Content Warning: sexual violence, parental neglect, parentification, and bullying
Spoilers for the first ten volumes or so of Boys Over Flowers
I will always look back at the manga Boys Over Flowers with fondness in my heart. Heroine Makino Tsukushi attends Eitoku Academy, an elite private high school where a working class girl like her is stuck at the bottom of the social ladder. At the top is the “F4”, a quartet of handsome male students whose super-wealthy families make significant contributions to the school, imbuing them with influence over even the school’s faculty and administration. After an altercation in which Tsukushi stands up to the F4, she becomes a target of vicious bullying by her schoolmates and, eventually, the romantic advances of the F4 leader, Domyouji Tsukasa.
Tsukushi faces more than just bullying from her peers and the controlling grasp of Domyouji. She also must carry the additional burden of financial instability and the pressure from her parents to marry a rich man in order to resolve their money problems. This situation forces her through the psychological process of parentification, molding her into a spirited and resolute character that I came to love.
My experience growing up
Growing up in my family, the children were expected to take over parental roles, lest the house fall into a sense of dysfunction and imbalance. This caused a process described in a study by the psychologist Jennifer Engelhard as “parentification”. Although some responsibility is important for children’s development, subjecting them to the immense pressure of parenting at an early age can create long-term effects on their mental and behavioral well-being.
With parents like mine, I was never comfortable relying on others or asking for help, especially adults who claimed that they would take care of me. I only now realize how much of my childhood experiences weren’t normal, and that other children didn’t have to carry burdens like the interdependent relationship among me and my siblings. Whether we liked it or not, we developed a silent understanding that we had to work together. We had to perform household management tasks like monitoring the monthly budget, finding sources of income in addition to keeping on top of our studies, and mediating our parents’ interactions to minimize the number of arguments between them.
As young as nine years old, I was expected to shoulder the burden of keeping the household running to make sure our home life didn’t fall apart, something that continues to bleed into my current routine. I was a quiet kid. I put an incredible amount of pressure on myself to get good grades and earn income. I felt like I needed to be a model child to cause my parents the least amount of trouble possible.
A few years later, when I first read Boys Over Flowers, I was still too young to understand why I valued Tsukushi’s competence and self-reliance—because seeing a character going through a situation so similar to mine helped me cope with my reality. Tsukushi’s approach to life made sense to me, since our personal circumstances were similar.
Both of us would make the best of whatever situation we ended up in, regardless of our comfort levels. We noticed the cost and value of things, because we felt obligated to contribute and monitor these resources for the sake of the family. Her line, “I can’t compete. Not when I’ve been raised by a family like this,” resonated with me deeply. Her understanding pushed me to begrudgingly accept the truth that our family situations shape our decisions. We simply can’t afford to choose what we want for ourselves when we have all these other people involved.
When parentification turns destructive
There are two subtypes of parentification. With instrumental parentification, the child steps in and shoulders the concerns of running a household, such as paying bills, cooking meals, and doing chores. The more destructive subtype is emotional parentification, wherein children feel it necessary to care for their parents’ psycho-emotional concerns, such as offering support or even implementing crisis intervention in times of psychological stress. Both of these, at various times, apply to Boys Over Flowers’ heroine.
Tsukushi is resourceful, easily adaptive, and resilient. She confronts even the most difficult situations with a “come what may” attitude. She’s perceptive of her surroundings and responds accordingly, even batting away eggs that her classmates throw at her with a handy fly swatter. Unlike her class- and money-obsessed family and peers, Tsukushi has little interest in material goods or status.
Tsukushi’s pragmatic worldview also makes her feel responsible for the wellbeing of others, and she tries to shield the people she cares about from harm. She gets into the mess with the F4 because she defends her friend Makiko, and is even willing to help a complete stranger from getting sexually harassed at a party. Those around her regard her protectiveness as a strength that keeps them grounded.
When I read the manga as a child, I was intrigued by Tsukushi’s resourcefulness and flexibility. The concept of someone being so strong for others struck me deeply, especially when I was barely coping with my demanding home life situation. Since I grew up in an environment where the money was unstable enough that even the children had to intervene, I suspected that Tsukushi’s character had underlying connections to her circumstances at home. When Tsukushi’s home situation is revealed, the dynamics of the Makino family put her behavior into better context.
