Since Kill la Kill began airing, people have been asking the question, "Is this anime feminist, or is it sexist?" And most of all, "Is it good for women?" Being able to succinctly answer a question like this in regard to media is always convenient, but things can't be tied up neatly with a bow like that. Short answer: As a whole, no, Kill la Kill isn't feminist. Long answer: Kill la Kill has some great female characters who lead the story, but elements of the show objectify these characters and should be examined critically. In this post, I will break down my thoughts on Kill la Kill in a way I hope better educates people about concepts necessary for examining media from a critically feminist lens. There will be spoilers concerning the plot, but I will do my best to keep them to a minimum, and will flag each explicit spoiler. This will be a lengthy post, beginning with many of the aspects I find problematic and exploitative before I move onto its more empowering aspects.
For context, Kill la Kill is an anime series from Japanese animation studio Trigger, best known pre-Kill la Kill as the producers behind Little Witch Academia, an animated short about a group of girls studying magic. Kill la Kill begins with the story of Ryuko Matoi and her quest to find her father's killer. Believing Honnouji Academy's student council president, Satsuki Kiryuin, to be the person behind it, Ryuko swears to fight her way through the school to get to Satsuki. Little Witch Academia and Kill la Kill both have women at the forefront of the series, but the two are very different in tone. Before leaving animation studio Gainax, the co-founders of Trigger worked on Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and Panty & Stocking With Garterbelt. Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill appear to have more in common; both are high energy and have over-the-top animation sequences. They're both full of headstrong characters, some sense of teamwork (though the dynamics are very different in Kill la Kill, which also has an emphasis on family), and fanservice. After all, the trope "Gainaxing" gets its name from studio Gainax and its animation of bouncing breasts.
The word "fanservice" generally elicits binary reactions. People love it or hate its existence. As a woman, it's disappointing seeing your gender repeatedly objectified over and over for an assumed male audience. The term for this circumstance is "the male gaze," a concept Laura Mulvey introduced in her 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." The concept addresses imbalances in gender power and gender politics, specifically that women are objectified in film because heterosexual men are the ones producing, writing, directing, and filming the material. If at any point the camera is put into the perspective of a man, the male gaze has occurred. Usually when this happens, the viewer (also often assumed to be a heterosexual man) sees women in a passive role while the man is considered dominant and active. This creates imbalances in power, tipping control into the patriarchal male role (a system in which men hold political/social/familial power, actively excluding women from authority), thus subjugating women. To be objectified is to be treated passively, like an object. An objectified character is one who only has things happen to them. For example, in Gurren Lagann, Yoko Littner is often objectified for brief moments due to the animation directing attention to her breasts whether it be another character staring at them or the audience watching her lose her clothing (immediately followed by a shot of the two male characters gawking).
In Kill la Kill, main characters Ryuko and Satsuki wear uniforms that transform into skimpier versions that make them much stronger. They are literally weaponized femininity, something that is often seen in magical girl shows where the female characters use items/clothing gendered as female in fighting. Ryuko and Satsuki are at their strongest when they wear these kamui (often translated as "god robes"). Ryuko's kamui, named Senketsu (named for "blood"), forces itself on her in a scene that's made some rape survivors uncomfortable. Furthermore, when Ryuko wears Senketsu in the first few episodes, she is visibly embarrassed by the attention she receives. In the first several episodes, Ryuko is treated like an object. Even when the camera is not literally from the perspective of a man, viewers see an all-male audience getting worked up over Ryuko wearing Senketsu. This is played off as a comedic scene and normalizes the behavior of objectifying women.
While I am of the belief that there is nothing inherently sexual about a person's body and that everyone should feel powerful about their bodies, society has repeatedly shamed women for their sexuality. Unsurprisingly, as a result many women are uncomfortable with showing their bodies. A better takeaway for people would be that we are powerful for our thoughts and actions rather than for how we look (clothes or no clothes).
Additionally, Ryuko is sexualized outside of wearing Senketsu. Ryuko befriends a girl and fellow classmate named Mako, and she begins living with Mako and her family, depicted as a dumb but lovable group. Mako's father, brother, and even sometimes their dog try to catch glimpses of Ryuko while she's changing or taking a bath. During one episode, Ryuko desperately needs their help to deliver her uniform to her, and each time the male members of the Mankanshoku are too distracted by Ryuko's body to help. They also try to peek on her in the bath, and in one scene Ryuko wakes up to find Mako's father breathing heavily on top of her after she was beaten up and left unconscious, alone. This may be a comedic gag meant to poke fun at the Mankanshokus' uselessness, but it also normalizes sexist behavior.
especially for working mothers in Japan (this is also a huge problem for American working mothers).
If it sounds like I'm ripping apart heterosexual men, don't get the wrong idea. If you are a heterosexual man (even moreso if you're white and cisgender), you have certain privileges in life that are not extended to people who do not fall in that category. This means that male employers may hire you over an equal female candidate based on unconscious biases (and people won't think you were hired because of your gender), much of history plays up your demographic's contributions while erasing minorities' contributions, you can walk outside without fear of someone shouting lewd comments at you, you can go to a mechanic and not have them talk down to you because of your gender, you're more likely to be taken seriously even if you're not conventionally attractive, you're more likely to see characters sharing your gender take up the majority of viewpoints in culture, and you can have sex and not be shamed for it. Before you go off and say, "Okay, I get it. I'm a straight man, so everything is obviously my fault," you should know that having privilege doesn't make you a bad person. Being unaware of your privilege is what's at fault, as is exploiting your privilege and turning a blind eye to it. This goes beyond the power dynamics of heterosexual, cisgender (people who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth) men vs. everybody else. Even within feminism, there are plenty of issues surrounding LGBTQA and women of color communities, as well as ideas founded on class. Back to the topic on hand, Kill la Kill treats the traditional exploitative thoughts of women as a joke, but for women who have had to put up with lifetimes of objectification and sexual harassment and abuse, the joke isn't funny because it's still objectifying women.
