This article was referred to in the July 2005 (Shoujo) issue of The Comics Journal. Our dream of getting these issues into the public forum for discussion is coming true in spectacular ways.
The article has been revised and expanded. See links at the end for a number of outside agreements, arguments, and counter-arguments, although our own forum has needed to come down, sadly. If you're looking for the pre-revision version of this article, click here. We expect to continue revising this piece over time.
Imagine you're a 16-year-old girl. Mike, that totally hot tall guy in your homeroom, is king of the class and can have any girl he wants...until one day you bump into him on the roof, and as you mumble an apology and try to flee he grips your arm and asks you out. Omigod, Mike wants to go out with you?! But he's been with so many girls! With cheeks flushed you rush home, wear your prettiest, and go out with him that night. You're too shy to talk much, but he puts some moves on you and leaves with a kiss and a bit of a feel-up. You don't know Mike really well, but you're so excited he's putting his hands on you that you don't care. His sexual advances are making you fall in love with him.
Within a month or two of dating similarly (or a volume or two of manga), you let Mike take your virginity. Despite the fact that he's no older than 17, he's slept with tons of girls and knows exactly how to make it perfect--so the experience is wonderful save for your mild, blush-inducing pain and slight embarrassment. In the days that come, Mike initiates sexual activity pretty much every time the two of you are alone, and even though you voice tiny complaints like "We're in a public place" or "My mom's downstairs," you don't actually argue with him because you like it. Once or twice he pushes his limits and drives you to do something you don't want, at which point you storm off, cry because you never want to be apart from him, and immediately make up with him (and have sex to celebrate) as soon as he apologizes.
Mike is always the one to initiate sex. When Mike's jealous of another boy talking to you, he forcefully kisses and/or has intercourse with you, and you're touched by this sign of fervent love for you (and therefore fall in love with him further). He's possessive, and you're happy. He's dominating, and that's the way you like it. You two live happily ever after.
And there you have the basis for a typical "risqué" older-shoujo romance, the likes of which you'll find in Cheese phonebook manga magazine or the popular mag Shoujo Comics (aka Sho-Comi , the magazine Yuu Watase's titles run in). These sorts of magazines are generally read by high-school aged girls in Japan, or anyone who can download off IRC and grab Shoujo Magic's stuff. For those titles that don't follow the exact formula (the second half of the above scenario, with some modifications and a pop idol, is pretty much the manga Get You), shades of the same themes will appear in different forms: the submissive slave doormat Hatsumi of Hot Gimmick, the inexplicable forgiveness of abuse in Boys Over Flowers, the ridiculous male sexual domination in 90% of anything Mayu Shinjo writes. These titles can be decidedly fun and engaging, sometimes for the very reason that they deal with taboo and escapist submission fantasies many girls know better than to play out in real life. But as these titles slowly leak into the American market and the abuse clichés of risqué shoujo seep into American readers, a shocking number of said readers--most notably the teenage girls--don't seem to be commenting that these themes go against everything taught to us by health class, older siblings, and protective parents. And comic critics (who tend to evaluate a piece of work based on its quality as opposed to how it might affect readers socially) are also largely silent when it comes to commenting on how Western female readers may take these themes of submission.
Does that mean this isn't a topic worthy of discussion? Do we consider ourselves--and our teenage friends, sisters, and daughters--so free of media influence that our market can release love stories about young girls who fall in love with abusive classmates and we still don't feel the need to discuss why that should be "a fantasy only"? Do we deny that impressionable teenage girls in real life sometimes do make themselves near-slaves to bad relationships for the sake of attention and/or romance, or that media romanticizing abuse may add fuel to that fire?
We believe that risqué shoujo themes need to be discussed. If they go without critique and subliminally become some sort of standard, that's when we're afraid said themes may become "dangerous" to readers.
Before You Send Your Flames
The purpose of this article is not to bash your favorite manga or, God forbid, shoujo in general (we both read a wide variety of shoujo comics on a regular basis). We don't want censorship or boycotting, all we want to do is bring up what we consider an underrepresented viewpoint regarding the possible negative effects of risqué shoujo on young, female, Western readers. Since we believe 90% of these possible negative effects can be put to rest with discussion and some thought, we just want to help readers talk and think about what they're reading. Bad things happen when people don't think.
