Rivalry and female relationships in shojo manga

Rivalry and female relationships in shojo manga

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the presence of rival female characters in shojo manga. In most shojo series, the protagonist is envied or outright bullied by another female. While this may ring true for many teenage girls in real life, in manga the cruelty these female antagonists display sends a particularly bad message about women in general. Not only do such characters suggest that women are typically catty or downright vicious, but that there are no positive, loving relationships between women. The latter is especially true because often in shojo manga the only other prominent female character besides the protagonist is her rival, which is probably why I appreciate female friendships in shojo manga when they do show up. Many shojo series present female fantasies – like having the most popular guy in school fall for an average girl – and it’s sad that the only role other females can play in these fantasies is that of the antagonist. Furthermore, the female rival is almost always more beautiful and ‘perfect’ than the protagonist is, which sends the unfortunate message that women can’t be both beautiful and kind, and that women who are popular or desired by men are deserving of being hated. Funnily enough, several other bloggers have also been pondering the presence of the female rival, so I thought I’d share my thoughts of a few of the best, worst, and downright ugliest female rivals in shojo manga.

Mika Ito (Absolute Boyfriend)

At the beginning of Absolute Boyfriend, Mika is Riiko’s popular best friend who helps her whenever she gets rejected by a guy. But not long after Riiko begins dating Night, a robot who is programmed to be the best lover, Mika reveals that she stole all the guys who Riiko liked and plans to do the same with Night. Riiko is devastated to find out that Mika was only pretending to be her friend to make herself look better (since Riiko is ‘plain’), and when Night fails to fall for Mika’s seductions, she is rarely heard from or seen again. Mika is a pretty standard female rival because the main reason she is jealous of Riiko revolves around a man. Furthermore, Mika isn’t given any real personality – the most important function of her character is to create drama between Riiko and Night, the ‘more important’ romantic relationship. By having Mika try to steal her ‘best friend’s’ boyfriend, Absolute Boyfriend implicitly sends the message that not only are females not to be trusted, but that they are only obstacles in getting the attention of men (and that men are the only ‘goals’ females seek to attain).

Harumi Sugihara (Mars)

When bad boy Rei Kashino and quiet artist Kira Aso start falling for each other at the beginning of Mars, Rei’s former fling Harumi is none too pleased.  Harumi’s jealousy becomes so intense that she and a group of girls decide to kidnap Kira so she’ll break up with Rei, or else they’ll break her fingers. Kira refuses, but at the last second Harumi decides not to do it. Rei threatens Harumi not to come near Kira again, and not long after Kira becomes friends with Harumi. While the friendship between Kira and Harumi is highly unrealistic, because Harumi is the only other female character who is in the manga from beginning to end, we see no alternatives to female relationships, which is highly problematic. Although Harumi’s violent threats were treated as horrible, having her attempt to physically harm Kira suggests that females become completely irrational over men – and this notion is somewhat ‘normalized’ because Kira completely forgives her Harumi for her vindictiveness without ever addressing the issue.

Sae Kashiwagi (Peach Girl)

No list of female rivals would be complete without Sae. At the beginning of Peach Girl, Sae is Momo’s ‘best friend,’ with a tendency to gossip and copy Momo’s fashion sense. But when Sae finds out Momo has a crush on Toji, a classmate from middle school, Sae does anything and everything to steal him away. When Toji ends up in the hospital, Sae convinces her entire class not to tell Momo that he’s sick so she can visit him by herself (and so he can think Momo doesn’t care about him since she hadn’t visited him). Momo and Toji do break up temporarily, but before long they are back together and Sae ends up scheming again. She decides to trick Momo by slipping something in her drink, after which Momo wakes up in a hotel with a model who Sae is manipulating. Sae takes blackmail photos and uses them to get Toji to go out with her, which he miserably agrees to do. Once again, Peach Girl presents female rivals whose relationship only revolves around men, but what’s interesting is that Sae isn’t even in love with Toji. Sae sends the message that females are obsessed with getting a guy – any guy – as a sign of their superiority over other females. Sae is considered the ultimate bitch is shojo manga – she has no redeeming qualities and the audience is made to hate her, which is unfortunately the fate of many female characters in the media. Sae’s machinations also imply that women are incredibly shallow – not only is Sae obsessed with taking down Momo, but in being fawned over (she even briefly becomes a model to attain this goal). Thus, Peach Girl sends the message that the only role women serve in each others’ lives is to make each other miserable.

