Queerness in shojo manga: politics & representation

Queerness in shojo manga: politics & representation

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the presence of queer characters in shojo manga. From crossdressers to characters who are not so emotionally stable, it’s interesting to see the ways in which not only these characters are depicted but queerness itself. Although I could easily look to shonen-ai or yuri to examine gender roles and homosexuality, I would instead like to discuss queer characters in shojo series because they serve to queer heterosexual storylines. It’s also interesting to note that while a staple of shojo manga is the female crossdresser (dating all the way back to Princess Knight), very rarely are female ‘queer’ characters also homosexual, and thus for this reason I will be focusing primarily on male characters. In particular, I’m interested in looking at the politics and representation of two characters from two different popular shojo series: Nakao Senri from Hana-Kimi and Masao Kirishima from Mars.

One of several times Mizuki and Nakao dress as girls in Hana-Kimi (and Nakao is fine with it).

Near the beginning of Hana-Kimi, Nakao makes it clear that he is in love with another student at his all-male school: Minami Nanba, who is a resident advisor and ladies’ man. Along with being very protective of Nanba, Nakao also prides himself as being one of the prettiest males in the Osaka dorms. In discussing Nakao, the_patches wrote an interesting post about how important it is to consider how characters perceive their own gender and sexuality. This made me think of the ways in which Nakao reflects on his own gender: later on in the manga, Nakao says that he wishes he had been born female because he fell in love with a straight man. He also dresses up as a female several times throughout the series without complaint (although that’s par the course for Hana-Kimi), but he doesn’t do it regularly. However, at no other point does Nakao express any desire to be a woman nor does he show disgust at or deny being a male. Where things get complicated is in trying to figure out how he perceives his sexuality. While Nakao is open about being in love with Nanba, he never calls himself gay nor do any of the characters around him. I think a huge reason why it’s hard to pin down Nakao’s sexuality is because the author of Hana-Kimi, Hisaya Nakajo, categorically denies Nakao being gay because she mentions at one point that the only gay character in the series is Umeda. In some ways, this can be seen as a progressive representation of queerness, because by leaving the question of whether Nakao is gay or not open keeps him from being labeled. This is especially important because western society typically views any person who engages in homosexual activities or who has homosexual feelings as ‘gay,’ even though a person who has done these things may not perceive themselves to be gay. If anything, because Nakao is in love with Nanba but has never expressed interest in any other men, the most that can be said about his sexuality is that he’s ‘Nanba-sexual.’ However, I unfortuantely do not believe that Hisaya Nakajo left Nakao’s sexuality ambiguous in order to be progressive but rather to avoid controversy. There is a misconception that the Japanese are more accepting of homosexuality because of the popularity of yaoi and the presence of homosexual characters throughout anime and manga, but in reality homosexuality is seen as something that not only should be kept private but also rarely happens in Japan. To a slight degree, we can see that Nakajo had to contend with the problem of homophobia during the publication of the series when she mentions in volume two that many of her readers expressed that they would like Umeda’s character if only he weren’t gay. Ultimately, this suggests to me that she possibly held back from making Nakao ‘officially’ gay because the readers simply wouldn’t have liked it.

Except for the fact that both characters are exceedingly feminine, Senri Nakao and Masao Kirishima don’t have much in common. Although Masao often gets mistaken for a female he doesn’t like it, and when he admits his love for Rei, Mars’ main male protagonist, he gets coldly rejected. Other than Rei, we do not know if Masao has been attracted to any other males nor do we get a good idea of how Masao percieves his own sexuality. At first, Masao seems weak and shy, but over the course of the series Masao is shown to be the cruelest character in the series. Masao claims the reason he ‘loves’ Rei is because Rei attacked a group of guys who were beating Masao up, and he fell in love with Rei’s brutality at that moment. Masao’s obsession with violence becomes clear when we find out that he killed his bully without feeling any remorse, and later he tries to kill Kira, Rei’s girlfriend. At the very end of the series, after Masao stabs Rei (who lives), he claims he doesn’t remember it happening at all and is taken to a mental insitution. The combination of Masao’s queerness and his psychological problems is extremely problematic when we consider the fact that homosexuality was considered a mental illness in the western world up until the 1940s. And although homosexuality is no longer considered a mental disorder, the stigma of this relationship still persists in the media due to the stereotype of the depraved homosexual.

Overall, it’s interesting to see the limited roles in which queerness exists for males in shojo manga. Both of these characters, along with many other queer male characters that come to mind are effeminate, which is not true for many queer men in real life. And most of the queer and gay characters that I can think of have unfulfilled love lives: very rarely do we see queer characters in shojo manga in successful relationships, and if they are those relationships never take the spotlight. There are many areas to explore in the politics and representation of queer characters, and thus I’d like to return to the topic some time in the future.

10 thoughts on “Queerness in shojo manga: politics & representation

  1. Really great post. I love how you tackle all these important topics.🙂
    I also have to add that I read somewhere (I wish I could remember where but it was a few years ago) that even in yaoi the relationship between the two guys is often portrayed (or referred to by the mangaka in interviews) as these characters not being “gay” but rather just falling in love with this person who happens to also be male. I always thought that kind of weird, but looking back, it makes sense now.

    Also, yikes those are some really bad unforunate implications for Mars and it’s not the only manga where it happens. Osamu’s MW comes to mind as well (although most of Osamu’s earlier works are a product of their time so perhaps not the best example).

    1. Thanks! That happens in Gravitation too – it’s clearly stated that both Shuichi and Yuki are still attracted to women and have never been attracted to men before each other.

      No, I think using Osamu’s works is a great example, because it’s a point of reference for how far we (haven’t) come in terms of depictions of queerness.

    1. I would say that it’s just traditional Japan if it weren’t for the fact that the roles of gay men in American media are still very stereotypical (the gay best friend) and limited – just look at the ‘progressive’ show Modern Family. And the roles for lesbians are even more limited.

  2. Great post! I am loath to make any substantial commentary until I read the academic article you linked, but I really like how you contextualize queerness in the two manga.

    Oh! And thanks for the link!

    1. Thank you! I had never really considered how important it is to consider how characters’ view their own gender and sexuality, so I’m really glad I came across your post because I had been thinking a lot about queerness in shojo series (especially since many shojo do have queer characters).

  3. I always noticed how gay characters in manga seem to be accepted by the Japanese culture based on how often you see them in manga, but as you pointed out this isn’t the case at all. It’s sad really when the roles for gay men and lesbian women are so limited, stereotypical, or not addressed as gay by the mangaka themselves. It would be interesting if we had stronger queer characters depicted in manga, but it seems like that remains to be seen.

    1. Yes, there should be not only stronger representations of gay characters but a wider variety as well. In many cases, queer characters in anime and manga, although they may be major characters, tend to be somewhat isolated from the rest of the cast.

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