Chicks On Anime
Shoujo in Academia

by B. Dong, S. Pocock, Sep 22nd 2009

About the contributors:

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

Our special guest this week is Professor Frenchy Lunning, a researcher and lecturer at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Specializing in Japanese popular culture, she is also the founder and editor in chief of Mechademia, a journal that focuses on anime and manga. She is also the co-founder of Schoolgirls and Mobilesuits: Culture and Creation in Manga and Anime, an annual workshop featuring lectures from notable anime scholars and other events. We had the pleasure of talking with her this week about shoujo and doll culture.

In unrelated news, Sara and I are participating in the upcoming AIDS Walk LA on Oct. 18, so if you could spare a few dollars to support AIDS research, we'd appreciate it!


Sara: Thank you so much for joining us. Could you start off by introducing yourself and what you do?
Frenchy I am Frenchy Lunning, a Professor of Liberal Arts at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I specialize in design history and in cultural studies. My area of research is currently Japanese popular culture, but specifically anime and manga. However, I have begun to focus on shoujo for various reasons. I have also ecently started a production company to begin producing animation for adults, and I am excited about that!
Sara: How were you first introduced to anime, and what about it appealed to you?
Frenchy When my son was about 5 or 6 years old, I would take him to the video store to pick up animation and movies for the weekends. I picked up Unico, and was puzzled, but intrigued by it. A bunny wearing headphones? Then I picked up Akira, under the mistaken idea that it was appropriate for children—in my ignorance at the time, I thought animation was for children. Of course, I was profoundly blown away. I sat up all night watching it over and over, utterly fascinated. From that point on, I was insatiable in my anime consumption, but there was not much. The Internet was just getting started, so I had no idea that others were as enthusiastic as I was. It was quite a few years “in the desert” before I found other students who were getting anime from various sources. I began the anime club at MCAD so I could see as much as possible.
Sara: *laughs* Starting an anime club for personal reasons. I love it.
Frenchy As for what I like about it, it is unique. The narratives were completely unpredictable then, the art was spell-binding, and no one knew anything about it. This amounts to a dare for an academic. So really, the more I learned about it, the more I was drawn to it. Also, as a child, I had been captivated by the Japanese aesthetic. The anime club helped me to discover manga, which I mistakenly understood as specifically comic books, knowing nothing about the rich and ancient history of Japanese text and image art forms.
Bamboo: Did you discover anime when you were already teaching at MCAD?
Frenchy Yes, I started teaching there in 1980. I am old!
Bamboo: What are the various reasons that led to you specialize in shoujo?
Frenchy In addition to the strange narratives of gender blending and gender swiveling, I became fascinated with the art and the range of artistic styles that I found reading shoujo. There is this swelling of emotion that almost takes up a narrative itself—it's not just the flowers and so forth, but the sensation of swooning, if you know what I mean. Shoujo seems to exist on a different plane—not in a reality that is mimetic, but in a netherworld of extreme passion and emotion. It is as if I am dreaming what I see. And it all comes in such a vast array of styles and representations. Stunning. Then there is the yaoi...
Sara: Is yaoi a part of your research as well?
Frenchy Yes, but not so much yet. Because I am under contract to write a book on fetish and fashion, it is the fetishistic aspects of shoujo that I am noticing at the moment, and the allied fan practices of cosplay, for which I have to write another book by the same publisher, and loli. I am trying to develop a general theoretical structure for the culture of shoujo in general. Then I will delve into the various off-shoots of its manifestations.
Bamboo: What publisher is this?
Frenchy Berg Publishers in Britain for these books, and The University of Minnesota Press for the Mechademia series.
Bamboo: Could you name some of the fetishes in shoujo you find especially interesting? Do you think there are any parallels in American pop culture?
Frenchy The fetish aspects in shoujo have to do with the ribbons, laces, Victorian traces, and all the ultra signs of femininity that abound, particularly in the manga. The anime, not so much, for whatever reason. These things stand in for something—for a complex of desires and fears. I am still working on it, but the position of the female in Japan is key. There are parallels everywhere, I think. Here, and in Europe. But because I am so close to it, I think I no doubt miss a lot of it. I, like most people, simply naturalize what I see as just part of the landscape.

For here in the States, it's more of all the “crafty” stuff that is indicative of the “ideal homey home—the domestic ideal—the family values.” I once did a talk on shoujo stuff, especially the doll stuff, for docents at the Walker Art Center. They were scandalized by it, but when I brought up how women here make such a big deal about their homes, and surround themselves with little wooden ducks and things like that—that it is also fetish. They finally got it.

Bamboo: That's interesting, because all of that domestic kitsch here seems to be associated with a very conservative family life, which doesn't seem to be the case in Japan.
Frenchy Yes, mostly because there is not much room for that junk, but also, their interests are not with the “home” as the manifestation of their romance via husband and children, because marriage is a duty and an economic consideration there. Women are subservient to the husband. She gets the children. We don't see it as a good set-up, but only because we have been hauling around the chivalric notion of romantic love for so long.
Sara: This talk of the fetishization of domesticity reminds me of this commercial for the Rose Petal Cottage, a girl-targeted play set. I was livid when I first saw it.
Frenchy Yes, children are inoculated with cultural ideals from early childhood. Both here and there. Our cultures are the result and the cause.
Bamboo: It seems like in a lot of modern shoujo, so many women break away from the domestic role and go out to chase boys and find “true love,” rather than stay at home and wait for the salaryman husband to come home. To me, it seems to break away from the traditional norm. NANA comes to mind.
Frenchy Yes, shoujo is breaking all the rules. That is what is so fascinating. Does it have an effect on the culture there? I think it is what is happening in Japan right now. They are moving into so much change, and shoujo is, in some ways, marking and provoking those changes. I loved NANA, and Paradise Kiss. Fashion again. I just got the anime! Fashion is so big right now because it is the place where change gets recorded. All the DIY.
Sara: I love those anime as well. They've come up often past columns. Does your research include magical girls? That's a kind of different take on the genre.
Frenchy Magical girls are a huge discussion right now. Lots of scholars are taking it up. Kotani Mari, who was in fact the first cosplayer in Japan, has written a lot about all of this. These essays show up in Mechademia. Magical girls are the privileged subject in Japan. The young schoolgirl has the most freedom of any other sort of person—hence her “magical” qualities.
Sara: What do you mean by “freedom”?
Frenchy She can be sexually provocative, she can dress however she pleases, she can have fun and be wild before she goes to work or university and becomes the drudge in a business suit.
Sara: Oh, I see. So it's sexual freedom.
Frenchy No one else in Japanese culture has this level of choice and forgiveness in the culture. They are as captivated by her as we are—maybe more. Sexual freedom, freedom from obligations, freedom from the strictures of the masculine role. She is cute, and cute has a particular power in Japan culture even with men.
Bamboo: I've never thought about magical girls in that aspect. It's interesting. Is that a little controversial, though, considering the average age of magical girls?
Frenchy Little girls are the subjects historically because until lately, there was a law against showing pubic hair. So if you have a sexual scene, substituting a young girl doesn't necessarily mean she is actually that young, it just means she is posited that way so there is no pubic hair.
Sara: I didn't know that.
Frenchy Yeah, I was involved in a legal case as an expert witness, and ended up doing this research. It's pretty interesting, but all because our cultures are just very different.
Sara: So about your research—can you explain your process? Has it led you to Japan?

Frenchy I was up for sabbatical, and decided just to look at possibly going for a Fulbright. I found what looked like a great choice for me, but the due date had passed, so I contacted the guy in charge to ask if they would offer the same grant the following year, and he said, “Send in your project tomorrow.” What project? So I thought about it. I had been writing on anime and manga, but in varied areas and without much of a focus. So I asked myself what I would most like to look at in Japan and it was drawings. I put together a project that looked at the history of manga. Well, of course that is a massive undertaking, but because I knew little about it, other than what is in the books in English, I assumed I could focus once I got to Japan. I went to Kyoto because they have the wonderful Kyoto International Manga Museum there. I spent hours and hours there. They were wonderful to me, and I met fascinating people there. One was Shimitzu Isao, the expert on caricature in Japanese art, where the tradition for manga has one of its primary threads.

He was wonderful and we became friends. Actually, I made many wonderful Japanese friends there. He had curated a huge show of Kyosai's work— the major caricature artist in Japanese history, and I learned so much from that show, from Shimitzu-sensei, and from the Museum. But, I still hadn't focused. My friend and colleague, Thomas LaMarre, arguably the best scholar in our field, was also in Kyoto doing research. He kept telling me I needed to focus! Then at one point, I was reading Kamichama Karin in a Book-Off store and looking at this excessive emotional line work, and virtually abstract pages, and I looked up and just said, “shoujo.” He said, “It's about time.”

Sara: So What? manga titles or other materials have proven most useful in your research on shoujo?
Frenchy I am literally grabbing every shoujo manga I can afford. Most times, I grab only a few books of the run, but if I like it, I try to fill out the run. I have also hired a Japanese person to read the scholarly works on shoujo in Japanese, as I will never be good enough to do so, and take notes for me. That is slow work, but I have the fetish book and the cosplay book ahead of the shoujo book, which will be huge, I think, so I have time.
Sara: Both of those sound really interesting. Cosplay, especially, is an interesting subject for research.
Frenchy Yes, I am fascinated by the process by which fans enter the works like this. I do not know of any other cultural phenomenon in which this level of identification has taken place.
Bamboo: Are you focusing mostly on the cosplay culture in Japan, or in the US, or both? I've heard that the two are very different.
Frenchy They are different. I will do both, basically, so I can get back to Japan on a grant! I am interested especially in the lolitas and the dolls. I am, at heart, a goth girl, and if I were younger, I would be wearing the gear. The doll phenomenon is particularly poignant.
Bamboo: Sorry, when you say “doll phenomenon,” are you talking about the girls who dress up like dolls, like the EGL aesthetic, or the ones who carry dolls?
Frenchy The dolls are now an even more profound part of that culture. Do you know of the Super Dollfie?
Bamboo: Yes. We did a column not too long ago on ball-jointed dolls, actually.
Frenchy Well, it has become a substitute for children—for the more obsessive fan, that is. The birth rate in Japan is so low, they are thinking of giving people money to have children. These dolls are extremely eerie. They are anime-styled, but have some strange qualities. The people who buy them can now go to Dollfie hotels with their dolls to meet other doll people.
Bamboo: Do you think that partly ties into what you were saying earlier about the fetishization in shoujo?
Frenchy Absolutely. It is part of what provoked me to focus on this aspect of the culture. Fetish is not just sexual. It is also religious and spiritual, as well as the more nefarious desires.
Sara: Very interesting. I actually wasn't aware of this Dollfie child-substitute phenomenon at all, and it's definitely something I want to learn more about.
Frenchy There are magazines for everything in Japan. They have high production values, and they're beautiful. There is a magazine, Yaso, that has a beautiful issue on the dolls as an art form. You need to go to YouTube and look up Japanorama—a British show basically poking fun at Japanese culture. The doll episode is sobering and sad.
Sara: So about the anime/manga/Japanese pop culture academic scene here in the States at large... Who else is doing this kind of research?
Frenchy There are a bunch of them and they are a lot of fun. Every year for the past 9 years, I have done a weekend workshop called SGMS: Schoolgirls and Mobilesuits: Culture and Creation in Manga and Anime. It was initially an attempt to satisfy the MCAD otaku with some instruction in the field. I started looking around for these people and found many! All from different academia areas, but all otaku! Most, oddly enough, were from the hard sciences. One of them is an astrophysicist studying solar weather, one a marine biologist, and so on.
Bamboo: Oh wow. I've heard of SGMS, but I didn't realize you were directly involved with it. Did you found it?
Frenchy Yes, I founded it with my colleague, Barbara Schulz. Way fun! You both need to come—it's next weekend!
Sara: *laughs* That'll be a tight fit for my schedule, but I'm sure many of our readers will be interested. As a past attendee, I can attest to it being super fun and informative.
Frenchy We are bringing Taniguchi Tomoko from Japan. She was the mangaka for Aquarium, Just a girl and a bunch of their shoujo manga.
Bamboo: Speaking of anime in academia, is there a lot of competition for funding? Like, if one of our readers was an aspiring anime academic, would they have a hard time getting into it?
Frenchy Academics means a life devoted to research, writing books and articles, teaching classes mostly in some other field, and all for little attention and under scrutiny of their departments and colleagues. If they want to do work in this field, they need to find another field in which they would have the time to do this on the side, as most of us do.
Bamboo: Any last words for our readers?
Frenchy Mechademia 4: War/Time will be put in a month or two. Go to Amazon.com!

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