[Feature] As Told by Saena: Skip Beat! and the infinite variety of women’s stories

Skip Beat! is a manga series that has been stealing the hearts of readers since the early 2000s. Its popularity is reflected in the anime (2008-2009) and live action (2010-2011) adaptations it spawned. The manga devotes its pages to following Kyoko as she navigates the entertainment industry in Japan and builds a name for herself as an actress. As a result, most of the “acts” in the manga are told from the perspective of Kyoko (who, as of Volume 38, has yet to graduate high school).

By primarily telling events from Kyoko’s point of view, Skip Beat! has often conformed to the pattern of telling a “single story” (a potentially damaging narrative style, as Chimamanda Adichie has discussed). This has been perhaps most obvious where Saena, Kyoko’s mom, is concerned. However, in Volumes 37 and 38, the manga’s perspective shifts in a big way, giving readers an unexpected glimpse of Saena through her own eyes. Author Yoshiki Nakamura threw these narrative curve balls so beautifully that I stood in awe and looked forward to their delicious thumps! striking against vulnerable parts of my soul; in doing so, they catapulted me into a river of memories and feelings.

[Editor’s Note: The intent of the following piece is to discuss the importance of highlighting multiple voices, particularly marginalized ones, as well as the author’s connection with young Saena’s struggles in not modeling traditional femininity. This framing, however, does not delve into the damage Saena caused as an abusive mother later in life—whether she intended to or not. Survivors of abuse may find this content triggering, and should read with caution.]

CONTENT WARNING for mentions of abuse. SPOILERS for Skip Beat! Volumes 37 and 38.

two Skip Beat covers. On the left, a man in a suit leans in to kiss the young woman in his arms; on the right, three schoolgirls look toward the camera with cherry blossoms in the background

Up until now, what little readers have learned about Saena has always been shown through the fragmentary, hazy lens of Kyoko’s flashbacks to her painful childhood. These flashbacks have painted Saena as a cold, unhappy-looking, abusive mother. They have also strongly implied that Kyoko was traumatized by her early childhood interactions with her mom.

The theme that gets repeatedly emphasized in Volumes 37 and 38 is the idea that, in the words of Nicki Minaj: “You’re not gonna tell me who I am, I’m gonna tell you who I am.” This theme is highlighted by the scenes where, for the first time in Skip Beat!, Saena’s story is told from her own perspective rather than Kyoko’s.

Manga page: Young Kyoko tries to comfort her mother; Saena orders her daughter not to touch her, because things "go wrong" every time Saena touches Kyoko. "If I lose this case, it's your fault!"

When Saena becomes the narrator, it quickly becomes apparent that Kyoko’s perspective has not done and cannot do justice to Saena’s experiences. We are (finally!) given the opportunity to learn about Saena’s internal desires, thoughts, and worries. However, before Nakamura allows Saena to take the steering wheel and show us her memories in Volume 38, she first provides readers with glimpses of Saena in the present time in Volume 37.

In one scene, Kyoko and Saena run into each other at a television station and exchange zero words but a countless number of difficult-to-read, wary and hostile looks. Later, Kyoko tells her best friend Kanae that Saena purposefully ignored her. When Kanae suggests that Saena might not have recognized her, Kyoko refutes this view and explains that she knows Saena recognized her because Saena “frowned the second time our eyes met” and Saena never “expresses any kind of emotion…[unless] I do something to irk her.”

A series of close up shots of Saena looking her daughter over as they face each other down in a hallway

But what do Saena’s frowns mean to Saena? In Volume 38, Saena takes us back to a time before Kyoko’s birth (but after she started her career as a lawyer under Kenichi Katagiri, who’s also her boss in the present). One flashback shows Saena getting grilled and criticized by a coworker for looking “distracted.” The coworker lashes out at Saena and complains that “You’ve always had an elite air… your very presence makes me want to puke.”

