He's got a special lure, too?
Since Best Wishes aired one Thursday evening in late September of 2010, the fandom at large has done two things (among a vast amount of others): compared Iris to every female before her and Cilan to Brock (but never Tracey, bless him). This is to be expected at the start of every cast switch, at least in the case of Iris. Since May's introduction, Ash Ketchum's female companions have been expected to take a bit of the limelight away from our dashing hero as she pursues a dream of spotlights and stage magic. The female companion was no longer a background drop in the story of Ash's journey to becoming a Pokémon Master, and she had to be as unique, driven, and story-focused as he was. Well, Iris nailed the 'unique' aspect on the head with Misty's old mallet, but appears to fall short of the rest. Little focus is given to her compared to her two other companions. Who does this sound like?
This sounds like Brock.
Has the fandom been looking at our latest group of travelers in the wrong way? Has the fandom gotten so used to a formula suddenly dropped on us on approximately nine years ago that we cannot fathom what the writers seem to be doing now? That the girl must get a ton of focus and the third wheel male co-star get little to none? Too used to this norm are older fans now using an outdated character template to compare the new cast, and perhaps, we should explore why it is time to stop thinking of Iris as the girl, and Cilan as the Brock.
Revisiting Kanto for a minute, some factors and similarities must be pointed out between Misty/Brock and Iris/Cilan. The obvious links are made: Cilan left his family to pursue a dream, and the same is for Brock. Iris didn't start following Ash because she liked him, though did gradually warm up to him, mirroring Misty. Cilan is much calmer than Iris and seemingly older than both, just like Brock. Iris has less of a grip on her emotions and roughly the same age as Ash, much like Misty. Ash learned Cilan was a Gym Leader soon after meeting him, though in this regard, Ash met Brock first as a Gym Leader before anything else. It all happened in the same episode, regardless of the family/Leader realization order. It took until reaching Cerulean City to learn Misty was a Gym Leader, seven episodes after her debut, while Iris' connection to the Gym Leader position is unknown at this stage. Since there is no telling if she is related or when it will be revealed, she still has her secrecy, much like Misty retained hers until they were at the Cerulean Gym's doorstep. Cilan cooks; so does Brock. Iris was the be a type-affinity master; so does Misty. Cue a good portion of the fandom screaming, "Expy!" We don't blame them.
But upon reverse, we discover that—even if it is minute—Misty shares something with Cilan and Iris with Brock. While Cilan might be the cook, Iris has the other half of Brock's specialty: Pokémon care. Grind up some Berries, and Iris does with herbal remedies what Brock does with store-bought items. She's the healer, responsible for the welfare of their parties and well versed in the art enough to do it correctly. Iris is no amateur playing doctor and she knows what to do in a pinch. This comes from her nature-oriented background. While not strictly an orphan of the jungle, Iris is pretty removed from social living (but not so far that she has never caught a movie or two), and the same can equally be said for Brock, who spent an unknown amount of time caring for his nine younger siblings, to the point that he is a mother hen with his friends. Imagine what social living he had the chance to experience, if he spends every second he can spare in scoring himself a pretty girlfriend as desperately as his attempts became over the course of the series.
In the case of Cilan and Misty, their link is a bit more over-the-head, if you get the idea. Fishing. Misty's connection to the sport is directly related to her goal: she aims to be a master Water-type Trainer, and more than half the Pokémon related to her goal can be caught on a hook, seeing as they are based on fish and other aquatic creatures. She even has her own lookalike lure, which she uses when she does find the time to cast her reel. Misty's fishing hobby can therefore be excused by her own dreams. Cilan, on the other hand, seems to be a fishing expert simply for the hell of it; time will tell if his special lookalike lure changes from time to time, like Misty's. If he had been Cress, no one would think twice on why he is so crazy about the activity, simply due to Cress having the "same" applicable elemental affinity that Misty does. However, for a fishing guru, Cilan is shown to own no Pokémon that would be caught by a fishing rod until he catches Stunfisk (who, we must point out, is the only fish Pokémon not part Water). On that note, the fandom argues Cilan meant to keep the Basculin he caught during his time in "Castelia City," but it is never stated that the catch could be rendered permanent once the tournament was done (had it been real to begin with). Regardless, Cilan's enthusiasm for fishing appears to have no basis except for the writers wanting to simply give Cilan more hobbies and dimension to his character, trying to do right where they faulted with Brock.
Wait, that sounds like May and Dawn, in lieu of their Coordinator journey; it (and they) just would not be interesting if the characters were not focused on outside these events, in attempt to give the audience a reason to care they are taking Ash's spotlight time. Or so the fandom has been programmed to believe. Focal points mean character depth, leading to the viewers appreciating the characters for at least contributing to the flow of the show, even if they are not liked.
Cilan also shares a passion that the girls (Misty included) do occasionally flaunt. They all get excited over their interests outside their main profession (Coordinator, Trainer, Connoisseur) and are generally the first (if not the ones to do the convincing) to enroll themselves in the "new activity" of the episode. His tendency to take the spotlight is further capitalized on his flashy nature, almost in replacement of the missing flashiness that abounded during Contests. Oh dear, May and Dawn again?
In the romantic sense, both Iris and Cilan have that bone in their bodies, much like the girls and Brock have. But so far, Cilan seems to respect "love" more than Iris does. But then again, he seems to have more of a problem with Iris' manners while engrossed in the subject, as seen in the Cottonee episode. Though between the two, Iris is more about giving advice that sounds a little strange, exaggerated, and unorthodox (something Brock excels at), while Cilan is mostly for supporting the endeavors that naturally transpire and any advice he does give straight out is sound (usually what comes from one of the female companions after Brock fails).
But this is where is begins to fall apart some. Cilan's goal to expand his Connoisseur knowledge by following the group is a passive profession, much like Brock's goal to be a top Breeder. Little battling is involved with either and is more hands-on work that is mainly practiced in specialized spaces. But Iris' goal is an active profession, that, much like Ash, involves needing active attention to the main focus of the series as a whole: battling and training with their partners. Some fraction of the fandom expresses dismay that despite aiming to be a Dragon Master, her only Dragon type wasn't even her first capture, nor does she seem particularly active in even getting her Axew up to snuff (eighteen episodes to master Dragon Rage and only two Pokémon the majority of the time? One she barely used on top of it all? Writers, what are you doing? Iris has nothing else to do). Though again to be fair, Dragon types are as scarce as Water types are abundant and are generally considered rare by default, given how only twenty of them are not legendary, compared to the fewer-species Ghost, which only has one known legendary Pokémon (ironically also part Dragon?). Whereas Misty could actively practice her skills in acquiring more Water types (when the writers felt to; see Totodile), Iris admittedly has chosen to become the least easily portrayed type Master one could be. On the bright side, Unova has more than one generational, non-legendary evolutionary line of dragons to showcase, unlike Kanto and Sinnoh with one, Hoenn with two, and Johto with the tack-on Kingdra. But as always, those Unova dragons are nowhere near the early and middle parts of the journey. Ganbare, Iris!
What it comes down to
The reason for Cilan being the second most prominent in the cast is currently at odds. Perhaps Cilan is getting all of the attention now so Iris can get all the attention in the second half of the series, as they get closer to Opelucid City, corresponding with Dragon-type locations being in the last fourth of the game. Perhaps the writers have changed their game plan and returned the focus back into the purely shounen genre, where the boys are first and the girls not so much. Perhaps they are simply cashing in on Cilan's not unexpected popularity, thank you ever-helpful Miyano Mamoru, sir. Or stepping into a more controversial set of boots, perhaps it is because he is the whiter character and "best" suited for international audiences, trying to do "right" what they did not capture with Tracey; it cannot be denied that fandom has forever argued what "race" Brock is (pegging him as an islander or plain "black," since he simply could not be "white," and the fandom continues to ignore that our perception of "race" cannot apply to a fictional world and compartmentalize away), and now to definitely have a more noticeably dark-skinned character (much more than Brock) technically taking the back seat, just like him? Hello, impressionable target audience!
Whatever the reason, it can be accepted: Cilan has had the most character exploration of any male companion Ash has had (Max included) in any of the 700 episodes before Best Wishes' premiere, and Cilan did it in only forty; Tracey could not—and did not—do it in thirty-one episodes. In reverse, Iris has had very few episodes of focus in comparison to Cilan's shine. And with this conclusion of ideas, if one thing has become clear in exploring this subject, it's this: the Pokémon anime cannot properly develop more than two human characters at a time. Fourteen year mystery, solved.