Made in Abyss: Gender Politics
The horror adventure series Made in Abyss–which began as a manga in 2013 and was later adapted into an anime–has been met with generally positive reception. The anime version in particular won Crunchyroll’s Anime of the Year award in 2017, 1 and has since been made into a two-part movie. 2 Currently, a second season is in the works, as in an OVA 3 The series follows the adventures of a young girl named Riko and her best friend, a robot-like being named Reg, as they journey into the Abyss, a great pit that lies at the center of their world. Riko intends to find her mother at the bottom of the Abyss, but unfortunately, nobody who has traveled that far down has ever made it back to tell the tale.
In the fandom, attempts to explain Made in Abyss‘s often confusing and disorienting world and plot–particularly the Abyss itself–are legion, and multiple interpretations persist, particularly since the series remains as yet unfinished. However, one of the more interesting and troubling features of Made in Abyss is its approach to gender. The Made in Abyss manga, for example, seems to be one of the few manga series to make extensive use of gender-neutral pronouns, in reference to the hollows–individuals who descended so far into the Abyss they lost their humanity–including the point-of-view character Nanachi. Fans also debate the relative merits of Riko as a feminist heroine, with some praising her bravery and intelligence 4 and others insisting she spends too much time as a damsel-in-distress whom Reg has to save. 5 To its credit, Made in Abyss does provide characters in a wide range of genders and roles. However, the actual story these characters tell ends up being surprisingly traditionalist, and even reactionary–to the point it often seems as though the series is trying to make the case against, rather than for, freedom of gender expression.
Of course, lots of anime feature attempts to play around with gender and the expectations attached to it, perhaps as a reaction against the quite strict gender roles that have dominated Japanese culture for most of its history. Many anime and manga–including really dark and violent series like Deadman Wonderland, Shiki, and Black Lagoon–portray attempts to transcend or blur these gender roles neutrally, as an inevitable fact of life; and some portray them positively. Still other series–Last Exile being among them–present female characters who seem to take on roles traditionally reserved for men, only to force them into the background in favor of their male coworkers, seemingly without realizing it. Made in Abyss does neither of these things, however. It is clear, for instance, that Riko matters just as much to the story as Reg, but she still can’t escape from the limitations of her sex, and neither can he. Made in Abyss may look good to a feminist at first, but under the surface lurks a deep well of sexism and gender essentialism which is all the more surprising in such a slick, modern series.
Through the Eyes Of a Child
One of the more immediately troubling aspects of Made in Abyss lies in its willingness to show children get hurt–often in graphic detail and sometimes incorporating an element of sexual humiliation as well. For instance, in the world of Made in Abyss a common penalty for children who disobey orders is to be strung up naked and whipped. Riko in particular spends a distressingly large amount of time wearing little to no clothing. However, unlike in many series, this nudity does serve a narrative purpose: namely, illustrating that Riko has the body of a child. At the outset of the series she hasn’t reached puberty in any substantial way, and although she is officially twelve she could easily pass for nine or ten, as could Reg. This might be one reason why she feels comfortable sharing a bed with Reg and appearing undressed in front of him, even though she knows he has a full set of reproductive organs: she is simply too innocent to appreciate the sexual connotations of her actions.
At first glance, it might seem strange that a series so clearly aimed at mature audiences would feature such a youthful main cast. However, one of the most common arguments reactionaries make is that the adults who benefit from the current laissez-faire culture willfully ignore its negative impact on children 6. By taking the focus off of adults and revealing the world through the eyes of a child, Made in Abyss is able to give its audience a sense of its lead characters’ vulnerability and, by extension, the vulnerability of all children in a harsh world full of selfish adults. As apprentice Red Whistles at Belchero Orphanage, an institution that trains orphans to become cave-raiders who hunt for relics in the Abyss, Riko and her friends experience a semblance of order, camaraderie, and protection–they have sympathetic adults to watch over them and assign reasonable goals, and are not trusted to venture further than a couple hundred meters at a time into the Abyss–even as their everyday life is often harsh and difficult. However, even these imperfect protections fall away almost instantly once Riko and Reg decide to descend into the Abyss on their own.
