I’ve always loved comic books. In my early teens, I read only manga (a.k.a. Japanese comic books). Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time rereading and reviewing them on Goodreads, and I’ve noticed a weird trend.
It sucks to be a woman in shonen manga.
“Shonen” is a genre of Japanese comic books with plots such as sports, sci-fi, fantasy, action/adventure, etc., featuring male leads. It’s usually marketed to boys, much like the US’s action genre.
So what’s the issue? Having a male lead isn’t a problem, though ideally, the spread between male and female leads in action series should be more even.
The trouble is that female characters get sidelined.
Women in Manga
I’ve avoided spoiling anything, but I will be discussing the following three (completed) series: Black Cat, The Prince of Tennis, and Megaman: NT Warrior. 🙂 I’ve chosen these three series because I’ve read them in their entirety — though I’ve read many others, I don’t want to judge a series that I haven’t finished.
1. Black Cat: Below are two images of side character Saya Minatsuki from this fantasy/action series:
What’s with the low neckline on volume 13? Saya is wearing the same outfit, but the cover image is sexualized: suddenly her yukata exposes more skin, and her facial expression is gentle and overly feminine — quite unlike her usual sarcastic personality. Despite her reputation as a kick-butt bounty hunter, she’s treated as little more than a sexual object by this cover image.
And this isn’t the only Black Cat cover to do so. Volume 11 features two scantily-clad women…and one of them is 12. Yikes. Rinslet and Kyoko, two additional female characters, receive the same treatment.
Verdict: Women in this series are sexualized.
2. The Prince of Tennis: In high school, I worshipped this sports/action series. Now, I’m not so thrilled with its female cast. Seventh grader Sakuno has a crush on her classmate. Though she’s the first character we meet, she disappears after that, returning only to fret and cheer for her crush in the occasional side panel.
Super lame. Sakuno is too passive for me to appreciate as a character, but passivity, at least, is realistic. She’s a shy twelve-year-old. So was I.
Coach Ryuzaki leads the tennis team on which this series focuses. That’s great, but here’s where things get unrealistic: she disappears after the first few volumes. She’s not at their practices. She offers no guidance or supervision. At matches, she appears in the occasional side column.
It’s like she’s not even there.
Verdict: Women in this series are background figures.
3. Megaman: NT Warrior: Female lead Maylu regularly needs saving — and who steps up? (Male) main characters Lan and Megaman.
Maylu embodies a number of female stereotypes: she’s extremely girly, she and her female Netnavi rarely battle, she always needs saving, and she sits around worrying about Lan and Megaman. She’s also a romantic interest. There’s no depth to her character beyond that.
Yai, a female classmate of Lan and Maylu, also requires saving in early volumes. Neither of these girls are fleshed out as anything more than someone for Lan to save.
Verdict: Women in this series are damsels in distress.
Wait… Where are the strong female characters?
Women are so much more than the stereotypes portrayed by these series. Boxing women into certain roles upholds traditional gender stereotypes and restricts men from performing roles considered “feminine” — like worrying. That’s all female, it seems. But don’t we want men worrying about their friends when they face danger? Wouldn’t any good friend worry, regardless of gender?
Of course, three examples can’t (and shouldn’t) condemn an entire genre — there are exceptions — but American audiences are also familiar with this gender divide: there are fewer female superheroes than male, women of any role often wear impractical/revealing outfits, and the female leads that do exist face outrage (such as the controversy over the Star Wars Rogue One trailer).
Both men and women play important roles in real life — shouldn’t our literature reflect that?
What stereotypes have you seen in comic books and manga? Have you read any that broke these stereotypes?