Author Note: This article was published shortly following the release of episode 10 of Darling in the FranXX. Future developments within the show may age the stances and topics discussed here, though hopefully it will still hold value as a snapshot in time and address larger concerns within society and approaches to media in general.
It’s been a while, fellas. I normally don’t write up mid-season thoughts for the blog outside our regularly-scheduled articles, in part because I rarely have the extra time, and also because I can cover most of my feelings on individual shows in those. But in a season stacked with more anime-of-the-year contenders than I think I’ve encountered from any one season in years, I want to discuss a title that isn’t working out as well as many people, myself included, thought it would. You know the one: Darling in the FranXX. Pre-season hype for it quickly faded to skeptical optimism and, more recently, persistent doubt. It’s a divisive show and my opinions are pretty divided on it as well. Virtually all the criticism I’ve seen of it is deserved.
But today, I’m not solely going to echo that. I’m going to defend its existence as well.
This will all make sense, I swear.
Backing up, I want to preface all this by saying that nobody is obligated to appreciate all the media they try engaging with. That’s just ludicrous; it’s inevitable some people will dislike certain titles and there is no objective standard for judging the quality of a work. Part of what makes art so fulfilling and fascinating is how it leaves a unique imprint on the viewer that cannot be replicated in the exact same way for anyone else. While art can be debated, most gut reactions to it come from inside, and once they’re there, they can be difficult to alter. Not to worry though, I’m not here to try changing your mind on Darling in the FranXX or Pinkerton as texts. You don’t even need to be all that familiar with either of them to understand what I’ll be talking about.
Before diving into the nitty-gritty, I should also probably establish that I am a relatively young, white, cis male, albeit it with views (and an audience) which reliably lean left-of-center. I’m not oblivious to my privilege in this matter and considering I generally believe no prevailing mindset needs “defending” from minorities’ criticism, this whole piece may at first seem a tad counterproductive. But the catch (and the crux of my argument) is this: art which constructs itself around a dangerous perspective (in the case of DarliFra, strict and oblivious heteronormativity) yet fails to meaningfully comment on that perspective is not inherently unhelpful or without purpose. Narrowing down a work’s thematic merit solely to its in-universe observations can sell that work short.
I say this because I do believe DarliFra has its place…but it’s certainly not on account of its shoddy writing and worldbuilding. It’s been stated already (incidentally, AniFem recently published a great analysis of DarliFra‘s failures, check it out) that in not investigating its heteronormativity beyond the shallowest understanding of gender politics, DarliFra is less concerned about the grievances its characters presumably hope to air than it is about using that heteronormativity as a go-to excuse for things “just being the way they are” in a world seemingly dominated by willful ignorance.
For instance, it’s been all but outright stated that Ikuno doesn’t just not get along with her stamen partner Mitsuru, but that she’s not attracted to men in general, and his abrasive personality doesn’t help matters. Goro and Hiro, the two most prominent male leads to this point, are also relatively timid compared to their more domineering partners, Ichigo and Zero Two, but after introducing those strands of subversion early on, DarliFra hasn’t really said anything through them that would challenge its worldview. The boys still control the girls and the girls seem a-OK with submitting.
In fact, all too often, DarliFra actually looks more eager to re-assert its status quo than rebel against it. There’s a beach episode with more than its fair share of male gaze-only fanservice, little reference if any at all made to the discomfort the pistils feel about being steered around by fucking butt handles (I know, it’s low-hanging fruit, but I’m no giraffe), and in a more recent plot thread, Kokoro discovered a book about child-rearing and seems more enthusiastic than ever for all the pairings to get along as assigned. Coming to a head in a battle-of-the-sexes episode that basically played out like a cheesy “we’re drawing a line in the sand” sitcom, DarliFra’s boys finally realized eight episodes in that their partners were human beings with their own agency who maybe didn’t like getting leered at or treated as incomprehensible aliens. But even then, the girls reluctantly agree to allow them some peeks as long as they don’t go overboard, so matters more or less return to square one.
I could go on, but all this is simply to say that for whatever message DarliFra supposedly has up its sleeve, it has yet to convince me and many others that it’s playing with noble intentions. Its rigid heteronormative world and patriarchal social dynamics have only been reinforced any time the series attempts to say something profound. As a commentary on how that structure is unequal (and it is unequal, no cause for debate there), it completely fails to offer internal insight in any way, shape, or form. Story aside, there are things to enjoy here: DarliFra can be a blast to watch for its animation merits, though I don’t really have the background to dissect them. The other area it succeeds in, despite all its thematic weaknesses, is entertainment value. Even if it’s not saying anything substantive or morally sound, it is undeniably making a bang loudly. That’s Studio Trigger, the hype of a collaboration project, and ultimately, Darling‘s patriarchal voice for you.
