Back in late 2019, I went through a stint of stumbling across rarer songs on Spotify. I do this every now and again; it’s yielded surprisingly awesome results (including otherwise-popular musicians who just aren’t listened to through the platform, like Joerg Reiter). But nothing compares to The Smelling Fresh, a university bedroom recording project by Brian Yates and James Matthews that was quietly and independently released in 2012.
First, the original album. ‘Grounded Skies’ is a Moody Blues-esque opening track, showcasing Yates’ voice and lyrical prowess paired with Matthews’s guitar work. The mixing on the whole album is wonky; the louder bits have static buzz where it hits the limits of their microphones, the vocals could be a bit louder… and it is a testament to the skill on display that it does not matter. ‘Touch the Ceiling’ is just as grand, and actually the original track I stumbled on – a fairly relaxed verse leads into a killer chorus that seems tailor-made to get people singing along.
The influences on the album are clear, too; ‘Whoa Oh! She Go!’ is firmly in the arena of Blink-182, Bowling for Soup and early Sum 41 (and almost feels like it came through a time machine from 2005, in the best, most complimentary, most devotedly scene kid way possible). The reflective ‘Not the Same’, meanwhile, is heartbreaking and possibly Yates’s writing at its best – “It’s all the same/you told me you’ll never change/but I’m not the same/are you?” (Sobs into my T-shirt. It’s fine. I’m fine.) And the catchy ‘Daydreamer’ betrays some of their hidden but emerging jazz sensibilities underlying the pop-punk exterior, evoking both McFly and a little je ne sais quois. All through the album are the aches and worries of growing up and becoming “real” adults, both silly and serious, relationships and friendships, and even lifelong dreams – “I don’t wanna give up on my dreams at twenty-one,” is one of the most striking lines in Touch The Ceiling for its naked sincerity.
Of course, this is an album from 2012. The Smelling Fresh was a one-off, a small collaboration between friends. Brian Yates did some EDM work, but currently works in software in North Carolina; James Matthews works in New Jersey, both of them far from Penn State where they created the album. When I contacted them about the album, they were both surprised to hear that it was still circulating; Yates even said that he’d strained his vocal cords a bit.
So imagine my joy to hear, two years later, that They Fucking Did It.
If Grounded Skies was an amazing debut, Colors has – possibly through the sheer length of time between releases – completely avoided the sophomore curse. Every song on the EP takes the building blocks from Grounded Skies and builds upwards on it, leaning into aspects they shied away from on the first album. Where Grounded Skies suffered from quiet vocals and buzzing on higher/louder notes, Colors is crisp and clear; where Grounded Skies played lightly with but then veered from jazz influences, both the songs ‘Count On You’ and ‘The Smooth Interlude’ lean completely into it. In fact, ‘The Smooth Interlude’ is entirely instrumental, the kind of thing pop-punk/grunge outfits usually don’t have the guts to do until much later in their careers (or the skill to pull off, which TSF does in grand style!). The bouncy bridge in ‘Count On You’is slick and cool, which sounds ridiculous to say about music, but it’s the best words coming to mind — and it’s well balanced out by the crunchier guitar and soaring riffs on ‘Colors’ and ‘Fade Away’.
The lyrics, however, are another level of awesome. As mentioned above, Yates and Matthews weren’t even in the same state; whether they made this through long-distance or got together in person to make the album, I don’t know, but the lyrics in the whole album are about the importance and value of long-term friendships, reminiscing on older times and rekindling things once thought lost. Especially together with the first album’s fear of the rapidly-approaching future, it’s hard not to feel the joy coming off of every song. ‘Laughing At Ourselves’ says, “We found our way through the storms with our lights on bright and never looking back… When we were younger we had no fear of the end, like the last song we sang of the summer,” and ‘Count on You’ follows it up with “this time I won’t take for granted, you’re still on my mind/we’ll make the most of the days we have left, all the precious time”.
I dearly hope — and almost expect, at least if anybody has any sense — that this second EP will be what gets The Smelling Fresh some radio play or at least some attention. If you don’t believe me, take a listen for yourself – and let’s raise a glass to one of the sweet successes of an otherwise-grisly two years. I’m hoping there’ll be a third album, but even if there isn’t, this is a hell of a triumphant return.
Some recap: This analysis covers all of PMMM’s original run, but will not touch on Rebellion. Spoilers apply for the whole series, and assumes you are at least familiar with the ending. PMMM and this analysis deal with – to some degree or another – suicide, poverty, mental illness, psychosis, internalized homophobia, queerphobia, respectability politics and lateral violence within the queer community.
In the analysis of the first episode, we laid some important groundwork; Madoka is surrounded by varying archetypes of femininity. Her mother is a modern businesswoman, corporate-minded and with a house-husband, but otherwise very feminine. Hitomi is an aspiring “traditional” lady (see the trope Yamato Nadeshiko, although Hitomi’s a little dramatic for it and sanding off the rough edges) and deliberately contrasted with Madoka’s mother. And separate from the two of them completely is Sayaka, a tomboy clearly uncomfortable with either proffered role, obviously queer, unable to resist “jokes” about marrying Madoka. Madoka sits somewhere in the center of this triangle, quietly observing and trying to build her own sense of identity as a woman from the influences around her.
Episode 2 opens on Madoka and Sayaka meeting Mami, and this is where some of the really fun subtext gets going. Mami is older than both of them, though not by a whole lot (I believe she’s fourteen, making her two years older) – but of course, in the nature of middle school girls, that makes her unbelievably adult and worldly to Sayaka and Madoka. This isn’t helped by the fact that she has her own apartment, and has magical girl powers.
