Coping with Trauma and the Burden of Leadership in Maid-sama!

By: Luisa Aparisi-França March 11, 20200 Comments
A girl in a maid outfit holds a tray with a parfait a sheaf of papers entitled "Secret regulations." A blonde boy stands behind her looking smug

Juggling respect and likability is a tightrope many women are forced to walk. Whether you’ve needed to sacrifice a positive image in order to get things done, or opted to remain likable in the eyes of your coworkers rather than face any backlash, it can be difficult to navigate social and professional circles when your instincts are telling you to do two completely different things at the same time. 

This intricate dance of cultivating social and professional balance is what first drew me to Maid-sama!. The story follows Misaki, a high school class president who needs to work part-time to help her mom pay the bills because her father abandoned them when she was young. But on a deeper level, it follows a coming-of-age story of a teenage girl who is learning to process trauma while cultivating leadership skills in a setting that is full of triggers.

Misaki goes against the grain of what’s expected of her as a young woman. She is competitive, assertive, and doesn’t know how to cook. In order to accomplish both her personal goals while helping out financially at home, Misaki leads a double life.

At school, Misaki rules with an iron fist, holding her own against a student body that is 80% male (due to the school previously being an all-boys school). After school, however, she works at a maid cafe in a submissive role that conflicts with her fiery persona. There, Misaki retains her composure, calling random young men “master” and serving them tea and cake.

A boy (Utsumi) looks at a girl (Misaki) in a maid outfit. Utsumi: "Hey, look who it is."

Taking Charge versus Needing Control

What stands out most about this dynamic is how the power structures of both roles impact and influence Misaki. At work, Misaki is seen as subservient, and through this image men find her charming and attractive. This role takes away Misaki’s agency, and her skin crawls as she’s forced to entertain the delusions of young men whom she couldn’t find less interesting.

This restrained version of Misaki sharply contrasts against how she presents herself at school, where she vies to be in control. With male students, Misaki is stubborn and on her guard, always trying to do everything herself. This mostly has to do with the pent-up resentment and trust issues she has with her father, but it also points to a burgeoning self-awareness that she must work harder at cementing her authority as a woman.

Physically and verbally, Misaki has no problem asserting herself. Although professional at work, she doesn’t let the waitress/customer dynamic cow her into simply accepting rude or lewd behavior. In one instance, a pair of creepy guys attempt to kidnap Misaki, but she beats them back thanks to her extensive aikido training. Misaki then soundly berates the men for disregarding a woman’s own desires and personal boundaries in pursuit of fulfilling sexual fantasies.

A page from Maid Sama, Misaki in a maid outfit. She looks angry. Monologue: "I hate guys. And I have a good reason. My father disappeared, leaving us alone with a huge debt. He was the man I trusted most, and he betrayed us. So now my mom and I have to work every single day. We never get a break."

While Misaki has no problem speaking out against people who might try to undermine her physical safety or self-worth, she also has a hard time tempering her verbal intensity when not in danger. In part due to incidents like the attempted kidnapping, Misaki is predisposed to be harsh toward men as a self-defense mechanism that seeks to neutralize potential threats before they happen. 

This is why Misaki’s biggest challenge isn’t defending herself and others in Maid-sama—it’s learning to not let her past traumas collide with her leadership role. In order for her high school presidency (and future leadership roles) to be sustainable, Misaki must first relearn how to trust other people again so that she can share responsibility. She needs to see that not having total control does not undermine her authority, but strengthens her role as a leader.

It stands to reason that a good leader sees the bigger picture, and that their job is to guide others to it. This makes delegating tasks and managing people incredibly important, but you can’t do that if you can’t communicate with your team smoothly and effectively. This concept is initially very difficult for Misaki to grasp, and she turns to workaholism to offset her anxieties about being let down again by someone she’s entrusted with responsibility.

Misaki as student council president. She is yelling at boys. Caption: The school's only been co-ed for a couple of years. And since it used to be all boys, 80 percent of the students are still male. I'm the first female council President. MIsaki: "I'm president now, and I'm not gonna let them do as they please."

