Netflix's 'Knights of the Zodiac: Saint Seiya' and the problems of representation in media
Fans of the classic anime were enraged when they found out that an iconic character had been gender-swapped but the whole controversy is a little more nuanced than that.
Netflix is all set to release ‘Knights of the Zodiac: Saint Seiya’, a remake of the classic 1980s anime, and the upcoming show has already been met with controversy. The debate is about a certain character who was gender-swapped from male to female but the problem is a little more nuanced than it might appear at first glance.
The original ‘Saint Seiya’ anime was an extremely popular show that still maintains a cult following. It featured mostly male characters, which to be honest is not that surprising considering the time of its release. The controversy surrounding the remake erupted back in December 2018 when it was revealed that one of the original characters, Andromeda Shun, has been gender-swapped for the new series.
The problem isn’t just that Shun was a highly popular character in the original anime. The Bronze Saint was arguably one of the strongest characters on the show but he displayed a very kind, peaceable disposition. He was very sensitive and effeminate, qualities that got some fans to adopt him as a gay icon and others to praise him for showing how men could be kind and sensitive and still be strong fighters.
Shun’s gender was changed supposedly to bring in more female representation on the show but not all fans see it that way. Writer/Illustrator Fanny Rodriguez posted on Twitter sharing a long thread explaining why the genderswap was a bad idea:
“If this was about giving the audience women representation on the remake, they could easily go and explore Saori's character,” she explained. “She's Athena reincarnation and the one keeping it all from falling apart when everyone was fighting. And if they wanted female saints. Well, Marin and Shaina are there. I know they are not major characters but they could be more proactive on the story.”
Rodriguez further explained why it was important that Shun be a male character.
“It seems that, with Shun's character in mind turning him into a woman is erasing the example that men could be sensitive and kick ass at the same time, also that women have to be the sensitive ones. But maybe that's just me, who see it that way.”
As the controversy gained steam, Eugene Son, who is a writer on the show, took full responsibility and defended the decision to change Shun’s gender in a series of tweets that have now been deleted. He explained that while the original show had some excellent core concepts, the one thing that bothered him about it was that “the Bronze Knights with Pegasus Seiya are all dudes”.
He also added that the creators of the remake were aware of the important female characters on the show but decided against changing the story to give them more central roles because it would be a disservice to the characters.
“There are plenty of female characters in the anime and manga. Marin and Shaina are both incredible. But they’re both powerful already – no one wants to see them turned into Bronze Knights."
He also explained that he was not comfortable with the idea of creating a new character just to add representation, clearly having taken a hint from the controversy created by the addition of Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel to ‘The Hobbit’ movies.
“I didn’t want to create a new female character that would stick out and be obvious – especially if she was not created naturally and has no character/personality except 'to be the girl.'”
He also emphasized that, apart from the gender, nothing important has been changed about the fan-favorite character.
“The more we developed it, the more we saw the potential. A great character with a great look. But I knew this would be controversial. I don’t see it as changing the character. The original Andromeda Shun is still a great character. But this is a new interpretation. A different take.”
Clearly, there is no obvious “good side” or “bad side” to this debate. While representation is important and stories must be updated to reflect the times we live in, the curious case of Andromeda Shun illustrates that fans are not likely to take well to changes to their favorite characters and shows. Whether fans of the series will grow to like the new Shun is something only time will tell though they do seem to still be a bit sore about the whole thing.
‘Knights of the Zodiac: Saint Seiya’ will arrive on Netflix on July 19.