Let there be Shoujo

I’m (provisionally) back after a murderously long hiatus, and I figured I’d take some time to talk about something I actually enjoy rather than just trashing whatever’s hot at the moment (although K-On!!’s time is nigh, for sure). And what I like, after a long week, is to sit down in Barnes & Nobles with some horribly rich cafe food, a Diet Coke and the first generic Viz manga with ‘Shojo Beat’ written on the spine that catches my eye.

I’m not proud about this, because quite frankly these books are really bad. I don’t really feel the need to explain myself on that point. If you flip through Ultra Maniac and don’t realize that there are things, important things, that are deeply and objectively wrong with what you’re seeing, then you don’t deserve literacy. Give it up; turn in your library card so some poor inner-city kid can use it.

What’s appealing about them is that, like the big sourdough pretzel I always order to read them with, they are comfort food. Big chunks of tasty and easily-digestible manga where pretty much every character is either completely evil or completely good (or at least has flaws that only make them more appealing). Characterization is largely provided by generous application of screentone and sparkles. Every other scene abandons seriousness and breaks down into slapstick. Plot is optional. God, I could read them all day.

Of course, that doesn’t leave a lot of space for a trenchant analysis of any series in particular. Everything is so value-neutral in the shoujo world. Shit pretty much just rains down on the main character until some mysterious hotty sweeps her off her feet pretty much without rhyme or reason. But there are interesting themes to the narratives that stretch across the genre which I think are worth talking about.

For one, I’ve always been a little bit concerned about the role that “love” plays in these stories. It always — always — acts to subvert the will of the main character, pushing them ever closer to the guy they just can’t stand. In Hot Gimmick, Hatsumi is inevitably shoved towards Ryoki, who literally plans on enslaving her. He’s such a prick that he tried to blackmail her into sleeping with him. She’s always deciding that she’s really done with him, that he’s gone too far this time, but “love” convinces her to stay. In B.O.D.Y., my manga de jour for this morning’s bookstore brunch, Sakura meets a boy who is the opposite of her ideal: flippant and insincere in the extreme. He, however, actively uses her “love”, which is just a crush she can’t shake, to draw her closer to him. This “love” shit fucking sucks if you ask me! Does it always have to be the case that the “love” interest is also the guy the main character absolutely despises?

Of course, adversarial relationships make for better stories. Case in point: Kimi ni Todoke, where the main couple get along just fine and the whole thing is a snorefest. But it’s weird how “love” is so regularly working directly against the main character’s best interest, and more significantly, forcing her to submit to a will that’s not her own. In most cheesy Western romances, bad boys represent a kind of empowerment, allowing women to escape from boring, dead-end homemaker futures. But in shoujo manga, the apotheosis comes when the main character “accepts her feelings” and capitulates to the love interest. In stories written by girls, for girls, and about girls, why is the good end always giving in to the guys they hate?

I’ll be talking more about my trashy tastes more in the immediate future with posts on realms of the anime world too nerdy for E Minor to soil his hands with (spoilers: Touhou). Until then I’d honestly appreciate your thoughts on this subject. I don’t quite have the grasp of the wide world of romance manga to draw conclusions from my observations, so please feel free to comment!

10 thoughts on “Let there be Shoujo

  1. E Minor

    You could argue that no will is being subverted at all. You could say that it was the shoujo’s will all along to stay with the guy she so claims to hate.

    Reply
  2. 2DT

    I don’t think east and west are so different in principle. A shoujo heroine might keep going back to the bad boy, but I don’t think I can recall a shoujo romance series where the One True Pairing was achieved and the guy remained a perfect douchebag. Always, the girl’s plucky spirit and the power of her love softens him, or brings out the good parts that nobody else notices, or what-have-you. It’s like the American romcom trope where the bad boy is actually the best match for the girl, if she just opens her mind a little and gives him a chance.

    Which is rubbish, really. :)

    Reply
    1. The Fin Post author

      Hi 2DT! And yeah it’s all rubbish really, that’s the formulation I start from. But it is true that as often as not it’s the male lead who is coerced by his feelings into doing things he doesn’t want to. I gues it’s just ham-fisted plotting; the author knows she’s going to pair up the couple in the end regardless of their actual characters, “love” is just a lame plot device that fills in the gap between them where in real life an actual relationship would be.

      Hot Gimmick might be the most extreme example of the love interest being ‘softened’ by his relationship with the main character, honestly he’s so despicable to start with that I never would have believed he could be redeemed. They’re both so put-upon by their ridiculous relationship that by the point I read up to (volume 9ish) “love” seems like a zero-sum game. But “fate”, the other big villain of shoujo comics, keeps driving them together. It’s all so fatalistic; main characters never seem to make any choices, they’re just constantly reacting to the the latest plot twists. I wish I had the heart to proclaim a fatwa against Miki Aihara, but I just love her dumb books so much.

      Reply
  3. Anonymous

    “I’ve always been a little bit concerned about the role that “love” plays in these stories. It always — always — acts to subvert the will of the main character, pushing them ever closer to the guy they just can’t stand. ”

    Actually, it’s also common for stories aimed at the male audience (e.g. Good Ending, Kimi no Iru Machi etc.)

    Reply
  4. temperus

    Most shoujo tends to be wish-fulfillment for it’s audience, like shounen or anything else. Breaking out of it’s intended audience, it makes sense that it would seem “iffy”. But it’s fun to consider that if it really is wish-fulfillment, it gives some clues about it’s audience: they want to fall in love with a bishie that they can’t stand because he (or she) brings out their femininity in spite of their best efforts.

    Guys watching shoujo often view this as a mixed message (or a confusing one at best). And rightly so.. it’s an exaggerated kind of “romance” that we’re not used to seeing in real life and other entertainment mediums. But then at least it’s often more accessible than Harlequin romance or Sex and the City :)

    Reply
  5. KizukuKanshi

    Sometimes, it feels like the only way to make romance sub-plots different is to have one of the main leads die or something else extremely twisted. Otherwise, it seems like everything else is taken above throwing in magic which changes the genre.

    Reply
  6. Anonymous

    Not all shoujo manga is like that, though I’m sure the majority of it is, sadly (thanks, Sturgeon’s Law).

    Some less un-feminist shoujo romances I can think of are Cat Street, Matsuri Special, Koukou Debut, Otomen, and of course Ouran.

    Reply
  7. adaywithoutme

    I highly recommend Lovely Complex. Its very funny, and the main couple doesn’t start off with hating each other. They’re friends who kind of grate on each other’s nerves at times, so there is some tension there, but its never in the “I can’t stand you!” territory so seemingly common to shoujo. So it manages to avoid that junk but never devolves into Kimi ni Todoke nonconfrontationalism and niceness (fact: I loved the first parts of Kimi ni Todoke when Sawako is making friends, but then when it shifted more into romance, I just got so bored).

    Waltz in the White Dress by Chiho Saito is also pretty good, and it features a very bizarre notion – the lead girl ends up with the guy she actually is attracted to, not the guy she can’t get along with! Hooray!

    If I think of any others, I’ll comment back here again. I don’t read a hell of a lot of straight shoujo romance, though… I’m pretty addicted to BL and yuri.

    Reply
  8. Lemon Wedges

    And …what does Hellsing have to do with any of this? I have to agree with the article it’s self, though. I know stuff like Honey Hunt is sleazy, trashy, and degrading shit, but I read it any way, ’cause it’s MY kind of sleazy, trashy, degrading shit.

    Reply

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