Overview of Riko’s and Reg’s Characters
Riko and Reg are the two central characters in Made in Abyss, and in many respects they’re exact opposites. Riko, a young girl, is impulsive, easily excitable, and daring whereas Reg, a boy with robotic characteristics, is smarter, calmer, and more level-headed. This arrangement already shows a fairly serious departure from traditional gender roles in many famous anime, which generally pair up impulsive and hot-headed male leads who love to fight with calm, no-nonsense female costars who keep them on the straight and narrow.
However, in every other respect Riko and Reg settle into the roles expected of their respective genders fairly quickly and comfortably. It’s established early on, and repeated by every major character that the two of them come across, that Reg is meant to function as Riko’s bodyguard while on the trip, protecting her from danger so that she is free to search for her mother and collect relics. This expectation is so powerful that, in Episode Nine of the anime, Riko actually throws a weapon that she had been carrying to Reg so that he can kill a monster for her! Riko and Reg also divide up the tasks of everyday living in fairly traditional ways, with Reg fishing and hunting for meat which Riko cooks into delicious meals.
The series also goes out of its way to highlight Reg’s masculinity whenever it can. For instance, the characters he meets, whatever their age and relation to Reg, all seem fascinated by his penis. Reg himself notes early in the series that, if he is truly a robot as everyone says he is, he should not need such an organ at all. Since male sexual organs have long been a symbol of masculinity writ large, the series establishes firmly and early on that Reg is not only a boy, but a proper, strong, masculine boy–something which is consistently reinforced by his incredible strength, commitment to protecting Riko, and even his unique ability to be unaffected by the Curse of the Abyss. It’s probably no coincidence that, as he’s fighting the villain Bondrewd, the highest praise Bondrewd can muster for him is, “You really are a boy!” A popular refrain among conservatives is that men are simply naturally more risk-taking and aggressive than women, and the author of Made in Abyss would likely agree with this point.
It’s interesting to note, however, that the children both seem to pick up more stereotypically masculine characteristics as they descend further into the Abyss. For instance, whereas at the beginning of the series Riko has long, flowing blonde hair that reaches down to her waist, in Volume Seven of the manga she cuts most of it off and donates it to a friend in need. Meanwhile Reg, who is a gentleman in the early stages of the series, seems to become increasingly feral as the story progresses. By the time he meets Nanachi in the fourth layer of the Abyss, he’s picked up a habit of invading their personal space in a way that they find very creepy. They have no such problem with Riko, however, which implies that they feel threatened by the idea of a male presence getting into their face. The implication is that the Abyss is a place that on some level rewards masculinity.
Ozen and Lyza: Women Behaving Like Men
Riko’s mother Lyza, and her mentor Ozen, stand out as the two most prominent female White Whistles–that is, the most accomplished and celebrated type of cave-raider. What’s interesting is that each of them, in her own way, demonstrates a rejection of traditional femininity and female gender roles. This isn’t necessarily regarded as a good thing, however, and the implication is that both of them have an urge to act more feminine, albeit one they either deny or express in unusual ways.
Right from the start it’s clear that Lyza, who abandoned Riko in an orphanage when she was still a toddler, was no ordinary mother. For one thing, her full title as a White Whistle is Lyza the Annihilator–a decidedly unfeminine label. Jiruo, a young man who teaches cave-raiding at Belchero Orphanage, used to be Lyza’s apprentice. At a festival celebrating Lyza’s life and accomplishments, he describes her to Riko as “a heavy drinker who got into a lot of fights”–again highlighting her masculine qualities.
Lyza’s embrace of a typically-masculine demeanor and love of danger took a tragic turn when she was sent on a mission in the Abyss after becoming pregnant with Riko. During this mission, her husband died, and her daughter was stillborn, later to be revived by a special relic from the Abyss. It seems as though the authorities took Lyza’s love of cave-raiding and comfort in masculine roles at face value, and assumed that if a male cave-raider could drop everything to venture into the Abyss in search of a relic, so could she. Mary Eberstadt, a traditional Catholic writer, argues that this phenomenon occurs in real life too and drives the increasing prevalence of women in traditionally male-dominated careers.
