5b. Shōjo Boys and Shōnen Girls – The Gender Ambiguity of Manga “Children”

I know I said last week that I would be moving on to Mizuki Shigeru this week, but I felt that my treatment there of the phenomenon of the boy-as-shōjo merited explanation at greater length.

Cover of the current issue of the International Journal of Comic Art

Cover of the current issue of the International Journal of Comic Art

In the Fall of 2011, at a conference at the University of Iowa, I had the dubious privilege of moderating a panel (of 2) in the early morning comprising two of the more important figures in the study of manga, John Lent, the founder of the International Journal of Comic Art, and Frenchy Lunning, the editor-in-chief of the Mechademia series.  I say “dubious,” because, while I respect John Lent immensely (even if his talk was a bit long and incoherent), I am none too fond of Lunning’s “work” on Japanese pop culture.  I was also in the dubious position of being the only one in the room to have the background necessary to rip her talk a new asshole and yet was compelled to hold my tongue lest the people who had invited her would hold it against me when it came time to make judgments about my future employment at the UI.  As the audience fawned over her “argument,” all I could do was stand to the side, seethe, and point to the next person to ask her or Lent a question.  That said, her articles concerning “the” shōjo are a good example of a common critical conception of “girly-ness” one sees regularly in academic criticism of Japanese media.

yotsuba_artist“Shōjo is a complex, multi-layered, transnational compendium of commodities that circulate in the realms of advertising and packaging, illustration and art, toys and girl’s accessories.  Virtually anything that has the potential for appealing to especially young women [emphasis mine] may be marked by this aesthetic referring back to the shōjo of Japanese anime and manga [sic].  This proliferation of commodities is so pervasive, so uniquely adaptable to global culture and subjects, that it has saturated global markets. Yet her “meaning” [?] remains elusive.  Her appeal in all her multitudinous manifestations is instant, her form and visage ubiquitous, and her recognition immediate [!], and yet there is an uncanny sense of absence in her presence, a lack of a center to this constellation, an uneasy sense of a ghostly presence lurking behind the mask of her frivolous ubiquity and cloying innocence.” (“Under the Ruffles: Shōjo and the Morphology of Power” p. 12 in Mechademia 6: User Enhanced)

There is a lot to be unpacked there, but to this should also be added Fujimoto Yukari’s remarks about the relationship between a young woman/girl’s sexuality, her socio-political status, and the prevalence of male/male homoerotic relationships in shōjo manga.  She says there are two important points to keep in mind: 1) by taking on the forms of men, women are able to recover a socio-political status and power that is otherwise unavailable to them, and 2) because of #1, a woman disguises relating to her own gender by using male figures.  A shōjo is not meant to experience her own sexuality as is, so to speak, and thus it is transformed so that “her” sexuality might be explored outside the narrow constraints of modern Japanese expectations for the female sex.

Kitty-chan and red ribbon "bow"

Kitty-chan and red ribbon “bow”

So, the two axes of understanding gender exemplified here are 1) clear correspondence between media figures and real women/girls (Lunning’s “appeal to young women” and “immediate recognition” above) and 2) sexuality as political authority and autonomy.  Now, the problem I have with this media studies as amateur sociology is its ignorance both of the real sociology of gender that examines the emergence of “the” shōjo in the late 19th century as well as the literature (particularly poetry) of sexual empowerment of young adult women coeval with it.  Honda Masuko’s Jogakusei no keifu (Genealogy of the Female Student) demonstrates quite convincingly how media images and theories of ideal shōjo-ness emerge from the invention of the jogakusei (female student) necessitated by Japanese education reforms, modeled on the Prussian system, that segregated boys from girls.  With this distinction came certain visual tropes, in particular the use of large hair ribbons to distinguish girls from boys.  Gender in pre/adolescence, then, was a performance that conformed to prescriptions pervasive in popular media.  Alongside this, though, we have the otome (maiden/virgin) of Yosano Akiko‘s poetry collection Midaregami (Disheveled Hair), in which we are given glimpses of a young women coming into her own sexual power in a manner that clearly alludes to the great female poets of the Heian Period, especially Izumi Shikibu.

