Content warnings: discussion of sexual trauma and heteronormativity; NSFW screencaps
Spoilers for volumes 1 and 2 of Ladies On Top
NEJIGANAMETA’s manga Ladies On Top is a cute, sexy josei romcom about the crushing pressures of heteronormative gender roles. I know, the emotional trauma inflicted by society’s narrow expectations about acceptable masculinity, femininity, and sexual desire doesn’t sound very cute or sexy, but trust me when I say Ladies On Top weaves these themes together effectively with its fluffy romance. The end result is a series with a big heart and a biting edge of social critique, emphasizing the positive power of communication, trust, and escaping from the roles that patriarchal assumptions can box us into.
The story follows Kajitani Mitsuki and Shinomiya Takayuki, a couple in their twenties who have been dating for a while and who keep being asked if they’ve, ya know, done it yet. There’s clearly attraction between the two and Shinomiya objectively seems like a great guy, but something’s just not sitting right with Kajitani. As her internal monologue explains, even though she knows she should be happy when the men she’s dating act assertive and gallant, in the past she’s always been yucked out by her boyfriend taking the lead. But she swallows this discomfort down because that’s what men are like, right? And as the woman in a relationship with a man, shouldn’t she be the submissive and dainty one, following as he leads?
On their disastrous first night together, it turns out that Shinomiya has his own hangups. His suave exterior is, in itself, a performance he’s putting on based on the exact same gender roles and relationship expectations that are weighing on Kajitani. When it comes down to it, he’s extremely uncomfortable with being forward and aggressive, especially in a sexual context—and pretty uncomfortable with sex in general. So on a whim, Kajitani decides to mix things up and put the moves on him in a very unladylike manner. To both Kajitani and Shinomiya’s surprise and horror, this role reversal turns both of them on, and they awkwardly break apart and flee the scene.
Over their next few dates, Shinomiya attempts to restore order, so to speak, and keeps balking whenever Kajitani suggests taking the lead again. They attend a romantic getaway with a sense of grim obligation, determined to get things “right” and just be a “normal” couple. But it quickly becomes clear that Shinomiya’s not prickly about the idea of dating a dominant woman due to a fragile, misogynistic ego. In fact, he really likes the idea of dating a dominant woman. But he’s never been able to express this—and is barely able to admit it to himself—for fear of not living up to the strict expectations of masculinity that he’s internalized, not only from male friends but from the harsh words of a former girlfriend. He’s carrying around insecurity and emotional hurt that makes sex itself traumatic for him, which, in turn, makes him feel like even more of a failure and sends the vicious cycle spinning again.
While Kajitani’s journey to embracing her cute, spicy, domineering side is fun, for me, Shinomiya’s character arc is the most rewarding part of this series. While our experiences don’t line up one-to-one, I also find him oddly, deeply relatable. Now, an asexual person relating to the male lead of an erotica might seem like an oxymoron, but hear me out. As I’ve talked about before, I happily identify as ace, though this wasn’t always the case. Before I came to that realization, I spent some time going through the motions of a sexual relationship. Without the language or confidence to express that maybe this wasn’t quite right for me, I relied on social expectations and took a very “eat your vegetables” approach to sex. Sure, broccoli isn’t your favorite, but it’s part of a healthy diet; in the same way, sex is something you ought to do because it’s healthy for your relationship. Right?
It’s just normal. Right?
The specter of “normal” hangs over Shinomiya’s head and makes what should be a very fun activity a harrowing act of duty—one that in the end he has difficulty performing. The story’s inclusion and focus on this stands out as it’s still relatively rare to see a male character’s fraught relationship with sex explored in fiction, especially when he’s the love interest in a sexy romance. By his very nature, surely a character in that role is automatically a sex god who can get it up and show the female lead a good time without hesitation? Surely, by virtue of him just being a man, he’s raring to go at any given moment?
Interestingly, one of the few places I have seen this assumption broken down is in manga involving male asexual characters, drawing that ace connection once again. Ume from Uta Isaki’s manga Is Love the Answer? has a similar past to Shinomiya, forcing himself into a sexual relationship even though he experiences a visceral, repulsed reaction—it’s what you do if you love someone, after all, and it’s part of being a man. The titular Mine from Mine-kun is Asexual also faces this pressure to consummate a “normal” romantic relationship with his girlfriend. In both cases, these relationships fall apart. Ume lacks the tools to articulate his asexual orientation and explain his predicament to his then-girlfriend and they break up on unhappy terms. Mine does explain his asexuality to his partner, but the rift between their expectations and desires ultimately splits them apart. The specific brand of heartbreak and shame associated with Ume’s and Mine’s past relationships is very present in Shinomiya’s flashbacks to his own breakup with his ex.