The bedrock fact is that today’s women are continually given the message that they must perform like men–that men are the standard by which women should be measured. […] [W]omen who cannot, or do not, compete on male terms–sexually, athletically, professionally, or otherwise–are then trapped in the paradigm of being “failed men.” A successful woman these days is most often one who behaves most like a man, in the workplace and elsewhere, and what might be called a “beta woman” is one who does not. 7
What’s particularly telling is that, when Lyza eventually abandons Riko, she explains that if she stays with Riko she’ll be drawn away from the Abyss. She seems to be acknowledging that being a mother makes her more than just a cave-raider whether she likes it or not. She can’t seem to accept this new side of her identity, however, and so back to the Abyss she goes.
Similar to Lyza, Ozen exhibits a lot of traits seen most often in male anime characters. Her full title is Ozen the Unmovable, a reference to her immense physical strength which allows her to utterly thrash even the superhuman Reg in combat. However, Ozen was not always a strong as she is now–her power comes from a device called a Thousand-Men Wedge, which she inserted into the flesh of her arms. She also dresses in a fairly masculine style, wearing a waistcoat, pants, and a cape and keeping her hair short.
Ozen does have a softer side than she first appears to. For instance, she takes in and cares for a lost child named Marulk, whom she promoted to the Blue Whistle rank so that she could live with her in the Abyss’s second layer. She also gives Riko and Reg a place to sleep, and provides them with crucial advice and training that they can use later in their journey. Strangely, Ozen doesn’t seem to be entirely comfortable with this more benevolent side of herself. For instance, in flashbacks she casually mentions kicking and beating Lyza during the latter’s apprenticeship, and she also beats up Reg and taunts Riko by claiming that she had considered leaving her in the Abyss when she was a baby, seemingly without a care. The implication is that Ozen is ashamed of her maternal, nurturing instincts but is unable to brush them aside altogether. Ozen was also the only one who assisted Lyza in giving birth to Riko, although she grumbled about it and blamed her own involvement on being “cursed with a strong sense of duty.” It’s as if she’s echoing Mary Eberstadt’s observation:
If men cannot, or will not, be found to help protect women (and children), to whom does that task fall? The answer would seem to be, a woman–a woman who’s being more like a man, that is. 8
Who is Marulk?
Marulk is Ozen’s assistant and ward, about Riko’s age, who lives with her at the seeker camp in the second layer of the Abyss. Outwardly, Marulk seems to be one of the more feminine of the series’ characters. However, the series gently implies that she is transgender–soon after Reg meets her he asks her if she’s a boy or a girl, causing her to become clearly embarrassed. The series has yet to spell out how or why she got lost in the Abyss in the first place, but one possibility is that she was trying to escape from other kids who might have teased her about her gender identity.
Although Marulk is a sympathetic and likable character, she does not lead an especially happy or easy life. Ozen takes good care of her overall, but sees nothing wrong with stringing her up naked and whipping her if she’s displeased. She can also never return to the surface, but will seemingly be forced to remain in the Abyss for the rest of her life. Furthermore, if indeed she is trans, it’s quite likely that she will eventually go through male-typical puberty. When that day comes, what will she do? Will she come to terms with having a body that looks visibly male? Or, will she attempt to find a way of changing her body into something she desires, even if it means descending further into the Abyss?
Nanachi’s Gender Confusion
In the fourth layer of the Abyss, Riko and Reg meet a strange rabbit-like creature named Nanachi. Nanachi is a hollow–a type of creature that lost their humanity by traveling through the Sixth Layer of the Abyss. Nanachi, at least, retains the ability to speak and some semblance of a human form, but their best friend Mitty has seemingly lost all trace of humanity and ability to interact with the outside world.
One of the most puzzling aspects of Nanachi’s character is their apparent lack of gender. The manga in particular always refers to Nanachi using gender-neutral pronouns, a trend that continues later in the manga with many of the hollows who live in the Sixth Layer full-time. In the brief glimpses that the audience gets of Nanachi’s human form, they seem to lack any traces of secondary sexual characteristics, and even the author of the manga has stated that he intends to leave Nanachi’s true gender up to the audience to decide. 9 This ambiguity hasn’t stopped people from speculating, however. Most fans–and the English dub scriptwriters–just assume that Nanachi is a girl (there is a collection of short videos on YouTube titled “Nanachi is a boy,” but those seem to be satirical 10).