Ume Kurumizawa (Kimi ni Todoke)

Not long after realizing her own feelings for her popular classmate Kazehaya, Sawako soon discovers that another girl likes him: Kurumi. Kurumi notices before anyone else does how Kazehaya looks at Sawako, and she asks Sawako to give up on him. Sawako refuses, but surprisingly the two develop a sort-of friendship. Since both love Kazehaya they end up talking about their crushes, and when Sawako and Kazehaya finally start dating each other both she and the audience can’t help but feel sorry for Kurumi. Because Kurumi isn’t outright cruel in her treatment of Sawako the way many other female rivals are, she comes across as sympathetic, especially since her feelings for Kazehaya were genuine. Furthermore, because Kimi ni Todoke highlights the friendship between Sawako, Yano, and Chizu, there is a range of female interactions and personalities that are presented beyond Kurumi’s character. Thus, although Kurumi and Sawako’s relationship is initiated by their common interest of a man, Kimi ni Todoke takes a step in the right direction by fleshing out the female rival.

Maho Izawa (His and Her Circumstances)

His and Her Circumstances‘ protagonist Yukino is the smartest and most popular girl in school, to the envy of her classmate Maho. Like Yukino, Maho has always been the center of attention and loves being praised, and she convinces the other girls in her class to start ignoring Yukino so she can reclaim her throne. Her plan fails, however, and soon Yukino helps her realize that there’s more to life than being number one – like having good friends. One thing I appreciate is that Maho’s rivalry with Yukino is not about men at all. While her reasons for hating Yukino (or actually, loving, since she wishes to be like Yukino) are still superficial, His and Her Circumstances at least shows how important it is to have close female friends by showing that Yukino was missing something from her life without them. And unlike other female rivals who try to bring each other down, once Maho becomes friends with Yukino they try to help each other correct their old ways and start focusing on new goals, which is a refreshing change to the sadly combative female dynamic that is typically shown not just in shojo manga, but in media in general.

The female rival is a cliché that is insidious because it is used in such misogynistic ways. It has become so common to have a ‘bitchy’ female character that it is easy not to even question why females in media are so consistently made to be hated. Yet not all female rivals come across as unsympathetic or feel like unnecessary plot devices. What do you guys think of the presence of girls whose only purpose is to torment the protagonist? And are there female rivals who you’ve liked or you felt served a purpose to the plot beyond creating drama? Share your thoughts, guys!

Lovely Complex: Risa and Otani

Lovely Complex: Risa and Otani

“I don’t care if he’s small enough to fit inside my arms. I don’t care if he’s a lot shorter than I am. I love this guy. I really love this guy.” – Risa Koizumi, Love*Com volume three.

With such a large catalogue, it’s no surprise that there are many genres represented within the Shojo Beat imprint. From supernatural fantasy to melodrama that would rival any soap opera, the Shojo Beat manga line offers something for everyone. But at the heart of the Shojo Beat line is the romantic-comedy. Many of the most popular Shojo Beat manga are simply about high-school students falling in love, including Kimi ni Todoke and High School Debut. One of the best shojo romantic-comedies Viz has released to date is the 17 volume series Lovely Complex, also known as Love*Com Love*Com stands above most romantic-comedies because not only is it genuinely funny, but also because it features one of the most memorable couples in manga: Risa Koizumi and Atsushi Otani. The two are nicknamed the ‘All Hanshin-Kyojin,’ a famous comedic duo, by their classmates, because of the great difference in their heights and their bickering dynamic. At 5’7, Risa is the tallest girl in her class, while Otani is the shortest guy at 5’2. Although they tease each other constantly, Risa and Otani decide to help each other win over their respective crushes. It doesn’t take long, however, for Risa to realize what a great guy Otani is, and she must learn to overcome the complex that has been bothering both of them: their heights!

