Is Sword Art Online great, or is it the worst thing ever? That's the argument that's been going on in anime fandom since 2012. Of course, it's not really an argument, since the people who love it won't be dissuaded just because others are Negative Nancys, and the people who hate it seem to invest a surprisingly large portion of their identity in hating it. There's little dialogue, just "SAO is pretty awesome" and "SAO is awful and people who like it are dumb." Who's right?
Obviously, there's no objective way to measure whether the show is actually good or not. But I do think, despite the show's actual flaws, SAO's reputation has suffered a bit from bandwagon-jumping. It became a cool thing for otaku to hate, just like some people love hating Miley Cyrus because it makes them feel smarter than pop culture. A lot of the criticisms I've read of the show seem to be less about the actual show and more about proclaiming "I am a smart anime fan who doesn't like pandering crap and I think it's important that everyone know I'm smarter than this show."
You know what? With a second season looming, let's take a moment to actually talk about Sword Art Online-- which popular criticisms make sense, and which have perhaps been overstated or fabricated by people who have a strange desire to feel superior to it.
Obviously, at the end of the day, these are just my opinions on whether or not various criticisms of the show are justified. But whether you agree with my opinions here or not, sharing them comes from a desire to talk about the actual content of a show. This could just be me, but I think we tend to talk about what actually happens onscreen way less often than many fans think.
Criticism: It's just lame gamer wish-fulfillment.
Is it valid? No.
This is a criticism that has always baffled me. Wish fulfillment is a large part of the appeal of fiction in general; I can't be an Olympic athlete, or a powerful witch, or a stealthy ninja in reality, but fiction has allowed me to experience all of those things. Wish fulfillment is only bad when you consume such a steady diet of it that you miss out on the opportunity that fiction can provide to make you question yourself and grow as a person. The fact that some of the very best fiction can make us better people is wonderful, but do people really expect every single piece of fiction to achieve that lofty goal? Absolutely not, and pretending that you do is dishonest.
Now, what kind of wishes Sword Art Online seeks to fulfill, and whether it does so particularly well, are different, far more interesting questions. But when anyone says that SAO is bad just because it's "gamer wish-fulfillment," to be honest I pretty much stop listening to what they have to say. That makes zero sense.
Criticism: Kirito is a horrible Gary Stu/all the girls fall for him and it's dumb.
Is it valid? Partially.
I can get on board with this one because I don't think we ever see enough of Kirito's weaknesses to balance out his strengths: he's pretty much a genius at video games, as well as a kind, giving person, and those are some pretty major positives. We do get a sense that, at least before SAO started, he tended to stay by himself and didn't have many friends, but that's just a subtle implication; besides, being an introvert isn't a weakness. The closest we get to Kirito being knocked down a peg his when his little sister beats him at kendo, demonstrating that no matter how strong he is in-game, the real world is a different story.
However, this criticism is usually tied in with the "of course all the girls fall in love with him," criticism, which is...a little different. Usually, the complaint with male characters who have all the girls falling for them in animie is that the character does nothing to earn it; the girls just fall for him because it's in the script. In Kirito's case, he's extremely skilled at the game and actively uses his skills to help people weaker than him, men as well as women; in other words, the girls who like him have actual legit reasons for liking him. It's true that Kirito is perhaps too good, but the flipside of that is that the various girls who like him do so because he has positive qualities, not because he just happens to be the main character.
In other words: You can say that Kirito is too competent and noble and it strains credulity, or you can say that the girls on this show are dumb for liking him, but not both. The idea that the girls like a guy who is competent and also nice paints them as good judges of character, versus mindless objects who like a character for no apparent reason.
Criticism: The writing is predictable.
Is it valid? I call bullshit.
Again, this could just be me, but I think there's an epidemic of people claiming that certain plot twists are predictable long after they've already happened and most viewers didn't predict them at all. The show lays out its core concepts very clearly in episode 1: die in the game and you die in reality, players need to reach the top floor of the dungeon to beat the game and escape, etc. The fact that the game basically sets fire to these basic premises somewhere around episode 11 is not predictable. Who, based on episode one, would have predicted that the final boss fight would occur 30 floors earlier than it was supposed to, the game would be beaten prematurely, and the rest of the first season would be spent exploring a different game that doesn't even have perma-death? Whether you like the show or not, that's a subversion of the narrative we were led to believe we were getting early on, and it's a credit to the series that it mixed things up that way.
The lightning-fast pacing at the beginning also messes with our expectations; we expect to see the characters slowly acclimate to life in their new world. For better or for worse, the fact that the show basically fast forwards through that whole segment threw a lot of viewers for a loop.
That's not to say that aspects of the show aren't predictable; for example, the fact that Asuna gets kidnapped and Kirito has to fight his way through virtual hell to save her is as tried-and-true as plot devices come. However, to say that the entire show is predictable is willfully ignoring all the places where the show defies expectations. And speaking of Asuna....
Criticism: Asuna becomes a damsel in distress during the Fairy Dance arc.
Is it valid? Mostly.
It certainly feels like Asuna is a damsel in distress for the second half of the show. However, I believe the defining characteristic of the damsel-in-distress character type is that she cannot rescue herself, and instead must rely on the male character to rescue her. In Asuna's case, her actions are instrumental to her own rescue; if she hadn't broken out of her cell and gone exploring late in the show, Kirito wouldn't have gotten the card he needed to get to where she was and rescue her.
So, looking at what it means to be "damseled" technically, Asuna's case doesn't quite apply. That said, I don't really take issue with people calling her a damsel-in-distress when she spends half the show kept prisoner in a frickin' BIRD CAGE, being abused by Sugou. So while I think the show basically gets off on a technicality here (a damsel can't be a damsel if her actions are critically important to rescuing herself), I don't take much issue with this criticism. It would have been nice if there had been a different impetus for the characters to explore Alfheim Online than poor, kidnapped Asuna.
