Sunday, June 8, 2008

Wiscon 32: Shoujo Bodies

This was a spontaneous panel attended by Mely, Akycha, Heaven's Calyx (HC), Mystic Keeper (MK), Takumashii (T), Nienna, and Alaya Dawn Johnson (ADJ). Names I'll be referring to them by in parentheses.

I don't remember the description that I wrote up for the panel suggestions, but here's the one I posted to the Wiscon community:

Most bodies in shoujo manga are thin and wispy, with an emphasis on androgyny. Many of the men tend to lack muscle definition (think Yuu Watase), while the women are much less curvy than their shounen manga counterparts. What does this mean to us? What other body types are there in shoujo manga? We will hopefully talk about gender-bending, cross-dressing, body image, and the fashion industry. Suggested series to discuss: After School Nightmare, Paradise Kiss, Walkin' Butterfly, Angel Sanctuary, Fruits Basket, W Juliet, Rose of Versailles, and Princess Knight.

I also took no notes, so all this is based purely off of my very faulty memory. Also, I am writing it up grouped by topic, as opposed to following the flow of the conversation, as a) I don't remember the flow and b) I think it will make for an easier-to-read post. [ETA: HC also let me know that many of the things I attributed to her were in fact said by Akycha, so many apologies for the mix up!]

I freaked out a little at having to lead the discussion, but after an awkward beginning for me, people seemed to jump in on their own fairly quickly. Yay participation! I will blame my completely not remembering how the discussion started on nerves. I mentioned that we were mostly going to focus on shoujo manga and manhwa, with some possible delving into shounen manga representations of female bodies, but more as a comparison than an exploration of shounen manga. [ETA: "shoujo" refers to teenage girls, "shounen" to teenage boys, "manga" to Japanese comics, and "manhwa" to Korean comics. Manga is generally categorized by whom the target demographic is; shoujo and shounen are the largest groups, but there's also seinen (adult men) and josei/ladies' (adult women). Yaoi, shounen ai, BL and june refer to a subgenre of shoujo manga that focuses on gay romances.]

Gender-bending and cross-dressing

We may have started with shoujo manga history and how gender-bending and cross-dressing has been there from the very start, with Tezuka Osamu's Princess Knight/Ribon no Kishi [1954-1968, Tezuka is the father of modern manga, both shounen and shoujo], which stars a princess, Sapphire, who's raised as a boy by her parents because they wanted a son and an heir. Someone (T?) pointed out that the interesting thing re: Sapphire is that she actually has two souls (I think?), a male one and a female one. Obligatory mentions of Rose of Versailles [1972-1973, by Rikyoko Ikeda] and [Revolutionary Girl] Utena [1997 anime] as the descendents of Princess Knight, particularly in the 1700s European setting for Rose of Versailles and [the 1700s European] imagery and clothing for Utena. Someone may have drawn a parallel between Sapphire and her two souls and Ichijo from After School Nightmare [2005-now, by Mizushiro Setona] and his male upper body, female lower body (stated in the manga!). I think Mely commented on a reviewer or two who categorized Ichijo not as trans, but as something else all together.

I mentioned how girls-dressed-as-guys tend to be what plots are based on (ex. Rose of Versailles, Princess Knight, Utena, Hana Kimi [1996-2004, by Nakajo Hisaya]), while guys-dressed-as-girls tend to be more one off kink-fulfillment (ex. the obligatory school festival in which the pretty guys dress in women's clothing, mangaka notes saying "And I was so excited when I got to dress [character] as a girl!"). Someone pointed out that the exception was W Juliet [1997-2002, by Emura]. I mentioned how the mangaka notes occasionally squee about dressing up the bishounen as girls, but how the mangaka occasionally also mentions that it's hard because she keeps wanting to draw breasts on the character. There was also a note on how Haruka from Sailor Moon [1992-1997, by Takeuchi Naoko] was the exception to the girls-dressed-as-guys not being a kink thing, ditto with the otoko-yaku of Takarazuka.

Constructs of femininity and masculinity

When going into why guys-in-girls'-clothing was a kink, I think I wondered if some mangaka were vindictively liked having guys know how much effort goes into donning frilly clothing. Mely talked a little about Jennifer Robertson's Takarazuka (about the all-female revue troupe Takarazuka) and how Robertson talked a lot about masculinity as a construct, as demonstrated by the otoko-yaku (the women who specialize in men's roles) taking "masculine" traits and exaggerating them, but also on how Robertson ignores how the female roles and musume-yaku (the women who specialize in women's roles) and how their enactment of femininity is just as constructed. I mentioned the onnagata of kabuki (men specializing in women's roles, as kabuki was all-male, though it started as a female religious performance ritual) and how Edo writers [Edo Japan was 1600-1911], particularly Saikaku, would note that men could play women better than women themselves, because they didn't have the messy female biology to trip them up (!!).

