Harmful Gimmick: The normalization of abuse in shoujo manga

By: Jenna Mayzouni May 8, 20190 Comments

CONTENT WARNING for discussions and depictions of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and assault.

I became interested in shoujo manga after reading Fruits Basket, and I have not stopped reading it since. The more shoujo I read, however, the more I’ve noticed a disturbing trend.  While many manga I have read feature sweet, supportive romances, just as many normalize unhealthy, even abusive relationships and victim-blaming.

Numerous shoujo manga portray violent men and submissive women as positive and natural. Male characters often subject heroines to sexual assault, despite even violent opposition. The assault, rather than being traumatic, is used as a plot point and deepens the relationship. While these stories may be entertaining for some, they could also do real harm to how readers think of romance.

The five main characters of Boys Over Flowers in a line. Tsukushi has her arms linked with Rui and Doumyouji

The manga Boys Over Flowers by Yoko Kamio has many instances of this behavior. The series was not only adapted into an anime but also live-action dramas in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, and Indonesia.

In the manga, Tsukasa Doumyouji attacks the heroine Tsukushi Makino, pushes her down, and starts to pull her clothes off without her consent. He stops when she begins to cry, but still blames her as he walks away. Despite the violence of the assault, the audience actually liked Domyouji—so much so that Kamio made him the male lead upon audience request.

Another manga, Hot Gimmick, has so many examples it’s hard to choose just a few. The main character, Hatsumi Narita, is blackmailed by Ryoki Tachibana into being his slave. Through flashbacks and his internal monologues, the readers learn that Tachibana has feelings for Narita.

However, rather than admitting to it, Tachibana manipulates and torments her throughout the story, including sexually assaulting her numerous times. Some aspects of his abuse, such as his jealousy and controlling behavior, are depicted as a “natural” consequence of his feelings.

Five of the Hot Gimmick main characters posed against a neutral background, with Hatsumi in the foreground

On top of the idea that male violence is a sign of love and passion, other common shoujo tropes show permissive attitudes about abuse. In many manga series, men rape women as a form of revenge against another male character. And, despite the horror and malice of the act, the heroines forgive them more often than not.

In Hot Gimmick, Narita’s childhood friend, Azusa Odagiri, arranges for her to be gang-raped as revenge against her father. After Ryoki saves her at the last second, Narita apologizes for her father’s actions and later forgives Odagiri. Rather than examine the abusive and sadistic nature of the behavior, Odagiri’s actions are attributed to his past.

The moment also gives Ryoki leverage in his relationship with Narita and is supposed to make the reader feel more at ease and accepting of Ryoki. Even though both men have hurt her, portraying them as sympathetic overrides any lasting trauma they may have inflicted on Narita.

Similarly, in Kyou, Koi Wo Hajimemasu, Tsubaki Hibino’s boyfriend’s former best friend attempts to rape her as revenge for her boyfriend supposedly sexually assaulting his girlfriend. While this is depicted as a traumatic experience, the would-be rapist is still absolved.

A smiling girl stands in the foreground in front of an open classroom. Inside the classroom, three boys are talking

These moments teach young girls that they are the property of the men in their lives. The woman’s trauma is deemed less important than the men trying to gain power over one another by hurting others.

In addition to physical and sexual abuse, emotional abuse is often treated as a sign of how “in love” the male love interest is. In Hot Gimmick, Tachibana is controlling and demanding of Narita. Whenever she brings up something he isn’t interested in talking about, he dismisses it and ignores her. He bans her from talking to other boys, and she has to tell him about everyone she interacts with. He’s even jealous of her spending time with her five-year-old brother.

Tachibana isolates her from her family and friends and makes her choose between them, all in the name of what he calls love. One proven sign of an abusive relationship is the abuser isolating their significant other from their friends, family, and loved ones so that they won’t have anyone else to turn to.

Manga panel. A teen boy in glasses slaps a teen girl. In the top corner a speech bubble reads "Long time no see."

I get why these manga are popular. It is the same way “bodice rippers,” romance novels, and cheesy rom-coms appeal to people as well: the fantasy is entertaining. For some readers, these stories function as escapes from reality and a safe space from the struggles of their daily life. The majority of the people who read these manga can draw the line between fantasy and reality.

But the thing is, shoujo manga specifically targets young girls starting to develop their views on sexuality and relationships. Consistently encountering manga like Hot Gimmick instead of healthier romances and relationships like those in My Love Story or Kimi Ni Todoke can be really unhealthy for many of these girls, especially if they don’t have any adults in their lives to help them talk about or discuss the problems in those relationships.

They may come to think of these abusive relationships as ideal. They start to believe that pushing themselves into sexual situations is the only way that sex can happen and that sometimes men are mean and hurtful because they secretly like you and will change once you enter a relationship.

They learn that sometimes men just cannot help themselves and that being in a relationship means being sexually active even if they don’t feel ready. It normalizes things like a man grabbing a woman’s breast or lifting her skirt without consent because “boys will be boys.”

Headshots of the four main Hot Gimmick characters against different-colored backgrounds, all wearing glasses

I know this because I was one of those girls. Growing up, my community was not open to discussing sex and relationships. Instead, much of my understanding of sex and sexuality came from manga and anime. Now, there were manga that promoted healthy and responsible relationships, but I managed to stumble upon many that showed extremely unhealthy relationships.

I accepted acts of aggression and violence in my real-life relationships that resembled manga, thinking it was normal, and it took me years to unlearn that. It took me two years to realize that I had been sexually harassed by another classmate because I had brushed it off as “boys being boys.”

Statistics show that I’m not alone. According to the National Statistic for Domestic Violence (2010), women in the United States between the ages of 18-24 are most commonly abused by an intimate partner. On average, nearly twenty people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States.

One in three women and one in four men have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime, and one in four women and one in seven men have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Studies show that Japan has similar struggles with sexual abuse. According to a 2016 government survey, nearly one in three Japanese women have been sexually harassed at work. More than two-thirds of rape and sexual assault victims said that they never told anyone what happened to them and only four percent reported the rape to the police, according to a 2015 government survey.

Women who speak out about being assaulted or harassed often have their careers and lives threatened and get blamed for “putting themselves in these situations” (Takeuchi 2018). Sex crimes are often trivialized by avoiding the word rape and calling it “mischief”, and claiming that when a woman says, “No,” she is being coy but really means, “Yes.” In fact, when the #MeToo movement made its way to Japan, many women who used the hashtag received death threats and ridicule and were accused of shaming the entire country.

close up of a schoolgirl's face, looking upset. caption: You were really asking for it!

Of course, shoujo manga isn’t the only demographic genre that features a normalization of abuse and objectification of women. Manga targeted at boys (as another contributor has discussed) also normalize objectification and harassment of women. Ongoing jokes such as Naruto’s “sexy jujitsu,” episodes where boys are spying on girls in bathhouses, and sexualized costumes or situations teach boys that harassing and objectifying women is funny and acceptable in the eyes of society.

These attitudes in manga are unfortunately reflected in real life, where boys are taught that harassing women is an acceptable rite of passage into manhood and girls are taught that somehow it is their fault when they are harassed. Real-world social norms influence the writers who create stories, and those stories help teach young readers that harassment is acceptable, even romantic or funny. It’s a damaging cycle.

A short teen boy clings to a teen girl's back. She is in tears and grimacing as she says "You're the worst!"

The popularity and appeal of manga and anime like these prove that they’re here to stay. Instead of restricting people’s access to them, it would be better to teach young adults media literacy: the ability to think critically and analyze media. That way they learn that while what they read may seem exciting, romantic, or funny in fiction, it would not be a healthy relationship in real life.

And while in a perfect world media literacy would be taught in schools, it often isn’t. One way to help spread media literacy is to lead a discussion on sites like Tumblr, Twitter, and other anime and manga websites. By participating in the conversation, we can help save younger fans of anime and manga from normalizing things no one should ever have to experience.

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