Violet Evergarden: History and Feminism

Violet Evergarden is a very cheesy, emotional anime that is currently airing on Japanese TV. It’s been simulcast worldwide and is also receiving positive attention from dedicated fansubbers. VEG’s charm point are its visuals and direction, but there’s something else to Kyoto Animation’s fantasy that’s worth talking about- the depiction of its female main character. Violet is an interesting girl; her problems and surprising gifts make her the focal point of drama big and small. She and the world she lives in are both shaped not just by the tone and style of the stories but by the history of female protagonists, real-world historical concepts related to women, and the nature of psychological trauma and unique mental behaviour. I think Violet Evergarden is a very compelling show and I’d like to take it apart and look at its contents and what they make me think about.

To begin with, we need to talk about Violet herself. In the fictional European setting of the story, we are introduced to Violet in the aftermath of a brutal WWI-esque conflict. Great ocean liners, the first aeroplanes, rifles and artillery, the age Violet awakens in is quite similar to those halcyon days we’ve seen so often in our fiction. However, Violet isn’t exactly aware of her surroundings. She’s a soldier; a child soldier of unknown origin that has fought and killed for all her life. In her youth she was found by the brother of Major Gilbert and given to him as a weapon for his infantry company. Gilbert was reluctant to use Violet in this manner but he had no choice up until the end of the war when he was able to get Violet out of harm’s way. After the war, with Gilbert MIA and presumed dead, Violet was left battered, maimed by the loss of arms, and in the custody of former military man Claudia Hodgins. Hodgins, aware of Gilbert’s design to help Violet survive after the war, takes her to a new company he’s started in the recovering economy, a large delivery and copy-writing service. Violet is… slow to adapt, to say the least.

The concept of child soldiers is a pretty uncomfortable one if treated seriously, not like a kid’s show where the consequences of fighting are treated tenderly. Instead, as is well-known and supported by research done by the UN, child soldiers who survive conflicts tend to come out very badly-damaged. Psychological trauma, substance abuse, violent moodswings, emotional stunted-ness, and so on. Violet in the show is not quite as intense as this, but her state is notable in how it develops. At the start, Violet shows little emotion and understanding of social custom, being blunt and aloof. This changes, however, as time moves forward. As Violet slowly becomes more cognizant of her surroundings and becomes more aware and articulate of her emotions, things she had been unable to grow, the full impact of her past begins to affect her. She finds herself emotionally compromised and shaken by flashbacks to her past, even able to realize how she had always been a ticking time-bomb. It eventually culminates in her experiencing night terrors, moodswings and an aborted attempt to kill herself.

This is reminiscent of posttraumatic stress disorder in soldiers. I personally have heard tales in my family of ancestors who came home from the War seemingly fine only to develop mental health issues and suffer from stress and emotional outbursts and other such things as time went on. While there’s historical evidence of PTSD being a thing dating back to the Ancient Greeks and Assyrians,  World War I is pretty well-known as the point when shell-shock and other such terms that ultimately relate to the cumulative psychological impact of war became clear. The pacifist movements in the post WWI world were even supported by books such as All Quiet on the Western Front, which highlighted the horrible nature of their scale and death-toll. Even though World War II happened, there was a lasting effect on our cultural outlook, and it’s fairly thematically important to Violet Evergarden’s fictionalized conflict. The story takes caveats such as Violet’s mechanical prosthetic arms, but it doesn’t negate the fact those arms gorily slopped to the floor in the middle of a bloody firefight between terrified soldiers. We can assume that Violet’s life even before she met Gilbert was full of such nightmarish scenes, and it’s not hard to think her condition is entirely due to growing up in such a hellish environment.

That said, there’s another aspect to consider with Violet, and it’s not really one I’m qualified to talk about, so I’d like to simply mention that I’ve seen other people discuss it. Violet’s behaviour socially is reminiscent of the way in which people who are on the autism spectrum or aneurotypical behave, at least, people who share these traits think so. The way she thinks and acts and specifically tries to process complex behaviours resonates with them, and as such they have an affinity with her. I don’t really have anything to comment on there except that representation, IE characters you can relate to and understand because they share things with you, is important and good, and if Violet resonates with you then I think that’s a good thing. I did notice a bit of talk that the origin of her unique state wasn’t the same as it is with said group, but I don’t really think that’s important, because it’s more about the understanding of the now than the starting point. If that makes sense. Sorry if I didn’t get this part across well, but I think it’s worth bringing to people’s attention since it’s an important thing to consider. Any sort of minority representation that’s handled well is welcome, IMO.

