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Is It Wrong to Cry? On the Courageous Femininity of Ran Mouri

Published on 4th December 2019

"You’ve met the Strong Female Character before. She has black hair with a colorful stripe, wears green or purple lipstick with chipped painted nails to match; she wears black leather clothing that’s cut a little short in place, designed to help her while she skateboards or rides a motorcycle; she has a series of skills which are 'for boys' and has interests which are 'for boys.' In the first act we meet her and she seems rude and dismissive, saying 'whatever' and rolling her eyes. In the second act we are shown that she secretly has a feminine and caring side – almost universally in the process of learning that she secretly cares for the male protagonist, and is too insecure to admit it. In the third act she learns to reconcile her feelings for the protagonist with her tough-as-nails identity and uses some typically 'for boys' skill – usually combat, but also often hacking or deductive science – to save the male protagonist… so that he can save the day...That’s the definition of a SFC. A character whose exterior qualities and achievements are designed to stand in contrast to her inner feminine vulnerability. She is given value because of her masculine traits; she is kept from being the protagonist because of her feminine traits."

--Bijhan Valibeiji, The Mary Sue

Few contemporary storytelling tropes are more insulting to women than the Strong Female Character. Many a critic has made a sport of identifying and lambasting its profound deficiencies, the most damning of which is a fundamental hostility to granting women the privilege of human complexity--a hostility which, in obstructing the possibility of an emotionally authentic female character, is at once inimical to good storytelling and morally impoverished in its conception of women and of femininity itself. There is little need to rehash this critique here (even if Hollywood's tone-deaf insistence on hosting a never-ending parade of SFCs suggests someone must). 

But I need to make clear that my summary of why, exactly, the Strong Female Character is so pernicious differs in some subtle but essential respects from some the most popular criticisms levied at the trope. Whereas some others find the trope most offensive for its denial of female agency, I find it most repulsive for its denial of female humanity. These are not interchangeable critiques. Compelling and genuinely human characters can and do lack in agency, can indeed be defined by their passivity and unwillingness or inability to take action. Agency matters a great deal in some and even most cases, but it does not constitute the most important failing of the Strong Female Character. 

At its worst, the Strong Female Character is dehumanizing and defeminizing--the former because it omits dimensionality, the latter because it demonizes femininity. The former. These are interrelated: the Strong Female Character often lacks in humanity because its creators disbelieve in the legitimacy of feminine qualities. Embedded in this technical limitation is a normatively dismissive assessment of the feminine. The Strong Female Character morally condemns the feminine. The Strong Female Character proves herself by embodying the shallowest conception of masculinity, comprised by little more than an empty-brained tough-skinned macho aesthetic.  

center their critique of the trope on its denial of agency, I center mine on its denial of humanity. A few would argue that I am still basically saying the same thing: to deny agency is to deny humanity. I must respectfully disagree. Plenty of characters 

 clear of the subtle but essential distinction between my and other critics' understanding of why, exactly, the. 

rehash it (at least partially) I must, because while I broadly agree with the critics of the Strong Female Character, I don't necessarily 

share some, if not most, of the criticism levied Some critics 

which range from its hostility   I'm of the opinion that as a general principle that thinking of tropes

the Strong Female Character, designed to "empower" women 

Good heroines are hard to find in shounen manga/anime. This is largely due to the demographic such types of work cater to: young boys. The (twisted) logic seems to be that

Ran Mouri is the main female protagonist of Detective Conan, and as is the norm with such series, also the primary love interest of the male protagonist, Shinichi Kudo/Edogawa Conan. As can be expected, she has been, and continues to be, the source of much ire within the fandom, endlessly criticized by legions of fans who range from the apathetic to the obsessive. The charges against her are varied and are many, though some are more valid than others. I don’t intend to write an exhaustive rebuttal to each of them (as if that would be possible), nor am I interested in doing so. My goals are much more modest: demonstrate the merits of Ran’s character by putting her under the magnifying glass to reveal her surprising complexity. I’m of the opinion that Ran is one of the best main female characters to grace the world of shounen fiction, and I hope to back that claim through the following analysis. Gosho has done good work here, and while the extended length of the manga and its need to maintain a recognizable status quo has somewhat hindered Ran’s potential in recent years, it does not change the quality of what has already been established. With that out of the way, let’s proceed.