Until rather recently, the shoujo titles that made it to our market didn't pitch themes against general American media standards; Sailor Moon (the anime) did date a much older man, but they rarely even kissed. Peach Girl and Mars, although both adult comics that dealt with sex, made it very clear that sex wasn't okay until the girl gave explicit written permission. Since everyone has a different opinion on when sex is a good idea, these titles, like most of our own media, presented an opinion still within standard guidelines: characters thought about it, talked about it, and reached consent before continuing. These titles didn't push any buttons much of American media hasn't already hammered.
What has happened recently is the more risqué Japanese titles, series like Hot Gimmick, Boys Over Flowers (aka Hana Yori Dango), Sensual (aka Kaikan) Phrase, and the purchased-for-a-possible-Western-release Haou Airen, are joining the ranks of American bookstores. These series feature controlling and disrespectful men, young girls who find male domination a standard and a turn-on, and the concept that sex is something only men initiate. Where in American media aimed for teenagers and featuring teenagers have these themes ever been so hyperbolized and romanticized? Teen bad boys in Western media generally do little more than steal a kiss--in Sensual Phrase, the main love interest introduces himself by sliding a hand up the heroine's skirt. Despite the large readerships of these shoujo titles, few readers seem to be commenting on the female-belittling morals, and it makes us wonder if people are noticing them at all (possibly because these themes are limited to a select few titles in America, but many other less-risqué shoujo series--as will be discussed below--feature shades of similar themes). We want readers to think about what they're reading before these values unconsciously become some sort of twisted standard. Believe us; if you read enough of this shoujo, before long a boyfriend raping his girlfriend in these comics won't make you bat an eye.
Dangerous Theme #1: Nice Guys Finish Last
The main male love interest in risqué shoujo can be honestly frightening. Outgoing, controlling, jealous, and generally much more experienced than his female counterpart, he often isn't particularly concerned with making his love interest happy or comfortable unless he's getting what he wants out of the deal. The main female character may be surrounded by many controlling men, but the one she eventually hooks up with is distinguished by his obsession with her and her alone. This is a variation on the "bad boy" cliché found in so many love stories, but taken to such an extreme that any redeemable factors these boys have are completely overshadowed by their abusive or dominating tendencies. The bad boy hero may love the heroine, but that doesn't mean he respects her or even treats her decently. Akuma na Eros (one of Mayu Shinjo's import titles) actually features a young woman choosing Satan as her love interest over the potential love of an angel. Not surprising, actually.
Dangerous Theme #2: The Leaders Of The Woman's Movement Are Spinning In Their Graves
This kind of male character wouldn't be such a problem if the main female characters stood up for themselves. Unfortunately, many of these shoujo heroines are willing to be victims of their own romances, relinquishing all control of their lives, relationships, and bodies to someone who's dangerously unqualified or painfully unworthy. The main female character is often depicted as an ordinary student whose main distinguishing feature is how nice she is. Unfortunately, "being nice" often equates to "being a doormat," so she ends up in all kinds of horrible situations simply because she can't bring herself to say no or speak badly of anyone. (See Alice 19th, one of Yuu Watase's most recent titles, for a surprisingly excellent handling of such a problem.)
Hatsumi, the main character of Hot Gimmick, is probably the worst example of this. At one point during the manga, one of her sketchy suitors attempts to have her gang-raped by a bunch of his friends as revenge on her family; as these strangers are doing their best to have sex with her, she actually feels that she has to apologize to her love interest for something one of her family members did to one of his. Thankfully, most shoujo characters aren't as bad as Hatsumi, although too many fall along the same lines. Tsukushi from Boys Over Flowers is for the most part a strong female character who stands up for herself and her beliefs, so why on Earth does she think the assholes around her (guilty of repeat physical and/or verbal and/or emotional abuse offenses) are worth considering a relationship with?
Even the better female characters in this kind of shoujo are content to waste time on a guy whose bad characteristics outweigh his good to a ridiculous degree, forgiving him for unforgivable offenses and giving him second, third, and fourth chances, sometimes without his even bothering to apologize. Being a forgiving person is a good thing, but forgiving someone and trusting them are two very different things. To slip into reality for a moment, nobody can afford to be stupid about a relationship--and when it comes to inexperienced and developing high school girls and boys, either member of the relationship being stupid can lead to very dangerous, even violent consequences.
