Why Cowboy Bebop is Not ‘Just One Thing’

cowboy bebop

More musings, probably because this is a space I am distracting myself with for the time being from some major life changes till I need to go deal with them. I’ve written so much on Bebop and have quite a bit more I want to cover-some days I get alarmed at the volume of content here too but then I know I won’t be doing this forever so if it’s with me at this point in time let me do what it’s asking me to do. This will hang around here after I’m done and maybe someone else can do something else with it.

I’ve talked elsewhere about how the show is a mish-mash of multiple ideas, references, and influences. I doubt anyone can cover them all but in bits and pieces people do keep making the connections-I’ve made some, others have made some. We keep piecing it together and finding new ones two decades later and that’s incredibly impressive. In the same way, it’s also a mish-mash of multiple themes and stories happening at once and really cannot be clubbed down under one particular category. It doesn’t take itself very seriously either which is the greatest respect it pays to its viewer.

If you feel they are messing with you…you are right

One thing I claim to be absolutely clear on, and perhaps the only thing, is that Bebop’s creators did all the mind-fuckery in the show pretty intentionally. It’s a classic trait of genius creators, as can be witnessed in the existence of multiple PhDs and books which most of the seminal works of the world inspire. It’s not just a story and that’s very important to remember. You are given this great piece of art with absolutely nothing to interpret it with. The anime guides, as I have already mentioned, are likely intentionally ambiguous in explaining the series beyond lore information to not lead the viewer along. The people who made it refuse to give a straight answer about it in interviews. They’ve also started leaving the planet so there is that too. (I love Nobumoto-san for a lot more than just Bebop. This is not me being disrespectful, just kind of sad).

If you watch/read the interviews of the creators, there will be ambiguity and contradictory information galore. Watanabe may claim he did not intend any lessons for the viewer in the show and then have an episode in there with everyone talking about their own lessons. But those are lessons learned by the characters. Are they intended for the viewer? Sure. If you want them but you don’t have to take them and often it’s advisable you don’t because you’re also being shown a cautionary tale of what happens if you follow them…which by itself is a lesson.

I’m not saying everything said in interviews is nonsense. I’ve based some critical pieces on interview snippets but it comes down to seeing if what is being said actually resonates with what is being shown or not.

It doesn’t take itself very seriously

The series is always telling a story and critiquing itself for telling that particular story at the same time. It’s showing characters, glorifying them, building them up, and then ridiculing them, pulling them back down simultaneously. It is not just one thing and it will never be. It is an amalgam of multiple conflicting aspects in the same manner as none of its characters are just one thing. They are people in the story and also giant metaphors and lessons at the same time. Which is why you will often see them acting very differently and inconsistently across episodes and you need to fit complementary parts together to figure out who they really are and what the actual running story is, eliminating what is just metaphorical or humorous fluff added to drive a point. Factor all of it in while trying to understand them and you’ll end up with a giant mess.

Most shows are written by a team of writers but in Bebop’s case, the individual personalities and styles of different writers seem to have been allowed to reflect in what they wrote with just some basics loosely remaining consistent across episodes. Even when it comes to references or influences, they may be both intentional and unintentional, shaped by the experiences and contexts of individual writers. Similarly, lessons may be both intentional and unintentional, impacted by the lessons and values each one has picked up along their journeys and may vary widely.

Keiko Nobumoto has mentioned in interviews that as “Head Writer” of a team of nine writers, she mostly just ensured that the crew did not become too out of character or things were not inconsistent with the whole. Apart from this, writers were free to write as they liked and it does reflect in how different episodes written by different writers are.

Whatever happens, happens

This inconsistency is also why you will see me contradicting myself often across essays. And likely anyone else writing about it would run into the same trap. There are days when I talk about all of it being pointless and others where I’ve written multi-part series chalking out progression of story and characters. It’s because all of it is happening simultaneously, because that’s what holds true for that particular piece of the show in its context.Whatever I am talking about may have taken up a theme or piece of story never touched elsewhere and hence I’m talking in the confines of that alternate universe. It may also change basis the lens I’m talking from because there may be one thing going on from the perspective of storytelling while something else entirely from the perspective of philosophy or metaphor.

