As much as I enjoyed watching it, it’s honestly no surprise that Free! ended up being queerbait—this appears to be true with most modern sports anime, as the internet is only too glad to convince me. Honestly, in watching the Iwatobi swim team go through their struggles to be seen as legitimate, it’s all too easy to forget that Iwatobi High is actually a co-ed school. Free!’s main conflict comes from the miscommunication between two of the male leads; however, this leads into a staggering case of gender disparity among the cast; a problem many anime—especially sports anime—has. Sports anime tends to hyperfocus on a group of teammates and their rivals, bringing attention to every little piece of their past, every small piece of drama within the group, and every lingering gaze they may give each other. The few classmates of theirs who are girls are typically relegated to roles of “unnamed, unobtainable crush”, “childhood best friend”, or “team manager”. These characters are sometimes somewhat fleshed out, but typically only in a way that serves to emphasize how close the boys are. This leads to a majority of ships in these fandoms being M/M (since they get a majority of the characterization), and the ladies getting further swept under the rug, sometimes with great, undeserved hatred behind it.
Wading around in the otome game fandom, and just the anime fandom in general, there’s a very real sense of hate and misogyny lingering in the background of almost every series. Especially in the otome game fandom, where it’s typically one female character planted between a bunch of dudes, the heroine is almost always criticized for being too passive, too bitchy, too emotional, too stupid, or just too annoying. Legitimately the list could go on forever. More than that, though, there always seems to be a part of these fandoms that resents the heroine for existing in the first place—for getting in the way of their gay ships (which, really, why are you playing an otome game then?). Following this logic, for a show seemingly exclusively created for a female audience, it would seem only appropriate that the Free! fandom would show this same vitriol for the show’s most prominent female character, Kou Matsuoka. Yet this wasn’t the case. In fact, Kou was one of the most beloved characters on the show, but I wouldn’t say this was due specifically to her being a good character. Rather, I’d fathom it was because she was a self-insert character for a niche audience: the fujoshi.
As a note, I’m speaking only from the core anime; I haven’t read or watched any material outside that.
For those less acquainted in fandom terminology, a fujioshi is a female fan who has a vested interest in gay relationships. While enjoying a good M/M fic or having a preference towards gay relationships in media isn’t anything bad, the term fujoshi tends to carry a negative connotation to it, much like we would associate with the term “brony” or “otaku”. It’s a level of devotion that can be kind of scary, and potentially harmful to the person themselves and the industry that strives to cater to these outspoken, devoted fans.
Kou herself has this same type of devotion, which serves her well as the manager of the Iwatobi swim team. She is dedicated to making sure the boys are at their peak performance and works hard to find venues for them to compete and practice at, in addition to simply being there for them when they’re having troubles and supporting them 110%. However, almost the whole of her character is devoted to making sure the swim team is able to do its thing. Her devotion isn’t particularly expressed as a character trait of hers—she’s not shown as being terribly strong-willed about anything else, nor does she ever get any benefits or repercussions from her devotion—but rather, it’s a means to uplift the swim team boys. She is essentially a plot device to get the boys to bond and uncover their tragic pasts™. Furthermore, as the antagonist’s sister, she’s able to give insight into the drama between him and Haru that wouldn’t be available otherwise; however, beyond a couple short scenes scattered across the series, even her brotherly love comes off more as a plot device than a character trait.
All this, though, does not a fujoshi self-insert make. Where this really shines is by how inaccessible to romantic relationships she is. Now, having a girl be not openly interested in romantic relationships is all well and good—honestly, it’s kind of refreshing—but amidst all the unresolved romantic tensions of almost literally every boy in the cast, it feels as though the writers are screaming “she’s not a threat to your ships!” For Kou already has a true love, and that love is muscles. Indeed, nary a swimming scene can go by without her commenting on how beautiful and perfect all the swimmers’ toned muscles are. This not only disconnects her from seeing the swimmers as people (which could be an interesting commentary, but definitely not an intentional one on the part of Free!), but allows the more vitriolic portion of M/M shippers to see her as a proxy rather than a threat. If Kou loves muscles rather than the men attached to them, then it would be simple to insert yourself in there and go “damn girl, me too,” without threatening the queerbait, as the writers may have it. Even when the writers did deign to give Kou two potential love interests in the second season—the leader of the Samezuka Academy’s swim team, as well as one of the younger members of the same team—she barely seemed interested in them at all outside of their physique and swimming skills.
Compare Kou to a character like Renge from Ouran High School Host Club. While I wasn’t active online when the Ouran fandom was in its heyday, I do notice that Renge is certainly not as well liked as Kou. They are completely different characters, but their interactions with the main male cast are similar except that Renge has explicitly personal motivations. Renge, similar to Kou, is not a threat to the implied ship of Haruhi and Tamaki, but she does act as a “threat” to those who may wish to ship Kyouya with anyone. Renge initially comes to Ouran to marry Kyouya, but eventually backs down when he doesn’t fit her expectation of a glasses character (another potential commentary on otaku qualities, but from Ouran I actually believe it) and respects that he’s his own person. She sticks around to help the Host Club with various things, but doesn’t spend her time alluding to tragic pasts or anything like that. Because Renge has been shown to act on her own whims and has her own agency beyond “I love muscles,” she remains a potential “threat,” and thus runs the risk of falling into the hate vortex of other female characters. The reactions between the Ouran fanbase and the sports anime fanbase would most likely be somewhat different given that they are completely different genres with different fandom ecosystems, but the hate that Renge receives and that Kou does not is still significant.
Kou’s fujoshi tendencies do not end up running the series—unlike bronies with MLP at times—however, these fujoshi tendencies of the show itself end up ultimately having an unfortunate impact on Kou. Rather than allowing her to form closer relationships with her team, or branching out and doing things for herself, the show made her about her obsession with muscles. She is not a bad character; however, I do believe she could have been a lot more compelling if she’d been able to show more of her character. Not by having a romantic relationship with any of the characters necessarily, but by being allowed to have interests and motivations outside of the Iwatobi swim team and her brother, and allowing the audience to see those outside interests in some way.
This continued issue of undeveloped lady characters is frustratingly prevalent; however, as long as this niche genre survives, so too will the problem. The people who continue to uncritically consume this material, who continue to accept marginalizing female characters in the name of M/M ships that are only teased for profit, are proving that yeah, female characters aren’t actually important. Men can have close relationships, romantic and platonic, without having to sacrifice the inclusion of equally interesting, developed women, and expressing otherwise is just simple misogyny. So while it’s nice to have an anime that seems to be marketed more towards women, take a step back and ask yourself if the actual women in the series are suffering because of this.