Too many female protagonists in anime have been depicted in problematic ways. Specifically, numerous series across genres have historically portrayed women and girls in just two main ways: overtly sexualized or docile beauties. While there have been exceptions throughout time and even within each of the anime discussed here, the fact remains that the media form has churned out many characters who perpetuate toxic stereotypes.
Often, women are drawn with painfully large breasts and with hips that are widened in order to turn their figures into unrealistic hourglass shapes. Female protagonists have been dressed in skin-tight clothing to accentuate their figures. Some, like Ryuko Matoi from Kill La Kill and Sword Maiden from Goblin Slayer, barely wear clothes. One can argue that these are just character designs. Yet, there are implicit messages these costumes convey to viewers about how the female body should be perceived: Women should strive for these unrealistic figures, and others are encouraged to have fetishized fantasies about them. As a result, these hyper-sexualized characters perpetuate a harmful perspective on femininity -- showcasing women as eye candy for the male gaze.
Another problematic issue is the sheer amount of female anime protagonists who have been characterized as submissive and introverted, like in the dandere trope. Some of the most popular soft-spoken female characters include Megumi Tadokoro from Food Wars! and Sawako Kuronuma from Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You. There are even female leads who have been silenced completely. For example, Nanako Yukishiro, from Senryuu Girl, communicates by writing out a senryuu, which is a form of haiku, on a board.
There's nothing wrong with being quiet and shy, but the excessive production of these characters perpetuates the gender stereotype that women are docile and shouldn’t vocalize their thoughts. In addition, the shy female character is often dependent on a male protagonist to help her break out of her shell, such as Sawako's reliance on her extroverted and popular classmate, Shōta Kazehaya. By relying on a boy to help vocalize her feelings and thoughts, she embodies a woman's codependency on a man, uplifting a facet of the patriarchal stronghold.
Furthermore, too often, a female's docile nature lends to her becoming a 'damsel in distress.' The 'damsel in distress' trope refers to when a female character finds herself in some sort of danger, such as getting kidnapped, and a male hero rises up to rescue her. This plot beat is used regularly in many isekai and shonen anime series. For example, in the first season of Sword Art Online, Asuna Yuuki, a talented gamer, gets trapped in the NerveGear and has to be rescued by Kirito Kirigaya in another online game, ALfheim Online. Like icing on cake, Asuna is especially characterized as a 'damsel in distress,' as she wears a white dress, symbolizing innocence and purity, and she is caged up like a bird in "The World Tree."
Similarly, in the series Bleach, Ichigo Kurosaki saves important female characters often. In one case, he saves Rukia Kuchiki from a death sentence in the Soul Society because she gave her Soul Reaper powers to a human. Even though Rukia is outspoken and athletic, she still is situated into a traditional gender stereotype as a woman in need of a man to save her. The 'damsel in distress' trope implicitly, and at times explicitly, positions female characters as physically and mentally weaker than their male counterparts.
However, there have been some contemporary series that are beginning to include more dynamic and well-developed female protagonists, redefining gender norms in anime. Many isekai female leads show their independence and financial stability by having their own careers and interests, such as the bibliophile Myne in Ascendance of a Bookworm and the herbalist Sei Takanashi in The Saint’s Magic Power Is Omnipotent. Though popular shonen like My Hero Academia still tend to sexualize characters like Midnight with scanty costumes, there seem to be more scenes cropping up which emphasize feminine power. For example, when Tsuyu Asui saves Izuku Midoriya in the image above, she subverts the 'damsel in distress' trope.
So many anime series have placed, and so many continue to place, female protagonists in negative gender stereotypes. However, given new trends in the industry, there is still hope for a future of content that will predominantly portray women in an empowering light. By including more wholesome, vigorously ambitious and developed female characters in anime, there may even be a change in how gender roles are perceived in the real world.