Based on the available evidence, the overwhelming likelihood is that Nanachi is indeed a girl–or at least, was born a girl. Anecdotally, most of the people who identify as nonbinary or genderqueer seem to have been born female, and decided that they didn’t identify with being female later in life. In Nanachi’s case, the reason why they might not choose to identify as female is obvious: they don’t really know what it means to be a “girl” or “woman” in the first place. For example, Nanachi clearly has an interest in some classically female duties, like cooking and healing. However, while they effectively heal Riko when she’s poisoned and suffering internal bleeding, they can’t cook. When Reg confronts them on this, they protest that they’ve never known food that tastes good–before going into the Abyss, they lived on the streets and scavenged all their meals from the garbage. The clothing that they wear doesn’t look especially feminine either, but then, they’ve never had the time, money, or will to acquire dresses or other typically “ladylike” clothing, which wouldn’t be practical in the Abyss anyway (by contrast, Riko does wear a dress–albeit a fairly shabby one–while in Belchero Orphanage).
Furthermore, based on Nanachi’s interactions with Mitty, it’s likely that they had romantic feelings for her. This could have caused some confusion as well, particularly if Nanachi’s only model of romantic relationships involved a boy and a girl. They might well have thought that, to have romantic yearnings for a girl, they must really be a boy deep down, rather than recognizing themselves as a gay girl.
Regardless, it’s clear that Nanachi isn’t empowered by their lack of defined gender. Instead, they’re vulnerable and confused. As social commentators from Simone de Beuvoir on have pointed out, nobody is born knowing how to be masculine or feminine. 11 Young people need trustworthy adults–something Nanachi and Mitty conspicuously lack–to teach them their place in the world and explain the nuances of gender to them.
The True Mission of Bondrewd
One of the series’ first major villains, Bondrewd is a White Whistle who lives in a base called Ido Front, at the bottom of the Abyss’s Fifth Layer. He was the one who transformed Nanachi and Mitty into hollows while attempting to test the limits of the Curse of the Sixth Layer. He also dismembers and chops up children in order to turn them into cartridges, which have some ability to repel the Curse of the Abyss when worn.
A common refrain among social conservatives is that transgender activists want to abuse children by “turning them trans.” Although Bondrewd doesn’t actually encourage the children to identify as transgender or perform sex-reassignment surgery, he still destroys their bodies and lives for his own self-protection and self-aggrandizement, just as many reactionaries argue trans activists do. These reactionaries often bring up the steps of medical gender affirmation, which on paper can seem pretty awful. 12 In order to medically transition to a different gender, a patient undergoes a lifetime of hormone supplements 13 coupled with plastic surgery that may last for hours and entail weeks of recovery, 14 and which can lead to serious complications. 15 Youth who transition before puberty may also be given puberty blockers. 16 Though such a procedure may reduce anxiety surrounding puberty in the short term, it makes later surgeries more difficult since plastic surgeons are used to operating on mature adults. 17 For this reason, even people who support medical transition in fully-grown adults often object to the transition of minor children. 18
On the surface, as the friendly cave-raider Habo explains to Riko’s friends, Bondrewd is chiefly known not for his experiments on children but for his attempts to clear away predators and obstacles down in the Abyss. Though these activities may seem unrelated, what unites them is a desire to cheat or circumvent nature. He even admits openly that this is his ultimate goal, as when he tells Nanachi and Mitty: “The Curse of the Sixth Layer is death–or loss of humanity–and I intend to do something about that.” Interestingly enough, Bondrewd never forces Nanachi or Mitty to be test subjects–they, along with many other children, freely agree to follow Bondrewd into the Abyss to help him with his research, not realizing what they’re getting themselves into. He also seems to care for at least some of the children, particularly Nanachi, in his own way, as is shown in a flashback where he says to Nanachi, “I wish you’d look happier.” Even after Nanachi steals Mitty away from him and orchestrates her death, he still welcomes them back with open arms and asks them to work for him again. More often than not, Bondrewd seems less malicious than oblivious, forging ahead in his goals without knowing or caring about the pain he inflicts on others.
