In my years consuming media, I’ve encountered certain beliefs and behaviours that never fail to frustrate me. One of them is women’s entertainment and their creators being diminished or regarded with contempt just for targeting women. There is a double standard at play: media targeted at or starring women is “for girls,” while media targeted at or starring men is “for everyone” (unless, of course, someone who isn’t a man is critical of it; then it wasn’t “for them”).
My love for action frequently leads me to shounen, and I often love a story but frustratedly wish the girls would get to do more. Or even worse: I wind up wishing the story would treat them better. But when that discussion happens, there’s a common pushback: “shounen is for boys.” This implies boys don’t need compelling, nuanced women in their stories, and ignores the benefits this would bring to both female and male readers.
There’s not really a demographic that’s free of fantasies or fanservice. The way they’re regarded (and what can be taken away from them) varies widely from person to person, but they aren’t inherently good or bad. The problem I usually have with shounen is a glaring absence of variety in how women are portrayed. Many blockbuster titles prioritize fanservice, and even in titles where female characters are well-developed, their role in the story is often to provide support or be sidelined completely.
To name a recent, popular example, My Hero Academia is a series with excellent female characters. Unfortunately, they aren’t completely safe from sidelining or, in some cases, tired stereotypes. This is notable in several instances during the second season, one of them being Momo and Ochako’s character arcs barely getting attention in comparison to male characters like Iida and Todoroki, who had complex and extended stories alongside a plot-defining fight.
Complaints about shounen are often answered with a request to go look for “more developed” female characters in a girls’ magazine (shoujo or josei, in this case). I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t know that shoujo and josei have stories with well-developed female characters. The point of telling female readers to look elsewhere is not to help them—it’s to make them stop being critical of shounen, so the problem will go away.
And, curiously enough, those magazines “for girls” don’t require you to go somewhere else to find well-developed male characters.
That doesn’t mean shoujo and josei are free of fantasies. There’s the superhuman love interest that’s always helping the heroine (Itazura na Kiss, Maid Sama!), the reverse-harem of dreamy boys that end up falling for that one sincere girl (Fushigi Yugi, Ouran High School Host Club), and so on. Some of these fantasies are harmless, while others infamously highlight abusive and harmful behavior, but they all have variety.
Although shoujo and josei magazines have plenty of fantasies meant to cater to women, they rarely shy away from putting well-developed men in the spotlight. For instance, in Nodame Cantabile, Chiaki is far more than just Nodame’s love interest. We spend plenty of time inside his head, getting to know his dream and ambitions, his complicated relationship with his family, his talents and flaws, and so on.
As Chiaki and Nodame fall in love, they develop into a relationship of equals, where they clearly understand each other’s flaws but also lift each other up when they can. More importantly, the romance never sidelines Nodame’s talents and blooming professional career. On the contrary, Chiaki constantly pushes her to try more, either by supporting her or leading through example.
A similar example is Cardcaptor Sakura, where Syaoran receives almost as much attention as Sakura and equal respect, both when capturing cards and in their daily life. You can also find plenty of series where our heroines learn important lessons from the love interest, getting inspiration and gaining new skills, either by observing them or with their help (Skip Beat!).
Some stories even combine all of this while also having a balanced cast that includes (or highlights) many intricate and active male characters (Yona of the Dawn, Basara). There’s My Love Story, too, a high school romance that conforms more to the image shoujo is most well known for, but from the male protagonist’s point of view.
There’s no reason to regard girls magazines’ with contempt, or as a “girls’ only” club. First of all, there’s nothing wrong with “girly” stories, and both men and nonbinary folks are more than welcome to enjoy them. That attitude also negates many of the inclusive, balanced works that they’ve been publishing alongside more traditional stories over the years.
Even without taking the works of the Magnificent 49ers into account—known for revolutionizing the genre during the 1970s—there are multiple shoujo and josei stories featuring predominantly male casts full of multifaceted characters. The critically acclaimed Banana Fish, which is not without issues, is well deserving of its place as a milestone of manga. Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is also considered a modern masterpiece by many. Although they’re fundamentally different in their tone, themes, and set-ups, both are examples of series written by and published in magazines marketed towards women which produced unforgettable male characters.
The mentality that assumes men only need other men to inspire each other can even erase or undermine the origins of these kind of series out of a belief that women can’t really enjoy serious stories. Case in point: Banana Fish was marketed as seinen while it ran in the English-language Pulp (a now defunct Viz magazine) in the early 2000s, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I corrected someone who thought Rakugo Shinju was seinen.
