Androgyny and Gender Bending – Part I – The Birth of Pretty Boys in Shoujo Manga

I must have been crazy when I decided to screen the show “Gravitation” to my anime club. It was a favorite among the few females in the club, and I thought a little boy’s-love might be good for the club. After all, we were exploring all different aspects of the medium and you’d be a fool to ignore the popularity of yaoi and other guy-on-guy material.

But in that one critical scene not too far into the show, the two lead male characters lean close to each other for a passionate kiss. It might have been a sweet and loving moment, but I couldn’t really tell. It was overshadowed by the loud, unanimous groan by all the male members of the club. To American males, the sight of two guys kissing each other is still a tough pill to swallow. Even if you are fully tolerant of homosexuality, we all grow up in a society that still looks down on it. This results in a slight homophobia that is very hard to shake off.

But I immediately came up with a solution that allowed me to comfortably watch this scene and every similar guy-on-guy moment there after:

“Just pretend it’s a girl!”

It’s really not that hard to do. These pretty boys, or “bishounen” as the ladies like say, are all essentially flat-chested female anime characters. They all sport long flowing hair, slender bodies, sparkling eyes, and other very feminine characteristics. In anime, many are even voiced by female voice actors. They are truly androgynous characters. I say it would take more effort to suspend your disbelief enough to consider them male instead of females.

And yet despite this gender ambiguity, all the girls simply go gah-gah over them.

But why is that? Why do females otaku find pleasure in one androgynous character finding love in another? To answer that question, let’s first take a quick look at the history of girls’ comics.

Notre Dame professor Deborah Shamoon writes a very interesting essay in Mechademia vol. 2 in which she looks at the history of androgynous characters in shoujo manga. She takes a look at early works of girls’ fictional prose and compares it to shoujo comics by using the androgynous (but still female) character Oscar from The Rose of Versailles as her primary example. While this particular comic is over thirty years old, her theory on androgyny in comics still applies to all the bishounen of today.

(On a side note, Mechademia is a fantastic publication that I will be talking about many more times in the future. I highly recommend it to anyone really interested in the cultural significance of the anime and manga.)

Ms. Shamoon believes the shoujo manga can trace its roots back to the girls’ fiction of pre-WWII Japan. During that time in history, girls didn’t really have male friends or boyfriends during their adolescence and teenage years. They had to save themselves for marriage, which would not happen until after graduation. So the only safe relation a girl could have was with other girls. These female friendships would become really close, so close that we would consider it completely lesbian by today’s standards. But that simply was not the case back then. With no male contact during those critical years of sexual development, this kind of relationship became a culturally accepted norm for young girls.

Cover of “Shoujo Illustrated Magazine” April, 1933. Source

Ms. Shamoon goes on to show that these homo-gendered relationships became the source of girls’ fictional stories. The cover of this magazines shows two girls depicted in a close friendship. Take note of the fact that the girls’ faces are very similar. This is probably because Japan was (and still is) a homogeneous society, and encourages unity in teenage years by making children wear identical school uniforms. Same sex, same look, same clothes… girls just eventually felt comfortable with everything being the same. And so “sameness” and familiarity became an ideal characteristic in a relationship among girls.

Ms. Shamoon claims that this pre-war desire for sameness is what’s ultimately resurrected with androgynous characters in modern manga. Oscar of Versailles is female, but she finds fame and power from her masculinity and androgynous appearance. Originally the artist had paired her with a young and very feminine girl, Rosalie Lamorlière. However, the audience ultimately rejected this pairing. It wasn’t because of the lesbian implication, it was because the manly Oscar was too different from the feminine girl. Even as same gender, their different physical appearances caused disapproval from the that young female audience.

The artist then paired Oscar up with a male, André Grandier. As the series progressed, André gradually became more and more feminine. He became so feminine that he even started to look like Oscar. These two characters, now neither male nor female, represented that desire for sameness which was still fresh in the Japanese female culture.

Needless to say, this pairing was a hit with the audience, and many would credit it as being the success of the series. But this pairing has an even deeper significance in the longterm scope of girls’ comics, and it sets the blueprint of all modern-day bishounen characters.

Next week I will take a closer look at bishounen of modern shoujo manga and why they are even a hit with American girls.

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