So in the spirit of full disclosure, I am currently trying to tie together some sort of senior thesis topic that will be both academically interesting but also more importantly legitimise to my parents this one all-consuming hobby I have nurtured since I was yea high and lead me on a path of self-discovery to the roots of whatever nascent characteristics I inhabit as a consequence of being prone to the powers of suggestion and subliminal messaging…but yeah, so shoujo manga (Japanese graphic novels marketed mainly towards a female audience of under 20) has been on my mind lately.
Please do listen to opening while you read though. The full experience requires lots of pink and roses.
Talking to my friends, there seems to be is this unanimous pique towards this genre’s subscription to stereotypical plotlines of romance speckled with endearing humour and the trope-fulfilling character development of the main characters; however, taking inspiration from Stephanie Hsu’s analysis of Coffee Prince in this article, I would like to respond to this frustration with pervasive weak female characters – that is also voiced in an earlier posting looking at Naruto, a shounen manga (manga marketed mainly towards the teenage male reader) – by looking specifically at one shoujo title. I would like to examine through Ouran High School Host Club how the use androgyny and cross-dressing motifs allow the author to portray sexualities that deviate from the largely normative relationships and character tropes portrayed in shoujo manga storylines and give readers a taste of alternate constructions of femininity and masculinity within a genre that is known to perpetuate certain models of how to be a man or woman.
Ouran High School Host Club ran from 2002-2010 as a manga following Fujioka Haruhi, a scholarship student studying at the titular prestigious private school whereupon she accidentally – ruefully – meets the six members of the Ouran High School Host Club. Hilarity ensues when each of the six guys are showcased, fulfilling their own role as the flirty pretty boy, the smart elite, the scandalous twins, the tall, dark, and handsome, and the omg-is-he-really-a-high-schooler innocent boy. However, unlike Eun Chan in Coffee Prince, who consciously makes an effort to act as a man through chest-binding and baggy clothing, it is because of Haruhi’s natural appeal to her female classmates as an innocent, pure, and hardworking – all traits identified by Rosalind Chou in her chapter on “Asian American Women” as optimal for one such person to have – that the others see her value in being a male host.
In fact, it is Haruhi’s effeminate features that make her attractive to male and female characters alike (seen above, Chapter 1, pp. 31-32). By performing this sort of androgynous beauty, Celina Parrenas Shimizu’s idea of “bad objects” in her chapter on “The Political Power of Hypersexuality in Asian American Feminist Films” can now be used to empower Asian masculinity within the American readership context: the more feminine man, otherwise constructed as a non-normative and therefore defective male status, actually has the higher position in the Ouran High School social structure, with more access to power – as popular host – and resources – from the unlimited funds as contributed to by the scores of female patrons (Shimizu 227, Chou 107).
This refreshing portrayal of a female protagonist is also recognised by most viewers as one of the most enticing aspects of this shoujo manga. As the Cajun Samurai notes in their review of the series:
“As a leading female character, Haruhi is one of my favorites. She’s so real and down to earth, acting as the Host Club’s anchor and moral conscience. It’s easy to see why the girls who visit the host club are drawn to her and why some of the boys in the host club are too…”
However, this viewer’s identification of Haruhi as being the “moral conscience” of an otherwise decadent – nigh on depraved – depiction of wealth and time, as especially encapsulated by the various themed costumes/sets and the scandalously incestuous pairing of the twin hosts, to entertain by her male cohorts, hearkens back to the role of a woman as “the one who carries the virtues of a community. And when she pleases herself, she’s in fact being unfaithful to those virtues” (Chou 97). Indeed, Haruhi never betrays any sense of having any sexual desire either towards her cute female classmates or her confident, male colleagues – at least until (spoiler alert) the neat wrap-up of the series where she ends up with king of all hosts. But, even when there are no overt displays of any “deviant” sexualities, Haruhi queering of gender allows readers to experience alternative sexualities to the usual heteronormative framing of shoujo. In fact, Haruhi’s truthful, emotional connections with female patrons could also be the author suggesting a form of non-genital sexuality (the first instance shown in chapter 1 page 35).
Haruhi’s complicated gender and sexual identity also situates her in a non-heteronormative kinship with her single-parent father as she simultaneously plays the role of daughter in doing housework, doing groceries, but also inhabits a male persona at school that her father accepts with only a little bit of chagrin (Hsu).
Of course, this dividing of family roles is also complicated by the fact that her father is, as you may have noticed above, a gay man who cross-dresses for a living at an okama (gay) bar. But that’s for a whole ‘nother post.
For the young female readership growing up with this manga, Haruhi’s character portrayal and development becomes an important platform for exploring new ways to perform gender and sexuality. This is probably the one time I feel like I’d like to be in high school again. But like, a fictional, ridiculously flamboyant one.