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  • Short Skirts and Superpowers: The Evolution of the Beautiful Fighting Girl
  • Kathryn Hemmann (bio)

Shōjo manga are filled with rivalries between innocent and naive young girls and evil older women. Antagonism between pure-hearted young women and villainous older women has been communicated to shōjo manga from bishōjo manga written by and for men through the process of narrative consumption and reproduction. To understand why this is so, this essay examines the work of three Japanese cultural theorists on the topic of the bishōjo, or beautiful girl, character type. The ultimate goal of this essay, however, is to argue that female manga artists are fully aware of the cycle of narrative consumption and reproduction, and are thus able to intervene in and disrupt the process and offer new interpretations of female character types that are empowering to female readers.

On February 9, 2011, the New York Times published an article entitled “In Tokyo, a Crackdown on Sexual Images of Minors.”1 Although the “sexual images” in question come from a variety of media, such as adult films and role-playing video games, the Tokyo Metropolitan Ordinance Regarding the Healthy Development of Minors (Tōkyō-to Seishōnen no Kenzen Naikusei ni Kan Suru Jōrei), or the “Tokyo Youth Ordinance Act,” passed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly on December 15, 2010, specifically targets manga featuring young female characters in what are deemed to be sexually compromising poses or situations.2 The journalist who penned the article, Hiroko Tabuchi, quotes Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintarō as saying of the manga in question that “these are for abnormal people, for perverts.” The article sensationalizes the media that Ishihara hopes to censor as child pornography by emphasizing the young ages and sexual exploitation of its models [End Page 45] without differentiating between young women who exist in the real world and those who exist solely on paper. It is only in the last line of the article that a seventeen-year-old male manga reader is quoted as saying, “I don’t even think about how old these girls are. It’s a completely imaginary world, separate from real life.”

The style of illustration targeted by the Tokyo Youth Ordinance Act is known as bishōjo-kei, or “bishōjo style.” A bishōjo is a female character in a manga, anime, video game, or light novel that belongs to a genre generally regarded as targeted at a male audience, such as science fiction or adventure fantasy. Examples of such characters are Nausicaä from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984, Kaze no Tani no Naushika), Nadia from Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990–91, Fushigi no Umi no Nadia), and Ayanami Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995–96, Shin seiki Evangerion). Bishōjo are rooted firmly in fantasy, whether that fantasy is a post-apocalyptic wasteland or a halcyon year of high school. These characters need not be connected to an actual narrative, however, and can be depicted in original stand-alone artistic compositions, such as those printed on the postcards and pin-up posters enclosed in monthly manga magazines. These illustrated girls are often characterized as not only strong and competent but also somewhat naive and innocent; they are magical beings enmeshed in their respective fantasy worlds, and there is an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about them capable of evoking fantasies about childhood and, more specifically, girlhood.3

Nevertheless, the fundamental idea behind the manga censorship law is that adult men are looking at young women in a way that is degrading and psychologically unhealthy. A pornographic gaze is encouraged and exploited in many aspects of popular and commercial art, but one could also posit the existence of a “fantasy gaze” that is less concerned with the image itself than with the story behind the image. Moreover, the sizable percentage of women creating and consuming bishōjo images and narratives complicates the idea of an all-powerful male gaze. One might argue that the women who enjoy media supposedly targeted at men have adopted a hermaphroditic gaze internalizing the male gaze, and therefore identify with male characters and viewers when they look at sexualized images of...


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pp. 45-72
Launched on MUSE
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