Dangerous Theme #3: The Man Wears The Pants and Lays Claim to Hers
As you might imagine, a love story between an obsessive, controlling boy and a passive, sexually-inexperienced girl generally results in an extremely bad relationship, where any sensible girl would have called the cops three volumes ago and gotten his ass arrested. The relationships are too often one-sided, with the girl relinquishing all power in the relationship to the boy. She'll do what he tells her to do, she'll have sex when and where he decides, and whatever doubts she has in her head about what she's doing will be pushed aside. Not only is this moronic, it takes away any respect the girl might have for herself, her body, and her right to decide how far she'll let things go. Intimacy is no longer something a man and a woman decide on together--now the boys can force it upon their love interests as a twisted means of showing affection, and the girls are desperate (or stupid) enough to accept that. In S+M, an import title not nearly as pornographic as the title implies, the teenaged heroine forges a relationship with a classmate who threatens to dump her when she won't have sex with him immediately; another love interest later sexually assaults her, but she blames herself for taking too long to give him an answer regarding whether or not she'll date him. The heroine's lack of self-esteem and complete disrespect for herself might have worked as a cautionary tale, had the author actually handled the material well.
Dangerous Theme #4: Problems From The Inside
These comics are written by women as escapist romantic fantasies for women and teenage girls. Worse yet, the weak, submissive female characters are actually accepted by portions of their female audience as realistic depictions of normal high school girls. As a few reader reviews from amazon.com wrote about Hot Gimmick:
"It's so sweet^__^"
"Hot Gimmick is kind of like watching your own life unfold."
Hot Gimmick, for those who don't know, centers on a teenage boy blackmailing a teenage girl into performing sexual activities with him. When he's not assaulting her, he's referring to her as his "slave," verbally abusing her at every available opportunity, and even pushed her down the stairs when the two of them were kids.
He's her main love interest. An older-but-popular Hot Gimmick website here featured a reader's poll where a whopping 62% of votes were in favor of the lead heroine ending up with the creep.
Is anyone else bothered by this? The love story in Hot Gimmick may be a fictional one, but readers finding it desirable implies that a submission fantasy strikes a chord with a number of readers. A complete submission fantasy with an abusive boyfriend. Hot Gimmick is well out of the "hot bad boy" waters--the heroine desperately needs therapy, and the hero, for all his actions, deserves a restraining order if not jail time. Is this sort of escapist fantasy actually considered romantic by some?
The Bigger Picture
Granted, these prominent themes of severe teenage female sexual submission are limited to a handful of domestically-released titles in the West (and tend to stick to a handful of magazines in Japan), but similar themes--or further modifications on the "how bad is the bad boy" idea--appear in the majority of all shoujo for teenage girls. The submission in Mayu Shinjo titles may seem so ridiculously exaggerated that few readers will take it at face value, but compare it to mainstream 13+ shoujo titles in our market and Mayu Shinjo is suddenly just continuing with an already-common idea. Observe an approximate spectrum:
Tier #1: Bickering with the bad boy
These titles tend to feature a strong-willed girl having a love-hate relationship with her love interest, with said relationship often characterized by mild fighting, arguments, and competitions. The boys in these titles tend to be hard-headed and rude, but for one reason or another have sizzling sexual tension with their heroines--the fights only strengthen comfort and heighten desire. These boys are often aggressive but not overly dominating (largely because the females have self-respect and won't allow themselves to be completely dominated), and their sexual forwardness is often limited to grabbing wrists and/or stealing a kiss.
This type of love story is very common in Western media, and is rarely considered more than mildly edgy (depending, of course, on the degree of sexual forwardness). Examples of shoujo titles that fall into this category include Fushigi Yuugi: The Mysterious Play, Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, and a fair number of shoujo titles for elementary school girls in Japan. A large number of Korean shoujo titles often fall into this category as well, including I.N.V.U. and Neck and Neck.
Tier #2: Dealing with a handful
Shoujo series in this tier usually feature a strong-willed girl and her bad boy, but these bad boys tend to be more troubled, aggressive, and even dangerous. The male love interest may treat his heroine cruelly and even sexually assault her (sometimes as seriously as rape or near-rape), but it's usually for plot-related reasons as opposed to sheer kink value--sometimes the boy has deep psychological problems, or the heroine is drawn to the part of him that needs help. A very important aspect of these titles is, again, the heroine is generally strong-willed, so she can draw and maintain her personal boundaries or can even believably make the boy change for the better. To show a simplified version of this, we present Kodocha: the heroine is threatened physically by her troubled love interest, so she decides to try and help his family life to improve his attitude; he develops an interest in her and starts copping feels, so she dropkicks him in the face.
These titles can be fairly sexually explicit, intended for older teens, and/or "edgy," but they also tend to be mature and well-written works that appeal to readers' minds and hearts (as opposed to just base desires), thereby unconsciously drawing a more mature reading from the audience. Example titles include Basara, Kare Kano, Please Save My Earth, Gravitation (a boys' love title), and Paradise Kiss (although Paradise Kiss handles this idea a little differently, and doesn't make that clear until the final chapter).
Tier #3: Let him do what he wants
The risqué shoujo series discussed in this article are examples of third tier titles. The troubled and dangerous boys from Tier #2 now have little excuse for their behavior; they're not "working through a rough patch," control and a lack of respect are constant aspects of their personality. Even if they like the heroine and wish to pursue a relationship with her, they may still verbally abuse her, sexually assault her, and/or become frighteningly possessive. The heroines in these types of shoujo are usually either weak-willed or completely give up whatever will they have for the sake of their men, and tend to fall in love with the violent bad boys for one or more of the following reasons: 1.) He's hot, 2.) He's giving her attention when other boys won't, 3.) She wants sex and he'll give her that with minimal effort, or 4.) He's obsessed with her and the obsession is flattering. Note that while these are all common reasons for attraction in comics (and even in real life), these shoujo use these reasons for falling in love and/or starting a relationship. In simple terms, these shoujo feature teenage girls completely giving themselves over to dominating teenage boys for the sake of a relationship, and oftentimes the entire situation is romanticized. For an almost self-satirizing example of this type of shoujo (that hits disturbingly close to home), note the panels from Mayu Shinjo's recent romantic comedy Love Celeb below.
So Is This New To The West?
After initially posting this article, a common point in the resulting debates/discussions was the fact that the "dominating man" formula is old hat in Western romantic media for and by women. Romance novels--most notably the "bodice rippers"--can feature possessive and dominating men who are known both for their sexual aggression and their tendency to objectify their female love interests. These novels have been around for decades in the West, and a teenage girl finding said novels and reading them for explorations of sex and sexual fantasy is not an uncommon occurrence.
Why we think "dangerous" risqué shoujo titles deserve their own discussion is for a few subtle--but very distinct--differences between said shoujo and romance novels, one of the most important differences being the age of characters involved. In Western romance novels, both the heroine and her love interest are generally full-grown adults, whereas dangerous shoujo rarely feature a heroine out of high school. If a Western teenage female is reading a romance novel, there's a distinct separation between her and the heroine she's examining--it's easy for even the casual teenage reader to feel distanced from the twentysomething career woman in her novel and thus accept the heroine's choices more easily as ones situated in fantasy. Dangerous shoujo is generally written for high school girls about high school girls, so the connection between the reader and the heroine is far closer. If we accept the idea that media can affect a reader's perception of reality (even if only slightly), a close connection between the reader and the work can lend to the reader more readily comparing the themes in her media to her own life, thus making dangerous shoujo more potentially dangerous to its teenage readers.
On the topic of connection, bodice rippers and female submission fantasies in romance novels often involve a historical element to further separate the reader from the subject matter, hence the reference to the outdated female undergarment "bodice." Some of the most violent fantasies of male dominance and sexual aggression appear in these historical fantasies, where at the very least the context is far removed from the reader's reality (historical romance novels often reflect an outdated mindset regarding women and a defunct class system). Other bodice rippers may focus less on the time period and more on the unlikely setting of the story--such as a pirate ship. The open-submission online dictionary Wikipedia actually claims that the historical facet of bodice rippers is to help alleviate contemporary readers of guilt for fantasizing about sexual submission. Whereas dangerous shoujo has the inherent separation between a Western reader and the Japanese heroine, rarely is the time period anything other than present day and the heroine anything but a high school girl. Mayu Shinjo, however, is famous for her fantasies involving male leads generally unattainable in real life--rock stars, mafia heads, the Prince of Darkness--and can therefore be argued as a less "dangerous" mangaka for providing her young readers with a distinct separation from reality.
