Gender Roles and Sexism in Modern Shoujo Manga

Unfortunately, our society is built over a misogynistic structure that is based on a binary perspective of genders and their roles. Imposing different social places and behaviours for each gender and oppressing what does not fit in. Japan is not an exception – in fact, it is a study in contrasts.

During a certain afternoon in October, it came to my attention that Akiko Higashimura’s newest work -HIMO ZAIRU- was put on hold due to online criticism. The author, which already has a fairly successful piece on the market (Kuragehime), created a story about men who are financially dependent on women:

“No money, not popular, no job. Because I’m useless at best, I’ll become a himo! The curtain rises on Akiko Higashimura’s himo-man training dojo!” A himo is a man who doesn’t work and who is financially dependent on the women he goes out with. The website for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper added that she created the manga with her male assistant and other men around her as models. The newspaper also added that critics had accused Higashimura of “looking down on her assistant and other men.”

Now, it is interesting to analyze this kind of reaction: why were men so bothered over this particular story, to the point of canceling it? The answer is simple: Himo Zairu is a shoujo manga that did not follow the rules.


Source: Kuragehime

Source: Kuragehime

Let’s start from the beginning: Japan is a study in contrasts – while it has a very liberating form of art such as manga, the society does not seem to keep up with it: While the manga market is an extremely vast and varied world, full of works from all kinds, the Japanese society is still very conservative when it comes to gender roles (set of societal norms dictating what types of behaviors are generally considered acceptable, appropriate or desirable for a person based on their actual or perceived gender.).

I dare say that it’s even more conservative than the current western society. So how can a market that publishes titles that the western world are still struggling to accept (LGBTTQ characters protagonizing their own stories, women as protagonists of their own adventures, all kinds of non-conventional sexual fantasies, etcetera) still be so conservative at the same time?

It’s because the manga market sells a false idea of variety while still holding onto conservative and sexist values. You don’t even have to read manga to notice that. Let’s take a look at some of the currently used “Manga Genres” and what they mean:

SHOUNEN MANGA (少年漫画 shōnen manga) is manga aimed at a teenage male audience.

SHOUJO MANGA (少女漫画 shōjo manga) is manga aimed at a teenage female readership.

YAOI/BL (/ˈjaʊi/, Japanese: [ja.o.i]), also known as Boys’ Love (BL) is a Japanese genre of fictional media focusing on romantic or sexual relationships between male characters, typically aimed at a female audience and usually created by female authors.

Strictly speaking, those are not exactly genres. The market separates the titles by target audience. While western society suffers with lack of minority representation due to using actual genres as a division standard (Romance, Action, Adventure, Thriller) AND considers the White Male Protagonist as the default, universal character that everyone will consume over, the manga market struggles on letting go of the stereotypes created by gender-basing their titles, reinforcing gender prejudices and values that should have been overcome by now.

The focus of this article will be the issue of gender roles in Shoujo Manga.


Gender Roles in Shoujo Manga

Shoujo manga targets young girls specially. It is predominantly female, from authors to readers. Such obvious separation leads to common questions: what would girls like to read? The result is a vast majority of sugary high school romance stories with very stereotypical characters and plots.

If you are a Shoujo Manga consumer, you must have come across at least one of these phrases:

Guy: You can’t [insert any reason/action here], you are a girl!

Guy: I have to protect you.

Guy: Girls should be cute!

We have a text representation of three problems that sexist societies face everyday, that shoujo manga usually insists on reinforcing in a sometimes very, VERY subtle way:

1. The idea that women are somewhat physically or emotionally incapable of something because they are girls or should/should not be doing something or act in a certain way because they are girls. This is so subtly engraved in modern shoujo manga that if you don’t want to notice it, you won’t.

2. The idea that girls need to be protected. The male-female relationship is the prime plot device in every shoujo manga, you will rarely find one that does not portray this interaction. The vision of a girl that wants to be protected and the “strong” male character that protects her is one of the most used stereotypes in modern manga. This arrangement often leads to an excessively dominant male partner.