Akycha and HC had lots of cool info about Takarazuka, as HC is an avid fan who has gone to many performances (so cool!) [ETA: seen on tape, not live]. She mentioned how otoko-yaku are far more popular than musume-yaku and that the male roles are considered better, and how when there was a production about Queen Elizabeth, they assigned the role of Elizabeth to an otoko-yaku, even though Elizabeth is female [ETA: Actually it was Elisabeth, about Empress Elisabeth of Austria/Hungary]. HC speculated that this was because the producers or casting directors thought the musume-yaku didn't have the acting chops for the part, but also that they gave the role to the otoko-yaku who's considered more feminine. This coupled with the onnagata led to the thought about how femininity is routinely devalued. I mentioned that it's interesting that "otoko-yaku" means "male/man role" in Japanese, but "musume-yaku" is "daughter role" instead of "female/woman role." I forgot if anyone said this, but there's also a devaluing of female bodies, particularly in kabuki, in which the men play women better than women themselves. There was also a lot of rhetoric in Edo Japan on the yay-ness of nanshoku (male-male love) and how it was purer than women+men because messy biology wasn't in the way, or complications of marriage and money and familial politics.

There was also discussion about the constructs of gender in After School Nightmare and how it's interesting watching Mizushiro move from a more traditional gender binary to the possibility of something that won't make us all tear our hair out. Ichijo begins thinking that if he is attracted to Sou, he must be passive and "feminine" and thereby be female, whereas if he's attracted to Kureha, he must then be active and "masculine" and thereby be male. There's the interesting bit on the assignation of gender based on sexuality. ADJ noted that the construct of sexuality as set (heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual) wasn't there in historical Japan; it was more if you're sleeping with a guy at that moment, it's nanshoku, if you're sleeping with a woman at that moment, it's the Japanese word for that which I have forgotten. I footnoted this by saying it was a view of sexuality focused strictly on men; I don't think there was much female-female love. If there wasn't someone being penetrated, it didn't count as sex. I now remember a few shunga featuring two women pleasuring themselves with dildoes, but I remember reading commentary on how the penetration was still there, and of course the male sex organ, albeit not with a male body attached.

Biology and constructions of gender

Someone also brought up how there's very little looking at the pain and trouble involved with trappings of femininity. We're introduced to Ichijo when he gets his period, and HC or Akycha mentioned how rarely we get to see menstruation in shoujo manga. They brought up an anime that had a guy turning into a girl (Kyou Kara Maou? [ETA: Kashimashi Girl Meets Girl]), in which he has a really hard time shaving his legs and etc., and how we rarely get to see girls in shoujo learning how to be feminine: learning how to shave their legs or wax or deal with menstruation. HC brought up the Nanami's egg episode in Utena as a great example of the anxiety surrounding menstruation (am I too early? Too late? Is mine larger or smaller than normal? Why won't anyone tell me anything about it?), and also Haibane Renmei's portrayal of the growth of wings. It's messy and bloody and painful, but also necessary and a sign of maturity. I mentioned the fears and anxieties surrounding dirty wings in the series, particularly as a mark of sin. Re: leg shaving, I said that maybe it was cultural and less people in Japan shave their legs, since I definitely see fewer ads for shaving implements in Taiwan, but HC and ADJ both said they didn't think so.

The talk went to secondary sex characteristics and how there seemed to be a marked lack of commentary on puberty and the development of secondary sex characteristics in shoujo manga. I brought up Walkin' Butterfly [2004, by Tamaki Chihiro] as an interesting example, because we actually see the heroine's pubic hair, but Mely said it was josei, which explains a lot. I think I also mentioned how it's male puberty as well; most boys in shoujo don't have much muscle definition or facial scruff on the hero, and their body silhouettes are closer to that of the girls. The more similar silhouettes (slimmer hips on the girls, slimmer shoulders on the boys) is also more noticeable when compared to shounen manga art, which tends to exaggerate women's breasts and men's muscles.