Violet Evergarden is fairly strongly steeped in fantasy as a genre. Fantasy as we understand it, is a very broad term that tends to have a rather narrow front-end. When we think of it, we can potentially think of everything from surreal realities to gritty alternate versions of our own world, but we mostly think of swords, sorcery, goblins and dragons. That’s why VEG’s use of history and fantasy interests me- it constructs a setting that mixes a strong real-world history vibe with unusual differences, from minor things like the unusual greenery and plantlife in a culturally European setting, to major caveats like Violet’s technologically-advanced mechanical prosthetic arms. The reason we can see this series as fantasy is that the why’s of Violet’s arms are not the focus- for all we know humans in this setting might have a fundamentally different internal nerve structure that somehow allows the grafting of non-electronic mechanical parts, or whatever. It doesn’t matter though, because the reason Violet has mechanical hands is so that she’s got a symbol of her losses and a thematic relation to the typewriter she uses. It’s a use of fantasy not for creating a unique world but to create a sort of physical manifestation of character flow.

I’d like to link this talk of fantasy as a genre to the discussion of violence earlier. Something that comes up a lot in fantasy is warfare, bloodshed, and fighting. If you think of all the well-known giants of the genre, from Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time, chances are it’s going to be a story about fighting and killing for survival. That’s not to say all fantasy is like this, there’s plenty of fantasy stories that don’t fit the bill. But I do think it’s interesting that Violet Evergarden, granted the virtue of the label of fantasy by its use of such concepts to facilitate its imagined story, makes a rather clear turn against the idea of war. The entire depiction of conflict between humans is in Violet’s past, and the story focuses on what she does with her life after putting down her gun. In fact, in episode 9 there is a very noticeable point where the show brings up a military issue and has Violet leave it behind, symbolized by her glimpsing her younger self in military uniform, saluting as she disappears into the rain. To Violet, she seems to have realized that part of her life is over, and her new identity and role in the world is something different- though she still feels guilt about it and is unsure of her right to do so. I don’t think this is a proper statement against violence or anything so strong, but I do think a lot of fantasy stories, despite showing violence and war as bad things, tend to not free their characters from it until some kind of resolution, so if Violet can remain free from further conflicts I think it’d be quite a refreshing take.

 

Now it’s time to talk about the history part of the historical fantasy. As said above, a big part of VEG is how it uses World War I’s allusions and concepts, and that actually applies to a central part of society in peacetime that the show follows as well. See, Violet gets a job as a ghost-writer, and she works using a typewriter. The typewriter is kind of a big deal because it’s an example of technology changing with society but also changing society itself- the machine was conceived mostly as a way for recording spoken words quickly, a rather menial job, and socially it ended up in the category of women’s work. However, that was actually a “good” thing, despite it being rather derogatory and sexist (everything was like that back then), because while typewriters as a device had been developed in different forms for over a century before they hit their stride, they were designed for domestic use and considered to be a tool in a household for men to dictate to their wife or servant as they typed. This played into marketing and it became popular for women to be seen using them, as they were fashionable items for European culture that gradually developed more materialistic interests in technology and gadgets. But as businesses got bigger and transactions got faster and records got thicker, it became imperative that commercial industry need typewriters too. But oh no, social stigma meant only ladies could use them! Begrudgingly the men started hiring women, and bam, a whole new opportunity for independence and income bloomed. This was helped later on by great wars that ate up the male population and brought women into the workforce in even greater capacity- the typewriter was just one facet of this. It’s no coincidence VEG features a post-war boom with working women.

The typing itself is also an important piece of independence. As the show states and as was the case in our past as well, a lack of literacy meant that the idea of dictating letters and communicating across large distances was a very important one for people of lower social standing who wished to gain some manner of freedom- being able to contact other family members in other towns, express eloquence to a potential love interest, being able to convey ability to an employer, these are important things for everyone and the more outlets of expression you have, the less rigid your status in life is. The ghost-writing service in VEG is a form of that societal change, just as it is to the girls in the show. They are young, dress pretty to increase their marketability in a society that still judges women by looks, but they work and make their own way. Though it is worth noting that at least one woman in the typing class episode was fairly older than her peers. This is a nice nod to the fact that women stuck in dead-end stagnation previously might have a chance to escape with the advent of new career options. I think it’s kind of sad that these societal changes come about as a side-effect of technology and political clashes, but I think that’s also kind of important. There’s a darkness to our world that comes across pretty clearly when you look at it through the lens of history.

