It's easy, given Gunslinger Girl's premise, to dismiss it as a fetishistic attempt at the "girls with guns" trope. In a near-future Italy, a shadow organization called the Social Welfare Agency recruits young girls to combat a rising trend in terrorism. The girls are given cyborg bodies and elite training and are then expected to carry out missions that any SWAT or SEAL team would be proud of. The official DVD releases proudly lean into the trope, with the box sets given such eyeroll-worthy titles as Gunslinger Girl Vol. 1; Little Girls, Big Guns.
The show itself transcends the girls and guns fixation by portraying the girls, their older male handlers, and their world as realistically as possible. This is a future that absolutely could happen as terrorist bombings and social unrest become more commonplace. While the show is ostensibly an espionage thriller with slight sci-fi elements, the way the show depicts its female characters tends heavily towards horror.
The Agency scours Europe for possible recruits, only choosing girls without real futures. The girls could be orphaned, or suffering from a terminal illness, or even caught in circumstances much worse. Triela is rescued during an investigation into the creation and distribution of snuff films. The girls are given robotically-enhanced bodies and advanced combat training by a group of older men. These men are mostly ex-cops and ex-military whose one goal is to mold their counterparts into living weapons. Yet the Agency encourages them to still behave like little girls. All the better to sneak around dangerous situations undetected. The disconnect is a horrific glimpse into how a male-dominated society treats young girls. They're necessary, but they're disposable. Their usefulness is only proven when experienced men mold them to their liking.
The male handlers ("fratello," or "brother" in Italian) are given carte blanche to train and treat their girls however they wish, and their relationship echoes what a patriarchal society expects out of young girls. Handler Jose regards his charge Henrietta like a surrogate sister, replacing the one he lost to a terrorist bombing. Jose dotes on her, and Henrietta responds to his kindness with the utmost loyalty and love.
As a newer member of the team, Henrietta has a tenuous hold over her pubescent feelings for Jose. Jealousy rises in her whenever she feels Jose is threatened. The first episode shows her snapping and nearly ruining a mission because she breaks character once she assumes Jose is in danger. Henrietta's anguish intensifies when Jose berates her for not following the mission as planned. She's not allowed to be emotional; she's meant to be professional, and yet Jose still treats her like a child. Henrietta confesses to the other girls that she does love Jose, but she's realistic in her expectations of any future with him. She knows it's one-sided, and yet she's still willing to continue their partnership because being with Jose is much better than being without him. How often does a young woman have to "settle" for their current circumstances?
Henrietta and Jose's partnership is shown in sharp contrast to the team of Elsa and her handler Lauro. Elsa becomes consumed with the idea that she adores a person who could never love her back. Her expectations of how she should be treated according to when she witnesses Henrietta and Jose together conflicts with her appalling reality. She is only a weapon in Lauro's eyes, and she will never be a whole person deserving and capable of love. That realization throws her out of her brainwashed, loyal state, and she murders Lauro before killing herself as well. All because of unrequited love. Girls are expected to be over-emotional and act on their feelings, often to the detriments of themselves and the objects of their affection.
One girl, Claes, loses her handler Raballo in a car accident and so becomes a guinea pig of sorts by the Agency. Claes relationship with Raballo was so powerful that the Agency believed she wouldn't be able to ally well with a new handler. In lieu of a regular partnership, she becomes a kind of melancholy ghost, haunting the girls' dormitory day after day while the others are out training or on missions. She understands that she lost her handler, but she can't quite remember her handler either. The reconditioning that the Agency gives all the girls removes any traumatic or intensely emotional memories, which would be a detriment to their always violent missions. So she has already forgotten most of her memories with Raballo. If a young woman can't be in a healthy relationship, she becomes a spinster, unable to recreate that first intense relationship. Despite her conscious lack of memories, Claes confesses to wanting to cry, all the time, but she physically can't.
"My heart is overflowing with tears, but they just won't come out of my eyes. At night when I'm asleep, they quietly spill out onto the pillow without my noticing."
When team member Triela undergoes surgery, one of the doctors in the operating room confesses surprise that she's shedding tears.
"The cyborg. It's crying."
"Just wipe them away," another surgeon answers. "Wipe off the tears, it's normal. They shed them in their sleep sometimes."
They are monsters, designed for one purpose. Although their bodies are screaming in fear and rage and anguish, the girls are discouraged from showing emotion.
Most Agency employees are, like the surgery team, unpleasantly matter-of-fact about their jobs. The only ones who do seem to care about the girls' emotional well-being are the female secret agents. These adult women feel compelled to help the girls navigate through their developing feelings. One female agent even tries to give some sensitive support to Henrietta's crush on Jose, but these interactions are frustratingly brief. The female agents are constantly reminded that the girls aren't "normal," and that it's a waste of time to help them work through their feelings. But women have to help each other because no one else will.
The girls interact with each other the way girls would and should. They gossip about each other's proclivities. They enjoy food and reading and gardening. They're appreciative of art and music. They're shown singing Beethoven's Ode to Joy, a work created to honor the treasured gift of all life on this planet. They eke out their own meaning outside of their existence as weapons. Despite the brainwashing, despite the handling, they embrace their own miserably short lives (cyborgs don't live very long) even as their bullets take lives away.
They have a kind of cruel agency. They're allowed to do whatever they please as long as they complete their missions well, a freedom bought with the blood of their victims, and it's the only way they can find meaning in their lives. Follow the rules. Follow their handlers. Follow what society tells you and you can do whatever you want with the rest of your time with your girlfriends.
Gunslinger Girl is more than an action-adventure featuring girls with guns. It's a melancholy rumination on the nature of existence, particularly of young female existence. When the world bleeds all around them, young women must take the time to support each other, to treasure friendships, and to contemplate a reality outside of being a cog in the machine.