So this is a contentious issue. I’ll state first of all that Rooster Teeth is one of my all-time favourite production companies for the huge amount of engagement they have with their community and the sheer amount of hard work they dedicate to building up their name and talent. RWBY particularly has a place forever in my heart and mind for the inspiring story behind its creation and the authentic, infinitely generous passion of its creator, Monty Oum. Trying to critique it at this stage feels like kicking a service dog, especially when it has such a dedicated, creative, and prolific fanbase, and considering the heartfelt efforts Kerry and Miles have put in to carry on what can only be a hugely daunting legacy.
This is another feminist rant again, right?
Essentially… yeah. I mean particularly with Season 4, it’s easy to see where the dynamic has shifted. And that’s not necessarily as a result of it passing out of Monty’s hands, although two different directors being given the same content will inevitably make things that are very different. You only need to look at how the Harry Potter movies changed from director to director to see the atmosphere shift, even ignoring the darkening plot.
(WARNING: RWBY SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW)
But RWBY does so much right! It’s awesome!
It IS an awesome concept, yes. And it DOES do a lot right, or at least it did. It is the show that started making men want to crossplay in my local cosplay group, and had them talking about gender representation in media generally. The highlight of one particular exchange:
“You know, I really wanna cosplay someone from RWBY, but the main guy is Jaune, and he’s kinda weak. But… well, I guess that’s how girls feel when they watch literally any other show.”
That a show can be performing quality subliminal education on its audience to any degree is great. AND, in the first few seasons at least, there’s little-to-no sexualisation of any of the characters (even Yang’s, erm, endowments aren’t given any particular focus). For volumes 1-3 Ruby herself has no skin showing except her face and her hands, and that is SO AWESOME, especially in a combat/magical girl genre for a teenage audience where panty shots are pretty much an inevitable punchline in any given twenty-minute span.
So the foundation is rock-solid. If you’re going into specifics like the Bechdel test, or even just a qualitative analysis of how the girls interact and who drives the plot, the first seasons are fricking gold standard. The very first scene is Ruby kicking arse, directing the flow of combat with incredible prowess. She drives the story and, being so excellent in front of Glynda, is the reason she’s accepted into Beacon Academy. Throughout this series, she and her team are the driving focus and very few scenes are stolen by any of the guys.
Granted, there are only two male deuteragonists at this stage; Jaune and Ren, but even then, Jaune and Pyrrha have equal footing on their interactions, as do Ren and Nora. There’s never a point where the impetus is handed completely to a guy to keep the scenes or story going, and none of the characters are held hostage in their progression by anything a guy does. This is a frequent problem with many stories, especially ones that proclaim to have strong women, because often they’re left helplessly strung along by the guy’s actions or intentions. Please check out how many issues I had with Wonder Women for these same reasons if you haven’t had enough of my voice yet.
Alright Buster, what did RWBY actually do, then?
Aside from distorting the characters’ body proportions (see Blake’s section), the main criticism I have with the series at this point is the degredation and inconsistencies with its characters, specifically the reduction of the girls’ strength and increasing emotional dependence on the men.
Season 4 opens with Cinder sitting at a table with some of Salem’s henchmen that we’ve never met before; Hazel, Arthur, and Tyrian. Cinder is reduced to a whisper and sports a severely damaged (or missing) eye after her encounter with Ruby on the tower. The guys in the room spend their time belittling her for being weak, until Salem comes in and shuts them up.
Cinder up to this point has been a near unstoppable force in the show. Having her reduced to a struggling mute is definitely indicative of a shift in power, if for no other reason than nothing like this has ever happened before in the world of Vale, but this has some troubling undertones. We get that the guys are arrogant and conceited, but there is never an acknowledgement that Cinder was ever strong, except by Salem. Given that she had already nearly slain one of the maidens (seen in Season 3) and they have all obviously known of each other for some time, it’s a little contrarian for opportunistic malefactors like them to comment on what they see as an inherent weakness than her inflicted weakness caused by the battle at Beacon.
