Subverting masculine expectations and complicating the male gaze in My Dress-Up Darling

By: Archie Fenn March 10, 20230 Comments
Gojo and Kitagawa lying next to each other, seen from above. Gojo is bathed in the white light of a mobile phone and his eyes are closed. Kitagawa is cast in shadow and has her eyes open, looking lovingly at him.

Content Warning: fanservice

Spoilers for season one of My Dress-Up Darling

Released in January of 2022, My Dress-Up Darling took audiences by storm. Viewers quickly grew attached to its heroine, Kitagawa Marin, and her confident, endearing personality and big-hearted love for fandom and cosplay. But many were also surprised by the series’ male lead, Gojo Wakana, and his refreshing depiction of masculinity and his attitude towards sex. In many ways the series goes against the grain of stereotypes still prevalent in today’s society, and especially in the rom-com genre.

One of Gojo’s defining characteristics is his passion for hina dolls. Ever since he was given a tour of his grandfather’s hina doll shop at five years old, he has been in love with the craft that involves textile work, make-up, and accessorising dolls. Sadly, there is still a divide between activities and passions that are seen as stereotypically masculine and feminine, and people are often perceived as strange or weird for crossing that line. The show demonstrates  this in its very first scene, when Gojo’s childhood friend Nobara yells at him, saying “Why do you like girl’s dolls Wacchan? You’re a boy!”

Closeup of a young Gojo, looking shocked. Subtitle text reads: Why do you like girls' dolls, Wacchan? You're a boy!

Those words traumatize Gojo, to the point that he develops social anxiety and becomes secretive about  his “feminine” passion. While this cultural stereotype clearly weighs on him, he maintains his dedication to the artform: his passion for hina dolls never falters and contorts to meet the “acceptable” societal standard of masculinity. It’s clear that the narrative itself does not buy into these gendered ideas. In fact, Gojo’s traditionally feminine skills prompt the show’s inciting incident, getting the attention and admiration of Kitagawa and launching the relationship between the two.  

The show is also progressive and understanding of breaking gender barriers within cosplay. While attending a cosplay convention, Gojo notes and appreciates the amount of people that use cosplay as a tool of gender expression. The topic also reappears when Shinju wants to cosplay as a male character and is met with immediate understanding and acceptance. While it is becoming slightly less common, crossdressing is still used as a method of comedic ridicule in anime, often painting the person dressing that way as odd or laughing at them. Gojo’s gentle empathy and kindness shine through here—and once again, his tailoring and make-up skills are what save the day.

Gojo seen from side-on, looking down and looking serious. Subtitle text reads: I guess we'll have to somehow make her chest stand out less.

Another, and by far the greatest way that Gojo breaks masculine stereotypes is in his attitude towards sex, or more accurately the sexualization and objectification of female characters. My Dress-Up Darling features a lot of fanservice, which is far from uncommon in shounen and seinen rom-coms—however, Gojo does not act, and react, in a manner typical of male protagonists within the genre. Compared to other shows, Gojo tries incredibly hard to be respectful and not sexualize Kitagawa, even as their romance begins to form.

The first and most prominent example of this is in the second episode. To get accurate measurements for her first cosplay, Kitagawa strips down to a very revealing bikini—her wisdom being that it would be far too intimate for Gojo to see her in her underwear, but swimwear is perfectly socially acceptable. While there is some logic to this, the fact remains that she’s nearly nude. For the majority of male characters in the same genre this would be a prime excuse to ogle and sexualize a half-naked woman; however, Gojo’s main reaction is discomfort. What proceeds is an excruciatingly long and awkward scene where Gojo has to build up the courage to take Kitagawa’s measurements.

Gojo looking flustered down at Kitagawa, who is seen from behind. Subtitle text reads: I-I can see down there! Please cover up!

The show’s 12 episodes are filled with interactions like this: when Kitagawa feels hot after her first convention and has to unzip her cosplay to cool down, the entire episode when Kitagawa cosplays as the scantily-clad Prisoner Veronica, and the scene where Gojo finds himself in a love hotel, are just a few. Gojo is so scared of sexualizing, or having any sort of sexual interaction with Kitagawa, that early on he won’t share food with her because it is an “indirect kiss.”

How Gojo reacts to other female characters also diverges from the stereotypical male character in this genre. While organising a cosplay for Shinju, her larger chest proves to be a problem for her crossplay. However, for Gojo it is simply a practical problem for him to overcome when designing the costume, and little screen time is spent sexualizing Shinju.

Gojo lifting up a curtain and looking embarassed and horrified at what he sees underneath

Even if his awkwardness is often played for comedy, this aspect of Gojo’s characterization is refreshing, given how often the protagonists of shounen or seinen rom-coms objectify their love interests. Rent-a-Girlfriend, the second season of which aired the same year as My Dress-Up Darling, is a particularly sticky example of this trend. In Rent-a-Girlfriend, the plot is set in motion by the protagonist’s shallow sexual urges and his treatment of women as objects. When Kazuya gets dumped by his girlfriend, out of horniness and sexual jealousy, he downloads the app Rent-a-Girlfriend and attempts to drown his sorrows in a paid date. 

