How many anime protagonists do you hear being written off as whiney? I can give you a list. Amuro Ray from Mobile Suit Gundam, Eren Yeager from Attack on Titan, Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion, Yuuri Katsuki from Yuri on Ice. It’s practically a trope now. If you see any male protagonist have any kind of internal emotional conflict, or god forbid, cry onscreen, you’re going to have somebody out there complaining that the characters in this series are so whiney and you have to go through the trouble of blocking them on Facebook, because in this oversaturated media landscape, the only reason to watch a thing you hate is to annoy people who love that thing you hate, and who needs that drama in their life, honestly?
I think it’s worth it to discuss why we hate “Whiney” characters. A lot of them come from series that are iconic on the landscape, so it’s not like they’re uninteresting to watch. Are we uncomfortable with our emotions? Do we hate men that basically fail at being men? We also like to make fun of protagonists in so-called “harem” anime like Love Hina or Tenchi Muyo, because we are sure that any red-blooded male would be having sex with every woman in his apartment building given half the chance as if that is a perfectly healthy thing to be doing, relationship dynamics and STDs be damned. Anime for years has provided representation for women, lgbt people and people of color that couldn’t be found on the western mainstream. It’s odd that when we see a cishet male that does not act like a typical cishet male, we suddenly balk.
Take Shinji for example, star of the icon Evangelion series, and a figure of fun for all of us who wanted him to just “get in the robot”. He lost his mother at a young age to some kind of scientific accident. His father Gendo basically sends him off to boarding school at a time when both of them really needed to process their grief. Ten years later Gendo just summons Shinji to Tokyo-3 to put him in this experimental military machine to battle an unnameable cosmic horror from beyond the stars. If he doesn’t, Gendo will put this injured young girl inside in his place. Even after Shinji survives that noise, he has to deal with his fathers emotional abuse by absence. It’s completely reasonable for Shinji to become depressed from all this. Sure, he saves the world every time he goes out in his EVA unit, but the issues he deals with afterward are the emotional equivalent of having a toenail ripped out. I’m surprised that Misato (who had to clean up this mental health mess) didn’t march Gendo and Shinji to a counseling session at gunpoint for the good of humanity.
This dynamic was really powerful and made Evangelion into the iconic series it is today, but it’s important for us to examine our own reactions to Shinji’s struggle. Masculinity in the media is having a bit of a revolution as of late. Movies like Star Wars: The Last Jedi are forcing fans to take a good look at their own internalized sexism. Pop Culture Detective’s Case against the Jedi and Teresa Jusino’s article at the Mary Sue are great examples of this criticism. Anime fans can benefit from that same kind of look in the mirror.