Bondrewd as Wicked Stepfather
Many of the same reactionaries that oppose transgenderism also insist that, more often than not, children fare best when raised by their biological parents. They generally cite studies showing that children missing at least one biological parent are more likely to suffer abuse. 19 One organization in particular, Them Before Us, holds that society owes children the opportunity to grow up with their biological families whenever possible and practical. This organization argues that institutions like gay adoption, in-vitro fertilization, and surrogacy turn children into commodities to be bought or sold. 20
At Ido Front, Riko and her friends meet a young girl named Prushka, who introduces herself as Bondrewd’s daughter. When Nanachi confronts Bondrewd about this later, he admits that Prushka is not his biological daughter, but insists that it doesn’t matter because the only thing that should define familial relationships is love. Considering the nobility and idealism of this statement, and how closely it tracks with arguments used to bolster non-traditional families, it’s interesting that a villain is the one making the argument.
The problem is that when it comes to Prushka, Bondrewd doesn’t practice what he preaches. He claims to love her, but in the end he turns her into just another one of his cartridges, ultimately precipitating her death. As he’s getting ready to have her disemboweled and chopped up, he lovingly reaches out to her on the operating table and promises that they’ll be together forever, as if the entire situation were perfectly normal. It’s reminiscent of the surgery scenes in the I Am Jazz reality series, which show the titular Jazz being wheeled cheerfully into a hospital and her parents and siblings wishing her well, the way they would if she were doing something as commonplace as getting an appendix removed or giving birth. 21
Some traditionalists argue that parents who want to look woke will attempt to burnish their credentials with LGBT activists by pushing their children to identify as transgender. This argument came to a head when a divorcing Texas couple went to court following a disagreement about the gender of their seven-year-old child. 22 When word of the case reached conservative Twitter, it caused an uproar, with one Christian firebrand named Matt Walsh creating the hashtag #ProtectJamesYounger to raise awareness of what he saw as an attempt to manipulate and abuse the child. 23 Not long afterward, Katy Faust, the founder of Them Before Us, attempted to connect the case to the alleged unreliability of non-biological caregivers. She claimed:
Unfortunately for little James, the adaptation he had to make [to his parents’ divorce] went far beyond meat-lover’s pizza at his dad’s house and cauliflower crusts at mom’s: it meant losing one of the most sacred aspects of his identity–his maleness. […] [O]ne of the two parents engaged in this custodial tug-of-war isn’t biologically related to little James. Care to guess which one? Do you think it’s the parent who wants to keep him physically whole? It’s not. 24
To make matters worse, Bondrewd’s mistreatment of Prushka likely extends beyond his interest in using her in deadly experiments. At one point in the manga, as Riko attempts to explain the concept of a penis to Prushka, the latter admits that she’s always known it as a “papa pole.” The fact that she would associate a penis so closely with Bondrewd suggests that he has sexually abused her in the past–a suggestion reinforced by a piece of art at the end of Volume 4 showing Prushka in sexually-compromising positions. As Mary Eberstadt points out, “In essence, the fastest way to raise a child’s risk of sexual abuse is to take one or both biological parents out of the home.” 25 All in all, what Made in Abyss seems to be saying is that despite Bondrewd’s protestations he does not, and cannot, love or care for Prushka the way her biological parents could. All he can do is hurt and exploit her, whether he wants to or not and whether she’s aware of it or not.
The Hollow City in the Sixth Layer
Upon reaching the Sixth Layer of the Abyss, Riko and her friends come upon a city populated almost entirely by hollows like Nanachi. Like Nanachi, most of the hollows in the city lack defined gender. Instead, as one friendly hollow named Kaja explains, they construct bodies for themselves based on their personal desires–that is, their erotic leanings. The hollows also use body parts–and sometimes entire bodies–as currency to barter and trade for goods, thus rendering mutilation a fact of life.
The notion of seeking a body in line with one’s own desires sounds eerily similar to the concept of autogynephilia. According to some researchers of human sexuality, some trans women were once men who developed autogynephilia–a sexual preoccupation with the idea of themselves as beautiful women. Subsequently, they decided that they had no other choice than to start dressing and living as women. 26 Is the author of Made in Abyss claiming that such individuals are wretched, inhuman monsters like the hollows?
Riko’s Broken Home
Riko comes from a broken family too, albeit not quite as extreme of one as Nanachi or Prushka. When she was just two years old, her mother abandoned her to explore in the Abyss, leaving her to grow up in an orphanage surrounded by unrelated kids–a situation Mary Eberstadt refers to somewhat disparagingly as a “forced pack.” 27 Although Riko seems to be a happy girl, it’s clear she’s troubled by her lack of family ties. She’s so desperate to see her mother that, when a note surfaces suggesting that Lyza is waiting for her at the bottom of the Abyss, she immediately takes the note at face value and makes plans to go and find her, even though she’s still just a Red Whistle who has never ventured further than a couple hundred meters into the Abyss before. Even when Ozen points out to Riko that the note does not use Lyza’s handwriting, Riko still is not dissuaded.
Riko’s longing for her mother is portrayed most vividly in Episode 9 of the anime. While the kids are exploring the Third Layer, Reg ends up unconscious, and Riko has to carry him through a vast network of tunnels in the rock. As she starts ascending to the edge of the tunnel, she begins to hallucinate images of her friends, telling her to give up. At first she’s able to dismiss the hallucinations, but she falters when she sees what appears to be her mother waiting for her at the top of the tunnel. When she tries to take her mother’s hand, she triggers a more all-encompassing hallucination in which she and her mother return to the surface of the Abyss together. She only sees through it when she realizes that Reg isn’t there, and she can’t leave him behind. At one point in the hallucination she even refers to her mother using the childish word “Mommy.”
Though the series never explicitly states that Lyza should have given up cave-raiding and settled down to a life of baking pot pies and volunteering at the local community garden in Orth, she still comes across as a fairly selfish and thoughtless individual who believed that risking her life in the Abyss was more important than caring for her only child. Ultimately, Lyza is responsible for all the problems Riko faces. She’s responsible for Riko being born in the Abyss, and for her growing up in Belchero Orphanage, an institution whose explicit purpose is to turn children into cave-raiders. Lyza attempts to justify her decision by claiming that she’s giving Riko the maximum freedom to choose her own path. However, in the eyes of many social conservatives, standing aside passively and allowing one’s child to choose whatever path they want constitutes a dereliction of parental duty. How, these people ask, is a child supposed to learn how to be a good citizen if not from their parents? 28
The Complicity of “Responsible” Adults
What’s arguably more worrying than the behavior of characters like Bondrewd is the way in which the wider culture permits, and even tacitly endorses, this exact behavior. The supposedly well-meaning adults around Riko and Reg both seem to want the same thing as Bondrewd wants: an endless supply of young people ready and willing to enter the Abyss and risk their lives to expose its secrets. The only difference is that while Bondrewd wants to take them into the deepest depths right away, the “responsible” teachers and trainers at Belchero Orphanage want to build them up to it gradually, introducing them to cave-raiding at approximately the age of twelve with the idea that they’ll be competent enough to advance to the proficient Blue Whistle rank by their mid-teens. The director of the orphanage explicitly tells the children who live there that becoming cave-raiders is the proper way to honor the memory of their dead parents, whom, it’s safe to assume, were all cave-raiders themselves.
Riko’s teachers and mentors don’t seem terribly interested in enforcing their own rules, either. When Riko and Reg sneak out of the orphanage to start their one-way descent into the Abyss, Jiruo makes a half-hearted attempt to come after them, but Riko assumes, seemingly correctly, that it’s a test to prove their worthiness. Later, the two friends run into Habo, and he too makes no effort to bring them back to the surface. The most he does is offer to escort them to Ozen’s seeker camp in the Second Layer, but when Riko refuses his help he lets her go without any protest or hesitation whatsoever. Riko is still only a Red Whistle, and has never been trusted to descend beyond the First Layer before, and yet neither of these adults seems willing to take on the responsible adult role of bringing her back home to safety. So far all the adults that Riko meets–Jiruo, Habo, and Ozen–have lied to her or withheld important details about who her mother was and what she stood for.
Furthermore, while these same adults know that something is wrong with Bondrewd–to the point that Ozen calls him “an out-and-out reckless scoundrel”–they never do anything to stop his evil experiments. At one point in a flashback, a cave-raider comes to chastise Bondrewd for bringing children so deep into the Abyss. Still, there’s nothing this cave-raider can do besides remind Bondrewd that he’s behaving unethically. Meanwhile, surface-dwellers continue to treat him and the other White Whistles as heroes. It seem as though they’re willing to sacrifice the lives and futures of countless children to uphold the fiction of White Whistles’ bravery and heroism. This, by the way, is exactly how reactionaries view the wider culture surrounding LGBT activism, and trans activism in particular. In their view, these activists–and their supporters in government and the media–are so wedded to the idea that trans individuals are born that way that there’s essentially no support for any solution to gender confusion in young people that doesn’t involve social and medical transition. 29
Is the Abyss Really So Alluring?
Ultimately it’s hard to tell how much of the Abyss’s allure is due to the Abyss itself, and how much is due to a culture that promotes cave-raiding as the most prestigious occupation and being a White Whistle as the highest end one can aspire to. Even in Orth, not everyone wants to be a White Whistle. Habo’s wife Auntie–who, incidentally, is one of the more feminine women in the series–even goes so far as to wonder, “Would being [a White Whistle] really be all that great?”
Undoubtedly, at least some of the attraction to the Abyss is real. Still, everybody knows that the Abyss is dangerous, and another kind of culture might train its citizens to resist the Abyss’s pull and get on with their lives. Instead, the citizens of Orth learn that anyone who wishes to go into the Abyss should and, eventually, will.
In this regard, as well, the series echoes the complaints of conservatives, particularly in religious organizations, who oppose LGBT activism. These people often argue that, despite the protests of gay activists, there is nothing inevitable about a gay person acting on their sexual preferences. Instead, they exhort gay people to ignore these preferences and establish a traditional nuclear family anyway, even going so far as to claim that such a decision will make them better off in the long run. 30 Dr. Paul McHugh, of Johns Hopkins University, has similarly argued that gender dysphoria is a purely psychological problem, and that instead of pursuing surgery trans people should be taught to come to terms with their natal sex. On the subject of Caitlyn Jenner, for example, he has said:
[Jenner] could have been treated for this misaligned arousal with therapy and medication. Instead, he found his way to surgeons who worked him over as he wished. 31
By this logic, Orth’s wholesale embrace of the Abyss functions similarly to events such as gay pride parades, which promote the LGBT lifestyle. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a writer and former politician, described a phenomenon he called “defining deviancy down,” whereby something previously considered abnormal and in need of fixing becomes accepted as a normal part of life. Interestingly, the “deviancy” that Moynihan himself seemed most concerned about was the increase in broken families. 32
Most horror stories are rooted in a real problem that has been blown up to its most horrifying extreme, and Made in Abyss is no exception. Following its plot line and characters, more often than not, feels a lot like reading the lamentations of a gender-essentialist social conservative, overlaid with Lovecraftian horror themes. Of course, since Made in Abyss is still nowhere near completion, the series still has time to subvert or challenge this viewpoint. In the meantime, LGBT activists ought to take note.
It’s easy to dismiss people who rail against pro-LGBT activism and politics as irrational, bigoted bullies. However, these people see their views as perfectly rational and justified. The only way to convince them that they are wrong is to understand and offer direct rebuttals of the arguments they make. To get a sense of those arguments, one can do a lot worse than reading or watching Made in Abyss.
- Loveridge, Lynzee. “Made In Abyss, My Hero Academia Win Big At Crunchyroll’s Anime Awards.” Anime News Network, 25 Feb. 2018. Retrieved from https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/interest/2018-02-25/made-in-abyss-my-hero-academia-win-big-at-crunchyroll-anime-awards/.128238 ↩
- Howard, Courtney. “Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn.” Variety, 20 Mar, 2019. Retrieved from https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/made-in-abyss-journeys-dawn-review-1203166567/ ↩
- Frye, Patrick. “Made In Abyss Season 2 release date: Sequel confirmed in 2020 by Bondrewd Dawn of the Deep Soul movie end credits – Made In Abyss manga compared to the anime.[Spoilers]”. Monsters & Critics, 2 March 2020. Retrieved from https://www.monstersandcritics.com/anime/made-in-abyss-season-2-release-date-bondrewd-dawn-of-the-deep-soul-movie-2020-ova-episode-confirmed-made-in-abyss-english-dub-manga-spoilers/ ↩
- “[Five] In defense of Riko (Made in Abyss).” Atelier Emily, 23 Dec. 2017. Retrieved from https://formeinfullbloom.wordpress.com/2017/12/23/five-in-defense-of-riko-made-in-abyss/ ↩
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- Eberstadt, Mary. Home Alone America. New York, NY, Penguin Group, Inc, 2004 ↩
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