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Digging Under the “Strong Female Character” Surface: The exploitation of women in Claymore

Content Warning: discussion of dismemberment, torture, misogyny, sexual assault, fanservice

Spoilers for the Claymore manga

No matter how you slice it, it’s rare to find a shounen action series that’s both led by a woman and has a secondary supporting cast of women driving the plot forward. In that sense it’s not super hard to see why Claymore found a devoted audience when the manga premiered in 2001.

Action in the series overwhelmingly leans hefty and raw, with emphasis laid on the weight of the characters and their weapons. Immaculately rendered monsters leap off of the page and seeing each character’s unique form becomes one of the joys of the manga as it progresses. Claymore’s storytelling is also not afraid to question what the audience expects, throwing some neat twists to keep things fresh. Laid out like that, it sounds like all that and a bag of chips.

With so much going for it, Claymore almost feels like a golden goose. It was so unbelievably “my thing” that I had to pick it up almost immediately. Going into it hoping to experience an underappreciated classic, I was met with a series that routinely undervalues the very women that define its main appeal, to the point of ritualistically torturing them on-page and treating what makes up their person as disposable.

Claymore is a series about young warrior women, kidnapped and raised to fight a race of form-stealing demons called yoma. Yoma are far more powerful than humans and impossible to differentiate until they attack. The only way to fight them is to hire half-human, half-yoma warriors that can use the abilities of the yoma to detect and kill them. These warriors are informally known as “Claymore” due to the large blades that they wield. As the series goes on it’s revealed that Claymore have the ability to “Awaken”, a kind of pleasurable transformation that allows them to access more yoma-like powers like strong regeneration, enhanced speed, and a morphable physiology—with the risk that go too far and permanently become a powerful yoma. 

Allowing Claymore its flowers, it delivers on quite a few things that it seemingly sets out to do: it has a cast of varied female main characters who not only get to fight their own battles but have a web of complex interactions and relationships between themselves. Despite its sometimes fetishistic portrayal of the characters’ mutilation, it’s admirable for a series to allow female fighters to not only battle but get hurt and take lasting wounds that matter. And at its best, Claymore has a fascinating tension built on the desire to see the characters you’ve attached to survive by the skin of their teeth and see a better tomorrow.

A prime example of this is Drill Sword Jean, a woman rescued by the main character, Clare, from a group of Yoma trying to torture her into Awakening. Jean pledges her life to Clare in thanks, and over the course of their time together Clare tries to prove that their lives have inherent worth. Eventually, they’re given a mission they aren’t expected to survive. Jean is speared through the chest and sacrifices the last of her life to bring Clare back from the ledge of complete Awakening, bringing their relationship full circle. A simple, effective character arc, right? The issue, however, comes with how she dies.

Jean impaled by a yoma

While certainly emotional and a coherent capstone to her story arc, Jean’s death feels like a blatant attempt at shock value: she dies alongside three other just-introduced characters at the hands of a villain who exists for a whole two chapters. She’s at least given the dignity of final words, something female characters in Claymore aren’t often afforded, but they only confirm that she wasn’t consciously helping Clare as a way to finally make a choice about her own life. Nope, she was going to die either way. And then she’s gone. She gets two or three more mentions through the next 94 chapters of the manga, usually lumped in with the underdeveloped characters she was killed alongside. 

Even in strife and death Claymore somehow manages to privilege its small male cast. One of the few named male characters in the series, Dae, is quite literally eaten alive on panel and still gets to give a lengthy lucid monologue on his way out. Even the monsters of the series, the yoma, are often given swift, splattery deaths rather than the extended torture scenes often afforded to characters like Jean and the unnamed, assumed disposable, character at her side.

a chained woman with pillars driven through her legs

This isn’t to say there are no female characters in Claymore with agency and meaningful deaths. Teresa of the Faint Smile is arguably the series’ best character and protagonist of the best arc of the manga. Consistently an agent in her own life and active to the point of defying her fellow Claymore and the Organization that employs her, Teresa’s arc is defined by the young orphan girl she saves—the future protagonist. Clare reminds Teresa of her own tumultuous childhood and rekindles her love for life. This act of kindness echoes throughout the entirety of the story, and her death is one of the single most affecting moments in the narrative purely because of how much life she breathes into the story.

