- Under the Ruffles:Shōjo and the Morphology of Power
Caught staring, dead in the center of what has become a whirling global maelstrom, is the Japanese shōjo character. She has emerged from manga: a character that appears as a young and innocent girl-child with certain magical and powerful fantasy elements that allow her to unfold into a unique and curiously powerful cultural formation. She has spawned a cornucopia of fan practices spilling over national boundaries and across the world. Paradoxically, shōjo is a phenomenon that goes largely unacknowledged. Or, when acknowledged, it is usually disregarded as childish, creepy, or trivial by the standards of mainstream culture. Yet the massive and expanding quantum of shōjo commercial products and fan practices that have emerged from manga and anime—including cosplay and especially the Lolita; fan-fiction; yaoi, BL (boys' love) and other narratives written and read by girls and women; J-drama; Dollphie dolls and doll-play; and a massive accumulation of merchandise and franchises in the form of stuffed animals, key chains, keitei phone charms, Kewpie charms, and other talismans—all spiral around this enigmatic and seemingly singular center: the shōjo character.
What does shōjo mean? Depending on the length of the initial vowel, shōjo/shōjo means either "virgin" or "girl" in Japanese. This compelling [End Page 3] association is the key to understanding the meanings that constellate around the expanding galaxy of shōjo culture; for that is what shōjo has become, a culture. Shōjo is a complex, multilayered, transnational compendium of commodities that circulate in the realms of advertising and packaging, illustration and art, toys and girls' accessories, clothing and luggage. Virtually anything that might appeal to especially young women may be marked by this aesthetic that refers back to the shōjo of Japanese anime and manga. This proliferation of commodities is so pervasive, so uniquely adaptable to global cultures and subjects, that it has saturated global markets. Yet her "meaning" remains elusive. Her appeal in all her multitudinous manifestations is instant, her form and visage ubiquitous, and her recognition immediate; and yet there is an uncanny sense of absence in her presence, a lack of a center to this constellation, an uneasy sense of a ghostly presence lurking behind the mask of her frivolous ubiquity and cloying innocence. As her constellation expands to Internet "girly" sites that are multiplying daily, she spreads her revolutionary aesthetic of "cute" beyond mere aesthetics to lifestyles and subjectivities. Those of us who know the power of her centrifugal expansion, then, feel the need to counter it, pirouetting to face inward, to confront historic formations, social constructs, and the problem of her abject position—the central mysteries of her construction—in the hope that under those ruffles and ribbons we might catch a glimpse of her mysterious center.
Circling the Edge . . .
Whether it deploys pretty-boys with long lashes on their slyly slanted eyes (bishōnen) or plucky heroines, the shōjo culture is dominated by a feminine presence, cast and costumed by the normative popular cultures, yet somehow twinkling with something else, something weirdly historical, something a bit subversive. The immense eyes signal it, with pupils that glisten with moisture, reflections of incomprehensible sights, black spikes of eyelash, and bubbles of light. They remain strangely inert, like giant lamps illuminating an uncanny past with their glassy present. The characters develop as if from the eyes outward, unfolding into costumes that adorn a mannequin body of long, impossibly slender limbs and an indeterminate yet graceful torso. Although costumes can echo the clothing of readers, it is not unusual for costumes to present an overly articulated, childlike version of a never-realized historic style. The bows and flowers and details that proliferate on these costumes add a sort of narrative subtext, adding layers that further invest the [End Page 4] character's designation as kawaii or "cute." These characters emerge upon an ever-changing abstract background, sometimes called "wallpaper," that surrounds and suspends them in a cloying miasma of roses of symbolic love, flower petals for happiness, and puffs of delicate feelings. These wallpapers act as an emotional chorus...