And that’s probably why works like this end up with people getting into very heated debates about their views on them. It’s like that situation with the dress some people see in one color and others see in another which drove the internet crazy….except it’s 20 dresses at-once and each can be seen in 25+ colors. And everyone wants to prove that only what they are seeing is the right one but it’s not quite as narrow as that. Even references in Bebop will rarely be a 100% copy or homage of something else. There may be two or three things mixed together to make one thing depicted in the show but they are done with such depth and breath and an understanding of human psychology and behaviour that it still ends up being a pretty good snapshot of the contemporary world, still relevant today after 20+ years.

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My Funny Valentine: The Character of Faye Valentine

Faye Valentine

I re-watched Bebop some time ago with a friend. It was their first time seeing it and I got quite a treat of vicariously getting the “first watch” experience through them. Sometime around Session 5 I told them experimentally that Faye Valentine was one of my favorite characters in the series and they looked at me as if I had spontaneously grown antennas. It was kind of expected so I enjoyed watching them proceed to fall in love with her character over the next few episodes the same way I did a bunch of years ago.

I could understand their reaction though. The first time Faye appears on screen and over the initial few episodes, she is very easy to despise. She is not what we are used to seeing in a “protagonist.” She wasn’t back then, and still isn’t. Her character is a foil to the other main lady of the show-Julia. Both are flawed women in their own rights with grey shades to them and redeeming qualities which make them all the more relatable. In many ways, both are similar and different and offset and complement each other’s qualities to help the viewer understand some aspects of them not clearly spoken about on the screen. However, while Julia is the kind of female protagonist we are very used to seeing on screen, Faye Valentine is another story entirely. Also, Faye acts in places to define Julia because she is one of the protagonists and we see a lot more of her, while Julia is more of a flitting presence.

The Feminism of Faye Valentine

I found it very interesting to read somewhere that the costume designer of the Live Action version expressed they were not comfortable putting a leading lady in the kind of clothes which Faye is seen wearing in the anime and hence modified the costume. While I totally respect Daniella Pineda for wearing what she is comfortable with and which allows her freedom to do stunts, the designer’s attitude kind of defined for me how ahead of its time Bebop was in showing Faye Valentine as a key protagonist, and also how much Netflix missed the heart of what made the show so good. Faye’s clothing is very much a part of who her character is, since it represents the truly desperate situation she is in. Her debts are a comment on the state of society she wakes up in, something not too far from the reality on our own planet, even now. She has no choice but to figure out a deception which will offer her a shot at survival and banking on her attractiveness to take people off guard is where she ends up. Bebop took stereotypes and played fast and loose with them, for no other character more than it did for Faye Valentine.

When we look at most mainstream films/television, straight cis women are usually depicted in one of two ways. What I like to call (due to lack of technical expertise) the “acceptable” woman and the “unacceptable” woman. The “acceptable” version is the typical “love interest” or common societal stereotype of how a woman should behave to be considered “respectable” and “desirable” to the men in the narrative (which modern feminism is working hard to break away from). Women we usually see on screen in protagonist roles are self-sacrificing, warm, demure, pleasant, sexually conservative, diffident, and often homely. They may not start off this way but in the context of their relationship with the male protagonist we generally see them transform into this. Think Trinity from The Matrix or Julia Roberts from ‘Notting Hill.’ As Neo’s love interest, we start seeing Trinity take a secondary role from where she starts off in the series. As a pregnant woman lying nondescript on a park bench with her partner, we see Julia’s character Anna move away from her powerful persona as an actress to a more “homely” role.

A woman can have a high-flying career or be a kick-ass fighter but there is still unfortunately a strange expectation to see these traits in her for her to be considered an acceptable protagonist and love interest, worthy of respect, “the kind of girl you can marry” if you please. Yes, we are moving away from these with more intelligent cinema being made but what the designer of Cowboy Bebop Live Action feels is still very much a real thing and widespread.

We still believe a girl dressed in scant clothing is “asking for it,” that she’s not “good enough” while a man would not be judged by similar standards. This is evident even in multiple writings about Faye, floating around on the internet, which talk about her being just eye candy or “not good enough” for Spike as a love interest because she seems promiscuous, flawed, or overtly sexual versus the “demure” Julia. I don’t give a rat’s tiny ass who dates whom in a piece of fiction but the misogyny of these views does disgust me no end. It’s a standard staple of rape culture and the policing of women’s bodies. What a woman wears should have no reflection on whether you respect her or not, or on her consent, on her suitability as a romantic partner. Several studies have shown that rape has nothing to do with the victim’s clothing but this dangerous perception persists even today, doing nothing but creating “boxes” to put women in and govern how to they choose to live and behave. Faye’s depiction is a subtle nod to this because if, after seeing her running up the slope to her home as a teen and then as a toddler, you are still viewing her as a “pin-up” to fantasize about, take a look at yourself again. Faye was written by a woman who gave even a caricature character like Honey in Space Dandy a certain measure of agency in the episode she wrote for the series and, while fanservice is definitely an unfortunate commercial reality and Faye bore the major brunt of it in the series, the sheer amount of poignant character development Faye is given points to her not being just a fanservice trope to its creators.

If a girl in a narrative is too loud, too assertive, too argumentative, too sexual then she does not fit into the “acceptable” image and hence becomes an “unacceptable feminine” stereotype…”the fun girl” whom you can disrespect, who can never be the “love interest.” The expectation from male characters is generally quite different. They are allowed to be moody, uncaring, in touch with their sexuality…the general “boys will be boys” narrative. He could sleep with a hundred women but he’s just a desirable man. She sleeps with a hundred men and she is automatically a slut.

Similarly, queer female characters are generally depicted devoid of their femininity…as we saw with the live action “Faye Valentine” who is turned over-the-top “butch.” It’s a caricature and not a rounded character representative of real, dynamic people.

Back in the 90s, or heck even today, a woman like Faye Valentine is usually shown on screen as a negative character, the vamp, or the villain’s moll. Protagonists and love interests are generally the modest ones, more quiet, demure. Even when they are not ‘covered up’ promiscuity rarely figures in their characters. Women who are overtly sexual are generally shown as villains or demented in some way in mainstream cinema, one classic example being Harley Quinn. Which is why I feel Faye Valentine as a main character was a concept way ahead of its time. Even Major Motoko Kusanagi was, for that matter, who is kick-ass in a whole other way, but whom I also place in the same category as Faye Valentine.

But in Faye’s case her sensual appearance is a part of who she is and not the only thing which defines her. The show makes it a point to show neither of the Bebop boys letching over her despite how she dresses because a woman can dress how she wants but it doesn’t mean you disrespect her that way. They never treat her like she is “asking for it.” They call her out on her brash personality but we never once see a leering glance or a comment disrespecting her character in a sexual context or on her choice of clothing. She’s a comrade, someone they care about, and count on. Not to say the show does not begin by setting her up as the stereotype of the “loose moral fibre” female character…but it slowly develops her from there till we begin to see her for who she really is. It’s not even the trope of the “hooker with a heart of gold” because Faye Valentine is just so much more than that.

Even when you see her on screen for the first time, it is quite easy to assume she is the bounty of the day and we will never see her again (if you’ve skipped Tank! every single time by then I guess). The viewer can also not be blamed for assuming that she may play, at best, a recurring villainous role in the show and hence is depicted in the opening credits. With my hang-ups from previous media, I was definitely not prepared for who she ends up becoming by the end of the series. This was back in the first decade of the 2000s and I am yet to see another female protagonist who has the deft sexuality, sheer charisma, emotional range, and multi-faceted nature of Faye Valentine. Even after she regains her memory, she is shown to retain all of this. We don’t see her suddenly begin dressing in long trench coats and dresses. There is no “Ugly Betty” transformation for Faye to present her as more desirable or a better romantic partner now.

