RWBY: Unified Feminism and the Toxic Masculinity of Lone Heroes

By Calum Cooper

*Warning: This feature contains spoilers for RWBY*

Much of pop culture portrays heroism as the grand acts of lone individuals, singling out their bravery, even amongst their companions, as the pinnacle of masculinity. Think John McClane (Bruce Willis) or Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in “Predator” (1987). Even the mass crossover “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) ends with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) going out in a sacrificial blaze of glory that stands out from his fellow superheroes. Such portrayals can be read as reinforcing of toxic masculinity, as it suggests masculinity and strength are one in the same, while simultaneously making it exclusive. Since its debut in 2013, “RWBY” (pronounced ruby) has consistently rejected this idea of lone heroism in favour of shared courage, as its four female protagonists come together to challenge these ideas of heroic bravado.

Created by the late Monty Oum, “RWBY” is an anime-like fantasy show that takes inspiration from a range of fairy tales. Set in the world of Remnant, four girls are learning to become monster slayers, called Huntresses. Their names are Ruby Rose (Lindsay Jones), Weiss Schnee (Kara Eberle), Blake Belladonna (Arryn Zech) and Yang Xiao Long (Barbara Dunkelman), and together they are collectively known as Team RWBY.

However, at the end of volume 3, their school, Beacon Academy, is destroyed on the orders of an immortal witch named Salem (Jen Taylor). This thrusts the girls into premature adventures in which they work together with their allies to stop Salem achieving her ultimate goal of obtaining four magical relics. By volumes 7 and 8, this has brought them to the kingdom of Atlas, where its leader, General James Ironwood (Jason Rose), is adamant on stopping Salem whatever the cost.

In recent volumes, “RWBY”, along with rejecting the lone hero archetype, has attempted to dissect the underlying toxic masculinity behind it. The arcs of many characters, including the violent extremist Adam Taurus (Garrett Hunter) and even the Gandalf-esque mentor figure of Ozpin (Shannon McCormick), directly reflect the flaws in attempting to be the lone hero. But no one embodies this better than General Ironwood. A man who possesses all the qualities of being a typical lone hero, his endeavours to be such a figure eventually oppose the protagonists’ efforts, a choice that transforms him into one of the show’s most dangerous antagonists.

Oum’s desire was to create characters that we learn more about as time goes on, specifically in how they defy first impressions. This can be seen in all of Team RWBY – Ruby seems like an overeager child, but has a strength of conviction that most adults lack. Weiss radiates privilege but is in fact a victim of patriarchal elitism. Blake’s quiet demeanour is her way of attempting to bury a past she isn’t proud of, and Yang is a thrill seeker whose go-with-the-flow mentality masks years of abandonment issues.

Ironwood is no different. An allusion to the Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz”, who famously desired a heart, Ironwood emanates qualities commonly found in lone hero archetypes. He is good-natured, virtuous, and physically commanding. But he is also self-righteous, overly cautious, and values loyalty over cooperation. If the lone hero can be defined as a sole individual who possesses the valour that others lack, then it suggests a certain dominion over the masses; that one man can do what entire populations can’t. Ironwood demonstrates his steadfast belief in this interpretation through his lesser qualities. As the commander-in-chief of Atlas’s military, he takes his forces everywhere he goes, as if to show off his place in the hierarchy of strength while protecting others. In his first appearance, he indirectly highlights his faith in his own abilities by asking Beacon’s Headmaster, Ozpin, “do you honestly believe your children can win a war?”

“If the lone hero can be defined a sole individual who possesses the valour that others lack, then it suggests a certain dominion over the masses; that one man can do what entire populations can’t. Ironwood demonstrates his steadfast belief in this interpretation through his lesser qualities.”

True to Oum’s intent, this displays considerable nuance within Ironwood. While he definitely holds many typically heroic qualities, he also has an inflated, borderline supremacist, opinion of himself. There can only be one lone hero, and Ironwood already sees himself as the only person tough enough to make the necessary choices. Even the fact that large chunks of his body are made of metal can be read as a metaphor for how his need to be the peak of powerful consumes him.