In most romance manga (shojo or otherwise), characters tend to fall in love for contrived reasons. And while falling in love with the janitor who saved you from being kidnapped may make for a great story (I still love you though, Dengeki Daisy!), Love*Com takes a simplier – yet less often travelled – approach to romance by showing that our main characters get together because they have so much in common. At first, Risa uses the fact that Otani is shorter than her to deny that she has fallen for him. But their friends all believe that Risa and Otani would make the perfect couple: they have the same hobbies, particularly their tastes in music (both share a love for a rapper named Umibozu, whose rhythms no one else in the series seems to be able to stomache), and similar mindsets, including a fondness for trying new menu items at their favorite restaurant. In volume four, Risa finally decides to accept her feelings for Otani and confesses to him. It takes him awhile to realize that she has a crush on him, because he is unable to imagine a ‘jumbo gal’ like her falling for a ‘shrimp’ like him. Once the depth of her feelings hits him, Otani rejects her, and the aftermath is handled differently than in almost any other shojo manga I’ve read. While in most shojo manga the love interest’s rejection leads to the female protagonist swearing revenge (such as in Skip Beat!), or occurs before the characters even really knew each other (such as in Itazura na Kiss), in Love*Com, Risa has to learn how to deal with her unrequited affection while getting her friendship with Otani back on track. At first, Risa tells him to forget about her love confession and act normally – but whenever she tries to revert to their ‘All Hanshin-Kyojin’ act, Otani teasingly asks her if that’s any way to treat the man she loves. This story-arc is probably my favorite the series – because for as funny as the series can be, the characters’ reactions to difficult situations like these are handled in ways that are extremely relatable, without ever losing it’s sense of humor.

But soon Risa decides that it’s okay if she still loves him, and their friends notice that Otani seems to be pleased by the depth of her feelings for him. Otani’s feelings for Risa come into further question when Risa sets her sights on a new teacher named Mighty. Otani confides in a mutual friend that even though he has fun with Risa, he has a hard time picturing the two of them together because of her height difference. However, when Risa joins a fan club devoted to Mighty, Otani gets jealous of the attention she’s giving her teacher, and on her birthday the two finally get together. Although Risa fell for Otani first, I’ve always believed Love*Com does a good job of showing that Otani loves Risa just as much as she does him. At first, he is reluctant to openly say he loves her, but little things like buying her a bunny pendant because he noticed she likes rabbits, to missing an Umibozu concert when Risa faints, show how much he cares for her. But it’s more than just their interactions that make them a great couple: both characters are interesting on their own as well. Risa is a great female protagonist – she’s funny yet sympathetic, with a love of video games and has a penchant for making strange faces. Otani, meanwhile, is sarcastic yet endearing, and is a great basketball player despite his height. I appreciate the fact that the series follows the couple trying to maintain their relationship after the two get together. And while some parts of the series after Risa and Otani start dating may be clichéd – such as the introduction of rival love interests Mimi and Kohori, who bring in unnecessary drama to the series – in the end, the lopsided duo are one of the funnest (and funniest) couples in manga, which makes Love*Com essential reading for any fan of the Shojo Beat catalogue.

The rest of the Shojo Beat Manga Moveable Feast entries can be found here.