Most people said that despite this, they could tell apart the guys and the girls. Mely mentioned how she read Demon Diary when she was first getting into manga (and manhwa) and couldn't tell what sex people were, so she pretended they were all androgynous, but on going back a few years later, she can tell. People shared stories of anime/manga newbies who are confounded by the long flowing bishounen hair and pretty faces, but also how the gender-distinguishing features become more obvious as your eye gets more accustomed to it. I said I always looked at the characters' chests to figure out, which is how I figured out Envy in Fullmetal Alchemist was male and how I got confused by purple-haired pilot in Gundam 00, as his pilot outfit has lumpy bits right around the chest area. I just remembered now that I forgot to comment on the lack of nipples, particularly on women?

I think someone mentioned lolicon (Lolita complex) and Japanese censorship laws, which make it harder to depict pubic hair. Someone also talked about yaoi as an exception to lack of secondary sex characteristics, as yaoi guys tend to have more muscle definition. There was also talk about how uke and seme were distinguished physically with height and hair and eye size and facial shape: more "masculine" guys always have longer faces while more "feminine" guys have shorter, wider faces. [Most yaoi has an active role (seme) and a passive role (uke). "Seme" literally means "aggressor" while "uke" literally means "receiver.] I mentioned that Rose of Versailles is interesting because Oscar gets a typically "masculine" face shape. I think we also all laughed at CLAMP art and how they had two male body templates. I can't remember if anyone said something about the more "feminine" faces as being more childlike (larger eyes, wider face, etc).

ADJ, T, and Emily all talked about how shoujo art is changing, as I think they started out with Sailor Moon and Yuu Watase, in which the women have more hips and breasts. I want to fit in the Sailor Moon Stars characters, who turn from male to female in the anime -- their female forms are the powerful forms, because they're the senshi forms. But of course, they're also dressed in skimpy leather outfits.

Devaluing the female POV

All of us ranted about how so much shoujo starts out focused on the heroine and then ends up focused on the hero's childhood angst and emotional growth (ex. Mars, Kare Kano). Poor ADJ had only seen the Kare Kano anime ("The paper cut outs on sticks episode! Miyazawa kicking Arima!"), and the rest of us grumped about the horrible ending of the manga and how we were all so angry that the most awesome Miyazawa gets shafted for more story about Arima's background, and how we all loved Miyazawa from the beginning because she wasn't the typically sweet shoujo heroine. I can't remember if I said this, but now I note that Miyazawa's interesting as a heroine because she makes us look at femininity as a social construct (I was thinking particularly of how she makes shoujo sparklies and flowers appear on demand). I can't remember if anyone mentioned Rukia in terms of constructs of femininity as well, even though Bleach is shounen. This went along with the devaluing of female bodies in Edo Japan and the devaluing of female roles in Takarazuka.

I think someone mentioned how literature in Japan in Japanese (as opposed to classical Chinese) started as a female tradition (Sei Shonagon, Genji, etc.), but ADJ mentioned the current devaluing of fiction centered on women, particularly with regard to Banana Yoshimoto, who's thought of as a "shoujo" author, despite her not writing manga. She talked about two piececs of scholarship, one from the US and one from Japan, both of which completely write off Yoshimoto as writing about topics that don't matter or being too girly and etc. She particularly mentioned Kitchen, which is focused on home and cooking and food, and is thereby not "serious literature." I mentioned that was particularly interesting because the climax of Kitchen is all about katsudon, which my lit. prof. said was a take-out food, not a cook-at-home food. So even there, Yoshimoto is playing with ideas of gender and food and etc.

Historical gender constructs

We talked a little about historical Japanese constructs of gender; I talked about the Meiji propaganda of "good wife, wise mother" and there being nothing between "child" and "mother/wife" for women to fit into in historical Japan. Mely I think noted that this paralleled the rise of the concept of adolescence in the West and probably Victorian gender roles as well. I mentioned the start of shoujo magazines around the Meiji Era [1868-1912]; I don't know much about them myself, but my Japanese prof. advisor had mentioned them as an avenue of research for me and a way to look at the beginning of the concept of the "shoujo" in Japan. We also talked about adolescent anxiety and shoujo manga scholarship that boxes the gender "messiness" of shoujo manga as rising solely from Japanese shoujo's fears and anxieties about growing up in a sexist society and having to become a wife and mother. Mely and I particularly hate this theory, as the scholars who propose it think it rises solely from Japanese culture and the same arguments come up in slash academic writing, and that it is a limited look as to how wide the representations of gender and sexuality are in shoujo manga alone.

