Rotten Eggs and Adult Agendas: How Girlhood is Constructed in Wonder Egg Priority

Content warning: this post contains discussion of suicide, sexual assault, and the sexualisation of minors

Wonder Egg Priority was a show devoted to exploring the traumas and troubles of youth, often in ways that resonated with an unexpected raw, powerful tenderness. This is part of why so many viewers were shocked and disgusted when the latter parts of the show, and particularly the finale, dropped plot twists and “reveals” that displayed a deep disdain and lack of empathy for its teenaged cast. What on earth happened, that a story so interested in the issues affecting young women was suddenly so eager to turn around and declare that young women are manipulative, shrewish, and destructive to themselves and to everyone around them? For a show so ready to speak loftily about Adolescence (the concept), it seems, in the end, to have very little sympathy for adolescents (the people).

In the AniFem podcast discussing the highs and lows of this series, I suggested that the unforgiving prickliness of the finale might have something to do with the gap between writing for teenagers and writing about teenagers. I tossed around a couple of ideas I’ve come across in my work studying children’s and young adult fiction, and I want to take this post to unpack some of them further.

Chiefly, this idea of the “hidden adult” peeking through every text, and how the biases, agendas, and ideals of those adults are revealed when we examine how they construct their young characters and their stories. Because hoo boy, does the construction—and destruction—of characters like Frill, Koito, and ultimately protagonist Ai, make some statements about how this screenwriter sees young women. Looking at this provides some insight into where and how this show went so horribly wrong.

“For” teens or “about” teens: Whose narrative is it anyway?

First, I want to bounce back to my point about stories “for” teens versus “about” teens. This isn’t necessarily a binary where one of these is always good writing and the other is always bad. There are plenty of works that are ostensibly marketed towards teens that portray their teenaged characters with a mind-boggling lack of authenticity (think something like Riverdale, which, if it was ever trying to be relatable to a young adult experience and voice, failed hilariously). On the flipside, a work that’s not necessarily aimed at teenagers might still speak to the adolescent experience (think something like Madoka, which I found to have some very resonant moments even if its writing, scheduling, and marketing steers it more towards the adult demographic).

The question of what “authentic” adolescent writing is, is also notoriously tricky to pin down. This panel of YA authors recently discussed how capturing an “authentic” sense of teenage experience, dialogue, and internal landscape, is nigh-impossible, and they instead just try to write quality stories with empathy for their audience in mind. “Authenticity” is a sticky and troublesome benchmark, especially if we’re talking larger-than-life genres like fantasy and sci-fi. Let’s set that phrase aside and turn our eye towards “empathy”. We’re comin’ back to that, for sure.

The distinction between a work “for” versus “about” young people is also often fuzzy. Often this is marketing at work: for example, Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief is sold as general, adult fiction in some countries and as YA in others. Some of this decision-making could come from the novel’s perspective. The Book Thief has a child protagonist (which would usually mark it as children’s fiction) but is narrated by the immortal, omnipotent Death (an “adult” narrative voice) who is observing said child protagonist’s life. The novel also deals with some fairly harrowing themes as it’s set during the Holocaust, something that has evidently raised the required maturity of the book’s target readership for some publishers… but not for others. It’s a complicated situation that provides a neat example of how genres and demographics are consciously constructed things, rather than occurring naturally. But that’s a kettle of fish for another day.

Clues to Wonder Egg Priority’s target demographic can be found in practical things like its airtime and the rating it receives on international streaming services. In the Australian rating system, Egg gets a whopping R18+ and counts as restricted mature content on the Aus Funimation platform (presumably for the combination of bloody violence and frank discussion, and at one point brief depiction, of sexual assault). So, certifiably not for kids, and not even for teenagers.

However, this doesn’t mean it’s absolved from examination and critique when it comes to the depiction of young people within the show. As I noted above, Wonder Egg‘s plot and themes clearly have a vested interest in examining Adolescence, which places it in an overlapping Venn diagram with YA and other bildungsroman type stories, regardless of their target demographic. While the language of children’s literature studies doesn’t track onto this adult-aimed anime series 1:1, borrowing from it will help get to the heart of why Wonder Egg left such a toxic taste in so many viewers’ mouths. It has to do with those questions of “adult narrative voice” and empathy that I mentioned above, but chiefly it has to do with the construction of adolescence within the series.

Constructing childhood via adult perspectives

In the podcast I mentioned “the hidden adult”, a phrase borrowed from a 2008 book (with an unintentionally hilarious cover) by Perry Nodelman. As Nodelman and many others have addressed, the conundrum (or in Jacqueline Rose’s case, the impossibility) of children’s fiction is that it isn’t written by children. Unless you have an Alice Oseman scenario—who got her first YA book deal at 17 and first publication at 19—the stories we market towards children and adolescents are all made by adults.

