Chicks On Anime
Shoujo Fans in Fandom

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, S. Pocock, Aug 25th 2009

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist, and also writes reviews for ANN.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

Our guest this week is writer and editor Brigid Alverson. She's also the writer of the popular MangaBlog.net and contributes to Publishers Weekly Comics Week and Graphic Novel Reporter, amongst other endeavors. She joined us recently for a chat about shoujo manga, and the perception of shoujo fans in comics and manga fandom.


Bamboo: Joining us today is Brigid Alverson from Mangablog.net. Brigid, could you please tell us a bit about yourself and your professional background?
Brigid: Thanks, Bamboo. I have been reading comics since I was 3 or 4, but I discovered manga about four years ago because my teenage daughters started reading it. At the time, there wasn't much information about manga on the internet, so I started blogging about it.

That led to all sorts of interesting adventures, and now I write for Publishers Weekly Comics Week and Graphic Novel Reporter, I edit the Good Comics for Kids blog on the School Library Journal site, and I spend way too much time reading comics. I should say that I don't watch much anime, and I don't speak Japanese. I simply read manga as I would read any other sort of comic, and I enjoy it immensely.

Sara: Do you still read a lot of comics outside of manga?
Brigid: Yes. I gave up on superheroes in the 1980s, after one of those classic bad comics-store experiences, and I fell away from comics altogether for a while. Manga brought me back into the fold, though. I read a lot of graphic novels, particularly children's GNs, and a lot of webcomics. I just finished The Impostor's Daughter, by Lauren Sandell, for instance, and I'm also reading 20th Century Boys and Oishinbo right now.
Bamboo: You gave up on an entire genre based on a bad comics store experience? Now I'm curious what that was. Or is it a touchy subject?
Brigid: When I lived in Brooklyn, there was a comics store down the street from me. I used to go there with my boyfriend, who was a superhero reader. I would read some of his comics, but I also was interested in other sorts of things—Tales of the Beanworld is one. I remember I never felt welcome there. The staff generally ignored me, and whenever I chose a comic, I felt like I was flunking a test. They didn't seem to approve of me reading Beanworld, or Omaha the Cat Dancer, another fave from those days. I got so turned off I finally got angry one day, stalked out, and never came back. Because you couldn't get pamphlet comics anywhere else, they were dead to me.
Casey: And then you discovered manga many years later. Can you tell us what sort of manga you like? Are there any genres in particular that interest you?
Brigid: I started out reading shoujo manga. When I was a kid, I lived in Ireland and Scotland so I grew up reading British girls' comics, which featured strong heroines having thrilling adventures. Stories like Crimson Hero reminded me a lot of that sort of comic. Nowadays, though, I read more seinen titles, as the more sophisticated stories appeal to me. Jiro Taniguchi, Naoki Urasawa, anything from Fanfare / Ponent Mon. But I still love a good fluffy shoujo tale.
Sara: Your story about the comic store has a sort of universal appeal to it. I feel like there are standards fans almost have to live up to in order to get "approval" from the fandom at large.
Bamboo:Right. It's interesting you mention your comic book store experience. I don't think you're alone, at all. In fact, I think there is still somewhat of a stigma of being a female into comics—or even shoujo manga, which is directed at female readers.
Brigid: There's a certain coolness you get when you wander into the males' realm. Having gone to a Catholic high school, where some things were still strictly segregated, I'm familiar with that feeling.
Bamboo: It seems to be fairly one-sided. I don't think there is the same coolness when males wander into the female realm.
Casey: Right. Just like socially, it's okay for women to wear pants but not okay for men to wear skirts. This, in spite of the fact that girls and women constitute a majority of readers of manga,both in Japan and in the US.
Bamboo: Even with the "coolness," and the fact that female fans seem to be ubiquitous amongst comics and manga fandom, I still feel like females get looked down on sometimes. There's the whole stereotype of the "fangirl" that I'm sure everyone is familiar with. The stereotype of the screaming, raving girl who's more into hot men than the comic content.
Brigid: Yes, and what's wrong with that? The women in superhero comics are clearly designed to be ogled. I haven't experienced much of the screaming fangirls thing at the cons I have attended, though. Although the Drama Queen panels got kind of raunchy from time to time.
Sara: Comics in general have had a reputation of being a boy's club for a long time, but I'm not sure how much truth that holds any more. During this past Comic Con, there was an interesting panel about women in manga, and some of the information, for me, was kind of eye-opening. For instance, there was some demographics data cited from Viz comparing the readership of Shonen Jump and the now-defunct Shojo Beat. 40% of Shonen Jump's readership is female, while only 5% of Shojo Beat's was male. This suggests to me that women are actually more open to a wider variety of genre and storytelling, while men limit themselves to what is supposed to appeal to them. And yet it is women who are often pigeonholed as the "fangirls", the ones obsessed with romance, with bishounen, etc.
Casey: It's important to bear in mind that there is a false equivalency between mainstream shounen and shoujo manga. shounen manga is, in its original cultural context, created with a female and male audience in mind. Shoujo manga only has the female audience in mind.
Bamboo: How long has that been true? About shonen manga being created for both markets?
Casey: Since Shonen Jump pioneered the female crossover audience in the mid-90s. There were also experiments in the eighties with manga aimed at both sexes. The defunct Duo magazine, which serialized part of Andromeda Stories by Takemiya Keiko, and Shinshokan's Wings.
Brigid: Shoujo manga seems to be more heavily gender-identified, what with the flowers, the flowing hair, etc. But I wonder if I feel that way because male is the default gender in our sexist society?
Casey: To some degree, I think that's true. But it's also true that, as a product of the so-called culture industries, shounen manga is deliberately produced to appeal to girls and women.
Sara: I'd still make the argument that women are more open-minded readers and consumers of media in general. Women like things like violence and gore, too, even when it's not marketed to them.
Bamboo: Well, wait. If 40% of Shonen Jump readership is female... if the math is right in my head, does that make females bigger consumers, too? There are roughly the same number of male and female fans, but if there's such a disparity between Shonen Jump/Shoujo Beat readership, it says to me that female fans are buying more manga than male readers. Not that that changes anything that's been said before, but it never occurred to me before to think about this in terms of sales.
Casey: Women are the majority of buyers in all categories of fiction in the United States. I've heard in the US the readership is something like 55/45 female male split for manga. But women also buy a lot more manga than men. Kishimoto even noted in one of the volumes of Naruto that all of his fanmail comes from females.
Brigid: That makes sense. My daughters read a lot of shonen, and I know a big part of the Naruto audience is supposedly female. The thing is, with manga, I don't get that crashing-the-clubhouse feeling if I read a shonen title.
Sara: I think that's the case because people underestimate what it is that women enjoy. I don't know about you ladies, but as a female nerd, I enjoy way more than just flowers and romance. In fact, I feel almost insulted that my interests are perceived in so narrow a lens. I think there's just an assumption that females should read shojo, just like lots of men are conditioned to reject it.
Brigid: I agree with Sara, but I also think there is a benefit to have other genres, such as science fiction, that is written by women. That's where manga does quite well, I think. At the same time, a shoujo manga or simply a very stylized manga might have some emotional and literary depth to it, but a reader unfamiliar with it might not be able to see past the flowers and big eyes. People do tend to judge comics on a quick glance.
Casey: I agree with Brigid that it is important to have diverse voices in all genres of creative literature and endeavor. After all, I think we can all agree that being a woman, for example, gives one different life experiences than being a man. But when it comes to what genres women "should" read, I find I have more problems with the opposite—what I'm "not allowed" to read.

The fact of the matter is that I happen to like examples of every genre, but when I don't like something, you often see readers insisting I'm not allowed to judge it because I'm not its target audience. This is mass media, people. Broadcasters who create television or books or manga can't be certain who will consume their products, so there is wide crossover everywhere; adult read kids books, etc. Shoujo and shounen are publishing terms. They describe an audience, but they don't describe the totality of an individual. If they could do that, we'd all be in big trouble!

Sara: I totally agree with that. I definitely consume and joy a lot of media that is not targeted toward me, simply because I find it enjoyable. Nothing irks me more than when people say things like “Guys will love the action, and women will love the romance!” when describing a movie or a TV show or something. Because it's like, “Uh no. I happen to appreciate ‘boy things’ like excitement, too, even if I do have a vulva.” But the minute I criticize something for being dumb that's not targeted toward me—like a moe show, for instance—suddenly it's “Oh, well, of course you wouldn't like it. You're not supposed to.”
Bamboo: Well, I think that's more of a result of angry fans coming to the defense of their favorite titles. I don't think it's because you're a woman of x age of y sexual orientation, and what not. If you say, "I don't like this moe show," people will say, "Well, you're not supposed to like it!" Both you and I know that as reviewers, we often have to read or watch titles that we wouldn't normally buy for ourselves. We are going to end up reading things out of our target demographic.
Casey: I disagree with that, actually. Technically speaking, the only manga genre that I'm the "correct" age for is josei. I'm too old for shoujo manga. Yet you don't hear anyone moan about how I'm too old for shoujo whenever I pan a shoujo title...or, for that matter, that I'm too old for a shounen title. These sorts of "not for you" proclamations are very selective and from my point of view, very interesting. Hell, even in the industry I've seen myself get pigeonholed into the "girl's stuff" expert on numerous occasions.
Bamboo: Right, but you didn't say, "I'm not allowed to read this or that." What you said was that people justified your dislike for something because you weren't the target demographic. And I really do think that part of it is because, especially amongst anime and manga fandom, people are very defensive about what they like. It's a default argument, rather than a comment on what you're supposed to read.

That said, I do agree that the idea of "target demographics" is a little silly, especially in this day in age, where shonen manga is extremely popular amongst readers of both genders and all ages. But it doesn't change the fact that while shonen is very acceptable—shoujo is not. When you admit to being a shoujo fan, you are being labeled—even if half of your manga collection is shonen.

Casey: What I'm saying is that people are selective in which aspects of the target demographics matter and which don't. The ones that do matter reveal social prejudices and ideological leanings. My gender matters more than my age. If people were defensive about everything, perhaps my age, my ethnicity—I'm not Japanese either, so no manga was strictly created with me in mind. Instead, it's always gender that becomes the issue. I wouldn't characterize myself as a shoujo fan, for what that's worth.
Bamboo: Yes, but if you were to name all the genres that people are most likely to say, "Well, you're not the demographic!!" you'd end up with moe, harem shows, and fetish shows. These are traditionally genres in which the readers are very defensive about their tastes. And, might I add, the readers are typically male. Maybe that's something else to think about. Maybe there's an edge of, "You're not allowed to criticize this show that is geared towards men, because you're supposed to be reading your girly stuff!" I don't know. Is that too big of a stretch?
Sara: It's not too far of a stretch, and I do think it's silly to keep criticism off-limits for women, or dismiss any criticism as irrelevant because of gender.
Brigid: I think that may be true, actually, but in a way it's valid. Don't beat up on me yet! Every work has its intended audience, and as a reviewer, you have to respect that. Otherwise, it's like one of us going into a strip club and complaining that the dancers are being sexually provocative. For the intended audience, that's the point. I think there's a pretty close analogy to American/superhero comics here… and a lot of anime and manga as well. On the other hand, you have to be able to look beyond that and judge the work on its merits. I have no problem saying, in a review, “This isn't the sort of book I care for, but if you like it, I think it's a good example of the genre.” Perhaps I'm not the best judge of that. It's why I avoid yaoi. I think you can critique a work on its merits from the point of view of an insider, someone who knows and accepts the constraints of the genre. Or you can critique it as an outsider.
Casey: On the other hand, just because prostitution, say, for the most part isn't created for women, that doesn't mean that as a woman, I'm not allowed to criticize the exploitation of another human being. As I said before, I'm not Japanese, and neither are most of the moe fans on ANN, so by ethnic standards, they don't have great standing on the basis of "originally intended audience" either. So I find the argument silly. Criticism, by the very act, requires distance.

Academics like the phrase "critical distance," but what it means is that anything too close to you is impossible to perceive in the way some other body of people unrelated to you might see it. You know how they say that parents are poor judges of their children? Or that doctors shouldn't diagnose themselves? It's the same sort of thing. This is why a truly hardcore, drooling, raving fan of a genre probably isn't the best person to review in it.

Brigid: As an example of critiquing as an outsider, Casey, you are one of the few reviewers who has criticized Tezuka, and part of your critique, if I recall correctly, is the sexism in his work. It's a legitimate critique, but that type of criticism is more likely to draw a backlash. I do think you see age-related criticism of this type among adults who read and review YA and children's literature. There are reviewers who read it as adults and judge it by those standards, and those who try to approach it from the point of view of the target audience, and some of the arguments among them are just as passionate.
Casey: In the case of Tezuka, it's important to talk about the sexism you see in his work. I'm tired of the implicit, "Well, it's okay because Japan's such a sexist country anyway, and it was even more so at that time!" It's important to recall that women—in the Japanese manga world—were producing fascinating feminist work that the very same time that Tezuka was milling the mother/whore archetype for all that it is worth. To dismiss the manga—and Tezuka—as merely a product of its time does everybody a disservice because Japan and manga was, and is, more than that.

Also, I know a lot of young women who have bought English-translated manga published in English who have reacted with a sense of betrayal when they see the blatant sexism of some of his work. No one had ever warned them. All they'd ever heard was how great a mangaka he was and how all of his work is "Great Literature." When we don't have engaging discussions about the reception of old content today—and instead shut down discussion with the "product of its time; you're not allowed to complain"—I think it does harm to all of us in the present, male and female.

Brigid: I agree with you about Tezuka, and I think it's a valuable critique. It needed to be said, absolutely. I thought the backlash on that was out of line. But I'm not sure it was because you were female; it was because you were attacking a sacred cow. The fact that you were female may have been an aggravating factor, but I think a guy would have gotten some of the same blowback.
Bamboo: Right. It's like anyone criticizing Miyazaki. People are afraid to do so, and when you do, there's a backlash.

I want to move back to the topic of how shoujo fans are perceived, though. There are some negative stereotypes that exist, many of which are unfounded. Because there are certain aspects of fandom that are louder than others, sometimes it clouds people's views on the larger group. For instance, I think fans of certain genres do get pigeonholed into specific stereotypes. Just like there is a stereotype for your middle-aged, moe-loving male nerd, there is also a stereotype for your romance-loving, teenaged female. Even more especially—your yaoi-loving, screaming female fangirl. These are stereotypes that exist. And lately, more so than ever before, I see people automatically assuming that shoujo fans would also be screaming yaoi fangirls. Did anyone here go to Comic Con?

Casey: Nope.
Brigid: Me neither.
Sara: I was there.
Bamboo: Well, there was a really big backlash toward Twilight fans. Huge backlash. And I'll be honest, I think Twilight is crap and some of the fans bring it on themselves. But there were all these guys holding signs like, "Twilight ruined Comic Con!" and what not. But it wasn't just the Twilight girls getting the flak. I saw anime fans catching flak for it, too. Anyone who carried a yaoi bag was targeted, anyone who had a shirt on with any kind of flowery man on it got dissed on. I just feel like now, more than before, being a girl who likes girly things really gets you sneered at.
Sara: I saw a few anime fans catching flak for being irritating in general, but I didn't think it had anything to do with the Twilight backlash.
Brigid: I know what you mean. But it should be said that a lot of people on comics blogs, both bloggers and commenters, defended those girls. I was really gratified at the response.

I think to some extent that was an organizational problem unique to Comic-Con—they don't clear out the panel rooms, so people have to wait on long lines and still miss their panels, and everyone gets edgy.

I really wonder about the sort of hostility that causes someone to hold a sign like that outside a panel room. That seems more like an individual with issues than a mass phenomenon. I have never had a problem with this, but I'm a mature lady who doesn't take any crap. I have heard that girls have been made to feel less than welcome, especially at San Diego.

Sara: I have to say, I really didn't see the Twilight protestors as propagating some kind of gender war. A discussion about the treatment of female fans at conventions is a legitimate one to have, but I don't think that framing the Twilight complaints as sexist quite works. I was at Comic-Con and from what I could tell, people were angry about the fans because they made navigating the convention floor and getting into panels next-to-impossible on Thursday. I loathe Twilight to begin with, so I have to admit I share some solidarity with the people who were complaining. Part of that comes from my resentment of being pre-categorized as part of Twilight fandom just because of my gender. Yes, I'm a woman, but I don't feel any inclination to stand up and defend a franchise I think is terrible, or the fans who buy into it.
Bamboo: I think it's because girls are being called "fangirls" now. And I think that's kind of hurtful, especially to younger gals who just don't know any better. When you hear "fangirl," you think screaming, yelling, glomping, slashing. It's not a positive connotation. But unless you're walking around saying, "I LOVE STAR WARS AND SUPERMAN," and you're a younger female, people are going to slap the fangirl label on you. So maybe that goes back to what we said earlier, about being pigeonholed into certain interests. Even if you're a girl who loves Berserk and Gundam, if you read anything with pretty boys, you're a fangirl. That's how it goes.

Brigid, you have a teenage daughter, right?

Brigid: I have two. One of them is dyeing her hair purple as we're speaking. I took my girls to Anime Boston, and I don't think they felt pushed aside there. Within their circle of friends, male and female, their tastes were well accepted. I don't think kids of their generation are as bothered by gender issues. Actually, I believe some of my older daughter's male friends will admit to reading some shoujo manga. These are artsy, nonconformist kids, so maybe not typical—or maybe too typical.
Casey: Well, my understanding is that Comic Con has been having problems with sexual harrassment for several years now. We discussed this last year at New York Anime Festival if I recall correctly. I can't help but think that it's coming from immature people, especially con veterans, who don't want to share their proverbial sandbox with anybody who's different from them. A sort of comics culture xenophobia, if you will. And females, being the "weaker sex," become the target of choice on the basis of their sex as prejudice from the main culture seeps into the comics culture.
Sara: Again, I'd have to argue that while Comic-Con does have a history of sexual harassment, it's kind of a stretch to compare it to the complaints from this year, and especially to “xenophobia” and sexism. Sometimes the complaints are purely about bad and annoying behavior, which you get from both genders at any convention. It's definitely sexist to harass female booth workers and cosplayers, but complaining about fans clogging up halls and obsessing over something as incredibly terrible as Twilight is definitely not.
Casey: The irony is that, when it comes to manga and anime, girls' comics culture has been seminal in the development of the two mediums. Miyazaki, mentioned earlier, specializes in complexly developed female heroines. And harem, moe, magical-girlfriend genres were all inspired by shoujo fan culture. And on a somewhat lighthearted note, my understanding is that Berserk has a large female fanbase in Japan. Not surprising, given how Griffith looks. Also, the publisher, Hakusensha, is traditionally strong in shoujo manga. Their magazines include Hana to Yume, LaLa, etc.
Bamboo: What do you mean when you say that harem and moe shows were inspired by shoujo fan culture? Can you give an example of that?
Casey: Sure. The guys who founded the genres were, in many cases, fans of shoujo manga and anime who came up through the doujinshi/Comiket subculture. They were fans of shoujo manga and anime and did parodies, often erotic, of it. Many of these amateur doujin creators then went pro and brought their aesthetic sensibilities into the mainstream. Or, at least, more mainstream than before. One example of the close ties between shoujo and magical girlfriend genres is the creator of Oh My Goddess! He used to be the editor of Puff, which is kind of like Newtype magazine for girls.
Bamboo: Oh, so you're saying that visually, these genres were inspired by shoujo.
Casey: I'm saying that they wouldn't exist if it weren't for shoujo.
Bamboo: In a way, that doesn't shock me, because shoujo manga has a style that's very different from manga aimed at men. Although those lines have really blurred, considering the look and feel of your modern shonen manga.
Brigid: I wonder if the marginalization of girls is more common at general comics conventions than at manga and anime cons. It seems like there is more give and take in the anime/manga world. Let me add that the guy holding that Twilight sign was probably a superhero or movie fan. It doesn't strike me as the sort of thing that would happen at an anime con.
Sara: I think you have a point, but it's important to remember that anime cons don't have a big film industry presence, and don't bring in the huge crowds that Comic-Con does.
Bamboo: In the past, we've said that manga is much "friendlier" towards women. Not only is there a large percentage of female creators, but also a large percentage of female readers. Western comics are more male-oriented. So it makes sense that that kind of behavior would happen at a comics book convention. Maybe in a way, it's less of a gender war than it is a cultural war.
Brigid: In fact, Casey's critique of Tezuka was on a general-comics blog, not a manga blog. If she had posted it on her LJ, the reception would have been different.
Casey: I didn't post it. It was cut and pasted from my LJ by the blogger. With my permission.
Brigid: OK, so what was the reaction at your LJ? I bet that proves my point! I think there is a lot of hierarchy and judgmentalism among superhero readers anyway. It's a different comics culture. It's very male-based, the imagery is more sexist, and there's a premium placed on having all sorts of arcane knowledge.
Casey: Actually, this would be the perfect place to plug a piece I wrote for Publishing Research Quarterly about why manga became popular in the United States. There is a cleavage between manga and superhero comics—or, rather, between the US comics industry and the US trade book publishing industry.
Brigid: Yes, I think they are different cultures. And despite the fact that manga can be wildly sexist and exploitative, I think there is more dialogue and more acceptance, in the end, among anime and manga fans. Even moe fans can talk to me like I'm a human being. When I think about it, I feel like a lot of the marginalization of female fans comes from outside manga/anime circles. Within our own group, people may have different tastes but I think we are more comfortable in our own skins. I guess it's because we're all outside the mainstream to begin with. I'm really happy that manga came along and gave my daughters a comics genre that included them in its intended audience. I think that expanded the circles of comics in general and that's a healthy thing.
Casey: Well, I think that social hierarchies from mainstream culture too easily get reproduced in fan cultures. Which is a shame, since, yeah, aren't we all marginalized in a way anyway? Why does there have to be a hierarchy?
Sara: It's true. I've found it refreshing to break away from the hierarchy, though, and just indulge in the delicious bits of nerdom I most enjoy, regardless of what was intended for me or what was intended for a male audience or whatever. We like what we like; that's what drew us all into fandom in the first place.
Bamboo: There's always been a hierarchy. Even amongst anime and manga fandom, there are subgenres of fans that people think are "below" us. Human nature, I guess.
Brigid: Exactly. Put two apples on the table and I will decide one is better than the other. Now multiply that across all of society. The real question is, are we mature enough to recognize it and deal with it in a way that is respectful of others? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Bamboo: Gosh, that's the million dollar question, isn't it? The day fans stop bickering amongst themselves is the day we'll have a shot at not tearing each other apart all the time.

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