Although Ran is introduced to the viewer in terms of how she relates to Shinichi’s life (as his childhood friend and love interest), the viewer quickly learns more about her family, her issues, and ultimately herself. She is a martial artist master, her father is a drunk whom she essentially mothers (meaning she is largely self-sufficient), and though she can be intimidating, she is ultimately a kind and compassionate person. These early outlines lay down some of the basic fundamentals of Ran’s character that are gradually expanded upon, eventually organically coming together to create a fully-fleshed out image of who Ran truly is as a person. It’s done in a manner that rarely calls attention to itself, but

It’s worth taking a moment to briefly detail the methods that Gosho uses to develop his characters (‘develop’ as in ‘give characterization over long period of time’). Despite his affinity for crafting iconic, larger-than-life scenes unafraid of indulging sentimentality and cheesiness, Gosho can be an incredibly subtle writer. This capacity for subtlety is integral to Gosho's success at designing tricky mysteries, and it is what enables him to build naturalistic characters.  Often Gosho gives his characters little quirks/hobbies/interests that not only distinguish them from one another but also explain their personalities in microcosm. Usually a character's mannerisms, prejudices, and idiosyncrasies will go unexplained for a time, until the reader receives a new piece of information about a character’s past or background that recontextualizes their interactions with other people by explaining why they have the characteristics they do. 

Like many other great writers, Gosho rarely spoon-feeds his readers an analysis of his own characters. This trust in the audience is a depressingly rare quality in mainstream commercialized entertainment, and especially in anime and manga. Gosho forgoes the lengthy character flashbacks typical of shounen manga (see One Piece and Naruto for the most obvious examples), preferring instead to develop his characters through dialogue and action in the present. If something in a character’s past is essential to their characterization, Gosho usually communicates it by either mentioning off-handedly or by introducing the person(s) responsible for it (and it’s worth noting that in Gosho’s world, it is usually people, living or deceased, that influence other people’s upbringing rather than dramatic traumatic events, a storytelling decision that feels fresh in the shounen anime/manga landscape). 

Examples of this style of characterization are numerous. Take Heiji: he is introduced as a detective obsessed with proving his superiority in the art of deduction, which in turn leads him to crave competitions as a platform through which to prove his unmatched abilities. His behavior points to a deep-seated inferiority complex. We learn in his third appearance that Heiji’s father, Heizo, is a police chief, but it is not until much later, hundreds of episodes after Heiji first appeared, that we see Heizo’s belittling attitude towards his son and realize the origins of Heiji’s feelings of insecurity. Then there's Mitsuhiko, who always spoke and acted more formally than the other Detective Boy. Only when we learn that Mitsuhiko’s parents are strict school teachers, nearly 300 episodes into the anime, do we understand why Mitsuhiko is so uptight. 

The understated manner of this deft character work is a relief from the stiflingly heavy-handed characterization common to shounen. Gosho paces himself, taking however long he wishes to slowly complete the paintings of his character. It is all the more elegant in light of how well the different pieces given to the audience ultimately fit together, making clear that Gosho does not make up his characters as he moves along. They seemed to sprout fully-formed in his mind, and are then carefully translated to his work. Sometimes Gosho's style of characterization is too subtle, so that unobservant viewers, conditioned to extremely clear-cut and obvious character-building, mistake subtlety for shallowness. They miss the surprising depth imbued in these characters due to a narrative that shows far more than it tells.

Which brings us back to Ran. Even on a surface level, Ran is a decently well-rounded character. On the one hand, she’s kind, compassionate, and loving. On the other hand, she is also hot-blooded with a bit of a temper, often acting on impulse when someone she loves appears to be in danger. More than once this has led her incorrect conclusions and embarrassing misunderstandings. As such, Ran’s fiercely protective nature is both one of her best and worst qualities. 

For Ran, martial arts is both a source of pride and sense of security, hence her irrational fear of the supernatural, which martial arts is powerless against (and thus her self-imposed ban on watching horror movies). Ran is optimistic and idealistic, almost to a fault, with an unwavering belief in the triumph of justice and love. She is a deeply empathetic person, with an acute understanding of people’s emotional states. She therefore connects to people quickly and often finds herself seriously emotionally invests in their plights.  Ran’s innately sensitive nature means she's easily moved by sentimental situations, in both life and fiction.