The fact is, even if she has her memory back, her situation does not change. She is still on the run and she still needs to survive however she can. Her outfit is the deception she has created to take people off-guard, to survive in a lawless, extremely dangerous world, and she cannot just do away with it. So, Faye stays Faye, true to her musing in Mish Mash Blues that, while she understands the way she is might chase off all the “good” men, she believes the right person for her will accept her as she is. The persona of Faye we see during Bebop is also a moment frozen in time, an individual created out of the context of who she has been all her life, and how her persona grows from the last we see of her is anyone’s guess. With her past self returned to her, does she take up a more stable life, begins paying off her debts, or does she continue with the unstable life of a bounty hunter? I feel it’s the former or maybe a mix of both, since a personality change is hinted at by the scene where she ends up apologizing to Spike when she runs into him immediately after regaining her memory, but we really cannot tell.

Faye Valentine: The Rabbit in a Mecha Suit

When I think of Faye’s personality, I always get this image of a small creature like a rabbit maybe, dropped into a war zone. A rabbit is not suited for a war zone so the bunny takes up pieces of discarded armor lying around the battlefield and constructs a mismatched mecha suit for itself which it then pretends is its real self. It is very much aware that the suit of armor is not who it really is and is getting crushed by the weight of it but has no option except to lug it around. It wanders around and others on the battlefield challenge it thinking it’s a big warrior but it’s not. Still, our bunny is no ordinary bunny so it teaches itself to handle these fights which don’t come naturally to it. Maybe it doesn’t always handle them with finesse, maybe it stumbles or goofs up but it keeps at it and never lets anyone realize who it truly is. There is no hope of ever being able to be anything other than this suit of armor, of ever being a bunny again, so it learns to kill away that self and convinces itself this suit of armor is who it always was and always will be.

This is what makes Faye Valentine amazing and stand out against the other characters in the show. Metaphorically, she is very much a bunny in a mecha suit battling giants. She can’t ever afford to have anyone find out her soft, vulnerable side because if they do it will just be ammo against her, just like it was for the people who woke her up and swindled her, and likely for countless others she met post that. Her personality is a mish mash of people she may have met post waking up with no memory, people whom she saw surviving with as much desperation as her. We don’t know what her experiences were before she met the Bebop crew but safe to assume she did not run into a lot of great people and situations. The show intends us to understand how difficult survival would have been for a young girl with no skill relevant to the world she wakes up in and no memory of who she is, with nothing to her name and no one to turn to and a lot of people trying to take advantage of her. She probably saw women hustling men by using their sexuality so she picked that up. She ran into dangerous people and needed to know how to use a gun, to handle herself in combat, so she learns that somewhere. Somewhere else she learns to hustle in card games. She likely experiences very traumatic things which change her, make her let go of who she is currently and build up a personality to scare everyone off. She needs to be able to get away quickly so she manages to get a zip craft somehow and learns to pilot it well to the point that she can handle Spike in a dog fight. On the run, with nothing to her name, she learns these skills for basic survival. When we encounter Faye for the first time, she is an amalgam of disconnected parts, her defences so sky-high that it takes even the audience time to see past them, forget her crew mates.

But when you step back and look at what the story tells us, we are meant to realise the sheer scale of what she has managed to learn and adapt to in a period of just three years. We are supposed to understand how truly remarkable, extraordinary skilled, and intelligent this character is. If everyone in her current life started at zero, she started at negative 300 and bridged the gap with them in a fraction of the time it took them to get where they are. It is disguised by showing her acting like a bumbling fool, doing silly goof ups at times juxtaposed against Spike who handles the same situation with a bit more finesse (e.g. Pierrot Le Fou, Wild Horses etc.) but he’s been doing all that a lot longer than her. Ultimately, she earns her keep on the Bebop and even manages to outdo him at times (Cowboy Funk…I love how she socks Teddy Bomber). She was not supposed to be who she ended up becoming and is a fish out of water in the world she inhabits now. Spike, Julia, and Vicious are all Syndicate trained and at the top of their game there. Jet is an ex-cop. Elektra and Vincent are ex-military. The assortment of bounties we encounter are hardened criminals, born to this world. Faye is a college girl from a much softer era playing soldier in the midst of all of them and still very much holding her own.

