How shoujo manga helps me grapple with internalized misogyny

By: Ashley McDonnell May 18, 20220 Comments
A stack of shojo manga

I’ve been a fan of shoujo manga for 20 years, and for much of that, I’ve been fighting to get other manga readers to take it more seriously. I even started a podcast, Shojo & Tell, where I talk to other fans and industry professionals about it. Even so, the word “shoujo” for me evokes knee-jerk stereotypes and assumptions that I have to consciously fight against. For many readers, “shoujo” means heteronormative romance set in high school or urban fantasy. It means predictable happily ever after — or at least “happy for now” — endings. It means weak, boring female protagonists overshadowed by more dynamic male love interests. 

As a teenager in the early years of my anime fandom, I heard these dismissive stereotypes over and over and took them as truth. My female friends who were fans of shoujo, my male friends who wouldn’t dare pick up a manga that has pink on the cover, and random people in online anime and manga communities alike treated these statements as fact. The fact that I just accepted their opinions uncritically says more about me and my values than anything about shoujo manga, and I’ve spent the past decade trying to unlearn these ideas and overcome my internalized misogyny by actively engaging with it.

The cover of the first volume of Cardcaptor Sakura, with Sakura in a frilly dress smiling and holding up a Clow card

A Shoujo in a Shounen World

I grew up adoring male heroes and masculine activities (which largely still holds true today, despite great strides). From ages six to fifteen, I played ice hockey on boys’ teams; when I was seven, my mom made me attend a banquet with my teammates while wearing a dress. My coach told me I was cute, and I started to cry; I was so mad that I was cute and not cool. Today, I still love hockey and American football, the most violent of the major league sports. Most of my favorite musicians are men; my favorite genre is electronic dance music, where only 13 of the world’s top 100 DJs are female, according to DJ Mag’s 2021 poll — and even that is a vast improvement from previous years. My favorite non-anime show is BattleBots, where people build robots for a fighting competition; of the approximately 60 teams competing, only a handful are led by women.

I entered these spaces and always espoused that my gender shouldn’t matter, even though I put great emphasis on their gender. Just because I was female didn’t mean I was lesser than the men I was hanging out with. I entered their space and always wanted to prove that I could do all the things they could do with the same exact competence, under the same exact rules. I admired physical strength above all else. I found the rules in male spaces easier to understand: show that you can hang with the best, and we’ll be great pals. Show weakness, and you become a punching bag.

The masculinized spaces I existed in made appreciating shoujo a struggle for me, even though Fruits Basket and The Vision of Escaflowne were some of my favorite series, and Watase Yuu, known for shoujo works like Fushigi Yugi and Absolute Boyfriend, is one of my favorite authors. Shoujo had the greatest influence on my creative ideas, yet shounen series still ruled the day — why be into quiet and excessively cutesy Cardcaptor Sakura when Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles was way cooler with its sprawling world, epic battles, and tragic romance? You need only look at any manga sales rankings to see that shounen reigns supreme in most people’s hearts.

The first volume of Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, with Shaoran holding Sakura against himself protectively

While I was in college, I began to enter more queer communities, where I started questioning everything I thought I knew about gender. But at the same time, I was separated from my friends who I’d enjoyed shoujo with, and my anime and manga consumption turned almost entirely toward shounen. I gained more diverse perspectives on a narrower set of art and culture, but I didn’t think much of it. I felt more in-tune with mainstream anime culture than ever: I kept up with Bleach on my own; in anime club, we watched things like Hayate the Combat Butler and Gurren Lagann; with my roommates, I watched things like Outlaw Star, Gundam Wing, and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

When I graduated and moved across the country, away from basically everyone I’d ever known, I clung to anime and manga. I challenged myself to read and watch big series I’d never finished before, this time particularly seeking the comfort of shoujo that I shunned for years. I found myself delighting more in the gentle relationship drama of Kimi ni Todoke and Strobe Edge than the action-focused plotting of blockbuster shounen series like Soul Eater or Inuyasha. I watched as many shoujo anime adaptations as were available, such as Skip Beat, Say I Love You, and My Little Monster. Some stayed with me more than others, but none of them challenged my notions of what shoujo could be or made me question whether shounen deserved to dominate cultural conversations.

Kazehaya and Sawako from Kimi ni Todoke talking
Kazehaya: Kuronuma... Yesterday... were you... actually avoiding me?
Sawako's internal monologue box: No matter what happened... Kazehaya-kun was the one... ...who never... ...avoided me. If I'm around, I'll only cause him trouble. 
Sawako's internal monologue bubble: I don't want to avoid him.
Box: I should stay away from him.
Bubble: But I want to be by his side. Is it right to avoid him? Or am I making a mistake? I don't know. I don't know.

Romance and Shoujo Are Not Synonyms

In 2014, my then-boyfriend and I started to seriously discuss creating a Digimon podcast covering all of its existing seasons. So I stopped paying attention to shoujo, and started focusing on digital monsters marketed to boys. But the more I realized how male-dominated the podcasting space was, and how many other Digimon-related podcasts there were compared to anything about shoujo, the more I wanted to start a shoujo-focused podcast. So in 2017, I launched my podcast Shoujo & Tell. I told myself that shoujo was just getting the short shrift because of sexism, the same way the romance genre in the U.S. is looked down upon by the publishing industry despite romance books making up nearly 20% of the overall adult fiction market sales. I thought I was fighting the good feminist fight, but the dismissive preconceptions of shoujo I still carried made running the podcast difficult.

