The pseudo-feminist shojo lead

The pseudo-feminist shojo lead

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.

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.