I am a person with a lot of screeching and strident anime opinions, but when it comes to actually diving into hot button conversations on a season-to-season basis, I usually wimp out because conflict eats me. But there’s a new show, Darling in the Franxx, that I was compelled to bleed a lot of word viscera about because it’s being very blunt with themes of sexuality and sexual roles. It’s at an intersection of things I spend a lot of my time processing as a girl, a feminist, a sexual abuse survivor, a person with a blood fetish, the list goes on. I don’t think the world needs my take, but I haven’t really seen much discourse in the pro or con camp coming from a cool sexual trauma haver, so here it is.
Nascent sexuality and mecha have gone hand in hand since…well, much of the genre’s history. Since my favorite trope in anime/manga is “it was actually about human connection all along,” I have a weakness for mecha, usually post-Evangelion mecha, because they tend to lean hard into this. It’s everywhere from the very good Eureka Seven and the very trashy (but good) Valvrave the Liberator to some shows I don’t care for, like Gurren Lagann. The mechs in these anime almost always have a mystical or spiritual element that their adolescent pilots must fuse with, or surrender part of themselves to.
It’s not surprising that in a genre where volatile teenagers are putting their emotions, their relationships, or even their humanity at stake to pilot robots and save the world that sexual awakening is a common theme and metaphor. After all, sex is a minefield of emotions and anxiety about connectedness. We see this not only in the psychosexual issues of the entire cast of Evangelion, but in the kids’ combat experiences often involving psychological or physical violation. In Valvrave, the adolescent sexuality at the forefront of the whole series culminates in a literal rape while a character is under the influence of the mech-bestowed berserker powers. All this prelude to say, I was conceptually on board with A-1 and Trigger’s new show Darling in the Franxx, and early revelations that piloting-as-metaphor-for-sex was…extremely textual didn’t bother me. Beyond that, it gets murkier.
As others have pointed out, Franxx’s mecha conceit exists in a very narrow, cishet worldview. Adolescents, referred to as “parasites,” are assigned male-female pairs to co-pilot their mechs, and indeed the power is being framed as reliant on masculine/feminine polarity. As the “pistil,” female pilots are the ones experiencing a mental and spiritual connection with the (female-coded) robots. The male pilots, called “stamen,” are in charge of the mech’s movements. This is in standing with the old idea that women are caretakers of life or sexual energy (of their partner, of the whole damn planet) and men are users and harnessers. In the Franxx universe, mecha are controlled by men, but powered in every sense by the emotional labor of women.
I should throw in as a disclaimer that my reaction to the first two episodes is also from a cishet point of view, and my relationship with my own sexuality has often been informed by the same polarity the show’s world is enforcing. Understanding violation through literal penetration, feeling faceless, or feeling like my body and pleasure are at the mercy of someone else are familiar to me, but they’re far from the only way to experience sex or sexual trauma. Traditional male-female power dynamics are also not the only dynamics in which to explore sexual agency, but they are the ones that have made up my history. In an already very divisive show, I’ve found things that speak to me and have the potential to be developed in a powerful way, but the jury is out. In a week or two I might realize that I wasted a lot of brain power on exploitative trash.
Within the confines the story has presented, the characters don’t have room to experiment with gender or sexual expression. By the second episode, it’s also clear that while the adults in power (and we) are aware of the sexual energy being taken advantage of, these kids are kept in the dark about sex. The only characters allowed to have self-revelations are ones who have failed in some way. Hiro, our protagonist, is reeling after he is repeatedly unable to pilot a Franxx – this can be an impotency metaphor, but I also read it as the experience of a young person who isn’t ready to be sexual, or isn’t ready in the way he’s expected to be. He meets Zero Two, a feral and brazen girl who has no squad or co-pilot because she has a pattern of killing her partners…
cool whoops. Hiro is able to pilot a Franxx with Zero Two, but it’s implied that they’re not doing it by standard methods. Both of these children fail to exist in the world’s structure. But while Hiro is clearly living with crippling shame, Zero Two has found a free-falling sort of freedom in not being bound by the rules. At the cost of both failures (or rebellions), though, is that these young people are lonely and left without a blueprint to connect to one another.
Zero Two is pretty much the reason I wanted to watch this show. I have a soft spot for vicious, intense female characters who refuse to be anyone’s idea of a good girl. At times I’ve probably gotten overly attached to characters who are mostly fanservice/fetish bait because of this weakness. I’m also interested in Zero Two because of the many ways my internal war of sexual self has manifested, I have absolutely been the oversexed outcast. To this day, I have severe anxiety about whether being sexually assertive is really me, or if it’s the leftovers of past coping mechanisms. I want to see if Zero Two’s wrecking ball of sensuality is empowering for her or if it’s bravado constructed in the face of trauma and isolation. Or has she realized that the only way to grab her own power in this world is to be aggressive in the way men are supposed to be? I also wonder if her deadliness is a metaphor for society’s fear of unbridled female sexuality. This would fall in line with the expectations of Franxx pilots where the female has actual reigns to control. There have been some theories (and jokes) online about how Zero Two’s dangerous method of piloting may be that she takes the male position. But honestly…I hope so. This could open a dialogue to explore not just why we fear female sexuality, but how the focus on the dominant, often toxic role for Hiro and the other male parasites is harmful to men who don’t feel fulfilled in that expression.
The struggles of the female pilots in the parasite program also resonated with me. Although she’s not a character I’m particularly compelled by, Hiro’s friend and top pilot Ichigo’s self-pressure and perfectionism reflected another experience of my fractured sexual history. Ichigo takes responsibility for the success of her missions, to the point where she feels she should be able to “connect” with any male co-pilot by virtue of her own skill and reliability. It’s a little like Asuka’s conflation of self-value as an Eva pilot, but while Asuka often acted disgusted or uninterested in signs of adult sexual maturity, Ichigo is in a position to rely on excelling at it despite not understanding it.
Even if you haven’t dealt with sexual abuse or trauma, I think the caretaker-conqueror paradigm of heterosexual relationships often leaves women in a position to shoulder the burden for everything going right and take the blame for things going wrong. I’ve also spent too many years internalizing messages of my value being tied up exclusively in sex and being “good” at that, so it’s hard not to feel for a character having a crisis of self-worth in a setting where her value IS her role in a heterosexual dynamic. Ichigo and Zero Two are set up as foils with the former’s record of fulfilling her feminine sexual role and the latters dangerous rejection of it, but they both face internal or external judgment. Zero Two is isolated from friendship and affection, and Ichigo’s “success” and place in the world is so fragile that one failure shatters her self-conception. These are two girls who could support each other in a search for a more empowering kind of connection. Ichigo’s initial distaste for Zero Two is fitting with her vested interested in excelling within the status quo, but it will be disappointing if the story goes the way of simply making them rival’s for a romance with Hiro.
But! Do I trust a Trigger* co-production to sensitively explore sexual self-realization, gendered roles, and toxic masculinity? Probably not. In just two episodes, the show has already established a pattern of sexualizing the female pilots in a very dehumanizing way. It’s not even the doggie style formation I have an issue with. In deft writing hands, that too could become part of an interesting thesis. I think it could be a effective image to show that the adults in the Franxx world are exploiting their charges’ sexuality in one of the most traditionally male dominant-coded ways there is. I want to believe that the bookending of episode two with Hiro being “incredible” and “awful” at co-piloting with Zero Two and Ichigo, respectively, is a sign that his character arc will be about finding strength outside of hypermasculine norms. But Then you can’t just ask me to find it all hot. To do what I hope this show could try to do, it can’t have it both ways.
So far, this is a pretty nasty world with some pretty toxic assumptions aaaaaaaaaaaaaand I’m fine with that! What I’m not fine with is seeing complicated and often traumatic issues of sexuality, consent, autonomy, et al. that speak to me only to have the camera tell me that I should be complicit in the exploitation. It entirely depends on whether the narrative challenges the abuse of adolescent sexuality and expectations about what men and women can be. The oppressive confines of the way these children live aren’t, as of this moment, what bothers me. The leering fanservice has already weakened the impact of that development, and I feel uncomfortable being directed to objectify characters who I’m ostensibly supposed to sympathize with, and moreover objectify them in a way they themselves have been written to be dangerously innocent of. Lack of education and sexual disempowerment is a potent combination that can deeply scar the understanding of the sexual self, and Franxx can either condemn or endorse one of the most painful and lasting ways to dehumanize a person. I have my suspicions, but for now I’m willing to see which way it goes.
*if I stepped on the Trigger discourse minefield, I have no issue admitting my bias not only about most of the studio’s productions, but with productions that take influence of it. There is really only one brand of Gainax I like and that is max horny AND max sadFind me on: