All That Really Matters Is What’s on the Inside: Reading Genderbending and Androgyny in Shoujo Manga, a curatorial statement/research proposal mash-up

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So I am not sure if you have noticed or not through my sticker-plastered, evidently-I-am-the-living stereotype-of-some-mutated (because this trope should not still be able to manifest so visibly in the body of a 21 y.o. grown-ass woman)-iteration-of-the-clichéd-nerdy-prepubescent-or-something laptop screen, but as I have mentioned in previous posts, I still kind of obsess over fictional characters in manga (Japanese graphic novels) on a regular basis, suffering from what I lovingly call with mixed metaphors, a parasitic addiction. Parasitic because this will most likely not help me get into medschool. And addiction because of the hours I spend staring at the computer screen flipping through online scans of various manga series…which I guess makes me the parasite of those mangaka (the creators of manga). I swear here that one day when – let’s be real, increasingly “if” – I make money, I will support them by actually buying hardcopies.

What began as a somewhat benign hobby that I picked up when I was tiny and a lot cuter has evolved throughout the past decade and a half into an enduring staple of my daily life. Given the persistent lack of the Asian-American personal and cultural experience in media, manga has personally played a huge role in becoming a substitution. Solely based on my personal experience and armed with the theoretical language I have amassed this past quarter, I am curious as to how this culturally and nationally Japanese media has helped me negotiate my current Asian-American identity with the more traditional values that my parents have attempted to pass down. My proposed research into shoujo manga (manga marketed towards girls under 20) was mainly inspired by conversations with peers on the qualities of “good manga”. From the sometimes bipolar opinions on its plotlines and character appeals, I became interested in why certain shoujo manga remain persistently popular despite their subscription to stereotypical plotlines of romance-speckled-with-endearing-humour and the trope-fulfilling character development of the protagonists.

Specifically, I will attempt to draw parallels to the generational shift between parents and first/second generation Asian-Americans who are, in their engagement with these texts through fan-made material and personal reflections, able to articulate and illustrate their changing perspective of gender and sexuality. In light of the aforementioned present dearth in Asian-American representation in popular media, I argue that studying the relationships between manga and Asian-American young adult readers will be a productive means of examining how they are negotiating their socialisation within immigrant families and their constructions of identity after becoming exposed to outside material such as manga.

I will mainly derive evidence of these alternative constructs of femininities, masculinities, and sexualities from online fandom communities e.g. Tumblr, DeviantArt, pixiv, and Fanfiction.net. Additionally, based on my experiences as an Asian-American woman, I am also interested in discovering what specific aspects of shoujo manga fans might find distasteful, and whether or not personal constructions of Western liberal feminism and the influence of their parents’ possible neoliberalist mind-set as immigrants inform these readings. Because all of the titles I chose also follow interpersonal relationships within complicated families, I will analyse how parent-child dynamics play a role in identity formation and to what extent readers are affected by depictions of single-parent families and orphaned protagonists. From personal experience and anecdotes as reinforced by the variety of primary and secondary sources examined in class, many Asian-American young adults are heavily influenced by immigrant parents/grandparents, and so I will explore how participants of this demographic experience largely conservative families, how this may relate to their methods of grappling with personal ideals conflicting with older generations, and their relations with Asian-American cohorts. I will analyse subversive techniques utilised in manga/anime to therefore determine whether these details aided or hindered the personal growth of readers. It will be interesting to examine how the first/second Asian-American generation interprets the depiction of marginalised groups within another (Asian) culture and how this may disconnect with the values their parents grew up with in that very cultural framework. My examination of betrayal in Mulan then serves as an analytical model of Asian-American reaction and resonance with Asian cultural motifs.

Analyses of the Boy’s Love genre, where female readers are able to take otherwise heterosexual characters and present them in homosexual relationships, will inform how I interpret the androgynous presentation of certain characters. I will relate the historical work James Welker (2015) does in examining the development of this genre as a way for female mangaka and their readers to circumvent gender and sexual norms to the use of gender-bending as a plot device in the manga titles I study (Welker 2015). Additionally, the analysis of Andrea Wood (2006) on boys-love fan-art has already proposed that the assumed heterosexual female reader living in a heteronormative world can find it empowering to see male characters in these idealised romantic, homosexual relations. Because they are drawn to be more effeminate, aligned with the overall artistic aesthetic of shoujo manga, female readers are free to interpret these relationships as queer (Wood 2006). Boy’s Love is particularly remarkable due to its versatility, where manga can either be published in official magazines or sold by individual artists who can either be members of a larger domestic-only or international fan-circle, or are completely unaffiliated.

