Spoiler warning: Major spoilers for the first season.
“What would happen if you loved someone? Loved them with all your heart like you never thought you could? But you realized one day that they would never ever feel that way for you?” – Henrietta, Gunslinger Girl episode 1.11 “Febbre Alta (High Fever)”.
From the moment a young girl, abandoned by society and left to die, is taken in by the Social Welfare Agency and given a new life, there is no other person more important in her life than her handler, an older male trained to make a weapon out of her. The brother to her sister, they form a fratello team that work together hand-in-hand to cut down anti-state activity and stop terrorist attacks while they are still just attempts, all in the cloak of secrecy lest the Italian people see who is really protecting their national security. Wait – an older man and a younger girl? Let’s discuss.
There is hardly any relationship more crucial in the Gunslinger Girl series than the one between a girl and her handler. Her handler, in essence, is there to train her and keep her on the straight and narrow so that she can become an efficient assassin without failure – and he is to keep her emotions in check to the point that they do not cross over into her assignments lest they stray her gun hand. Naturally, all handlers are human (unlike their young cyborg understudies) and some have internal conflict over these basic ideas. Thus, they do emotionally charged actions because they still see these girls as adolescent children; they buy their girls gifts and take them out for meals and form intimate relationships with them despite all the risk involved in doing so. Treating weapons as human beings – certainly nothing bad could come out of that? Well then.
In the Gunslinger Girl series, there are five major fratello teams, a girl and her handler: Henrietta and Jose, Rico and Jean, Triela and Hilshire, Claes and Raballo, Angelica and Marco. Each fratello is unique but they all are based on an emotional dependency that the young girls have on their handlers to keep them trained and keep them safe. Naturally, this dependency can evolve in their minds as something more, something verging on infatuation or idolization. When one of the girls don’t do their job correctly, they don’t feel like they’ve let themselves down – they feel like they’ve left their handlers down, and this to them is the ultimate letdown. These girls’ primary focus isn’t on pleasing the Agency; it is on pleasing their handler and showing that their training and conditioning has not led to nothing. It is this relationship between a young female killer and her older male trainer that this post will be examining up close – and whether or not these relationships are more than what a basic fratello is meant to be.
“When we got here, Jose took my weapons away. He said that normal girls don't carry them. I know that he's right. So are you. But am I....am I normal? I have strength, I can kill with my bare hands, I bleed red but the pain always goes away quickly. Sometimes I see things in my head that never even happened. I am a cyborg. I'll never be useful as anything else. To Jose, I'll never be a normal girl no matter – “
“No, you're wrong! He thinks the world of you. He wants you to smile and to enjoy everything that you can.” – Henrietta and Eleanora, Gunslinger Girl episode 1.11 “Febbre Alta (High Fever)”.
The crucial moment in which a fratello is formed is when the handler, before he is officially their handler, rescues the girl from her surroundings or retrieves her from a place based on a mutual agreement to save the girl’s life – most often than not, it is a situation like Henrietta when the girl is abandoned and near death and can’t possibly save herself (the only girl in the main fratellos to not fall into this category being Rico). At this point, the handler has saved her life and is seen as the man responsible for her new body, her new world inside the Agency, and therefore is her savior. This heavily colors the following stages of their relationship, as the girl feels like she owes her life to that handler and cannot fail him.
For Henrietta, Jose is the man who saved her from a horrific place – a place where her family was killed in front of her eyes and she was repeatedly assaulted by her family’s murderers. In her eyes, he treated her kindly – more kindly than she deserves – and gave her a second chance at life. All she wants to do is keep Jose’s favor and make him happy; she is fiercely protective of bringing his happiness and becomes jealous when he interacts with other women (including other Agency girls). This is one of the layers of her PTSD triggered from her experiences immediately post-rescue and it is one of the layers directly connected to her fratello relationship and her non-typical feelings toward her handler. There is no doubt in any viewer’s mind that Henrietta loves Jose, although she can’t find the exact words to put these emotions into clarity, but we cannot put the entirety of the reason of her love on their relationship and that Jose is a kind handler who treats her with respect and like a young girl.
Conditioning is what the Social Welfare Agency does to its young agents to keep them in top physical and mental shape; as the girls’ bodies are fully mechanical, they need regular maintenance as well as limb replacement to keep them. They also need conditioning to keep their link with their handlers strong; it makes the girls loyal to the other half of their fratello as well as more sensitive to their handler’s needs during a job. How does this conditioning affect girls like Henrietta, who are undoubtedly infatuated with their handlers? It is not clear how much of the infatuation comes from their actual real life relationship or the conditioning, which unconsciously makes them more faithful and concerned about the older man’s well-being. Of course, it doesn’t help that too much conditioning harms a girl’s physical state; Angelica’s memory loss and eventual hospitalization from over-conditioning proves this. Conditioning creates loyalty in these young girls but coupled with the fact that their handlers are to them their saviors and heroes, it can create a dangerous situation in which they are too loyal and overcome with their feelings for their handlers – to the point that people get hurt in the process.
“This is...where you gave me life...” – Elsa, Gunslinger Girl episode 1.11 “Febbre Alta (High Fever)”.
Several episodes of the first season of Gunslinger Girl are focused on the apparent murder of the fratello team Elsa and Lauro; the truth comes out, however, that Elsa killed Lauro and then herself when it became apparent that the handler would never return her feelings of love. She kills him in the very park where Lauro named her, something that all handlers do to remake their partners, because she believed that with her new name of Elsa, Lauro gave her life and gave her a reason to keep going. Their deaths and the consequences of them do not go unnoticed with the other fratellos; it causes Henrietta to cast doubt on her own relationship with Jose and whether Jose will ever see her as a normal girl or just a weapon in a skirt that needs to be trained. Elsa and Lauro are the example of a fratello gone horrible wrong, ending badly for everyone involved. Elsa’s conditioning and her unrelenting feelings for Lauro led her to the conclusion that neither could live so long as her feelings went unanswered. It could also be a worst case scenario for Henrietta’s own fratello in the near future if she were to ever realize she and Jose could not be together, especially since she essentially agreed with Elsa’s actions under the circumstances. In taking away their bodies and their independency, the Agency has pretty much assured that these girls will never have ‘normal’ romantic relationships during their shorted lifespan; ergo they will attach themselves to their male handlers in unhealthy ways.
It is ironic to the point of tragic that the Agency trains its youth female agents to use their appearance as a smokescreen for their activities and yet not allow them to live actual genuine adolescent experiences like falling in love. They are allowed hobbies and interests within the Agency’s control, but the only relationships they are allowed is the one with their fellow assassins and the one with their handler, the singular main male figure in their lives after joining the SWA. These older men are set up as role models for the young girls to turn them into weapons and are expected to treat them with only enough emotion to make them feel needed but not so much as to make them overly invested in anything beyond the success of a government job. Was it not only inevitable that some of these girls would fall in love with their personal handlers, to the point that it impairs their job and their new life at the Agency?
Now, are these relationships sexual at all? Is this series fetishizing young girls and violence? Would the label of ‘lolicon’ be an appropriate one for the Gunslinger Girl verse? That, my dear readers, is a subject for the next post.