She has one brother, who doesn’t really play an active role in the story. Her father is the sole breadwinner and works in a low-ranking, poorly-paid position, while her mother runs the household. While the whole family, even the parents, is shown to be stretched thin in terms of physical and psychological capabilities, my feelings of sympathy swayed when I saw how neglectful and brusque the Makino parents were. They are depicted as unreliable, obnoxious, tactless, and inattentive to their daughter’s struggles.
They provide little relief in terms of resources or emotional support. I’d even argue that they are additional problems to the obstacles that their daughter is already facing, when they push Tsukushi to assume roles that she’s expressed discomfort in fulfilling. For example, they assume their financial problems will be solved by Tsukushi marrying a wealthy Eitoku student, using that as an excuse to pressure her into accepting courtship from the same guy responsible for her bullying and ruined uniform.
While I tried my best to understand these paper-thin parental figures, I found their disregard for Tsukushi’s needs downright unlikable. They forced her to attend Eitoku so that she would form relationships with wealthy families, even though she’s lonely and miserable, and threatened to kick her out if she didn’t accept invitations from her bullies. The only instance that I recall the parents paying enough attention to show genuine concern for Tsukushi is when she came home crying after Domyouji attempts to force himself on her, resulting in the tearing of her uniform blouse. It seems that the Makino parents notice Tsukushi’s unhappiness and distress only when it is apparent through face-value behaviors like crying. After all, she’s become skilled at hiding her pain as a result of taking adult responsibilities too young.
Ideally, parents provide their children with the emotional support they need, but that is not always the case. It makes sense that Tsukushi had to learn to rely on herself for both her emotional and financial needs. Who else would she be able to seek comfort from when her parents won’t give her the time of day?
Finding comfort in Tsukushi’s character
Seeing a situation so similar to mine from an outside perspective helped me understand some of my feelings of anxiety and urgency towards my home. Her resilience and inner strength helped me find the strength to overcome my own situation. Tsukushi’s forgiveness also helped me realize that it was natural and human for me to feel frustration and even anger at my situation, but also pushed me to grow from it and transformed my feelings of helplessness into a drive to take action. Through reading her story, I felt inspired to wholeheartedly assume my role in raising my siblings.
While I still feel the burden of “mothering” my siblings and even my parents, it feels more instinctive and manageable now. Of course, it still gets overwhelming at times, but the thought, “If I don’t take care of them, then who will?” continues to ring in my head. Not to mention that I remain hopeful that I will eventually be able to bring my siblings and I to a safer, more positive home.
Tying the family together
Here’s the silver lining: according to Engelhardt, a child experiencing some aspects of parentification isn’t all bad when it is regulated and balanced. In fact, it trains the child for the “adult” roles that they will eventually assume in the future as they are introduced to the complexities of the adult world, like a sort of test run. With support and acknowledgement, parentification may even foster a sense of accomplishment and competence in the child.
While it is something that I believe no child should undergo, my experiences have shaped me into someone like my hero, Makino Tsukushi. Despite the lack of parental guidance in my life, I am lucky and grateful to have social support circles who help me carry the weight of it and give me comfort when I need it. As society develops a more complex image of the family beyond just two parents supporting their children, understanding, acceptance, and resources for families like ours can only grow. The more depictions of situations like this appear in media, the more people may come to understand the reality of it—and the more children affected by similar experiences may be able to find fictional heroes that resonate with and validate their own struggles. After all it is not only through manga characters like Tsukushi, that “parentified” children find a deeper connection with, but also with the people outside biological ties that gift them the love and guidance that they so much deserve.
The ending of the manga involves Tsukushi eventually graduating from Eitoku Academy – an end goal that she faced on-and-off difficulty in achieving. Not only does this high school graduation mark the apparent end of Tsukushi’s life with her super-wealthy classmates, but also the end of her troubles with the F4. After hearing about his father’s accident, Domyouji – who has become Tsukushi’s main love interest at this point – decides to travel to America, a decision that will undoubtedly change the course of their companionship and budding relationship. Even if it’s unclear whether the couple stays together and what happens to Tsukushi afterwards, I felt relief upon seeing my fictional hero lead a better life from that point on, having leaped over numerous hurdles and unlikely circumstances. Needless to say, the end of her journey wasn’t brought by mere luck, which makes it all the more gratifying when we see her conquering it as a stronger, worldlier person – a true example of ‘things may be bad before it gets better’.