Buuut, just as Teresa represents some of the best of Claymore, she’s also an early example of the issues that riddle the narrative. During her travels she’s assaulted by bandits. In an attempt to deter them, she reveals her body—though the reader does not see it, as this is one of the few actual discretion shots in the manga. She reveals the scars left behind by the Claymore process, which disgusts the bandits so much they change their minds and run. What’s under a Claymore’s uniform becomes a central mystery, eventually culminating in the reveal that it’s a full body wound (called “stigma” by fans) stapled or sewn together to keep their organs from falling out. It cannot be overstated the degree to which it is simply a line that goes down their body, stapled shut.

Teresa lifts her dress to show her scar, deterring bandits from sexually assaulting her

This line is consistently used as proof that Claymores are not truly human—that they are monstrous, horrific—because it’s the site where their bodies were opened to insert the bits of yoma that are used to transform them. Setting aside the unbelievably full-to-bursting baggage of making your characters’ horrific disfigurement  one that evokes hysterectomy scars, these scars are consistently invoked to discuss not just the humanity but the desirability of the Claymore as women. It’s treated as an obstacle that one would have to overcome to love Clare just as it was previously used as an obstacle that saved Teresa from rape (a troubling parallel in itself). Repeatedly and uncritically, Claymore invokes this idea that if a woman’s body is not unblemished, if it is not perfectly airbrushed, then there’s nothing to be desired from them. And, worse, that to desire them despite it is an act of altruism, personal strength, or at worst a sign of deviance and moral failure. 

The difference in framing between the male and female characters becomes increasingly noticeable the deeper you get into the series. A late-stage twist reveals that many of the strongest yoma are remnants of the original run of Claymore—all of whom were men. These warriors were strong but would Awaken far faster than intended, because the ecstasy from the transformation was hard for them to resist. It’s a plot development born of sexist assumptions that men can’t control their own sexual urges, and the supposedly “benevolent” sexist belief that women are far more pure and less sexually inclined than men. Notably, the stigma is never invoked in reference to a male Claymore, despite the large number of them who appear in the series and the flashbacks peppered throughout the narrative—driving home the stigmas’ specific connection to the horror of being unwomanly. 

For every moment where the women of the Seven Ghosts reassure Miria that their bond is tight and they trust her as a leader, there’s two where a female character like Undine is introduced trauma-first and then killed a chapter later. For every character like Teresa, who remains in control of her story and gets to have a fleshed out motivation, there’s a Yuma or a Cynthia who live but linger at the edges of the manga with minimal development. But Isley, Dauf, Chronos… basically every male character with a name, and even rando side characters like Galk and Sid, get a consistent ongoing story or a big spotlight before they go out. 

Clare being felt up by the woman restraining her

Trauma in the series is often fetishistic in gaze, with huge amounts of page time dedicated to explicit detail of Claymores suffering or dying in grotesque fashion. Becoming a yoma is consistently paralleled with major emotional strife. Women Awaken after grievous physical harm or particularly intense emotional distress. This is complicated by the previously mentioned benevolent sexism, as no male Claymore transforms this way. Even worse is when this trauma in female characters is paired with an almost fetishistic infantilization. Characters like Miata and Priscilla have their emotional and mental growth stunted, causing them to act like young children despite being grown women. This, paired with Priscilla’s near constant nudity and Miata’s initial obsession with breastfeeding, turns severe trauma into an opportunity to sexualize powerful women forcibly made helpless and dependent.