Workaholism as a Coping Mechanism for Trauma

Misaki is a strict person in general—and she’s hardest on herself. While male students initially resent Misaki for lording over them, Misaki is really just holding the guys to the same high standards she’s always held herself to. Being asked to moderate their impulses while managing their behavior is an uncomfortable position for the boys, who up until then, have never had to check themselves when breaking the rules.

At the same time, Misaki dotes on the few girls who attend the school. She makes sure that the boys don’t bully the girls by exposing them unwillingly to porn or coercing them into taking up the boys’ chores. 

Through this, we can clearly see that Misaki’s parentification at school is directly related to her need for control. By mothering her classmates at school and making sure that the girls are okay and that the boys are following the rules, Misaki finds a sense of agency.

Although Misaki is unfairly vilified (since she’s really just doing her job), she is also still projecting the hurt she is trying to process over her father’s betrayal. Growing up as a child who was left heartbroken by her father, Misaki unhealthily empowers and comforts herself by taking complete control over a situation and doing everything on her own. This part of her is misunderstood, and the raw hurt that she channels at men due to her trust issues initially taints people’s perceptions of her impartiality as student president.

Misaki yells at the boys, but the boys point out they are only having fun and all she does is boss her around.

Healing Through Teamwork

Seeing as Misaki is so headstrong and stuck in her views, her classmate and future boyfriend, Usui, takes an interest in her. Both the handsomest and most popular boy at school, Usui is intrigued by Misaki, a self-avowed man-hater who only shows her soft side to other girls.

Usui is very introspective. He is the first to realize what is going on with Misaki and manages to separate Misaki’s hurt over being abandoned from her actual persona. Able to understand why she lashes out, Usui is able to bridge the gender divide in Misaki’s world, helping her overcome her general trust issues with men.

As the character who most influences Misaki, Usui becomes the first guy in the story to take on a healing role in her life. Through Usui’s consistent kindness and dependability, Misaki experiences a sense of security for the first time.

Utsumi smiles and looks behind his shoulder at Misaki, who first looks stunned but then smiles confidently. Utsumi: "You're a maid, remember? Get out there and work hard." Misaki: "... Certiainly, sir."

Initially attempting to muscle through her trauma by replacing it with workaholism, Misaki drives herself to the brink of mental and physical exhaustion while working as student council president. Usui brings her back from the edge several times, showing her that it’s proper teamwork, not one-person shows, that get the job done.

This allows Misaki to take a step in the right direction when it comes to her mental health. She reinterprets what agency means to her and begins to reconsider if the stress of absolute control is worth the hassle.

Initially considering Usui a pest, she gradually warms to him and learns to compromise, acknowledging that she can’t take care of everyone and everything. This greatly increases the feelings of camaraderie among her and the rest of the all-male student council, as they appreciate being given a chance to show her that they are good, reliable workers who want to improve the school as much as she does.

Oftentimes, women are expected to perform more emotional labor, which includes caring for others. By letting go of some of this internalized responsibility and realizing that the world won’t crumble if she decides to take a step back, Misaki sees how much she has underestimated the people around her. Given that she can be unnecessarily harsh at times, loosening her grip on the reins is a sign that she’s learning to see the world as a kinder, less suspicious place.

Utsumi holds Misaki's hand and cradles her head. She blushes deeply back at his words.Utsumi: "but... you also have to remember that you're still a girl Misa-chan"

Fighting Sexism in Both Personal and Professional Settings

Nevertheless, I’m glad Misaki stays just as sharp throughout the story as when we first meet her. While she learns to make more concessions, she’s bold, inquisitive, and takes no half-hearted excuses from anyone.

Misaki still holds her own against Usui and is in constant competition with him. Usui is needy at times and always wants to “save” Misaki (which he sometimes uses as an excuse to underestimate her). Though he respects Misaki and has her back in pressing situations, his help occasionally comes at a price.

