The setup: In the world of the series, humans are all born female-sexed, and remain that way throughout childhood. There’s a magical/holy spring in the country of Simulacrum that citizens visit at age 17, where they choose the adult sex they’re going to grow into (with male and female being the only options). Also, there’s a war on, and the magical/holy aircraft used to fight it (the titular Simoun) can only be piloted by youths who haven’t chosen their adult sex yet, which has led to a couple of pilots (called Sibyllae, a type of priestess) putting off going to the Spring so they can keep fighting in the meantime.
This sounds like a jumping-off point for all kinds of fascinating exploration of sex and gender and sexuality, and all the recs I’ve seen have raved about the way it plays with and subverts and is generally nifty about those issues. And…well.
Note: For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use “men” and “women” to refer to adults (i.e., acting as if they’re all cis — that’s not necessarily the case, but more on that later), and “girls” to refer to anyone who hasn’t gone to the Spring (they haven’t necessarily settled on a gender identity, or may have settled on a non-female one, but they’re socially constructed as girls and all seem comfortable referring to themselves that way).
So, okay, the first thing that seems obvious about a world like this is that there shouldn’t be sexism. At least, not any kind of sexism that we would recognize. Adult men can’t tell themselves that women are inferior, because all the women they know could have been men if they had made a different choice at the Spring. Little girls aren’t judged in comparison to little boys, because there is no such thing. Nobody has to disclose (or even settle on!) a choice of adult sex until age 17, leaving plenty of time to demonstrate their capabilities before anyone has a chance to judge them based on sex or gender.
But as the series progresses, little things about the background characters start to add up. Like how all the regular soldiers (as opposed to the Sibyllae) seem to be men. Or any time you see a group of politicians…men. High-ranking diplomats…men. Mechanics…men. One major character who works on the Simoun looks female, but that’s because he was only recently at the Spring, and his body hasn’t finished changing (it’s not an instant process). There are no actual women in any major roles in these positions, and an awful lot of scenes where women aren’t apparent even in the background.
It’s not just an oversight by the animators, either. When talking about a group of people going to the Spring, someone says “The ones who were set to inherit family businesses became men, and for the rest it was pretty random.” Either women are legally prohibited from inheriting businesses (which makes no sense in our world, let alone this one), or the traits that you would need to run a business are only present in people who choose to become men (which is freakishly stereotypical at the best of times).
Other dialogue reinforces this idea that characteristics and interests that would have developed long before age 17 are associated with being a man. Sibyllae will say things like “I want to become a man so I can protect you” or “I was thinking of becoming a man and tinkering around in the shop with you.” The finale does manage to give us a woman in coveralls, hard at work hauling boxes (while pregnant!), which is like a breath of fresh air…although it’s in the same scene as the male boss being asked what he wants his wife to make him for dinner.
Speaking of the finale, lemme talk about Floe for a second. Floe is an adorably girlish Sibylla, who’s all about pouting and hairbows and flirting with young men. (There’s an anime trope for this, right? The cute bubbly girl with big poufy hair who says “Hmph!” a lot?) The flirting included the assurance “Don’t worry, I’m planning to become a woman,” but there are a couple of hints along the way that it might go otherwise, and by the time of the trip to the Spring, Floe decides to become a man. It sounds like the embodiment of every “FTM Bubbles Utonium” prompt ever.
Then we get to see Floe as a man (name changed to Floef, as per local convention). His hair is chopped short, he’s a tanned and muscular farmer in rough clothing, and he’s determined to find a cute wife one day. The implication being that his youthful interests weren’t because he was Floe — a person who enjoys having long pretty hair and is attracted to cute guys — but because he was a girl, or maybe a child, and now that he’s an adult/man he’s only presented as doing things that are adult/manful.
I just. What is that supposed to subvert? I was promised subversion.
The association of girlishness with childishness…actually, come to think of it, maybe this could be an explanation for the sexism in Simoun-land: they have no cultural template for male immaturity. There are no teenage boys crashing their parents’ cars, no toddler boys that need to be potty-trained, no middle school boys starting food fights in the cafeteria. If all children appear to be female, then it’s visually easier to associate adult women with childish traits, and something so pervasive could definitely be the foundation of society-wide biases.
…but that interpretation wasn’t even hinted at, much less interrogated, in the canon itself. Alas.
(Although it does make slightly more sense out of the commander who says “Even though I don’t look it, I used to be a Sibylla.” Said commander is a man; the implication is “I don’t look like I used to be a girl.” Which makes no sense, because according to the show’s biology, everyone used to be a girl.)
What we get instead is, first off, a reframing of the whole war that seems bizarre on other levels as well as gender. Toward the end, the country of Simulacrum loses the war and is taken over; one condition of the peace treaty is that the Sibyllae all go to the Spring, to render them unable to pilot the Simoun as part of a resistance. They’re pretty conflicted, to say the least. Because it’s a term of surrender? Because they’ll be cut off forever from a hard-won skill? Because they’re balking at the idea of having to pin down a gender identity enough to choose a sex? Not according to this exchange between two of them: “Are you scared?” “Of course! Growing up is always scary!”
Keep in mind, these girls are war pilots. They’ve been putting their lives on the line to protect the people of their country. Some of them have seen the effects of the war in their own home towns. They’ve killed, and some of them have died; one was gunned down in full view of her colleagues. In one episode they met a foreign priestess acting as a diplomat, who, after they had started to develop a sense of camaraderie with her as a not-so-different-after-all fellow priestess, turned out to be a suicide bomber.
