November 21, 2012

The pseudo-feminist shojo lead

Posted in Gender Roles, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 11:58 pm by starsamaria

If there’s one gripe that fans have with shojo manga, it’s the pervasiveness of weak female leads. Most readers are turned off by female protagonists who are romance-obsessed, average in looks and intelligence, and who have a tendency to be clumsy or cry a lot. In recent years, many shojo romance manga have made attempts to correct the trend of boy-crazy, passive heroines by replacing them with more assertive, independent females who have largely been embraced by the fandom. Characters such as Ouran High School Host Club‘s Haruhi and Maid-sama‘s Misaki are appreciated because of their no-nonsense attitudes, intelligence, and most of all, the fact that they are not interested in romance whatsoever. Yet, I seem to feel differently about these characters than most fans do. While characters like Haruhi and Misaki, along with Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun‘s Shizuku are considered strong female leads, they are actually more bothersome to me than their boy-crazy counterparts. One of the most common traits about this type of character is that they are often emotionally detached. Thus, not only is this the reason they’ve never had romantic feelings, but it also results in these female characters ‘going with the flow’ of their surroundings because they don’t care either way. Thus, their indifference leads them to be ‘swept off their feet’ by the guy who pursues them, rendering them passive despite their supposed ‘strength.’

Of course, boy-crazy shojo leads often end up being swept off their feet too – but since they’re interested in love and getting a boyfriend, it’s more problematic in my opinion when it happens to a ‘pseudo-feminist’ shojo lead because it’s practically against her will. But there are other problematic aspects of this type of character that disturb me even more. While so many people find the typical no-nonsense, ‘strong’ female character to be a refreshing change, I actually find these characters to be boring. I’ve written before about my problems with Haruhi’s character – that her blasé attitude toward the people and events around her made me indifferent to her character, and thus I ended up more interested in the male characters in the series just as I would have if she were a more stereotypical plain shojo lead. And while I wouldn’t call Maid-sama‘s Misaki ‘boring,’ she still somewhat annoys me because of the way the series stuffs the fact that Misaki is perfect at everything down the audience’s throats, resulting in Misaki’s strength feeling forced. Her misandry also makes her come across as ‘bitchy,’ which is bothersome because of media’s tendency to turn strong women into bitches.

And then there’s Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun‘s Shizuku. Shizuku’s probably the most extreme example of the independent shojo lead – she is only focused on studying, has no close friends, and has a brutually honest tongue. Many fans like Shizuku because she voices her honest opinions about the people around her. But something about Shizuku feels extremely robotic to me. While many fans admire the fact that Shizuku places so much importance in her schoolwork, it’s troublesome to me that when female characters are smart they are often social outcasts, as though it’s impossible for smart women to make friends on their own. Even after Shizuku tells Haru she loves him, I feel little of her emotional investment in Haru or her relationship with him. When she says that Haru has changed her world, I’m left unconvinced because Haru hadn’t been in Shizuku’s life for very long, and he had done little but be a nuisance towards her. I almost felt like she only said this line because the author ‘programmed’ her to; rather than out of genuine character development. And while fans admire Shizuku for standing up to Haru (such as when Haru tells her not to see his brother anymore and she tells him no), her motivations for doing so are left unclear, making her character feel undeveloped and unrealistic in my opinion. Thus, Shizuku’s lack of personal investment in anything leaves me uninterested in becoming invested in her.

Yet there are other harsh shojo leads in the vein of Shizuku who feel genuine, and have grabbed my attention. The best example is Maria from A Devil and Her Love Song, a beautiful and intelligent transfer student who has a tendency to call people out on the kind façades they put on. While Maria says things that are truly cutting (the first thing she says to her new classmates is that she got kicked out of her previous school for beating up a teacher), she feels like a fully-dimensional character because there are tinges of sorrow to her. No matter how indifferent or cruel Maria may appear to be on the surface, it’s made clear that she wants to have friends and dislikes herself. It’s clear that she is trying to become a better person by learning to love even the people who scorn her, which has endeared her to me. More than focusing on romance, Maria’s personal struggles are what’s most important so far in A Devil and Her Love Song, which sets her apart from Shizuku. Rather than treating her bluntness as a sign of strength, Maria’s callousness is both her greatest blessing and curse, which allows her to feel more well-rounded. And while I know that there will be many fans who disagree with me for arguing that ‘no-nonsense’ characters like Haruhi and Shizuku are dull or passive, I think it’s important to question why a female character who is isn’t interested in romance or who is ‘aggressive’ should automatically be labeled strong.

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35 Comments »

  1. John Samuel said,

    But something about Shizuku feels extremely robotic to me.
    I think you just put your finger on why I bounced off the first episode of Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun. Too alien, too hard to connect to.

    • starsamaria said,

      The only thing that has kept my interest in Tonari is Haru, but in terms of the relationship, with the exception of the scene in the first episode where Shizuku defends Haru, I have a hard time understanding why Haru thinks he loves her or why Shizuku feels like she wants to make Haru fall for her. A lot of that is because I feel like the pacing of the series is too fast for me to be convinced by the character development, though.

  2. Oh Maria is lovely! She’s kinda weird but she has her charms and definitely attracts attention as much or perhaps more than her ‘harem’.

    I can agree with Haruhi being dull- she was simply ok, but didn’t make me pay attention to her or feel overly attracted to her.

    Your general conclusion is absolutely right. I can’t forget Saiunkoku’s Shurei or Earl and Fairy’s Lydia or even Seirei no Moribito’s Balsa who are clever (and strong) women but somehow we can’t have them have emotional intelligence or romantic/sexual desires. Though all three of them make exceptional female leads, I feel kind of sad that they can’t put in words their worries of their heart and I come to a point where I pity the males interested in them…

    Why can’t we have more Matsutakas (Hataraki Man) or Yuris (Red river)?

    • starsamaria said,

      I love that someone who seems as ‘cold’ as Maria actually loves frilly cute things. It makes her character feel less cliched. It’s funny, because while Shurei certainly has a lot in common with this type of heroine she doesn’t bother me at all. Even though she can treat Ryuki with quite a bit of distance, I suppose I don’t mind Shurei because of the time period Saiunkoku takes place in; when women were not supposed to show their intelligence publicly.

      And Yuri from Red River is exactly who I thought of when I tried to come up with an intelligent shojo heroine who is also emotional and relatable! She’s such a great character…

  3. simpleek said,

    I haven’t actually thought of it that way when it comes to Haruhi of Ouran. I see the points you have made about her now, but I think it’s just a case of her being the heroine of a shojo manga where the supporting characters end up outshining the one a reader should be focusing on.

    I think I read a preview of “A Devil and Her Love Song.” I was intrigued by the premise, and Maria seemed to hint at a character who has the potential to be different from all the typical shojo heroines.

    • starsamaria said,

      I can see that. And a good argument as to why the male characters outshine Haruhi is simply the numbers – there are far more male characters for me to be interested in in Ouran.

      Oh yes, Maria is definitely a step away from the typical shojo gal. She’s not afraid to speak her mind unlike so many shy teenage girls in manga, yet there’s a sense of loneliness to her character. What I especially like about Maria is that she’s ‘perfect’ (pretty, smart, a good singer) without feeling perfect – she doesn’t feel like some role model who could only exist on paper the way I sometimes felt about Maid-sama‘s Misaki.

  4. soaringwings said,

    I respect your opinions and see where you are coming from, but I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree here. I don’t see Shizuku friendlessness as something bad because that’s going to be the vehicle for her change. If she was so blunt, smart, and popular, there just wouldn’t be anything to give her character growth and no personal struggle for her (and she would then really be boring). Her coming to term with friends/romance and school is going to be her main conflict (or so it seems with the introduction of Natsume in chapter 3). In fact, I don’t even consider Shizuku a strong character. I consider her a unique character. A breath of fresh air if you will. Like I mentioned to you last time, I can’t recall ever coming across a heroine in shoujo manga where her school work is her main trait/goal and it isn’t played as some bid at vanity (or gets shuffled off to the side like with Haruhi in Ouran). I agree on the Haru changing her world bit. That really felt forced. But I’ll take what I can get. Baby steps are better than nothing.

    Which bring me to Haruhi. Yeah, she’s pretty bland. I agree with you there. Perhaps the only thing saving Shizuku for me is how much she loves to study, which I can relate to and I’ve wanted to see in a shoujo heroine so long. But regardless, I still appreciated Haruhi because once again, I liked her wit. It was nice and different. Is she a strong female character? Nope. But, and here I think is our difference, I’ll take these small steps at attempts to show different heroines with different personalities over the same old demure or boy crazy lead over and over again. Variety is the spice of life and even if the characters aren’t that well developed or really great characters, I still appreciate them for showing a different kind of heroine. It adds to the idea that women aren’t all this type of personality or that type. Less homogeneity in shoujo heroines is a good thing onto itself, I think.

    As for the others you mentioned. I can’t really comment on them because I’m not familiar with the manga. :) But yeah, agree to disagree. I just wanted to leave my thoughts on why I think it’s still a good thing overall, versus just having boy crazy leads over and over again.

    • starsamaria said,

      I’m not saying Shizuku needs to be popular, but the fact that she’s so detached from everything makes me dislike her. And while a lot of people may see her bluntness as funny, something about her dry delivery just doesn’t appeal to me because it makes me feel like she has no personality. But I can certainly understand you liking Shizuku because you can relate to her since enjoys studying, especially since it’s not a characteristic you’ll find in most shojo heroines.

      “In fact, I don’t even consider Shizuku a strong character. I consider her a unique character.” I agree with this, and I think this is where I think a lot of people get confused. I see a lot of people say characters like Haruhi and Shizuku are ‘strong’ because unlike most shojo heroines they don’t care about love, but being unique doesn’t automatically make a female character strong. I appreciate some aspects of these characters (particularly their intelligence), and it’s certainly true that in some cases the depiction of these females is a step in the right direction.That being said, while I certainly agree that we need different types of shojo leading ladies, I don’t feel like Haruhi or Shizuku are the answer to the boy-crazy heroine – they’re just an extreme opposite, while in real-life many girls fall in-between each archetype. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a heroine who is emotionally detached – it’s the trend of this character type that’s bothering me. So yeah, variety is the spice of life, and that’s why I would like to see more shojo heroines who don’t fit into either archetype and hopefully feel more realistic. So while we may disagree about this type of character, I think we both want the same goals in terms of representing females in as many roles as possible.

      • soaringwings said,

        Maybe popular was the wrong word to use, but if Shizuku had friends, was smart, and had no real confidence issues (her bluntness), then she’d really have it all and there couldn’t really be any character arc. I mean, the trend is definitely problematic, but in Shizuku’s case, I think it is justified based on how the manga seems to be going. She is detached, but it seems like the manga is calling it her flaw based on the first 3 chapters I read and the end goal is a more emotionally mature Shizuku who can appreciate that there is more to life than just studying/ her goals. My hope here is that it will lead to a balance and not one being discarded for the other. If the latter happens, then Tonari will definitely play the trope straight, but at least for now, it has potential to subvert it in the end.

        Agreed here. We definitely need more in-between heroines. It really feels like either they are totally mushy about love, or totally against it, with very few exceptions. That said, I guess this trend doesn’t bother me as much because it is still very much dwarfed by the exact opposite trend (which when joined with moe just really makes it hard for me to read a manga with such a heroines). And, maybe I’m optimistic here, but I’m hoping once these heroines become more mainstream/accepted, perhaps slowly more authors will try yet another heroine to change up the “formula”. Because I do think the sudden surge in these kinds of leads is basically certain authors trying to distinguish their stories. Tonari’s catch phrase was something like “new revolutionary romance” and that immediately made me feel that the author set it up like this so to distinguish her story. (And maybe that’s why she is having trouble writing a believable Shizuku and romance). Ok, enough rambling from me~

  5. Hogart said,

    I was initially glad to see more diversity in shoujo leads, but to be blunt they’ve only made me less interested in shoujo anime and manga of late. The problem is that the stories still focus on the simplistic aspects of the character’s alleged romance, without tackling the person that much. They feel just as bland and lazily written to me; just make her a bitch who hates guys, and suddenly you’ve got the perfect melting ice queen! And don’t even get me started on how bland the two kinds of guys are in these shows (the asshole or the prince).

    Ultimately it would be nice to see shoujo anime try to tackle some of the issues of a girl like this in a less banal way. That’s what made Yukino so relatable in KareKano. The relationship had a purpose beyond softening the hard edges of the characters. It actually forced them to introspect and become better people. I know these are supposed to be wish-fulfillment anime/manga, but it would be nice to feel like the characters at least earned their wish for a change.

    • starsamaria said,

      Thanks so much for commenting! You’re right that oftentimes this character comes across as a loophole – having a closed-off heroine is an easy excuse to keep the main couple from getting together. But a lot of what influences my opinion of such characters is actually the guys they’re paired with – I think the reason Haruhi bothers me less than Shizuku or Misaki is because Tamaki is even more dense about love than Haruhi is (not to mention, his intentions toward her were not romantic – at least in the beginning)! And you’re certainly right that Yukino is one of the best examples of the intelligent-yet-asocial shojo lead – I understood her reasons for caring only about studying and she still has a hugely funny and over-the-top personality, both of which make her empathetic and keep her from feeling too perfect or like a robot.

      • Hogart said,

        Well, to be fair, Haruhi wasn’t a typical story. It had more to it than “young love”, and even if you want to argue that was its central premise, it certainly didn’t try to portray its characters as “humans”. Even Kyon, the “normal guy” was far from normal. The characters are so farcical that it’s less bothersome than in something like Kimi ni Todoke or Sukitte ii na yo, where the characters aren’t supposed to be weirdos in a weird story, but just kids discovering the ins and outs of young love.

        It seems to me that anime really struggle to come up with middle-ground girl characters, and either come up with weirdos you’re obviously supposed to love or hate, or “everykids” you’re supposed to project yourself onto (just like the boys). That’s why I find it refreshing when a character like Yukino comes around, where you can sort of hate and love her. It’s HER story, not YOUR (the “typical” teenage girl’s) story.

        Or, put another way, contrast Shizuku with, say, Chihaya in Chihayafuru. Both are plot devices for hokey romantic drama, but only one of them feels like a real girl to me, because it’s her story, not the story of any bookish girl who’s fallen for a jerk whose beauty only she can see.

    • starsamaria said,

      I think you’re thinking of Haruhi from Haruhi Suzumiya rather than Haruhi from Ouran.

      “It seems to me that anime really struggle to come up with middle-ground girl characters, and either come up with weirdos you’re obviously supposed to love or hate, or “everykids” you’re supposed to project yourself onto (just like the boys). That’s why I find it refreshing when a character like Yukino comes around, where you can sort of hate and love her. It’s HER story, not YOUR (the “typical” teenage girl’s) story.” This is so true. It’s sad that in anime and manga, the ‘average’ character we’re all supposed to relate to is typically dumb or dull. That’s not relatable, it’s offensive, which is why it’s great when characters are given actual personalities instead of fitting into archetypes (and they often end up feeling more relatable than their average counterparts because they’re so well-fleshed out).

      • Hogart said,

        You’re totally right, I was thinking of the wrong Haruhi. Serves me right for not skimming over the post again before commenting a second time :)

  6. Konata_01 said,

    I completely agree with you on Misaki. As of late, I’ve been annoyed with her (and many of the other characters of that manga), so I’ve essentially given up any emotional investment in it. As for Akuma to Love Song (sorry, I’m still used to using the Japanese title!), I actually wasn’t too fond of Maria at the start of the manga, but she really grew on me as the series progressed.

    I’m somewhat inclined to disagree with your point on Haruhi though. Haruhi is subdued and goes on with the flow because that’s the entire point of the manga – the guys are supposed to be way more flamboyant than her, and are supposed to carry the outlandishness of all of the situations. Basically, Haruhi’s characterization is the way it is in order to create this juxtaposition between Haruhi’s common sense and the host club’s craziness.

    In regards to Haruhi’s lack of interest in romance, I personally attribute it more to a lack of interest in the PEOPLE at Ouran. I think at the start, she finds them rather shallow, especially the girls that frequent the host club – they have the time to have fun and everything, but she’s the one who has to work the hardest to maintain her top spot or else she loses her scholarship, and her dream of becoming a lawyer. So I personally don’t think it’s the result of a deliberate character trait that turned out to be a flaw per se, I just think that’s how Haruhi’s seriousness manifested itself in the mind of the author. Also, at the end of the series, I think that Haruhi made that change and became a more active and involved character, so I don’t think it’s much of a flaw anymore.

    Sorry if this was a bit too TL;DR ^_^;;

    • starsamaria said,

      All of the characters in Maid-sama come across as extremely shallow, especially Misaki’s friends. I think the main reason a lot of fans don’t think this is because Usui appeals so much to most female fans of the series. As for Haruhi, I do agree with you that a lot of Haruhi’s more subdued personality is because she was meant to contrast the Host Club, and to some extent I can understand the appeal of her laid-back attitude. However, I think that aspect of her personality was taken a bit too far. And I do think you’re right that I ended up liking Haruhi a little bit more as the series progressed, even if she doesn’t stand out to me amongst other shojo leads.

  7. Yumeka said,

    Very interesting post and enlightening thoughts about Shizuku, Haruhi, and Misaki that I never thought about before. But I have to admit that I tend to like the “no nonsense” female leads than the “romance obsessed” ones. It really depends though…I could like either one depending on things like their character growth or entertainment value. But whenever I think of “strong” female characters, I rarely think of characters from shojo series. I think of women such as the two heroines from Noir or Balsa from Seirei no Moribito (and both series are basically romance-less). Maybe I just don’t analyze characters that much…like soaringwings above mentioned, “unique” characters and “strong” characters are different, and I like seeing both, or if they’re just plain old “entertaining” such as the humorous affect they have on the other characters (like Haruhi in Ouran). I think I’m more entertained by the romance in series like Kaibutsu-kun and Maid-sama because, even though I know the two leads are going to get together, it’s more unpredictable to me when one or both of them is in denial or stand off-ish. It’s just more interesting to me than when the characters are nice to each other all the time. I like seeing how a cold soul like Shizuku is melted, or the vulnerable side of an otherwise serious person like Haruhi, even if some things about the story are forced.

    • starsamaria said,

      I understand why people like these types of heroines more than dense/love-obsessed girls because they do typically make love stories more interesting. However, certain characters who are no-nonsense bother me (Shizuku) while others (Tsukushi in Hana Yori Dango) don’t. I think it’s because some of these girls have no other aspects to their personalities and thus feel flat. That’s interesting that you wouldn’t look to shojo to find strong female characters – a lot of people feel that way, and I think that’s a shame because even if girls don’t have the chance to physically kick butt in most shojo series (and even then there are exceptions), there are still plenty of intelligent and strong-willed females in shojo manga. Strength doesn’t always have to be physical.

  8. Julia said,

    And yet another reason why Hana Yori Dango is my favourite shojo manga. Tsukushi was never against romance, but she didn’t live for it either and remained her own person even when Domyoji practically offered to buy her the world. This is what I want my future daughter to read.

    • starsamaria said,

      So true. Hanadan made it clear that Tsukushi could (and would, if she needed to) live without Tsukasa – she just didn’t want to.

      • Marie said,

        Meanwhile in the Korean version of Hana Yori Dango, Jandi drowns herself into the pool cause she can’t live without Jun Pyo. Lol!

        // kidding aside…

        Awesome write-up yet again! I can’t exactly pinpoint before why I decided to drop Tonari No Kaibutsu-kun in the 5th chapter before. But your explanation made it clear for me ;) Somehow, they’re not really making much of an emotional sense to me and Shizuku’s character is too blah-ish for my taste. Anyway, doesn’t this seem like a crossover between Ao No Exorcist and Soul Eater? Shizuku is like Maka and Haru is like Rin–but that’s just me.

        I agree with you so much about Tsukushi btw. I cannot find any other heroines as emotionally strong as her. With or without Domyouji, it was shown many times in the manga that she can be a perfectly happy individual on her own. I just love her for that.

    • starsamaria said,

      Thanks for commenting, Marie! Jandi being significantly weaker than Tsukushi ever was in the manga is one of the reasons I’ve refused to watch the Korean drama (I have watched the Tawainese and Japanese dramas, though). I’ve always felt there was a nice balance to Tsukushi’s character by showing that she can function without Tsukasa, yet she wants to be with him and is committed to their relationship.

      And I definitely agree with you that Haru and Shizuku don’t make much emotional sense together – I don’t buy her feelings for him because things are progressing way too fast for me to believe her character development. But a lot of fans of the series seem to like it’s fast pace, since love confessions typically take forever in anime and manga. In Tonari‘s case, though, both confessions were more random than romantic, and I’ve had a hard time getting into either character or the main couple itself.

      • Marie said,

        That’s one of the things BOF didn’t manage to nail nor made an effort to understand. It focused so much on class issues rather than Tsukasa growing into a person whom Makino can love (which is the main point of the original story).

        I understand where you’re coming from. It’s important for me as well to care for the OTP not only as a couple but also as individuals. I became much more emotionally invested especially when it comes to Tsukushi and Tsukasa cause their character and pairing development are much more believable.

        Also, I am a bit bitter cause Tonari No Kaibitsu-kun and Say I Love You managed to snag an anime before Dengeki Daisy and Akuma to Love Song. Both of those series have developments that happened waaay too fast that it’s absurd. What’s your opinion about Mei btw? She’s like a cross between Shizuku and Maria which would make an OK character — but I don’t buy the romance in that animanga either =/

      • Marie said,

        * Korean BOF

  9. tsuruhami said,

    Misaki is tsundere. I don’t like how she’s blushing everytime Usui teasing her. Haruhi is okay. At first I like her but when the romance is introduced, she’s a bit…. too dense to realized it.

    Maria is pretty. I like when she’s wearing lolita clothes.

    • starsamaria said,

      Thanks for commenting! I normally don’t actively like or dislike female tsunderes (male tsunderes, on the other hand I usually really like), but Misaki being so hateful of guys makes me somewhat dislike her. Feminism doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) include misandry. And I agree – Maria’s character design is great.

      • Jorens Leong said,

        Misaki disgraces feminism. And calling Usui “perverted outer space human” is just stupid, immature and haughty. I also dislike the way he hates guys.

  10. Lolanda said,

    I feel lots of people dismiss shoujo because the main girl character is mostly nice so people label her “Mary sue”. But a girl character can be nice without having those sue like traits. Like Sakura Kinomoto for example people label her “Mary sue” but she is far from it sure she’s nice but she has temper that can fly off if pushed too far.

    • starsamaria said,

      Thanks for commenting! I definitely agree with you – it’s sad that female characters get dismissed simply because they’re interested in romance or are kind-hearted. So many people view strangth through a superficial lens when judging female characters (such as only looking at their physical strength or badass attitude) when in truth many of the characters dismissed as ‘mary sues,’ have more complex character development or other aspects of their personalities that show there’s more to them than just being kind and perfect.

  11. Jorens Leong said,

    Misaki’s traits are more like a spoiled brat. Her sister on the other hand was like an android that needs fuel tanks :P.

    • starsamaria said,

      Her sister was somewhat funny, though. I found her less annoying than Tonari‘s Shizuku, that’s for sure.

      • Jorens Leong said,

        funny eh, but for me she’s BORING. This is what I imagined so far. Don’t be mad ok.
        random guy #1: i’m sorry, we’re never meant for each other, you lack self esteem.
        random guy #2: you know what, i felt like i’m talking to a dead goat.
        random guy #3: am i speaking to my long dead grandma, i call it a quits
        random guy #4: man i’m outta here, you’re worst than yuki nagato
        random guy #5: you babe didn’t pass my clique, go away
        random guy #6: shucks it’s late and you don’t even lift an elbow.
        random guy #7: what a bore, i’d rather dig someone who’s very hyper.
        random guy #8: girl, stop being so bland, you might ruin this date.
        random guy #9: see you like never, i feel this date will never work out.

  12. [...] course, Shizuku isn’t exactly a perfect heroine either, that’s a given. Like Haru, she changes her feelings every two minutes, one minute claiming [...]

  13. yoo said,

    I kind of dislike Shizuku too I find her character to be annoyingly cold, supposedly incredibly smart but kinda dense about romance, not believable and not relatable, but that manga was addictive lol and I did liked Haru. I actually dont have a problem with the typical heroines, I tend to find them cute. The only heroines I dislike are the ones in smutty shojo. They’re all cutesy and rather personality less, and the ones that stand up to the guy are begging for sex two chapters later.

  14. […] to the bizarre sexism of this video. Kawaii culture, and images of the Japanese shojo, have both been questioned for their disturbing influences on Japanese and worldwide feminism. In shojo, gender stereotypes of women as weak, emotional and preoccupied with romance are […]


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