But Ironwood’s self-aggrandising notion is violated in volume 3. Salem’s minions successfully destroy Beacon Academy, kill hundreds, and eradicate much of his forces with effortless ease. When we next see Ironwood, back in Atlas in volume 4, it is clear that he has been traumatised by these events. Yet, in an act commonly associated with toxic masculinity, he bottles this up. He closes his kingdom’s borders and introduces an embargo which increases the already significant socio-political divisions between the classes of his kingdom. When challenged on this, he doubles down on his self-righteousness by lamenting on how things would’ve been different if Ozpin had just listened to him.

This marks a clear escalation in Ironwood’s authoritarian tendencies. He is wallowing in terror after having his sense of bravado so resoundingly shattered. But acknowledging his fear would tarnish the image of might he has built for himself. His need to be the lone hero has inadequately prepared him for how to handle loss or defeat. As such, he has no choice but to sink deeper into the facade of singular strength and ultimate masculinity. Ironwood claims his actions are to protect the citizens of Atlas, and while there is some truth to this, his thought process is dominated by self-preservation, even if he won’t admit it to himself.

In direct contrast, Team RWBY, in the aftermath of the same trauma, have gone in a more feminist direction by choosing to be open. Gloria Steinem describes a feminist as someone who “recognises the equality and full humanity of women and men”. Team RWBY, despite coming from different walks of life, recognise the humanity in each other, and thus are able to be honest amongst themselves when confronting their fears. This act of feminism, or feminist unity, makes them stronger, generating a greater sense of companionship than ever before. Blake even declares as such in volume 6, stating “[Yang] is not protecting me and I’m not protecting her. We’re protecting each other”. Team RWBY embraces equality, and thus feminism, where Ironwood chooses lone heroism, and its inherently toxic connotations.

What makes this so tragic is that Ironwood is an empathetic character. He’s a human being who wishes to do good for others. But his need to fulfil the lone hero’s requirements influences his decision making, including how he handles his fear. “RWBY” often uses music to reflect the inner worlds of its characters. Ironwood gets the appropriately named song “Hero” all to himself. Lyrics such as “with zero reservation I would fly/ into the sun if that would keep our dream alive” suggests the brave, noble man Ironwood wishes to be. But, when listened to with Ironwood’s toxic lionisation of heroism in mind, lyrics such as “I am power/ I’m due process/ I will smite” take on newer, much more sinister dimensions.

In volume 7, Ironwood comes achingly close to rejecting lone heroism too. When Team RWBY finally arrive in Atlas, they initially keep the truth of Salem’s immortality from him, being understandably unsettled by the downward spiral of authoritarianism Ironwood seems to be on. But when they realise just how distressed he is, they recognise and successfully appeal to his humanity. They get him to open up, and subsequently begin telling him the truth now that they believe he can be trusted with it. Reassured at last, Ironwood starts to think about the bigger picture in earnest. He works together with his governmental peers, uses his military to protect his working class citizens, largely based in the city of Mantle, and single-handedly defeats one of Salem’s minions in the show’s coolest fight scene yet. Through openness and unity, Ironwood is at last becoming the hero he wants to be.

“Denying his emotions so he could become the lone hero, and consequently never learning from his fear, Ironwood’s story is not of a hero standing tall, but of a morally grey man becoming a villain.”

But the cycle of toxic masculinity does not easily break. Another of Salem’s minions breaks into Ironwood’s office, leaving behind the symbol of Salem’s power – a black queen chess piece. This simple action reminds Ironwood that he is vulnerable. Toxic masculinity does not accept vulnerability, and neither does Ironwood’s idea of lone heroism. As such, he relapses. He latches onto Team RWBY’s hesitancy with trusting him as proof of treachery. Worse, he becomes paranoid that he has exposed himself by listening to outside counsel. Thus, he abandons Mantle, and now desires to use his kingdom’s relic to elevate the capital city high into the sky. In other words, leave the bulk of his population behind to Salem’s wrath so he and the elite few can survive. It’s a delusional idea that cannot possibly work long term, but Ironwood’s saviour complex has fully taken hold. Now a ruthless dictator under the guise of heroism, he declares martial law, executes those who don’t show him absolute loyalty, and even threatens his own civilians with annihilation to get his way. He says he will sacrifice whatever it takes to stop Salem, and he means it.

Where the Tin Man’s story is about his search for a heart, Ironwood’s is about how he loses his heart to ego and fear. Yet his actions opposite those of Team RWBY’s prove precisely why these four are the protagonists and Ironwood, despite radiating lone hero qualities, is not. Team RWBY’s feminist belief in equality extends beyond themselves, towards those who they wish to save from Salem. Rather than subscribing to the cynical “you can’t always save everyone” ideal, Team RWBY believes that this possibility shouldn’t stop them from trying to.

Volume 8 displays the merits of these convictions opposite the fruitlessness of Ironwood’s. Despite everything against them, including disagreements amongst themselves, Team RWBY remain unified in wanting to save as many as possible. Even though they are all tired, afraid, and uncertain of what’s right, they still come together, treat each other as equals, and jointly face the terrifying possibility of failure. By remaining true to these feminist ideals, they save the vast majority of Atlas’s citizens from Salem, despite Ironwood’s self-preserving actions making already impossible choices infinitely harder. It is perhaps a pyrrhic victory, as Salem is able to acquire two of the four relics she desires, but their decision to face their fears for the sake of others makes it a victory nonetheless. As volume 8’s opening song declares, “sometimes it’s worth it all to risk the fall and fight for every life”.

Meanwhile, Ironwood’s rejection of equality in favour of lone heroism costs him dearly. His self-righteousness slowly but surely turns even his most obedient subordinates against him, leaving him alone, not as a hero but as another obstacle to the survival of others. By trading in his humanity to maintain the lone hero’s image of mettle, Ironwood succumbs to the toxic masculine ideals of strength. He becomes the worst version of himself.

It is a downfall that is all for naught. In volume 8’s final scene, Ironwood, having fully isolated everyone around him, witnesses Salem securing the relics and attempts to stop her. But Salem simply walks past him, not even acknowledging his presence. It is a brutal final nail in the coffin. To Ironwood, Salem was a horrifying force of darkness that only he could stop. But to Salem, Ironwood was just another man. If that is not the ultimate rebuttal to the lone hero, and the toxic masculinity that shapes the archetype, then nothing is.

The lone hero often stands above others, physically and morally, in order to do what is right. Ironwood wished to be that person, but his unwillingness to break away from the toxic masculinity of the archetype prevented him from becoming so. Denying his emotions so he could become the lone hero, and consequently never learning from his fear, Ironwood’s story is not of a hero standing tall, but of a morally grey man becoming a villain. In contrast, Team RWBY’s ability to be vulnerable, as well as their belief in the feminist ideals of equality, make them far more equipped to deal with the enormity of Salem’s power. It is selflessness and the ability to be courageous for the sake of, and alongside, others that determines one’s heroics, not the superiority of one’s might. Ironwood never appreciated this, and so he became the architect of his own downfall, destined to lie, figuratively and literally, among the ruins of his own actions.

“RWBY” has always been rough around the edges, but it has truly found its stride in recent years. It is action packed, musically euphoric, and far more thematically rich then it gets credit for. Volume 8 was the strongest that the show has ever been with its tight writing, breakneck pacing, and gripping suspense. With volume 9 set to take major inspiration from “Alice in Wonderland”, it will be interesting to see how it will further explore its feminist ideals of unity and equality. Whatever comes next, it will undoubtedly remain true to its late creator’s mantra and never stop moving forward.

RWBY Volume 9 airs on Crunchyroll weekly, beginning February 18th. The full show can be streamed on Rooster Teeth.


10 thoughts on “RWBY: Unified Feminism and the Toxic Masculinity of Lone Heroes

  1. Dude you watch the same show as everyone else??
    Ironwood was made to be a sacrificial pawn.
    He was a necessary flawed character that shows heroism is being willing to stand tall and help others.

    That’s the flaw of ironwood, the character not of masculinity.

    The notion of standing tall only works if everyone works together

    In Endgame Tony Couldn’t make the sacrifice if everyone ELSE hasn’t sacrificed something else along the way

    His sacrifice wasn’t more or less important unless You the writer believe it to be, no one else does.

