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Feminism in Shoujo Manga: NANA by Ai Yazawa July 18, 2006

Posted by Naughty Ninja in Feminism, Manga, Nana, Shoujo.

Previously >> Feminism in Shoujo Manga: Introduction

This article is the first installment of a series exploring feminism in manga marketed under the shoujo genre outside of Japan.

As of late, more pop culture enthusiasts have come to question the representation of women in manga, particularly those within shoujo. There are those who choose to interpret the soft-spoken heroine as an exemplifier of what they perceive as an inherent regressiveness in Asian gender roles.

The more forgiving choose to regard this as part of a simple cultural difference that can be overlooked in favor of shounen manga. Then there are those who enjoy shoujo well enough to not write it off as completely counterfeminist, but may not have found a way to articulate why this is so.

With this series, I endeavor to find a way to do so.

The immensely popular shoujo manga sensation known as NANA recently hit shores outside of Japan, and starts out strong for its first three volumes. It takes a more mature route than most shoujo titles, and seems to be a perfect place to start our feminist analysis of shoujo manga. However, being immensely popular has always been an invitation for mean-spirited cultural punditry.

I can already imagine a slew of women writing off NANA as another title wherein use of romantic tropes and melodrama makes it just as trite as all the other shoujo entries that have come before it. These naysayers would insist on “stronger female leads” or “girls who don’t need love to be happy”. And let’s face it, there’s no faulting a desire for ass-kicking heroines disinterested in romance.

But to look for feminist value in manga is not the same as looking for ball-breaking monuments to womanhood, as that would be a shallow reading of what feminist values are in the first place. It is not necessary for female characters to masquerade as men and claim masculine qualities to be deemed “strong”.

Proper representation should focus on what is truthful and free of delusion just as much as it should focus on the ideal and the empowered. The girl you find on the street is just as important in her mundane ordinariness as any other representation, complete with her flaws and shortcomings. And one thing manga has proven capable of is showing these women, resolutely mundane or extremely symbolic, as possessing genuine desire for change and self-actualization.

NANA begins with two young women on a train to Tokyo, both closing the final chapters of their late adolescence and journeying towards tumultuous adulthood. No two girls could be anymore different, or lead such disparate lives. It’s love that drives them to the city, but more than that, it’s a calling to find their true selves. Both these girls have the same name: Nana.



Feminism in Shoujo Manga: Introduction July 3, 2006

Posted by Naughty Ninja in Feminism, Shoujo.

The representation of the female in shoujo manga has at times been misinterpreted or dismissed as anti-feminism fodder. This is despite the fact that most content is created by a large number of female mangaka (numbering in the hundreds), and is meant for a significantly large female audience. This affinity between creator and consumer almost guarantees the production of beautifully crafted stories brimming with honesty, depth, and respect towards the female condition.

In an interesting article entitled American Girls’ and Women’s Comics : White Space, Rachel Nabors covers what others have already recognized as the gap in the comic market, and encourages women to become creators and be more vocal in their opinions of female representation. A part of the article includes (bold emphasis my own):

Q: Isn’t shoujo manga enough?
A: Sure, if you don’t mind subtly throwing away all the feminist ideals our mothers fought for in during the Women’s Liberation Movement. Japan is not what you would call “female friendly.” In Japan, it is acceptable for a man to grope a teenage girl on the train. I recall reading that a hideously large percentage of young women only go to college to seek husbands then drop out when they get married. Women are still considered inferior in business and the glass ceiling is more like a brick wall.

This chauvinistic attitude is visible in Japanese comics. Even in stories like Kare Kano that seem to champion strong young women, the females inevitably give up their own will, dreams and hopes in favor of adopting their sweetheart’s.

I imagine Nabors’ intent is to enjoin women to throw off the dependence on manga (shoujo or otherwise) as a proxy means to fill the female gap in comics. Perfectly understandable, but it doesn’t quite justify her sweeping generalizations, and outright fostering of misconceptions.

While I strongly admire the intent of her message I feel inclined to educate her on the baselessness of these misconceptions, but such well-intentioned commentary would be doomed to appear as bitchy nitpicking. Perhaps as the overeducated otaku, I should understand how a Westerner would look at us Asians so strangely, especially since so many of the books she owns are written from that Western-stranger perspective.

I discussed the matter at length with Samurai Tusok, and he has an amazing way of bypassing the geek babble and insulted sputtering, and distilled it into the following, in the form of a comment on MangaBlog:

First of all, [Nabor’s] dismissal of shoujo as counterfeminist pabulum is based on a picture of shoujo manga that is filtered entirely by whatever gets exported to the U.S., as if that were somehow representative of shoujo in Japan itself.

That’s like drawing conclusions about the value systems of independent filmmakers based solely on films distributed by Miramax. But the fact is that manga distributors seem to focus on a ya-lit audience of pre-teens and up, an audience that they’ve concluded to not be interested in manga featuring something more than counterfeminist pabulum.

Oh, and to say that “In Japan, it is acceptable for a man to grope a teenage girl on the train.” is two hundred fifty six shades of problematic. That train molesters are rampant is not the same as being ’socially acceptable’.

At any rate, Ms. Nabors has compelled me to actualize an idea that’s been brewing in my head for the last few days: a series of articles discussing the various feminine values found in shoujo manga. To be specific, those that make their way outside of Japan.

I won’t stand to see a perfectly wonderful art form like manga and its shoujo genre to be written off as uniformly counterfeminist, moreso by someone who reduces it to nothing but the product of a culture of Asians-as-Patriarchal-Savages.

As such dear readers, I shall endeavor to do everything within my power to showcase the ideological plurality to be found in manga, and that feminist messages can indeed be found in your local bookshelves.