Maid-sama! – leaving behind the formula

Maid-sama! – leaving behind the formula

Lately, I’ve been watching the popular shojo anime Kaichou wa Maid-Sama! The series follows Misaki Ayukawa, a girl who worked hard to become class president to represent the female student body in her formerly all-boys school. Like many a shojo heroine, Misaki comes from a poverty-stricken background, and must work hard to make ends meet. What her classmates don’t know is that Misaki works at a maid café! Misaki’s secret is soon discovered by Takumi Usui, the most popular boy in her school. He begins coming to the café (Maid Latte) everyday to watch Misaki work, and promises to keep her secret because he wants to keep enjoying his fun by himself. From the start, Kaichou wa Maid-sama! clings to common shojo clichés. Unfortunately, oftentimes it feels as though the series has these clichés just for the sake of having them. In the first episode, Misaki seems to hate Usui because he’s a playboy. That’s fair enough, except every time she’s seen him with a girl he’s rejecting them, which would actually make him the opposite of a playboy. At another point in the first episode, Misaki learns that she came in second to Usui on their exam, which infuriates her. However, in the thirteen episodes I’ve watched so far of the series, not once since then has Misaki’s academic inferiority complex to Usui been mentioned. While I’m glad this particular thread hasn’t been resurrected so far because it’s so clichéd (honestly, His and Her Circumstances did it first and did it the best), I feel it’s bad writing to mention something and never bring it up again. It’s almost as though the series is unsure of what it wants to do and where it wants to go next.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only time the series relies too much on telling instead of showing. In the first two episodes, characters often comment on how strong Misaki is. Usui and another maid who works with Misaki have a conversation about how hardworking Misaki is and that it sometimes keeps her from allowing help from others. I’m not a fan of when series tell me how strong or unique a character is without actually showing me – but I’ll cut Maid-Sama! some slack because it does get there eventually. Misaki proves time and time again to be a very determined girl with a strong sense of values. When she is offered a free scholarship to a rich academy, Misaki turns it down because she’s afraid that Seika High School will minimize the role of it’s female students if she’s no longer a class representative there. In another episode, Misaki saves a student from a falling ladder, injuring herself in the process. But my favorite scene is in episode five, when Misaki is left by herself in Maid Latte. She’s attacked by two perverts who handcuff and gag her, and after Usui sees from the window he rushes to rescue her. Just as he kicks through the glass, Misaki breaks the handcuffs and attacks the perverts herself! This scene made me laugh out loud, as it was setting up to be a damsel-in-distress moment and ended up going against the grain.

Another way Misaki is a unique character is that she’s the first female shojo protagonist I’ve come across who is…well, sexist. As class president, Misaki often ignores the boys’ opinions in favor of the girls’. She often punishes the male students with extreme severity and thinks that by doing so, she’s improving the repuation of Seika High. However, Misaki is confronted about her bias very early on in the series. When Misaki assumes that the boys in her classroom of reading a dirty magazine and asks to confiscate it, the boys call her out on only checking their magazines, and Misaki quickly agrees to read the girls’ magazines as well to make sure they’re appropriate for school. And during the cultural festival, when Misaki ignores her male classmates’ input, they decide to rebel by not helping out with the café. Misaki apologizes and realizes she was wrong, but it’s clear that her dislike of males is still an issue for her. Her hatred for chauvinism goes directly against her role as a maid, and Usui questions her about her feelings toward her job. Misaki admits that though she initially had problems with her job, she’s warmed up to playing a maid because of her friends at work, who taught her the importance of making others happy. However, Misaki’s attitude toward males makes a later scene somewhat confusing. In episode seven, the women at Maid Latte decide to dress as men and serve only female customers for a day. Misaki thoroughly enjoys it, and prompts her to tell Usui she’s more of a male at heart. This statement feels as though it came out of nowhere and makes no sense, however, because of how much Misaki fights for women and distrusts guys, and thus doesn’t fit in with the rest of the series.

Still, there are many things about Maid-Sama! that are fun and interesting. Usui is an interesting example of a male tsundere – he’s slightly less cruel in his teasing than the average shojo male love interest yet somewhat unfazed by his surroundings. Despite this, he’s more open about his feelings for Misaki than the average male tsundere is, which I like. His ability to show up wherever Misaki is is made fun of in the series, and is really funny. So far, not much is known about Usui’s background, and I’m looking forward to finding out more. The episode where Misaki and her friends trail Usui to find out what he does outside of school has been one of my favorites so far. Misaki’s friend Sakura gets the idea that Usui must be rich (a common trait among shojo male love interests), and he purposely goes to a luxury tailor and ultra high class restaurant just to mess with them! In many ways, the series uses shojo formulas for both good and evil. When it’s bad, Maid-sama! is an uneven but watchable series. But when it’s good, Maid-sama! feels like a shojo anime that’s actually worthy of the popularity it’s received. I hope that the second half of the series learns to let go of the clichés – or at least learns how to twist them a little bit more.

Let’s talk about sex…

Let’s talk about sex…

About 80% of Absolute Boyfriend’s plot is Riiko deciding whether she should sleep with her robotic boyfriend Night.