So far, so good. The most interesting aspects of Ran’s character, however, are those that hide beyond the obvious. Tracing Ran’s development from her childhood is crucial to better understanding the person she is now. In the Sakura case, which shows the story of Ran’s first meeting with Shinichi (and his with her), we see that she was an extraordinarily gentle child. She is exceptionally well-behaved and unusually considerate of others, a sharp contrast to the bratty behavior which characterizes kids at such a young age (and which Shinichi suffered from as well). Her teacher even has her go on the slides first, because he knows that Ran is so kind that she’ll let everyone go on before her, leaving herself for last. We see here, then, a mild display of one of Ran’s most redeeming but also flawed qualities: her willingness to bear a burden to spare the feelings of others. In this case, she is fine with denying herself instant gratification if it means her classmates can have fun. This quality is a logical offshoot of Ran’s naturally gentle nature.

Ran’s compassion had other consequences. Some of her peers seemed to take advantage of her subdued demeanor to bully her. Fortunately, Sonoko often came to her defense, shielding Ran from any of the long-lasting psychological damage that bullying can inflict on the defenseless. Interestingly, in the present day Ran and Sonoko’s roles are reversed. Sonoko is now the one that stands behind Ran as she protects her, not the other way around. The implication is that Ran learned karate partially as a means to protect her best friend as she protected her when they were children. Beyond that, the Sakura flashback case reveals that Ran was always prone to crying, even at a young age (much to her detractors’ chagrin). In fact, the first time she met Shinichi, it was with tears running down her face. Ran appears to have felt defensive about her sensitive nature, however, because she angrily tells Shinichi to not call her a crybaby. Shinichi takes this scolding to heart, and at the end of the case he tell Ran it’s okay for her to cry on his shoulder, thus retracting his negative characterization of her as a ‘crybaby’ and cementing their relationship. This moment is significant for other reasons, as it reinforces one of the central themes that surrounds Ran’s character: that there is nothing shameful about crying (again, much to the chagrin of Ran’s detractors). We’ll expand on this point later.

Ran and Shinichi became very close very quickly, calling each other on a first-name basis from after their very first meeting. They would play at Agasa’s house before and after school, and generally seemed to be attached at the hip. Some tension briefly arose between them during first grade, when Shinichi, pressured by the need to appear ‘mature’ in front of his friends, distanced himself from Ran and requested she not call him by his name in public. This turned out to be but a minor bump in their relationship, however, and they quickly moved past it. Ran as a six-year old is very similar to her preschool self, sporting a kind but shy demeanor and with the same emotional sensitivity. She also has the same irrational fear of the supernatural that plagues her present-day self, long before she ever expressed an interest in martial arts, which suggests that it’s rooted in deeper causes than her simple inability to fight otherworldly spirits. More likely, this was an intuitive childhood fear that Ran never managed to leave behind, and her proficiency in karate did nothing only amplified it.

The Sakura case, which features Ran in preschool, and the Elementary School case, which features Ran in first-grade, provide invaluable snapshots of Ran before the life-changing event that defines her modern-day character: her parents’ separation. This separation was a divorce in all but name, and its impact on Ran’s personality is palpable, a reality that becomes most obvious when comparing the Ran we see in the two aforementioned cases with her current self. The most discernable difference between child Ran and late-teenage Ran is the latter’s temper. The Ran of today has an anger, an edge, that is entirely absent from her past timid self. She is still a paragon of compassion and empathy, but that tenderness is now mixed with more volatile tendencies and rougher edges.

Ran’s dedication to martial arts is an excellent example of this. As a child, she never expressed the slightest interest in becoming a karate master. Nothing about her, from her gentle personality to readily-inspired fear, suggested that a black belt awaited her in the future. Ran would hide behind both Sonoko and Shinichi when she encountered danger of any sort. There is not a glimpse of the boldness and aggressiveness that would later empower a person to leap out of a two-story building, shatter a window of a moving vehicle, or fight in a bus. And yet Ran has done all of that and more, routinely destroying the many criminals she encounters, from thieves to murderers to gangsters. It is now Sonoko and Shinichi/Conan that seek Ran’s protection from the many thugs they encounter, not the other way around.

Ran’s mastery of karate is indicative of deeper personality changes. Put simply, her martial arts is an outlet for her emotional frustration. Most people need something through which to channel unresolved feelings, and Ran has chosen karate for that purpose. Again, that Ran has devoted herself to an activity so diametrically opposed to her general affability points to some serious emotional baggage, to steam that she needs to blow off. This emotional frustration is undoubtedly a result of her parent’s separation, and Ran’s inability to move past it is evidenced in her obsession with bringing them back together again. Her persistent failure to do so only exacerbates such feelings.

These feelings are varied, but their root is the same: Eri and Kogoro’s break-up. Nothing informs present-day Ran’s character more than that cataclysmic event, and nearly all of her emotional problems stem from it. One of the most important, though understated, are her abandonment issues. Ran lost her life’s primary pillar of stability (her parents’ relationship) at a very young age, an occurrence with definite psychological repercussions that reverberate far beyond the point of impact. Ran has been dogged with anxieties concerning abandonment; namely, that other people she loves will leave her like her parents did (Eri literally walked away, while Kogoro has metaphorically been absent, replaced by a chronic drinker and irresponsible womanizer). This is likely the cause of her intense overprotectiveness of the people and things she cares about. Nowhere are her anxieties better manifested than in her relationship with the person she loves most (after her parents): Shinichi.

When Shinichi first disappears from Ran’s life in the very first episode of the show, dissolving in the darkness as she stretched out her hand, Ran is overcome with a foreboding premonition that she wouldn’t see him again. The shot is framed symbolically, with Ran watching helplessly as yet another person literally walks (runs) out of her life. Note that this is before we learn the details of Ran’s troubled family life; the scene only gains greater significance (and deeper meaning) in hindsight, with the added context that comes with Eri’s introduction over 30 episodes later. Ran is clearly haunted by what happened that night, as can be seen in the nightmare she has in the Shirigami case (episodes 521-523), where she watches Shinichi run away again, and is again powerless to stop him. It makes sense for Ran to fixate on this particular moment, as it marks the end of Shinichi as a meaningful presence in her life. From then on, he only returns sporadically, leaving her behind each time. As such, this moment echoes what she experienced so long ago as an innocent child, and so triggers her deep-seated fears of abandonment. 

Her fears are especially pronounced in the Shirigami case, a logical result of what transpired the last time they met: the Desperate Revival arc, when Shinichi disappeared right when he was on the verge of proposing to her. That disappearance was especially painful, because it came right after Shinichi had apparently returned for good. As such, Ran is especially unwilling to let him walk away again in the Shirigami case. She finally corrects the mistake she made in the first episode by physically stopping Shinichi when it seemed he was leaving her again (after his receding back as he walked off to investigate the latest murder triggered her memory of his receding back on the fateful night he vanished). Of course Shinichi does end up leaving anyway, but significantly, Ran never let go of his hand (and so she wakes up holding Conan’s).

Ran’s fear of abandonment asserted itself in other ways within her romantic relationship. Most significantly, Ran was majorly insecure about Shinichi’s feelings for her. She often suspected that Shinichi hooked up with other girls during his long absence (ex. ep 398-399), and that he secretly mocked her for loyally waiting for his return. That Ran, despite knowing Shinichi her entire life, could believe that he was lying to her with malicious intentions is a testament to the depths of uncertainty she felt regarding his view of their relationship. Ran feared that not only had Shinichi left her behind, but that he had actually moved on without her. This is a concern plainly rooted in the painful experience of her parents’ separation. Fortunately, Ran no longer suffers from such doubt, thanks to Shinichi’s unambiguous confession during the Holmes Revelation case (episodes 616-621). With the confirmation that Shinichi feels the same way about her that she feels about him, Ran has become secure about the status of their relationship, no longer harboring paranoid worries about it. She even feels comfortable being labeled Shinichi’s “girlfriend,” no longer protesting vehemently when people refer to her as such.

Ran’s issues run deeper still. Young children believe that the world literally revolves around them. As such, when an event as traumatic as a parental separation occurs, they see themselves as the cause and so bear the burden of blame. This breeds feelings of guilt and insecurity, which then leads to further negative self-perception. And so is the case with Ran. As noted above, Ran put others before herself from a young age. However, Eri and Kogoro’s separation appears to have twisted this nominally positive quality into a potentially flawed one, as Ran continues her altruistic habits to her own detriment. She very possibly believed herself to be the cause of her parents’ separation, and so she conceals her own emotional problems so as not to burden anyone else with them, lest they abandon her. She tends to blame herself when things go wrong, even if she isn’t deserving of such blame (as in the NY case, ep. 266-268). Ran’s unhealthy suppression of her emotional damage causes her unnecessary pain, but she does it anyways because she believes it’s the best way to not be a nuisance. This is why she puts up a brave façade when she converses with Shinichi over the phone. Ran desperately needs her central emotional support back by her side, but she never communicates the urgency of this need to Shinichi. After all, he has his cases to deal with, and she doesn’t want to push him away by appearing clingy. And so she strikes light-hearted conversation with Shinichi on the phone while crying away her pain in secret. Unbeknownst to Ran, Shinichi is well-aware of her actions, because he observes her pain first-hand as Conan. In a cruelly ironic twist, Ran is only willing to cry openly in Conan’s presence, and so Shinichi witnesses Ran’s agonized tears time and time again, witnesses the pain that Ran is adamant Shinichi will never see but does anyways. This complicated situation has caused both Ran and Shinichi a lot of hurt, and it constitutes the tragedy at the heart of their current relationship.