The irony is that this is arguably the strongest and most independent we see any woman for the first five-six episodes in the show, because Salem shoots down her henchmen’s crappy (and rather confusingly-constructed) arguments and takes control of the room where Cinder can’t. We don’t even know who Salem is, but if she has Cinder quaking in her boots, she must mean business.
But herein lies the foundation for the tones seeping into RWBY, and it’s a sadly common occurrence for women in media, especially sci-fi action, and a largely-criticised trope of Joss Whedon fiction in particular: a woman cannot be powerful without also suffering directly as a result of that power. This begins to become apparent in Season 3, where Yang, Blake, Ruby, Penny, Pyrrha and Cinder all suffer something horrible as a result of their increasing abilities and positions.
While an escalation of danger is often necessary for furthering the plot, in Season 4 it happens in a more insidious and subconscious way than actual bodily harm. It’s about removing agency, lack of control, and having situations consistently dominated by the male characters. Kind of exactly like the Wonder Woman movie, even after it was saved from Joss Whedon’s terrible faux-feminist fingers.
Not a single one of the main four characters has agency in their given scenes or episodes, with the exception of Weiss, the only one of the four who stays any degree above it.
Red Like Roses Fills my Dreams (but just in the background)
Ruby fighting in team RNJR gives us unique snapshots at her increasing capabilities, but sadly she’s relegated to mostly taking directions from Jaune. Ruby was a masterful strategist in her own right by the second season, understanding her team’s abilities innately to take down pretty much anything they faced. In the Season 4 skirmishes, she doesn’t contribute anything except raw power, martial arts prowess, and in the case of Qrow’s fight with Tyrian, actually causes Qrow to be injured by way of her intervention. This takes on the Whedon-esque visions of punishing a girl for becoming stronger by making her choose between two scenarios, both of which weaken her- she chooses to fight when warned not to, and almost loses her uncle as a result. While raw power is definitely something to aspire to, it also reduces Ruby to a tool to be exploited; Nora suffers from this even moreso, whether as a bruiser for dramatic effects shots or a relatively-blank vessel to see Ren’s character development.
The irony is as soon as we enter the series, Nora and Ren have a dialogue that’s more prophetic than it should have been, debating whether the team should be called JNRR or RNJR because they’re not sure if the original team majority dictates the focus of the mission. That’s how the story progresses, with unsteady footing due to the organic chemistry of the principal characters being left in the previous season when they were all in the same place.
It’s not only in battle where Ruby is forced back for the sake of others. Jaune leads them with the map; Ruby watches or follows. When they enter a village, Ren takes charge. It’s almost as if each scene has to be either serious, sad or comedic- if it’s serious, the lead is given to Ren. Sad, it’s Jaune. If it’s comedic, it’s split between Jaune and Ruby, or Ren and Nora. There’s no nuance. The plot dictates the character’s emotions, and not the reverse. This season was intended as Ruby’s journey, and she is very much in the back seat.
So Jaune and Ruby are sort of at odds, because she has both the power and the knowledge, but seems to be functionally redundant to give Jaune and Ren some interaction. And yes, Jaune needs development. But he gets that. He has the most touching moment of the entire season, following directions from Pyrrha recorded on his scroll. I think him being less active in the initial fight would have made both him and Ruby stronger in the long run by showcasing their dedication to the journey as a whole, and the contrast in their individual paths. Your characters aren’t deep or varied if they can essentially all do exactly the same stuff in different colours.
Before we get to the brilliant poignancy of that night-time training scene, we suffer the most egregious betrayal of Ruby’s character, and perhaps the show as a whole. After the battle with the Geist, we discover The Scene Had To Be Written This Way To Give Jaune Something To Do because Jaune’s equipment is currently being reforged from Pyrrha’s old weapons.
This potentially touching moment, however, is ruined by Ruby’s uncharacteristically mean-spirited mocking of Jaune’s bunny hoodie. It’s out of character at best, especially as (aside from Pyrrha) she’s always been the most emotionally receptive of anyone, particularly to Jaune when they were both found to be the leaders of their teams, AND she herself has shown affinity for animal-themed clothing. Ruby and Jaune were (from our perspective) both hit hardest by the loss of Pyrrha, so to have her break into such a raucous fit at a pivotal moment for Jaune’s reconciliation is unfair to him as a guy, and her as a sympathetic leader. This comes at a point where we ourselves are still reeling from Pyrrha’s loss, so even if this HAD to happen, it would have been better suited to something entirely separate from Pyrrha’s memories.