Then, Saena’s coworker scolds her: “Will you stop looking so bored? I hate that you’re totally ignoring me.” (Similarly, in Volume 37 Saena is called—behind her back—an “Ice Queen” and the “Unbeatable Lawyer Queen” by a coworker.) During this scene, Saena’s inner voice tells a different story: in contrast to her coworker’s claims, Saena thinks to herself: “I’ve never looked down on anyone even once.”

In another flashback, we meet Mr. Misonoi, the man that Saena implies is her first (and possibly only) boyfriend, and the man that Skip Beat! hints is Kyoko’s AWOL father. When Saena frowns in reaction to something he says, he laughingly comments that “Your frown looks like a little volcano about to go off.”  He then launches into a discussion of how “people often misunderstand you because you frown even when you’re thinking about trivial things.” As Mr. Misonoi talks about how he’s able to detect and interpret the minute differences between Saena’s frowns, she thinks to herself: “Even when I was little people would snap at me, ‘Why are you so angry?!’”

A young Saena and Mr. Misonoi talk over dinner. He understand she isn't sure of how to comfort him, and tells her she looks angry and is "always frowning," even when "thinking about trivial things."

Notably, these scenes seem to contradict other scenes told from Kyoko’s perspective. Kyoko’s narration of events has advanced the view that she (and her mysterious dad) are the reason Saena looks unhappy (understatement) whenever she’s around her daughter. Though Kyoko’s view could still be true, Saena repeatedly shows and tells us that her “interpersonal skills are not well honed” and that they were that way long before she gave birth to Kyoko or met Kyoko’s dad.

In other words, Saena has been regularly frowning (and regularly misunderstood by people because of her frowns) since she was a kid. The striking contrast between Saena’s understanding of herself and Kyoko’s understanding of Saena prompts us to wonder: Is Saena really the monstrous mother Kyoko believes her to be?

Furthermore, in the present, why is Saena repeatedly misread as someone who is not a mom? Volume 37 shows Saena getting battered by the view that moms are expected to look and act a certain way. For instance, in one scene Saena observes her coworker neglecting her work duties in order to make a long, personal phone call. Unprompted, the worker explains that she had to make the phone call in order to check up on her kid who’s “been sick with a fever.” In response, Saena tells the woman “I do not mind at all if you complete the most minimal duty of your position first.” As Saena walks away, the coworker nastily complains that Saena “must not have kids. Otherwise she’d understand how a mother feels!”

Saena overhears coworkers talking about her, saying she must not have kids or she'd be more understanding of these women needing to miss work. Saena tells a female employee she can leave to check on her sick kid if she completes "the minimal duty of her position first."

Similarly, another scene depicts Saena explaining to a woman fighting to regain custody of her daughter that “alteration to parental rights is complicated” and that ultimately “it is up to the child to decide whom she wants to live with.” In response, the woman exclaims: “Do you have children?! There’s no way you’ve given birth to a child!” Saena doesn’t bat an eye at (or try to correct) the woman’s assumptions. Instead she replies, “I do not have any children. I have never been a mother…so I can only imagine your suffering and frustration.”

However, all of us readers know that Saena is a mom. When these scenes take place, Skip Beat! puts us in a position to realize that the stereotypes around moms—that they live for their children and can easily empathize with other women who have children—are inaccurate and harmful because they only tell a “single story” of motherhood and ignore the diversity of moms, such as “unconventional” or motherhood-rejecting moms like Saena.

Manga page: A female coworker scolds Saena for "spacing out" and then tells her she has an "elite air" and that "your very presence makes me want to puke." Saena listens in silence, head down, looking upset.

As a socially awkward, frown-slaying, parenthood-declining, often misgendered cis black woman, I found myself attracted to the Saena we were able to get to know through these two volumes. Previously, I had been disturbed and shocked by the glimpses of Saena that were revealed in Kyoko’s flashbacks to her childhood. But as Saena began to tell her own story, I began to see more and more of myself in Saena.

