I enjoy watching anime and analyzing it in terms of social issues and subtextual narrative content (ie: motifs, metaphors, and so forth). However, I and many other fans of the genre have an issue with the former of the two: we are not the audience. We are an audience, but many of us are not Japanese or East Asian, and thus lack a full understanding of how certain tropes affect the viewers of the intended audience. We can analyze, but only from a perspective that we have been brought up with: in my case, Western perceptions on gender and sexuality. These nurtured perceptions aren’t necessarily the best when coming to analyzing shoujo manga and anime, especially when it’s not really the American audience this genre is affecting at large. So when I decided that I wanted to take a look at Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun‘s Yuu Kashima, I figured it was time to look at things from a different angle. While I’ve thought of Kashima’s character as laudable because she seems unconcerned with typical gender roles and expresses her gender identity through non-sterotypical ways, when looking at her actions from the angle of the cultural trope she fills, her character becomes a little less praise-worthy.
Nozaki-kun is a light-hearted shoujo anime, based on a 4-koma (four panel comic strip) of the same name which focuses on Chiyo Sakura, a girl who wanted to confess to her crush (the titular Nozaki), but ended up getting his autograph instead, leading to her working alongside him on his manga series along with three other schoolmates. The series itself, while super fun, isn’t anything groundbreaking, and it’s not trying to be. This is a nice break from more intense series, but it’s also part of the underlying problem. By not trying anything particularly new, the series falls into the same old traps and tropes of shoujo. Kashima exemplifies the bifauxnen: a female character that looks androgynous, bordering on masculine, who is also coveted by other female characters—aesthetically only; in most cases the bifauxnen in question does not identify as queer. In Nozaki-kun, Kashima is known as the school’s prince, and can often be found with a gaggle of girls who are fighting for a little bit of her time. While it can be interpreted as progressive that there are girls who can seemingly break out of the gender binary by dressing a bit less femininely and still be seen as desirable, really the bifauxnen character only serves to reinforce the standards of femininity, both in how they deal with love and how they interact with the status quo brought on by said standards.
Girls who gain the attention of the bifauxnen are always, always feminine, sometimes overly so, and why wouldn’t they be? They are attracted to the bifauxnen because that is what the bifauxnen wants to attract. As a less threatening stand-in for a male character, the bifauxnen spends her time showing what type of girl is desirable to a charming prince. Even Haruka/Sailor Uranus from Sailor Moon, one of the queerest subversions of the bifauxnen in the history of ever, spends her time being swamped by cute girls, telling Usagi that she’s cute, and reveling in getting Usagi to act her absolute girl-with-a-crush-iest. And while I love Haruka’s relationship with Michiru, as a bifauxnen it seems almost predictable that she’d be dating one of the most feminine characters in the entire series. Kashima might not have the opportunity for that sort of depth as she’s a minor character, but, as I said, she is constantly being surrounded by her female classmates and is continuously used as a valued opinion on what is cute, girly, an desirable by men (such as telling a girl her new haircut is cute and whatnot). Kashima doesn’t even have to remember the girl’s name and it’s not held against her by anyone outside of the main group. To the girls of the school, and arguably to some of the audience, Kashima is not a person: she’s an idea. She holds the standards that girls must live up to if they want to get themselves a prince of their own someday, and those standards are reinforced by primping, knowing the best cute cafes, and swooning at flirtation, no matter how empty it may be.
Yet, despite their outwardly more masculine presence, the bifauxnen reminds the female audience that bifauxnen themselves are feminine at their core as well, mostly through their love life. In my experience, this can manifest in two main ways: the “why is my heart beating so fast?”/ egregious blushing/etc. typical shoujo standard of dealing with a crush and the re-feminization of the bifauxnen’s persona (by which I mean the bifauxnen starts dressing like a typical girl) to attract the attention of said crush. Kashima fits into these tropes in abnormal ways, I think, but she still falls into them. First, the re-feminization. As opposed to many bifauxnen, Kashima’s standard attire isn’t technically masculine—she wears the female school uniform, skirt and all, and is only presented in more masculine attire through her roles in drama club. So, since there is essentially no attire here that Kashima could wear to have that “ah! Look how actually feminine she is” moment, the series had to get creative. This manifests in a vignette about Kashima thinking she finds out what would please her crush the most—she thinks he wants to be a princess. As such, she leaves him pieces of women’s clothing in his locker for several days. He thinks that she’s bullying him (Kashima was totally wrong in her assumption), but he makes the comment that the clothes and accessories she left him create a perfectly coordinated outfit. Without making Kashima wear a frilly dress, the series has informed the viewer that despite her princeliness, she still knows how to dress like a girl and be fashionable, yet again reinforcing her latent femininity.
On the other side of things, Kashima doesn’t question her androgynous looks and more masculine actions when it comes to wondering why her crush doesn’t seem to like her back (which he actually does); however, her way of reacting to said crush still fits into the bifauxnen stereotype. The shoujo heroine always must prove her worth and impress her crush through whatever feats available to her, and Kashima does this by being the best at what she does. She’s an impressive actor; she gets the attention of everyone by being charming—to the point where her crush says he wouldn’t invite her to his wedding because she’d steal his wife—and she’s basically oblivious to everything he wants. He likes her because of how good she is at what she does, but she’s “impressive” due to how good she is at being obnoxious towards him in particular. It’s definitely not the usual route, however, it does clearly define Kashima as a shoujo heroine as she is the one who has to prove herself to her crush, rather than equal efforts being made on both sides.
It’s a lot easier to applaud new shoujo series when they’re breaking the mold in any small way, and it’s a simpler task to accomplish when you’re not viewing the series through the lens that the intended viewers are. I’m not saying my interpretation is perfect by any means—I’m still learning—but when taking into consideration how stringently Japanese media is trying to re-enforce the importance of femininity in its girls from a young age (while at the same time revering masculinity in its boys) against the tide of impending societal change, some of these seemingly more progressive tropes start to gain another level of complexity. There’s nothing wrong with being feminine and liking feminine things, as there’s nothing wrong with being masculine, liking more masculine things, or liking both in varying amounts, but when it’s being presented as the only desirable option, that’s where the problem arises. I like Kashima as a character, and I think the bifauxnen trope as a whole is interesting, but both of them only serve to reinforce gender norms and heteronormativity. If any readers are from Japan or East Asia, or are more familiar with feminist theory from that locale than I, I urge you to leave your comments below with your opinion. How do bifauxnen influence shoujo and, in turn, the female audience?