Then we get into the explanation of magical girls vs. witches, and oof. This episode explains that witches are evil spirits that are born from curses, cause unexplained suicides and murders, and hide deep in hallucinatory labyrinths away from human eyes. In contrast, they are hunted by magical girls, who are warriors of justice who destroy them and purify their own soul gems with the “grief seeds” that witches crack from. In addition to all this, we actually see a witch’s effect on somebody suicidal – it leaves a mark on her neck called a Witch’s Kiss. And this would all be fairly normal fairytale metaphor except for the very, very clear queer subtext everywhere else.
SO. Let’s unpack that. In the wider context of the show and the “big twist” later on, we know that magical girls and witches are the same thing. Witches are all women; they’re the “fallen, broken” versions of magical girls, who are “pure and sweet”. And every single magical girl we’ve met thus far is immensely coded as queer. So it absolutely should not be discarded that a lot of what we’re hearing about witches is really just repackaged homophobia. Lesbophobia, actually, to be exact; while there’s a lot of crossover between discrimination between queer men and women, there are nuances here that make the gendering important. Witches are born from curses; most queer history and fiction carries some of the idea, challenged or otherwise, that our attraction and identity is a curse. Witches cause suicides and murders; that is, they ’cause’ the death of either themselves or other people, in honor killings or deaths out of desperation, the fear of being outed or the despair of unhappiness. The only witch-caused suicide attempt we’ve seen on screen as of this ep is of another woman! Isn’t that interesting. And witches create labyrinths of deception and guile; trans women in particular, and trans lesbians even more so, are accused of trickery and misdirection and lies, as a justification for abuse and murder. Even cis lesbians get this from men – the idea that being attractive and yet unavailable is a lie. Moreover, older queer people are constantly accused of misleading or deceiving young people into “thinking” they’re queer or infecting their minds with lies. If you’ve ever heard about the “queer agenda” or “trans cult”, that’s relevant here.
So our witches, or at least how they’re being talked about, is infested with homophobic and transphobic reasoning. But where does that leave Mami and Kyubey, and the inevitable truth that magical girls and witches are the same? Simple: the job of a magical girl is to fight witches, destroy them, and in turn never, never be like them. That’s the entire point of collecting Grief Seeds from defeated witches. Magical girls are the queer girls who “know better”, the “good, well-behaved” ones who get to be heroes instead of villains… at the cost of hurting their own people. Put in a context that underlines the metaphor: magical girls are asked to use the corpses of “unworthy” magical girls they’ve slaughtered to prove and ensure that they won’t be the next target of the hunt. Even with translation conventions at play, Mami’s use of the phrase ‘witch hunt’ seems intensely appropriate, and a little bit of research into the Japanese word for witch (majo, 魔女) shows that the mythology heavily borrows from Western sources. In other words, while Japanese mythology has some presence here, this is largely a Japanese take on a Western set of myths and folkloric imagery.
Returning to the Witch’s Kiss for a moment, there’s some more imagery here that’s worth looking at. The Witch’s Kiss isn’t on the suicidal woman’s lips; it’s on her neck. Considering witches as not just queer women but queer women who are unable or unwilling to play along with respectability politics – non-passing trans women, sex workers, openly kinky or overtly masculine women, etc. – this is a fascinatingly sexual piece of imagery. It’s intensely dark, too, because it changes the context of the Witches’ Kiss entirely. Do witches actually cause suicides? Or is the “real world” context of this that women tempted by witches have to choose between being outcast “witches” or death, or feel like they have to? Recall the older but still used term ‘fallen woman’ for sex workers and queer women. Adding onto this is a detail that comes up in other analysis, but isn’t dwelt on in connection with other things; Mami doesn’t have any friends. It’s made clear later in the series (if I remember correctly) that Mami was not entirely aware that all witches were magical girls; but there’s still something intensely sad about a queer-coded woman so eager for friends that she’s befriending younger girls, but only as long as she knows that they’ve been “approved” as magical girls. Is she afraid that even as a magical girl she’ll hurt or corrupt those she touches? (While I’m not getting into supplementary material since I haven’t read it directly, Mami and Kyouko were apparently friends prior to the show, which just strengthens this connection. But more on Kyouko later!) So Mami’s life is dedicated to smearing and killing witches to ensure that she’s safe and comfortable, even though she’s horribly lonely as a result – and whether or not she’s really aware that she’ll never be like “normal” people, the audience can see it. Whatever promise of normalcy she wished for or hoped for, she was never going to get it.
However, Mami is only one of the characters that backs this theory up, and one of the most prominent characters in this is actually Sayaka. Despite her tomboyish exterior, Sayaka has no poker face, at all – and it’s not a good thing, not in this environment. I mentioned at the beginning how she can’t resist jokes about marrying Madoka, and that backfires on here, where Hitomi jumps to conclusions about how Madoka and Sayaka are clearly having an illicit romance. “You’ve been staring so intently into each other’s eyes… But you can’t, you’re both girls, it’s a love that can never be!” She runs off, and while Sayaka plays it off with a nervous laugh, Madoka’s more than a little bothered, and they actually have to put work into smoothing Hitomi’s ruffled feathers. This makes it clear why Sayaka isn’t out; as funny as Hitomi is being here, it’s not exactly the most welcoming. Either she’s deliberately joking or being overdramatic, or she genuinely believes it’s the kind of love that can never be, and whether or not she thinks that’s tragic or terrible or romantic, it’s not exactly what young queer girls need to hear from their best friend. Not to mention that she makes it all about her and how isolated she feels.
