Girls Doing Stuff: Agency and motivation in girls’ hobby shows

By: Alex Henderson December 2, 20220 Comments
The six main characters from Do It Yourself!! lined up in front of a white wall painted with the words Do It Yourself!!

I like to think I have a fairly varied palette when it comes to my anime tastes: a genre charcuterie board with some fantasy here, some meaningful coming-of-age stories there, and a peppering of rom-coms seasoned just right. There’s one category, though, that I always find myself savoring and looking forward to each season. If there’s a cast of funny teen girls trying out a new hobby, be it animation, camping, playing guitar, or building a treehouse, I’m there. But why does this genre have such a gravitational pull? I could answer, simply and truthfully, that we live in stressful times and these shows are often very relaxing. But upon deeper consideration, there’s something else about these girls’ hobby shows that makes my heart happy, and it’s happening more on the level of character construction and development.  

The “girls doing stuff” genre can be polarizing. What reads as an intimate, authentic portrayal of teen girls’ inner worlds to some may seem voyeuristic to others; a character may come off as an over-the-top, manufactured cutesy-blob to one viewer but feel deeply relatable and real to another. And, of course, some people find these series’ characteristic low stakes, slow pace, and focus on small moments relaxing while other people find them simply boring.

I am not attempting to make any “objective” claims with this article. I cannot scientifically quantify the appeal of the girls’ hobby genre for everyone, I can only speak to how and why it appeals to me. And that appeal, I argue, lies in the narrative priorities of these types of show: they are stories about young women with specific passions and motivations, given the autonomy to pursue them. It sounds simple, and it is, but it’s also extremely rewarding and effective when it’s done well.

Midori and Tsubame from Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! holding their sketches up against a window
Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!

Genre borders (and demographic issues)

You may notice I’m deploying “girls doing stuff” as an umbrella term for the kind of female-led hobby-focused series I’m discussing here. I’m going to avoid the term “cute girls doing cute things”. I find that it has some derisive undertones, but more to the point, it’s one of those fandom terms that has been overused to the point of diluting its meaning. I remember seeing some people use this label for A Place Further Than the Universe when it first came out. Sure, the character’s designs do fit a certain aesthetic sensibility, but it seems a touch dismissive to reduce their journey to Antarctica, fuelled by grief and desire for self-actualization, as them “doing cute things”!

That example does, however, highlight that the borders of this genre are flexible. Many hobby anime fall under the broader umbrella of iyashikei (“healing”) anime; less of an official genre and more of a vibe that has solidified over time into a set of recognizable conventions. There are plenty of shows about girls doing stuff that aren’t necessarily hobby shows, and there are also plenty of iyashikei series that cross over with fantasy or sci-fi. For the purpose of this post, let’s focus on the specific subcategory of slow-paced shows with a majority female cast focusing on some sort of activity or hobby. I’m also going to cover shows rooted in realism, i.e., setting aside chilled-out, lady-led spec-fic series like Flying Witch or Girls Last Tour (though the same points may apply).

It’s perhaps important to note, while we’re here, that it’s a little contentious to call these “girls’ hobby shows” when the series themselves often aren’t aimed at a female demographic. Many series I’m going to discuss here were originally serialized in seinen magazines or imprints, including Laid-Back Camp, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! and Super Cub. While demographics are slippery things and a story does not have to be officially “for” teen girls to characterize them well, the above-noted concerns of voyeurism and of female adolescence packaged and cutesy-fied for a presumed audience of adult men certainly rear their head. A full dive into this is beyond the scope of what I want to talk about here, but it’s always worth acknowledging.

The main cast of Lucky Star leaping towards the camera and posing
Lucky Star

Thanking my Lucky Stars: Personal notes on the genre

While technically I was first drawn into the world of anime through the Cheez TV programming block, one of the first anime I watched, consciously aware of what anime actually was, was Lucky Star circa 2008. In retrospect, this is hilarious. Lucky Star is a terrible “gateway” anime, since so much of its humor is in-jokes about anime fandom at its time of airing. While many of the gags about mecha series or moe as a trope admittedly went over my head, when I encountered this at age fourteen-or-so I still found the series enthralling—and refreshing. 