Granted we are just shy of halfway through its slated run and I never expect a multi-cour show to reveal all its cards before it at least reaches its halfway point, but I think I’ve seen enough of it to say that its failure as a commentary on gender dynamics has actually made the series more intriguing to me, not less, even as my faith in it continues to diminish by the week. You could argue the only fair way to critique a work is to judge it by how well it achieves its own goals. By that line of thought, if DarliFra‘s goal is to supply the viewer with a progressive, thoughtful, in-universe commentary on gender, it receives straight Fs. It might have other goals too—the latest episode in particular re-introduced this theme of a sterilized society built on old customs and convenience—but if we’re being completely honest, DarliFra has been too ambiguous with all its auxiliary themes for me to make a judgment on any of them at this point.
Thankfully, there’s a fine line between a work’s ability to reach its own goals and how well it can urge the viewer to think about those goals. Sometimes the two overlap, though not always, and it’s usually not a particularly heated area of discussion, but again, DarliFra is not just any show; it’s one which effectively sets up its characters to rebel against social norms they don’t agree with, but it never truly gets that far. It’s also not alone in that, but it is one of the most prominent examples I can think of in recent memory. Tens of anime per season these days—by all counts, the majority—stem from either cis male authors, writers, or other industry professionals and indeed cater to a young male audience who reinforce this patriarchy whether they’re aware of it or not. What can DarliFra offer that a look around you can’t? Wouldn’t that work be better off introducing a perspective from a marginalized voice?
Short answer: of course, and those shows exist, but the real challenge is getting the people who need to hear their messages most to actually tune in. Rarely are gender dynamics the main topic of a show primarily targeted towards young male demographics, and it’s here where DarliFra and all its obnoxious obliviousness to how relationships work comes in. There are enough poor aspects about its dystopia from a writing standpoint that you don’t need to be all that attentive to realize that it’s ostensibly promising to do one thing with its narrative setup then turning tail and doing the exact opposite.
What I’m getting at is ultimately this: DarliFra has thus far failed to contribute anything meaningful to its own discourse so thoroughly that it in effect begs to be examined for how it’s letting itself down instead of for its in-universe conclusions. By prompting viewers to search for answers or explanations, the show redeems itself because it is so inept that it instead invites critique not just of its structural failings but the views those failings espouse.
Perhaps I only hold that belief because I’m already aware of these additional perspectives, though. Would someone not looking for those pitfalls be blind to them? Am I giving the average young male viewer too much credit or underestimating how people will look for any rationalization to justify decisions they don’t like in art that they otherwise do like? Just as everyone appreciates art in different ways, they absorb it differently too, and it’s entirely possible that this will all fly over less critical viewers’ heads. They might see DarliFra is an unproblematic reaffirmation of the world around them, some of its more obvious fictitious elements notwithstanding.
Maybe, just maybe, though, they’ll see it as so cartoonishly like that world that they take a step back and examine the implications of what it’s reflecting, even if the show itself doesn’t. I can’t say I myself meaningfully gained any epiphany from DarliFra yet, but that’s because I’ve had this experience before with another title similarly panned by critics for failing to hit its intended genre goals.
I’m talking, of course, about a little album by Weezer named Pinkerton. It came out in stores roughly 72 hours before I came out of my mother, which is sort of fitting, because at the time, I was a literal baby, and on it, Rivers Cuomo sounds like a petulant brat.
If you’re unfamiliar with the record, forget what you might think you know about Weezer. Forget “Beverly Hills,” forget “Buddy Holly,” forget Crash and Burn Weezer Cover, Pinkerton is not comical or lighthearted and it certainly wasn’t received too kindly upon its release. Since then, its reputation has skyrocketed and it’s now viewed as not only one of the band’s best albums but a hallmark for the emo genre as well, a genre which encourages confessional, intimate lyricism and earnestness over bravado. Pinkerton is woe-is-me to the nth degree. Emo music generally tends to be.
There was just one problem: Cuomo took these confessions to a recording studio instead of a church confessional. It’s an album full of self-deprecating misogyny, sexual misery, and even a touch of casual racism, conveniently directed towards a Japanese schoolgirl of all people. Cuomo channeled his “dark side” very well, but it painted a picture too uncomfortable for the masses to indulge in. If emo music was all about no holds barred honesty connecting audience and writer, it turned out that listeners weren’t willing to empathize with Cuomo as he bemoaned empty intercourse, not fitting in at Harvard, and the fear of being made a fool out of by the women of his fantasies. There’s no denying his heart was in these songs, but if it wasn’t tar black yet, it was heading there. To amend for the misfire, Weezer immediately changed course with their next album and beyond, becoming the laughing stock of geekdom they’re commonly thought of as today. Sayonara despair, hello pop radio.
But after that saccharine shift, the unexpected happened. Fan reaction to Pinkerton trended positive. Critics retrospectively changed their outlook on the record. This bitter, entitled album which at first failed emo’s key component—empathy—actually re-defined the genre as it entered the 2000s. Now, songwriters in the scene weren’t shy about penning mean-spirited and indulgent lines of self-loathing. That’s oversimplifying the issue and Cuomo is far from singlehandedly attributable for that phenomenon, but the fact remains that though it took some time, this ugly duckling of an album broadened horizons for what was publicly and commercially acceptable for cis male audiences to complain about. That wasn’t always a good thing—turns out one of the easiest things for young men to unfairly belittle is women, and for every genuinely great emo record put out there, there’s another built on playing the victim while preying.
But for each action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Pushed to such an exaggerated extreme, the first time I heard Pinkerton I was taken aback not by how uncomfortable Cuomo’s lyrics were intended to make me feel, but how normalized I had become to thinking those emotions were, if not encouraged, then at least tolerated and mimicked in more discreet forms by other emo songwriters in the years since.
Like with DarliFra, let’s put aside any conversation about Pinkerton on a technical level; there’s plenty to enjoy musically but the music itself isn’t relevant to this discussion. Pinkerton, an album whose selling point became its overblown, narrow-minded, and self-righteous view of masculine romantic tension, helped me gain context for the music scene around me and helped me realize I should never replicate that behavior. Nothing on Pinkerton readily apologizes for it except for the closing track “Butterfly,” on which Cuomo half-inaudibly mumbles “I’m sorry for what I did” over a faint acoustic guitar before even cancelling out that good will with a bullshit excuse: “I did what my body told me to.”
In other words, here’s a golden example of how sometimes the messages of the text itself aren’t what make the media intriguing or even personally meaningful. In Pinkerton’s case, I don’t like the album out of empathy for Cuomo’s struggles as he describes them. I find it enjoyable and powerful as a reminder to not become him. I know better and I am capable of better, and I’d like to believe we all are. Where do privileged as hell cis dudes like myself get off telling queers “to be a little straight” or manipulating women to stick with them by abusing them? Why is that behavior normalized or used as fodder for laughs? If the target audience truly finds levity in, say, Dr. FranXX’s ass-slapping, are they a lost cause completely? Is DarliFra itself one?
Those are crucial points, but ultimately, in my experience people will gravitate towards entertainment and art that they think they’ll find relatable. I discovered Pinkerton because, even though I didn’t know the extent to which it reached, I knew it exhibited and in part re-defined key characteristics of a music scene I was already familiar with, a scene dominated by cis men. At the risk of presuming all mech protagonists are basically Shinji Ikari, Darling in the FranXX and mech shows in general fit that demographic transposed onto the anime community, and I believe that by seeing DarliFra’s unflattering portrayal of women and ignorance of gender dynamics as key failings of the show’s narrative instead of just the complaints of a certain subset of watchers, people within that demographic can start to gain a fuller understanding of its prevalence in the other media they consume as well as the world around them. If Pinkerton made a splash because it was a few steps too bold and missed its own point, my hope is that DarliFra (that is, if it doesn’t somehow correct its course before it ends) does the same out of its sheer ineptitude regarding its subject matter. Even if on a mass scale the show fails to do this, I can at least envision it will widen the perspectives of some individual watchers, not unlike how Pinkerton widened mine.
Is that worth the risk of normalizing that oppressive mentality on an even greater number of individuals? I suppose not, and if I said I otherwise, I’d only be reinforcing my own privilege in the matter. But I genuinely believe that as much as DarliFra is selling itself short, it will remain an important show for years to come, encouraging a demographic who normally turns a blind eye to gender roles to at the very least think about them. With any luck, the conclusions the show doesn’t reach will lead them to ask deeper questions. Whether it’s Pinkerton or Darling in the FranXX or some other work that causes it, even “bad” media can be parsed and leave a profound, positive impact on a consumer willing to engage with the things it reflects just as much as the things it says.
As for the rest, I won’t try to wrap everything up in a neat little bow. I’ve raised several questions here I myself have still not answered and will continue to think about my whole life as I engage with media. With any luck, I’ve supplied you with the same food for thought. If you have anything to add, no matter the angle, I invite you to chime in below. I’m here. I’m waiting.
Until next time, this has been Yata from For Great Justice. Thanks for reading!