The audience is introduced to most of the female characters through the lens of Kazuya’s horniness: almost every time Kazuya thinks of his ex-girlfriend, his first thought will be of her sleeping with another man, which both infuriates and arouses him. He contextualizes her almost solely through sex and rarely thinks and reminisces about their actual relationship and the time they spent together. Kazuya also constantly tries making advances on his rental girlfriend Chizuru, even though she continuously states that she has no emotional interest in him. Because the series is anchored in Kazuya’s perspective, and he objectifies the female characters, that becomes the way they are framed by the show overall.

The back of Kitagawa's bare legs and just the very edge of her butt. Subtitle text reads: But if we were in a manga right now, you'd totally sneak a look!

My Dress-Up Darling is inevitably in conversation with these tropes—sometimes it even takes the chance to nod to or satirize them. Many of the situations that Gojo and Kitagawa find themselves in are typical of the genre, but the decisions and actions of the characters go against audience expectations. Dagashi Kashi 2— another slice-of-life/romance show, released in 2018—features its two male lead characters physically fighting and arguing over perving on the female characters while they bathe in one of its early episodes, something commonplace in the genre. However, in My Dress-Up Darling this type of situation is called out and joked about. “If we were in a manga right now you’d totally sneak a look,” Kitagawa says through the door as she’s getting changed and Gojo waits outside. These tropes are even criticised in the show’s mise-en-scene: in Episode 4, as Gojo is getting off a train, the camera cuts to a sign that warns about gropers on public transport, sadly another fetishized anime trope.

The show enjoys playing to audience expectations of the genre, occasionally satisfying them, but also setting up the opportunities for lewd moments and then leaving them without payoff or subverting them. As Gojo and Kitagawa are heading home from the cosplay convention, Kitagawa mentions that the first thing she is going to do when she gets back is have a shower. Immediately after this, Gojo’s facial expression changes. The audience expects him to react to her statement in a sexual manner, possibly by imagining it, or trying not to imagine it in true Gojo fashion. But Gojo’s facial expression only changed because he remembered something unrelated that he wanted to say which connects them on an emotional level, rather than a sexual one.

Gojo looking down, distraught. Subtitle text reads: This means so much to her. It's rude to have any indecent thoughts!

However, while it subverts the expectations of the pervy rom-com by having a male lead who’s determined not to be pervy—sincerely so, unlike many a hapless male harem lead who just happens to constantly breach women’s boundaries or secretly thrills at accidental nudity—My Dress-Up Darling still engages with these tropes in other ways. As mentioned previously, this show does contain a lot of fanservice, creating a dissonance between Gojo’s desires and the presumed desires of the audience. 

This is where the issue of the “male gaze” comes in, a piece of film theory that describes how female roles are reduced and simplified for the purposes of sexual gratification–metaphorically dismembered into their attractive body parts in a way that reduces their personhood (think about fanservice that focuses on a girl’s boobs, butt, or crotch much more than her face). Even though Gojo tries looking away when Kitagawa is exposed, or tries ignoring sexual situations, the camera does not, instead pushing in and bringing Kitagawa’s body center frame. In the measuring scene mentioned above, for example, Gojo does his best to avert his eyes, but the storyboards provide panning shots over her body and repeat emphasis on her jiggling bust.

Kitagawa in her black floral bikini, sitting back on a cushion with her knees up, looking straight into the camera

Read cynically, this could be the show attempting to have its cake and eat it too, a technique rom-coms sometimes deploy. More Than a Married Couple But Not Lovers, also from 2022, tries this: showing the male protagonist having sexual daydreams of the female characters, rendering those daydreams in sensuous detail, but then cutting to the protagonist shaking his head and condemning his own actions. The show acknowledges that thinking of women as sexual objects like this is bad, but is also content to depict them as sexual objects for the viewer—constructing a kind of “plausible deniability” for the fanservice.

It is possible to argue that the camera acts as Gojo’s subconscious. Because Gojo finds Kitagawa very attractive—evidenced by the lewd dream he has about her early in the season—every time Gojo goes to look away, the camera “imagines” Marin’s features anyway. It underscores that Gojo is still hormonal, even if he’s making the effort to be respectful. At the same time, it’s equally possible to argue that many shows have conveyed attraction between characters with less obtrusive fanservice—or at least more clear signals on when a character is meant to be “looking” in-universe. 

Gojo and Kitagawa lying next to each other, seen from above. Gojo is bathed in the white light of a mobile phone and his eyes are closed. Kitagawa is cast in shadow and has her eyes open, looking lovingly at him.

Even if Gojo is a horny rom-com protagonist, the crucial difference still comes in how he responds to this and how he treats his love interest. He keeps his urges in check, and most importantly, even if the camera has its fun objectifying Kitagawa, Gojo treats her like a person and the two of them connect on an emotional level. The effort put into building genuine chemistry and closeness between Gojo and Kitagawa prevents her from feeling like she only exists as an object of sexual wish-fulfilment, and him from feeling like a shallow character through which the audience is meant to look at the love interest.

Overall, while still tangled in fan service and horny comedy, My Dress-Up Darling’s depictions of masculinity and the sexualization of its female characters are typically leaps and bounds above many of its genre counterparts. The show’s progressive attitude towards the disruption of masculine stereotypes feels like a step in the right direction for the genre. Additionally, despite the hypocrisy of its own fanservice, Gojo’s attitude towards the sexualization of other female characters are still a breath of fresh air in a genre filled with outwardly sex-crazed and consent-ambivalent male protagonists. With My Dress-Up Darling’s success, I can only hope that it continues to challenge these expectations and set new standards for the genre as it evolves.

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