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My Email to io9’s Postman about Sword Art Online’s Rape Problem

**Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence**


I am a pretty big fan of the show Sword Art Online. I might even call it my favorite show after Legend of Korra, but it’s not losing by much.  But now that the Phantom Bullet story arc is winding up, I’m seeing what could become a pattern starting to form.  This is the second story arc in a row where the final climax uses rape as a plot device to increase the tension and dramatic stakes for Kirito.


Shinkawa attacking Sinon/Asada outside of the game world.

As I’ve been thinking about the scene from the last episode, I’ve come to two conclusions.  The first is that, from a storytelling perspective, the attack on Sinon isn’t done wrong, especially in comparison to the abuse that Asuna suffered at the end of the previous season.  But the second is that, whether or not this one incident was well-written, I’m still concerned about the messages about women and violence in the show.  And I’m not sure how to feel.

There's huge potential here to discuss how rape in a VRMMORPG could be prosecuted in the real world...  But it's a potential the writers never explore.

There’s huge potential here to discuss how rape in a VRMMORPG could be prosecuted in the real world… But it’s a potential the writers never explore.

So I asked the Postman (aka Rob Bricken) at io9’s mail column, Postal Apocalypse.  If you’re unfamiliar with Postal Apocalypse, it’s kinda like an advice column for your questions about nerdy things.  Bricken then responds to the questions he deems fit for the column from within the character of the Postman, who lives in the post apocalyptic future delivering mail and evading zombies and sentient gorillas and the like.  Out of all of Gawker Media (including io9 and Jezebel and Kotaku), Postal Apocalypse is probably my favorite column.  Bricken regularly addresses issues of sexism in the column, so I decided to email my conflicting feelings with a cry for help to the Postman.  I have yet to find out if my email has even been read, but I guarantee that should it be chosen for a column, I will be posting about it again.  Until that moment, here is the text of my email (I’ve added the pictures now):

Dear Postman,

I hope all is well and that the inevitable acid rain has not eaten through your skin or your mail bag.
In the most recent (as of 9/30/14) episode of Sword Art Online, there is a complex sequence of events that culminate in Sinon’s best friend trying to rape her in the real world.  I’ve talked a lot about this scene with two of my male friends, both of whom were frustrated or upset by the scene.  As a female and a twice-over survivor of sexual assault, though, I felt..oddly pleased and simultaneously concerned.  Apart from the crazy-eyes animation and Shinkawa repeating Sinon’s name over and over again, everything about the attack was realistic.  That’s how rape often happens–your friends, intimate partners, family members, they’re the ones attacking you.  And as someone who was assaulted by someone close to me while I already struggled with PTSD, I felt…represented?  All season long, I’ve connected with Sinon through her PTSD, and I’ve scrutinized the show over how it portrays her struggles and juxtaposes them with Kirito’s.  Over and over again, this season I’ve been impressed with how much the show has grown and changed since the sexist and problematic Alfheim Online story.  I felt like the attempted rape fit within the characters and fit within the story line, and when Sinon decided to fight back, I felt triumphant because not everybody has the strength to fight back.
Shinkawa's crazy eyes

Shinkawa’s crazy eyes

Like Asuna…didn’t fight back.  The previous story arc in SAO revolved around Asuna’s virtual self having been kidnapped and spirited away into the game Alfheim Online, where she’s kept in a literal cage.  Her attacker Sugou fondles her real body without her consent, assaults her and rapes her all on screen.  Asuna is resigned to wait for Kirito and wait for Kirito to rescue her–it’s tropey as hell.  Asuna breaks out once, but it’s short-lived.

Asuna being captured by the tentacle monster, who looks like he’s about to grope her chest with one of his tentacles.

I feel like there’s a right way to talk about rape in fiction, and a bad way to talk about it.  Sinon’s story does it mostly right and Asuna’s does it mostly wrong.  When I compare the end of the Alfheim story, where Asuna is chained to a ceiling and Sugou rapes her with oral sex (it’s in the background and blurred, but obvious what is happening), to the wrapping-up process of the current story arc, the sensitivity with which the show treats women and victimhood has gone up substantially.  Even in just the little details of the season, like when Kirito enters GGO for the first time and ends up in a feminine avatar, and then he has to deal with street harassment from the other gamers, demonstrate that the writers of the show have increased their awareness of the difficulties that women face both online and in their daily lives.  So in that, I applaud them.  But still…
Even though the recent rape scene, from both an activist and storyteller perspective, does almost everything right and shows growth and understanding from the writers, my concern is that the writers will continue using rape as a means to increase the grittiness and danger of the world, and to up the stakes for Kirito as the hero.  While the trauma of living in Aincrad and participating in SAO is being thoroughly explored, Asuna’s assault has not been dealt with within the show yet, and I’m afraid that Sinon might get similar treatment after the fact.  It feels like sexual assault is considered a traumatic thing, but not traumatic enough to warrant the depth of exploration that goes into death and killing.  Like it’s traumatic in the moment, but has no lasting effects.  So even though it’s well-done and sensitive, and in the moment I totally buy it, the attack on Sinon feels like a cheap plot device when viewed alongside what happened to Asuna in the previous season.  If the next story arc includes a rape or attempted rape an episode or two away from the end, I will be incredibly disappointed.  I haven’t read any of the light novels, but I am tentatively optimistic.  I hope I’m optimistic.
Kirito's first day playing GGO, he is harassed by other men because his feminine avatar makes them think he is a woman.  It's portrayed as creepy and scary, like street harassment in real life, and it broadens Kirito's understanding of what it means to be a female gamer.  This was a win.

Kirito’s first day playing GGO, he is harassed by other men because his feminine avatar makes them think he is a woman. It’s portrayed as creepy and scary, like street harassment in real life, and it broadens Kirito’s understanding of what it means to be a female gamer. This was a win.