Ergo, even the most “authentic”-feeling adolescent perspective is obscuring an adult author. This is an important thing to acknowledge, not as a “gotcha” that calls out these stories as fake and manufactured, but because it opens the door for analysts to consider the adult biases, agendas, and ideas that are influencing the text in subtle or not-so-subtle ways.

Some scholars (including, but not limited to, Rose and Nodelman) question if children’s fiction even is written for children, or if it’s instead written for any given author’s idea of what a child is. To get into this, a question kidlit and YA scholars may ask is “how is childhood/adolescence constructed within this text?” How are the young characters portrayed and characterised, what role do they play in the story, what does the narrative let them say or say about them? How does the author orient the story to depict and explore adolescence and adolescents, and what does that reveal about that author’s own ideas about this phase of life or real people this age? These are relevant queries whether a work is for or about young people.

Interestingly… Wonder Egg Priority provides a perfect metaphor for this in Episode 11, which shows two adults literally constructing an adolescent. Acca and Ura-acca build their AI daughter, Frill, in the idealised image of a fourteen-year-old girl, with all the traits they think a good girl this age should have. This process mirrors the way an author might construct a young character, influenced by their own social context, literary influence, and nostalgic, Romantic view of what childhood ought to be like.

There’s an extra layer here in that these are two male “authors” constructing an idealised vision of feminine youth. Frill is the Accas’ attempt at capturing “the essence of femininity”—or rather, their idea of the essence of femininity, bottled in its idealised form. As time progresses, Frill does not age, leaving her suspended in this perfect childlike state Peter Pan style. Until of course she goes off-script and becomes petty and vengeful, and is then reframed as everything that’s bad about young girls—so far as our authors see it, of course.

And when I say authors, do I mean the Accas, the scientists who created this redheaded robot Galatea, or do I mean Nojima Shinji, the actual screenwriter for Wonder Egg Priority? The line gets blurry, that’s for sure. The Accas are, in themselves, constructions of Nojima’s. I’m not going to go as far to call any character in this an author self-insert, but as the series progresses, it’s worth returning to that idea I brought up above about narrative voice. Maybe this story is about teen girls, but who is actually telling it to us?

Again, Frill’s episode provides an apt metaphor for the show overall: the girl does not get to tell her own story, her motivations and history are narrated to Ai by Ura-acca. This is never critiqued nor expanded upon, so the voice of Ura-acca remains portrayed as the narrative’s “truth”. And that in itself tells us something about this “hidden adult”’s agenda.

Constructing (and then destroying) Koito

Let’s bring these concepts back together: the question of adult agendas and opinions embedded in the text, the question of narrative voice, and the question of empathy. All these collide in the case of Frill, and especially in the case of Koito. When unpacking what exactly is problematic about this series, a lot of the issues can be summarised by honing in on these two villainised girls and how they are constructed.

Koito is built of negative stereotypes about how girls might ruin a grown man’s life. But like Frill, initially she is presented as somewhat idealised: she’s the mysterious new girl, kind to Ai when no one else is. She sees that Ai is special, unique, and she makes sure Ai knows this, offering her emotional and physical intimacy and never complaining even when Ai lets her down. In the flashbacks of Koito, she is almost always calm and smiling, aloof and clever and seemingly “above” the petty bullying of her classmates. And then she is dead, that perfection frozen in time forever.

It’s a phrase that’s dead-in-the-water now, but in the narrative function she performs for Ai, she’s almost a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (though with more “cool and mature” than “manic”). The central mystery of the series—initially—is Koito herself, with Ai trying to work out what really happened, why Koito committed suicide. It’s compelling and emotional as a narrative hook, but it rots in retrospect knowing where Koito ends up story-wise.

The “solution” to the Koito mystery sees her reconfigured into a different kind of feminine archetype: not the mature cool girl who will uplift your protagonist, but the manipulative vixen who might ruin your life. Koito, so the audience is told, was not the nice girl she appeared. She had to move schools because she “caused trouble for male teachers”, and apparently got up to her old tricks as soon as she transferred. Her tragic suicide is reframed as an attention-seeking stunt gone wrong, a slip of the heel as she stood on the roof yelling false rape accusations. This is not a scene we see, but we are told this (through Ai) by the voice of Sawaki, another male character in a position of authority like the Accas.

Like Frill, Koito is not given a voice in the narrative. We never see the world from Koito’s perspective; she is a girl to be looked at by other characters. She is talked over and explained by an adult man. The writing has such a lack of empathy for her that it delegates this reveal to a single short scene, conveyed entirely in voiceover. We don’t need to spend time with Koito, hearing her side of the story. She is deemed unimportant, vicious, villainous, and reduced to this paper-thin and deeply harmful archetype in a matter of minutes. Ai, our protagonist, our first point-of-view character and the one essentially coded as the moral compass for the series, accepts this with a touch of melancholy and moves on with her life.