This time period was very important for women, but what does Violet Evergarden actually say about females? Does it have feminist themes? Well, the most obvious thing is that it very much resembles the struggle for female stories and the representation of women in fiction in the time period it broadly covers. Violet as a protagonist, is engaging in what women at the time were engaging in- independent work. Her story consists of her traveling and helping others as she does her job, escaping from a hellish life. At a most basic level, there’s nothing wrong with that- but it gets more complex when you understand the full framing and narrative. Violet’s original life was as a soldier where she depended on a commanding officer, a man named Gilbert. Gilbert gave Violet purpose with his orders in a chaotic world. Her dependence on him was extreme to the point that she was completely lost when he left her. The story then focuses on her attaining independence and gaining mental clarity and expressing self-actualization, but it’s facilitated by two male characters. The first, Gilbert, wants to get Violet out of her military role, so he approaches the second, Hodgins, a man of some wealth, to take care of her and get her a job. Hodgins does this to the best of his ability, because he takes pity on Violet and sees in her the scars left by the war that he also bears.

This is potentially a large problem to modern feminist themes, because the implication is that Violet didn’t attain the ability to free herself- she was supported by men who from a position of privilege helped her. This type of story is well-known in literature as being a “Daddy-Long-Legs” type story, after a novel written by Jean Webster in the early 1900s, and expresses the same type of feelings and concepts as VEG does. In the novel, a girl in an unpleasant and inescapable position is rescued from her fate by a male benefactor that sees promise in her talents and nature, and remains in a passive role while the girl experiences life and grows in the freedom she’s given, eventually achieving satisfaction. A more familiar story in this vein to anime fans would be Oniisama E…, an early 90s series where a girl corresponds with a male teacher about her experiences in education. While Oniisama isn’t about the same kind of support that Webster’s book is, the key aspect is this idea of a male post to lean against. Many feminists have criticized these types of stories because they believe they don’t really support female independence and cast men in a helpful light when in reality men interfere or take control of female freedom. Additionally there’s the aspect of romance. In Daddy-Long-Legs, the protagonist eventually falls in love with her benefactor, while in Oniisama such a relationship does not occur. The concept of love gives the power dynamics of such a relationship a troubling aspect, such as making a woman indebted to her benefactor through gifts and praise.

What it comes down to, I think, is the way that the you look at the show. Violet Evergarden is not trying to look at things through a modern lens when it comes to females and romance- it is quite straightforwardly reproducing the themes, thoughts and concepts of the period of time it’s recreated in a fictional setting. One episode even features an arranged marriage and a courtship between potential partners through a public display of affection, used in a manner to assuage factions of government under a monarchy. This is ancient stuff, and the show presents it as a sincere attempt to find happiness within these boundaries. We can assume the same is true of Violet and her benefactors- the situation in the world is that she can only get the chance with the help of those in power feeling sympathy and reaching down to help others, and that, in the context of the setting, is a good thing and brings happiness.

To that end, I think the question becomes….is it okay to make fiction like this? I’ve noticed this for a while when people have been discussing fantasy and the role of women. You’ve got people who say in a low fantasy setting based on our history, that women should be second-class citizens because that’s how they were in our world (and still are tbh). On the other side are people who say that fantasy doesn’t have to match reality and depicting women as equals to men is good because it encourages women as a whole and makes male readers empathize with females and so on. I think that there’s room for both setting, yes, but the important thing is how you use them. Like, if you write a story about big beefy dudes who fight in loincloths and the women are treated like props and trophies then that’s bad. You’re ignoring the humanity of women and turning them into objects. We know that women are humans and equals and always have been. There’s evidence stretching back all across recorded history and on every continent that shows no matter how barbaric and ancient the culture is, women were still there, still fighting, still doing their best. And those are the stories that need telling. A woman’s story in adverse conditions can be inspiring, even if it feels crushing. You as a writer, should acknowledge that if you’re going to write a story like this.

