Romance and Abuse in Shoujo Manga Part 4 – Conclusion

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

You only hurt the one you love…. (32)

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!

You only hurt the one you love…. (33)

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.

You only hurt the one you love…. (34)

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.

You only hurt the one you love…. (35)

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.

You only hurt the one you love…. (36)

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.

You only hurt the one you love…. (37)

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.

You only hurt the one you love…. (38)

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.

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16 thoughts on “Romance and Abuse in Shoujo Manga Part 4 – Conclusion

  1. I loved this series, and I can’t thank you enough for writing it as an abuse survivor, shojo fan, and manga industry professional. Nana is an interesting example…I didn’t read and watch it until I had a few years of distance from my abuse, and I found it very well done and realistic (in the same way I found the relationships in ParaKiss to be realistically abusive and manipulative), but I’ve met some manga fans who think Ai Yazawa exploits her female characters by putting them in abusive situations. I didn’t get this from my readings, but maybe the material is so raw that it’s not the best thing to read if you are still processing trauma from abuse?

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  2. Aljan

    I’m really troubled by your framing of OreMono here, because IMO that particular scene shows that both Takeo and Rinko have internalized some really negative ideas about female purity that are pernicious and endemic in Japanese media and throughout the society. It’s not just a joke, since this is a society where girls experiencing sexual desire is more than a little scandalous, and the resolution isn’t that it’s okay because Rinko really is the kind of pure girl she should be, and is in fact so pure that she’s worried even about things that are actually okay.

    I’d contrast that with the scene from Ookami Shoujo you screencapped for part three, where Sata is (being a total dickweasel and) telling Erika that a scar on a woman reduces her value. That’s a different facet of the same terrible ideas about a woman needing to come to her marriage “pristine.” But here, it’s being imposed on Erika from outside, rather that something she’s internalized the way Rinko has. And in fact, Erika responds to the idea with scorn, derision, and anger and is allowed to get the best of Sata in that argument. It’s not a belief that’s upheld at all. (I’d also note that in many ways, Ookami Shoujo is a celebration of women who are doing Japanese femininity wrong, like the two friends who are the initial focus of Erika’s lies, and even Erika herself, who the end of the manga sees preparing for a long distance relationship with Sata so that she can follow her own passion rather than giving up her dreams for her relationship. Sata even tries to make her do so, and his attempt and her willingness to let him are unequivocally portrayed as wrong and selfish. This is in direct opposition to the traditional and still extant idea in Japan that it’s the woman’s duty to be the one who makes sacrifices for her relationship and family.)

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    1. Be that as it may, I still think my use of OreMono as an example of a healthy relationship works within the context. I agree that both of them have internalized an unhealthy ideal of purity, and it’s alarming that Yamato feels like asking to hold hands is brazen. However, she and Takeo have a relationship built on love and trust, and the two of them resolve their issues through communication and consideration of one another’s feelings without ever trying to make each other feel bad, which was my main point in bringing it up in contrast to the unhealthy relationships I had discussed before. She even initiates their first kiss, and I sincerely believe her physical attraction and desire is more than just wanting to hold hands – she’s just not willing to admit it.

      As for Ookami Shoujo, although Erika may be rejecting the ideas that Kyoya puts before her, I can’t get past the fact that the show excuses his behavior over and over, and she still entered a relationship with him. I think Lovely Complex is a much better celebration of “doing femininity wrong” – Risa is oversized, too loud, too opinionated, makes ugly faces, and iirc decides to pursue becoming a stylist rather than staying with her boyfriend. She and Ootani have rough patches, but their relationship is equal and even when hurling insults at each other, it’s never malicious like how Kyoya treats Erika.

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      1. Aljan

        I do think the romance in OreMono is really sweet overall! I just wish you’d chosen a different example to illustrate that, because the purity theme is the biggest sour spot in the series for me. I think it’s probably also relevant to note that OreMono, Kimi ni Todoke, and Ookami Shoujo all run in the same manga magazine in Japan. It’s much more heartening than not that girls reading these in their first release have a nice, diverse slate of styles of romance being modeled for them.

        I probably view Sata’s behavior as less terrible than you do in aggregate. He crosses the line a lot, but most of their day-to-day interaction feels more like consensual kink to me, like the “you’re a pillow” scene on the school trip, and I’d argue that’s closer to how the relationship is framed in the manga itself. Quite apart from anything else, the manga treats Erika’s reason for agreeing to be his “dog” as hilariously flimsy and ridiculous and something most girls wouldn’t have agreed to. She’s not backed into a corner anywhere but her own mind. But it’s also extremely important to me that Erika consistently sticks to the boundaries she draws. I don’t mind that they both fuck up a lot, because I think that there’s real value in series about teenagers figuring out how to do relationships including hurting and being inconsiderate of each other out of stupidity and immaturity and then learning from those experiences. That’s another way of teaching girls what a good relationship looks like, by modeling failure points and making it clear that that’s what they are. In Ookami Shoujo, the lines are drawn, and drawn consistently, which sets it apart from Hana Yori Dango, Black Bird, and Hot Gimmick for me. Sata gets away with a lot in their day-to-day life because Erika genuinely doesn’t mind it or even likes what he’s doing, but when he does something that actually hurts her, it’s treated as a genuine problem he needs to fix, not something that can be easily smoothed over.