Source: mangafox

Source: Black Bird (left) and Ookami Shoujo to Kuro Ouji (right)

The depiction of the male character in shoujo manga has interesting developments to say the least. It is possible to narrow it down to two main dominant personality spectrums: The Prince and the Devil. The Prince is the perfect, handsome, desirable guy that every woman wants. They may or may not have a secret twisted personality. The Devil is usually an underdog violent or cold guy, that usually has a borderline abusive behavior towards the female protagonist. Both of these stereotypes can be a problem.

The Prince is Problematic becauseReinforces the idea of a male that will protect the main character from anything. It is based on dated concepts of chivalry or romanticism. When the prince has a twisted personality, it starts to act like the Devil:

The Devil is Problematic becausePerhaps it is one of the most common personality spectrums in modern shoujo manga, and it is equally one of the most dangerous concept there is: the concept of male dominance is the focus. The characters are usually rude, possessive, jealous or cold and often abusive to the receiver of their affection, the female protagonist. In this case, it is default to sell commonly known emotional and physical abuse as sexy, romantic and desirable. While the western world discusses abuse behavior in Fifty Shades of Grey, the manga market has been using abuse as a plot device for much longer. Either way, the notion that cruel, possessive and aggressive behaviors are synonymous of love is very poisonous specially to young girls who are starting their love lives.

Source: Ao Haru Ride

It is also important to notice how the concept of street harassment is put into a different light from the harassment made by the protagonists. Street Harassment is often used as a plot device so the vulnerability of the female character becomes more evident, and it is usually viewed as a nasty, negative action (and they are often saved by the male protagonist). When the male protagonist performs the same or even worse harassment acts, it is always put as a comic relief or with a touch of “romance”. It’s a double standard.

3. The idea that women need excessive vanity. Shoujo manga usually appeals on the idea of cute and how should a girl be cute. When it’s not the case, the girl protagonist is beautiful, stylish or cool. It is a common plot for shoujo manga to have an ugly, creepy or fat protagonist that ends up “becoming cute for any number of reasons: rejected by a popular or secondary male character drives her to change her appearance or she is helped by a popular handsome boy, between some other reasons. The fact is, the physical attribute of the woman is her “value” meter in the end, and submission becomes a quality to be admired. Of course we have some excellent exceptions, but for bad or for worse, the vast majority of shoujo manga reinforces the concept the appearance as something a girl should care excessively about.


Shoujo Manga represents a big conquer when it comes to female authorship and market space. However, it is still trapped in meaningless stereotypes of what a woman should be and how she should behave, as well as the romanticization of abusive behaviours. As women, we can not be deceived by false ideas of representation. To have such a big market dedicated to females should be more focused on bringing more female-centered self esteem (and not by validation of a male counterpart), instruction and most importantly: empowerment.

So I challenge you, dear shoujo manga reader, to pay more attention over the small things that makes shoujo manga so problematic today. And I invite you all to give more value to the works that challenges representation, gender roles and sexism in modern manga.

Happy reading!






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5 Responses

  1. Cory Lewis says:

    But if most Shoujo manga is written by a female authorship directly aimed at a female audience, doesn’t that mean that women are primarily responsible for this “sexism” you assert is so deeply entrenched in Japanese and Western societies? Wouldn’t the answer to addressing all of these things, you said were “problematic”, simply be barring women from manga and literature? Or if it not that, making it so that they’re only allowed to write and draw what the Feminists would want them to write and draw, and not allowed to express themselves in any other way?

    Also, here’s another double standard in manga that you may or may not find annoying. If a man comes across a naked girl (in ANY manga), he gets the living shit beat out of him regardless of whether he meant to or not. Conversely, if a girl does the same to a naked man, she either gets off scot-free, or she gets to beat the living shit out of him (for ruining her innocence or whatever). Hell, if the guy does anything perverted (on purpose or by accident), he’s treated as a criminal and an enemy of all women. If a girl does the same…she’s quirky.

    My question to you is, what’s the point? If a man is allowed to be abusive to a girl in a Shoujo manga (and it being treated as comic relief), isn’t that any different from a girl being abusive towards a man in a Shounen or an Ecchi harem manga (and it being treated the same way)? Don’t you think that there’s some innate masochistic qualities that the authors of these two respective genres are trying to tap into with their audience?

