From Sailor Moon to Pretear: In Defense of Shoujo

I’ve been working on this post forever! I figured it’s time to finally give up on the editing I keep saying I’m going to do and just put it up already.

When I gave up on my haircutting phase, I grew up from an obnoxious kid into a silly teenage girl. And like most other silly (nerdy) teenage girls I wanted to wake up one morning transformed into an extremely beautiful magical girl so I could go into the world and fight evil–preferably with a super handsome magical protector by my side. We would of course fall desperately in love as I lay in his arms wounded after a fight and his love would give me the will to continue living in spite of the dire circumstances. After I magically recovered my strength, I would go on to slay the “boss monster” or complete my final quest. Then my magical, super handsome protector and I would live happily ever after.

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Something like this… (Touya and Aya from Ayashi no Ceres)

Right. So clearly this never happened. Eventually, I evolved from a silly teenage girl into a cynical college student who would rather have someone pay for her textbooks and random online purchases than be her magical protector. I have no magical powers save the ability to waste ridiculous amounts of time. Point being, there is no such thing as a magical girl and if there is, the 11:11, birthday, and eyelash fairies owe me big time.

I’m happy to admit that I am not super into shoujo anymore, at least not in terms of what I am watching and plan to watch in the future. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t still appreciate the genre for what it is. It also holds a special nostalgia value for me as that was primarily what started out my anime-watching career. Not to mention, I am still a fairly romantic person and up until probably a year ago still had the occasional musings of being swept up my feet by a mysterious, handsome stranger who claimed to be my soul mate. (I’m still waiting for Iskandar!) I mean let’s be honest though, what single girl doesn’t secretly dream or at least think about this happening? This is the reason that awful books like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight gain so much popularity. Most girls want to believe that there is some magical fantasy land waiting for them where they never have to do homework or share a room with their siblings and they get to fall in love with some gorgeous, romantic guy. And I mean when you’re an awkward pimply-faced teenager or a bored housewife that sounds pretty freaking awesome.

(I will be talking about predominantly fantasy-esque shows with magical girls in them because that is the type of shoujo I tend to watch and I think I can make my points just fine with using only those.)

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I am 100% yours whenever you want me. But actually.

I doubt that I am the first person to make these points so I’ll try and keep it to things I think are strictly relevant. People love to criticize the genre as being stupid and unrealistic, but seem to forget that so many other non-shoujo shows can just as easily fall under these classifications. It isn’t about the genre–it’s entirely dependent on the show. Shoujo of course has its moments (many of them) of stupidity and a fair share of vapid heroines, but so does anime in general. You will find the same types of girls, often worse, in harem shows. Of course, this is another genre that gets a lot of flack, yet it seems to be much more popular. Yet for whatever reason, the anime community seems to be much more forgiving of other genres. They will pinpoint specific shows that suck or a specific theme, but they won’t for the most part throw an entire type of anime under the metaphorical bus.

I am not a feminist, much to the chagrin of many of my friends at school, but I do have to give some legitimate props to shoujo heroines. True they are not generally intellectual or clever, but they have some serious courage and empathy–many things that other anime characters lack. I will give you that this courage often stems from being impulsive – I mean Aya (Ayashi no Ceres) runs after a mugger and ends up falling off a bridge and Himeno (Pretear) runs off with some of the younger Leafe Knights to destroy more demons and finds herself in over her head. However, regardless of the rationality behind these actions, both are done because the heroines believe that what they are doing is right. And who are we to argue? In their own silly ways, these girls promote valiant actions. What I don’t understand is why we as a society don’t see this as a form of strength. Being strong doesn’t necessarily mean slaying a villain or saving the world (although many of these girls eventually do). Sometimes doing the right thing or being kind and caring is enough.

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Hayate and Himeno (Pretear)

According to modern society, when we define a strong female protagonist, we think of one who is entirely independent and doesn’t need or want the assistance of a man. Ok fine. That’s one side of the argument. On the other hand, these girls are fighting to save the universe or something along those lines. There is nothing weak about getting help. If I was supposed to destroy demon spawn and save the world from the the Princess of Darkness I’d sure as hell want someone to watch my back. And yes I’d prefer it to be an attractive guy (look at me making myself cannon fodder). I believe that a romantic relationship provides a form of emotional support that is extremely helpful in dealing with terrible situations. Why does it make a girl weak to be in love with someone? Why can’t Himeno, Usagi (Serena–Sailor Moon), Aya, et al be courageous and strong girls even with the support of a man who loves them? The two things are not mutually exclusive yet for whatever reason people treat them like they are. You can be intelligent, valiant, strong, and in love at the same time. If it were the other way around and there was a male protagonist who relied upon his loving girlfriend for emotional support, we wouldn’t bat an eyelash. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with being an independent woman who doesn’t want to have any male support, but at the same time there is nothing wrong with the alternative either. Let’s also keep in mind, at the end of the day who ends up saving the world. It isn’t the handsome protector, it is the heroine and she does it by herself because she is the only one with the power to do so. Her protector is there to help her, but she must be the one to save the world or destroy the villain.