To add to the inconsideration for Jaune’s mourning, Ruby is also preying on a character we know to be emotionally vulnerable from the very beginning. Placing this scene in which the lead girl openly and brutally mocks her male friend for showing ‘immasculating’ interests is blindingly punishing, and an insult to any guy who enjoys a show about girls with frilly skirts and awesome weapons. It furthers the damaging stereotypes of hegemonic masculinity that guys can’t like soft things or be emotionally open in the first place, by making fun of a character that was mercilessly bullied by larger guys for being weak in Season 1. Jaune knows his weaknesses already, and, like many male fans, he’s introverted, nerdy, and clumsy. Ruby’s cajoling is in bad taste, and destroys many of the sincere moments that have come before.
To feed my ego and read how I’d have taken the scene differently while retaining most of the original dialogue, check out a revised version of the Episode 1 script here.
Mirror, Mirror, who are these people?
Weiss is a tricky one because she’s always struggled to free herself from her father’s omnipresence, financially or personally. The instant we see her in Season 4, she’s summoned to her father’s study, and every move she makes from this point is dictated by an interaction with another guy, except the single moment she accidentally summons a Boarbatusk to deal with a terrible privileged women who says disasters are the victim’s own fault (and seriously, Screw Her). Her brother creeps her out, her butler makes her smile again, her father coerces her into singing, another guy creeps her out at the ball, and Ironwood saves her from a very expensive lawsuit. Every turn she takes is completely dictated by the flow of other people, all men, and it’s aggressively diminishing to her character. Maybe that’s the point, the series making a subconscious but salient observation that she’s a prisoner now that she’s back in Atlas. But it doesn’t quite ring that way.
Her dialogue, with the actual words in the scripts, at least, is solid. She’s skeptical and steadfast. Despite her reputation as the Ice Queen, and despite the stringent limits to her surroundings, she actually shows incredible depth of character in the conversations she does have, a considerable amount more than her teammates. She shows genuine warmth to her butler and contempt for those who’d mock Vale, but at no point in the story does she make her own choice that drives her story until the very end, and the cinematography is focused much mroe on the characters around her than on her, which diminishes her power in the show itself, even though what she actually says gives her presence. When she had such independence in the first seasons and motivated other characters (like Ruby) to new places and have difficult conversations and learn more herself, it’s sad to see her become nothing but a passenger.
When she works on summoning the knight towards the season’s third act, we see her finally taking some volition and displaying a power completely independent of the world around her and makes the decision to escape. But not without another uncharacteristic, stereotypically-girly breakdown and cry on the bed. Weiss is the girl with the tantrums and dramatic stormy exits. If she’d just kicked around the furniture and gone straight to her summoning, it would have been an excellent turnaround. The crying, sadly, dilutes it.
And even her escape isn’t under her own steam. She asks Klein for help, and he pretty much does all of the work for her. Weiss, for all her verbal fortitude, barely escapes this dependency on others for the entire season.
Black The Beast Disdains from Shadow
I’m going to start with an image comparison here.
On the left is Season 2 Blake, and on the right is Season 3. If you didn’t immediately notice the siphoning of her waist into her breasts, there’s kind of a problem. The stylisation, if that’s all it is, adds an unnecessary emphasis to her chest, which in my view upsets the boundary-pushing standard that women, especially teenage girls, don’t need to be busty or revealing to be powerful or popular. This is another damaging trope exuded by many Whedon productions: that women are entirely dependent on men for their strength, either sexually, or emotionally, and therefore have to cater to them in such a manner.
Before you cry out that I’m only picking on Blake because boobs, she isn’t the only one. Look at her
stalker partner Sun:
On the left is Season 2, the right, the most recent season. Sun either worked out a bunch in the months preceding Season 4, or he makes a cushy side living smuggling shoulder pads to Menagerie. I’m not a fan of the open-shirt look, but I can at least appreciate that he had realistic proportions before The Buffening.
