Why does it matter? Why should we have these conversations? It’s not like a headstrong girl will go out and read a shoujo manga about a girl in a relationship with an abusive boy and instantly become a doormat. But it normalizes and romanticizes abusive behaviors and creates a culture of abuse. Once again, I want to emphasize, if a girl reads a manga and thinks that it’s okay to be treated like this and someone proceeds to, it’s not her fault. It is not her fault! This creates a culture of abuse that associates aggression and dominance with masculinity and sacrifice of the self for the sake of romance: “I love him, therefore I have to put up with this. He only treats me like this because he loves me.” These are very common cultural myths that need to be actively combatted and actively talked about and criticized, or else impressionable young readers – I started reading manga myself when I was about twelve years old, well before I had ever been in a relationship and while my personality was still forming. Luckily I was also reading things like Tamora Pierce, who writes about confident young women, though she has her own issues, like the age difference thing…
But, we take cues from the media we read and the media we consume. They did a study where they showed women movies where stalking behaviors are presented as romantic, they showed another group movies where the stalking is presented as frightening, and they showed a control group March of the Penguins. [audience laughter] The group that watched the ones showing stalking as romantic were much more tolerant of stalking behaviors, just from watching a couple of movies. If you grow consuming media that teaches you that it’s romantic when a guy treats you like dirt, not just that it’s romantic, even that it’s acceptable to be treated like this, it has an effect. It’s okay to depict unhealthy relationships, I’m not saying that every relationship depicted in fiction has to be perfectly healthy rainbows and sunshine, but don’t romanticize them! Criticize them!
Going back to the survey, I asked, “Did shoujo manga affect your view of relationships?” I got a lot of people who said, “No, I can distinguish reality and fantasy.” I did get quite a few people who said it made it possible for them to look at a relationship and say, “I don’t want a guy who treats me like this!” and recognize it when a guy starts to treat them really poorly, so it’s not a black-and-white issue. There are positive and negatives, but there were also a lot of people who answered that they themselves had been abused, who said “Yes, this affected my view of relationships.” “They made me feel like relationships with big age gaps were fine, and that relationships with abusive behavior can be excused because they have your best interests at heart or they really do love you.” People saying that you have to be this perfect, altruistic girl who gives her whole self to help to help this guy who’s emotionally damaged, instead of leaving the relationship. Even if he’s damaged, it is not up to you to heal him. It is up to a therapist. As his girlfriend or boyfriend, you are not equipped to help with that. There are good shoujo manga that teach healthy relationship dynamics, but they don’t balance out the ones with unhealthy dynamics.
The last one I just thought was kind of interesting because it’s not about abusive relationships, but it is from an actual Japanese person – as much as shoujo manga matters to us, it’s so much huger in Japan. It’s so much more widely consumed. They show the situations and even if you can look at it and go, “Oh no, that’s not good,” they don’t equip people to get out of these situations and how to deal with it. In some storylines about bullying, which aren’t exactly what I’m talking about here, they think, “They’re all ignoring her… that’s interesting… That would really upset her if we did this to one girl in our class.” And that’s a very common form of bullying in Japan, social exclusion.
Now I want to talk about a couple series that have more realistic depictions of abuse. One is Nana, which is by Ai Yazawa, the same person who wrote Paradise Kiss, about the character Nana, who meets her boy band crush, sleeps with him, then starts to date another guy because he’s kind of a jerkbag entitled celebrity, but then finds out she’s pregnant and it’s probably his. When he finds out, he locks her locks her in the bathroom, he takes her phone, he calls up her current boyfriend, and he says, “Nana is pregnant. I’m going to marry her. I’m going to treat this kid as mine regardless of whose it actually is.” He moves her out to this secluded apartment in a wealthy neighborhood and isolates her from her friends because since he’s a celebrity, people can’t just go in and say, “I’m looking for Nana Ichinose,” because of all the paparazzi and tabloids and stuff like that, but it effectively makes it so her friends can’t find her because her phone is broken, because he broke it.
One thing that is very realistic about this is that Takumi’s abuse moves in cycles. Most of the time he’s plenty sweet to her, but if she does not do what he wants, he gets very angry and turns jealous and controlling very quickly. In this panel that I have, when they announce to her roommate, who’s also named Nana, that she’s going to be moving in with him, and Nana is understandably really upset. He takes her into her room and he’s like, “Okay, no we’re going to have sex,” and she doesn’t want to because of all the reasons that she’s saying here, and he screams at her. So if Nana acts out or disobeys him, he lashes out, he usually sexually assaults her as a way of reestablishing his dominance over her. He also cheats on her regularly because he’s a celebrity and he was already a playboy, so why should he stop just because he married a small-town girl, right? And Nana does love him, as abuse victims often do love their abusers – that’s part of what makes it so hard to get away. She comes from a family where her father treats her and her sisters very disrespectfully; her previous boyfriend left her for another girl because she’s so high-maintenance. She’s all heart and no head — once again, it’s not her fault — but she’s the kind of person who acts purely on emotions and instinct, and she doesn’t believe she deserves anything better. Whenever someone tries to connect her with the boy she’d been starting to go out with, she says, “I don’t deserve him, he’s too good for me,” even though she’s a very sweet person. She totally deserves him.
Another series that deals with abuse is Utena, which I don’t want to spoil in case anybody here hasn’t watched it and it’s an absolute wild ride of a series and everyone should watch it. It’s an allegorical epic about power dynamics and how inevitably, no matter how idealistic they are, they become corrupted and used for abuse. It has rape, abuse, incest… every sensitive subject under the sun, and it handles them very well, and I know for a lot of people, they found it a very healing series to watch. I don’t want to go into too much detail because it really is a series everyone should watch. So, if you haven’t seen it, watch it! I mean it. It’s a really incredible show.
Healthy romances can be interesting to read about too! [audience member: Yaaaaaay!] Look at all these happy teenagers! Aw, they all love each other so much and they treat each other so sweetly! None of them are crying! [audience laughter] These are all available in English; actually, they’re all available from Shojo Beat. The one all the way on the left is Lovely Complex [audience cheers], which it takes them a while to get together but their relationship is based on compatibility and similar personalities and shared interests, just like any healthy relationship. Kimi ni Todoke – a shy girl and an outgoing boy connect. My Love Story is about a really big guy and a really little girl… not a little girl, a short girl [audience laughter]. He saves her from a pervert on the train who said, “She was asking for it, did you see how short her skirt was,” so of course Takeo, the main guy, punches him in the face. [audience laughter] He’s never had a girl like him — every girl he’s ever liked has turned him down — but she likes him. It’s a really interesting series because he’s like, “She’s so pure, I’m not going to touch you until graduation.” She’s like, “That’s… not what I want… [audience laughter] I want to do things like, I have impure thoughts about you and I want to do things like hold your hand.” [audience laughter] It’s a really sweet series! These are all romances where they treat each other with respect. They deserve your support.
I’m not going to shame you if you like series about unhealthy romances. What you like is what you like and there’s a lot of reasons read them. A lot of people say they’re a safe way to experience unsafe fantasies. No judgment. But if we support series about people who are actually treating each other well, more of them will be made, and there will be more models for healthy relationships.
As a general call, if you are experiencing abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline. There’s a lot of resources out there; this is just one of them. Please, if you need to get in touch, here’s a phone number. You don’t deserve what you’re going through.