The others have spent lifetimes developing their combat skills and personas, have grown up in dark worlds. Faye was never that. She spent her life as the sheltered daughter of a wealthy family, a girl who was supposed to become a doctor, or a scientist, even a socialite, or a high-profile wife. Even if she does not remember her past, this would be the baseline personality she would have woken up with in the new world, not the person we see on screen. But her privileged life is taken from her and she ends up in this world all alone. And that makes her so incredibly relatable. She bridges the gap between the viewer and the world we see. You imagine what it would be like being Spike or Jet or Julia but you know what it would be like being Faye.

Faye Valentine: Poster child for Loss of Innocence

That’s also what makes her new persona so initially heartbreaking for the viewer once we get to know her past. Faye’s story is a classic tale of loss of innocence. In her original life, she is the poster child for the “acceptable” feminine character. We see her shy, pleasant self. We see her as a little, happy kid, loved and cared for. In this world, Julia represents the “acceptable” female character while Faye has lost that side of herself. It shows us how much she has “fallen from grace” through no fault of her own…though I don’t consider her fallen and neither does the show. But it does build that struggle of hers against common perceptions through the contrast with Julia, how the world perceives her compared to the “ordinary” women who don’t act like her.

Even in the Bebop fandom, I often see people, especially guys, sticking to the ideal of Faye as an “unacceptable” romantic lead in the show simply because they may relate to Spike or look up to him as a character and for them she’s the one night stand girl, not the girl you build a life with. Bebop though was not created with that shallow a mindset and of course, after so much in-depth analysis, my conclusion is that Spike is not depicted as a character caught up by just the prima facie perceptions of her defence mechanism persona but sees deeper within it to come to truly love her. Considering the kind of background he himself comes from, I feel it would be easy for him to understand the kind of journey she would have had once he gets to know her true story. It’s the arc the show primarily builds by giving each an insight into the other’s true story which it does not give any other character in the narrative. I also find this whole vehement dismissal funny because if you listen to the lyrics of ‘See You Space Cowboy’ they actually cannot really fit on any character in the series except for her. In my book, it’s not about “shipping” (who came up with that juvenile term?) but about understanding something for what it truly is.

The character of Faye Valentine also has some very endearing contrasts to her. I feel we are supposed to assume certain aspects of her current personality run from a subconscious recall of who she actually used to be. She suffers from what seems to be dissociative amnesia and, something which can happen to an individual going through dissociation, is the creation of a persona their regular self would be horrified by. There is not a lot of information on this illness, even now unfortunately, but that is what I feel she was designed on, even if not from a medical perspective. The Faye we see on the Betamax tapes would probably be very shocked to meet the Faye we see during the show and that’s the contrast, and loss of innocence arc, which makes Faye’s story so heartbreaking for the viewer.

Faye Valentine: A Faux ‘Femme Fatale’

But she is often shown to operate from a mix of her original and current persona, even if not consciously. For instance, her “sexuality” is as repressed as it is on display, often in a very comical way. Have we ever seen a single scene with Faye where she flirts with a bounty, or someone who can help her with whatever mission she is on, and goes beyond just a bit of exaggerated posturing and few extremely fake lines of “flirting?” Have we ever seen her cross the line beyond words or a seductive pose and actually do anything physical with anyone? The answer is no. She gets someone to lower their guard for a bit through these antics before pulling a gun on them. Almost as if she is not truly comfortable with what she is doing and has to offset it by erasing every single non-platonic thought which may have crossed the man’s mind immediately through the fear of her gun. The kind of girl she grew up being would most likely not be ok doing things like that with random men so I feel, while Faye has learned that dressing up and speaking a certain way gives her an advantage with men, she can only take it so far before her base programming kicks in. In the situation with Vincent, he seems to have a sexual interest in her, deranged though it is, and she could have manipulated that but it’s not something she chooses to do, probably because this is a piece of armour she has put on but doesn’t quite know how to operate it the way it is usually done.

