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!

15 thoughts on “Rivalry and female relationships in shojo manga

  1. I don’t mind a female rival in shojo manga but I do often find them to be very similar and simple characters. However, two exceptions that spring to mind are Yui from Fushigi Yugi and Sachiko from Nana.
    I like that Yui is a friend turned rival, it makes the torment that bit more personal. But I think that Sachiko is one of the best rivals I’ve seen because she’s a sympathetic character; somewhat like Ume from Kimi ni Todoke. Very interesting post! ^_^

    1. Thanks! I left Yui out not only because she is a rival turned friend, but also because the series constantly switches her reasons for hating Miaka (jealousy because she loved Tamahome, jealousy that Tamahome became closer to Miaka than she was to her; her rape). Her ‘rivalry’ with Miaka is motivated by revenge, which feels a bit deeper than the average female rival. Sachiko is also interesting because as much as I didn’t want to see Hachi get hurt I enjoyed watching her and Shoji get closer. It’s not that I sympathized with her – rather, I felt she was better for Shoji than Hachi was because they had a lot in common and thus, I guess I never really saw her as ‘the rival’ – she doesn’t torment Hachi and they only meet once when Hachi finds out Shoji was cheating on her.

  2. It no more speaks of catty women, and no loving relationships, than shonen manga speaks of men and their ability to cross the street without challenging each other. Each protagonist in their sphere must contend with conflict. Only the tools change.

    The story revolves around the protagonist. She grows through conflict. Sometimes this conflict is from other women. Their stories aren’t necessarily as important as hers, so once they have served their purpose they can retreat into the plot. This is especially true if they are quantitatively superior to her in the big ways, as their presence may distract.

    Right?
    Right???

    In shonen manga, defeat can mean friendship; even if the whole world is fighting, it’s possible to make friends. But is such a path open to a shojo heroine???

    1. Thanks for commenting! It’s been pointed out by others that while female rivals often attack verbally male rivals fight physically, which conforms to traditional gender roles. And while I definitely agree with you that the same problem exists in shonen manga, the problem is that the female rival character is often the only other female character in the series. Thus, it suggests that all female relationships are catty, which isn’t true for shonen series. Even if there are commonly male rivals in shonen series there are typically other male characters to choose from, who have varying personalities and relationships to the protagonist. And while ‘defeat’ certainly has meant friendship in shojo manga (and does in several of the examples I listed above), it more often than not doesn’t and the female rival simply disappears into the background. Not that she usually fares much better becoming friends with the protagonist since she rarely plays a large role once she’s been ‘redeemed,’ nor does she typically get much character development.

  3. I see why female rivals are used a lot in media, but I still prefer to see a solid female friendship from the very start and end of a manga. Mika of Absolute Boyfriend is a shallow and petty female rival with no other purpose other than to try to steal guys away from the main character. This is why she’s forgettable soon after the whole, “Night will never go for her seductions and doesn’t” bit. It almost feels unnecessary to have a character like Mika to exist at all since she doesn’t drive the story forward in any significant way.

    As for Harumi of Mars, yes her and Kira become friends after they get past Harumi’s “kidnapping of Kira incident,” but as you said, highly unlikely that any normal and sane person would want to be friends with their psychotic kidnapper. If I were in Kira’s situation, there’s no way I can get past someone who has threatened to break my fingers if I didn’t call it quits with my boyfriend. It’s not the best way to make friends with someone.

    As it has been said, these female rivals represent women in such a poor light and makes us seem as if we are incapable of having solid friendships without jealousy or men getting in the way of having a connection. Not true of course, but disturbing to have this idea so ingrained in our psyches.

    1. You’re so right about Mika. Absolute Boyfriend has enough drama even without her character, and she doesn’t really end up affecting Riiko and Night’s relationship or the overall story. One thing I noticed about most series with extremely catty female rivals is that the series themselves tend to be highly dramatic. It’s unfortunate that the main roles for females in media is to create empty tension rather than being allowed to be portrayed as fully fleshed out individuals.

  4. Great post. I agree with everything you wrote. As for female rivalries that I enjoyed, I really liked the ones in Skip Beat since most of them play out without needing to reference men. Although outside Moko, they are still really unfortunate in certain ways.😦 I also really liked Moko and Kyoko’s friendship. It was really sweet to see how much Moko cared for her (enough to swallow her pride and buy her a certain present). The rivalry between Enju and Mokuren in Please Save My Earth was also handled pretty well. Neither one was ever demonized and I sympathized with both parties. They also never really become friends, which I think is for the best. I also really liked the female rivalry in Matsuri Special. While there was bit of of romantic rivalry between the two girls, the main rivalry was about pro-wrestling and it had more to do with Matsuri not taking it seriously and the other girl (forgot her name) being very proud of being a pro-wrestler and thus very upset at Matsuri for not taking it seriously. When the former finally does, they form a very friendly rivalry, which I thought was nice. And that’s it, I believe. It’s sad, but this post has made me realize that I don’t like the way most female rivalries are treated. 90% of them are exactly the catty jealous rival who wants the man. I find I tend to like friendships more as there are more friendships I’ve liked than rivalries.

    1. I prefer friendships as well, and my favorite female rivalries have all involved girls who were both friends and rivals (Sana and Fuka in Kodocha), or girls who eventually become friends once they’ve moved past their rivalry. The biggest difference, I think, is that in most of these two scenarios, the rival is allowed to be fleshed out as a character and thus feels less like a plot device. Your comment has also got me thinking – in general I don’t care for rivalries because I prefer positive, caring relationships, but at least there are many male rivalries in anime and manga that are genuinely interesting and well-developed (Light and L in Death Note). ‘Interesting and well-developed’ rivalries between females seem to be the exception to the rule, which is even worse because so many times the pair of rivals is the only female relationship within a given series.

      1. Yeah, it is sad. The only interesting and/or likeable rivalries, outside those 3 I listed, are all male/male rivalries or female/male rivalries (which usually turn romantic).😦

  5. I love it when you make these lists! Anyway, I think these examples really illustrate the female rivalry trend well. It’s interesting that some of the rivals have little other reason for being mean than to just make the other girl’s life miserable. Talk about not fleshing a character out. I wonder when girls got this image of being so nasty to each other. This idea seems to be prominent in multiple countries and societies.

    1. Aww, thank you! You know, archetypes make for easy storytelling since the author doesn’t have to flesh out the character – the audience can just fill in the blanks. The ‘bitch’ is an easy one because the audience knows to hate her – but it’s sad how many times this is the only role female characters have to play in a story. Of course, media reflect society, so you’re definitely right that the idea of cut-throat female relationships is prominent (and has been for a long time) because much of the world is patriarchial. Making a group subordinate (whether that group is a gender, race, religion or anything else) is easiest when you turn the group against each other. So while this may not be the intention of such archetypes, the effect is still damaging.

  6. Very interesting post! Most shojo heroines really don’t seem to have any close female friends. That’s one thing I like about Hana Yori Dango – Tsukushi has Yuuki, who never tries to steal her boyfriend and supports her as much as she can. But even Sakurako and Shigeru, who are both after Domyouji, are painted in a more positive light than most of these examples you give – arguably with Sakurako being quite the b*tch at first.

    1. Thanks! You know; that’s very true about Hana Yori Dango. Even though Sakurako in several ways resembles Sae and other ‘bitchy’ rivals, at the very least she helps Tsukushi out later on in the series. And although it takes awhile, Yuki eventually becomes a more fleshed out character who feels like more than just Tsukushi’s friend in name-only. Shigeru’s an awesome exception to the typical female rival, because not only is she kind (she gives up on Tsukasa even though she still likes him), but she and Tsukushi become friends during the time they are technically rivals. I’ve always appreciated that there is a range of roles the female characters play in Hanadan.

  7. It is one of the things that I like in Sukitte Il Nayo. Even the girls who were initially Mei’s rivals are turning out to be great friends, always supporting her and making her a strong person. Same with Kimi ni Todoke, where both of Sawako’s girlfriends are always supporting our heroine. It’s refreshing to see this, instead of the usual bitchy rival who makes the readers want to slap her.

  8. Li Meiling from Cardcaptor Sakura can be classifies as the female rival for the main character. Because she once ever challenged Sakura for Syaoran’s affection, even though Sakura that time wasn’t interested for Syaoran’s affection and still view him as a friend instead of a lover. But after the series progressed, she started to be more friendly towards Sakura and becomes friends with her.

    Then, when Syaoran has fallen in love with Sakura he broke Meiling’s heart. Even though Meiling was broken hearted, she gradually moved on and became more supportive towards Syaoran’s blossoming romantic relationship with Sakura.

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