Sun, I Am Disappoint
I never particularly liked Sun. He looked better before he was trying to cosplay Spring Break Prince Adam. But his renewed portrayal is another example of how the show discredits young guys’ physical and mental images. Let’s also look at his shared journey with Blake.
Blake left Vale. Alone. Sun admits that he stalked her because, in his words, he knew she didn’t want to be alone. If you’ve ever spoken to a rape/harassment/stalking victim, or even a child of an aggressively protective parent, you should know why gestures like that are severely problematic. While we know on the surface this is coming from a place of protection, it’s still legitimately creepy as heck for a girl to be followed without her knowledge and against her wishes. Not only does it demonstrate a complete disregard for her and show he has no faith in her combat abilities (extra insulting given that she was An Actual Member of the White Fang and Adam Bitchpant-Taurus’s Girlfriend), it removes her from being in charge of her own story, much like every other girl this season. Sun’s grand protector role comes off as arrogant (which, granted, he always has been), unwelcome, and forces Blake into playing pithy reluctance and, despite having held her own in combat many, MANY times before, Sun’s encroachment into her battles actually forced her to need rescuing.
Perhaps the worst part of this is that it paints Blake as a perpetual stalking victim, because her violent and abusive ex-boyfriend literally stalked her for three seasons. Sun’s behaviour is unacceptable mimicry even if his motivations are different. The ‘counteract’ to this, the point which is allegedly supposed to justify his idiocy in the audience’s eyes, is Blake physically slapping him multiple times for his crass and invasive behaviour. It’s a poor justification not only because it highlights terrible communication between the two, but it also reduces Blake to being unable to verbalise or control her emotions. Just FYI, slapping a guy does not make you a strong character when you are also entirely dependent on that same guy for your emotional journey (the final admission that she did, in fact, feel guilty for leaving).
While we’re talking about guys being creepy around Blake, we can’t ignore the overbearing and way-too-familiar nameless captain that was all but working his way up to a full-blown proposition for her. Even if that was never the intention (and I doubt it was, given knowledge of the writers’ own good sense of mind), the pervasiveness of that language makes the loss of the girls’ agency and the shadow of subconscious rape culture harder to escape. If you’ve been following the ‘MeToo’ hashtag on social media lately, you’ll likely have seen a lot of instances of creepy behaviours to avoid, and this is one of them. For a show that made such a huge impact by showcasing girls with dazzling choreography and having outfits specifically designed to be practical for girls to cosplay in, it’s disappointing to not keep broadcasting that progressive attitude.
And it’s such an easy trap to fall into with writing, especially by men. I may well have done it in my own books, although I’m trying to change that. If you start incorporating traditional gender observations/tropes into your fiction without subverting them or demonstrating their fallacies, you will encounter sexism within your own creations.
And inherently problematic is the idea of the Watcher, a predominantly male presence that is the male gaze made manifest – a source of constant looking that is an explicit form of control. – Natasha Simons, The Mary Sue
Both Sun and Qrow do this. We understand the world of Remnant is more dangerous now, so there is a justifiable need for characters to band together, but the new season is rife with elements where the girls aren’t even being given the chance to fight. Qrow is literally killing ALL of the Grimm while also stalking Ruby, even though single or teams of Grimm have never been an issue for the group. He also forbids her from fighting. There’s no justification for either his or Sun’s lack of faith or reason to keep stoic distance other than persistence of overbearing and arrogant masculinity.
While we’re here, let’s briefly touch on Blake’s reunion with her father, a cavalcade of awkwardness that didn’t even get to explain the reason she returned home. She insisted to Sun that she wanted to ‘get home and relax’. Relax? After a battle that almost killed you and lost your best friend her arm? After your abusive ex showed up in the middle of a battle that destroyed your sanctuary? What about “I can’t face my team. I hurt them too much. So much of this is my fault. I wasn’t strong enough. I need to make things right and I don’t know how, so I’m starting at the beginning.” Not a single iota of that or even how she was affected by Yang’s injury is conveyed even when she confesses to Sun that she feels guilty, so all we get is irritated evasion and exasperated protests against company. It backtracks her character by several seasons, not even organically.