These misconceptions occur partly because of the predominantly male cast and partly because of the dense, intricate nature of both series. However, Banana Fish was written by Akimi Yoshida—who has worked in shoujo and josei magazines for most of her career—and serialized in Bessatsu Shōjo Comic, which is a shoujo magazine. Rakugo Shinju was written by Haruko Kumota—who spent years honing her storytelling skills in BL magazines—and serialized in Kodansha’s ITAN, a josei magazine.
Women writing for girls’ magazines aren’t the only ones putting compelling male characters in the spotlight, as there are plenty of female shounen (and seinen) writers doing the same. Just to give a couple popular examples, we have Hiromu Arakawa (Fullmetal Alchemist) and the legendary Rumiko Takahashi, who produced her biggest hits (Urusei Yatsura, Ranma ½, Inuyasha) in Weekly Shōnen Sunday.
Although I have some issues with the works of the latter, it’s easy to see (and even love) the appeal and level of iconicity of her characters. With all these examples, it’s hard to have patience for those who argue that we can’t demand male writers do for female characters what women had been doing for male ones for decades.
While identifying as a woman (or queer, and so on) can give you an additional level of insight and authenticity in some cases, any writer worth their salt should be able to include active, well-rounded characters in stories that don’t revolve around a character’s gender or identity. I’m not going to ask My Hero Academia’s mangaka Kohei Horikoshi to address gender-based discrimination in the workplace, for instance, but I am absolutely going to ask for his already capable female characters to be more active participants in the story (and to please stop framing sexual harassment as humor).
When I try to think of shounen that highlight compelling and largely active female characters, what usually comes to mind are mostly stories written by women, like Fullmetal Alchemist or Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun. This is not to say there’s no men writing nuanced female characters that remain active throughout the stories in shounen magazines. One of my favorite (and most recent) examples is The Promised Neverland, currently serialized in Weekly Shonen Jump, through the combined efforts of male writer Kaiu Shirai and female artist Posuka Demizu.
The Promised Neverland successfully combines the hopeful, unbreakable spirit of JUMP’s formula with plenty of its own unique elements, bringing a breath of fresh air to the magazine. The role of the determined, idealistic protagonist belongs to a young girl, Emma. While the three main kids are all exceptional, the series makes the girl an instinctive brawler-type while the two boys are calmer and more intellectual. They all feel like well-rounded, credible individuals, and the action brings forward both girls and boys, thus far never undermining anyone.
Going with a far more traditional example, we have the revival of the iconic series Dragon Ball. I grew up with Dragon Ball Z, and although I loved it, I hated watching every single female fighter disappear from the action to get married and domesticated (or killed off). While some of the women understandably had passions like science or their own homes, their personalities were very different, and not all of them should have had to follow the same path.
Dragon Ball Super acknowledges and attempts to mend this by bringing back 18 for the tournament arc and introducing more female fighters like the saiyans Kale and Caulifla. This was such a simple move, but it’s so meaningful for many fans like myself.
There’s no good reason more stories shouldn’t follow those examples. The idea of shounen as a “boys’ club” is a myth, because men aren’t the only ones writing and enjoying those stories. According to Nikkei, half of JUMP’s readership is female, and they’ve been around for series as old as Captain Tsubasa and Yu Yu Hakusho. But I’m sure this is no surprise for many of the women that love shounen and had been reading it for years, myself included.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to see yourself represented in the media you consume. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying fantasies in the stories we read–not just in shounen magazines, but in any magazine. But when a group of people says those fantasies are hurtful or frustrating for them, it’s not an attack on the individual, but a call to reflect on the need for more variety, so that what already exists doesn’t feel representative of the entire group.
More diverse, active female characters are important for women, but they should be acknowledged as important for men as well. Fiction, besides entertaining us, can be our door to exploring the unknown. It doesn’t only show us exciting abilities and worlds that we would never see otherwise; by making us connect with those who are different from us, it can teach us to understand and empathize with others.
The fact that shounen does target boys is perhaps the most important reason to feature complex, active female characters in these stories—not only as supportive figures or dream girls, but as someone they can relate to and look up to as well. Women have no problem doing so with male characters, and there’s no reason boys shouldn’t be capable of doing the same. The world would certainly be a more equal place if stories encouraged boys to be more empathetic towards women from a young age.
Even with all their flaws, girls’ magazines still don’t deserve half the contempt they often receive. Acknowledging that there’s nothing wrong with “girly” stories is a good enough reason, but it’s also important to highlight the incredible job so many of those stories have done balancing and elevating their male characters, even when they don’t target men. Just like how women—and so many others with different identities—can find themselves in male characters, there’s no good reason not to believe that men can and should do the same with female characters.
Which brings us back to that dismissive, derailing phrase I often hear whenever I try to have this conversation: “Shounen is for boys.” If we focus solely on the marketing of shounen magazines, that’s a true statement. Shounen targets boys.
Well. So what?