’s not to say that this approach is always the right one; sometimes it’s more helpful to show the ways that gendered expectations give us different life experiences, problems, and perspectives, especially for fiction in real-world settings. However, fantasy doesn’t have to play by those rules, and Attack on Titan chooses not to. ODM gear maneuvering prizes speed, agility, balance, and reflexes over brute strength, as do the hand-to-hand combat techniques the military teaches, pitting women against men in equal measure. This along with the predominant use of lower body muscles instead of upper body muscles to control the equipment gives women a more even footing alongside men as soldiers. People of all genders seem to have equal(ly low) chances of scraping out an existence in Titan’s cruel yet beautiful world.
None of this means that Attack on Titan‘s female characters are perfect, of course. All of them have their ups and downs, and different things appeal to different people about their characters. These are just some of the female players in Attack on Titan, whose stories sometimes subvert and occasionally play into stereotypes.
Mikasa is both the most discussed and most controversial of the show’s female cast. She’s the main player in the early part of the story, which focused on Eren’s early life in Shiganshina and enrollment in the Cadet Corps. She forms part of the central “Shiganshina Trio” with Eren and Armin. Mikasa is the most powerful fighter in the group, soaring well above any of the boys in her physical prowess and number of Titan kills. That’s always been key to her “girl power” appeal. The downside is that Mikasa doesn’t have much motivation or personality outside of her drive to protect Eren, her last remaining family member (and maybe something more) after losing two sets of parents already. All three of the Shiganshina trio are codependent to one another, but Eren has his vendetta to kill every titan and Armin longs to see the outside world. Mikasa doesn’t have anything but the desire to keep Eren alive. That’s a frustratingly common character trait for tough female characters in action series, and it’s also not relatable for most women; even the most boy-crazy girls have other interests and relationships that are important to them.
However, I think Attack on Titan justifies this character decision for two main reasons. For one thing, it’s psychologically realistic for Mikasa considering everything she’s been through. In both the anime, manga, and companion light novel Lost Girls, we see that Mikasa didn’t have much of a life until Eren joined it. She grew up on an isolated mountain farm, with doctor visits from Grisha Yeager being her only glimpse of a larger world. When Grisha’s son Eren helps her kill the kidnappers who murdered her parents to sell her into slavery, and the Yeagers take her in, he continues to be her lifeline in a world she sees as empty and cruel. Even if Mikasa quickly becomes more physically strong than Eren, it’s easy to see how he’s come to define her world on an emotional level. Mikasa is also far from the only character who displays this level of codependence in Attack on Titan. There’s another female character with a similarly single-minded fixation on protecting another woman further down this list. Attack on Titan‘s brutal world, where anyone can die and anything can be destroyed at any time, often pushes people to cling to whoever will keep them going.
Most importantly, Mikasa is not the only major female character in the story. One of the benefits of having a cast full of women is that it’s okay to write one or two who fit into more traditional roles. The issue comes from a lack of women, when the presence of one stereotype can more easily imply that that’s how all women should be. It’s clear that Mikasa’s character has her own problems wrapped up in her complex history of traumatic survival.
Annie is the first of Attack on Titan‘s villainous Titan shifter trio—consisting of her, Reiner and Bertolt—to be unmasked. She transforms into the Female Titan in the last third of the first season, becoming the Big Bad of that arc for the rest of the characters. At this point, we still don’t know exactly what the Titan shifters’ mission is, but we know that these characters hold the key to many of the mysteries about Attack on Titan‘s world. Before that point, Annie is just another member of the 104th Trainee Corps: a stoic, mysterious, but strong and cunning girl who seems to only make any sense to Armin. She teaches Eren a smarter way to take down human opponents, based on using an opponent’s strength against them, and she also cautions him against believing everything the Cadet Corps teaches him from tactics to ideology. She’s also the only character to join the Military Police instead of the Survey Corps after graduation, putting her out of the spotlight until her titan form appears, when her like-minded bond with Armin is also explored.
We eventually learn that Annie had a pretty harsh upbringing. She trained every day for her “mission” without any creature comforts. While she is seemingly close to her father, he also pushed her to consider her mission above all else. In Lost Girls, we see the consequences of this as Annie investigates the disappearance of a local heiress. Annie doesn’t seem to know how to enjoy herself, so she’s puzzled by other people around her who can. Her roommate likes to go out dancing and partying in her free time, but Annie doesn’t see the appeal. All she can think about is excelling in the police force until the day comes when she can complete her mission.
In other words, Annie is just as singular in focus as Mikasa, but with her focus on an abstract goal rather than another person. The same ends up being true of Reiner and Bertolt, but with the Lost Girls novel, we get a window into Annie’s mind that we haven’t had so far with either of them. All the members of the Titan shifter trio show us the tragedy of kids who are never allowed to be kids, forced to shoulder enormous adult burdens before they’re ready. If you’re an anime-only fan, Lost Girls is definitely a book worth checking out.
Ymir may be even more mysterious than Annie. We know that she’s a Titan Shifter, but we aren’t sure how she came into those powers yet. It’s not even clear where she stands on the larger fight for humanity’s survival. She does have a pretty clear motive, though: her desire to protect Krista Lenz, whose real name has been revealed as Historia, the abandoned, illegitimate daughter of an important noble.
Both Historia and Ymir have been defined by their relationship to each other up to this point. That does make sense; it’s pretty groundbreaking to have an author-confirmed lesbian relationship in a popular shonen series. The girls even yell about marrying each other! The anime hasn’t done much with that relationship yet, but Ymir and Historia are about to become much bigger players in the story, both as individuals and in their relationship with each other. Ymir’s power and Historia’s lineage are good points to keep in mind as the plot rolls forward.
So far, both girls demonstrate the same kind of codependence that we’ll continue to see throughout the whole Attack on Titan cast. Ymir is closed-off and gloomy, but she’s always had a soft spot for Historia. That might seem puzzling, considering that “Krista” is the apparent opposite of Ymir in personality and demeanor. As Historia sheds her fake name, however, we get to see more of the “real” her shine through and shed some light on what they see in one another. It’s already beginning to show, as Historia shows great determination and bravery to stand up for Ymir in episode 31. Their mutual codependence and strong love for one another will make more sense as season two continues.
Sasha’s role in the story is to serve as the “everygirl” and comic relief. Alongside Connie and Jean, she gives us a glimpse at the lives of “regular people” inside the walls, those without special powers or destinies. These characters don’t have any particularly valuable personality traits, like Armin’s super-intelligence, Mikasa’s super-strength, or Eren’s indomitable spirit. They’re here to show the audience where most of them would be in this bleak world. For Sasha in particular, her people struggled for resources as hunters in the wilderness and now find themselves at the mercy of Titans, as mankind’s territory shrinks and they’re forced to live in cooperation with the greater populace. Sasha joining the military is just a pragmatic choice, a way to do proud by her village and potentially raise their chances for survival.
Attack on Titan hasn’t done as much with Sasha yet, but her rare moments in the spotlight are always intriguing. A few moments of comic relief early in the series turned her into a joke for a while, the famous “Potato Girl.” In season two, we finally learn that this was more than just a joke. Anime is full of cute girls with mysteriously huge appetites, but Attack on Titan explains that Sasha grew up poor and often had trouble finding food. She had to learn not to waste the food she has, often scarfing it down quickly before she was forced to share it. Even now in the trainee corps, where she has plenty of food, old habits die hard, reflecting who she used to be even as she tries to cover up her backwoods accent. Sasha may not be codependent on other characters or a traumatized warrior, but she’s still been negatively affected by growing up in this desolate world.
As the story moves forward, Sasha continues to be the most fun and fascinating of Attack on Titan‘s “everyman” characters, as she learns the value of fighting to support other people beyond just hunting for your own personal survival. Her story alone illustrates what’s so compelling about Attack on Titan‘s character writing. Male or female, Titan’s cast is made up of multi-faceted characters whose lives reflect the complexities of the world they grew up in.
Who are your favorite fighters in Attack on Titan‘s female cast? Share your thoughts with us in the forums!