The respectability politics come back into play with the conversation between Mami, Kyubey, Sayaka and Madoka in class. Mami mentions that it’s actually more common for magical girls to contend against one another; Grief Seeds are a limited and important resource, and the in-fighting goes beyond just the witches and also includes each other. This foreshadows that even their enemy are the same people – and when you consider that their “resource” to stay Clean is their own, this takes on a particularly chilling relevance. I can’t help but compare this to queer exclusionist arguments that worry about “limited resources” being sucked up by asexual, aromantic, trans and non-binary lesbians/queer women, without considering what those people can provide for a community.
The scene afterwards has Homura actively kept away from Madoka, too. Often you’ll see exclusionists, trans-exclusionary radical feminists, and even religious sects take this step – even talking to a “heretic” or a “fallen woman” is enough to taint your views, and so they enforce that having friends who are Not Of Your Group is bad, keep them as far from you as possible, and it’s to make sure that you don’t realize that the arguments… make sense. This shows up in a number of places, and why the urge that both Sayaka and Mami have here to keep Homura away from Madoka at all costs is… worrying. Sayaka’s clearly learned it just from watching Mami and Kyubey, but she hasn’t thought to question what actually makes Homura dangerous. The answer is: nothing. Homura hasn’t hurt or attacked Madoka. Homura has specifically and repeatedly focused her attentions on Kyubey. But because Kyubey has played the role of cute and helpless victim to the hilt, the protective urge has done the work for him and placed Homura in the role of villain very tidily. Notably, Madoka is very quiet about this; she isn’t buying into the “Homura Is Evil” narrative nearly as quickly as Sayaka, and keeping to herself while she unpacks what she’s being told. She gets a bit of a bad rap from critics of PMMM – she isn’t passive, so much as she’s being cautious.
Finally, we get to the wish – or rather, the initial discussion of them. What would you wish for? The episode pauses and gets unusually (so far) somber when Sayaka isn’t sure what would be important enough for her to risk her life for it. In fact, she does; she just isn’t sure she can say it. Her inner identity, what she wants, is conflicting with a very different desire – the one to be normal. It’s not a surprise, really, that Sayaka is so much faster to buy into everything Mami and Kyubey say. Both Sayaka and Madoka are queer, but one of them is much more obviously so than the other. Madoka can blend in, hide her feelings, and play the girly girl – Sayaka is trying, constantly, and can’t quite make it work. Plus, we know what Madoka’s home life is like, but we never see Sayaka’s. There’s a lot of things unsaid about why Sayaka might be so much more desperate for protection, no matter how slim or secret. She also doesn’t question the idea that she has to earn the wish, or suffer for it; disability politics come in here as well, even if sideways. Being a witch, in the long run, is a punishment for wanting something, or reaching too far – and the theme of being “punished” with insanity or disability is a potent, if ableist, one. But if it isn’t questioned or counteracted early on, it’s accepted, especially if it’s effaced with a beautiful lie on top. You aren’t a witch; you’re a soldier against evil. And when you’re hurt by it later on, well, clearly it’s because you had it coming.
The infamous Episode 3 is next, but I think the concept of “the show is cute and fluffy until episode 3” has already been put away at least for this rewatch. It carries its dread right from the first few minutes, and honestly, watching it with this lens is giving me so much more than I expected. Depressing, but in a way that feels very, very cathartic.
TW: This column includes discussions of transmisogyny, ableism/sanism particularly against psychotic and schizo-spectrum disorders, generalized homophobia, PTSD and trauma. It also discusses genocide, (briefly) racism, and sexism. Also – spoilers for both Fullmetal Alchemist anime series and the manga!
Additionally, for consistency’s sake, I’ve used he/him pronouns for Envy and Will throughout. These are the pronouns used the most often both within fandom, English subs and dubs, and within the fanfiction itself; however, this isn’t the case for the original Japanese (where pronouns are a much more complicated fact anyway) and nor does it de facto imply that Envy should be read as male. Envy’s been referred to with she/her, they/them, ‘kono’, etc. so it really is up in the air. Pronouns aren’t gender, nor are they set in stone.
Everybody is entitled to their obsessive, devotional passions – but nobody does it better than neurodivergent people, especially autistic and ADHD fans. I’m proudly both, and my special interest is Fullmetal Alchemist, the anime series. Over the years, I’ve ended up taking in massive amounts of small details about the canon, and poured it into a series that started life as Hero of the People, but split into parts and is now called Lux Sanguinum Nox Animorum, of which HOTP is the first part.
LSNA is… well, for starters, it’s 200k and counting, and I’ve been doing it for seven years. That tells you something to begin with. But as far as an actual story goes, it’s a roleswap AU, not an uncommon trope in fanfiction. You take two characters, switch them and see what happens. But a lot of roleswap AUs, while fun in concept, suffer from similar problems; they end up redoing canon and the roleswap is essentially a palette swap. Fun to think about, but not necessarily interesting as a long-term project. LSNA came about because I wondered what a roleswap really would look like. The best narratives are built on character choices, choices that make sense for the character and proceed naturally from their pasts, their environments, their circumstances – What would a mass roleswap actually look like?
Honestly? A lot of fucking work. But that’s why I’m doing this little essay series! It’s self-indulgent, yes; but I enjoy character and fandom meta, and ultimately, that’s what this is. What is a character, beyond what they do, and into who they are? How do you preserve that in a vastly different context? Coffeeshop AUs manage it. Why not roleswaps?