My first and greatest mistake was equating shoujo with romance. “Shoujo” is merely a demographic designation for works that target girls and young women. In terms of genre, the sky’s the limit, because girls have a wide variety of interests. Romantic plots certainly drive a lot of shoujo stories, but they aren’t always the core of the series. Because I had pigeonholed all shoujo as romance, I assumed men were right to have no interest in these series (which was an incorrect assumption in and of itself, considering how many popular shounen romantic comedies there are). I thought they were all light, fluffy stories of no consequence, when there is much more diversity to the designation than that. Intellectually, I’m aware that the romance genre can be just as interesting and challenging as any other genre, but I still carry around a lot of baggage about its quality and worth, even divorced from the anime and manga scene. 

Kyo and Tohru talking in Fruits Basket
Tohru: You know, you don't have to get along. It's okay. I really did think that... I wanted you to get along but... but... it's okay. Even if you hate him... 
Internal: ...if that will ease your fears...
Tohru: ....It's okay.
Flashback: "I can see them. There's an amazing on your back, Kyo-kun. Kyo kun... is wonderful too."
Kyo: ...Yeah. Yeah.

My second-biggest mistake was placing far too much emphasis on the men in shoujo stories. This is a common problem; in most character polls in shoujo manga, the male lead gets the most votes. The female lead is lucky if she comes in second place. Although my vote wasn’t included in any published results, I thought along the same lines. I didn’t read Fruits Basket for the struggles of orphaned goody-two-shoes Honda Tohru; I was much more invested in Sohma Kyo and his angst. How could plain, whiny Miaka or Yui end up my favorite in Fushigi Yugi when they both have a harem of troubled, powerful, magical (mostly) dudes? It’s only been through discussions on the podcast with people who have had vastly different life experiences than me that I’ve come to see how many of the female characters have more depth than I gave them credit for. I still struggle to understand, but I try to defend them: on a vacation this past summer with a female friend from high school, she dismissed Tohru as perfect and annoying, and I tried to explain why that was untrue and reductive.

Until very recently, even when I did end up liking the female lead, it was only because they had more masculine characteristics. In Maid-Sama, my favorite shoujo series, I relate strongly to protagonist Ayuzawa Misaki’s relationship with gender and femininity. Misaki constantly says she hates men for being slovenly, cowardly, and generally good-for-nothing. She both loathes men and loves the power they have, so much so that she imitates stereotypical masculine traits like training to be physically strong, always being ready to jump into a fight, and becoming a domineering student council president. It’s clear that these traits are more than just survival tactics for her at her predominantly male school; she genuinely prides herself in being the strongest and smartest, and likes how she looks and feels when she’s dressing as a man during cross-dressing days at her maid cafe job. Everything about it reminded me of how I handled playing hockey with boys, trying to both assert and suppress my gender identity, to blend in but also stand out, to beat the boys at their own rigged game by adhering rigidly to all their rules instead of questioning them. 

Shoujo Manga’s Generosity to All Genders

My love of shoujo has always been one of my few concessions to femininity, a safe space where I could enjoy the “girly” things that I outwardly scorned. I became invested in Aya and Toya’s romance in Ceres: Celestial Legend and wept over the plight of the cursed Sohma family.  Fighting my way into and through male spaces where I never fully fit had made me externally an angry, aggressive person, but internally I harbored only hurt. Deep inside, I wished I could be kind, and that kindness would lead to respect. I wanted men to think I was desirable both romantically and as a teammate. I wanted different genders to attract and work in harmony, something that shoujo manga showed me in abundance while my real life scoffed at the idea.

Yet still, I had put shoujo in a narrow box and kept it there for nearly 15 years. I thought in college I had started to break out of that box when I began hanging out in more queer and feminist circles. I had watched Maid-Sama for the first time with my transgender best friend (now husband), and we often discussed (and sometimes disparaged) the show’s portrayal of the gender binary. But reading and discussing shoujo manga with dedication and good intent has been one of the only things that’s helped me truly see how alarmingly patriarchal modern society is, despite my best efforts to pigeonhole and suffocate shoujo series under my own preconceptions.

Many shoujo series have a generosity of spirit that I still struggle to describe. The stories are all about gender and sexuality, love and societal norms, because those things matter so, so much. But the best shoujo — The Rose of Versailles, Ouran High School Host Club, Magic Knight Rayearth, Fruits Basket, truly, obviously, too many to list here — know that while all those things shape a person, they don’t define them. Gender and genres were made to be bent. Love can’t be confined by artificial moral boundaries. Outsiders should be let in.

My personal journey unlearning the worst lessons of misogyny is still ongoing, but I’m sure shoujo manga will continue to challenge me for years to come. (I’ve yet to understand the appeal of magical girls, but maybe I’ll get it in due time…) My ongoing appeal to everyone is to read more shoujo manga. It’s more than romances full of problematic relationships, as the stereotypes go. If you’re willing to read shoujo with an open heart, its generosity of spirit might just blow your mind, too.

We Need Your Help!

We’re dedicated to paying our contributors and staff members fairly for their work—but we can’t do it alone.

You can become a patron for as little as $1 a month, and every single penny goes to the people and services that keep Anime Feminist running. Please help us pay more people to make great content!

Comments are open! Please read our comments policy before joining the conversation and contact us if you have any problems.

%d bloggers like this: