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The Psychology of Kill La Kill: Body Shame and Female Adolescence

May 25, 2015

I am going to be completely honest. I wasn't sure whether to write about Kill la Kill, because there are different ways in which this anime can be interpreted. If you watch the first few episodes, you will know what I mean. The first episodes, which show the main character in very little clothing, almost made me stop watching it. At first, it seems like nothing more than an excuse to further objectify strong female characters, and we have more than enough of that all over every type of media. I was put off by it at first. But I kept watching, and I am glad I did.

From the start, this is one of those fast-paced, action-packed, funny but dramatic animes that seemed to me like a mix between Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon. Kill la Kill, produced by Trigger, is a story about a high school girl, Ryuko Matoi, who is seeking to avenge her father's death without knowing his killer. She has only one clue to go on, a scissor blade, which has led her to Honnouji Academy, a high school ran by the dictator-like student council president Satsuki Kiryuin, under the rule of her mother and director of the school, Ragyo Kiryuin. Ryuko is led to believe that Satsuki not only has information about her father's death, but may actually be the one who killed him. She challenges Satsuki to a fight, but has to go through the other student council members, the Elite Four, to get to her.

Ryuko has to retreat from her fight early on, and she returns to what used to be her childhood home, which is now in ruins. There, she discovers a sentient sailor uniform, a kamui, which was created by her father using entirely Life Fibers (extraterrestrial organisms that give clothing power). This kamui, created for Ryuko, gives her the power she needs to face Satsuki and the Elite Four. This kamui also has a name: Senketsu.

The theme of clothing is central in this anime. The whole plot revolves around the idea of clothing as either an object of power or an object of shame. The line, "pigs in human clothing," is used often throughout the series by Satsuki to refer to the students of the school, who she sees as caring about nothing but status and worldly pleasures. Ragyo Kiryuin -who turns out to be the main villain in the story and Ryuko's mom- has merged herself with Life Fibers, making her almost invincible. Her thirst for power has turned her into the furthest thing from a human or a mother; she shames her own children, has no respect for their bodies, and tries to use them to get what she wants: a world where humans serve as food for Life Fibers/slaves to clothing. She owns a clothing company that she uses to distribute clothes infused with Life Fibers that she will later use to enslave humanity, called "COVERS."

The significance of being exposed and being covered can be interpreted in different ways. When Ryuko wears Senketsu, she can undergo multiple transformations, each of which gives her different powers. Each of those transformations involves her outfit becoming something that only barely covers her body. She doesn't know that the transformation would be such when she first dons Senketsu, and is shocked to see herself nearly naked in front of others.

There are those who will see this as nothing more than fan service, and there are those who will see this as a message about body shame. In the third episode, Satsuki wears a kamui of her own, Junketsu, the transformation of which is even more revealing than Ryuko's. Ryuko calls Satsuki an exhibitionist, and Satsuki comments that she feels no shame wearing her kamui, that being unashamed of her body is true purity, and that it is Ryuko's shame which keeps Ryuko from accessing the full potential of Senkentsu, her full power. Ryuko's friend, Mako, then stands up for Ryuko, stating that she can wear whatever she wants and should not be ashamed of her body.

This scene is one of the turning points in the anime, because it introduces the concept of body shame and clothing as a symbol of shame and oppression. Despite the male characters in this anime also being exposed at some point or another, it is mostly with the female characters that we hear comments about the revealing outfits.

We don't have to think too hard about real life examples of women being criticized and admonished for what we wear, and of women's bodies being shamed:

  •  "What were you wearing?" is a line that female victims of assault hear all too often. 
  • There are examples of women who have been asked to leave stores for breastfeeding their babies, in the process shaming women for exposing their breasts. 
  • There are still many people who see breasts as "sex organs." 
  • It is still seen as okay for men to be topless, but not for women to do the same. 
  • Instagram has a policy against exposed female nipples. 
  • Many men still think that if a woman is dressed in revealing clothing, it means she is "asking for it." 
  • School dress codes still enable double standards by having certain rules about girls' clothing, sending the message that girls should not expose their skin, and potentially sending the message that boys' education is more important than girls' rights.
  • "Slut-shaming" is an actual term, and an actual thing, that actually happens quite often.
  • Sexual education is lacking in many ways, and one of the areas in which it is lacking the most is women's anatomy.
  • The word "vagina" still creates shock when said out loud in public, while the word "penis" and its synonyms/slang terms can be freely said in any setting.
Ryuko's journey from being hesitant of wearing her Senketsu to being able to access its full potential, and later not needing it anymore, can be seen as symbolic of the changes that girls experience throughout puberty. Ryuko journeys through the developmental tasks of adolescence with Senketsu, which can be seen as a transitional object that helps Ryuko throughout her journey and her growth. Not only does it accompany Ryuko during the time after losing her father, and not only does it help her feel comfortable in her own skin, or during episodes of extreme rage, but it accompanies her as she discovers more about her own origins and develops her own identity.

Discovering or creating our own identities, and then accepting ourselves for who we are, including our talents and limitations, can be a difficult task. Ryuko, while at her most emotionally vulnerable point as she is experiencing an identity crisis, is taken by Ragyo Kiryuin and forced to wear Junketsu. It takes all of her friends to help her realize she does not in fact want to wear Junketsu, and to help her literally break free of its chains. Being forced into something you don't want to do, or being brainwashed into believing something that is untrue, is unfortunately something that many young women experience, especially in adolescence, which is when many women are at their most emotionally vulnerable. 

One of the things I like the most about the series is the depiction of a healthy resolution of the female character's stages of growth. Ryuko is a very strong female character, and we see that from episode one. But she is still a teen girl who is dealing with her father's death, who doesn't really have any other family or role models or parental figures to guide her. Going through adolescence alone is an extremely daunting task. Like all of us in adolescence, Ryuko experiences very strong emotions, including uncontrollable rage and the feeling of being lost. Senketsu's many transformations are not too far off from the different identities that we all experiment with during adolescence; trying on something new if the former doesn't measure up to the task. The ultimate task is to figure out who you are. Once this is accomplished, once we successfully achieve the developmental tasks of adolescence, we no longer need our transitional objects. Possibly one of the most bittersweet moments of the series is when Ryuko must say goodbye to Senketsu, whose parting words surely made many cry:

Ryuko may not have wanted to say goodbye, but she no longer needed Senketsu. She had undergone her transition, and Senketsu had served its purpose.  True growth involves an acceptance of change, and leaving the transitional object behind but not forgetting its significance, a sentiment that is expressed perfectly by Ryuko in one sentence:

"I guess sailor uniforms are something you grow out of someday...but the days you spend wearing them don't go anywhere!" 

Not all girls wear sailor uniforms, but I know many of us can relate to the feeling behind this sentence, the bittersweet memories of the ups and downs of adolescence, the harsh lessons, and the feeling of not fitting in. Many people may disagree, but in my opinion, this series got it just right.

5 comments on "The Psychology of Kill La Kill: Body Shame and Female Adolescence"
  1. Thanks for reviewing. I watched the first episode and gave up on it, thinking it was a perverted series... Maybe I'll give it another go.

    1. I don't blame you, I thought the same at first!

  2. "The word "vagina" still creates shock when said out loud in public, while the word "penis" and its synonyms/slang terms can be freely said in any setting."

    This comes off as pretty delusional, for my money. There's actually a game that people play called "the penis game" where you compete to see who is willing to say the word penis loudly in an awkward setting. Why? Because saying penis is not acceptable in public. Neither is vagina. America is afraid of sex, not vaginas. Vaginas are an important part of (a lot of) sex and thus it's taboo.

    Great piece, though!

    1. Thanks for you comments, though you only need to submit once :)
      I see what you're saying. I do think that saying something like "schlong" is generally seen as less taboo than saying something like "pussy," however, people have different experiences. Glad you enjoyed it for the most part!

  3. I think this series is mostly about growing up out of the older generation's morals and thinking on your own.
    Of course this doesn't exclude the whole body acceptance (and even nudity) as it is a part of the newer values that might go against the elder's pov more based on religion. (Ragyo kiryuin is often portrayed in a cross pose as she representsas that, which ryuko goed against)