ENVY & EDWARD ELRIC
FMA is a series (well, canon in general) that offers a nice handy set of villains and heroes to switch, complete with names for the villains. I also decided early on that I was going to pull from both canons, blend them, and see what happened there as well. But I can say whatever I want and it won’t avoid the very basic fact that Envy is my favourite character, so he was inevitably going to be the main character.
Still, Envy and Ed are very much set up as foils in the 2003 series. They’re both the sons of Hohenheim, Envy has a specific bitterness towards Ed, and even the final battle, imbued with importance and significance, is between the two of them. There’s a lot of ‘dark archetyping’ involved, especially in regards to parental relationships and gender. In the Brotherhood series, they’re less directly contrasted, but Envy is still one of the first homunculi Ed meets, repeatedly given the task of keeping him safe (as a ‘precious sacrifice’) and in Envy’s final moments, it’s Ed who stands up for him along with Riza, and understands where his bitterness is coming from. So Envy is a good candidate for the Fullmetal Alchemist in a roleswap, especially since they’re comparable in (visual) age. (The other setup I was considering was Wrath as the Fullmetal Alchemist, but I like how it worked out – I’ll get into that later.)
Envy is a complicated character, both in canon and in fanon. Fanon around Envy has always been a bit of a mess. A fandom dating from 2001 isn’t overwhelming politically correct, and fans who watch today are pretty horrified to hear that the joke used to be that Envy was “the gay psycho in the miniskirt” and even the common target of ‘trap’ jokes. It’s hard, though, to entirely blame fans for this – the shows play into plenty of homophobic and transphobic tropes on their own. Envy takes Winry’s shape more than once as a deliberate trick, and even approaches Wrath with Red Stones in a distinctly predatory way in the 2003 show. Brotherhood is a little less on the nose with it, until Envy’s death scene – in which Envy takes on Gracia’s shape in a deliberately uncanny-valley mocking way, rubbing it in Mustang’s face until he’s killed slowly, humiliatingly, and unnecessarily violently by a friend of the ‘tricked’ and murdered man. The current trend in fandom is to label Envy as canonically non-binary, but that’s only true inasmuch as many shapeshifters are considered as such – but gender isn’t about the body, and in both canons Envy plays into both neutral and negative coding about trans women. He’s also erratic, violent, bad-tempered, and just as quick to fly into a murderous rage as he is to laugh in somebody’s face. All in all, it’s a depiction a lot of people latched on to for numerous reasons, but an overwhelmingly stereotyped villainous one.
So what parts of Envy transfer best – or the most interestingly – into the role of Fullmetal Alchemist? Ed has a temper, but he’s not somebody who lashes out in violence. Envy is, and he’s petty and underhanded about it; between him assaulting Wrath and Bradley in 2003 out of sheer rage, and his smirking threats to Marcoh in Brotherhood to destroy an innocent village just to get on Marcoh’s nerves, it’s not behaviour you expect from an upstanding hero. But that’s interesting in and of itself. What makes a human kid act that way? Both versions of Envy are clearly traumatized – and the role of Edward Elric is not short on trauma. Same stimuli, different reactions. Ultimately, it’s almost more realistic in some ways to have a teenager responding in over-the-top, cruel ways; it’s just not what you expect from a shonen hero.
In terms of gender, it gets more complicated. Envy is clearly coded and presented as transfemme, to some degree. He (pronouns used for simplicity and consistency) talks about enjoying a young, beautiful body and claims to have ‘forgotten’ his old form in 2003 – in Brotherhood, he says something very similar, with the main difference being that he doesn’t like his true form. Calling him a monster or ugly is a quick way to inspire his ire, and then there’s the obvious; he’s making a choice to wear a skirt and crop-top, unambiguously feminine clothing, in a setting that doesn’t otherwise promote or seem particularly comfortable with gender ambiguity. William in LSNA isn’t totally in tune with his emotions when he chooses what he wears – he just knows it makes him feel more comfortable, and he’s ornery enough to do it despite joining the military. But what Ed gets away with in terms of masculine-but-not-uniform clothing due to his genius, doesn’t quite cut it for explicit crossdressing. Immediately, Will is less accepted by and less comfortable in the military. The dyed-green hair and attitude are ways of leaning into that discomfort, essentially being Aggressively Counterculture in a similar way to Ed, but with a very different significance applied to it.
There’s also an extra element when it comes to Will’s personal style choices. Ed hates Hohenheim, but it’s a longing, lonely sort of hate; “if you hadn’t left, Mom wouldn’t have died”, etc. While their reunion in 2003 isn’t particularly kind, in Brotherhood it involves a lot more softness, and Hohenheim’s death in Conqueror of Shamballa is absolutely heartrending for Ed. In Brotherhood, too, Ed slowly leans more and more into the fact that he looks like his father; it doesn’t upset him especially after they reconcile. Will, on the other hand, is pulling from a character who hated Hohenheim enough to kill him. While Will isn’t outwardly homicidal towards his father, between gender dysphoria and stomach-turning hatred for the man he looks like, dying his hair and going out of his way to look as un-masculine and un-Hohenheim-like as possible is a deliberate statement. (Much in the same way, probably, as it was in 2003 when Envy chose his new form.)
So far, then, the new character of the ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’ is a more sour, angry, explicitly-counter-culture and queer character than Ed – kind of a darker-and-edgier redux. But if that’s all I wanted from a roleswap, I would find one of those Emo Ed MS Paint edits and stop there. What else makes Envy Envy? The fandom so frequently calls (called, it’s admittedly semi-out of fashion now) Envy psychotic that sometimes, it’s easy to forget that the word actually means something.
