I don't blog very often about manga. This is because, while I used to be very much a manga fan, my interest has wandered into that of superheroes and I rarely look back.
But I do still read occasionally. And I still keep an eye out for manga-related topics on WFA
Recently there was a set of topics that intrigued me, discussions on whether or not shoujo manga is feminist or sexist. I can see the arguments for both, really. Both sides have really good points. In a sense, I think they're both right.
But this post isn't about that really. Or maybe it is. I'm not sure. But during the whole thing, I'm reminded of something that really started to get to me about shoujo manga.
I call it "the cult of mediocrity".Ragnell
once described comics as an adolescent power fantasy. I'd always thought that was an apropos description for both Japanese and American comics. And it started to explain to me why I was so tired of manga.
See, manga in Japan is a lot more gender-stratified than it is here. Manga is classified as shounen (Boys') or shoujo (Girls') based on a number of flexible criteria, up to and including the type of publication they're found in. While there are cross-genre stories, the majority tend to be stratified along the lines of Boys' stories being more action/plot based and Girls' stories being more character and emotion driven.
This is oversimplifying matters considerably of course. Many boys' manga have relationships and strong character development, many girls' manga have action, et cetera and so forth. But honestly, I'm sure you guys, if you really care, can look that sort of thing up on your own. Suffice to say, one can usually tell a girls' manga from a boys' manga.
Besides, this isn't my problem. I don't see anything wrong with differentiating manga focused on plot/action from manga focused on character development/drama. After all, there's no law that says a boy can't by girls' manga, or vice versa, and it's good to know what you're looking for.
It's just that after a while I started noticing an odd sort of theme. And I think it relates to Ragnell's power fantasy thing. See, the main character of shounen manga is usually a boy, the main character of shoujo manga is usually a girl (or the uke
in boys love manga, which is the homosexual themed romance subgenre of girls' manga...the uke is the character that tends to correspond with female gender stereotypes.) The idea, I believe, is that readers are meant to identify with these main characters. To use them as wish-fulfillment, fantasies for themselves.
I have no problem with this either.
But what I've noticed is that in boys' manga, the lead character is differentiated as being special in some way. Either the strongest fighter, the smartest detective, the best magician something like that. Even if the character is a complete dunce, there's always some spectacular talent to be highlighted. (With the possible exception of harem stories...but one could imagine the accumulation of so many attractive women to be its own spectacular talent...certainly there are those that envy it). There are often female characters that are strong or capable as well, but they are not the center of the story and thus usually end up never quite matching up to the men.
I admit, this is a little irksome to me, but I understand where it's coming from. Everyone dreams of being the strongest, smartest, fastest, whatever. It's wish-fulfillment.
Girls' manga is different though. Because when I stop and think about it, I can think of very few spectacular female lead characters. The lead character is usually a c-student, klutzy, socially awkward, but naturally quite beautiful. She may or may not have a special power, but in general, she starts off unable to really use it well. She tends to be swept up into destiny. This is not to say that she's not brave and doesn't experience character growth. But, while her friends may correspond to "smartest", "toughest" et cetera, she herself is downright mediocre.
I wouldn't have any problem with this normally, as it's nice to see normal, flawed, imperfect central characters right? Except the male characters aren't written the same way. Because these tend to be romance fantasies, the male character is almost always perfect. Intelligent, handsome, either sensitive or an asshole with intriguing angst behind it.
So what this amounts to is a perfect male character and what amounts to a mediocre female character.
I'm not saying I want the female characters to be all-knowing or all-talented. But I think pretty much everyone has *one* thing they do well. These female characters don't. Their only real advantage is their "pure hearts", with which they winsomely end up entrapping their love interests. In fantasy type stories, they tend to have the destiny of something great, but the girl's own role tends to be passive. Often if she does have a great power, it always activates beyond her control. She might have the power of a goddess, but the power almost always controls her rather than the other way around.
(Yaoi/Shounen Ai/Boys Love manga works similarly. The uke character, again, tends to be klutzy, academically un-impressive, with their strength in their emotional bonds to other characters while the seme, or top, who is more traditionally masculine, tends to be again the perfect man. It's quite a disturbing thought that femininity=mediocrity).
And this bothers me. The boys get power fantasies of being special. Being the strongest, the fastest, the smartest. They win the girl, get the prize, beat the badguy.
The girls get power fantasies of...being in the right place at the right time and being victorious through no control of their own? And ultimately meeting the perfect man?
Doesn't something seem a little uneven here?
I mean, yes, I understand the fantasy of being a normal person and then finding yourself involved in something great. But where are the power fantasies for the girls? Why are the smart, tough, strong girls shoved off to the sidelines while the mediocre girl remains the center of the story?
In the end, this is probably where manga lost me. It's not that I don't like these characters. They tend to be very likeable. But I want more in my power fantasies than to win the perfect man or to be carried into my destiny.
But why the hell, when I can dream myself to be like anything imaginable, would I want to settle for mediocrity?