One of my male friends who’s also watching SAO was livid with the attack scene.  He said he found it disturbing and troubling, and that the show might be getting too dark for him.  I feel like I should feel that way, especially as a survivor, but I don’t.  I’m just cautiously anticipating whether or not this rape problem is ever going to be addressed within the show, or if rape will become shorthand for “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!,” and then Kirito saves the day.  Should I be more incensed now?  Or should I save my wrath for if my cautious optimism is crushed?  And will I ever get to see Asuna being a badass again?
My ladies.  Fan art by Dalivh on DeviantArt.

My ladies. Fan art by Dalivh on DeviantArt.

There are plenty of great things about Sword Art Online, and I’m not planning on quitting the show just yet.  I think that, especially so far this season, they’ve been setting up what could be a great platform to discuss how different traumas effect people.  There’s so much they could be doing.  We just have to hold tight and see if they do it.  So, my readers — what do you think?  Is the difference between Sinon’s assault and Asuna’s assault indicative of growth in the writers, or is it a step toward a trend of violence against women as grit and worldbuilding in SAO?

6 thoughts on “My Email to io9’s Postman about Sword Art Online’s Rape Problem

  1. Pingback: Sword Art Online Revisited | Maggie Felisberto's Blog

  2. I haven’t watched the second seasons yet, but I’ll probably do so in the future. The next season of anime looks a bit thin so I’ll probably have some downtime to watch it then. But basically, Sword Art Online dissapointed me in such a huge way because of how Asuna was treated in the second half of the first season, because of how it dealt with Asuna.

    Now the first half already had inconsistencies in billing Asuna as one of the strongest SAO players, about as close to Kirito as can be, and yet has ridiculous situations where Kirito has to fight for Asuna’s freedom from the Guild. But the second season is beyond the pale! Now she is literally reduced to the damsel in distress trope par excellence. On top of that, she’s put in situations where she is routinely sexually assaulted, including a tentacle scene in ways which, far from being handled with any tact, are almost played straight for Fanservice.

    It was gross and exploitative. There’s a lot of criticism to be had for SAO, at least from my perspective, but Asuna was actually a pretty interesting character and the relationship between her and Kirito made sense. And despite it being criticized as being ‘forced romance’, the romance plot actually is handled well initially, but maybe they take several steps way too quick. Either way, it was one of the better parts of the show.

    But then they screwed it up entirely…sadness

    • SAO II is definitely worth the watch. As a franchise, SAO can be very problematic, especially the Fairy Dance story arc. I don’t think I’ve met a single fan of the show who liked it! After SAO II began its last story arc (the Asuna-centric Mother’s Rosario, which is just beautiful), I wrote a detailed follow-up to this post about my feelings regarding II, which you can find here, if you are interested. Also, know that I liked the end of SAO II enough to be planning SAO II cosplay for AnimeNext this summer.

      When I think of the sexism in SAO, I think about what Anita Sarkeesian says at the beginnings of her videos, how we can be critical of our media and its problems while still enjoying what we like.

      As far as the Kirito/Asuna romance goes, I ship it. I thought the way the relationship progressed in the first half of SAO and in the second half of SAO II was incredibly well done and realistic, and I think the pair’s character development in the post-traumatic stress world of SAO II and how it interferes with their relationship is very deftly handled. Whereas Kirito is more prone to the recognizable panic attacks and nightmares scenario, Asuna’s character has become one of timidity and fear that she fights to overcome, which is a character trait that Asuna starts to develop in Aincrad despite being one of the highest level players (and let’s not get into the absurdity of Heathcliff’s duel with Kirito; such an obvious ploy to get Kirito in the guild and to see whether or not Kirito could beat him, using Asuna as an excuse, and then she gets her leave anyway when they have their honeymoon. Bullshit, the whole thing). The couple have a handful of really beautiful moments in Mother’s Rosario that just really enforce, yeah, these two are meant to be together through all of this crap.

      Basically, as far as SAO II story arcs go, Phantom Bullet is pretty great and doesn’t end shittily like I thought it would, Caliber didn’t need to be three episodes long because it doesn’t quite have gravitas, and Mother’s Rosario is the most beautiful thing that ever happened and deserved more of the season’s time.

      I’m interested in seeing how the anime handles the upcoming stories from the novels with Project Alicization, so I’ll come back for season three whenever that happens.

      Thanks for the lengthy comment!

  3. I completely agree with you on this. As a rape survivor I know how traumatizing and life ruining the situation can be. I understand that the attempt of multiple rapes in ALO, GGO and UWO are to show the world no matter what real or virtual the world is a terrifying place. But as said the situation is thrown in “ah scary!” then completely forgotten about and the girls walk it off. Unfortunately life just doesn’t work that way. And within hours of being freed to the real world again Asuna is back in ALO. I don’t ever want to see anyone suffer but I find it really frustrating that such a sensitive topic as rape is used to make Kirito a better hero. And women aren’t the only ones who can get attacked. I wouldn’t ever want to see Kirito or Eugio or any of the boys getting raped but atleast then it makes more sense that anything can happen in the world. Not to just make Kirito look better as the hero. Asuna though in some ways have shown a difference in personality because of this. “In that world I was a warrior, But here….” Although Asuna can be a big cry baby but she seems to show a little bit of non confidence. I never really liked Asuna in the first place and maybe her feisty bad ass personality in SAO was a mask she wore but she does seem off at times. Anyways I just wished that he could find a differen’t way to tear emotion into the characters. Like when Kirito lost his arm saving Asuna in SAO. That would’ve crossed a line into a emotional ride. “I only have one arm now Asuna how can I even protect you!?” and so on and so forth.

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