Is Envy psychotic in canon, then? Well, not explicitly. Psychotic refers to mental disorders that include hallucinations, delusions and disordered thinking. But there are hints, in both canons but towards slightly different conclusions, that Envy is mentally unwell in a way beyond ‘haha I’m scary and violent’.
In 2003, to start, and keep things together, Envy changes moods drastically and at the drop of a hat. His proper introduction to Ed involves playful, innuendo-laden banter that leads to very casual violence – and then tensed eyes, hissed threats and a distraction into another topic (how much Ed reminds him of Hohenheim). His outbursts at Pride and Wrath are preceded by almost-boredom – and more than anything else, he reacts with such casual lack-of-care to situations that should be stressful that it’s unnerving. (The homunculi have a habit of this to some degree, but Envy is particularly eerie about it.) As mentioned above, Envy is definitely traumatized, and this kind of drastic mood-swing can be linked to both PTSD and C-PTSD (complex PTSD, seen in people who are in high-stress situations for a long period of time with no escape). Even more so, however, the anger issues and outbursts are reminiscent of things like BPD and other personality disorders, especially since Envy himself doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with how he’s reacting. BPD and C-PTSD both also include abandonment issues, which Envy has… in spades.
Personality disorders aren’t psychosis, though. (The term ‘psycho’ can refer to them, but that’s short for psychopath. More on that in a bit.) Envy doesn’t hallucinate, at least in the 2003 canon that we’re shown, but there’s a good potential argument for delusions. Unshakable beliefs in a truth of the world that is incompatible with “objective” or everybody else’s reality aren’t always things like literally believing that you’re a martyr or Elvis Presley. (Actually they usually aren’t.) In Envy’s case, his unshakable belief that Hohenheim abandoned him and therefore is evil, that humans are worthless and need to be destroyed despite originally being one, and that homunculi (who need humans to create more of themselves) are a superior species could definitely qualify as a delusion. Despite Al’s attempts, it certainly doesn’t respond to any sort of external force. It also shows a certain failure of logic that appears to seem fine to Envy from the inside – obviously, if homunculi need humans to exist, getting rid of all humans isn’t going to work – but disordered and disorganized thinking would account for that. He also shows this a few times in his planning. Lust is the planner of their group; Envy is much more haphazard and unpredictable, needing a guiding hand to point him in the right direction.
There’s room for interpretation for a number of mental illnesses, but it all runs up against the problem that a lot of this relies on the worst presentations of those illnesses. People with BPD certainly aren’t inherently violent, nor are people with psychosis naturally inclined towards genocidal temptations. However, part of what’s interesting is that this all seems very natural (to standard, non-mentally-ill audiences) for a villain to do or feel. He seems to enjoy it, and have it encouraged by Dante.
Brotherhood doesn’t go as deeply into Envy’s personal beliefs except right at the end, and a core difference is that in 2003, Envy wins. We see him in triumph in 2003, but it’s in Brotherhood that we see him at the edge of the cliff, scared. In 2003, he can be interpreted as suicidal when he throws himself into the Gate, but it’s in Brotherhood that he actually does kill himself, too humiliated by Ed’s (accurate) assessment of his jealousy. But what do we see of him in Brotherhood? He’s not as grandiose or directly violent as his 2003 counterpart – he’s a much less proficient fighter, and notably, his acts of direct violence are apparently notable enough for him to remember. There are a few scenes of interest here, but one of my personal favourites is as he’s bragging to Ed and Ling about his murder of the Ishvalan child that kicked off the war. He laughs as he does it… but there is something a little wrong about it. His eyes aren’t quite focused. He laughs a little too long, and a little too nervously. And more than anything else – he remembers it just a bit too well. This lines up with the PTSD/C-PTSD/BPD traumatic interpretations from above, but also gives us something that 2003 never showed; that Envy, or at least this one, is capable of guilt. It’s buried deep, and it’s very possible Envy himself isn’t fully aware of it. But his later death scene emphasizes a similar pattern. Something makes him uncomfortable, so he leans into it; deliberately plays it up, plays at a lack of remorse, while remembering just a little too many details for somebody who Doesn’t Care. It’s not often commented on by fandom why Envy remembers an otherwise unremarkable murder with such excruciating detail, down to taking Gracia’s form from memory – he’s never shown to have a particularly good or notable memory otherwise, except for the murder of the Ishvalan girl. Not only does this say he’s not as comfortable with either of these murders as he claims; it also gives the game away that he does it significantly less often than you’d expect.
