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.
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!