Ran shares the same excessive selflessness and same profound kindness with one other character in the series, and the two are consistently paralleled. That character is none other than Haibara’s sister, Akemi Miyano, who by any metric appeared to have a heart as nearly pure as Ran’s, despite being a member of the Black Organization. Ran’s similarity to Akemi even extends to her physical appearance. Akai only met Ran twice, and yet he saw Akemi in her, saying that she reminded him of a “foolish woman” (Akemi) who “cried in the dark while trying to appear normal.” This is an unnervingly accurate description of Ran’s own habits, as she literally does “cry in the dark” while trying to convey an image of perfect emotional stability to the people she loves, Shinichi most of all. Based on Akai’s assessment of his lover, Akemi did the same. Her family history in the Organization, her sister’s enslavement to it, and her status as a member of it no doubt tortured her, and yet she led what appeared to be a perfectly ordinary life, with ordinary friends and an ordinary job, as a functioning member of society. Managing such dichotomous double lives must have been stressful, especially because there could be no overlap between them. More so, Akemi kept her worries from Haibara. We see in a flashback that Akemi acted carefree around Shiho, despite the heavy burden she carried. This makes sense: just as Ran does not want to add to Shinichi’s worries by revealing her pain, so to did Akemi not want to add to Shiho’s worries by revealing her own.

Ran’s similarity to Akemi initially complicated her relationship with the shrunken Shiho. Haibara already felt at odds with Ran over the romantic feelings she’d developed towards Shinichi/Conan (making Ran her love rival)

Ran’s capacity for shouldering such heavy emotional burdens stems from her unwavering commitment to her personal ideal of ‘courage.’ In other words, Ran believes that she must be brave, no matter the circumstances. This ideal likely has its roots in the turbulence that Ran experienced following the destabilization of her family life. As a child forced to grow up early, Ran would have needed courage to successfully confront her new reality head-on, and all evidence suggests that she managed surprisingly well, so much so that she essentially ran the Mouri household and cared for her usually irresponsible father. Ran is no stranger to adversity, and it is thanks to the strength that her bravery grants her that she can face it time and time again. Ran understandably feels strongly about the concept and its application. In episode 247, she scolds a culprit for using courage to justify his murder, seeing it as a self-serving abuse of a notion that she holds dear to her heart: “Courage is a word that gives you the strength to do what’s right. You can’t use it to take a life.”

However, it’s crucial to note that Ran’s view of courage ties into a more significant idea, one that defines Ran’s character: strength. Ran’s character is thematically centered on strength. Almost every aspect of her characterization and life links back to this fundamental concept. What’s fascinating about Ran, however, is that her character is defined by the interplay between two different dimensions of strength: physical strength and emotional strength. It goes without saying that Ran is physically strong. Ran, however, often feels that she is not emotionally strong.

Ran values courage not for its own sake, but for its ability to give her

And indeed, strength is something that Ran exudes. Even at the tender age of seventeen, she’s had a tough life. Her parents divorced during her childhood, and she’s had to grow up faster than most of her peers in order to mother an irresponsible alcoholic of a father. To top it off, her main emotional support, childhood friend and love interest Shinichi, has vanished and has only shown his face thrice since his disappearance. It’s a lot to deal with, and sometimes Ran feels that she isn’t up to the task. In episode 3, she confesses to Conan her own feelings of inadequacy, whishing she could be as strong as Yoko, who quickly rebounded after a sad murder to return to producing songs as usual. Ran feels inferior in comparison, so overcome is she by heartbreak. She is unable to stop the flow of her tears.

It goes without saying that Ran is physically strong. Ran, however, often feels that she is not emotionally strong. Her character is defined by the interplay between these two dimensions of strength: physical strength and emotional strength.