If you've stuck this far, I commend you. It probably sounds like I hate Kill la Kill. While the show fails to satirize fanservice in a way that subverts tradition, the plot is throttled forward by female characters. Ryuko and Mako have a wonderful friendship and are willing to put themselves in uncomfortable, dangerous situations to protect each other. Ryuko and Satsuki's dynamic also changes drastically from the beginning to the end of the series (crazy big spoiler, I'm warning you) once it's revealed they are actually sisters, and their mutual antagonist is their mother. In addition to their mom as the big baddie, Ryuko in particular has to face against Nui Harime, a fearsome and sadistic girl who works for Ragyo Kiryuin. (spoiler over) Within Satsuki's Elite Four are three men and one woman, all of whom admire and deeply respect Satsuki for various reasons. While all four are interesting characters individually, their role largely lies in supporting Satsuki. Action shows in shounen anime from Japan are generally directed at men. As such, the characters who shake up the plot in shounen series are male a significant majority of the time (think Naruto, Bleach, Death Note, One Piece, Fullmetal Alchemist, Yu Yu Hakusho) while women occupy the supporting roles. This is completely flipped around in Kill la Kill. The men are now the ones with the less significant roles. They're important -- they're just not running the show.
"superhero pose" in which they square their shoulders, look directly at the viewer (or if not at the viewer, stare off-screen with an expression that exudes determination and activeness), and stand with their legs roughly shoulder-width apart. Female characters often do not receive the same treatment. Even when they are supposedly acting strong, they are depicted as passive or meek. (Compare that Black Widow poster to the one from The Avengers.) I was pleasantly surprised to see gripping fight sequences that showed two women fighting with their all... and they just happened to be wearing clothing that doesn't cover much of their bodies. No close-ups on breasts, no sexy panning shots, nothing that would give off a tone that undermined Ryuko and Satsuki. Even at the end of their respective transformation sequences, Ryuko and Satsuki give off an air of power and agency.
Unfortunately, later in the show, Satsuki loses her agency (and fortunately reclaims it later). This is portrayed through (spoilers, content warning) her mother's sexual abuse. Ragyo molests Satsuki in a "purification ritual" in the bath, gropes her, spanks her, and it's implied this has been going on for a very long time. Just after we see Satsuki triumph over her mother after the bath scene, Ragyo puts Satsuki in her place -- in a cage where she spanks her and runs her hands over her body. Satsuki remains a determined character and puts things back in motion by calling her Elite Four to action. Regardless, Satsuki is treated as an object in a sexual manner. (spoiler over) Character development does not have to be shown through sexual abuse; in fact, it's usually done in poor taste. That was the case in Kill la Kill. Each occurrence of familial sexual abuse mixed its signals of "this is wrong" and "this is kind of hot." Themes of rape and sexual abuse can be portrayed without mixing up signals. Unfortunately, Kill la Kill's already constant presence of fanservice means it has a lot of baggage to deal with. Mixed signals can be interesting (see Mirai Nikki/Future Diary and its character Yuno), but mixed signals of sexual abuse come off so, so wrong. What should have been purely a horrific scene gets mixed up in fanservice. The audience already knew this antagonist was clearly and objectively a bad person. Trigger could have shown her character's evil aspects without sexual violence. She could have invaded characters' personal space by standing too close, leaning in/over others, and placing her hand on Satsuki's shoulder or head. She could have talked in a patronizing manner. We know the character objectifies Satsuki, and as the audience we are supposed to be upset by this. Kill la Kill already toes a fine line between fanservice and sexual objectification of its strongest characters; when it comes to sexual violence, it's hard not to think about all the times the show has tried to elicit laughs at sexualization.
Sex doesn't sell. Degradation of women sells. Ideally, if I were to see fanservice depicted, it wouldn't diminish characters. These characters would be clearly expressing content. People have said Kill la Kill satirizes the anime industry's tendency to objectify women, but it's benefitting from the fanservice as much as any other anime would. (Anita Sarkeesian examines the idea of "ironic sexism" in video games and explains how they are a cheap excuse to feel okay about oppressive ideas because they do not "fundamentally change, challenge, or subvert" problematic tropes.) While it's true Kill la Kill is over the top and presents Ryuko and Satsuki as powerful women fighting for their own goals, it'd be naive to think Trigger won't be capitalizing on merchandise that objectifies the show's female characters. I think it's amazing that we have figurines that portray Ryuko akin to a typical shounen action hero, but I fear there will also be a fair share of merchandise focusing on Ryuko's close-to-naked body. Look at all of the merchandise of Yoko Littner from Gurren Lagann.
As far as my personal opinion on the show goes, I enjoyed watching Kill la Kill. Its twists and turns made the second half of the show particularly exciting to watch each week, and I loved watching the characters grow. The soundtrack's high-energy tunes are a blast to jam out to, and the rest of the music is just as wonderful. Its got a lot of comedy as well (comedy that isn't at the expense of female characters!). Unfortunately, it has some problematic aspects that dampened my enjoyment of the show at times, as some fanservice was at the expense of characters, and it was disrespectful of topics like sexual abuse. I'm split on Kill la Kill. I love its emphasis on female characters and how they lead the story, but certain scenes kicked me out of the high-energy mood and offended me.
If you're not turned off of Kill la Kill by reading this, I highly recommend you watch it. If what I've discussed makes you uncomfortable, it is equally acceptable to pass it by. As much as I enjoyed watching it, I've given it its fair share of head shakes.