“Girls who are boys…”

Something that struck me quite some time ago is how often the “girls” of shōjo manga are not pre-pubescent but adolescent.  The former are not non-existent but are certainly dwarfed by the presence of the latter.  I suspect this has something to do with the term shōjo itself and how it came to be applied to the new gender category to emerge in the context of Japanese modernism.  Prior to the 19th century, the kanji used to write shōjo 少女 was read otome, addition to the kanji now commonly used to write that word 乙女.  In fact, the 21st chapter of Murasaki Shikibu‘s Tale of Genji titled Otome” (“Maidens”) is written using 少女 and not 乙女.  “The” shōjo, then, could be better understood not as an extension of the asexuality we typically associate with young children but as a de-sexualization of otome, a maiden held right at the border between child and adult, available to sexual commodification but incapable of sexual experience outside limited romantic tropes.  This is what I meant last week by suggesting that Edgar in Pō no ichizoku is a shōjo, seeing as Hagio admits that she made Edgar the age he is so that, as a vampire, he would eternally be at this boundary.

So far, I have not really contradicted the standard line about “the” shōjo, nor do I intend to.  Rather, I would insist that “the” shōjo is a theory of adolescence, adolescence extended in recent times well into adulthood–thus our contemporary tendency to refer even to women in their 20s as “girls.”  Moreover, I would claim there is a real paucity of understanding what constitutes childhood in manga and the gender ambiguity therein.  This ambiguity, furthermore, is closely linked to the gender non-distinction of Japanese elementary education and the correlative gender specific codes for dress and behavior that suddenly attain in junior high.  For it is not until junior high that one sees sailor uniforms for girls and pseudo-military uniforms for boys.  In elementary school, the visual tropes that provide “immediate recognition” of shōjo contra shōnen are not necessarily there.

This ambiguity of gender in childhood can be seen both in shōnen and shōjo manga.  As a young boy, Zoro (of Oda Eiichirō’s One Piece) forms a rivalry with a slightly older girl, Kuina, who consistently beats him in duels, but before this relationship can develop into the easy rivalry/friendship so common in shōnen manga, Kuina’s development of sexual characteristics threatens to stop their rivalry in its tracks.

Kuina and a young Zoro (NOT Zolo, dammit!) in One Piece vol. 1 p. 137

Kuina and a young Zoro (NOT Zolo, dammit!) in One Piece vol. 1 p. 137

But before this flashback can develop into a compelling commentary on gender dynamics in popular media, Oda quickly kills Kuina off in arguably the dumbest possible way: she falls down the stairs and dies.  However, by killing her off just prior to puberty, Oda crystalizes her in Zoro’s memory as the drive behind his desire to become the best swordsman in the world.

In Obana Miho’s Kodomo no omocha (Child’s Toy), we have two excellent examples of this pre-adolescent openness to both shōnen and shōjo tropes: Sana and Akito.  Sana, though a girl in a shōjo manga, openly and aggressively challenges Akito’s attempts to wrest control of their class from the teacher.

Sana's and Akito's playground fight, Kodomo no omocha vol. 1 p. 38

Sana’s and Akito’s playground fight, Kodomo no omocha vol. 1 p. 38

Moreover, her casual reference to her manager Rei as her “lover” (koibito) reads as funny, because we assume it to be naive.  The same expression in the mouth of the adolescent, media-type shōjo articulated above would read very differently.  In fact, Kodocha is a perfect example of how this transition from naive childhood into constrained adolescence occurs.  As Sana moves from elementary school to junior high, her shōnen-esque rivalry with and motherly love for Akito develops into an adolescent romance, exemplified by her declaration that she will “remain a virgin” while Akito is undergoing treatment in America, a declaration which calls to mind the trope of the young woman pledging fidelity to her man as he goes off to war (or whatever).

Kodocha vol. 2 p. 14

Kodocha vol. 2 p. 14

Akito, on the other hand, exhibits many of the characteristics of a stereotypical shōjo: absent mother, strained relationship with his father, recurring illness.  Akito is acrophobic, generally indifferent to those around him, and because his mother died giving birth to him, his sister regards him with loathing.  He has much more in common with the “down on her luck” girl trope so apparent in Shirato’s Kieyuku shōjo than he does with the passionate passion passionately emoted by the boy’s boy type of shōnen manga (i.e. Zoro above).