For me, this criticism provokes a larger question: Is it ever okay for a female character to be relegated to the DID role, now that we all supposedly know better? Or is the problem just that it happens waaaay too often? Interesting, but beyond the scope of this discussion I think.
Criticism: We don't get to know enough about the mechanics of the game(s).
Is it valid? Zzzzzzzzzzzzz
Honestly, this might be valid, but the fact that I just can't bring myself to care makes it hard to grapple with this criticism. I just don't care about the mechanics of fictional MMOs. Fortunately, if you really do care about that sort of thing, Log Horizon exists.
Criticism: Suguha falling for Kirito is toxic, awful siscon crap.
Is it valid? No.
This is probably the topic where I disagree with the haters most strongly. A story about blood-relations whose feelings for one another threaten to cross the line from familial love to romantic love isn't inherently bad. The problem with these stories, specifically how they typically are used in anime, is the objectification of the female characters. "Look, isn't your little sister hot, even though you're not supposed to think of her that way? And unlike other girls that you have to make an effort to interact with, your little sis is right there and already cares for you? It's so wrong, but heheheh it's so RIGHT INCEST IS WINCEST" *barf*
In the case of Suguha, we see pretty much the entire thing from her perspective, and her portrayal is a sympathetic one. Let's consider her situation here: she only finds out that Kirito isn't her "real" brother, but her cousin, during the period when he's lost in the world of SAO, and presumably in a perpetual coma. Right at the time when she's most inclined to see him with rose-colored glasses (absence makes the heart grow fonder), she realizes that their relationship is different than she thought it was. During that time, it's safe to think of "what might have been," since as far as she can tell, Kirito is lost and never coming back. At that time "Would I have liked him that way, if we didn't happen to be raised as brother and sister?" is a pretty natural question to ask.
Then Kirito comes back, and due to the harsh nature of life inside a death game, he's become much more mature and responsible than she remembers. Instead of her annoying older brother/cousin/whatever, he seems to come back as a man, and that confuses her further. Critically though, she doesn't WANT to be in love with her cousin; that's why she throws herself into Alfheim Online, where she's pleased when she starts to like a different guy. "Oh good," she thinks. "I'm not really in love with my cousin, I was just confused. I'm starting to really dig this cool guy I met online, who is totally not related to me at all!"
Then we see the utter devastation when she realizes that the guy she likes in-game is actually her cousin; now, she feels like fate itself is conspiring to make her love the person she's been trying so hard not to. And she can't just distance herself from him because he needs her gaming skill for his rescue mission: she wants nothing more than to bury her face in a pillow and hide from the world, but she has to deal because it's the right thing to do. But still, there's a selfish, jealous little part of her that doesn't want to rescue Asuna, and she realizes that's sick and she hates herself for it-- perhaps too much.
That is a fairly nuanced, sympathetic portrayal of someone falling in love with a blood relation due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, which is entirely different from the "I love you, Oni-chan!," fetishism that we see all too often in anime. You can't say that it's the same as the shallow siscon bullshit that's going around, because it's not; it's just not. It is structurally different, and the major problem with the siscon trend-- objectification of the female-- does not occur. We get to know Suguha entirely too well for that.
Are there some viewers who objectify Suguha and think her crush on Kirito is super-hot because they're related and it's "wrong"? Sure, but there are also viewers who love drawing Sailor Moon and Goku having sex; you can't go by what "some viewers" think. In this case, the fetishism happens on a meta level and isn't really present in the show itself.
Criticism: Suguo is a comically evil, over-the-top villain and therefore unrealistic/stupid.
Is it valid? Partially.
I give this one partial credit because Sugou's introductory scene in Asuna's hospital room, where he basically says to Kirito "Bwah hah hah she's MINE you can't have her!" is pure, General Hospital-level soap opera nonsense. Even if I don't have a problem believing that Sugou is that big an asshole, the whole thing is too on-the-nose and ends up just feeling embarrassing.
As to Sugou's actions within Alfheim Online though, I have no issues. You mean, a guy, given great power within a virtual environment, uses his status to abuse women and generally act like a dick? Wow, that never happens in reality!-- if by "never" you mean "constantly," and/or "every single day."
Sugou's actions within Alfheim Online may be despicable, but I don't see how you can call them unrealistic. Every day, a woman logs on to some game, a dude sees her username and types abuse, starting with "R u really a chick? B1tch go make me a sandwich," and it only gets worse from there. The fact that Sugou is not believable as a villain because he's too big an asshole inside the game world is downright ridiculous to me. How can his actions not be believable, if the actions of lord knows how many real people are comparable on a daily basis?
Would the show be better overall if Sugou was a more subtle villain who didn't take every opportunity to be an absolute douche? Maybe, but keep in mind, as a show about online interactions, demonstrating The Greater Internet Dickwad Theory is definitely in SAO's purview. He may not be a great character who's going to make anyone's "Top Villains We Hate to Love and Love to Hate" list, but he's a villain that makes perfect sense within the context of SAO's world.
In the end, while it's clear I at least partially agree with some of the most common complaints about the show, I think the haters are wrong; too many of what are supposed to be the most damning criticisms of the show fall apart under scrutiny of the actual show, versus a biased idea of what the show maybe, kind-of-sort-of is.
Did I miss any major criticisms of SAO here? If so, let me know in the comments, where I will do my best to respond to them. Of course, if you want to use the comments just to say that I am a super-dumb person from 100 Dumb Street, Dumbsville for defending SAO in the slightest, you are also welcome to do so.