Ai and Koito are lines on a script page, pixels on a screen: they are put together from a certain set of authorial ideals and biases that become strikingly obvious by the final episode. Koito is constructed to represent the absolute worst, and Ai is constructed to be the good girl by contrast: the one who listens to the grown-up men, buys into the Wonder Egg system completely, and generally doesn’t cause trouble.

Conclusions: bad eggs

The treatment of the young characters in the show’s final, scrambled arc displays Wonder Egg Priority’s narrative priorities. It wants, so bad, to say big lofty things about the nature of adolescence, but when it comes down to it the writer doesn’t make much room to empathise with the actual young characters experiencing it. He’s content, instead, to toss them aside as archetypes that reveal a certain view of teenagers: an idealised dichotomy of good girls and bad girls, and a shallow understanding—or maybe, a lack of desire to try and understand—the very girlhood traumas he was so intent on writing about in the earlier episodes.

Maybe Wonder Egg was never written, nor marketed, nor generally intended, for a teenaged audience. That’s fine. That’s a neutral statement. But examining the series’ lack of empathy for its teenaged characters, the ways in which it falls back on harmful tropes and sexist bias rather than attempting to try and get in the heads of adolescents and speak to them on their level, reveals where the whole series started to crack.

The series has many striking, emotionally powerful moments that centre on the main characters’ pain and growth, showing the main four girls as layered human beings with complicated emotions. But when it comes down to the wire, Nojima gives the voice of narrative authority to adult male characters who idealise, then demonise, the girls around them. He constructs these girls based on ideals of what adolescence should or shouldn’t be, how girls should or should not behave, slotting them into villain (Koito, Frill) or heroine (Ai) roles accordingly and sidelining the ones he kind of doesn’t know what to do with (Rika and Momoe, but especially Neiru). Early parts of the show have sympathetic moments where it feels as though giving teenagers a voice is genuinely important to the story, but the finale yanks back the curtain to reveal the underlying philosophy of the adult writer, and it makes the whole thing stink to Hell like rotten eggs.

I’m also an adult reading, writing, and writing about, stories for adolescents. I’m not immune to the conundrum of children’s fiction written by adults, an arrangement which inevitably sees grown-up writers projecting their own ideas of what childhood is (or isn’t, or should be, or shouldn’t be) onto their work. There is no easy solution to this, but there is some advice that I’d like to extend that might help avoid egregious examples like Egg here: if you’re going to write about teenaged girls, respect teenaged girls.

Have empathy for them, recognise their lack of agency, try to see this scary world from their point of view. What is writing, if not an exercise in empathy? Give them a voice, give them an adventure, give them character and nuance. I promise that if you let yourself really think about it, if you read other stories that do this, you’ll discover that teenaged girls can be rich and complex characters that don’t need to be reduced to archetypes or personifications of Modern Issues to be interesting. Do not set out to talk about The Quandaries of Youth and then construct a story that talks over its most troubled and vulnerable young characters. If this is something you think you’ll have issues with, maybe consider not writing about teens to begin with.

Whether or not Egg‘s failure of empathy with Koito ripples out to poison the rest of the series will differ from viewer to viewer. I think I will always love the striking, emotional first episode, but even that becomes painful knowing the hackneyed way in which the story is “resolved”. While it would be unfair to demand genre conventions that Wonder Egg Priority wasn’t going for in the first place, I can’t help but dream of an alternate telling of the tale that at least tried to speak to a teenaged audience: centring different perspectives and speaking to different narrative priorities, and maybe ending up a much more emotionally successful piece. Maybe in a parallel world.

Like this blog? Have you considered contributing to the tip jar?

5 Comments

Filed under Things We Need to Stop Doing

5 responses to “Rotten Eggs and Adult Agendas: How Girlhood is Constructed in Wonder Egg Priority

  1. The idea of stories written for youth versus about youth or even by youth is a really interesting one which is explored well here. It really did feel like Koito was relegated to something which was the complete opposite of her original character.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Round-Up, 4-10 August 2021: Defining Otome Games, Union-Busting at Square Enix, and Conspiracy Theorist Konata - Anime Feminist

  3. Pingback: Convenient Monsters: The problem with Frill and Wonder Egg Priority’s take on trauma - Anime Feminist

  4. Pingback: Imagine an Egg: August ’21 Roundup | The Afictionado

  5. Pingback: Genre and Gender in Wonder Egg Priority | The Afictionado

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s