The death scene also deserves some special attention towards Ed’s assessment of Envy. He’s jealous of humans because he wants what they have – this contrasts so strongly with 2003 Envy’s dismissal and outright genocidal intentions towards humans that it’s easy to assume the characters are completely incompatible with each other. The jealousy and craving for connection also mirrors a certain awkwardness that Brotherhood Envy has and 2003 Envy doesn’t; he’s a little clumsy with his interactions even with the other homunculi, he doesn’t really know how to talk to Ed, and the only person he seems to have natural interactions with is the Also Definitely Not Sane Kimbley. There’s a lot of neurodivergent coding embedded in there immediately, but the personality disorder interpretation raises its head again. He doesn’t understand humans, even though he wants to; he’s jealous not just of humans and how they support each other, but the fact that they even can. The lurking tension between him and Greed is never really given a name, but ultimately, it seems to be Envy who can’t put any words to it. It’s easy to claim a lack of empathy as some deliberately cruel thing where a character ignores the humanity of others on purpose, but Envy lacks empathy in the sense that he genuinely cannot feel the emotions of others the way he’s “supposed” to. (It seems notable here, by the way, that Envy is frequently caught out in his shapeshifting, and is a poor actor.) In response, he’s built a persona, which is most of what we see in canon; the strutting, Gleefully Evil, homicidal nightmare intended to intimidate others and possibly use fear alone to get others to back out of a conflict or a conversation. Nobody needs to know that it’s a matter of ‘can’t’, not ‘won’t’, and when Ed does land on it, seemingly by chance or astute observation, the humiliation is enough to drive him to suicide. It’s not the defeat or the looming disaster of the foiled Promised Day that makes Envy kill himself – it’s the prospect of that destroyed persona, and the horror of having his ‘true’ self exposed. With this in mind, it’s a little easier to accept 2003 Envy as a much-older version of BH Envy; one who’s gotten better at not showing the cracks.
In combination, this creates an even more compelling character, albeit still villainous. But what happens when you make this character a hero? We’re so used to seeing characters with violent impulses, suicidal ideation, low empathy, poor social intelligence and “fake” personas as unsympathetic, intended to be killed off and evil. But putting this character in a different role doesn’t take away the mental health issues. Instead, the story changes around him. Will hallucinates, deals with mood swings and delusions, hears voices, deals with suicidal and violent ideation, and has super low empathy. He’s also fifteen years old, trying to do the right thing, and – especially without the influence of a Dark Master – terrified of his own impulses. Outside of a villainous context, Will has the freedom as a character to be fighting himself and challenging what he thinks, with help from other characters. He wants to hurt other people and himself, but he knows that he shouldn’t, and knows just as many parts of him don’t want to. Ed navigates the world in FMA 03 and BH with obvious PTSD, but the backlash he gets to his disability is minimal and related mostly to his automail. Will, on the other hand, can’t fake being neurotypical, or cloak it as Endearingly Quirky in the same way.
Already, these established gender and mental/neurodivergence differences add up. The same events (more or less) occur, but where Ed hides his automail, Will flaunts his – the kind of direct ‘fuck you’ challenge that got Envy into trouble so many times in BH. Where Ed loves and adores Al and is always checking in on him, Will loves Alex but is ignorant enough of the tensions at play that he goes about his quest with Alex as almost an afterthought as a person. Ed avoids killing out of principle, but Will doesn’t have the impulse control to stop, and Shou Tucker dies ingloriously on the floor of his own basement. Ed’s fears of reprisal from the military mostly revolve around Al and what could happen to him, even at the end of 2003 when it’s both of them on the run. Will, on the other hand, has a more concrete shape to his concern; he’s a mentally unstable, queer member of the military, trading on his status for a measure of safety but on much unsteadier ground.
But it’s not just about differences in marginalization, either – Ed isn’t exactly the pinnacle of heterosexuality and masculinity in either FMA series, and he clearly has a measure of PTSD. Personality in and of itself matters. Ed doesn’t talk about his feelings, but he expresses his care for others through action, and when pressed, he’ll find ways to tell others they matter to him. In Brotherhood, Winry makes a point of crying because he won’t, and he promises he doesn’t want to make her cry at all anymore; his 520 cenz promise to Mustang is much the same thing, a sideways but fairly-clear expression of faith. Envy, however, is an incredibly insular character. The only homunculi we see him having any kind of close relationship with are Lust and Greed, and the latter is only implied in the strong feelings of betrayal Envy expresses in both canons. Whether or not he does care about somebody, he keeps it even more to himself than Edward does.
While we’re talking about relationships, perhaps the most important one in the entire canon is the one between Edward and Alphonse. They repeatedly express their devotion to each other and are searching for the Philosopher’s Stone not for themselves but for each other. But for a more insular character – somebody afraid to show that kind of devotion to anybody – the relationship changes. No matter who gets cast as the younger brother, Will as a character struggles with expressing vulnerability on such a deep level that the Elric brothers are a significantly less cohesive unit as a result. Not all brothers are bound as closely as the OG Elrics. It’s also relevant, though, that Edward’s devotion to Al in both series makes him somewhat blind to anybody else, especially in a sexual or romantic sense. In 2003, Winry loves him and his silence/deliberate avoidance of the topic implies that – whether because he’s gay, on the aroace spectrum or not into her– he can’t return it. Even Brotherhood is tentative when it comes to Edward’s interests – the only reference to sexuality is incredibly oblique and Edward’s reciting of the periodic table can indicate discomfort just as much as arousal. Envy is quite deliberately contrasted to this in both series, but especially 2003; he quite enjoys being pretty, and a number of times his threats to people are imbued with playful, dangerous innuendo. (“I can be anything you want, pipsqueak – maybe a taller version of you?”) This means Will is already a character that, instead of entirely uninterested or even nervous around sexuality, is curious about it and has plenty of desires of his own.
Finally, differences in physicality still matter, albeit less than roleswaps would make them out to be generally. Envy is taller than Ed, though not by much, and acrobat-thin, which makes the automail immediately a harder thing to carry. Ed is bulky and muscular enough to deal with the metal fairly gracefully, but for Will, while he’s able to compensate a certain amount, it sticks out a lot more on his form and the adjustment was harder. While Envy as a homunculus in both canons is strong, a lot of emphasis in 03 is placed on him as fast and precise versus brute strength, while BH goes the almost complete opposite direction and has him using brute force almost entirely. For a human character with the same form, though, the interpretation I like the best is somebody who’s strong, physically, and an excellent fighter, but susceptible to injury. Especially once put in context with the mental health issues above, it’s likely that a human version of Envy doesn’t take care of himself very well – so you have somebody who’s underweight and just a touch sickly, but also vicious enough to hurt you and pass out afterwards.
