Fullmetal Alchemist has the subtitle “Brotherhood,” which is accurate insofar as it portrays the story of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, but it’s inaccurate in that it fails to highlight the contributions of the consistently awesome and diverse women in the cast of characters. The first time I watched Brotherhood, the depth of representation took me by surprise. The show takes place in a military setting, which could easily rely on male soldiers to get the storytelling done, but Brotherhood doesn’t fall into that trap. In fact, there are so many women who are fully fleshed out, both as main and supporting characters, that it’s almost an embarrassment of riches (if there was anything embarrassing about representation, which there isn’t). The best part about Brotherhood is that it doesn’t just rely on a generic “badass women” to fill the “strong female characters” trope and call it a day. Instead, the series lets the ladies be complex, fully fleshed-out human beings.
Take Winry, Edward’s childhood best friend. She could have so easily fallen neatly into the “love interest” category, and even though the two eventually harbor romantic feelings for one another, there’s so much depth to her character that it seems secondary. She’s a damn good mechanic, succeeding in a male-dominated field, and she’s unabashedly proud of her skills. But, on top of her career success, she doesn’t shy away from her more tender feelings and cries easily for her friends. Her commitment to helping the brothers drives them forward, but it doesn’t prevent her from succeeding in her own right.
Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye is my personal favorite character, and she’s certainly one of the most complicated characters on the show. Her fate is inextricably tied to her superior, Colonel Roy Mustang, and their relationship is dysfunctional to say the least. They’re extremely co-dependent, but luckily this isn’t a case of Hawkeye slavishly following his orders. Along with doing everything in her power to help him achieve his ambitions, she’s also dealing with some pretty heavy stuff on her own. She is a military sniper, and the human death toll that she was personally responsible for during the Ishvalan War weighs on her heavily. Because of this, she’s committed to doing everything in her power to fix the country’s military dictatorship rather than lusting after Mustang.
The reason I love May so much is that, even though she’s a pretty tough little girl, her toughness doesn’t trump the fact that she’s twelve years old. At twelve, everyone gets an obsessive crush, and May’s obsessive crush is on Alphonse. She builds him up in her mind and fantasizes about their life together. The show doesn’t demean her for this. It embraces the fact that cute fuzzy pandas and getting psyched about talking to a boy that you like are parts of adolescence. And then on top of that, she’s the only person who knows an alternative form of alchemy called alkahestry that can save the country from certain doom.
Izumi Curtis takes the boys in after the death of their mother and teaches them alchemy. She’s tough as nails and begins their training by abandoning them on an island for a month (don’t worry, she left her assistant to secretly watch over them). Even after years of training and military life, it’s clear that Ed and Al never surpass her in skill. Despite her amazing talent, Izumi would rather be thought of as a housewife than an alchemist. She loves her husband and prefers the butcher shop they run together over the riches associated with becoming a State Alchemist, and the show lets her determine her own role.
Gracia Hughes is by all means a secondary character, but I don’t think that makes her any less remarkable. Her primary function is as a supportive military wife and stay-at-home mom to a three-year-old. She’s often there to bake Ed and Al an apple pie and give them comfort during tough times. Gracia is the only active mother represented on the show, and it’s nice to see her role valued alongside all of the highly trained ass-kicking women.
Olivier Mira Armstrong
Out of all the women on this list, General Olivier Mira Armstrong is the closest to falling into the “strong female character” trap. Compared to her brawny younger brother Alex, whose personality is literally sparkles and roses, Olivier is a staunch and ruthless leader. She’s a blonde beauty, but her actions are always swift and sure. If she was the only woman in Brotherhood, I would complain about creating unfair and unattainable standards for women. But there are plenty of women, all with different personalities and motivations, so watching Olivier kick ass is just plain awesome.
Ultimately, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood portrays women successfully because it has a huge breadth of representation. If one female character has some iffy qualities, it’s not a symptom of some systemic problem with the portrayal of women in anime, it’s just an individual character flaw. The women in the universe range from housewives to soldiers, weaklings to badasses, just like in real life.
All images via the Fullmetal Alchemist Wiki