Regarded by the boys as either the top guy at school or an admirable rival, Usui’s presence can dilute Misaki’s authority even as he attempts to do things that he thinks are in her best interest. This can make Misaki feel as though nothing she does is ever good enough.

Misaki in sports day attire with Utsumi Utsumi: "You're a girl remember?" Misaki: "Yeah? So what?" Utsumi: "You're adorable when you're trying so hard, but it's hard to see you like this."

For example, during the school sports festival, Usui wants to help Misaki win a race so that her friend won’t be forced to kiss one of the boys (for some reason a kiss from Misaki’s friend is the prize). Misaki is worn down from running all of the races up until that point for her team, most of whom are bad at sports.

Usui decides to help after seeing that Misaki is exhausted, but does so in an incredibly patronizing way. He tells Misaki to remember that she’s a girl and that “it’s adorable that you try so hard, but I hate to see you like this.” These segues into sexist conversations are deeply rooted in Usui’s desire to be needed by Misaki. This is his one central insecurity, and can cause Usui’s protectiveness to cross into unhealthy possessiveness.

In another incident, the entire staff at Maid Latte (the cafe where Misaki works) is invited by the owner’s sister to host a beach event at a resort. Misaki is asked to wear a sexy swimsuit and Usui, out of jealousy, plants a hickey on her back so that she feels embarrassed. As a result, Misaki wears a T-shirt over her bikini, refuses to play volleyball, and hides her body from the eyes of other men.

Utsumi looks cocksure as he runs ahead of Misaki during the school festival race. Utsumi: "Just leave it to me." Misaki: "Huh? What's that supposed to mean? Hey! Wait a sec!"

Usui can even cost Misaki her agency when dealing with her other male classmates. Since the boys initially see her as unreasonable, they turn to Usui for mediation on their behalf. When Usui gives in to the boys’ demands for representation rather than reaffirming Misaki’s authority as class president, he undermines her, even if most of the time he does it jokingly.

These incidents, while few, depict an unbalanced power structure for the sake of “feminizing” Misaki. By making her less powerful, she becomes more “appealing,” even when Usui likes her precisely because she’s tough and perseveres.

It’s in moments like these where Usui becomes a limiting force rather than a liberating one for Misaki. Having her boyfriend and top ally be the source of this occasional sexism teaches Misaki that even in relationships with people we value and love, we sometimes need to stand our ground.

Misaki in a maid outfit on the phone. She looks angry. Misaki: "Tell them I'm gonna give them a good whipping."

Growing Up and Finding Balance

As someone who wants to lead but who needs to learn how to trust others, striking the right balance can be painful for Misaki. On the one hand she doesn’t want to be dismissed simply because she’s seen as bossy (a label never used on the guys) or lashes out at others, and on the other hand she doesn’t want to be biased and not take everyone’s opinion into consideration.

This fine line is something that appears before Misaki again and again. She soon realizes that in order to lead properly, she not only has to act in good faith without prejudice, she has to stop caring about what other people think.

yell at two boys. They look scared. Misaki: "You sleazeballs! Stop projecting your gross fantasies onto me!"

So many of Misaki’s problems as student body president are linked to her secret part-time job at a maid cafe: how she has to hide the fact out of fear that she won’t be respected at school; how at school she feels like she’s caught in a constant gridlock of giving in too much or not at all.

Misaki coming out as a maid during her high school graduation is her final acknowledgement that she won’t let anyone judge her for doing what she needed to do in order to make end’s meet—because if she did that for the rest of her life, she’d never accomplish anything. Misaki’s coming out as a maid is an awkward process, but a necessary one. It’s metaphorical of her growing up and closing a turbulent but ultimately fun and important chapter of her life.

Unlike many other series, Maid-sama uses high school not as a fixed focal point, but rather as a training ground for adult life. Even so, Maid-sama doesn’t discredit the importance of high school relationships, nor does it paint them as flat, two-dimensional experiences of good and bad. It introduces Misaki to a future world where she’s encouraged to take her fierce energy and put it to good use, but with clarity and calculation, so that she doesn’t burn her candle at both ends.

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