After recently finishing DARLING in the FRANXX, I decided to check how others felt about the series. Given that it was a massive production, the most talked-about anime of 2018, and dominated award ceremonies, I expected to find this anime enshrined in a hall of fame. Instead, it sits at a mediocre 69% on AniList, putting it at the #74 spot of that year. Behind anime like Mitsuboshi Colors, Sword Art Online, and season 3 of Overlord. Why?
I figured some people would be pissy at the twist ending typical in Gainax & Trigger works, but not enough to affect the score so much. As I delved into forum threads and user reviews, I found a variety of reasons. Some did hate the ending while others could not get over their hatred for specific characters. Some accused the show of being shallow waifu bait while others hated how their favored waifu ultimately turned out. And then there was the criticism that Darling in the FRANXX is LGBT unfriendly. The kind of point that sounds outrageous at first, but then clicks in your brain a moment later.
Spoilers from here on out
DARLING in the FRANXX is fundamentally about gender. It’s an anime where male-female couples need to team up in giant robots to save the Earth from monsters. It’s about the romances that develop between these pilots and how that love will come to shape their futures. Pilots that, by the way, are referred to as stamen (male) and pistil (female), just to drive the point home further. There is even an entire subplot about rediscovering the wonders of childbirth. It’s gendered as fuck… And that’s fine, right?
I have seen arguments that its heteronormative and gender essentialist. Arguments that certainly apply, if you need every bit of media you consume to contribute to the fight for equality. Yeah, DARLING in the FRANXX is pretty traditional when it comes to gender, but I don’t come to over-the-top Hiroyuki Imaishi anime for nuanced gender critique. I didn’t expect a show that literally put chromosomes into its title to be particularly revolutionary in that field.
The way the anime presents gender is simple and that’s entirely explainable in-universe. Most obviously, in that the Franxx robots specifically need gendered pairs to work. You could argue that this doesn’t count, because the author consciously decided to make it that way. Again implying a heteronormative mentality in its production chain. However, we should consider the state of humanity in this story.
Humanity is facing an overwhelming threat and is forced to put all its hope on genetically-engineered children born from questionable cloning technology. Their biology is all kinds of messed up and society has little regard for their long-term well-being. They are specifically not taught anything about romance or sex, hence why they had to rediscover the concept of childbirth. In that context, it’d be beyond remarkable if they also instantly rediscovered the gender spectrum and an understanding of sexuality on par with our modern-day reality.
Also, that their world is heteronormative doesn’t mean that the characters are. Ikuno is one of the most likeable, intelligent members of the cast, and the rules of this universe are particularly cruel to her. While not outright identified as queer, it’s clear that Ikuno has no interest in boys and is instead drawn towards her fellow pistils. This culminates into her trying to pilot a Franxx with another girl and failing. While others laugh this off, Ikuno is clearly hurt by this barrier.
From there the show explores her struggle. While everybody else gets the help and resources to figure out love and sex, Ikuno is left out in the cold with feelings she can’t identify. You can see it eat away at her until it pushes her to a breaking point. And yet, in spite of those struggles, she carries on and carves out her place in the world. Some stay home to plow their fields and wives, but homegirl goes off to fight in the final battle. Not to mention how much she does for humanity in the aftermath of it all.
There are also the 9’s, who are explicitly stated to be genderfluid. While initially presented as villains, they eventually come around and do their part to save humanity. In the final battle, Hiro even teams up with Alpha, who typically presents as male. They even fit in a joke that Hiro needed an alpha as his
bottom pistil because he’s just too rough with his partners.
I do get it, though. Just like how I can put a positive spin on the same issue, there are opportunities to perceive the anime’s contents as malicious. Some of the dialogue can absolutely be construed as hostile towards LGBT ideals. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are folks out there who heard the villain monologue about doing away with gender and thought this was a “gay agenda thing”. And even if I don’t need every show to break out of the heteronormative mold, there are people whose struggles may make it painful to watch a show with this many gender essentialist touches.
If you couldn’t enjoy or finish DARLING in the FRANXX because it just hit too close to home, I respect that completely. But in its totality, I wouldn’t say that DitF comes of as anti-LGBT. Flawed, perhaps, but certainly not hostile.