A Sexy Star is Born: Thoughts on the History of Romance in Shoujo

A common complaint against shoujo manga is that it’s too obsessed with romance. When you look at shoujo as a whole, love is not just a major factor in a lot of series, often times it’s the only factor. It all boils down to a simple question: “Why can’t shoujo manga be more ambitious?”

To a fair extent, this criticism is justified, but I finished reading the English-language release of Hagio Moto’s The Heart of Thomas recently and the afterword by Matt Thorn provided an interesting context to the romance-heavy nature of shoujo as we know it. Thorn writes about how, in contrast to the shoujo manga of the time which assumed that girls had no interest in stories in the more adult side of relationships, manga like The Heart of Thomas were revolutionary because they introduced the thrill of romance and sexual desire to shoujo manga. This is not to belittle the shoujo manga before Hagio and her contemporaries as somehow inferior as that’s certainly not the case, but it’s clear there was a trend of chaste stories about daughters reuniting with their mothers and such, which was supplanted by shoujo manga as love story. Romance in shoujo is the 800 lb. gorilla now, but it wasn’t always that way.

It actually reminds me about one of the biggest difficulties in discussing depictions of women with respect to feminism, which is that both the denial and exploitation of women’s sexuality have been used to control women in the past, and good and bad intentions exist within various a complex array of cultural contexts. Romance in shoujo manga is  a way for readers to learn about their own desires, but perhaps at the same time also a way to control their interests.

On a certain level, the reason behind the proliferation of romance-based shoujo is obvious: money. Girls liked romance, it sold a lot, and so it became de rigueur for an entire industry. It’s understandable, as is the criticism against it. While romance is just the thing that many fans (including myself) look to shoujofor, at this point, it could stand to have some more variety.

The funny thing is, I’ve recently begun to suspect shoujo manga is undergoing just such a transformation, but I’ll leave my thoughts on that for a follow-up post.


5 thoughts on “A Sexy Star is Born: Thoughts on the History of Romance in Shoujo

  1. That’s a very interesting video you liked to, I had no idea Japan had also seen huge comic-burning “parties”, to “stop children being corrupted”. In ‘the west’ (well, the USA and UK anyway) similar things happened after the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, though that was mainly a right wing thing, with parents being horrified that the “innocent fun” of comics was now being replaced by vampires and criminals.
    I don’t know about America, but I have seen one picture from Britain with a bunch of stern-faced blokes burning a huge pile of comics on a village green. The newspapers also got in on the act, you can see some examples (and a longwinded, highly-pedantic debate in the comments) here:
    Mind you, in Britain this moral panic did lead to the creation of Eagle, with the original Dan Dare, widely regarded as the best British comic ever (over the long-term anyway, most comic fans in the UK right now are wet, simpering sixth-form socialists with hyphenated names and a disdain for anything that comrade Mills doesn’t tell them to approve of).
    But still, the video only vaguely mentions pre-1950’s and pre-war manga. A guy called Curtis Hoffman has done a lot of research into the early development of manga (IE not the usual “in 1600 there was Ukyo-e, then in 1947 Tezuka…” crap we usually get fed). Unlike, apparently, most of the other comic markets, in Japan the comics for girls led, and those for boys followed! One of the earliest “sophisticated” shoujo manga (though unfortunately the image is now broken >.<) appeared in 1935, and was about "a female Zorro"!
    (In British comics from the inter-to-second-world-war period, too, I find some surprisingly ass-kickin' girls who fly aeroplanes, race cars or shoot at ravenous wolves from besieged log cabins. Of course, most modern British comic fans ((British by nationality, that is, they mostly read American and Japanese ones)) will tell you that Misty from 1978 is the earliest British girl's comic worth looking at. An opinion most of them have 'formed' second hand, not having actually looked at Misty OR any of it's predecessors.)
    I can also recall seeing an image from a 'proto manga' (possibly a text story with numerous illustrations, what would now be called a Light Novel in Japan, or a Story Paper in Britain) book from 1910, which was apparently the first known image to be a recognisably 'manga' style. It was also aimed at girls! Though unfortunately I can't remember where that page was, or even where I found the link to it @_@.


  2. one problem seems to be that the definition of shoujo is too narrow. it seems that any work that has action/adventure content that isn’t straight up magical girl falls outside the shoujo category, no matter how obviously it’s targeted to girls. think of manga like black butler or loveless that are made by women and who have girls as target audience but are not considered shoujo. why not? because they have male characters? but shonen and seinen can have female protagonists… because they have too much action? why would that be a limit, shoujo isn’t a genre, it’s just demographic. many works by clamp are good example too.


  3. Actually, shoujo is mostly intended as a vicarian experience, sometimes spicying a little every stage of romance. But it is interesting to see that shoujo mangas from the 70’s like Glass Mask or Rose of Versailles (Oskar) had complex heroines, full with inner desires or purposes that prolapsed with romance, and in way, the conflict was handled sometimes with stark contrast, between self-realization or romance.
    More recent shoujo mangas, choose to illustrate this in a glossed or demured tone, focusing on the adolescent age group of readers. If anything, the manga industry continues with the trend that the nineties settled in the genre, the focus in mainstream shoujo in MC instrospection (prominent inner dialogue) and pop culture, moving away from anything close to the josei genre.
    The pathos of womanhood, the climb up to adulthood, the self-realization of personal objectives that would be not confluent with the standard of society, are captured with softier lens or glossed over, and strangely enough, derives into a plain cut of these narrative sets, in favor of romance, which becomes one of the prominent “de facto” motors of the narrative. So, in a way, conventional shoujo relies in romance, renouncing (more or less) to resonate with it’s expected target readers through other means. However, this is an industry defined by trends, which embodies cultural views, and some of these are mere glasses, reinterpretations of society and humane relationships. To what extent (shoujo trends) it is a invested way of portraying the female psichology (target public, or readers) is not impartial to authors, and consecuently, to it’s creativity and original ideas.


  4. Pingback: Is Shoujo Manga Becoming More Varied? | OGIUE MANIAX

  5. But is it simply that girls liked romance that it became the norm in shojo manga, or is it because patriarchal society tells girls that they should like romance? After all, media and society both reflect each other. What’s insidious about this is the fact that since romance is something that has always been considered ‘feminine,’ because it’s fluffy; ‘not important,’ these stories and the (mostly) women who read and write them are allowed to be dismissed. What people need to remember is that it’s easy to write a love story – but it’s very hard to write a good love story. And there are plenty of them out there in shojo manga. Some shojo manga fans want to get rid of the perception that it’s a romance-only genre, and while there are definitely great exceptions, I think we need to think about why we want to get rid of this perception. Is it because we don’t want people to think ‘shojo manga = romance, romance = bad, shojo manga = bad?’ By trying to disassociate shojo manga from romance, I feel we’re only giving into these stereotypes, which is counterproductive. Embrace the romance, shojo fans. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.


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