Yellow Beauty Burns Cold
Of all of them, Yang is the one with the greatest reason to actually be disparate and in need of help, given she:
-lost an arm
-failed to protect her best friend, whom she lost the arm for
-had that same friend ABANDON HER before she even regained consciousness
-is unable to follow or protect her little sister while she’s on a great and perilous journey
Aside from the traumatic flashbacks and noncommittal responses to her father’s kind gestures, the focus isn’t so much on what happened to her, but who did it. Granted, Adam is a big part of her battle, but it’s his visage that looms in every of her nightmares. Yang has never been afraid of a guy before. Losing her strength or something valuable, like when she loses a few hairs, those are big trigger points for her rage. One of her dreams almost gets it when she’s shown to have her Ember Celicas vanish in the midst of a fight, but it’s still Adam at the centre of it, and not the traumatic loss of her arm and the friend she sacrificed it for. Yang is a fighter; bold, proud, and flamboyant, and has been from the very first moment we saw her in the Yellow trailer. And she isn’t anymore.
Losing her arm isn’t an unrealistic transition for her depressive state. But the mentality of trauma and its recovery is such a balance to strike, and it didn’t ring true, if for no other reason than it’s portrayed as the fear of Adam that’s holding her back and that never gets resolved. The apparent cure isn’t even to remind her of her friends. In some weird, nondescript way, Taiyang inviting his professor buddies over and making a really incisive insult to Yang about her arm… changes her mind? Yang might have always been one for puns, but taking a jab at her recent and severely-affecting trauma is not how PTSD therapy works. It’s almost reminiscent of the terrifyingly-dense Andrew Tate’s refusal to acknowledge that depression exists (he also claimed that anyone above 15 who watched cartoons was a loser and no woman would want you). This is something that is almost universally portrayed incorrectly in media; you cannot brute-force depression or trauma into remission.
It wasn’t even a reminder of the friends Yang could be protecting that urged her into action. What would have made more sense is Taiyang asking her how she felt about Blake, and Yang getting upset about that and recovering to either smack Blake into shape for running off, AGAIN (see season 2), or ask her if she ran because of guilt and to smack her into shape regardless, because Yang’d gladly lose the other one if it meant Blake would survive to tear Adam to pieces. That’s the kind of solidarity and resolve the series needs, and would have been nicely mirrored if Blake had any of the same feelings, but the show has none of that. Instead it implied Yang was guilted into recovery for overhearing how bad things were in Vale, and then undergoes Magical Fighting Therapy Session and Vague Emotional Placation with her father and everything is okay again. It glosses over the severity of her emotions and implies she’s ‘just kinda bummed’ and not ‘suffering from severe PTSD that nobody’s adequately addressed’.
Oh, and by the way, Taiyang also suffered from a case of The Buffening:
LOOK AT HIS SHOULDERS. Arms really don’t work like that. Season 3’s Tai looked so much more natural, especially in his face. I hope Season 5 will be a step back in the right direction.
So, what now?
I’ve no idea. I’ve seen the Weiss and Blake character shorts for Season 5, and it’s not filling me with confidence so far, but they’re not really meant to give anything away. Yang’s looked pretty good, though.
There’s a lot more I can say. I will, but this is epic enough already. I’m actually starting up a project of revising scripts from Season 4 to make them more balanced towards the women, erase some of the elements I raised above, and bring them more cohesion. You can read the first episode here.
The thing is, despite what I’ve said, I still love RWBY. The concept of it, the characters, the absolute dedication by the creators and fans, are all beyond anything I’ve ever seen. And I’ll still watch it. So I want it to be good. It deserves to be good. I wouldn’t be as passionately worried about it if I didn’t care about the characters and direction I feel they’re being taken. The new opening already looks like this season has a better sense of focus *crosses fingers* But it’s always important to remember that we can still love something dearly while being critical of where it may fall down, or change, and enough discussion can safeguard an audience from ever being disappointed.