In my experience at the time, a lot of English-language media with a core cast of teenage girls tended to be romantic dramadies: chock full of plotlines about crushes, boys, love triangles, and early experiences with physical intimacy. For reasons I could not put my finger on as a young teen, the emphasis on (hetero)sexuality as the hingepoint of these characters’ day-to-day lives left me feeling irritated and alienated.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised by Lucky Star: a TV show about teenaged girls that was not a drama centring on sex and dating. It wasn’t really about anything. The girls’ ordinary existence was given the spotlight, cartoonified for comedy but always oddly real, and the narrative was content to prioritize what might otherwise have been written off as “inane chatter.”

Now, there’s a conversation to be had here about how these fictional girls may be characterized as “uninterested in men” so they remain single and appeal to an audience-insert fantasy, similar to the so-called rationale behind idols being forbidden from dating. It also must be noted that cute girl hobby shows are rarely entirely devoid of romantic under (or over) tones; the closeness of their core female cast means they often end up yuri-adjacent even if not marketed in that genre directly.

The discussion around this type of show is always complex and double-edged… not that I knew any of this in high school. I was just stoked to watch a funny, relatable series where teen girls were seemingly allowed to exist without love interests, and lead narratives based on their own passions. 

So, is that, then, where the personal appeal of Girls Doing Stuff lies for me? The prioritization of teen girls’ relaxed, normal lives without a hyperfocus on hetero romance was certainly one factor. But in hobby shows—many of which I discovered after Lucky Star served, ironically, as a perfect gateway—I feel it goes a little deeper than that.

Closeup of Serufu from Do It Yourself!! holding a drill and looking shocked and intrigued
Do It Yourself!!

Do It (For) Yourself: Motivation and character drive

Why does anyone take up a hobby? Generally, because they want to. And so, baked into the very premise of the Girls Doing Stuff show is the fact that your female protagonist needs passion and a motivation. This immediately imbues her with some form of characterization, a personal reason to act, and a concrete hingepoint around which the narrative can progress.

It sounds like a low bar to clear, because it is, but it also points to one of the core appeals of this genre. To really make these shows work the central characters need to be written with very tangible hopes and dreams, giving us driven, goal-oriented female protagonists who grow across the story.  

four girls gathered around a pottery wheel; the bowl being made is misshapen
Let’s Make a Mug Too

While not required to be deeply complex, the variety of motivations across the genre provide a fun, diverse platter of characterization and backstory. Sometimes these motivations are interpersonal: in Let’s Make a Mug Too, Himeno is initially drawn to pottery because it’s a thread of connection between her and her deceased mother. In Do It Yourself!! Serufu is inspired to learn more about DIY because (as far as she’s concerned) rebuilding a bench is the key to rebuilding an estranged childhood friendship. In both examples, the relationships between women drive the story forward.

Sometimes these reasons come from within. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! is fuelled by Midori’s unwavering love for animation. As much as K-On! gets flack for not really being about music, music is important because it’s the first activity Yui has really connected with, one of the first things she actively wants to engage with and get better at.

These are stories about girls wanting things (again, things that typically have nothing to do with heterosexual romance) and, because the tone is more often than not uplifting, getting what they want. Not only that, but these protagonists are often granted an unusual amount of autonomy with which to pursue their dreams.

Koguma from Super Cub riding her bike, wearing a white helmet and a small smile
Super Cub

Navigating the world at your own pace

Teenage girls’ hobbies—potentially shrugged off as phases or silly little pastimes in other genres, or in real life—are here placed at the heart of the narrative and treated as the most important thing in the story’s world. 

Real teenagers don’t necessarily have the sort of money, free time, and freedom of movement to engage wholeheartedly in the kinds of skill-building and elaborate projects we see in these shows. However, while hobby shows are often packed with granular detail that lets the audience learn along at home, they’re also in the business of skewing realism when it suits the entertaining and relaxing story they’re trying to tell. Often this means the protagonists end up with an aspirational amount of control over their own lives. 

