An Open Letter to Shoujo Manga (And You Too, Twilight!)

To Shoujo Manga and its sisters, Yaoi Manga and Josei Manga,

Please stop it.

Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. You know what you did, what you continue to do. It drove me nuts as a teenager and it’s driving me nuts now, particularly now that I work in the manga industry and have to edit manga that pull the same crap again… and again… and again…

And what crap would that be? Well, to be fair, I’m sure you could dig up all sorts of “crap” when it comes to shoujo manga and the weird or twisted messages it gives, but this one irks me more than anything, to the point where I now have to rant.

So, shoujo manga, a news flash.

Abusiveness and possessiveness isn’t adorable.

“I love you. Now never speak to anyone else again.” D’AWWWW…

I’ve seen this story play out so many times. Guy meets girl. Guy is attracted to girl. Guy freaks out whenever girl speaks to any other guy, even the guy friends she’s known for years. Guy has a deep and meaningful confession which basically boils down to “I DON’T WANT YOU TO SEE ANYONE BUT ME.” Girl thinks, “Wow, what a possessive as-“ Oh, no, wait, she doesn’t think that, she thinks, “Wow, he must really care about me!” Guy and girl fall in love and romance ensues.

And don’t think it’s just a straight thing. If anything, yaoi is even worse. Take that plot up there, and add a dash of, well, very dubiously consensual sex (or outright rape in some cases) And somehow this is seen as some sort of major breakthrough while the poor put-upon hero realizes in a flash of sparkles and soft lens flare that Mr. Seme’s emotions are so intense and passionate that they cannot be controlled or harnessed by mere mundane ideas like consent or respect! And though I haven’t read a lot of it, I gather that yuri isn’t that much better. Oh yeah, and you get a giant dose of that whole Rape Is Love trope in josei manga (boy/girl romance manga for adult female audiences) as well. Example: anything by Mayu Shinjo ever. Squick.

Obviously this is not a problem relegated to anime and manga alone (I am looking at you, Twilight, and by “looking” I mean, “glaring while getting out the mace.”) But there’s just something so endemic about it in shoujo manga, to the point where it comes up to some degree in almost every romance shoujo manga you come across. To give you an idea of what brought on this rant, here’s a list in order of the first few manga storylines I got to edit, in quick succession:

  •  Guy 1 discovers that Guy 2, an old friend in college, systematically and covertly broke up every relationship Guy1 ever had and alienated him from every one of his friends. Why? Because Guy 2 WUBBED HIM and wanted Guy 1 to rely on him, cling to him, etc etc. End of the story? Guy 1 and 2 live HAPPILY EVER AFTER.
  • Guy 1 meets Guy 2, an ex-yakuza who is intense and reserved… at least until Guy 1 accidentally touches his tattoo, then out come the rapings. Cue Guy 1 standing up for him, thinking, “But I didn’t mind it!”, and eventually love and snuggles and HAPPILY EVER AFTER.
  • Girl 1 meets Guy 2, a childhood friend, who moved to her country just to see her again, angrily rebuffs her male friends (at least initially) saying that she’s the only one that matters, and openly confesses that it makes him angry to see her talking to other boys. Her reaction? “He’s being so gentle… he’s not forcing me to love him.” Luckily, this is at least a harem series, so there’s a good chance she might end up with one of the other, saner boys who are pursuing her and get a real HAPPILY EVER AFTER.

For lots of examples and another take on the glorification of jerky boyfriends, check out the TV Tropes page for Bastard Boyfriend.

“He allowed me to exist! He cares so much…”

Mind you, this is not to say that shoujo manga should never depict abusiveness or possessiveness. I will not say that it’s IMPOSSIBLE to make these traits attractive or sexy or even sympathetic; a good writer can convince us of a lot (and, when they can’t, eyecandy can often do the rest!) But there’s a difference between, “I am going to read about this sexy dangerous man who is horrible relationship material but great for one-off fantasies,” and “I am going to read about this possessive, abusive man and dream about he’s the BEST BOYFRIEND EVER.” Way too often, shoujo manga seems to aim for the second, and it gives me the heebie jeebies.

See, the behavior of the jerk boyfriends isn’t the only thing that bothers me (though trust me, it bothers me!); it’s the reactions of their “targets” that sends me straight into WTF territory. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome, only instead of hostage taking and weapons, there’s bishonen sparkles and dubiously consensual sex. There is something deeply sad about a teenage girl – or teenage boy – standing there and trying to justify abusive behavior as some sort of sign of affection. “He isn’t forcing me to be his girlfriend! He wants me to choose.” Uh, yeah, that is kind of how it’s SUPPOSED to work. “Wow, he couldn’t control his feelings for me…” So his feelings are more important than yours? “He’s afraid of what will happen if I talk to another guy… he must really care about me.” ARG ARG MUST SHOWER FEEL UNCLEAN.

I hate to go all THINK OF THE CHILDREN, but… um, think of the children? A lot of these manga are being read by teenage girls (and boys), and what message are they taking away? No, teenagers aren’t entirely blank slates that believe everything works out like in the books, but… if they’re constantly being inundated with the message that love means living only for the beloved, or accepting all bad behavior as a sign of affection, what kind of assumptions and expectations are they going to end up having about relationships in the real world?

“But m,” I hear some people (i.e. my friends) say, “isn’t Beauty and the Beast your favorite romance of all time? That’s got abuse and possessiveness galore!” Yes, and this is how it makes it work; when confronted with it, Belle doesn’t say, “Oh, locking me in a castle and yelling at me shows how much he treasures me!” She says, “Stop that right now, you jerk,” and the Beast… STOPS IT. Only after he actually changes and grows as a person does romance blossom, and it feels like a genuine match of equals when it does. You know how people joke about women fantasizing about a bad boy who we can change? Well… it seems like a lot of manga writers are going for the first part but totally miss out on step number two.

So, dear shojo manga, please stop it, for the sake of your younger fans if nothing else. I still love me some shoujo manga, don’t get me wrong, and there are titles that either avoid these issues or at least execute them well. But dangit, I’m tired of opening a manga covered with beautiful bishies in romantic, sweet embraces with their lady/lad love only to get a faceful of tears, sparkles, and abuse. This is one trope I’d be glad if you dropped like a jerky, possessive boyfriend.

What manga have you read that glorified jerk behavior in a relationship? Conversely, what are some good titles that subvert or avoid it?

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