MAN UP! The role of shoujo in depicting men, masculinity and relationships
Hello, all. Here’s my entry for the Manga Olympics for Bloggers. My writer cap is on and ready to give periodic electrical pulses to my neurons, so let’s get started, shall we?
You can debate the credibility of a hetrosexual female’s discussion of masculinity, but I’m going to do my best regardless. Before we begin, I will state that I do think that gender, masculinity and femininity are purely societal constructs. There was one story of a father wearing a skirt so that his son wouldn’t get teased, and I thought it was touching and a very “masculine” thing to do.
Getting back to the subject at hand, this is actually an issue that has been eating away at my feminist-y brain for a while now. Given the new phenomenon of so-called “herbivore men” in Japan, described as lacking motivation and a “hunger” for females, it’s rather interesting that males in shoujo manga are still exhibiting rather masculine qualities – they want to take care of the girl, they step up in a fist fight when she gets badmouthed. These scenarios are everywhere, in both new and old shoujo manga.
But is this really a good thing? Is there really only one definition of masculinity within shoujo manga?
Let me give you an example from Ouran High School Host Club.
Look at that image for a second. All of the characters look like very masculine, desirable guys, right? It’s too bad most of the guys you meet in real life won’t be this attractive. Now, on a very shallow level, this is how I interpret the imagery of Ouran. This gets back to a key role of men in shoujo manga – as eye candy. It’s basically the same thing as shounen and seinen manga – people want to look at attractive members of the opposite sex (or of the same sex, if that’s your preference), and within the realm of shoujo manga, attractive guys satisfy that desire. This is on a very shallow level, again.
Look again at the character with the bunny, who is called Hunny-sempai within the series. Within Ouran, his struggle with exhibiting masculine qualities is detailed within the manga – as the son of a judo practitioner, and is under significant pressure to get rid of his cake and bunny pajamas and put on a hakama like a REAL MAN. However, because of Tamaki and the host club’s acceptance, Hunny is able to embrace his true interests and act how he wants, regardless of how other people in society might perceive it.
However much Hunny might not exhibit traditional masculine qualities for his age (he’s actually one of the oldest members in the group), many girls reading this manga actually like him more than Tamaki, what I consider to be the ‘traditional’ embodiment of shoujo masculinity.
Getting into masculinity in more detail, I’d like to bring your attention to the graphic below.
Now there’s a beautiful girl, right? WRONG. That’s a man.
Crossdressing and guys is now a recurring element in shoujo manga as of late. From Usotsuki Lily to Kuragehime to even Fruits Basket, the premise of men crossdressing is now gaining prominence as its own niche within shoujo manga. While crossdressing is not an uncommon theme within manga in general, it’s interesting that masculinity is being challenged in such an interesting way.
In Usotsuki Lily, Hinata (the female protagonist) is initially turned off by En’s crossdressing habit, breaking up with him in the beginning because of it. However, they eventually get back together because HInata realizes that she loves En, regardless of his outward appearance. I think that this is a highly commendable theme within the realm of shoujo manga. It encourages girls to look past the traditional definitions of masculinity, and to look at a person’s personality as the basis for a relationship rather than appearance.
Speaking of masculinity, En is actually a fairly “masculine” guy, regardless of his outward appearance. However, unlike conventional shoujo heroines, En displays this through his actions rather than his clothes. He takes care of girls, and cares about what they say, something I don’t think is done enough on both sides of a relationship. He’s definitely macho underneath the breast pads and skirt, but it’s his actions and protectiveness of Hinata that show that he’s a tough, masculine guy.
With this in mind, it’s important to look at men in shoujo manga as being a projection of what girls/women want (or think that they want). A lot of shoujo readers want a guy who’s attractive, who pays attention to them, protects them, and is able to fulfill a lot of the traditional male roles of provider common of the past century. This model isn’t yet antiquated in Japan, so that’s why these roles continue to persist, and they’re still common themes in shoujo manga. However, these points play into a depressing aspect of shoujo manga – the fact that it has the potential to build unrealistic expectations.
Let’s face it – guys like Tamaki Suoh of Ouran High School Host Club don’t exist in real life. I’m not saying that sensitive, caring and funny guys don’t exist, it’s just that you probably won’t find a guy as out-there as Tamaki who happens to be half French and half Japanese. It’s just impossible.
However, shoujo manga still has a role to play in educating girls in what relationships they should be seeking out. Shoujo manga as a genre generally does a good job of discouraging things like physical and emotional abuse, and while it doesn’t offer the most realistic perspectives on sex, it’s slowly improving on the realism front.
I think the most important role, and the most constructive role that men play in shoujo manga, is of an aspirational nature.
Arima and Yukino’s relationship is one of the most complex relationships I’ve seen in shoujo manga since I’ve started reading manga in general (the anime doesn’t depict most of this, so if you’ve only seen the anime, you’re really missing out!). Yukino and Arima are both equal on an intellectual level, they communicate well, and they basically exhibit everything that people in a successful relationship should do. When Arima has emotional problems, Yukino doesn’t just sit passively and take it. She takes action and asks him what’s wrong, and asks what she can do to make things better. Best of all, while Yukino and Arima are both professionally driven people, Arima doesn’t pressure Yukino into giving it all up for the sake of their future children – he encourages Yukino to follow her dreams and pursue success. This is a virtue I wish more men in the world had.
The point is that shoujo manga, when done well, demonstrates what a successful and healthy relationship should be like, and encourages young girls to aspire towards that. I think that’s a worthy pursuit that all shoujo manga authors should undertake.
In regards to how shoujo authors define masculinity, traditional values of physical strength, and varying definitions of attractiveness prevail. However, I think that this may be set to change as Japan evolves as a society and women start to take more prominent roles in government and the private sector.
I think that in general, while stereotypical shoujo tends to paint a very stereotypical and rigid depiction of masculinity, good shoujo manga is a bit more fluid. It can stray into that stereotypical territory, but it can also have some smart commentary with real world applications. Besides, I don’t think shuojo manga readers, for the most part, actively seek out positive male role models when searching up shoujo manga.
We’re just here to see Tamaki Suoh’s bare chest. 😀