Thursday thoughts

I’ve had something on my mind lately, and it seems like I’m not the only one. It’s the notion that the creative work of women, particularly when that work is created for women, is critically undervalued. I’m also wondering if that’s an overreaction on my part, so I thought I’d throw out some relevant links and try and open the topic up for further discussion.

I’ll start with a piece that Melinda (Manga Bookshelf) Beasi wrote for The Hooded Utilitarian called “Twilight and the Plight of the Female Fan.” Here’s a key paragraph:

“I’m also bothered by the strong implication that manga for girls is antithetic to solid stories and strong characters. “However, do not allow shoujo manga to intimidate you,” she says. ‘Although it is aimed primarily at young women, there are plenty of good, solid stories that are considered shoujo that I believe most people can enjoy.’ If even women feel they need to make these kinds of excuses while recommending manga written for (and primarily by) women and girls, how can we expect any of that work or the fans who read it to be respected by the larger fandom?”

This is something that’s been on my mind as it relates to critical reaction to Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories (Fantagraphics). It’s not universally true, and, again, I recognize the fact that I might be overreacting or sniffing out dismissal where none is intended, but it is nagging at me. Here are a couple of examples of things that rankle, at least a little.

Chris (Robot 6) Mautner frames his generally positive review with this:

Dream, on the other hand, has both feet firmly planted in the world of shojo manga. The ten tales that make up this book all consist of overly sincere, heart-on-the-sleeve-style work. There’s very little ironic distancing and self-effacing humor here, although it does peep its head out occasionally. Mostly though, that’s been ignored in favor of heightened melodrama and earnest heart-tugging. While it avoids the sort of contrived, romantic, situation-comedy type plots that mark a lot of the shojo manga that has been translated into English over the past decade, there can be little doubt that Dream has more in common with Fruits Basket and Boys Over Flowers than Red Colored Elegy or Abandon the Old in Tokyo.”

Now, I could go the rest of my life without seeing Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket (Tokyopop) used as the poster child for middlebrow romantic fiction, but I recognize that it might just be me who feels that way. And while there’s a lot to appreciate in Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy (Drawn & Quarterly), I’m more taken with its historical importance than its relative quality as an effective piece of fiction. I’ll appropriate a quote from Glenn (Monkey See) Weldon’s review of Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby (Vertigo):

“An Important book is one you appreciate. A Good book is one you care about.”

Since I happen to be of the opinion that Hagio’s work is both Important and Good, I may not be in the best position to evaluate the particular merits of Mautner’s argument above.

I feel like there’s a more successful set of generalizations in David (Newsarama) Pepose’s review of A Drunken Dream (it’s at the end of the post):

“With all of the spectacle of the Big Two — and believe me, I don’t knock it, it’s what helps give the industry some of its enthusiastic character — I think sometimes people overlook the sheer potential that human conflict can give. Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream, if nothing else, is a reminder of that, giving a plethora of all-too-human situations under the occasional sci-fi or fantasy trope.”

It doesn’t diminish shôjo in comparison to the critic’s usual tastes, taking a refreshingly neutral approach. I wish I could say the same of this review in Publishers Weekly:

“Unlike current shojo manga, Hagio’s sentiment is more restrained, recounting a calmer account of destructive sibling rivalry, a quieter portrayal of a romance destined for failure, a subtle unraveling of a young woman in mourning.”

Admirable sentiments about Hagio aside, the suggestion that there’s nothing restrained or elevated to be found in current shôjo (or josei or yaoi) is just lazy, and it’s unnecessary. It’s like the author feels the need to discredit shôjo to be taken seriously.

Again, I have to admit the possibility that I’m too generally fond of shôjo and of Japanese comics created by women to eliminate the possibility that I’m overreacting. I might be too steeped in the stuff to have any distance. But I do note that this kind of discussion has also extended to books without pictures. Back at Monkey See, Linda Holmes rounds up and adds to discussion on whether or not book critics at the New York Times take work by women seriously:

“And then you get into the questions Weiner has raised about why it is that genre or ‘commercial’ fiction should be ignored anyway. The New York Times doesn’t limit itself to art-house movies; why should it limit itself to literary fiction? That’s not necessarily a question of gender bias; that’s a matter of philosophy.”

This passage presents the possibility that this discussion might be less about gender than about commercial appeal, which is entirely fair. But even in largely commercial categories, there’s significant artistic achievement.

So I throw the topic out to you. What do you think? Does work by women manga-ka, especially work primarily conceived for an audience of women, get less critical respect than perhaps it should?

Update: Chris Mautner comments to clarify his intent with the piece, which I certainly appreciate:

“I was trying to talk about reader expectation. The fact that Fantagraphics is publishing this, plus Hagio’s high status, both here and in Japan, means that folks (especially those who prefer the type of manga D&Q publishes over the kind Tokyopop does) are likely going to come to the book with a series of expectations that aren’t going to be necessarily met because of the audience Hagio was writing for and the particular genre she was working in. Is that fair? Hell no. Will it happen. I’d put good money on it.”

Over at Robot 6, Brigid (MangaBlog) Alverson looks at shôjo as a whole and reaches some conclusions I just don’t agree with at all:

“If you are a fan, that changes—you read the books carefully, you know the different creators and the different worlds, you see a hierarchy in terms of literary quality. But a genre is a genre is a genre, and you simply can’t write a shoujo manga in which the girl is, for instance, a lesbian, or the hero is a boy because by definition that isn’t shoujo manga.”

72 Responses to Thursday thoughts

  1. John Jakala says:

    Granted, I haven’t read Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, any reviews of it, or much shojo manga, but my impression of the quote from Chris Mautner that you excerpted was that he was mainly trying to place the work on some sort of continuum for casual manga readers or indie fans who might be wondering what to expect from a manga published by Fantagraphics. Is it more “art-house” like the recent works from D+Q or is it more in line with more popular & well-known shojo manga? I would see it as similar to someone trying to place an unfamiliar shonen manga by comparing it to works from Vertical vs. Bleach and Naruto. The setup may seem somewhat dismissive, but acknowledging that the latter manga indulge in less lofty subject matter (fighting, fanservice) doesn’t necessarily mean that those manga are bad, just that they are what they are.

    But as for the general question: Yes, works by & for women generally get less critical respect that they deserve. In my opinion, it’s because we still live in a male-dominated society where the default assumptions are geared towards (stereotypical conceptions of) what boys/men are interested in.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      I guess I just see more of an implicit criticism in calling the majority of something as wide as shojo “contrived.” It’s the unflattering juxtaposition of comics primarily for girls primarily by women with Comics That Are Undoubtedly Art and the suggestion that there’s no significant overlap between those two subsets. But as I said, I may be defensively looking for arguments like that than objectively seeing them.

      • I guess I just see more of an implicit criticism in calling the majority of something as wide as shojo “contrived.”

        I think you’re spot on, here (though, given the opinions I’ve already expressed, that’s probably unsurprising). It’s exactly this, though. Painting something as huge and diverse as shojo with a single brush is incredibly dismissive, and what it really points to is the likely fact that these reviewers have not read enough of it to actually realize that. Yet, for whatever reason (and it’s hard not to infer that this has something to do with gender), they feel comfortable making these generalizations anyway.

        Also, I’m having trouble identifying much that Fruits Basket and Boys Over Flowers have in common, other than high-school-aged protagonists.

      • John Jakala says:

        No, I agree that it’s an implicit criticism, but I see it as a mild one. Going back to the shonen parallel, it would be like someone writing that most popular shonen manga engage in mindless battles. To a certain degree that’s true but it doesn’t mean that particular shonen series aren’t better at making the formulaic fighting more fun and entertaining.

  2. Eric Rupe says:

    Sorry if this is slightly off topic, but whenever I see a discussion like this I don’t think I’ve ever seen the age aspect of shojo discussed. Now, I’m not saying that people don’t dismiss shojo because it’s written for a female audience, because they do, but wonder if some people are turned off of it because it is written for a younger audience and not necessarily because it’s written for a female audience.

    I bring this up because that is generally out it works out for me. I read and enjoy josei manga (All My Darling Daughters, Suppli, Bunny Drop and Ooku) but don’t really like shojo manga. It’s pretty much the same with shonen manga for me as well.

    Overall, I do generally agree with your point but I do think that the age factor might be why some people do dismiss shojo manga.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      I think what you’re saying ties into the possibility that some critics may dismiss books based on their commercial leanings. The wider an audience a work may be designed to reach, the less seriousness is ascribed to it.

      That said, I do think something can be ambitious and artistic and still conceived to be commercially successful, or at least with the hope that they’ll be commercially successful.

  3. Alex Leavitt says:

    On Twitter, this article was pinned as “pondering the critical approach to shojo,” but it seems here that you’re asking about comics created by women (which obviously cannot be limited to shojo). So I’m still a bit confused as to what critical issue you’re trying to tackle…?

    • davidpwelsh says:

      You’re right. That was a sloppy use of 140 characters. I’m talking more specifically about the tendency to undervalue Japanese comics created by women as it relates to some responses to Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, some of which have featured what might be called a “shojo disclaimer” that people may or may not find insulting.

      • Alex Leavitt says:

        In relation to that, then, do you think it’s a general art-by-women response (eg., would we receive the same responses geared to American comics by women) or is this a Japanese comics-only reaction?

    • davidpwelsh says:

      I don’t know how general it can go, but I did link to the piece on questions about the seriousness with which the New York Times approaches prose by women. For my purposes, I’m most interested in manga, but I’ve seen plenty of arguments that it extends to creative endeavors in general.

  4. Robin Brenner says:

    Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows me, I whole-heartedly agree with you. I do not think you’re over-reacting or conflating issues. There’s a lot to be said about the conflicts of mass-market stories versus critical darlings, but I don’t feel that negates the problem of work by and for women being discounted and rejected as literature.

    I really loved Melinda’s point about how when even women feel the need to distance themselves from a category to keep their cred, it’s a problem. The idea that you have to defend a title as being for girls is troubling when you don’t have to defend a title (like Bleach or Naruto) as being for boys. Being for boys is an indulgence to be accommodated, but being for girls is a problem to be overcome.

    I do think this is a general trend, as the whole New York Times debacle addresses. When women create work which is labeled as female-centric, it is rarely considered with the same critical eye as similar work by men. Women only tend to get the attention of critics when they make something outside of expectations (much as I adore The Hurt Locker, there is something to the argument that people noticed it because it was, stereotypically, a movie about men and war. Kathryn Bigelow has always made films that were defiantly NOT women’s pictures. I hate that that’s true, but…it is.)