    Also, there’s another name for the “Prince” and the “Devil” stereotypes that you assert are so very “problematic” in Shoujo manga. You should know since you’re the one writing on the Dere Project; the “Prince” is what we, in the Otaku world, would refer to as a Kuudere or, in some cases, a Yandere. For instance, the examples you showed of the “Prince” have very similar characteristics to those of Yuukin Aikyou: nice and affectionate on the outside, but possessive, violent and manipulative on the inside. The “Devil”, on the other hand, seems to have more Tsundere-like qualities, being aggressive and intimidating at first, but showing a more affectionate side later on.

    My second question to you is, why should this be treated as “problematic” when male characters do it, but when female characters do it, it’s totally fine and reasonable?

    • komatachia komatachia says:

      So as to your first point, I completely agree with what you’re saying (I’m not the author for this one, so I’m sharing my own viewpoints right now). I think that in the realm of “feminism” and “sexism”, there are a bunch of very related concepts being incorrectly mixed together. What the author is saying about female authors writing “sexist” pieces is true- we can all agree that there are many examples of shoujo where the girls are not portrayed in an even remotely empowering way. The main point she is arguing here is that there is an abundance of this kind of writing and it gives many young girls unreal expectations for how relationships and life work (as they are the target audience). I guess the whole argument at that point would become, is it better to give children unrealistic fantasy-like stories or more real-life driven stories with ‘better’ roles. My personal opinion is that writers write what they want to write, and readers read what they want to read- and we can all complain about whether or not it’s good or bad, but at the end of the day it’s only an opinion.

      Regarding your second point, I think that you’re mainly touching upon the subject of “sexism” duality (and specifically applied to comedy). You bring up a pretty good point about the guys always getting beat up, regardless of who was wrong which is pretty funny because that’s a pretty spot-on example of male-targeted “sexism”. My opinions above apply to this as well- the reason nobody has brought this up in the “sexism” argument is because nobody really cares. And just like the points above, people are going to write what they want to write and people are going to read what they want to read.

      But I have actually spoken to many women who do enjoy anime/manga, and some of they have brought up that they really love these modern-style shoujo where the protagonist is actually somewhat competent at what they do. A recent example that comes to mind is Akagami no Shirayuki-hime- while not completely independent, she seems to have some sort of backbone.

      Anyhow, thanks for commenting! We’ve been slow on good articles these days, but we’re slowly working on improving that and getting high-quality writers ;)

      • Cory Lewis says:

        I agree with you that people are free to write and read whatever they please. The markets are the judge of which manga succeeds and which one doesn’t. What I don’t agree with, however, is that Shoujo manga, or any manga for that matter, can give young people unreal expectations on how life works, regardless of how it’s written. I generally make it a rule not to buy into the whole “media affecting our youth” argument that religious zealots and third-wave feminists like to use time and time again whenever they want find an excuse to censor.

        As for incompetent female protagonists, I believe that women aren’t the only ones who have been getting the short end of the stick. Us males have had our fair share of useless male protagonists, who can’t do anything on their own without their girlfriend’s help, to deal with in Ecchi and Harem mangas (sort of like the Shounen versions of Shoujo) as well as some Shounens. The generic male protagonist is a very trite and tired trope, but there occasionally appears a decent protagonist with some character and backstory.

        What I’m trying to get to is, although competent male and female main characters are a welcome addition to romance manga, we mustn’t forget that there’s still a market for the more traditional types of romances. Certainly, these many women you’ve spoken to before wouldn’t be large enough as to comprise the entire Shoujo-reading demographic. If so, then Shoujo would definitely need to adapt in order to meet the new market standards. Or risk turning into a dead genre…

        On the whole, I don’t think there’s an issue of sexism in modern day Shoujo manga. The author, regardless of whether his/her protagonists are male or female, will usually give his/her characters whichever personalities he/she can muster with his/her current skill level as a story teller. I think it’s just an issue of talent and culture. More and more newbies are flooding the manga and doujinshi markets, not to mention that Japanese culture tends to emphasize a more reserved nature which gives the assumed audience a lot of space to insert themselves.

        Anyway, I’m a huge fan of your manga series. I hope you get some quality writers soon =)

  2. Kain says:
    Misogynic Lesbian.
    Thinking she is unable to harm Reia’s husband,Kale killed the girl she “loved ” instead.And Morishima is trying to make us believe that was true love annoys me to no end.

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