But none of that counts as “growing up”! Oh no no no, growing up means
giving up all this gender-ambiguous nonsense and picking one side on the gender binary and sticking with it.
The fact that it also means losing the ability to pilot adds a whole new level of thematic creepiness. It makes their service in combat feel about as consequential as Floe’s hair ribbons: a childish thing, to be put away when you become an adult.
It’s more than a little reminiscent of the whole premise of Class S yuri, in which schoolgirls form deep and emotionally intense bonds that are nevertheless expected to be just a phase, to be exchanged for “real” straight romances later in life.
The parallel gets completely unsubtle when you take into account one of the yuri hooks of the series: each Simoun has two pilots, who start its motor running by…kissing. Again, this sounds like an awesome premise! Magical flying robots powered by lesbianism. Except. Except that the only kisses that work are between girls who haven’t “grown up” yet. And when it comes to relationships between adults, they are, almost without exception, male/female. Floe says “It’s okay, I’m going to become a woman” to cute guys; Floef dreams of having a cute wife. Several young people express the dream of finding their chosen person and going to the Spring together, to come out one as a woman and one as a man. Of the two apparently f/f couples that do endure (Neveril/Aeru and Limone/Dominura), it’s between people who haven’t gone to the Spring.
The Simoun aren’t powered by lesbianism. They’re powered by Class-S. The universe’s whole biology works as a way to institutionalize Class-S relationships among teenagers, while assuring us that it’s okay, all the adults are still straight.
Okay, one semi-exception: there’s a yaoi-bait pair of guys among the adult cast. According to TVTropes’ report of the director’s commentary, “when they where Sibyllae, they both decided to end up together, but when they went to The Spring, they both assumed that the other would be the woman.” Which, honestly, could be comedic gold, except that it fits right into the pattern of no adult same-sex couples getting any romance that isn’t subtext. And when you think about it seriously, it raises some unsettling questions: did they both want to be men? Or did they both independently decide to live out their lives as [an approximate local analogue of] non-op trans women in order to be with the person they loved? And just how much anti-gay pressure would it take to push someone to such a decision?
(Guess how much of that was addressed, or even hinted at, in-series. No, go on, guess.)
The show does end up sending a few mixed messages about whether going to the Spring is an absolute necessity. Even though it’s described as “growing up” for most of the Sibyllae, it was forced on them as part of a surrender treaty. Then, when Neveril and Aeru hijack the last Simoun and skip out (not to mount a resistance, just to Fly Free Forever), it’s presented as a triumph. (Note: Limone and Dominura aren’t part of the group when the treaty happens; they ditched the whole thing via time travel. When we last see them, Limone’s still piloting but doesn’t look old enough for the Spring anyway; Dominura’s given up flying, but it’s not clear whether she’s gone to the Spring, or plans to.)
On the other hand, their whole “hooray eternal youth
and yuri and mad piloting skillz!” theme is undercut by the guardian of the Spring: an ancient apparently-female entity who, it is revealed, refused to choose an adult sex and was eventually cursed to stay there and guard the place for all eternity. One of the remaining Sibyllae elects to take up the post, freeing the original guardian (to die, that is; after however many centuries, it appears to be a relief, but it’s still a raw deal). Are Neveril and Aeru doomed to be hit by a similar curse? And if not, then why did it happen to this guardian? I’m honestly not sure what the viewer is supposed to think about that one.
Nor am I sure what we’re supposed to think about a massive issue that gets raised all the way back in episode four, and then never raised again. Two of the Sibyllae crash-land in a forest and spend a while being captured by a single foreign soldier, who reveals that his country doesn’t have a holy/magic Spring. (The Sibyllae don’t speak his language; it’s the audience who gets to hear it.) Their biology is the same, with all babies born female-bodied but capable of growing into either female or male adult bodies; to get men in their society, half of the babies are altered using hormones and surgery from birth.
This is huge. Unless their science has come up with some way to predict the gender identity of infants, these people have got to be picking sexes pretty much at random. What kind of gender dynamics does that lead to? Also, it means the odds are that something like half the population is trans — not only that, but avoidably trans, at least for those who identify as simply male/female, if only they had access to Simulacrum’s Spring. And if they have established procedures for changing the bodies of infants, couldn’t those procedures be adapted for adults who want to undo some or all of it…and could those same procedures then be used on adults from Simulacrum who weren’t happy with what the Spring had given them? (In other words: what do the genderqueer people think about this?) Basically, how do these wildly different constructions of sex influence their respective societies, and how does each of them change by coming in contact with the other? And come to think of it, are all babies unambiguously female-bodied, or is there a local analogue to intersex people — and if not, why not (magic?) — and if so, how are they treated, and, and, and…
…and guess how much of this gets so much as mentioned at any point during the rest of the series.
Honestly, what I’d like to read right now is some detailed dissection of the gender issues from Simoun‘s fans. I’ve seen people rave about them, but in vague or brief or edited-for-spoilers ways — which I did appreciate before seeing the series, but now that there’s nothing left to spoil, it would be nice to know if there are things I’m missing, or if we’re just reading the same events differently.
But for the moment, as far as I’m concerned, the show was a fascinating premise turned into a frustrating pileup of missed opportunities.
(Note to anyone who’s thinking of watching it after reading this post: the only warning-worthy content I can think of that hasn’t already been mentioned is the surprise!rapist!sister in episode 12, with a side of “well, maybe you led her on” from a confidante. The incident itself is limited to a couple of vague flashes — which, for the record, is more on-screen action than any other same-sex pairing gets.)