As much as I love shoujo manga, it’s not a medium that lends itself very well to breaking down societal norms. Shoujo has a strict structure to it that’s difficult to break out of while still remaining true to the essence of what shoujo is: comics that focus on love and tender emotions. When I found Otomen a couple years ago, I had to admit I was excited to see what could possibly be done with the premise of a high school boy who had stereotypically feminine interests dating a girl who had stereotypically masculine interests. Granted, it’s not a new idea, but at its start Otomen really did seem progressive—surprisingly little relationship drama, a main couple that outwardly and strongly supported each other, a supporting cast that, for the most part, didn’t seek to undermine the romance, and a message about breaking down gender roles. Sounds great, right? But as I finally prodded myself to finish reading it Saturday night, something began sitting strangely with me. Maybe, just maybe, the series isn’t as progressive as I thought, and maybe this shoujo is actually detrimental to its intended audience.
I’d be negligent if I ignored the fact that dudes read shoujo just as much as girls read shonen, and I do think Otomen has a lot of great messages about not being afraid to pursue your interests even if they clash with society’s gender norms—especially when focusing on guys who like stereotypically girly things—but shoujo is still at its core a genre that girls tend to see as a refuge. To author and artist Aya Kanno’s credit, a series about a boy who loves cute, pink things and dreams of supporting his future police officer girlfriend as a househusband is very appealing. Who doesn’t want to fantasize about having a significant other who isn’t going to roll their eyes at you and laugh at what makes you passionate? What girl wouldn’t want to imagine themselves having someone support them whether they want to join the work force or do something a little more domestic? It’s great. I’m not even going to pretend it’s not. But as Otomen continues, things start to shift toward a bit of a less accepting message, at least in my eyes.
First, though, let me go over the series briefly. Otomen’s titular otomen—a word formed by combining the Japanese word for maiden, “otome”, with “men”—Asuka Masamune, loves everything cute. However, for the sake of his mother’s health he hides his love and devotes himself to becoming the manliest man that ever manned. As captain of the kendo team and a skilled judo practitioner, he seems well on his way to maintaining his façade. Then he falls in love. He falls hard. To Asuka, Ryo Miyakozuka is the epitome of everything he could ever want in a girl; she’s sweet, considerate, brave, and is ready and willing to protect him from ghosts and spooky things. They end up dating early on in the series (the second volume out of eighteen volumes) and the series turns toward finding other otomen and getting them to embrace their “girly” talents while also seeing how they deal with the societal pressure as well as the pressure from their families.
One of the more subtle problems Otomen eventually faces, I feel, is not that it’s a shoujo focused on a guy’s story rather than the usual girl’s, but because it actually leaves the typical conventions of shoujo, and not in a clever way. By the seventeenth volume it was clear to me that Otomen had become a shonen, and even partially a horror manga concerning the main arc. And while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is a confusing thing and makes it hard to figure out which parts of the manga I should be investing myself in. As a general rule, I find that shoujo comics focus on the protagonist while shonen focus on the main group. Even looking at Sailor Moon, which managed to develop all of the Scouts to full characters, the main focus was still on Serena and her struggles. Otomen makes it appear like it would mostly focus on Asuka’s plot, but then all the supporting characters of the main group become equally as important narrative-wise later on. It breaks up the flow of the story and makes some things lose their impact because the audience becomes a little too distant from Asuka.
However, the main problem Otomen has is its gender inequality when dealing with the breaking down of gender norms. If you’re a dude who likes girly things, you’re golden. You’re basically God in this manga and everyone will eventually come to be impressed with your skills and compliment you. However, if you’re a girl who likes manly things, you don’t get off so easy. Ryo is the easiest example of this, being mainly the only girl who’s talked about in any great detail. Ryo can’t cook, loves judo and training in the mountains, and finds old martial arts movies about brotherhood and bushido the highest form of entertainment. All of these things are seen as endearing by the cast, but not in the same way the girly stuff is. To put it differently, Asuka is loved because of his girliness and Ryo is loved despite her manliness. There’s an arc where the school holds a contest to vote on the most ideal girl and Ryo is chosen to participate. However, the students in her year get frustrated because she’s not good at any of the stereotypically girly stuff (aka: all the stuff she’s forced to compete in). Eventually, they decide to cheer for her because she’s trying hard. It’s great that they’re finally cheering for her, but it’s done reluctantly. Ryo has to earn their praise for participating in something she knew she was going to embarrass herself in, while all the otomen in the series get placed in situations where their skills are exemplified first and foremost.
Another character that shows this inequality is Otowa Moematsu, one of the teachers at their school. Otowa exemplifies all the traditional girly attributes to a frightening extreme, even getting angry when Asuka doesn’t immediately fall in love with her girliness. However, later Asuka finds out that Otowa is only the way she is—violently moe—because her ex-boyfriend didn’t think she was cute. In fact, the adorable Otowa used to be a very tomboy softball player. At the end of her arc, though, she doesn’t go back to being a softball player. Instead, she remains as the hyper-cute personality she developed because she loves being popular. This gives the message that if you’re a girl doing ungirly things, you can’t be popular and you can’t find love: which is further supported by how Ryo is the only girl in the series who’s ever shown doing blatantly manly things.
In fact, most of the time, the girls in Otomen are only used as props to exemplify the otomens’ skills. Random women are pulled off the street for impromptu make-overs, girls are adorned with flowers: it gets to a point where when one of the characters shows up, you know that he’s going to find a random girl on the street and fix her up. And none of these women care. They’re thrilled. I completely understand the allure of wanting to feel beautiful or having some hot guy say you’re a diamond in the rough or whatever, but Otomen basically says that beauty is necessary for women. Not that all women are beautiful with or without make-up, not even that it’s a choice. All women have to be beautiful to be treasured, and if you’re not, well, you better hope someone’s around to mold you into that societal standard of beauty or you’re going to be dumped and alone forever.
In terms of comic genres that typically have gendered connotations to them, I fully endorse breaking down those gendered walls. Yet in the case of Otomen, I feel like Kanno got so wrapped up in showing that it’s okay for dudes to like stereotypically girly things that she accidentally threw a lot of her female characters to the wayside. Everyone should be valued for what they’re skilled in, no matter their gender, and everyone should be valued outside of their physical appearance. It’s unfortunate that Otomen’s progressiveness was limited to its male characters, but for what the series is, it’s a worthwhile read.