All this is not to say that I read Shinomiya as a character on the ace spectrum. Instead, looking at the way these different plotlines resonate with one another is an excellent example of how similar problems affect queer and non-queer people, and how a greater visibility of queerness and the way gender roles and gender binaries are unpacked in queer theory and activism can help everyone. (Ladies On Top even nods to this idea of queer and hetero solidarity with the non-binary character Maririn, a friendly bartender who offers sex and romance advice to various members of the cast.)
In this case, there’s a shared solidarity in how men are similarly boxed in by the overarching expectations of heteronormativity and patriarchal gender roles. It is perceived as “normal” for men to always want sex, to want sex in a certain way, and to not want that or to want a variant of that experience is to fail a key parameter of manhood. The borders of what is acceptable masculine behavior are excruciatingly narrow, and falling outside of them leaves these young men—be they allosexual or asexual—with trauma and battered self-esteem.
It’s important, too, to represent that this trauma can be inflicted upon men by women, which is something else I appreciate about Ladies On Top. Shinomiya’s ex is perhaps a bit of a caricature (it’s not her rom-com, after all, and she falls neatly into the role of vindictive former love interest) but her characterization does highlight these issues and demonstrate the way they can play out. She breaks up with Shinomiya because of his perceived failures as a hot-blooded man: he “sucks” at making love; he’s bland and not assertive enough; and he’s a pervert and a freak for tentatively looking up pegging online, for even expressing curiosity in a form of sex aside from man-on-top vaginal penetration.
The narrative of Ladies On Top makes it clear that both Shinomiya and Kajitani have suffered in past relationships due to the expectations around what men and women “should” do and how they “should” act, with these expectations enforced by both boyfriends and girlfriends. The enforcing of these gendered roles is not gender-specific; it’s a product of living in a society that drills these norms into everyone so thoroughly. Early chapters make it abundantly clear that Shinomiya and Kajitani have internalized these same stereotypes and are trying to police themselves, as seen by their frequent fretting about whether or not their desires make them “weird” and by their (failed) attempts at performing more acceptable archetypes of masculinity and femininity.
It’s when they’re able to communicate openly about the pressure they feel and about their alternate desires that they’re actually able to have some fun. And they do end up having some fun! There are hiccups along the way, of course, and it takes a while to find their power balance. For instance, Kajitani initially comes on a little strong when she’s trying her hand at being the dominant one, driven by curiosity and by the delight of seeing Shinomiya as a blushing mess. But by the end of the first volume, she realizes that that’s not the solution either: the solution is actually talking to each other and trying to work out, on even ground, what they both want.
That way, no one is forced into a role they don’t feel comfortable with—avoiding the exact thing that had caused them both so much grief in their previous relationships. There’s also a marked, clear difference between Shinomiya’s ex trying to force herself on him and the carefully-curated power play between Shinomiya and Kajitani, which importantly de-links coercion and abuse from consensual kink.
Sometimes, romances can skip their characters straight to flawless, amazing sex—which is fair enough if that kind of fantasy is what the text is going for. It’s rewarding, however, to see a romcom that lingers on the imperfections and the awkward moments where the love interests are figuring each other out. These scenes of Kajitani and Shinomiya clumsily but earnestly working out their pleasures and boundaries add a grounded, realistic element; they also add a lot of humor, because, in fairness, sex can be hilarious.
Making a dumb noise because the lube is unexpectedly freezing cold? The jump-scare of getting a shipping notification from a sex toy shop? Not to mention the occasional forays into visual metaphor to avoid showing overly explicit imagery (the characters make some… choices, in what their imaginations conjure up as placeholders). All this makes for great comedic material, making the reader and the characters laugh and serving as a reminder that all this is supposed to be enjoyable and fun rather than dull or painful.
These funny, sweet, communication-heavy love scenes clearly bring the characters closer together, one of many intimacies that builds their romance over the course of the story. Only half of the series is currently out in English, but if the images of domestic bliss on future covers are anything to go by, all this is going to work out for them.
Ladies On Top is a sweet adult romance with a frank and heartfelt current of social critique running through it. It addresses and unpacks the pressures of normative, binary gender roles in a way that places it neatly in conversation with narratives of queer masculinities even if Shinomiya himself is straight. It also has a refreshing emphasis on the positive power of communication and earnestly figuring out your own personal boundaries and desires rather than trying to conform to other people’s ideals. And it does all this while also being cheesy and adorable! Romantic happiness and sexual pleasure don’t just come in one shape and size, and this series gets to the heart of that in a way that makes it an important read as well as a corny, fun one.