After spending several hours shooting footage for a project that will likely use none of it, it is hard to come back to the world of pointed critique without first coming out the other side of a fifth of bourbon. That said, I’ve been quite surprised over the past few weeks just how intellectually animating these problematic theories of mediated girliness have been. Over the years I’ve written about a number of women authors, poets, and artists, but I’ve never been too terribly committed to theorizing their work as by or for women. My interest was always somewhat neutral, if that is even possible these days.
Fight on, young [girls], fight on!
Last week I identified two axes of representing gender in manga, particularly with regard to this critical artifact called “the” shōjo: 1) correspondence between girls represented and girls/young women as consumers of those representations and 2) sexuality as political status and autonomy. I only dealt with the latter in any great detail, so this time around I’d like to deal with the critical blindness that results from assuming that representations of pubescent girls are necessarily for real girls. The correspondence that Lunning points to is one of modeling: these images of girls in graphic and behavioral terms are to serve as models for how girls and young women see themselves. What I seek to show in this final installment (for now) on shōjo in and out of shōjo manga is how these girl-types function as a complicated object of male desire and consumption as well as how readers of shōjo manga use these stories toward ends in their own lives for which they were likely never intended. I can never say enough that the power of individual readers to transform the ends toward which all texts may be purposed is always capable of overcoming the social codes and messages with which these media seem to be laden.
Saitō Tamaki, in his popular and influential recent media critique Sentō bishōjo (Beautiful Fighting Girl), takes a much more thorough and nuanced approach to girl-types, both because he limits himself to the beautiful fighting girls of the title, rather than girls in some general (yet still limiting) sense, and because he pays attention to those who appreciate and consume the media artifacts that depict them. So, his argument is in two parts: 1) to define what an otaku, the consumer of this girl-type, is and 2) to lay out a genealogy of the beautiful fighting girl herself. Contra Lunning’s overemphasis on cloying innocence, Saitō is quick to point out that an otaku‘s sexuality, particularly with regard to the object of his (or her, but mostly his) fan adoration, has no problem at all with “defiling” the media text by using pornographic images of a Sailor Moon or Ayanami Rei as a masturbatory aid. There is nothing necessarily pure about an otaku‘s relationship to the object/s of his fanaticism.
Saitō characterizes the beautiful fighting girl as in many ways vacant and arbitrary: “I think few would disagree that she is in a position very much like that of a medium [miko]; that is, she functions to mediate the other world. The destructive force that she wields is not one that she manipulates subjectively but rather a manifestation of a kind of repulsive force that operates between different worlds. As a kind of medium, it is only natural that she should be hollow inside.” (Beautiful Fighting Girl p. 160, trans. Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson) Though his sweeping genealogy is not unconvincing, I am wary of taking Saitō’s argument too far, in part because the example he uses just prior to the above quote, Nausicaä from Miyazaki Hayao’s Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), only really works so long as you have the feature length film in mind. Otherwise, given the final narrative arc in which Nausicaä manipulates the god warrior into destroying the crypt of Shuwa (thus dooming humanity to die out) and also the extreme popularity of the manga in Japan, I’m not sure how well Saitō’s beautiful fighting girl holds up to close scrutiny. Perhaps he is overly constrained by his rigidly Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective, but it certainly seems to me that he has simply produced yet another merely semi-useful girl-type, even if she is more thoroughly fleshed out.
“I think it would be kinder, if I ended their lives myself”
It has been some time now–more than a decade, if you can imagine–since I first read Takahashi Shin’s Saishū heiki kanojo (She, the Ultimate Weapon), and reading it again recently, I am no less disturbed by its still seemingly easy conceit. I can’t tell if it’s a very subtle critique of a kind of romantic fantasy (i.e. the isolated lovers) or whether Takahashi really buys into Shūji’s claim in the final chapter that Chise will bear the sins of all the people she has wiped off the face of the earth. At the end of the world, Chise herself brings about the destruction of every human being on the planet (with the exception of her boyfriend–how convenient…), but in becoming the “ultimate weapon” of the manga’s title, she gives up nearly every last shred of who she was as a human being.
