The women of Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan have a lot to deal with. The central premise of the show is that dragons exist and have been camouflaged from the general public throughout history—in the modern day, this means disguising them as planes. Only a special few can form the kind of bond it takes to “pilot” these mythical beasties, however. Dragon pilots are always, and have always been, women only; and they have to be chosen by the dragon itself.
Lady pilot and dragon also have to be emotionally and mentally in sync, sort of like how you have to be “Drift Compatible” to co-pilot in Pacific Rim, except that the characters in Pacific Rim are not swallowed whole by their mech-partners at any point. To add to the physical strain, the rigorous training, and the daily ordeal of being eaten, these dragon-attuned women have one more vital code they must adhere to to retain their prestigious position: they cannot, under any circumstances, fall in love, because that will bust the entire system and they will no longer be able to fly. It’s just the way it is, and always has been.
So the dragon pilots are exclusively women, have a “warrior” status, a special connection to nature, and are forbidden from falling in love lest they lose their power. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Dragon Pilot is playing around with some very old ideas. Mythology throughout the world, and especially Classical mythology, is populated by bands of supernatural warrior women, from the Amazons to the Valkyrie (both of which have recently seen new pop culture incarnations in Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnorok). The romantic conundrum the dragon pilots face made me think, almost immediately, of Artemis (or Diana, in the Roman version) and her huntresses, an all-female community led by the goddess of chastity. Artemis never had any romantic or sexual relationships, and forbade those in her group from doing so as well.
Thus, when one member of her hunting party, Callisto, was seduced by Zeus, she was cast out of the divine group. Depending on the telling, sometimes it’s the jealous Hera who strikes her down, but sometimes it’s Artemis herself, as punishment for Callisto breaking her vow. Callisto (and her baby) was then turned into a bear which was then turned into a constellation, and, needless to say, lost her power, her status, and her place in the community of warrior women because of her attraction to someone and ensuing lapse in judgement (though of course it’s important to remember that this is Zeus, so how consensual this encounter was varies from one retelling to another. Artemis still kicks her out either way).
This idea also pops up in some of the myths of the Amazons, particularly ones that deal with their queen Penthesilea and the hero Achilles—he famously defeated her during the Trojan War, but some stories lean into the detail that she fell in love with him, creating a weakness that he took advantage of. Were she not blinded by affection/desire/unexpected girly feelings, she might have kept her cool and her status as an unbeatable paragon of violence and virtue. This is the implication, anyway, in many versions of the tale.
This motif of the chaste, all-female warrior archetype has cropped up all throughout history. Joan of Arc—a real person, mind you—had her image and story mythologised by writers and historians who framed her within that image, a maiden who guarded and celebrated her “purity” as fiercely as Artemis and who fought as bravely and dedicatedly as an Amazon. She also fit very nicely into the archetype of The True Knight which was popular in the era surrounding her life (and death). Perhaps it’s a stretch, but you could say Joan had a sort of “not like other maidens fair” appeal to her: in these tales of chivalry, she wasn’t in the role of the swooning lady in the tower sent aflutter by romance and giddily awaiting her knight, she was the knight. And she never fell in love nor took any partners, which, if you were writing her through the lens of the stories of Amazons and Huntresses, could be interpreted as the source of her power. She never lost that Divine Warrior Woman status, was never laid low by love.
The dragon pilots are perhaps not a one-to-one comparison to this, but you can definitely see the same ideas at play. Just as the dragons themselves are an ancient power that’s been industrialised and fitted into the modern world, so too are the all-female dragon pilots an old idea made new, planted into the modern military rather than hanging out in a forest… and, having left the glade of myth, the concept here runs into some very modern workplace sexism. While the pilots’ supernatural connection to nature, “warrior” status, and enforced code of chastity (or at least, solid no-dating rule) align them with the Amazons and Huntresses of Diana, they aren’t treated with much respect by the people around them. If anything, they are treated as a nuisance, and failing that, a commodity.
Perhaps the best and most ironic instance of this is the fact that the audience learns about the whole “falling in love prevents you from flying” issue many episodes before the pilots themselves do. Their superiors go behind the pilots’ backs, using manipulation and espionage to figure out the ideal type of man for each pilot, with their endgame plot being to hook them up and then break their hearts so they swear off love forever. And this plan to forcibly fashion them into stalwart Dianas who spurn romantic connection is only in place, it seems, because it’s too late to simply isolate the pilots from all men (perhaps on some kind of island shrouded in mist).
As the series progresses, it becomes painfully clear that the outcome of the dragons’ sacred mission is much more important than the feelings of the pilots as human beings. They are goddess-like, maybe, but that image is just that, an image; and more to the point, only respectable while it’s useful. And if they fall in love the pilots are no longer useful, and thus no longer respectable: having failed to control their Girly Feelings, they are seen to lose their nobility, their dedication, their Joan of Arc-ness. It’s also that stigma that women can’t be trusted in high-ranking or high-stakes careers because of their fragile emotions and/or wayward hormones, but given physical, literal form by the worldbuilding.
At Dragon Pilot’s core is this conundrum: the mythological motifs that give the pilots revered and sacred power collide with workplace sexism and the general objectification of women (both in a sexual sense, a la the hooting airforce dudes and the tailor, and in the sense of the women literally being treated like objects with limited use). Its characters, particularly the two pilots who do fall in love, are caught in the middle. Ultimately, it sucks to be held to an impossibly high standard of the pure nature goddess and warrior, just as much as it sucks to be stuck at the other end of the spectrum, treated as a commodity and a bother. And of course, you can only be one or the other, and there is no middle ground. It shows the stark and unhelpful binary through which we view women: the instant you’re less than a goddess, you’re a cast-out and a beast, whether you have control over the situation or not.
The series critiques this further by contrasting the dragon pilots with the shrine maidens who appear towards the end of the series. These women are respected and treated as important but also expected to sacrifice themselves as part of the dragon ritual—again, revered and held to sacred standards, but also used as a means to an end. Protagonist Hisone is finally able (by sheer power of determination, I think) to overcome and reject both these images, not only by successfully flying while being in love, but also by bucking the sacrificial system and rescuing the lead shrine maiden from death. These are ancient ideas, after all, and ought to be updated now and then, lest real people suffer for it.
Dragon Pilot makes use of the warrior woman archetype and brings it into a modern context, but it also critiques it and uses it as a way to illustrate everyday sexism. Hisone refuses to be cast out (like Callisto) or defeated (like Penthesilea) simply for stepping out of the mould of what a fighting maiden “ought to” be. She fails to fit the unflappable, noble image, but in the end that’s alright—in fact, in the end, being able to love her boy and love her dragon makes her basically unstoppable. She breaks the mould, rejects the stigma and the system, and finds a middle ground. And with that, she can help other young women out of their prescribed roles as well. She manages to write an ending for her story that women share her archetype don’t usually get–a powerful and heroic move, though perhaps not the kind initially expected/demanded of her.