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    2. Alicia

      I really enjoyed your comments! (I can’t reply to your second comment for some reason, so I’ll post my comment here.) I found the “purity” scene in Ore Monogatari really interesting, because it actually addresses the issues that face Japanese girls and women who have perfectly natural desires which Japanese society often deems unseemly. As you say, the resolution here is that Takeo learns he shouldn’t put Rinko on a “so pure, so precious” pedestal, and that Rinko needs to trust Takeo to not judge her for expressing her true desires, not “lol Rinko was worried about holding hands, how silly”. But it’s not really a sour spot for me, because I feel Rinko and Takeo’s friends are being portrayed as relatable and likable even if they’re not “pure” like the main couple. They’re all kids with natural desires and understandable issues, and none of them are being put down for it in order to elevate the main couple, I don’t think, although that would be a really easy pitfall to fall into. Anyway, just wanted to say I found your input interesting.

      (My issue with Ore Monogatari is that it’s pretty repetitive and never needed to be more than 5 volumes long, but that’s a tooootally different discussion.)

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      1. That’s a good point! Takeo and Rinko’s friends, whose names are escaping me (I just think of the boy as “Funky Student” because Persona) moved much faster than the main couple, and I didn’t feel like the series condemned them at all. Rather, it was pointing out that Takeo and Rinko are overly-shy tiny babies, without acting like they were right and the others were wrong.

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  3. inksquid

    I enjoyed this series.
    By the way have you read/watched Nodame Cantabile, and have opinions on it and abuse? Some of Nodame/Chiaki’s earlier interactions kind of rub me the wrong way.

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    1. Hmm, it’s been a while since I watched/read Nodame Cantabile. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but that was before I became conscious of all this stuff. Chiaki is definitely an asshole but I mostly remember him yelling at her because her hygiene is awful, etc. I intend to revisit it really soon!

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      1. inksquid

        I won’t color your opinions further then (well besides saying it’s kind of played-for-laughs-slapstick-comedy but still makes me kind of uncomfortable, but despite that I still like the story as a whole!). Crunchyroll has the live drama for free streaming by the way.

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  4. Emilie

    This was a really interesting read! While ita been easy for me to see sings of abuaive behavior in shoujo since i got into it at a soemwhat later age, there are still a lot of ppl put there who vide hem as being,… Okay. The best example of a shoujo ive read with abuaive behavior excused is definantly honey x honey drops. The dude basically rapes her in the first chapter, and soem more times in the series too, but the heroine still falls for him. I can’t say much about falling love bc ive never experienced it myself, but i know the only big crush ive had, i liked him bc i coul talk easily with the guy. Having a guy touch you ans then all of a sudden toss you away shouldnt made you fall in love, ita simple not natural in my opinion. I loved reading this and i’m so glad you’re talking about thia issue, theres too much of it in the anime and manga Industry, really.

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  5. Rio

    To be fair with NANA, Takumi and Hachi’s relationship is meant to be portrayed in a negative light, as she stays with him only because the baby’s sake, but it’s clear that her real love is Nobu – who can’t support the baby. She sticks with Takumi not because she loves him but because support their child. The narrative never romanticizes their relationship once they get married, it is meant to be repulsive and NOT ideal.

    I also disagree with the bit about age gaps. I mean, yeah, adult/minor and student/teacher gaps obviously carry a power imbalance and thus abuse, but when both people are adults and see each other as equals, I don’t see the problem. (My grandparents have an 11 year age difference and they lasted pretty well), I think you could had been a bit more specific that you’re refering to large age gaps between a minor and an adult that carries a natural power imbalance and inequality between the two parties.

    Speaking of age gaps, in the original Sailor Moon manga Mamoru is actually younger than in the anime: he isn’t in college, but rather in first/second year of high school, so the age difference between him and Usagi isn’t too big at the start (14/16-7) and both minors. I never got why the anime made him older.

    But overall, this was a very good analysis, luckily current shoujo mangas are trying to portray more healthy and positive romantic relationships instead of abusive ones, let’s hope they continue that trend!

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    1. I agree with you on both of those, actually. I intended to include Nana as a good example of a story about an abusive relationship. I do still tend to be leery of large age gaps even though my own parents are twelve and a half years apart, but I don’t think they’re inherently abusive except in the case of a minor being involved or a power imbalance.
      Thanks for the feedback and I’ll try to clarify on those points next time I present the panel.

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      1. Rio

        You’re very welcome. Overall I loved your well-thought, deconstructing and detailed essay about the romanticization of abusive relationships in shoujo manga, a trend that has left me disturbed plenty of times (don’t get me started on Mayu Shinjo’s shoujo series, oh my God) and I’m glad you adressed it to help girls to recognize that those relationships aren’t good. I only wanted to give my two cents (mostly because NANA is my favorite shoujo/jousei series of all time xD) about those two topics, but overall, great job! And good luck when exposing it in the panel! 😉

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  6. Shiloh

    I started NANA recently. I hadn’t gotten to Nana’s and Takumi’s relationship yet. I’m honestly upset that it started out leaning towards a relationship between the two Nana’s but then put Komachi in an abusive relationship.

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  7. Oh my goodness. This 4-part review really brought home everything I’ve ever thought about these problematic series. Thank you so much for documenting them and the problems they present so well. This was a very good read and I will gladly recommend it to anyone I meet in future who enjoys shoujo manga. There are so many series out there that employ these deeply troubling tropes, even in small part, that I wish a brighter light were being shined upon these issues.

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