I will use Andrea Wood’s analysis of the fandom as a way to approach the production of art using characters from shoujo manga: between the female protagonist and a male character, between two of the male characters, or between the female protagonist and another female character. Because shoujo manga is more widely published in the United States whereas Boy’s Love has only recently gained traction amongst mainstream publishing companies, I will apply the current theories surrounding this more niche genre to shoujo manga series that are actively and publicly promoted to younger audiences. To supplement these analyses of manga and fan culture with current studies in Asian-American media, I will use the application of Shimizu’s idea of totality/infinity that I started in my second blog entry on cosplaying to analyse why the Asian-American audience might specifically find androgyny and gender-bending useful plot devices and the motivations behind joining transnational fan groups. How Asian-American readers interact with each other to promote these more subversive character relationships will be of particular interest.

In order to further understand this phenomenon of gender-bending and androgyny in shoujo manga, I will draw from the analysis of Yukari Fujimoto (2004). She notes that “genderbent” manga complicate societal constructions of sex/gender identity, ergo this genre represents the possibility of a society where people can determine whatever ratio of masculine/feminine they feel best represents themselves (Fujimoto et al. 2004). With this ideal in mind, it then becomes clear why shoujo manga is such a prominent vehicle of such transgressions in gender identity: women exist in a complicated role under the current gender system and use this disillusionment with societal structures to create stories where female protagonists do not follow and may even struggle with their own fluid displays of masculinity and femininity (Fujimoto et al. 2004). Additionally, besides looking at character design, this would be an interesting lens through which to analyse the iconic flowery, sparkly backgrounds in shoujo manga and scene composition (use of panels, focus on certain characters during dialogues, choice in perspective).

One of the manga series I focus on is Ouran High School Host Club, which ran from 2002-2010 as a manga before adaptation into an anime that aired during the 2006 spring to summer anime seasons, and is the series I briefly examined in my third blog. I chose this one because it is known to be transgressive in its parodying of Boy’s Love trends and doujinshi (self-published/fan-made material). Although, ultimately, the main host and the gender fluid protagonist fall in love and end up together, I am interested in studying the progression of their relationship within this self-aware pushback against social norms, and what aspects of these relationships readers found the most engaging or offensive; I am curious to see how readers negotiate Haruhi’s father’s gradual acceptance of the main suitor and her ultimate return to heterosexuality at the end.

Regarding my analysis of the Asian-American response, I will draw primarily upon our discussions of Rosalind Chou (2012) and her investigations of Asian-American femininity, masculinity, and relationships. Her examination of Asian American femininity and masculinity provides important background in understanding why certain characters are highlighted in fan-made material whereas others are largely forgotten as well as why certain characters are “shipped” – or, paired – together. Her treatment of both the vertical (generational) and horizontal (comparison to peers) influences on Asian-American identity will be crucial as I look at both how participants experience the vertical transmission of conservative cultural norms and how they participate in or simply enjoy the fandom of each series through online forums or during anime/manga conventions (Chou 2012). This way, I can analyse U.S. consumption of manga and the appeal of certain stories here versus in Japan as well as the development of fandoms and fan-art that represent the interpretations of readers Stateside.

After arming her audience with analyses on the societal and familial treatment of Asian-Americans, Chou dedicates a chapter to developing methods of resistance against white hegemonic ideals of sexuality and gender. I will apply the methods she elaborates to reading manga in order to analyse both the original manga and fan-art as a site of resistance against oppressive displays of Asian-American femininities, masculinities, and social systems. However, given my own background and those of my classmates here at Northwestern, these analyses will be qualified as coming from a certain subscription to the “model minority” and the “intellectual elite”. As I begin discussing in my fourth blog, how can we abandon these pervasive images to become more productive in breaking down hegemonic structures of quotidian life as a more privileged cohort of society? The self-reflection and communication with my Asian-American peers this research provokes will hopefully help me, as an individual, identify personal countermeasures that began forming with something as seemingly frivolous as reading manga and will hopefully provide a more constructive lens with which to read this popular media for other readers as well.

Outside Works

Fujimoto, Yukari, Linda Flores, Kazumi Nagaike, and Sharalyn Orbaugh. 2004. “Female Hermaphrodites and Male Androgynes.”  U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal (27):76-117.

Welker, James. 2015. “A Brief History of Shonen’ai, Yaoi, and Boy’s Love.” In Boys Love Manga and Beyond: History, Culture, and Community in Japan, edited by Mark McLelland, Kazumi Nagaike, Katsuhiko Suganuma and James Welker. University Press of Mississippi.

Wood, Andrea. 2006. “”Straight” Women, Queer Texts: Boy-Love Manga and the Rise of a Global Counterpublic.”  Women’s Studies Quarterly 34 (1):394-414.

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