I pondered this question during Misaki’s mini-speech to Usui on the rooftop of the school in the first episode of Kaichou wa Maid-sama. Here’s how it goes:
You were always running ahead of me with ease, even though I’m frantically running with all my breath. And then run facing backwards while calling out to me. I really hate losing, and it was so vexing losing to you that it pisses me off. But this time you were running forward and helped me out. Just you wait. I’ll definitely overtake you and it’ll be my turn to worry about you.
She’s in second place apparently. In fact, she relegates herself to the lower position when nothing in the first episode at all suggested that Usui was superior to her other than looking indifferently cool (probably because he avoids wearing the nasty combination of a lime-green blazer and yellow pants/skirt). But why? First, a little context.
Misaki’s a bright young girl, but she’s also hard-working and assertive. Despite already getting good grades and taking on the thankless role of student council president, she has to work part-time to help her family cope with a dire financial situation (a situation created absentee father; I bet he’ll return in a later episode for some tearful drama). There’s only one slight problem: she works at a maid cafe.
What’s wrong with a maid cafe? Well, Misaki is a little more than just assertive when she’s at school. She can be downright abrasive to her male classmates. Of course, they are often breaking the rules, harassing others, being slobs, etc. so sometimes a girl just has to raise her voice to get the job done. The maid dilemma becomes clear should her classmates ever find out that Misaki dresses up as a French maid and addresses her customers (presumably mostly male) as goshujin-sama. Her authority as student council president would obviously be in jeopardy. When Usui inevitably discovers her secret, Misaki frets over her reputation.
Yeah, I don’t blame you if you thought Kare Kano. In this anime, Yukino is a really smart and bright girl. Unfortunately, “she is knocked from her position at the top of the class by Soichiro Arima, a handsome young man” (Wikipedia). The coincidences don’t end here either; Yukino is apparently a slob at home despite her near-perfection image at school. Lo and behold, who should discover Yukino’s secret? Her male rival of course, threatening to destroy her precious and carefully crafted reputation.
Or maybe it reminded you of a lesser known comedy anime called S * A: Special A. It’s about a young girl Hikari who suffers her first defeat to Kei so she spends the rest of her young life striving to beat him in anything. That’s no hyperbole; the first episode features a ridiculous high jump competition.
All three stories mentioned were written by female mangaka. I just find this odd. Now I’m not saying that all three stories are the same. Special A is quite different from Kare Kano, and Maid-sama! will likely differ from the other two as well. The issue I take is how similar their premises (strong girl meets stronger boy, they compete, they fall in love, and thus competition no longer matters?) are. Of course, authors shouldn’t make their main characters Mary Sues, i.e. she’s perfect at everything and better than everyone. After all, people want a character arc or there wouldn’t be any drama to make the story worth following. But why should there always be a superior male rival? It strikes me as a self-imposed glass ceiling. At the very least, especially in Misaki’s case, it’s a bit of a self-defeating realization that the modern woman can do it all (good grades, Student Council, and a part-time job), but she’ll always be stuck in second place. (Un)Luckily, that boy is there to catch her, inferring that perhaps she can’t catch him in any other way but romantically.
You’ll probably say that I’m overreacting. Maybe. Maybe Misaki will overcome Usui later on, but so what? Whoever said that was the end game? Maybe there’s nothing more to the juxtaposition of a woman in power (a president!) and a subservient maid (with a master, no less) within the same character. Or maybe it says that deep down, no matter how liberated the 21st century woman can be, there’s a maid — a servant — in each and every one of them. The title itself (Maid-sama!) is an oxymoron, a contradiction of concepts. Or rather, is this the internal conflict — a fine line one must tread — existing within every modern woman if she wants to be considered successful?