What Tomo-chan Is a Girl! gets wrong and right about gender-nonconformity and sexual assault

By: Jeff November 17, 20230 Comments
Jun and Tomo bump fists.

Content Warning: Discussions of sexual assault, groping on public transport, and victim blaming

Spoilers for Tomo-chan is a Girl!

Tomo-chan is a Girl! trips over its own plot with such style that I want to believe it’s all intentional. No matter how frustrating the tropes involved are, mangaka and series creator Yanagida Fumita manages to draw me back in with their follow-through. Using heartfelt sincerity and character-driven plot twists, Tomo-chan is a Girl! has quickly become one of my favorite shows, in spite of some thoroughly discomfiting scenes that detract from its comedic highs and  powerful story.

Mangaka Yanagida’s frustrating habits start right away with the central conflict of the show. Tomo-chan is a tomboy among tomboys to the extent that her neighbor, childhood friend, and love interest Junichiro doesn’t realize she’s a girl until middle school, when she shows up in the girls’ uniform. The opening scenes of Episode 1 are pretty rough, with Gundou Misuzu, a girl Tomo-chan has been friends with since they were infants, telling Tomo that she is “getting what she deserves” because Tomo “only ever plays games that boys play.” 

The first fix for Tomo’s problem? She needs to speak in a more polite, feminine way, but the attempt fails catastrophically. Jun starts teasing Tomo for talking like an old man, and Tomo-chan, whose father owns a karate dojo, ends up in a fist-fight with Jun—one she claims to have lost. Of course, Jun might have a different take on the outcome, given that he has the larger bandage the following morning.

A student describes Tomo as a very charming girl.

At this point in my initial watch, I was quickly losing interest in Tomo-chan is a Girl!’s thoughts on femininity. One of the first things that bothered me was the fact that Misuzu heavily implied that the only reason Tomo could be considered a girl was because of her sizable breasts, a form of bio-essentialism that I find particularly grating as a non-binary person. It didn’t help that other characters were saying similar things too. I wasn’t interested in another show where an otherwise happy gender-nonconforming woman gets “upgraded” into a gender-conforming version of herself just so she can snag her man.

Enter Misaki Kousuke, a.k.a. Misaki-senpai, captain of the boys karate club and school heartthrob. Tomo-chan has joined the boys karate team, largely because none of the girls will spar with her anymore. It’s also a sore spot for her, and Tomo complains to Misaki that she’s a failure as a girl while they’re stretching. 

“Th-that’s not true!” Misaki exclaims. “I think… you’re a very charming girl.”

Naturally, Tomo-chan is elated, and presses him for more, but when she asks what he thinks she should try to emphasize to be more feminine, he rejects the idea. “I wouldn’t want you to change like that,” he explains, “You’re plenty charming just the way you are, so I think you can have more confidence in who you are now.”

This simple, but powerful scene was enough of a signal for me to stick with the show, and I’m glad I did. 

Jun tells Tomo he has no right to police her body.

Unfortunately, the show didn’t stop testing my patience after the premiere: if anything, it got harder. Episode 2 came out swinging, and after only three minutes I paused the show to debate whether I’d keep watching. Tomo-chan experiences sexual assault on the bus home from school when an older man stands behind her and gropes her. I decided to press play because of how Yanagida had written Tomo’s reaction to the event. Tomo-chan goes through a common series of emotions—from surprise, to disbelief, to disgust and anger, and then to a sort of unexplainable shame that leaves her unable to act*. 

Sexual assault on public transit is also a major problem in Japan today. When Tomo-chan was airing, the Japanese ministry of education asked schools not to penalize students for being late to school or missing classes if they were filing a police report after being groped. At the same time, Tokyo launched a campaign to protect students from being groped during exam season, which some predators view as an opportunity, since students may be less willing to report the assault if it meant missing critical exams. Discussions of how best to combat the prevalence of train harassment are ongoing in Japan, from women-only cars to blacklight stamps and noise-making apps.