    Please don’t speak for community making this article, if your just tryna make your thoughts be other people.

    Honestly I started reading this article fully then realized you were speaking from a flawed position. Where your trying to speak down on others.

    I think Both RWBY And Endgame deserve a better review then this.


    1. Thank you for your comment, but it’s safe to say that I don’t agree with most of this, and I especially don’t agree with the tone you’re taking. I will respond as best as I can, but this is the only time I’m going to do so as I’d rather not get sucked into what will likely end up being a pointless back and forth.

      You say that the notion of standing tall only works if everyone works together. Yes, you’re right. That’s the fundamental point of this article. I also agree with you that Ironwood was a necessary flawed character who showed that heroism is being willing to stand up for others. But, based on your comment, you seem to be under the impression that Ironwood represented doing what was right for others when in actuality he only did what was right for him, under the guise of helping others. He does think he’s doing good, but there’s a difference between doing good and doing good for bad reasons. His flaws, those being his ego and paranoia, prevent him from seeing that his wish to stand tall only works if everyone works together. He wasn’t “made” to be a sacrificial pawn. He was always a morally grey individual who believed in his own abilities above others, even as far back as volume 2. He never learned from his flawed idea, and thus set himself up for his own failure despite wanting to do what he thought was right. That’s what makes Ironwood such a compelling character. So when you ask did we watch the same show, based on your brief analysis, I’m not convinced we did either. As for you saying that Ironwood, the character defined by his sense of heroism and military might, is “not of masculinity” I honestly don’t even know what you’re trying to say with that.

      As for your claim that I’m trying to speak for the community and down on others – no I’m not. No review on Earth tries to speak for a community unless the author outright states as such. I can only speak for myself on anything that I review. To be honest though, given how appallingly behaved much of the community you’re alluding to is – from how they treat the cast, crew and others who just casually watch the show – I have no desire to speak for or be a part of this community. Forgive me, but it’s also rather rich of you to claim that I’m somehow talking down on others when you opened by asking if I watched the same show as “everyone else” as if you have some sort of authority or insight on what the majority thinks of a rather niche web series. Echo chambers such as subreddits do not possess such insight either.

      I’m all for constructive criticism, but, overall, you seem more upset that I took some kind of shot at Endgame despite me only using it as an example, and in no way stating whether the film is good or bad (I think it’s good by the way). It’s true that other characters made sacrifices in Endgame, but Tony’s is utilised as the grand gesture and standout moment of the film, something that would have only been emphasised further if the film had included some of its deleted scenes, such as Tony speaking to Morgan in the Soul Stone dimension or the other Avengers taking a knee in front of his body. I could have used a better example in hindsight, but it still gets across the point that even mass crossovers can rely on lone hero tropes, even subconsciously.

      You’re free to dislike this article – such is the blessing of subjective taste – but it is frustrating that your problems with the piece seem to be based on misreadings of its intentions – whether interpretative or wilful. The one thing we are in agreement on though is that RWBY and Endgame both deserve better reviews, because the media literacy around both of their supposed fanbases is as low as the sense of entitlement is high. That’s not to say that I possess any kind of higher authority on either of their merits or faults, but it would be nice to read the opinions of people that aren’t the ramblings of some spoilt, insecure consumer who feels like they’re personally owed something by the creative minds behind entertainment.

      Have a good day 🙂


    2. This article went into far more detail about Ironwood.
      Remember…he backstabbed Ozpin and went behind everyone’s back to use Penny as a secret weapon project in V3.
      Not to mention how Glynda called him out on Toxic Masculinity.
      God Bless, and have a great day.


      1. Haha it’s all good. These things happen. Thank you so much for your kind words. I’ve seen some of your own think pieces about the show on YouTube, and I think they’re excellent! Easily some of the best commentary about the show that I’ve come across. Keep it up! 😀


  2. Everything you said was 100% in line with what many of the fans are thinking.
    This was really well done, and I wish somebody made a video of this.
    This is a beautiful positivity video.
    Could we ask the community to make such a video of this article?


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