WILLIAM ELRIC, FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST
All of this meta, obviously, intersects with every other character. But Will as a character immediately presents a very different story. He’s passively (and occasionally actively) suicidal, and while the main reason he stays alive is because of his brother, he’s bad enough at expressing care that it doesn’t always come through. Externally, he’s not nearly as well-loved as Edward. He’s more than a little cruel, and while he gets the job done, he doesn’t automatically value human life or safety in the same intrinsic way that Edward does. He also runs his mouth constantly, and while Edward is usually running his mouth about alchemy or passing moral judgement, Will’s just as likely to be insulting somebody because he’s feeling petty that day and they pissed him off. (Not dissimilar characters, but with enough difference to cause problems.) Internally, however, he’s a mess; he’s intrigued by his own developing sexuality and gender identity, but just as terrified by it and its implications, and he’s sullenly prodding at his inability to Immediately Grasp why certain things are bad just as often as he’s raging at the outside world for not giving him what he deserves. It makes him complex and full of contradictions as he negotiates this external persona while trying to decide how much of his internal world he actually wants to share.
One of my favourite things about writing Will is also how this combines with an inherent sense of justice/injustice. A low sense of empathy just means the sense of something being inherently ‘gross’ or ‘wrong’ doesn’t come naturally to him. But raised by Trisha Elric and then taught by Izumi, he’s got a deep sense of fair vs. unfair, and because that’s a metric based on something other than understanding other human emotions, it’s one he understands. He doesn’t always think that lying to somebody is wrong and will do it if it gets him what he needs or wants, but something like the truth of the Ishvalan genocide and the sheer imbalance of it hits him hard. The sense of justice is also what keeps him consistently just at arms-length away from the military; even before he quite has the words for it, he knows that they don’t want him, and he doesn’t want them – for longer than he has to. The members of the military he’s close to and bond with are his immediate superior and surrounding squad, precisely because they don’t try to convince him that the military doles out ‘justice’. They’re there for reasons of their own, same as him.
Finally, while Envy displays lots of varying mental illness symptoms in both canons, I wanted to narrow things down a little. Not much; one of the more enduring myths about mental illnesses is that you can “only have so many”. But Will displays elements of bipolar, schizophrenia, PTSD, as well as a number of Cluster B symptoms that sort of run the gamut of all four. (ASPD, BPD, NPD, HPD) Within the context of the fic, a lot of these diagnoses either don’t exist yet or look significantly different, so the term given within the fic is ‘epileptoid hysterical psychopath’, which dates to about the 1930s and comes from Gannushkin’s psychiatric research. If that sounds ridiculous, consider: so do most of the current DSM diagnoses. Nevertheless, he’s got enough narcissist traits in particular that I feel confident that I’m writing a (questionably) heroic NPD character, which is rare.
I’ll round this off with my favourite or most significant change resulting from this character swap: Will shows up to the State Alchemist exam in full gear, miniskirt, crop top, green hair, etc. It’s a bold move, and one that immediately gets the superiors talking amongst themselves. Colonel Solaris (Lust, swapped with Roy) overhears Hakuro saying something particularly nastily transmisogynistic – and tells him, rather bluntly, to shut up. This gets her transferred away from Central City and to the East, a demotion of sorts, but also immediately changes the dynamic between the Colonel and Fullmetal into a much more explicitly protective one.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is, for varying and complex reasons, a controversial anime. Much like the Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 adaptation and Neon Genesis Evangelion, it is often recommended and panned in the same breath as a ‘deconstruction’ that doesn’t quite fulfill its promises, a “grimdark” take on more cheerful anime, or why “anime-first” properties are supposedly better or worse than manga-first properties. This isn’t helped by both what it shares with other controversial anime – themes of suicide and despair, queer subtext that barely qualifies for the ‘sub’ addendum, and a certain amount of unexpected violence – and what it doesn’t. That is, PMMM is a shojo (young girls’) anime and as such, attracts criticism that shonen just Does Not.
My personal relationship with PMMM is just as complicated as the rest. It spoke to me for reasons I still can’t fully put together, but at the same time, I can see its flaws so glaringly that sometimes I wonder why. So – this is me rewatching one of my favourite animes, with a proactively queer/trans lens!
Some important notes before going in: I am not watching, nor do I plan to watch Rebellion. This analysis begins and ends with the main show as presented; I firmly believe it’s a solid story arc on its own. So every column of this will have spoilers – but not for Rebellion.
Also, PMMM and this analysis deal with – to some degree or another – suicide, poverty, mental illness, psychosis, internalized homophobia, queerphobia, respectability politics and lateral violence within the queer community.
Episode 1 – “I First Met Her In A Dream…Or Something”
Oh boy, the first episode already has a lot to work with. Watching this episode with a queer lens, I’m already suddenly and quickly noticing how Madoka’s family has switched gender roles but is otherwise Very, Very Normal. Madoka’s mother is the breadmaker of the house and her father is a dutiful stay-at-home at dad – but otherwise, the nuclear family is just the same. Madoka doesn’t even have any grandparents around, which is actually kind of unusual for anime, isn’t it?