Honestly, even if this does represent an unfortunately common experience, I would vastly prefer it if this scene were not included. It has almost no plot relevance beyond this episode, and did not need to happen. However, since it is here, I think we should talk about what the show got right, and what it got wrong.

So what did the author get right?

Tomo tries to convince herself to bear with being groped on a train.

Yanagida’s portrayal of Tomo-chan’s sexual assault is surprisingly nuanced. Tomo’s first response is shock and disbelief; she’s not even sure that she’s right about what’s happening. “Wait, that couldn’t happen to me of all people…” she thinks to herself, right before she’s groped. Many people who choose to publicly tell their story of sexual assault report similar thoughts, saying they had no reason to suspect they were in danger, or that they dismissed the warning bells in their mind. For example, Herstory, “a volunteer-run platform designed primarily for adult female survivors of acquaintance sexual assault,” includes several such quotes in their page “Hear from other survivors.”

Tomo immediately moves to anger, clenching her fist and thinking about how she wants to slug him, but then she freezes up. She says herself that she’s not sure why, but she doesn’t want Jun to know what’s happening.

In moments, Tomo has moved from being ready to throw down, to feeling shame, disgust, and deep anguish. She doesn’t want Jun to know that she’s being assaulted, so she tries to endure. This isn’t uncommon either: Herstory says that freezing, submission, and dissociation are among the most common responses that women have to sexual violence. Additionally, the University of Milwaukee Wisconsin lists shock, disbelief, anger, shame, and dissociation as common responses. What Tomo experiences is very real and true to many people’s experience with sexual assault.

Jun grabs Tomo's assailant and confronts him directly.

I’ll admit, I wanted the catharsis that would come from Tomo-chan beating the assailant into the ground. However, if Yanagida had taken that path out, the show might have played into harmful messages about the need for women to defend themselves. Instead, the show depicts the truth: Tomo was a victim with or without physical resistance. Viewers are left with no doubt about her situation. What is happening is wrong and harmful, a bar that many shows fail to clear.

This continues when Tomo-chan later tells Misuzu about the event. Misuzu is typically defined by her sarcasm and dark wit, which she uses to both express her care for others and to remain at an emotionally safe distance from them. That allows her reaction to emphasize how serious the offense is. Misuzu grabs Tomo’s shoulders, showing immediate, honest, unguarded concern for Tomo’s emotional and physical health. Once she’s convinced her friend is as safe as she can be, Misuzu visibly collects herself before rejoining with her normal, vaguely dispassionate tone. There is only one other time Misuzu expresses her emotions so directly, something Yanagida uses to drive home the point: what happened to Tomo-chan was unacceptable on every level.

Yanagida’s writing also opens up conversations about who can be a victim. Tomo-chan is physically and emotionally strong. She stands up for herself and for others constantly throughout the show, and is more than capable of beating even other trained fighters. She is also a victim of sexual violence. I couldn’t help but think of Kayla Harrison, who won two national judo championships by the time she was 15 years old, and who was also sexually abused by her coach from ages 13 to 16. Harrison was convinced by her coach, a family friend, not to tell anyone for years. Eventually, she went on to become the first person from the U.S. to win Olympic gold in judo. Harrison’s physical strength is demonstrably world class. She is also a survivor of sexual violence. She’s both, just like Tomo-chan is.

So, where did the author make a mistake?

Jun wants to compete with Tomo the same they always have, but it ignores her gender.

This is a little complicated, and I still have mixed feelings on it, but in my opinion, Jun’s response to the event leaves something to be desired. He recognizes what’s happening on the bus and grabs the man groping Tomo, taking him to the police and filing a report. The biggest flaw comes after.

“Maybe you should stop wearing skirts,” Jun suddenly tells Tomo, who immediately challenges him on it. Jun isn’t able to give a good reason why when she presses him, just saying “It looks wrong on you!” 

