What is it with women and second place?

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.

"Maid Milk"

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.

Sound familiar?

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?

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16 thoughts on “What is it with women and second place?

  1. KizukuKanshi

    I nearly decided not to take the leap on this one purely because of the name. It sounded like the kind of petty and stupid that would be some kind of ecchi comedy. I’m glad I’m watching it though. I hadn’t seen those others you’d mentioned so this is a bit new to me. I don’t like the whole second place thing and I don’t really that in most situations, she ends up relying on him somehow, but there are at least places where she saves herself. I can respect that.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply that she was useless. We already see from the first episode how capable she is at doing multiple things.

      If we’re talking in terms of pure enjoyment, I like characters with a little attitude and spunk. It’s much more interesting than recent, sparkly shoujos like Kimi ni Todoke so far where the main girl has the personality of a potato.

      “But what a cute potato she is.”

      I just hate how the guy is always near perfect and somehow the girl has to measure up to him. There must be other ways to craft an interesting starting conflict.

      Reply
  2. Aorii

    It’s not really settling for second place, as much as looking for a guy who is at least as capable, preferably even more so, than oneself. The entire cultural perception that the male in the family should make more money (thus more capable to start with) is still going quite strong in Asian society after all.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      It’s not really settling for second place, as much as looking for a guy who is at least as capable, preferably even more so, than oneself.

      In a vacuum, that would be a noble goal… both people in a relationship pushing each other to be the best they can be. Except most guys do not look for a girl who is as good or better than them.

      You can look at it from the other side. As a guy watching these anime, it sets up unrealistic expectations of what romance is, i.e. you’re not good enough for her unless you are just as capable or better. A lot of these shoujo series ironically reinforces gender roles. Whereas the girl can become anything she wants, the guy has to be better or he’s not worth marrying. Whatever the dominant cultural perception is, it doesn’t make it right.

      Reply
      1. Aorii

        Shoujo manga is meant to be idealistic. If you connect anime directly with reality, one could be claiming that anime is promoting the idea that girls must be moe bishoujos if they even want a chance of getting their love <_<.

        Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          So the ideal is equal or second place to their men but never decisively better? That doesn’t sound very ideal at all. Obviously, there shouldn’t be any competition in love, but that’s my point. Why should it matter if a guy is not as successful or better if love conquers all? Why do we have to shoehorn “rival” into the love interest?

      2. 2DT

        I would blame it on a culture of commodified fantasy that sells the notion of being swept off one’s feet, which naturally implies some kind of superiority. It’s a global entertainment thing, and it applies to both women and men– I’m thinking of that lovely entry on Arakawa Under the Bridge you just wrote. :)

        Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          All this talk of rankings, superiority/inferiority, the need to “catch up…” they all just feels so inhuman. Life isn’t some RPG where “I’ve accomplished A, B, and C so you better accomplish X, Y, and Z if you want the time of my day.” I was relatively enjoying Maid-sama until the ending; the little speech just completely ruined the mood, whatever it was. We could say art imitates life, i.e. we all want someone as smart or capable of us, but can we also say art hasn’t influenced us down this path? How many young people push aside potential partners due to some culturally defined standard? Our significant others should simply be wonderful people.

  3. Yumeka

    Very interesting. I did notice the similarities between Kaichou wa Maid-sama! and Kare Kano (never seen Special A). I haven’t seen/read a ton of shoujo series, but I’ve seen just as many others that don’t use this kind of rivalry (Fruits Basket and Ouran come to mind, and in Itazurana Kiss, there’s another “perfect” guy but the girl isn’t intent on overcoming him). I’ve only seen it in stories written by female manga-ka for female readers – I think it’s different for stories written by female manga-ka for male readers, such as Kannagi and Inuyasha. There genre also has something to do with it too.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      Yeah, I certainly didn’t mean that every shoujo worked the same. Clearly, I’m no expert on shoujo anime. I’m afraid I’d have epilepsy from all the floating, sparkling pentagons, circles, et al if I watched every single one. It was just a common pattern I seemed to notice.

      Reply
  4. Pingback: The Second Place Heroine: Kaichou wa Maid-sama! | zanaikin | Major Arcana

  5. Sy

    Long thought process ahead..

    It is very interesting when you look at how actually common this is, in both shoujo manga and even in Western stories that are considered female wish fulfillment (Twilight would be the first example that comes to my head).

    The examples that you have used, I suppose, are much more explicit, since in these stories where there is a greater focus upon ranking. However, even in stories where the focus isn’t, either by narrative or by characterization, this ends up happening. Maybe it’s due to the fact that the shoujo manga is often from the heroine’s perspective, the male often comes off as being ‘better’ somehow, whether that be his popularity or skill set, whether that be physical (eg. better at sports) or emotional (eg. has better people interaction skills). Sometimes this is due to the fact that often the heroine herself is characterized as being nothing more than mediocre (so much so that this is now a stereotypical shoujo heroine) and so the bar isn’t set very high in the fist place. But, even when the manga-ka bothers to give the heroine talent this happens, because somehow whatever she has doesn’t matter as much (For example, look at Hikari, she’s supposed to be second in her school, right? One would think that people would be able to admire her intelligence on some scale – Nope, because she’s emotionally idiotic).

    When you look at it from the perspective of wish fulfillment, then there is a logic to it, but it always bothers me how the guy is never really ‘equal’, he’s always ‘better’. It also begs the question : for all the heroine’s desire to defeat/overtake the male, how many of them actually succeed?

    There are exceptions where the dynamic isn’t like this, of course, but I have to admit, they are rare indeed.

    As you say, stuff like this has the potential to reinforce gender roles, on both sides, since there is also a perception that a guy who wants to be with a girl who earns more money, smarter, etc, is emasculated.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      (Twilight’s a tricky case. This is a bit of a digression, but I think Twlight’s an interesting topic which unfortunately doesn’t typically merit time and space on an anime blog. On the surface, it does seem that (once again) the heroine is another normal woman and Edward is this super strong being who can read people’s minds (though he can’t read hers). I, however, have come across persuasive arguments to the contrary. I’m more or less paraphrasing one particular argument…

      The appeal in the movie is Bella’s ability to emotionally torment Edward. Bella is in fact the dominant character — she’s the one who subdues Edward — so Bella is the real monster here while Edward is merely a sissy hiding behind the facade of superhuman strength. Edward acts exactly like a psycho who’d undergone the Ludovico treatment, and the school is an aspect of his forcible civilization and self-punishment. He knows he’s a rapist and a killer, so he places himself in a life of bland drudgery, to prevent him from snapping. But compare his pathetic suburban lifestyle with that of the wild vampires who are truly free. The movie wants him to snap and so does Bella.

      The most important part of the movie is that Bella wants to be a vampire too – becoming, effectively, a female rapist. She already has the killer mentality, but not the physical strength. That’s why she can only, so far, dominate Edward using emotional manipulation and mind-games.

      Edward is ‘sexy’ because he’s non-threatening. And the reason he’s non-threatening, despite all his strength and repressed evil, is because Bella is even more evil – so evil that he’s a kitten by comparison. Anyone watching the movie would tell you Edward is ridiculous. He tries to scare her away by showing that he’s sparkly! The movie takes Bella’s POV, and she’s unimpressed. Just like we are. Bella is depicted as too smart to to see him as a threat, and actually eggs him on. She’s pushing him outside his comfort zone for her own gratification, and without much apparent concern for his psychological well-being. He’s like “oh, stay back, I’m so dark and I might ravish you. Please, let me escape into the woods where I can do you no harm.” and she’s like “haha yeah right.”

      Bella doesn’t need to stab dudes with phallic objects in order to win the day, which is, unfortunately, what leads people to call her character passive. And her capacity for ‘evil’ is remarkable when it comes to humanizing her character. Twilight doesn’t judge her transgressions; she’s just allowed to be flawed. The unreadable brain thing is what places her at an intellectual level above what Edward can understand. You get the impression that if Edward could read her thoughts about him, he’d get the hell out of there. This is just the logical extreme of Bella’s characterization as a jaded sociopath/genius while also hinting that she literally has a mental problem of some sort. Anyway, on to the rest of your comment…)

      On one level, you can blame lazy writing for the seemingly perfect male leads in shoujo manga. For any character to be worth our time, she has to have a character arc. She has to undergo a change in the story. It mimics our lives and our struggles. We also like rooting for the underdog. The girl can be smart, but if she starts out perfect, what is there left for her to do? So the simplest way to demonstrate this change in the shoujo is usually through an improvement in her character. This usually entails becoming smarter, more outgoing, etc. You can see in Kimi ni Todoke that Sawako goes from shy and introverted to… well, still shy, but now she can open herself up to close friends. I didn’t personally like the story, but others found it very relatable. Insofar as character development is concerned in a shoujo manga, the girl is the most important character so much of the attention is devoted to her.

      The shoujo manga, however, is not about the guy. While he is an important character, i.e. someone there to support the shoujo (or whatever wish fulfillment purpose you want to substitute here instead), his arc shouldn’t be as pronounced as the shoujo. Sometimes, he doesn’t even get to change. In that case, it’s just natural that he starts out perfect and remains perfect. The better stories, on other hand, will devote time to his character development alongside the shoujo.

      Where this seems to become problematic, in my opinion, is when comparisons are made between the female and male lead. I can understand making the male lead a perfect bishounen in terms of wish fulfillment. But why is it necessary to compare the two? Why does the heroine often have to point out that she’s not quite up to par (at least, initially)? Well, maybe that’s her character arc. It’s easy to be cynical and say that fiction imitates reality. It’s easy to think that in our patriarchal society, the belief that men should be superior to women or he’s worthless is almost hegemonic. On the other hand, however, you could take a much optimistic reading of the situation. Maybe for a lot of female readers, they can identify with someone who has the courage to try and keep up with (or perhaps surpass) males in a male-dominated society.

      I’m not sure if I’ve made any point in the end, but there’s my long thought process.

      Reply
  6. Sy

    Very interesting thoughts..

    Twilight is a topic worthy of discussion. It doesn’t surprise me that people do find some appeal in Bella’s ability to torment Edward. I find that, to be very reminiscent of the trope of women, being temptresses and seductresses (not always consciously, but you get the idea), inevitably lead to the destruction of men (eg. Adam and Eve, Helen of Troy, etc.), which in many cultural instances may account for female sexuality being feared or repressed.

    Not that this invalidates what you have said, but as for me, as a female reader of Twilight, what struck me most was this great sense of inadequacy on Bella’s part (as well as her constant purple prose descriptions of Edward, which to be honest, I found quite boring, I just don’t find him appealing). Even her desire to become a Vampire could be argued as part of that (at least in New Moon, it’s, at least partially based on her fear on growing older).

    Again, I think it’s worth talking about, I just haven’t become invested enough in the series to add much to add my two cents on the issue of whether Bella is passive or not, more than likely someone else can do a better job.

    I guess it’s just me, but whilst I do understand how a perfect lead will be boring, particularly when it comes to female leads, writers have yet to address this, at least properly (for example, look at Kim Possible, there was an episode where one of her fans said something along the lines of “oh, kim says the day? Yawn, but Ron does it, well, that is a big deal, because he’s the everydude, so him = hero’. I guess for me, the problem is that whenever the readers are expected to root for the female, it’s usually to gain the love of the love interest, and me who is not a romantic, find it difficult to root for since I can’t relate to it. Kimi ni Todoke is, I think, one of the better examples, but well, it isn’t my kind of story (I probably would have been more intrigued if one of her friends was the heroine in stead).

    Then there is the fact that I find that guys, in their stories, get to, well, do and be more things, they get to be sorcerers , pirates, master thieves, top martial artists (in short, heroes), and get to be amazing without the same fear of be being a boring character, at least that’s how it comes across to me

    Of course, personally speaking, the stories that I like/prefer typically don’t involve one large arc of improvement per se. Stories/movies like Sherlock Holmes, The brothers Grimm, Supernatural, are the ones that I like, and there is usually no fear of them being perceived as overpowered and thus boring (then again, that could be the case for male characters in general) Unfortunately, stories that possess female leads usually lack the same dynamic as the above.. there are a few female lead shows that I like.. Monsters vs Aliens being one of the most recent, though I am digressing.

    Whilst I do agree that the protagonist should be the heroine, I find that there is a large emphasis of the hero, often times more than what I believe is deserved if the female is going to be called a heroine in the first place. I do agree however, that there should be more shoujo should not have the heroine continually compare herself to the male lead I guess, for me, it just boils down to the fact that finding an awesome guy is not my wish fulfillment.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      Then there is the fact that I find that guys, in their stories, get to, well, do and be more things, they get to be sorcerers , pirates, master thieves, top martial artists (in short, heroes), and get to be amazing without the same fear of be being a boring character, at least that’s how it comes across to me

      That reminds me of an anecdote my girlfriend told me about her childhood. When she was growing up, she always wanted to be Batman or Superman but never Batgirl or Wonder Woman much to her dad’s amazement. She didn’t want to be Olive Oyl. She wanted to be Popeye. Even when there were female equivalent to these superheroes, the heroines just didn’t quite measure up. This is largely why some female superheroes feel more like pandering attempts rather than real living characters.

      there is usually no fear of them being perceived as overpowered and thus boring

      I think there still is. I was never a creative writing or film major, so you can take my analysis with a grain of salt, I guess, but here’s what I think. There’s just a crucial difference in these heroic stories. Instead of character arcs, we have plot arcs. In the back of our minds, we assume Sherlock Holmes is going to solve his latest mystery. The best writers are the ones that can then manipulate our expectations against us. What makes a good Sherlock Holmes mystery so fun to read is when it does go against our expectations. Holmes’s success is delayed and we are thus surprised. There is tension and we thus read on. Our memory is unreliable enough that we can root for icons like Superman in spite of the fact that we know (deep down) that he can’t fail.

      I wouldn’t, therefore, say that these characters aren’t afraid of perfection. If they were overpowered, they could still ruin the story. They only seem perfect because they are one-dimensional in characterization. Since we don’t follow these stories for the characters themselves, but rather for what happens around them, they can afford to be one-dimensionally perfect in character. If a Sherlock Holmes story was a slice-of-life romcom, we’d be bored out of our wits — his inert character compounds the problem that nothing is happening around him.

      (Plus, I think Sherlock Holmes wasn’t unbeatable. Didn’t Irene Adler always outwit him? I’m ignoring the mediocre movie.)

      For some reason, a lot of shoujo manga are slice-of-life in nature where relatively little happens event wise. For these stories to be interesting, we must then have a character arc (there are exceptions — comedies don’t really need good arcs or any at all). Why are shoujo manga so much more passive than shounen manga, where you’ll usually find grand, epic adventures? I think we just have a feedback loop. Dominant cultural perceptions dictate that girls are more passive than boys. As a result, the media markets to girls differently than boys. This in turns reinforces the dominant cultural perception.

      Reply
  7. Falseface

    At 23-years-old (female), Kare Kano is still one of my favorite shoujo manga (clicked with me more than “Special A” and “Maid-sama!” did), along with Fruits Basket. Read it while I was still in Junior High.

    Besides, if you have watched/read Kare Kano, there’s more to it than just “woman is second place to a man”.

    I think you’re being way too nit-picky. The female protagonist is still one of the top students at her school. They’re still young and some of them have made something of themselves (Yukino’s a doctor specializing in reconstructive surgery). That’s awesome!

    Reply

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