So here we are, with our potentially-queer protagonist, in a family that is – well, kind of peak white liberal feminism. (NB: PMMM is a Japanese show but I am inevitably going to be reading from a Western perspective.) Women have power! To engage in capitalism, make their husbands do all the work and wear cool pantsuits. Even the mother’s advice to Madoka is tinged with a certain amount of old-fashionedness even though she’s doing things like telling Madoka not to be afraid to stand out.
This just gets all the more striking when we get to Madoka’s friends. Hitomi is the model of ideal, traditional femininity – she has tea ceremony classes, gets suitors all the time, is always demure and put-together and even admonishes Sayaka and Madoka for goofing off too much. And Sayaka… Sayaka, honey. Within anime, she isn’t an unusual archetype – there are a good number of “female pervert” characters – but she’s bolder than many of them, jokingly-but-clearly stating that she wants to marry Madoka and that she’d be jealous of any man who stole her away. Sayaka, in short, is not so much in a closet as she is in a glass box. She is in the unenviable position of everybody around her knowing she’s a lesbian, and having to prove otherwise, unlike Madoka who mostly just keeps her mouth shut.
So, immediately, we have two models of femininity – one ‘traditional’ and one ‘progressive’, and both determinedly heterosexual. And Madoka and Sayaka playing boob-grab tickle games in the middle. (Poor beans. That’s not subtle.)
Enter, of course, Homura Akemi. Obviously, the blushing and stuttering that Madoka does is “supposed” to be because Homura is the girl from her dream – but realistically, within the anime, it plays out as immediate attraction. It’s not just about physical looks, either. I never put this together before, but Homura correcting the spelling of her name – with such confidence – is where Madoka seems to REALLY get antsy. Having a female character calmly and expressly exert the power to fix even a small thing shouldn’t be new to Madoka – she has a businesswoman for a mother – but names are of particular importance to the trans community. Oh, to have the courage to simply correct somebody!
On the way to the Nurse’s Office, Homura delivers her speech, so carefully rehearsed to prevent Madoka from becoming a magical girl. What does she say? “Do you treasure the life you currently live? Your family, your friends? Stay as you are and don’t change.”
It’s unintentionally cruel of Homura in a number of ways. Because what she’s saying to Madoka, put in the context of the most clearly queer character being said to the closeted/questioning one: Don’t come out. Don’t get involved with fighting to change things. Living happily and blindly is better than the cruelty you will have to face.
Cruel or not, it’s well-intentioned. How could Homura say anything else, knowing what she knows? But it’s also not the full story – because Madoka has to witness the violence that happens to her peers (Sayaka, Mami, Kyouko) anyway, and is targeted by witches regardless. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether she “gets” involved, or comes out of the closet, or is proud of her identity. It’s already true, and she’s already involved.
This can be read in any number of ways, obviously. I’m biased towards a trans reading because I identify as trans, but also because transformation and being a “truer, better” version of yourself versus for others show up a lot. However, a lot of that applies to sapphic identity as well! The collisions of queerness and misogyny leave very similar traces, and ultimately, despite what some people like to say, the communities have a lot in common even before they overlap. Is Sayaka a butch lesbian or a closeted trans man? In the context of PMMM it doesn’t matter – it’s the disconnect from the womanhood that Hitomi and Madoka’s mother offer that marks her as Different and Dangerous.
After that, and some more scenes reaffirming Sayaka as the Closeted Queer Kid and Hitomi as the Perfect Traditional Woman-In-Training, we get to Kyuubey’s entrance and Homura getting a faceful of fire extinguisher from Sayaka. This scene to first-time viewers very clearly sets up Homura as a villain; on rewatch, the DARVO jumps out. DARVO stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender – a common practice of abusers in which they deny the initial assault ever took place, attack (often subtlety or passive-aggressively) the accuser, and reverse their roles. “I was the one REALLY being abused”, etc. Mami and Kyuubey do an excellent and terrifying job of making out like Homura is the scary one and protecting Kyuubey’s reputation and image of a Cute, Cuddly Creature that can do no wrong. Down to Mami subtly and passive-aggressively making sure Homura gets the message that she gets one extra chance and Kyuubey making the deliberate choice to call out to Madoka helplessly even when shooting him will not kill him, they use their relative power to change the narrative. The relative power, in this case, has a lot to do with respectability politics, which I’m going to be returning to as I watch the rest of the anime! For this scene, though, the most relevant part is that Mami and Kyuubey can ‘play the parts’ of victim better than Homura – the tough-as-nails, coping through blank effect, trauma survivor – can. Homura cannot, at this point in her story, allow herself to look pathetic or weak; Kyubey can and will, and at Homura’s expense.
Finally, the witch; while I’ll talk more about the witches next episode, it is definitely worth paying attention to that the same dynamics are set up here as with Madoka and Sayaka saving Kyubey. They are endangered by something that appears, at first blush, to be scary and violent – Mami appears in the nick of time, the hero who can protect them from the Big Scary Thing and look good.
That’s episode one! I’ll be getting back to this when I can, so expect these to show up consistently for a while.
Hello folks! I write for a few other websites, and I’m going to be linking them here so nobody misses good content. My music monthly roundups have officially moved to Substream Magazine, and you can read my one for September right now!
Between the sudden and unexpected return of My Chemical Romance, the runaway success of Lil Nas X and the rise of goth queen Billie Eilish, 2019 has been a hell of a year for music. In the midst of all of this, it’s easy to miss releases that haven’t made as much of a splash. So from a wide assortment of genres, here’s ten songs that dropped way back in September that you might have missed.