In a more general observation, we would also like to argue that the aggressive males in romance novels tend to insult a woman for her sexual experience (or lack thereof) or her class/monetary status, whereas it's not uncommon for dangerous shoujo men to also insult a girl for "being stupid." The romance novel insults imply that a romance novel man desires to dominate the heroine in the bedroom and/or influence her position in society, whereas a risqué shoujo man wishes to also dominate the heroine's personality. This sort of domination can be considered more complete, damaging, and abusive.
(Please note--neither author is familiar with the subset of "teen" romance novels that are directed specifically at young adults, and are therefore regrettably unable to include them in this discussion at the present time.)
The Ultimate Question: Fantasy vs. Reality
Of course, all of these points are to argue that dangerous shoujo can be dangerous to a reader if said reader is influenced by what she reads. But is every girl influenced by what she reads, and to the same degree? Of course not. The effects of media on society have been argued ad nauseam, and while some believe media is at fault for all the ills in our world, others think that movies and books have nothing to do with how people act in reality. Like most people, we believe the truth lies somewhere in-between.
Although we haven't done much research on how "dangerous" shoujo is taken in Japan, and the effects of dangerous shoujo on young Western men is a discussion best left to another article, we do have quite a bit of experience with how female teenagers in the West battle with love and power plays on a daily basis. Many teenage girls do associate aggression with masculinity and many sacrifice being treated with respect for the sake of romance; the disturbing phenomenon of women who stay in abusive relationships reflects the struggle many women have with sexuality, self-esteem, and submission in reality. Although there's a very strong argument that escapist fantasies help women avoid dominance in real life by providing an escape, we're afraid younger readers can be more influenced by fantasies since youth is characterized by learning about life from whatever source is there to provide information, be it family, friends, or media. And since these dangerous shoujo titles tend to reflect and exaggerate real-life high school situations, a reader may use the work of fiction to reinforce unhealthy opinions she may already have about the way she wants to pursue love.
We don't think that an otherwise strong-willed girl is going to pick up Hot Gimmick and become a complete doormat. What we do think is that there's a reasonable risk in our manga-flooded market that teenage girls who may otherwise be in danger of committing to an abusive relationship can pick up shoujo titles, work their way through the "bad boy manga" tiers mentioned above--and all three tiers have domestically-released manga to represent them--and may, consciously or unconsciously, use these manga to help justify abuse as a romantic ideal. Dangerous shoujo themes are often presented in colorful and romantic packages with significant doses of realism, and when few people comment on how said themes should be treated as escapist fantasies as opposed to touching love stories, that's when we're afraid of readers subliminally idealizing abuse.
If said shoujo themes are discussed, we do believe that the average teenage girl will agree that dangerous shoujo titles explore ideas one should never attempt in real life. If said themes are discussed, the danger of this "subliminal romanticizing of complete submission" is largely thwarted. We would simply like to see more discussion on the topic--discussion leads to critical thought, critical thought leads to conscious and well-informed decisions, and well-informed decisions allow these "dangerous" shoujo titles to remain exactly as they should: as escapist fantasies for healthy readers.
Please think, and talk, about what you're reading. Manga is fun, but don't let it hurt you.
Special thanks to Shoujo Magic for the majority of the pictures above.
-Christopher Butcher, a comic connoisseur with an amazing website at previewsreview.com and an also-amazing blog, commented on our article here.
-This led to a debate here on Elin Winkler's livejournal, which largely agreed with our points...
-...as well as on Johanna Draper Carlson's Cognitive Dissonance page here, which largely disagreed. She later updated her opinion on Hot Gimmick specifically here.
-A response to Elin Winkler's post can be found here.
-Chris Butcher then commented again here.
-At some point, telophase--who writes amazing stuff in livejournal--jumped in, and there's another debate here.
-At another point, there was more talk (from a mother of girls/manga reader; cool!) at Mangablog here.
-There was also someone who hated us (cool!) at Love Manga here.
-Mangablog had another little piece about our article and related opinions (complete with its own list of comments from readers) here.
-The Tokyopop forums picked up the thread of discussion and went off on its own debate here.
-Matt Thorn, the King of Shoujo and related academia here in the West, has a thread on his forum here that discusses explicit shoujo (although it doesn't reference this article).
Feel free to jump in any place that's still active and add to the debate!