In Chise’s transformation from dopey girl, teased for her embarrassment over any frank discussion of sex, to Death Star we arrive at yet another fighting girl who undermines Saitō’s theory, though at first glance she might appear to confirm it. Her comic indifference to the manipulation of her body by the Japanese military comes off as an extreme case of the mediating vacancy so key to Saitō’s theory of the beautiful fighting girl.
However, even though Rei’s unswerving loyalty to Shinji’s father in Evangelion brings her again and again to the brink of death, she is never other to herself, meaning whether as EVA pilot or as school, she always has the same vacant indifference to the events in her life. Chise’s indifference, on the other hand, is a means of concealing from her boyfriend Shūji just how personally soul-crushing her transformation into a weapon of war truly is. This objectification of her body and personhood plays out in stark contrast between her goofy girlishness one moment and the cold calculations of Chise-as-automaton the next.
With this in mind, we might actually return to EVA, and discover that all is not as it seems, for Saitō’s theory of mediating vacancy above could apply just as well to Shinji as to Rei. In fact, in the second episode, we see how the EVA itself completely takes over and how Shinji functions as a mere “plug” by which the destructive force of the EVA is activated. Far from a lucky coincidence, this is what Shinji’s father had hoped for and was why he sent for his son in the first place. Like Chise above, we are given a glimpse of Shinji’s horror when a plate of the EVA’s armor is stripped away and he sees the true nature of the monstrous living thing into which he has been plugged.
By the end of Saikano, Chise has become a massive but transparent ship in which she takes Shūji away from the planet whose inhabitants she has just killed off. The irony of her transformation into a fighting girl is that she is, for all intents and purposes, not really there–she is even more than vacant.
In the first story of Matsuda Naoko’s collection Shōjo manga (that’s the title, not just a category, btw), “Rose of Versailles,” a hip young manga artist has another of her stories rejected and is confronted with the cold hard truth of conforming to the tropes of shōjo manga, if she ever hopes to get published.
Tawara: I guess the readers of Sulaco are more conservative / My manga is “too cool” / I just don’t get it… / …what kind of person reads this?
One of the interesting ironies of Shōjo manga is that it is not, in fact, shōjo manga but rather josei, i.e. for young women, and “the kind of person who reads this” is revealed on the following page to be Misawa Katsuko, a 34 year-old dispatch (haken) employee at a large company, who grows increasingly dissatisfied with her provisional status at her company. Her one joy in life is her undying love for Ikeda Riyoko’s classic shōjo manga, Rose of Versailles. And so, Misawa is set up as the type for whom classic (though once revolutionary) shōjo manga is a kind of escapist fantasy from the harsh reality of working as a woman in a Japanese corporation. At one point, having overheard a young douchebag complain about the “sorry state” of the haken office ladies and how they’ll all be replaced with permanent employees when he’s in charge, Misawa loses it and screams at him, “until then, could you at least remember to do your job! [sono mae ni shigoto oboete kudasai!]” Misawa grows increasingly despondent until a fellow dispatch employee, a single mother, invites her to dinner and mentions offhand that Misawa has the heart of an Oscar, the young woman-as-man who is Marie Antoinette’s bodyguard in Rose of Versailles.
Misawa: The Three Estates… class divisions in Revolutionary France… so, in terms of a company… the first estate, the clergy –> management; the second estate, the aristocracy –> permanent employees; the third estate, commoners –> dispatch workers… is that it?
From that moment on, Misawa begins to re-read Ikeda’s text politically–not just politically but directly in terms of her own situation in the company. She is driven both by her supervisor’s recent heart attack and her re-reading of her favorite manga to unionize–or at least form some sense of solidarity in a work environment where no one seems to give a shit about anyone else. This may not sound terribly revolutionary, but in the context of the contemporary Japanese labor market, where unions are regularly demonized, especially by government officials, and where women are generally treated as second class citizens, Misawa’s sudden drive to improve relations between all employees is actually quite risky.
I chose to end on this point as a reminder that there is a real danger in pigeonholing shōjo as represented both in- and outside shōjo manga, in part because the real women and girls (and men and boys) who read these media texts are capable of critically dissecting them in ways for which they were perhaps never intended. What critics all too often lose sight of is how the interpretive capacities of real readers always threaten to undermine even the most elaborate theories and how their representative types threaten to invisibilize those alternative reading modes.
Next week: who knows!
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