Super Cub is arguably about this idea of autonomy. Its protagonist, Koguma, gains newfound agency when she buys a beaten-up second-hand motorbike. Initially just a more efficient way to get to school (a very practical motivation, but a personal motivation nonetheless) the bike comes to represent Koguma’s growing freedom and confidence. It enables her to travel, expanding her horizons first to a different supermarket and, by the end of the series, to a road trip around countryside she never would have seen otherwise. The joy of the series is watching her learn the intricacies of mechanical maintenance and improve her gear, spending her own time and money on something she cares about and reaping the emotional rewards.

three girls staring at the water out beyond a stand of sakura trees
Super Cub

Characteristic of the genre, the conflict in the series is—save for one minor vehicle accident —located in small-scale problems that Koguma is always given the breathing space to overcome. Even when that aforementioned accident happens, the show’s genre coding assures the audience that everything will be alright. These are series with chill vibes and personal stakes, after all, and the relaxed nature creates an environment in which we can rest assured that these teen girls are never in any serious danger. This is a narrative choice in service of a fun story, but it creates a bonus undercurrent of empowerment.

In Laid-Back Camp, young women frequently venture out into the wilderness on their own, an activity that’s fraught with all manner of dangers if we’re thinking about it realistically. But Laid-Back Camp’s chill atmosphere means we can set those realistic fears aside and enjoy the girls moving freely through the world. The worst threat to the characters’ safety comes when Chiaki, Ena, and Aoi forget to check the forecast before a trip. Even then, they are swiftly rescued by some kindly fellow hobbyists. Aside from some scolding by their teacher, these girls aren’t narratively punished for their mistake—it’s presented as a learning opportunity and a valuable, exciting memory for the big adventure that is their adolescence.

Two teen girls in winter clothes sit under blankets in front of a campfire, smiling at each other.
Laid-Back Camp

Ultimately, hobby shows are about learning, ensuring that these female characters experience character development. Sometimes, as in Koguma’s growing confidence in Super Cub, this is moving and cathartic. Sometimes the journey is more everyday, but no less rewarding: it is genuinely satisfying seeing Serufu successfully drill a screw in straight after struggling so much initially.

Likewise, it’s lovely seeing Nadeshiko try solo camping for the first time: excitedly buying her own food, setting up her own campsite, and generally being safe and in control of her own space. A similar rush of joy follows when we see Midori and Tsubame’s hard work come to fruition in Eizouken, their zany ideas taking form. While Hitori’s fears are always a little overblown in her own mind, BOCCHI the ROCK invites us to share Hitori’s point of view and thus we share in her triumph when she does something outside her comfort zone.

The stakes and focus of the series are oriented in such a way that these small victories are the emotional crux of the story, prioritizing mundane achievements that might otherwise get shrugged off. Again, in the context of these characters always being teenage girls, this is something worth celebrating. Not only are their inner worlds and their adolescent priorities given screen-time, they’re treated with precedence, and the narrative is constructed to make sure they get to follow their dreams without hindrance.

Hitori from Bocchi the Rock dancing awkwardly in her room. She is wearing sunglasses and her pink tracksuit. Subtitle text reads: Let's get some vibes up in here!

Laid-Back Conclusions: Hobby shows as a space of potential

While the marketing context of these works presents some potentially fraught questions and they may not appeal to everyone, the Girls Doing Stuff genre will always hold a special place in my heart. These hobby shows provide a perhaps unexpected space for strong female characters. By their very nature, these series’ protagonists are driven and motivated young women—motivated by something other than romance and men—who experience visible development across the narrative.

As a bonus, the relaxed vibe and personal stakes of this genre means that realistic dangers are removed and these characters are left in idyllic spaces where they have autonomy over their time and their surroundings. Having a club of fellow enthusiasts also provides ensemble casts of varied female characters with their own quirks, desires, and interests, working together and supporting one another.

With all this serious analysis, let’s also not forget that these shows are fun. They are a soothing cup of honeyed tea in a world that can be cold, hard, and unforgiving. They’re a form of escapism that’s unquestionably sympathetic to, and supportive of, the passions and dreams of teenage girls, inviting us to imagine a comfier and more sympathetic alternate world for everyone.

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