The part of me that had been repeatedly told to “stop frowning” while I was growing up took comfort in Saena’s smiles-aren’t-my-thing approach to life. The part of me that wants nothing to do with being biologically or legally responsible for an age-challenged human was captivated by Skip Beat! teasing that Saena would soon tell us about her own reasons for hating motherhood. I rushed to my feet to cheer (yes, cheer) when Skip Beat! gave Saena a chance to free herself from the caricature of being “just” Kyoko’s mom. And another part of me couldn’t help but think of other representations of awkward women that I had seen—such as J, Issa, and Tracey—and compare them to each other and Saena.

From left to right images show J from Awkward Black Girl, Issa from Insecure, Tracey from Chewing Gum, and Saena from Skip Beat!.

J and Issa in Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl and Insecure, as well as Tracey in Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum have done wonders for feeding my (oh-so-awkwardly-awkward) soul. In fact, when I was first introduced to these characters and their shows, they fed my soul in ways that other shows never had before, because they prioritized depicting shades of awkwardness and black womanhood that are rarely represented in American TV.

But reading the latest Skip Beat! volumes reminded me that these shows are not enough: one perspective, story, or show cannot capture the full, immeasurable diversity of women, including awkward women. Some, if not many, of us who are POC have experienced the frustration, sadness, pain, and anger that comes with not being able to find representations of people who look, sound, and act like us in media.

Manga page: In the top panel, a coworker shouts at Saena: "HEEEY! Are you listening to me, Ms. Mogami?!" In the main spread Saena looks up at the reader: "Y-yes! No... I'm sorry!" At the bottom is the title: "Skip Beat! - Act 228: Ground Call"

If you’re an adult woman, let alone an adult WOC, the chances of seeing and hearing someone like you (or someone like who you want to be) in American media can be pretty slim. For example, one study that surveyed 2000 American films found that the majority of female characters in movies with speaking lines were “women between the ages of 22 and 31,” whereas the majority of men with speaking lines were “aged 42 to 65.”

In hindsight, I realize that part of the reason I warmly welcomed Saena’s narration of her own story is because I was (and still am) deprived of multi-dimensional representations of adult women in general—let alone socially awkward, constantly frown-wearing, courtroom-owning, parenthood-hating adult women like Saena. After I finished reading Skip Beat! Volumes 37 and 38, I realized that we need and deserve all of the women who grace the pages and screens of Skip Beat!, Awkward Black Girl, Insecure, and Chewing Gum, and we need and deserve more than just those women.

Some hopeful part of me wonders: will there ever come a time when American media—music, books, television shows, movies, etc.—respects and cherishes the rich complexities and infinitely numerous versions of womanhood? Or will it continue to be the trend for Americans to uncritically accept social reinforcement that predisposes them to conform to narrow definitions of gender (and racial) roles that encourage people to see age, physical appearance, and motherhood as important factors for determining a woman’s value? My heart yearns for more face-to-face and mediated discussions about how respectability politics shape our understandings (and performances) of what it means to be a “woman-like” woman, an “adult-like” adult, and a “parent-like” parent.

A split page of Kyoko and Saena staring at one another.

By switching the point of view to tell parts of Saena’s story and by using Saena and Kyoko as foils for each other, highlighting the different strategies they’ve adopted to cope with their misfortunes (e.g., falling in love with horrible people), Nakamura seems to be trying to encourage us to reflect on how we exercise agency in our lives. These volumes of Skip Beat! have me convinced that seeing and hearing Saena tell us what her life is like now (as well as about what it was like before and after she crossed the imaginary lines between childhood, adulthood, and parenthood) would be good for us in priceless ways.

 

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Shelby Strong is a graduate student by day and a sailor scout who likes to binge watch/read dramas, anime, and books by night. You can read more of her writing on her blog The Welcoming Gaze.

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