What do women really want? It’s an immortal question, a collective imagining of womankind as one intricate, deceptive puzzle box. Manga expert Midori Makita turned to shojo to uncover the answer to this question, through statistics, in his dojinshi with a big difference ‘Ren’ai Tokei’ (‘The Statistics of Romance’). This isn’t the first time Makita has turned to the stats of manga to find out what it says about their audience at large, reading pages in their thousands in his research, mostly based on readers of male-focused erotic works. Desire is amorphous and can’t be defined as a set of figures, and it’s just the same for female readers as it is for the guys. But as generalised as Makita’s interest percentages are by their nature, it’s inevitable that they reflect some part of the wishes, wants and struggles of a mass readership.
Looking into josei manga as well as the shojo demographic, Makita was searching for the pressure points of being a woman in Japanese society. Taking the lens away from what they wanted in a love interest – 55% of teen amours being talented in some way – he found that shojo heroines in general weigh the pedestal for their crushes heavily against an inferiority complex. In 70% of children’s manga, female protagonists had little self-confidence, with the same being true in 67% of general manga and 53% of teen manga.
Whatever the reason, be it failing in a job or at school, being unattractive, poor or unable to impress their parents, these concerns combine to mirror a feeling many women have in a world where we’re always placed second. In his study, Makita states, “Troubled heroines are a reflection of reality. In modern society, being a woman is a handicap. Wages, promotion, marriage, childbirth…the issues heroines have are the ones readers hope to solve”.
Even for young girls, a fragile heroine is a means for them to face the fears of growing up. As the protagonist faces her own uncertainties, though she may never become noticeably stronger, she’s shown to overcome in her own way, as proof to a whole readership that they will too. To some degree, that explains why the majority of heroines with feelings of inferiority are present in manga for young girls; these series are a reflection of where these girls stand in relation to the rest of the world.
That being said, why is it that a male love interest is shown to be the likeliest source of praise for the protagonist? Makita says, “By being loved by talented, popular, high-status boys, you feel like you might be recognised by society as well”. But how true is that, and how damaging or enforcing could that suggestion be to girls and young women? I think, in some way, many of us remember being disappointed with the realities of romance after fairytales. To hell with it, we’re still very much pissed off. In one fell swoop, they built up and restricted our expectations of ourselves and our future significant others. The shojo storyline often seems to revere the same arc for its central characters.
356 manga and 12,580 pages later, Makita resolved that the shojo heroine is passive, leaning on others for her opinion of herself, and not pursuing love until someone, often the dominant boy, comes to them. These girls hope to be “wanted (loved) so much they’re a bit shocked…but the one who loves them has to be good-looking”. It begs the question whether certain women would be so compliant and vapid without being prompted by such sweet, submissive characters hooking the hunky guy. I sometimes wonder that of myself, and now I’m suddenly finding some clarity in why I’ve related to so many shojo heroines in such similar ways. According to Makita’s study, a swathe of shojo protagonists come up against their own lack of self-worth, from girlhood to womanhood, time and again.
Now, to the point of this extended summary. I want to carry out a personal study of shojo, exploring where its heroines have shaped my self-image and desires. I want to define where Makita’s research matches how I feel and what I want as a woman and, perhaps more importantly, where mine and the heroine’s stories stray from his findings. For each manga I read, I’d write a response to either or all of these criteria and share them with our Patreon patrons, as I’m sure many of you would find some familiar issues there too. What do you think? Would you join me in my research? Just let me know in the comments. I’d also love to hear your shojo suggestions for where to get started.