A narrative grows by both what it chooses to show but also by what it chooses not to show. Faye lives with two guys but we are never show her trying to use her appearance or body to her advantage with either of them. If anything, she meets them at their level, and expects to be treated seriously. Despite how she dresses, we never see her get treated as anything other than a comrade and she would probably shoot them if they tried anything. The guys also rely on her to get things done-we never see them treating her as fragile or someone who requires their protection and nor does she ever seek it. She may go around spouting lines about men and women and how they are different but she doesn’t really implement any of it.

There is also a conflict between the personality driven by her debt and the deception she has undergone and her true self. She repeats multiple time in the show how she mistrusts others. “Nothing good ever happened to me when I trusted others.” She feels untethered, vulnerable, alone and it drives her to behave very obnoxiously, doing things like eating Ein’s food, going off seeking high-paying bounties on her own leaving the boys behind, making fake promises to Ed etc. It’s because she does not trust them to not do the same to her as others did. She never tells them about her burden of debts or her backstory until Spike finds out about it by accident. The desperation of her debts makes her seek out high paying rewards while they assume she does it for greed. Till the end, she is not able to completely trust their intentions or feel a sense of belonging where she is. She keeps expecting to be abandoned and, in the end, her fear proves true as she is abandoned in the worst way possible, at-least apparently.

But this is again juxtaposed by her own warmth and concern, which she keeps a tight lid on but which we do see her slipping up with. Similar to everything else which is mismatching in her life, Faye’s own emotions have no place in the world she inhabits in. No one cares what she feels or who she is-she is just an attractive body to some, just a debtor to others, just a patient to swindle for her doctor and his posse. Even if she were to begin expressing her emotions, her circumstances do not allow it. There is no space for them. The guys she lives with have their own things going on and it’s not like their bonds are emotional ones. But we do see genuine warmth and concern slipping past her own defenses and showing through during the show. These are again all legacies of who she once was. If she had grown up in this world, living the way she does now, she would not be able to emote in the same way we see her doing.

There are many other things like this but one major aspect which I also feel has a subconscious aspect to this character, beyond the obvious one, is her compulsive gambling. From the perspective of psychology, addictive or compulsive behavior can be manifestations of PTSD which would be pretty obvious in her case. But I do like to think it runs a bit deeper. Her story essentially is a fairly fatalistic one if you believe in such a thing as fortune. She had extremely good luck for the first 20 years of her life, born into a very wealthy family, loved and cared for. Then one day her luck changes with the accident and she has pretty much had a six decade spell of bad luck. If one is to take an official reference from astrology, it can be said that the planets have ganged up together on a mission to kill this bitch for good or drive her insane at-least. Maybe she doesn’t remember her past consciously but a subconscious strain in her mind keeps giving her a sense that her luck was not always this bad. So Faye keeps gambling to sort of subconsciously keep checking in with the universe if her lost good luck is returning to her finally or not. As of the last check, it had not returned but there is always hope in the future.

Faye Valentine is a character you can hate and disrespect very easily if you see her from the perspective of toxic masculinity. You will assume her as just a pin-up, or fan service. But Bebop was never written or created from that perspective I feel. Yes we get the fan service shots of her, which were and still are an unfortunate reality but she was written with a lot more love than that. Her depiction was already “woke” twenty years ago and went beyond caricatures. Faye Valentine dresses up as a “pin-up” but this is the stereotype the show kind of demolishes over time.

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