    To bring it back to manga, even with literary manga, I see far more people talking about Tezuka, Koike, Yoshihiro, and Urasawa than I ever see even mention Takemiya or Hagio. And no one would ever say that CLAMP, Rumiko Takahashi, or say Ai Yazawa are as recognizable in literary circles. I still get that nagging feeling that CLAMP and Ai Yazawa are pulled out as female creators, not just as creators, because their work is undoubtedly shojo or josei.

    When I see top ten lists or “must-have” lists of manga, I can tell you that seinen manga still tops those lists.

  5. shelly says:

    This is the same thing romance readers and writers have seen for years: their work dismissed in proportion to the amount of sentiment in it, with little regard as to their actual ability to use their craft.

  6. Robin Brenner says:

    I meant to add, in terms of the movie comparison, that it’s much like looking at all of the Best Picture winners and seeing what has won. What was the last Best Picture that was a woman’s film in the classic sense?

    Looking through past winners, you could debate Chicago, and maybe Shakespeare in Love. Titanic, although it’s such a James Cameron spectacle I’m not quite sure. Driving Miss Daisy? The one that really sticks out to me as a story about a woman, and which features romance very strongly, is Out of Africa. And by then we’re already back in the early 1980s.

    I find the same is true with manga about and by women. Recognition is always the exception. That it’s great become it overcomes its status as a title for women.

    I don’t think critics (either men or women) necessarily go into their reviews with evil intent, but I think it’s an inherent part of how our culture values stories.

    And I’ll stop now.

  7. Dirk Deppey says:

    Amen to the above. I’ve been arguing for the primacy of character and storytelling in shojo for years, and the longer this argument drags out, the more exasperated I find myself.

  8. JRB says:

    “It’s the notion that the creative work of women, particularly when that work is created for women, is critically undervalued.”

    In the context of manga, at least, I’d flip that around. Works for women/girls get less attention and less respect, but women can be respected as creators as long as they write for male or sex-neutral audiences. I don’t see people pulling the same arms-length attitude on, say, Mushishi.

  9. Erica says:

    All work by women is undervalued by men. It’s not on purpose, it’s not conscious. It’s just been shown over and over and over that men favor men (and therefore their work and ideas) over women. Women are cooks – men are chefs. Women are nurses – men are doctors. Women are teachers, men are professors, and so on.

    Sadly for women, because in so many cultures men’s work is the dominant meme, women learn to undervalue their own work – and see the work of other woman as rivals for the limited resources remaining.

    I worked a job in which the guy next to me took *one* phone call every morning, then walked around the office telling everyone how he averted crisis, put out fires, etc, etc. I typically got two or three projects a day done. Why could no one see that he was a pompous little jerk that did nothing but one phone call a day? I don’t know. But his work was valued over mine. And over his female colleagues (I had to overhear him and his male colleague talking about her. It was…tedious.)

    Mautner’s review pissed me off most because he used the tired trope of girl’s stuff=pink, which is not only dismissive and trivializing, but as you say, lazy.

    Yes, women’s work – in every field – is marginalized.

    In terms of mangaka, I’d bet dollars to donuts that female mangaka makes less than male mangaka selling at the same level. And clearly, female mangaka get less respect on a critical level than men. Mautner would never have discussed Usamaru Fururya’s obsession with schoolgirls as “pink and fluffy.”

  10. Chris says:

    David-

    Here’s something I wonder in response: One of the critic’s jobs is to bridge the work being discussed with its potential audience. In that instance, couldn’t painting contemporary shoujo manga with a broad brush and setting it apart from Hagio’s work be critical tool, designed to deflect any anticipated and perceived derision based on Mautner’s audience for the critique?

    Mautner knows his audience at Robot 6–primarily male, primarily superhero and ‘new mainstream’ oriented–and he’s recommending a pretty, flowery, girly work–pretty much the antithesis of material intended for that audience. As a critic (or reviewer), isn’t he doing his job to anticipate his audience’s reaction and work with that? And since the derision/minimalization of shoujo is a big enough problem that you have multiple examples, isn’t he right in assuming his audience will probably think little of shoujo manga? Does his end (trying to get folks to read a great book) justify the means (playing into existing biases against shoujo)?

    I’m a retailer, and I spent 3 weeks hand-selling A Drunken Dream, and the looks I got from certain people when recommending the book… like I had no idea what I was talking about. :) I took a different tact, just saying “She’s like the female Tatsumi for shoujo in that she revolutionized the genre,” is pretty neutral, but there are all kinds of implications you can read into that statement that are about as negative as Mautner’s approach.

    Personally, I do understand where you’re coming from, and I think your argument is really compelling. But I’m a little more willing to forgive someone trying to do the right thing, particularly when all he’s done is engage the prejudices of his audience, and not necessarily betrayed any of his own.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      I can see that kind of know-your-audience reverse psychology resulting in something interesting and effective, but I just don’t see that intent in Chris Mautner’s piece. I think there’s a bit of that kind of subversion of expectations in, say, the Otaku USA review and, to a lesser extent, the piece at Genji Press (both linked on the Fantagraphics listing page for the book), but the Robot 6 review didn’t really strike me as trafficking in that kind of subversion. It reads to me like he’s less engaging prejudices than he is warning that those prejudices will be inflamed.

  11. While I have no doubt that sexism isn’t going anywhere soon, I do think we are at a point where shojo as a whole is doing far less to appeal to a wide audience than shonen and seinen does, and I think we can at least trace some of what you’re talking about to that. I point to modern shonen jump properties in particular, which manage to retain the unique shonen spirit while also bending over backwards to try and appeal to as many different demographics as they possibly can. Is there a shojo corollary? Should there be? I don’t know.

    We also can’t ignore the fact that the US manga fanbase became what it is because of shonen. There’s a lot of momentum built up in one direction, in regard to one kind of story. In its most ignorant form it becomes a bias, but that market traction is not inherently sexist or wrong.

    Finally, when it comes to writing off entire genres or fanbases, no one does it better than people posting things on the Internet. It’s easier to sound authoritative on something you know very little about if you drop the right titles and phrases. How many people, when encountering a series with violence and gore, go right to their playbook of hackneyed phrases to dismiss it? I can’t count how many people think they’re qualified to call something an homage to Fist of the North Star without knowing a shred about the series or its historical context. I see that sort of thinking in some of the excerpts you’ve culled as well.

    • JRB says:

      “I point to modern shonen jump properties in particular, which manage to retain the unique shonen spirit while also bending over backwards to try and appeal to as many different demographics as they possibly can. Is there a shojo corollary? Should there be? I don’t know.”

      I don’t think there can be. Shoujo is marked off as “girly stuff for girls” and male readers tend to be secretive about it; an open attempt by Japanese publishers to recruit male readers to shoujo as a genre would probably be a huge embarrassment. The equivalent phenomenon to “modern shonen jump”, I think, is the crossover magazine that tries to attract both sexes; they tend to have a lot of female creators and female-friendly titles. Zero-Sum and GFantasy come to mind; the former is (or became) shoujo and the latter is officially shonen, but they both depend on action-fantasy titles laced with fangirl-bait.

      • Eric Henwood-Greer says:

        There was Duo in the early 80s (I believe Takemiya’s Andromeda Stories was published there). In fact if Schodt’s Manga! Manga! can be believed, in the early 80s there was a belief and optimism that eventually shonen and shoujo would become almost irelevent terms (particularly after successes like Takemiya’s shonen To Terra and Hagio’s adaptation of Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights which was in a shonen magazin). I have no idea how long Duo (I guess it was originally Gakuan Manga Duo) lasted–but obviously that never fully happened.

        That said, when I’ve met Japanese women my age (30) or younger–going back to high school when we had exchange students–none of them seemed at all shocked or surprised when I’d mention shoujo manga or manga-ka, so I wonder if the stigma even in Japan isn’t as strong with younger generations.

    • Eric Henwood-Greer says:

      “We also can’t ignore the fact that the US manga fanbase became what it is because of shonen. There’s a lot of momentum built up in one direction, in regard to one kind of story. In its most ignorant form it becomes a bias, but that market traction is not inherently sexist or wrong.”

      Perhaps (particularly in term to longterm fans, bloggers, etc–though this too is changing), but the audience that caused the North American massive influx in manga sales–the manga boom of 5 or more years back–were mainly girls and mainly buying shoujo titles…

  12. [...] a great extent, this post serves as an excuse to link to David Welsh, whose Thursday thoughts revolve around the question of how critics talk about shojo manga, and whether some reviews of Moto [...]

  13. ABCBTom says:

    I found this problem in Fantagraphics’ blurb on the back of the book itself, discussing how Moto Hagio’s wasn’t shitty, like that horrible Sailor Moon crap and melodrama nonsense the rest of shojo is. Of course, I’ve always had a problem with the bizarre “this author doesn’t suck like the rest of the genre does” marketing strategy.

    So if a lot of the reviews take the same tone that Moto Hagio is an exception from the dross that most shojo is, some of the blame can be laid at Fantagraphics’ door.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      Yeah, I remember when they first started releasing those inexpensive but exhaustive Love and Rockets paperbacks, and the designer basically said, “Well, a lot of people were buying terrible Japanese comics in cheap paperback form, so we thought we could disguise our good comics in that manner and possibly trick some mouth-breathers into buying stuff by the Hernandez brothers.”

      (I paraphrase, obviously, but just barely.)

      I also kind of wish they’d found someone other than Trina Robbins to write the copy on the inside cover. Maybe Shaenon Garrity.

    • Eric Henwood-Greer says:

      I think this is kinda a damned if they do/damned if they don’t situation. I read one review that critized the actual format of the book–the fact that it was larger than any of his (or hers, not sure) other manga, couldn’t as easily be carried around on trips or the bus, the hardcover made it harder to turn the pages, etc. Basically they recommended all future vols look more like standard Viz-style manga.

      Which in this case I think would be a mistake. I have little doubt that one reason classic shoujo titles from the likes of CMX and Viz in the past haven’t sold well is that they do look like all the modern titles. People who may specifically like those classics more, would probably never recognize them just looking on the shelf–and people who can’t get into the classic art, or whatever, might pick it up, assume it was a modern title and think it just looked weird (certainly any newbie manga fan, picking up Eroica With Love might have that reaction). This format makes it standout as something special–even if that does in a way shed an unfairly negative light on everything else. Although I admit I think Hagio’s stuff probably is the best, personally, there is :P

      Similarly text like that in the foreward, and on the back of the book, serves a similar purpose. For the most part with the CMX titles, and the older Viz releases (Banana Fish, etc–they’ve started to improve this) the “average” consumer would have zero context to even place the title in–and while I agree that Drunken Dream is both Important and Good, it definitely is of value to let those who might not know, *why* it’s important (and Thorn’s interview does this better than anything else, but is a bit lengthy for someone who is just browsing the bookstore…)

  14. KrebMarkt says:

    I have read every Drunken Dream reviews floating around or tried so.

    I see strong differences based on the reviewer position on Comics field and fandom.

    There are the usual manga blogsphere with you, Katherine Dacey, etc… which i’m totally unsure if you are a bit over-enthusiastic over this work.

    Those who are more into the traditional North America Comics perspective, i would put on this category Newsarama & Robot6 with the subliminal message “Buy this book it’s an exception that confirm the blandness of the usually available shojo manga”.

    The more inward to manga/anime community like Lisa Patillo, Anime News Network review. The one pointing that “The target audience seems a bit unclear; price point is high for casual consumers” Sure this book doesn’t target just the anime/manga fans and that’s enough to unsettled you.

    Strangely the review i’m the most irritated at with is this one: http://rushthatspeaks.dreamwidth.org/339565.html From someone which perspective is well anchored in the shojo fandom field which conclusion could be summarized: “Buy this minor book made of small trickles until the release of big long major masterworks series”.

  15. thirstygirl says:

    It’s the manga equivalent of the same pile-on of works written by women for women that inspired the Smart Bitches Trashy Books women to start their site. Women are explicitly told that a form of escapism that is made by them, for them, and is commercially successful is something to be ashamed of reading due to it’s very nature generally by people who’ve clearly never read enough of the genre to make educated judgements but feel free to makes themselves feel better by despising it.

    And in this instance this is done by comic geeks- who’ve long been fighting against the very same stigma for their own form of escapism, as they are afraid that the double whammy of comics+romance is going to drag them back down in to the pit of public regard.

    Pandagon has done a number of posts on a similar trope of male criticism of women musicians.

  16. judi(togainunochi) says:

    I happen to agree with you on female mangakas getting less respect. I think that that goes for most female writers, unless you show the sales. Even with sales I still feel there is always that implied statement,” it’s by a woman”, as if it is lesser somehow. Shojo like anything can be brilliant or commonplace, insightful or stupid, but it should not be considered a lesser form because it’s written mainly by females for a female audience.
    I love manga by all genders, and would love it if written by animals, aliens, well you get the point.
    There is still a long way to go, for anyone that is female to be accepted in any area.

  17. There are the usual manga blogsphere with you, Katherine Dacey, etc… which i’m totally unsure if you are a bit over-enthusiastic over this work.

    I didn’t realize we’d achieved become the Lyons and Roeper of manga–I can’t decide if it’s an honor or a diss!

    • davidpwelsh says:

      I knew I shouldn’t have called it “the summer’s most exciting roller-coaster ride.”

      • KrebMarkt says:

        And i failed to mention those which reviews are always mentioned on Brigid Alverson’s MangaBlog. Do i need to list all of them :p

        There are two distinctive issues explaining disparities between reviews. One is the lingering dismissal that women written comics aimed mostly at women can’t be something worth mention within the Comics field at large. The others is to think readers set within predetermined reading habits and consumer pattern which is a caricature.

        Regardless where you come from in the Comics world if it’s a great piece of Comics, you acquire it regardless who it is initially aimed at, the gender of the author, it’s geographical origin or marketing tailored readership segmentation.

  18. Caddy C says:

    I don’t know what more I can add – maybe a second “Fumi Yoshinaga” …

    This is an issue that women creators have had to deal with for forever, it seems. Unfortunately, I really don’t know what the numbers would show in terms of manga sales by the creator’s gender, but I think we can all guess what it would show.

    There are just so many different examples of women’s work or work targeted to women being undervalued or dismissed that it seems we haven’t made much progress sometimes. I think the fact that JK Rowling, one of the most successful authors out there, was told to use initials instead of her name because “boys won’t read a book by a woman” speaks volumes about our gender assumptions (and the cynicism of publishing companies).

    The other thing that makes me sad is that I can see it in myself! I really have to try sometimes to undo that cultural attitude that says “romance = girls = dumb.” I never read shoujo manga until a year or so ago because I held so many assumptions – it’s all sexist, it’s all romance, it’s not good storytelling, etc. When you’ve been surrounded by the notion that girls = pink = not important, it’s really hard to step back and challenge those ideas.
    (Also, I have motivation to challenge those ideas – I’m female, a feminist, and interested in these things. But does your average male reviewer? Or your average female reviewer?)

  19. Jade Harris says:

    Ooo, going along with what you’d said to me earlier, there’s so many positive reactions that are totally dismissive too. I think writing off any apparent offensive content because the author is a woman completely disregards her ability to evoke anything beyond the reviewer’s personal vision of what women should be able to evoke. Even the, ‘I don’t like girly pink nonsense,’ response allows the author the benefit of thought outside of what the reviewer wants to see. I’d, personally, rather someone allow me to offend them than for them to smile and pat me on the head.

    I also think the interests of female audiences…well, let’s say audiences of feminine work also face the same dismissive attitudes. Fans of feminine manga deserve better than to be told they’re reading contrived girly pink nonsense. Even in that case, in a world where Rotten Tomatoes exists, so what? Why can a terrible and misogynistic action movie be entertaining in an ironic light, but (and I’m indicting myself here) Hot Gimmick is a crime against humanity?

  20. john says:

    To widen the perspective of this discussion a bit: as a slight tangent to this argument about the undervaluing of women’s writing or of comics targeted at girls in manga or in the US as a whole; there is a similar argument about UK boys’comics (such as Battle or 2000AD) vs UK girls’comics (such as Jinty or Bunty),in that there are quite a lot of websites,and some scholarly works covering the boys’ comics and little about the girls’ comics. As a male reader of UK comics in the 1970s,I avidly read the girls’comics but I’d have been reluctant to admit it, and I didn’t buy them…
    So this idea of girls v boys comics isn’t unique to manga…

    • davidpwelsh says:

      It’s probably more a reflection of my interests and how they overlap than anything else, but I’ve actually seen as much writing about British comics for girls (courtesy of Brigid Alverson, for the most part) as British comics for boys. But that’s totally anecdotal, and I’m sure if I sat down to research the topic, it would be easier to find stuff for the boys.

      And on another anecdotal front, it seems like whenever a male Japanese manga-ka is asked if they ever read any shojo, if they have, it involved sneakily borrowing their sister’s comics when nobody was looking. So the reluctance to admit is universal. I’m sure if there had been U.S. comics for girls, I’d have been surreptitiously reading them back in the day.

  21. Eric Henwood-Greer says:

    I read a number of those reviews, and had a similar reaction. (Some are just odd–as much as I prefer classic shoujo to current stuff–on average–I’d never say that 70s shoujo was “more restrained” than current shoujo!).

    I do think some of the generalizations, as pointe dout above, are there to help sell the title to an audience which may not normally buy it. There’s some truth to be said for a phrase such as the one mentioning that the majority of translated shoujo titles (at least the top selling ones) have often relied on sitcom type plots, etc, I suppose. But I can’t help feeling that a lot of these generalizations are silly, especially when I could say nearly the same things about a lot of the top translated shonen titles…

    Growing up a gay guy who had more “feminine” tastes I suppose (I studied violin and ballet for example, and I remember mentioning in elementary school that my fave program was All My Children and it getting quite the unexpected reaction) I do know that in our current culture in many ways it’s much harder for a guy to admit to liking anything “girlie” than the other way around.

    I also think there’s still some sort of resentment in the non manga, comic book scene about the fact that there was this massive manga boom and it’s due in large part to *girls*–a market that American mainstream comics seemed fairly inept at courting (again, totally stereotyping). In the introduction of that shoujo issue of The COmics Journal they touch on this an awful lot.

    (I also have a comic book loving friend who I think would eat up much of my shoujo work–but he somehow finds it almost inpenetrable–the whole montage aspect to so much of the artwork, when he’s used to strict comic book grids–which I on the other hand always find far harder to get into).

    And thanks for the brief mention of Vertgio’s Stuck Rubber Baby! I had no idea a new edition under that inprint ahd come out till now–and have long needed to replace my other, water damaged copy. ^_^

    • davidpwelsh says:

      I don’t really have anything to add except to thank you for posting this, from a clarinet-playing All My Children fan from back in the day. (I was too uncoordinated for ballet, but I was a big musical nerd from that first production of Annie I saw when I was about 10. Standing room. Hard. Core.)

      • Eric Henwood-Greer says:

        Ha my pleasure–and trust me the only forum I post on as much asvarious manga/anime ones is a Sondheim/musical theatre one. (I remember watching Annie–before I learned that the movie is apparantly a travesty one day, seven times when I was home sick from school…)

    • John Jakala says:

      It is frustrating how rigidly gender roles are enforced when it comes to interests. At my daughter’s former daycare, she was in dance class for three years and the handful of boys that started out in it when they were all three had all dropped out by the time they were between 4-5 because they were teased by their friends for being girls. I wonder how long my son (now 3) will last before he wants to quit.

      And on the flip side my daughter gets frustrated when the boys won’t let her play superheroes because she LOVES superheroes, especially Batman: The Brave and The Bold.

      • davidpwelsh says:

        That’s so sad that kids are still teasing kids for wanting to do something they enjoy. The day care teachers must find it really frustrating too.

        Of course, I never went for ballet because I was chubby and uncoordinated, but that’s neither here nor there.

      • I remember listening often to the musical adaptation of “William’s Doll” on the “Free to Be You and Me” album when I was a kid in the 70s. It’s depressing to realize how little has changed since then.

      • Eric Henwood-Greer says:

        I was lucky that neither one of my parents seemed to care about this, though I had a male neighbour who was obsessed with dolls (something I never cared about) and would have to hide them from his mom. (he turned out completely straight, despite her fears–ironic as I think she used to think I was the one who would).

        This is off topic so I won’t ramble on like usual–but I do think the sudden bopom in dance shows like You Think You Can Dance–despite the show bending over backwards to pretend all their male contestants are straight–has done *wonders* already for the acceptance of guys in dance class. I see it in the classes I help teach–a huge huge boom in the past three years (I was for several years the only guy in my whole dance school when I was a kid). Of course, there’s still al ong ways to go, but it is heartening to see.

  22. [...] by David Welsh on the question of whether shoujo manga (and works by women, for women in general) doesn’t get the respect it should, and Melinda Beasi’s tangent, in which she points out that Fruits Basket and Boys Over Flowers [...]

  23. DeBT says:

    Sorry for not commenting earlier. I had a power failure, and upon seeing your post, I was reminded of another similar statement made years ago on Male Dominance that I struggled to find. I finally found it this morning, at the livejournal Male Feminists are Unicorns, though it seems shorter than I remember.

    http://community.livejournal.com/mf_unicorns/1257.html

    A longer form of her point could also be found here where women are regulated to what she called “women’s ghettos”:

    http://community.livejournal.com/mf_unicorns/2702.html

    I’m oftentimes reminded of how women authors such as S.E. Hinton used a male Nom de Plume so their works could be taken more seriously.

    Chris said: I took a different tact, just saying “She’s like the female Tatsumi for shoujo in that she revolutionized the genre,” is pretty neutral, but there are all kinds of implications you can read into that statement that are about as negative as Mautner’s approach.

    Actually, that selling tactic could have the potential to simultaneously attract and repel an equal amount of people. I admire the man’s output, but don’t want pricy flipped hardcovers. His nihilistic worldview isn’t to everyone’s taste. When I ordered A Drifting Life, I was surprised at how banal it was compared to his fictional works.

    KrebMarkt, I read that Drunken Dream review, and wasn’t as outraged as you were. Maybe it’s just different sensibilities, but the review seemed spot on pointing out the limited formula with the short-story format. Indeed, the first half of the Hagio book isn’t as memorable as the later stuff, and I was wondering why they went to so much trouble reproducing these lesser stories in a high-quality format. My understanding is that the selling point is, “If she can manage this amount of emotional intensity within a limited amount of pages, just imagine what she could do with 200-1000 pages.” Until then, we need to support the “small trickles” until her longer works are released.

    There WAS a time where there were comics aimed at girls, back before the Comics’ Code took effect. They were (of course) Romance comics, but back then, they explored all kinds of issues other than being regulated to the stock teary-eyed crying girl on the cover. (Great marketing technique there – who’d want to buy something where the girl is always sad?) I don’t know much about British Girls comics, but they sound immensely interesting from what little I’ve read.

    http://blog.newsarama.com/2007/06/06/i-british-girls-comics/

    If there was a definitive Girl’s comic, it could be easier to collect one over the other generic ones.

    I suspect that it was the Soap Operatic element in S-hero comics that made them perpetually popular. If a similar element had been included in Romance comics, there could be legion of women wanting to snatch up previous issues, wanting to find out how Fred ended up with Ethel due to a misunderstanding. This is what’s made Manga popular – it filled a void that no one else knew was there. Rather than pandering to an already existing fan base, we should be filling needs we don’t even know exist.

    http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/house-of-1000-manga/2010-09-09

    And yes, Hot Gimmick is Twilight in Manga form, only without the Vampires and whatnot. (The other Manga equivalent is Vampire Knight). Trouble is, once you start reading, you CANNOT STOP until you’re finished, and you’ll hate yourself for doing so.

    Trust me on this.

    http://lucylou.livejournal.com/566295.html

  24. Hey David,

    I’m still going through the comments here, but John and Chris basically nailed it on the head. I was trying to talk about reader expectation. The fact that Fantagraphics is publishing this, plus Hagio’s high status, both here and in Japan, means that folks (especially those who prefer the type of manga D&Q publishes over the kind Tokyopop does) are likely going to come to the book with a series of expectations that aren’t going to be necessarily met because of the audience Hagio was writing for and the particular genre she was working in. Is that fair? Hell no. Will it happen. I’d put good money on it.

    But I wasn’t trying to ipso facto put down shojo manga as a whole though I can see where you and others got that impression. Poor writing on my part. I don’t think Hagio is less of an author than, say, Tatsumi, because he’s a Gekiga artist and she does shojo.

    As far as Dream goes, Iguana Girl and the siamese twin story whose title I can’t remember were among the best comics I’ve read this year and alone make the book worthy of recommendation. But there were a few other stories (particularly the story about the one about the dancing forest girl) that I thought treaded a little too close to the contrived melodrama/unearned sentimental side of things. I don’t think that’s a flaw that’s particular to shojo artists. Superhero comics are full of that kind of crap. But my ambivalent feelings toward those particular stories probably colored my review and inarticulateness more than it should have.

    • Eric Henwood-Greer says:

      I can see how some of those earlier stories could put off people who aren’t fans of the genre, honestly. I admit in a way I kinda love them more–but that’s due at least partly in my obsession with old school shoujo manga. I do think it was smart to include them though so you got a clear idea of the progression of Hagio–including starting off with stories that DID fit more with the then standard shoujo style.

    • Matt Thorn says:

      The idea was to provide an overview of Hagio’s entire career. She did that story (Bianca) when she was about 19 or 20 years old, in 1969 or thereabouts (though I believe it was published in ’71). To the modern reader, it may indeed seem corny, but at the time, melodramatic themes of misunderstood youths crushed by adult society were all the rage throughout the industrialized world. And yet such themes were all but absent in manga, because at the time manga were still largely seen as “kids’ stuff.” Compared with the vast majority of shoujo and shounen manga of the day (men’s manga was still a new genre, and women’s manga was still 15 years away), this story was stunningly sophisticated. (In fact, it was rejected by Hagio’s first publisher, Kodansha, on the grounds that it was too dark.) And I think the artwork is still beautiful today.

  25. [...] be taken seriously, we need to take some pride in our comics. In a column at The Manga Curmudgeon, David Welsh singles out Chris’s review as an example of someone basically saying “this book is good [...]

  26. [...] by some fluke of internet connectivity, you haven’t read David Welsh’s editorial about shojo manga and comics criticism, go correct that now; these links will still be here when you’re done. Brigid Alverson just [...]

  27. KrebMarkt says:

    @DeBT

    I have a fondness for Science-Fiction short stories and novella so i’m not friendly to persons thinking that short work = minor work.

    My feeling is that reviewer just gulped too much shojo manga on scanlation websites too quickly resulting that sort of “Dejà-vu”, “I know already the ending”, “Pff, the usual shojo artworks” comments from someone totally “blasé”.

    What is funny is that no one raised the fact that even if Fantagraphics decide to publish every big series from Moto Hagio, it would take maybe 10 years to do it at a financially sustainable pace.

    • Eric Henwood-Greer says:

      Great point–and I’d say in this marketplace, and considering how many volumes the Complete Mogto Hagio collection that came out in Japan is (it came out pre Otherworld Barbara, I believe but post Cruel God Reigns) I’d say more like 20+ years, sadly, unless things drastically change. Of course I’d love to see them tackle one of her major works, or even one of her midsize works (like my fave, Mesh)–but to think that a company’s first attempt at classic shoujo manga would tackle a title like that, makes zero sense. It’s simply not rational.

  28. Aaron says:

    As concerns Hot Gimmick I can and did stop at chapter four I loath that Manga with every fiber of my being.
    I do find it disconcerting that some reviewers who seem to be really intelligent people can make such broad generalizations and dismissive comments. The comment by Brigid Alverson left me dumbfounded.

  29. Eric Henwood-Greer says:

    Ugh. The simple, basic flaw in Brigid (MangaBlog) Alverson’s comments, the way I see it, is that shoujo is NOT a genre in the way the term should be used. No more than manga itself is a genre. Yes, there are common themes, common art styles symbols, common types of stories and characters, but if someone compared Banana Fish to Rose of Versailles, to Cruel God Reigns, to Marmalade Boy, to They Were 11, to Fire!, to Zetsuai 1989, to 7Seeds–even just flipped through a few pages of each–they’d realize how diverse shoujo is, and how many genres there are within the general medium of Shoujo Manga.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      My “not a genre” list would be slightly different (Antique Bakery, Natsume’s Book of Friends, Kaze Hikaru, Swan, From Eroica With Love, etc.), but I agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly. Why don’t you have a blog again?

      • Eric Henwood-Greer says:

        True confession–I’ve never really gotten into From Eroica. Bought all the vols, read them all, appreciate it, have even laughed out loud with it, but I’d not rank it with my 70s faves. Not sure why–I often prefer my comedy to be over the top and even surrealistic…

        (And that’s exactly why I don’t have a blog–I used to have a theatre review one but my tangents started going to obscure disco music, or manga or one of my other obsessions and I think it lost the few readers it had lol)

  30. llj says:

    In general, this goes beyond just comics. Entertainment made for women by women is often always critically less respected in general. Look at TV and movies. THe term “soap opera” often has negative connotations because it denotes a sort of “women’s entertainment” that many consider, in a word, trashy.

    Movies too. An action movie can get 4 stars but very, very, very rarely will a “chick flick” get more than 3.

    In all media, there seems to be an aversion to the melodramatic, the emotionally stylized or heightened.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      Unless we’re talking about opera, which wouldn’t be what it is unless it was melodramatic, emotionally stylized and heightened.

      • Eric Henwood-Greer says:

        I never got that. Even being a musical theatre nerd, you read critics deride, say Sondheim for the very things they’d praise an opera for (the gleeful venom the critics attacked Passion with being one example). Of course with Sondheim, ten years later his shows are regarded as classics and they change their minds. But the things praised in opera tend to be knocked down in EVERY single other form. I *like* melodrama–I’m not afraid to say it, and I think good melodrama does have an emotional truth to it at its core.

  31. [...] even among its own audience. David Welsh of The Manga Curmudgeon put his thoughts about it together into a blog post that looked not just at reviews of the new Moto Haigo title Drunken Dreams and Other Stories, but [...]

  32. Matt Thorn says:

    Wait. Mautner’s review was “generally positive”? I must have missed that while working my way through such snarkiness as, “overly sincere, heart-on-the-sleeve-style work”, “heightened melodrama and earnest heart-tugging”, “Hagio draws these stories as if a full symphonic score were playing in the background”, “Make no mistake, she wants to wring as much emotion out of you as possible, and readers who have heretofore been suspicious of such manipulation may turn a cold eye over such tales, in spite of Hagio’s sumptuous compositions”, “big, tear-flecked eyes, sun-dazzled backgrounds, romantic longings and go for broke poignancy”, and, best of all, “the strawberry pink and lace-strewn side of the path”. The message for CBR readers seems to be, “Stay back! You won’t like this! And you might get cooties!”

    • Eric Henwood-Greer says:

      And yet all of those quotes would make me wanna track it down all the more ;) But I get that I’m prob not the typical CBR reader…

    • davidpwelsh says:

      Well… yes. I was leaning in a too generous direction, because I like Chris. Though it certainly seems like the standard shoujo disclaimer — “this comic was created by someone with a uterus, though you can be reasonably certain you will not spontaneously grow one if you repeat ‘I am a man with manly tastes’ often enough” — is in action.

  33. [...] that’s been happening online… comments exploded in response to David Welsh’s Thursday thoughts, inspiring this response from Brigid Alverson at Robot 6. Part of the premise of Brigid’s [...]

  34. [...] even among its own audience. David Welsh of The Manga Curmudgeon put his thoughts about it together into a blog post that looked not just at reviews of the new Moto Haigo title Drunken Dreams and Other Stories, but [...]

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