Do I feel Violet Evergarden does this? Yes, speaking of the material present. Violet is initially treated as a curiosity and a weirdo by her co-workers, she gains their respect and trust, improves her skills, struggles with her personal trauma as it grows more overwhelming, mulls over her life of loyalty to a man that is now lost and sees that her actions have an impact on the world, providing a glimpse at a new purpose. I think that for a woman in a society based on European recent history, her story is fairly poignant. I understand Violet’s hardships, and I feel happy when she succeeds. The fact she’s helped by men isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it’s a prayer that humans can be kind and help others less fortunate than them.

I don’t think this is something that can be just wrapped up in three thousand words. What we get from a story doesn’t have to be one cohesive message, and there’s no reason VEG needs to seen that way. We can get parts that mean things, parts that don’t apply to us, parts that simply remind us of our values without matching them. Perhaps Violet will fall in love with a benefactor and seek his happiness. It’s happened before, heck, in stories written by women it’s quite common to seek out a good man. I’ve thought about it a lot as to why an independent woman would want such a fate, and perhaps in the past the writers of books like Daddy-Long-Legs simply wanted to seek out someone to hold them and keep them safe from a world that scared them. I mean, I know the feeling? I do think I’m the type to stay alone, but I can’t begrudge those who look at the formless male-dominated world with eyes that seek pareidolia and dream of an island of safety. But again, I can’t really disapprove of someone who sees VEG and its ilk as a story in the trappings of a bygone era that might influence modern women into accepting something they shouldn’t. Buuut like, I don’t think the audience is unable to see these things as what they are? I think many female viewers are quite sharp- we can understand and process things like this. What we consume isn’t what we express. When a work by a female author has problematic elements, I think we shouldn’t assume that the author is endorsing them right away. It’s possible that fiction is the ultimate safe space for intimacy and expressions of romance where nobody can get hurt because the author’s hand makes sure that all acts are safe from going bad….or at least, that hearts can be healed.

I think I value Violet and her story because I think the past age is important and reflecting on different aspects of it is important. I don’t mean to emulate the past, but to carry the feelings and catharsis of women within it with me to the future. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, or whatever. For me it’s less that and more “I want you to know I understand”.

So anyway how did she survive a grenade blast, losing both arms and a ton of blo-

 

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5 thoughts on “Violet Evergarden: History and Feminism”

  1. I just started watching Violet Evergarden and I really enjoyed reading your piece.

    though if you don’t mind I’d like to respond to this line “This is potentially a large problem to modern feminist themes, because the implication is that Violet didn’t attain the ability to free herself- she was supported by men who from a position of privilege helped her.” and the rest of the paragraph because I’m really intrigued by the way it’s written.

    As an anime fan who also identify as a feminist, I don’t really see this as a problem. While it’s true Violet had to depend on two men (one father figure, one is her boss), both of the men gave her job opportunities of which she willingly partakes. Neither of them forced her to work as maids or put in her in kitchen duty just because she’s female. What I do think would be a problem is if Violet is written as being too dependent on her benefactors (being too clingy or useless) but we can see Violet makes her own decision for her own self improvement. That alone is ‘feminist’ enough for me.

    It’s important to acknowledge anime/fictions with a male protagonist who are saved or raised by an older female character, or shows a certain degree dependency towards a stronger woman (Zetman, Claymore, and also Fairy Tail’s Gray & Lyon – they were adopted by a woman) – not romantically – but I don’t see anyone criticizing it as degrading men into lower class people.

    Having Gilbert and Hodgins isn’t particularly a gender issue to me, as I do believe you can have dependency towards another person regardless of gender. Violet’s benefactors happens to be male, I don’t think it would make much difference if her benefactors are female.

    That’s just my two cents. I hope you don’t take it to heart. I’m glad to have read your thoughts on the show and I really love reading pieces like this. Keep it up. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Feminism is a ridiculous Western ideology. The rest of the world understands the difference and roles of women and men, this as well applies to very traditional Japan.

    Like

    1. I agree, the idea of equal rights is definitely exclusive to the West and no woman on any other continent at any point in time has at all resented the fact that men control their lives. Truly you are a sage of wisdom, person who refers to themselves as a buzzword for an unemployed shut-in stereotype.

      Liked by 1 person

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