More that I am too lazy to categorize

Mely talked about Kyoko Okazaki's works (unlicensed) and at Okazaki's look at the fashion industry, which capitalizes on the deliberate construct of femininity. I think she quoted one bit in which the heroine, a model, has basically been surgically "enhanced" everywhere except her cunt (I think that word's in the quote?). Someone else mentioned the rise of cosmetical female genital surgery in the US, so technically, the heroine could be all surgically enhanced. There was some mention of the tall, lanky, thin shoujo silhouette as being that of a model and how there's that story that keeps being retold of the girl who hates her body but finds out it's... perfect for modelling! (Walkin' Butterfly, I swear I've read this in US YA lit as well.) I noted that while I am pro body acceptance, I feel the fashion industry is not the best way to it.

There was also a discussion of bodily mutilation and how men and boys are allowed to have sexy scars. Mely mentioned how it's a sign that the guys have survived something and lived past it, how they had tragic angst written on their bodies, but how shoujo bodies had to be perfect and flawless and history-less to be valuable. I noted that I generally do not argue for further violence to be written on female bodies, but in the case of manga, violence and scarring is a sign of caring, both in terms of mangaka regard and in terms of audience reaction to the characters. I think we agreed that it was important that it wasn't sexualized violence written on shoujo bodies, but violence in terms of angsty backstory and something that makes the heroine stronger and more awesome. I threw in a reference to Bride with White Hair, as there's a really interesting scene in which the heroine has to literally crawl over hot coals and razors and get whipped by her clan to exit her clan; it's a striking scene of non-sexualized violence done to a woman. Someone also noted that the difference between that and violence to women in SPN, say, was that reader/viewer sympathy lay with the person enduring the violence.

... and now I remember that the discussion started with talk of subjectivity and objectivity in manga, and how the heroines and heroes can often be both subject and object because of the medium. I think T noted how shoujo manga is frequently narrated from a first person POV (usually the heroine's POV), and how Nana is exceptional because it's focused on the two Nanas talking to each other via the narration (as opposed to the dialogue bubbles). But T noted that because manga is drawn, even though we're thrust into the heroine's POV via voiceovers and narration, we're also in the position to view her body (and the hero's body) as objects, because we are also looking at their outsides and not just at their inner POVs.

We briefly went into manhwa art style and how it's different (particularly the lips and eyes, particularly in that people have prominent lips). Mely mentioned how she might be overgeneralizing, but liked that manhwa tended to have angrier, less sweet heroines, as opposed to manga, and I think all of us agreed about that. I think I might have noted that the downside to that is that the anger is often directed at other women and girls in terms of romantic rivalry? But that may just be from my kdrama watching. I then went on a handwavy overgeneralization as to how I think US media tends to reward the "masculine" in that we have more women warriors and assertion and other stereotypically masculine traits but the men are not allowed to be "girly," whereas Japanese media may reward the "feminine" more in that the men are allowed to be more emotional and vulnerable and other stereotypically feminine traits but the women are not allowed to be aggressive.

There was also talk on how filmed media tends to be more conservative than printed media overall (Asian dramas, US TV shows vs. manga, written SF/F) and how a lot of that might be because of business models... there's a limited amount of TV channels, a limited amount of shows studios can put out, and less of a limitation on print (albeit still a limit).

And then we ran out of time, and I realized we hadn't talked about the lack of different types of bodies at all, including in terms of age, weight, race, and etc.


Overall, this was one of my favorite panels from Wiscon, probably because a) I suggested it, b) the spontaneous programming meant mostly people who knew about shoujo manga came, and c) I felt I finally got to go as in depth as I wanted to in a panel. The last bit is largely influenced by the second bit; thought not everyone was familiar with every series discussed, it seemed like most people had read a fair amount of shoujo manga and manga overall, and that most people were fairly familiar with Japan, so there was very little 101 to do. I loved being able to talk about so many works and to connect them all, and am only sad that we couldn't keep going for the entire night.

Crossposted here, with some edits made to the Aqueduct post for clarity and fact correcting.


Cheryl said...

Thank you. This is stuff I'm interested to know more about. It is really hard to know how to read what manga and anime is doing with gender when you don't know much about Japanese culture.

kb said...

The only result returned when searching for 'Nanami's egg' and 'menstruation' together. But it seems so obvious! Thank you for commenting on the symbolism. Would love to see an entire essay just on that episode.