There’s also the ever-present compulsory heterosexuality. You would think that a series with a cast of women who have tight emotional bonds with each other and feel as outsiders to the world would be more interested in the concept of these girls pairing off. And to its credit, it’s not entirely devoid. But the two biggest examples of a potential relationship of that nature are either between the main characters Helen and Deneve who exist in a state of perpetual galpalhood; or characters like Roxanne and Ophelia who have their potential queerness directly associated with the most negative vices they actively engage in. 

Ophelia’s sexual proclivities come through in the form of elaborate murder games and a scene that mirrors a sexual assault where she jams her hand into Clare’s stigmata to taste her blood under threat of death. Roxanne, a character introduced in the eleventh hour of the manga, has a drawn out rivalry with a fellow Claymore of her era whose companion she stole and killed out of a kind of jealousy. She had a consistent habit of getting the targets of her affections killed, in fact, with complete awareness of her actions. The series is more interested in portraying Claymore as available to men, often through a surprisingly consistent bit where main male character Raki gets flashed by a nude woman; something that continues deep into the more serious bits of the story.

Raki functions as something of a parallel to Jean as the first companion that Clare takes on after rescuing him from a village being tormented by yoma. He decides to pledge his life to her as her traveling partner. Over the course of their journeys, he teaches her that her life has value beyond being a tool for hire. He follows Clare into her most dangerous missions including one where she’s paired with Ophelia on a mission she’s not expected to return from alive. He even risks his life to bring her back after she uses her body to seal a great enemy towards the end of the story. And Raki’s actions are treated as romantic where Jean’s are… purely platonic, even though they act with the same intense devotion toward their companion. And in the end, Raki’s love for Clare is what saves her from an eternity trapped in a fleshy prison playing mediator to two powerful sisters.

dialogue about how Roxanne was attracted to Cassandra

At the end of the day Claymore isn’t unique in its treatment of the trauma and harm of female characters. “Weak guy with ultra-powerful girlfriend (who still relies on him, usually emotionally)” is its own well-populated subgenre, from Mysterious Girlfriend X and Mahoromatic to Engage Kiss. 2002’s She, the Ultimate Weapon (AKA “Saikano”) in particular overlaps strongly with Claymore, as the story of a young girl who has become monstrous through traumatic experiences. But Saikano, for all its issues, maintains that becoming a “monster” does not preclude someone from deserving love and care. And that alienation, be that from peers, society, or even one’s body, is more dangerous than the idea of someone being inherently different. 

The idea of female characters being complex, well characterized, and well cared for is not, and should not, be a radical concept in the media landscape. Newer popular shounen such as Jujutsu Kaisen and Chainsaw Man, big series with a lot of attention on them, have gotten praise for the energy they lend to their female leads and side characters. And as always, there’s a whole world of shoujo manga to approach for similar takes on action and adventure, both new and old: series like Yona of the Dawn, Fushigi Yugi, Sukeban Deka and many, many classic magical girl and magical girl adjacent manga.

Consistently, when given the chance to treat its characters with grace, to give them control of the story, to have their struggles understood, to have their humanity appreciated, Claymore chooses to undermine itself with a juvenile emphasis on unnecessary carnage, a lack of interest in the inner worlds of the characters depicted, and a callousness to their emotional suffering. And it sucks. Because Claymore means a lot to many people. For many it was the first time they saw a female protagonist in an anime or manga that was allowed the spotlight, who could fight and kill as well as anyone else, who was allowed to get beat up instead of wilting like a dainty flower. There’s still merit in those experiences, and moments of the story where it knows what it’s doing and how to give its female characters that grace and to focus on their emotions. And god forbid anyone say that there’s nothing to be gained out of watching or reading something potentially bad. But it’s important to recognize the flaws that it has instead of turning a blind eye to its doujin-game levels of fetishized violence, and to recognize that just because something seems that it’s offering you what you’re seeking in a piece of media, doesn’t always mean that the offer’s worth taking.


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