Gendered or genred?

There's a big' discussion going on right now in the manga half of the comics blogosphere about shoujo manga not getting any respect. One of the triggers was Melinda Beasi's piece on Twilight and the Plight of the Female Fan at The Hooded Utilitarian and the other was Christopher Mautner's review of Moto Hagio's A Drunken Dream and Other Stories right here at Robot 6. Melinda's thesis is that shoujo manga gets no respect, even from women, because we're embarrassed about reading something so overtly gendered, and that if we want to be taken seriously, we need to take some pride in our comics. In a column at The Manga Curmudgeon, David Welsh singles out Chris's review as an example of someone basically saying "this book is good despite the fact that it is shoujo manga":

“Dream, on the other hand, has both feet firmly planted in the world of shojo manga. The ten tales that make up this book all consist of overly sincere, heart-on-the-sleeve-style work. There’s very little ironic distancing and self-effacing humor here, although it does peep its head out occasionally. Mostly though, that’s been ignored in favor of heightened melodrama and earnest heart-tugging. While it avoids the sort of contrived, romantic, situation-comedy type plots that mark a lot of the shojo manga that has been translated into English over the past decade, there can be little doubt that Dream has more in common with Fruits Basket and Boys Over Flowers than Red Colored Elegy or Abandon the Old in Tokyo.”

And then Melinda chimes back in at her blog, pointing out that people who drop Fruits Basket and Boys Over Flowers in the same bucket are ignoring the fact that they are totally different books.

Except... they aren't, and that gets to the heart of the matter. Both stories feature a heroine who is sweet, beautiful, and somewhat assertive but not so much so that she becomes unattractive. Both are love triangles in which the boys are of higher social status than the girl, and in which one of the choices is a guy who is hot but emotionally distant.

Shoujo manga is a genre, and that, not the fact that it's read by girls, accounts for its low status. Superhero comics are also a genre, and despite what some comics bloggers think, they also have a low status in the outside world. Most of my female friends will have nothing to do with them, and most adults brush them aside. The same is true of Harlequin romances, fantasy novels, and science fiction. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys neatly illustrate the two sides of this coin: One is for girls, one is for boys, but both are equally formula-bound, and the fact that in one book Nancy goes to a haunted house and in another she goes to the big city doesn't change the fact that every Nancy Drew book encompasses the same world view, the same means of expression, and the same set of characters, always described by the same adjectives. If you're not inside the fandom, all the books do look alike.

If you are a fan, that changes—you read the books carefully, you know the different creators and the different worlds, you see a hierarchy in terms of literary quality. But a genre is a genre is a genre, and you simply can't write a shoujo manga in which the girl is, for instance, a lesbian, or the hero is a boy because by definition that isn't shoujo manga.

I come to this conclusion after reading a great deal of shoujo manga, and getting really, really tired of those conventions. The parents who die tragically, leaving their young child to be rejected by uncaring relatives and end up sleeping in a playground. The girls who devote their lives to tracking down that one boy who was kind to them the day their parents died, and whom they never saw again, but because of whom they take up the violin, cooking, whatever, and get themselves admitted into an elite school that is above their station, and where they will be continually tormented by the alpha kids. The elite club of girls who somehow decide on the cutest boy in the class and bully anyone who gets too near to him. The aforementioned hot-but-distant guy. The rules of shoujo manga are as rigid as the rules of Harlequin romances, and in fact, they really aren't that different.

Here's the thing: You read your chosen genre for relaxation, not literary quality. Stop!!! You're about to tell me that there are science fiction novels and westerns and shoujo manga that have great literary quality. Of course there are, but they are the exceptions. Most genre stuff, from The Da Vinci Code to Kitchen Princess, is predictable and two-dimensional, and that's how most people like it.

And that's what they are apologizing for. You think superhero fans don't do that? There's a whole cottage industry based on self-deprecation—I'm a Nerd T-shirts, blogs with the word "geek" in the title—as well as a standard stereotype that involves poor hygiene and living in one's parents' basement. The superhero reflex is more insular than self-deprecating, actually; the standard reaction is scorn that someone doesn't understand the nuances of their particular genre rather than embarrassment about caring at all about these things, but there's a strong whiff of defensiveness to that.

That's why I was not so bent out of shape about Wonder Woman being left off DC's 75th anniversary logo. Superheroes are a guy medium, primarily produced for and consumed by guys. If I, as a female, choose to read them, I do so knowing that I'm stepping into the guys' clubhouse. And that's OK. There's nothing wrong with entertainment being gendered. How dreary it would be if the Lifetime Channel had to give equal time to cars, guns, and football, or if Playboy was required to carry recipes and fashion tips. We're doing this stuff for fun, so we might as well have what we like.

There's one more point worth considering, and it applies specifically to comics: In comments at The Hooded Utilitarian, Ed Sizemore points out that teenage shoujo fans are much less apologetic than older readers about their choices. One reason for that is that shoujo manga is written for teenagers. It's age-appropriate for them; for us, not so much. So while I do sometimes feel sheepish about reading shoujo in public, I have the same problem with Archie comics. It's not just a genre, it's a kids' genre, so I'm out of my home demographic.

And really, I am. I'm tired of shoujo manga because it doesn't reflect my life or my interests but I can understand, like Melinda did with Twilight, that there was a time when it would have really resonated, and I would have found it irresistible. Vampire Knight was like a Proustian madeleine for me, bringing back not the specifics of my teenage life (I went to a Catholic high school, so there were no vampires) but the feeling of being fifteen and in the middle of some tortured storm of emotions. Honestly, that's one of those things, like childbirth, that I'd prefer not to relive.

So, to summarize: Shoujo manga, superhero comics, other works written to a formula are genres. They don't get much respect, but it's not because of the gender of the readers so much as the limitations of the genre. Reading for fun is a good thing, and it's nothing to apologize for, but neither should we confuse it with serious literary work. If Moby Dick is held in higher esteem than Fruits Basket, it's not because it was written by a man rather than a woman, it's because it has more to say and speaks to a more universal audience.

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