“…Who Like Boys to be Girls…”

Yotsuba charges through Ena's legs, Yotsuba to! vol. 1 p. 41

Yotsuba charges through Ena’s legs, Yotsuba to! vol. 1 p. 41

Yotsuba, of Azuma Kiyohiko’s Yotsuba to! (Yotsuba and!), could also be understood as a gender ambivalent type like Sana, given her penchant for very shōnen-esque activities: running (very very fast), jumping (very very high), catching bugs, playing with guns, etc.  I would argue, though, that, in many ways, she is a much purer form.  She does not age, for one, she does not make knowing sexual quips, and only rarely does she bear any gender-marking characteristics.  For the most part, we see her in shorts and t-shirt with the irrepressible energy and hyperactive nonsense typical of shōnen manga.

Yotsuba to! vol. 1 p. 222

Yotsuba to! vol. 1 p. 222

Koiwai: That [girl]–no matter what, she always has fun. / Yotsuba is / unrivaled.

However, because Yotsuba is technically a girl, she brings into relief how the stereotypes of shōnen manga are sometimes to be understood as generic rather than gendered.  As Kuina exemplifies above, pre-adolescent boys and girls are both capable of this shōnen exuberance, and it is only girls who develop away from it.  In fact, to develop at all, to age, is to slip seemingly irresistibly into shōjo-hood.  Yotsuba’s father’s description of her as “unrivaled” is telling, even if at first glance it would seem to say simply that nothing gets her down.  But she is also “unrivaled” in that she is a type of shōnen (as girl) who cannot develop in the way stereotypical shōnen do: mutual perfection of skills through persistent rivalry.  This is how “the” shōnen emerges in “his own” adolescence, so Yotsuba’s agelessness (like the characters of Schulz’s Peanuts) is the clearest sign of a popular (though only ever implicit) theory of childhood otherwise absent in both media representations of “boys” and “the” shōjo of critical imagination.

Next week: weaponized femininity, a shōjo murderer, and the heterogeneous audience for shōjo types.

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. […] like to draw your attention back to an image I had used in another context, namely about boys/girls and the assumptions about/representations of in manga, and talk with […]

  2. Just stumbled here, looking for more on Lunning’s Kristeva riff on shojo… Hmmmmm “Morphology of Power” is best read with “Magnetic Rose” running on youtube on the laptop screen nearby. I was wondering when Kristeva would show up, her poetics are irresistible. Nagaike seems to be going up in the theory lists too. Closer to your interests, you may care to check out the Neighbour’s Club’s (Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai) Yozora Mikazuki as a contemporary version of the tomboy girl who has to become something else. regards.. M.

    1. I’m not a massive fan of Kristeva’s semiotics, though I can see how you would go there. The major problem I have with her philosophy of language is the assumption that cultural codes are just somehow there (I believe her wording is something like “the happenstance of chancy codes”) without origin. At the time, this may have been a compelling way to look at semiotics, but it’s a very narrow minded sense of origin a la historical genealogy. I prefer a more Heideggerean/Foucauldian approach, i.e. there is an important function of individuals in perpetuating and re-originating the cultural codes that Kristeva (and Barthes) think are just there and as such require no historiographic explanation.

      I could talk your ear off about what I think is wrong with Lunning’s conception of shojo, of which the tl;dr version is it’s FAR too present centric.


  4. […] and pubescent, though not quite adolescent, boys.  However, as I have tried to show previously, the gendering of shōnen as expressly young and male is highly suspect, due both to the known fact of the current mixed gender readership of shōnen manga and the […]

  5. […] popular manga among Japanese women are those featuring Shojo boys and Shonen girls, characters of ambiguous gender and sexuality. Often the boys are drawn to look so feminine that it is unclear what gender is […]

  6. […] specifically, as a critic of her conception of “the shōjo,” which I have to cop to, since the evidence for it is as plain as day.  This identification also caused me to wonder whether it had anything to do with Professor […]

  7. Hi ! Best regards !

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