According to some perspectives, my above point is completely misguided. Critics have an issue with these shows because they believe that shoujo heroines need to be saved and need to have the emotional support. I completely disagree with this argument. There are several instances where the female gets annoyed about constantly having the guy floating around and getting in her way. Yes she falls in love with him, but at the same time she can go about just fine without him for the most part. Obviously it depends on the shoujo. Let’s take Himeno from Pretear for example: she practices karate and could pretty much kick Hayate’s ass if she wanted to and does on occasion. Eventually she falls in love with him, but for the first half of the show she freaks out and gets pissed off at him whenever he shows up uninvited. Or how about Haruhi from Ouran High School Host Club. She’s dressed like a freaking guy for the majority of the show and while every single other member of the club makes passes at her, she effectively ignores them up until the dead end of the show. I think what these critics are talking about is the stereotype of shoujo (not to say that some shoujo isn’t like that), but when you actually take a closer look at it there are many shoujo anime that do not subscribe to this format. Also, to all you detractors out there, hate if you’d like, but I’d like to see you pass up on some additional protection if someone told you that you would have to spend your time fighting against demon spawn and the like. 

People also like to comment that shoujo romance is unrealistic. False. Please tell me that you haven’t seen those ridiculous couples on Facebook who seem to spend every waking moment posting hearts and love notes to each other’s walls. Romance like that exists in real life. Maybe publicizing it is a bit too much and I know that such intense displays of affection are not for everyone. I willingly acknowledge that the romance tends to be a bit much for my personal taste, but hell I’m not watching a show about magical girls for the reality factor. Also just because a relationship like that would be a bit much for me in real life doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy watching it regardless of the cheesiness. Romance is such a subjective topic that condemning the way it occurs in shoujo is unfair and closed-minded. 

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Of course it’s cheesy. So?

Yes I understand that guys tend to dislike this genre as a general rule. That’s fine. Shoujo is not made with a male audience in mind. Therefore, I don’t know why guys watch it and then complain about how much they hate it. That’s like me watching something like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and complaining about how I don’t like it because it’s a bunch of stupid men running around and killing things. A show like that was not geared toward a female audience. Josh talks a lot about judging a show on its own terms, and I think this applies perfectly to the point I’m making. If you watch shoujo with the intent of watching an intellectual or “actiony” show you are going to be disappointed! The whole point of shoujo is to be a romantic story with a female protagonist, magical or otherwise, who acts like a pretty normal teenage girl. If you don’t like this kind of stuff then it makes no sense for you to watch it for the sheer sake of complaining about it. For example, I don’t really like slice-of-life drama and therefore I rarely watch it. It’s a simple as that. However, I don’t judge those shows or the people who enjoy them. I might dislike them, but other people don’t. That’s the way it’s going to be with any genre. Period. Hating on shoujo isn’t going to change what the genre is or isn’t, so you can either accept it and appreciate it for what it is, or not. It’s up to you.

Further Reading

Froggykun weighs in on judging anime on its own terms, puts forth a different perspective to judge anime by, and gives an example of how to watch anime correctly.

Flawfinder talks about what makes “bad anime” popular.

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12 responses to “From Sailor Moon to Pretear: In Defense of Shoujo

  1. Just out of curiosity, have you seen Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (as in the new one)? It’s actually extremely well done, with very intelligent characters, for the most part. It’s not really a good example of the “stupid men running around and killing things genre.” On the other hand, if the point you’re making is that you don’t like shonen, so you’re not going to watch it just because it’s shonen, I suppose it works as well as any.

    • I have seen an episode or two (I’m not sure if it’s the new one or not) just because Josh happened to be watching it while I was around. To me it seemed very silly, but again it all comes down to personal preference. I don’t have an issue with shonen, but it isn’t my genre of choice for the most part.

  2. I think that watching an anime with its target audience in mind is extremely important, as you have said. I’ve only seen one Shoujo anime (that being Ouran High School), but it’s not a genre i’m going to avoid just because it’s not aimed at me.
    I don’t have a particularly extensive anime log, though I think shows with strong male AND female leads work the best. Romance is an important feature, regardless of genre, and it just works better when both sides are equal in my opinion.

    • I definitely agree Silva, but very rarely will you see both a strong male and female in anime–at least from what I’ve found. In shoujo you’ll often find the more passive female and in harem shows a passive and easily manipulated male. Of course, like anything, these are just commonalities and not rules. My issue is just that people think that because females in shoujo tend to not be very obviously assertive it means that they are incompetent and weak. However, I feel like people are going to complain regardless of the show just because standards of what constitutes weak and passive are entirely subjective.

      • That’s very true – unless an anime/manga is heavily story focused they tend to have bland characters so that the watcher/reader can project themselves onto them and feel more immersed. I personally prefer seeing characters with strong personalities because character development is one of the main things that make anime/manga satisfying.

  3. Oh, wow. Hit the nail on the mark! I was totally thinking of writing a post like this but you beat me to it.

    Instead of using this comment going on about how I agree with you, I just want to bring up several points for discussion. The interesting thing about shojo is that a lot of the critics of the genre are, in fact, girls. When a guy doesn’t like it, he usually just shrugs and says, “Oh, well, it’s for girls, anyway.” It’s often girls themselves who read deeply enough into shojo to criticise it from a feminist viewpoint. What it looks like to me is that there is a disconnect between the appeal of shojo and its so-called target audience, which I have to admit is more interesting for me to observe than the stories in shojo itself.

    Secondly, about the feminist argument against shojo: I perceive the problem is less about the girls being helpless because they are in love (although that is part of it) and more about how the genre as a whole seems to idealise unhealthy, abusive relationships. Shojo manga idealising love isn’t so much different from shonen manga idealising friendship, but the distinction lies in the portrayal. It’s not hard for anyone with relationship experience to notice that there is something seriously wrong with the idea behind the so-called “hunky bad boy” for a boyfriend. And I do think that in this case, it is not a good idea to take shojo very seriously or even to approach it on its own terms.

    I think that even with a critical perspective, shojo can still be enjoyable for what they are, however. I do read the occasional shojo manga from time to time and I think it tells me a lot about loneliness, the craving for love, and how lovestruck young girls think. When read in that light, I find them interesting. After all, there is nothing wrong with teenage girls. Their views and opinions are not worthless. When I keep all of that in mind, I think of reading shojo as being a rather refreshing and worthwhile experience.

    • That’s quite the essay you’ve written me there Froggy! I’ll try to address all of your points the best I can :). So to start, I agree that it definitely is mainly girls (feminists mostly) that take issue with the genre. Not to mention, I’m sure those same people will take issue with my post haha. However, I think to say that there is a disconnect between shoujo and it’s “target-audience” is a bit of a blanket statement. There are plenty of girls who do enjoy shoujo (myself included to a certain extent) so I think that yes, girls are the main antagonists of the genre, but at the same time I’d say that it is a limited population of girls.

      I can’t really disagree too much with your next point, but most of the guys in shoujo aren’t “hunky bad boys” at least not from my perspective. They tend to be the more brooding and tortured types–the kinds of boys that girls want to fix. Of course there are problems with this type of guy as well, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all shoujo relationships or even most of them are abusive. These guys tend to be overbearing and overprotective, but abusive seems a bit extreme. Although I think at this point I’m just quibbling about word choice haha.

      Overall you made some awesome points, ones that I hadn’t thought of before. While I may not disagree with all of them, they were definitely things worth pointing out and undoubtedly good food for thought.

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  5. It’s definitely very true that every genre can be predictable or has annoying or even offensive character types (such as most of the female characters you can find in any given moe series), yet shojo tends to be criticized the most for it. What makes an anime or a manga good depends on what you are looking for. I love romance, and most importantly, I love character development, and I find that shojo anime and manga are just generally better at creating characters I can not only relate to but fall in love with. But even the people who defend shojo manga tend to just assume it’s all romance, which is far from true. Just look at Godchild, Natsume’s Book of Friends or Baby&Me, which range from fantasy to slice-of-life yet contain little-to-no romance.

    And I definitely agree with you on your points about shojo being realistic. Some of the best shojo and josei series (particularly Nana) feel like they are following real people and not just fictional characters. One point, however, where I would say we differ is in calling Ouran‘s Haruhi a strong character. Many people think her disinterest in romance is refreshing, but I find her blase attitude towards everything makes her a bland character. She’s one of many in a long line of what I consider to be pseudo-feminist female characters. http://shojocorner.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/the-pseudo-feminist-shojo-lead/
    Instead, I much prefer lively female characters like Sana from Kodocha, or the very determined Yuri from Red River.

    • Thanks for the comment starsamararia! I’m glad you also think that the shoujo genre has more to offer than most people give it credit for. And I definitely agree with you, many girls in moe series are probably worse than even the most obnoxious shoujo heroines. In terms of Haruhi, I can definitely see where you’re coming from–she isn’t necessarily the strongest character, but I was just trying to think of an example where the female protagonist isn’t head over heels for a guy, or in this case, several guys. I took a look at the post you linked into your comment and I agree with pretty much everything you said so thanks for sharing that with me!

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