Sex, Gender, Expectations and Shinji Ikari
Author: Amanda Wells
Source: Noise In My Brain
I often feel negative definitions of Shinji Ikari are too simplistic, at odds with the character I've come to enjoy. To many anime fans, including EVA fans, he's a "spineless wuss", a "wimp", a "whiner". The disparity between my opinions and others' was expected, but interesting. However, once I dwelt upon the matter, it was easy to see why some felt the way they did regarding Shinji.
Gender/sex doubtlessly plays a role. Shinji is male, but he is more feminine than masculine; emotional, unable to hide his feelings, often passive, meek, et cetera. People tend to react more negatively to feminine males than masculine females, perhaps because there's been no social movement to give males the freedom to move outside their gender. Certainly, less fans complain about Asuka being a "bitch" than about Shinji being a "wuss", though both characters display traits linked with the opposite sex and are utilizing defense mechanisms.
In addition to this, I think Shinji's role in Neon Genesis Evangelion is also significant. If only because there's a visual similarity, I associate EVA piloting with mecha piloting, a la Gundam, Escaflowne, etc. My experience with mecha is limited to Esca and several Gundam series, namely 0083, 0080, Wing, the first 0079 movie, and part of the 0079 manga, as well as Gundam: The Official Guide. I found such differences between Shinji and the protagonists of these series that I had to include it in my understanding of anti-Shinji backlash.
While characters like Van Fanel or Heero Yuy do have emotional difficulties, they encounter and cope with them in a fashion that never wholly negates their strength and stoicism. You know they hurt, but none seem in agony to Shinji's degree and in his fashion, or could ever be called "weak".
Furthermore, even disregarding the Freudian implications of giant swords and guns, I think the act of mecha piloting will always be seen as a masculine one, no matter who is at the controls. What are mecha in most cases, but larger, more sophisticated versions of tanks and construction equipment, both of which have traditionally been piloted by macho males? Of course, this doesn't always translate into pilots that are masculine in looks and/or temperament, but I think there is a connection between a masculine machine and the expectation of a masculine controller. Yes, there are arguably feminine mecha pilots like Quatre Raberba Winner from Gundam Wing, but he displays battle prowess and even rage. It's true there are many female pilots, but I'd argue the issue is not whether mecha pilots are male, but whether they are masculine.
Also, none of the mecha series I like have feminine protagonists. Indeed, recalling popular male leads in action stories doesn't yield many feminine examples. Instead we have Goku, Conan the Barbarian, Ash Ketchum, Luke Skywalker, King Arthur, Superman, Samurai Jack, Batman, He-Man, Optimus Prime, and the aforementioned Heero and Van. But despite these characters' extreme contrast to Shinji, he is still connected to them, because he's also a male protagonist in an action series. Among a group of beings that he only shares a role with, Ikari Shinji is at the very least, noticable. At worst, he is the proverbial sore thumb sticking out.
Those I mentioned also usually have the label of "guys boys want to be". One can take them free of their faults and their world's dangers, and imagine holding only their power. One could excise Heero's angst over resurfacing emotions or his feelings for Releena, and one would still have a strong, capable warrior who would be a desired avatar. However, take away Shinji's flaws, his angst, self-hate, self-absorption, sexual awkwardness, immaturity, insecurity, fear, et cetera, and you would still leave something, but certainly not a warrior. While hero-to-fan projection is usually linked with pre-teen boys, it's not hard to imagine older people doing it, or translating it into a protectiveness of the male hero image.
From that perspective, it becomes a crime to not only be a feminine male, but also to have not a shred of the traditional power of a (male, action series) protagonist. Instead his redeeming features relate to a dubious emotional "goodness", such as the display of compassion or an understanding of his faults, but none of those are crucial ingredients in a power fantasy.
Indeed, it often seems that Evangelion tries to undermine any notion of heroic power. While Shinji does fight with passion, it's always linked to coercion, obligation, and/or rage, which accentuates Shinji's "unheroic" nature.
In addition to a hero, some may expect/desire a character who does things better than they would, or takes the route viewers would like to believe they would, the "right" way. While Shinji does make some compassionate decisions (like piloting in Rei's place), mostly he doesn't take the "right" path.
To some, Shinji's difference from so many established/expected desires and images may overwhelm his characterization, so that only his flaws are noticed, and Shinji therefore becomes nothing more than his faults. Viewers feel justified in expecting a hero, and being angry when they don't get one. They want that power, that escapism, that macho-ness, as surely as I want a character I can relate to.