We cut back to Misuzu, who suggests that maybe Jun said that out of concern for Tomo, though she backtracks immediately. Unfortunately, Misuzu takes this opportunity to encourage Tomo to take off her safety shorts for the walk home from school that day, something Tomo is obviously uncomfortable with. That ends up being used as a plot device to lead us to Jun’s moment of potential redemption. After an unfortunate moment where he accidentally sees her underwear, Jun apologizes for trying to tell Tomo what to wear, admitting that he doesn’t “have the right” to tell her to dress differently. 

I have conflicted feelings on this section. I appreciate the emphasis that other people need to be willing to step in when they see something wrong. But Jun’s victim-blaming turn to Tomo-chan’s clothing isn’t great, even if Tomo openly rejects it at the moment. In this article, the writer points out how My Love Story places a similar victim-blaming argument in the mouth of an obviously unempathetic attacker. The audience is expected to reject that claim at least in part because of who is making it. Here, it is the main love interest expressing it.

Tomo sits uncomfortably on a train next to her childhood friend.

That is solved somewhat by Jun walking back his statement, especially since Yanagida doesn’t require any of the women to expend the emotional energy of convincing him. Tomo rejects his statement, punches him, and leaves. On the other hand, he doesn’t address the root of the victim-blaming, just that he doesn’t have the right to tell Tomo how to dress. If he had gone as far as to say “What you were wearing doesn’t matter, it was his decision to hurt you,” I could give full marks. It is true that he can’t tell Tomo what to wear, but by stopping there, it leaves space to still blame Tomo’s clothing for what happened. There is some value to the empathetic character setting up the argument and tearing it down on his own, but it falls short of a complete rebuttal. Of course, the full sequence should leave viewers confident that the attacker is wholly to blame, but Jun’s apology could have closed the door on victim blaming, locked it, and thrown away the key.

Fortunately, Yanagida is extremely thorough when it comes to Tomo’s gender nonconformity. In an interesting parallel, the one other time Misuzu sheds her perpetual sarcasm she confesses that she’s been lying to Tomo for years. “There was never any need to force yourself to be more girly,” she says while tears stream down her face. “No one ever wanted you to change.”

Both scenes involve Misuzu’s fear that Tomo-chan has been hurt by a misogynistic society. For decades, feminists have discussed how women can enforce the patriarchy by policing the clothing and hobbies of their peers. Misuzu feels profoundly guilty for how she has played a role in forcing patriarchal norms on her friend, and breaks down the emotional barriers she uses to protect herself to try and right that wrong. Her character is used to spotlight the significance of two ways misogyny harms young women. I don’t mean to suggest that they are equally harmful, simply that both are ways that the patriarchy plays out in the lives of women.

Tomo's friend tells her she's fine the way she is.

Shortly after, Jun offers a path forward for his relationship with Tomo. He expresses how he not only accepts her gender nonconformity, but cherishes it, and has refused to acknowledge his feelings out of a fear that dating would end their rivalry and quash what he enjoys most about spending time with her. Mid-confession he suddenly challenges her to a race up a long stairway to a shrine, a challenge she instantly accepts. At the top, he shares that what he wants most is to maintain that dynamic, even as their relationship becomes a romantic one.

In the end, despite its clumsy handling of some of the heavy themes it addresses, what draws me back to Tomo-chan is a Girl! is how Yanagida Fumita inverts character tropes and story beats to make a point. Tomo is the only character you can take at face value in the entire show—everyone else has put up a front, either to protect themselves or to protect someone else. Some of the most poignant moments are found when the mask comes off, and the hardest scenes to watch are those where Tomo has to put hers on.

While the portrayal of Tomo-chan’s reaction is common, it is not universal. There is no single way that people respond to sexual violence, and just because you or someone you know had a different response does not mean you did not experience sexual assault. If you believe you have experienced sexual assault, please find safe ways to process your experience. RAINN has a list of resources for survivors and their loved ones, including resources specific to race, gender, sexuality, immigration status, disability, or international resources for those outside the United States.

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