Ah, Death Note, old, unpredictable favorite of mine. Sure, it’s not quite as good the third time around. A girl can only take so much inner monologue on new iterations of the prisoners dilemma But, god (shinigami I suppose), if I don’t love the over the top animation style and voice acting. Death Note takes anime’s visual and audio tropes so far that its English dub is intolerable. Sure, the acting is horrible, but it’s more than that. The English actors play every straight and flat, like a generic action film, and they clash with the epic chanting and the split-screen montages where pens bust out of their “box,” leaving sparkles over the screen.
It can only be seen, not described, but, sadly, YouTube has pulled most of the videos.
I say this all not to review Death Note. That would take hours. I say all this because I love Death Note. I dressed as Misa for Halloween. I have an L doll. My desktop background has been L for months. I don’t seek out sexist media for the purpose of deconstructing it. I seek out interesting storytelling and find it’s usually sexist.
Now, the first two times I watched Death Note, I didn’t REALLY notice the sexism. Yeah, Misa’s character starts off awesome and promptly becomes a screaming fan girl. But I missed sexist Raye Penber. They way the detectives treat women like they’re stupid. The way every female character is defined by her relationship to a man.
What can I say? I guess I’ve grown in the year since I watched Death Note. I’m much more comfortable as a feminist now. I don’t feel like I have to hide or qualify it with “I’m not one of those angry feminists.” And I shouldn’t. Because I am angry. I’m angry that women are constantly portrayed as one-dimensional figures who only care about men. I’m angry that women are treated as a prize to be won or a motivation to kill off.
Death Note is a story about men. Mostly, it’s about two men–the brilliant, eccentric detective L ( also known as Ryuzaki), and Light Yagami (also known as Kira), a high school student using a death note to murder criminals and create a perfect world. We are led to believe that these two teenagers are smarter than the entire Japanese police force. That Light is so smart and careful in murdering criminals that only the brilliant L can go head to toe with him.
Whenever I think about these stories, I think, how much more interesting would it be if these characters were women? Or if one was a woman? It’s amazing how much life you can breath into tired cliches by flipping the gender. But I digress…
Everything is going well for Light until the FBI investigates in Japan. FBI agent Raye Penber is assigned to follow Light. Light orchestrates a bus jacking to get the agent’s name and plans to kill him later. (To use the death note, you need the victim’s name and face). After the incident, Raye goes home to his fiance, Naomi, an ex-FBI agent. Naomi asks Raye a few questions about the case. He effectively tells her to shut up and get back in the kitchen. She is his fiance now. She shouldn’t think about these things. Soon, they will have children and she will be too busy to think about investigating crimes.
So I am not too sorry for Raye when Kira murders him. Good riddance. Sexist prick deserved it.
And, without her chauvinist fiance in the way, Naomi returns to investigating crime. She goes to the police station to ask to join the Kira task squad. But, poor woman, she runs into Light. He manages to draw out what she’s deduced about Kira–things no one else is yet to deduce. When Light tries to kill her, he realizes she gave him a pseudonym. She is smart enough to protect herself. With minutes until Naomi returns to headquarters, Light panics. How will he kill her? He may be able to over-power her. She is a woman, after all.
But, no, he thinks of something better. He somehow manages to convince this intelligent capable woman that he can recommend her for the task force… if he sees her ID. See, a form of ID is necessary for the task force. And even know Naomi suspects that Raye was killed because he showed Kira his ID, she shows Light her ID. Light writes her name in his Death Note and she walks away, doomed to commit suicide.
Create a smart, competent woman, only to have her manipulated and killed. Isn’t that what she deserves for doing a man’s work?
Okay, okay. I’m exaggerating. Light did kill manipulate and kill Raye. But it took an intricately planned bus jacking to get Raye to show an ID. And, at this point, Raye is no longer suspicious of Light. It takes ten minutes of conversation about Kira to get Naomi to show her ID, even though she believes her fiance died because he showed his ID.
Naomi is by far the most competent, developed female character in the series. And she is manipulated and killed off to prove the point that Light is manipulative and ruthless–a point that has already been made.
Is this bad writing? Is it sexism? Sometimes it’s hard to separate the two. Sometimes one causes the other. It’s hard to write developed characters. It’s hard not to use secondary characters as pawns for your main character. But, it’s unacceptable to treat ALL your female characters as second class pawns.
And it’s unacceptable to prove the sexist prick right–that Naomi should have stayed in the kitchen if she didn’t want to get hurt.