I’m always curious whenever I see people describe shojo romances as ‘pure’ or ‘innocent.’ While the average shonen manga may contain more panty shots and jiggling breasts than every single shojo manga combined, shojo series are actually far more likely to explore the topic of sex. Many newcomers to shojo manga are surprised to find that a good portion of shojo series feature couples who eventually do the deed. This surprise may stem from the assumption that materials intended for female audiences are automatically ‘chaste,’ since (supposedly) males are the only ones interested in viewing sex. Sex shows up in everything from ‘fluffy’ series like Absolute Boyfriend to more gritty fare such as Nana and Sand Chronicles. But the presence of sex in shojo manga can be very divisive. While some fans prefer for the topic of sex to be explored in romance manga, others feel bothered when shojo series cross the line. Part of what may influence fans’ reactions to sex in shojo manga are their expectations from manga as a whole.

Many of the fans I’ve seen complain about sex in shojo manga prefer idealistic romances. They don’t want to see teenagers in bed – instead, they look to shojo romances as an escape; a fantasy that should be ‘pure,’ and sex often gets in the way of that illusion. Meanwhile, fans who prefer shojo series that do include the main couple consummating their relationship don’t just like it for the kinks (though that can factor in too, of course). These fans tend to like sex in shojo manga because they think it’s unrealistic for teenagers to be so pure that they never think about or discuss sex. As for myself, I tend to agree with the latter opinion. In my post on what makes a good couple, I purposely left one criteria out: physicality. Knowing that a manga couple is physically attracted to each other (through kissing, sensual hugs, etc.) is important in getting attached to them, and this attraction includes, and often leads up to, the couple consummating their feelings. But let me clarify: I don’t think every shojo manga with teenaged characters needs to show that the main couple is sexually active. However, what I do think is that shojo series should at least show the main couple addressing the issue of whether they should have sex or not. It’s more important for me that a series includes a scene where the main female talks with her girlfriends about not wanting to have sex with her boyfriend yet or the main couple has a conversation about sex than for an actual sex scene to occur. Regardless of what the media and those right-wing PSAs will tell you, in real-life not every teenager is having sex, and thus, it’s not unrealistic for a character to not be sexually active in a romance manga. But it is unrealistic for a teenaged character to have no thoughts about sex, even if those thoughts are that they’re not ready for it yet.

Still, to some extent I can see why there are fans who don’t like to see the topic of sex come up in their favorite shojo manga. Over the past few years, shojo manga has grown increasingly smuttier. While this may or or may not be problematic in itself, what is troublesome is that smut often takes place of developing interesting plots or characters. My opinion of sex within a manga is often affected by how many sex scenes there are and how they are depicted. I’d much prefer for sex scenes to be depicted sensually and for there to be few of them than for a series to be all-out smut. Not to mention, how a fan reacts to the presence of sex in a shojo manga really depends on the manga itself. For example, I came into Kimi ni Todoke expecting a very pure love story, and seeing Sawako and Kazehaya in any sort of physical relationship would be somewhat disconcerting given Sawako’s naïvété.

Mayu Shinjo is known for creating smutty series, including Ai Ore!

But what’s interesting is that regardless of how many shojo manga include sex scenes, very few series have a female protagonist who is not a virgin. The only series I can think of whose main female characters have had sex prior to the story’s start are Mars, in which Kira was raped by her stepfather several years before falling in love with her boyfriend Rei, and Gatcha Gatcha, which implied that it’s main female character had sex with at least a few of her past thirteen boyfriends. Even once female manga characters do have sex, intimacy is always placed in the context of ‘progressing’ the couple’s relationship – very rarely do we get to see the female’s thoughts on the pleasure of the act itself.  So while it may seem like shojo manga are very ‘contemporary’ by showcasing couples who eventually have sex, in reality they’re still upholding very traditional values of what a ‘good’ teenaged girl should be like by reinforcing the female protagonist’s virginity at the start of the series. Still, I don’t think saying that all shojo series should or should not include sex is the right answer. Instead, there should be a range in the depiction of love and sex, and I would argue that shojo manga already does this: if you don’t like to see couples between the sheets, there are plenty of chaste alternatives out there. So what do you guys think? Does it bother you when you see characters having sex in a shojo manga, or do you find it to be unrealistic when they don’t? Share your thoughts, guys!