With all the recent discussion of shojo manga that’s been going on, it should be no surprise that I’ve had shojo on the brain. Some of the comments that have struck me most in all the din have come from adult women who find themselves in the position of wanting to defend shojo manga and its readers, while being forced to acknowledge the fact that they’ve lost interest in most shojo (and its more persistent tropes) themselves.
While this doesn’t reflect my own experience, I can certainly understand how awkward that must be for them amidst the current discussion. And I have to admit that it’s led me to question why it is, at the age of forty-one, I’m not in the same boat. “Shouldn’t I be over shojo?” my inner adult asks. After all, I’ve publicly chalked up my disinterest in the Twilight series to cynical middle-age. So what exactly is it that’s got me going out on a limb to defend the honor of Fruits Basket?
One of the things that has astonished me most, as I look back at a life that includes several major moves (featuring a 9-year span or so in the middle that best resembles nomadism), a series of total career shifts, numerous relationships of many kinds, and a general lack of conventional stability, is really how little my life has changed over the years, or at least how little I have. While it’s true that I’ve learned a great deal throughout the course of my life so far, and have developed a few attitudes and opinions that could be considered jaded or even cynical, for the most part, my core personality has remained intact, year in and year out.
As a child, the trait I most tragically lacked was guile (and the ability to see through anyone else’s), so I spent most of my teen years utterly bewildered by the actions of my peers, who seemed able to make friends and drop them without so much as a thought, and whose skill with a cutting remark or personal insult often left me stunned and bleeding (figuratively, for the most part) on the hallway floor. Though I’ve developed somewhat more sophisticated social skills over the years, and a few simple methods of self-protection, overall, I’m still cursed with what Chris Mautner might view as an “overly sincere, heart-on-the-sleeve-style” personality.
With only that in mind, I think I can perhaps understand some of the reasons why shojo manga (and shonen manga, for that matter) might appeal to me, in particular, and why even some of the most melodramatic stories published for that demographic often ring very true to me. Even more to the point, however, I find that many of the struggles faced by the heroines of shojo manga (or the older-but-still-young heroines in series such as NANA)–particularly in terms of personal relationships and finding one’s place in the world–are struggles I still face daily in my adult life.
Who am I? Who do I want to be? Whom can I trust? Does this person love me? These are all questions that still loom large in the life of this forty-something. When I cried for a half an hour after reading volume four of We Were There, it wasn’t because it reminded me of the pain of adolescence. It was because it reflected pain I was experiencing right then at the time. When I see Shugo Chara!‘s Amu struggling to reconcile the variations in all her would-be selves, it speaks to my ongoing career angst and the many decisions I have not yet made, even at my age.
While there are certainly shojo series that win me over with nostalgia (Please Save My Earth, for example, which is practically a perfect imprint of my 12-year-old mind), many more are favorites because they resonate with the current me. And though there are seinen and josei series that stimulate me much more on an intellectual level, they rarely address the unresolved issues at the core of my own life. Who am I? Who do I want to be? Whom can I trust? Does this person love me? Ask me a question about politics, religion, philosophy, the arts, human rights–on these grown-up concerns I have hours worth of fully-formed thoughts, all ready for discussion and debate. Ask me the others… well, I’m still there with Amu, Nanami, Nana, and Hachi, struggling to figure it all out.
If my life was more settled into a normal “adult” groove, would I still find such resonance in these kinds of books? It’s hard to say. On one hand, I think remaining in close touch with my younger self may just be a part of my personality. Perhaps I’d still enjoy these series as nostalgia pieces, even if I was truly sitting at the grown-up table. But with this in mind, I can certainly understand why a lot of other women might have difficulty finding many of them compelling. And though I think that trivializing them based on that is fairly problematic, I have a great deal of appreciation for women who are trying really hard not to.
I’m well aware that there are plenty of adult women who still enjoy (or perhaps even enjoy for the first time) young adult fiction, including things like shojo manga, so I know I’m not alone. I also know that their reasons for connecting with it may or may not be anything like my own, so this little post can only serve as personal account and nothing more. Take it as you will.
Jade saysSeptember 12, 2010 at 5:00 pm
I was thinking of writing something on the myth of sophisticated adult fiction lately and if I get around to it, I’ll definitely need to point to this. It would be nice to read about people our own age, but you really hit the nail on the head in pointing out the shared human experiences involved in reading solid works of fiction for any age.
Melinda Beasi saysSeptember 12, 2010 at 5:29 pm
Thanks, Jade. And yeah, I’d like to read manga about people my own age, but I haven’t found a lot of it, to be honest—at least not much about *women* my own age. Fortunately, there’s a lot to connect to for me in works for younger women and girls.
mom saysSeptember 12, 2010 at 5:36 pm
Thoughtful post. I continue to be impressed with your thought process and ability to express it.
Melinda Beasi saysSeptember 12, 2010 at 5:38 pm
And I continue to be impressed with the fact that you put up with me as a teenager. :D Thanks, mom.
Estara saysSeptember 13, 2010 at 1:09 pm
And I continue to be impressed that you two can have conversations about topics like this. My mother can not for a minute fathom what I see in books, manga, anime, rpgs, basically anything I enjoy in my free time. This is something to treasure.
Travis saysSeptember 13, 2010 at 3:27 am
I don’t think there’s anything weird about still liking shoujo. I still love both shoujo and shounen and I know a lot of other adults who do, as well as adults who like YA novels and children’s literature.
Melinda Beasi saysSeptember 13, 2010 at 9:05 am
Oh, I don’t think there’s anything weird about it, either. But the recent conversation has made me sit down and think about why my feelings about it would differ so much from those of some other female critics in my general age bracket. It’s been kind of a rough week for shojo fans in the manga blogosphere. :)
Estara saysSeptember 13, 2010 at 1:07 pm
Now you have articulated it, I bet that’s also a big reason why *I* read shoujo manga and haven’t found most of the available josei series with blase ladies drifting from one relationship to the next and enjoying their shopping so interesting. And I’m 43, so you’re not alone ^^.
Books, anime, manga can hit my emotional spot with memories or with current references (I had my crying jag of half an hour yesterday, reading Koishi Tagari no Blue – in this case it was memories of my 16-18 year old self – although the protagonists in that series are younger – I would have loved to be like Ao but as a matter of fact I was Kyono, just not pretty). I find it a healthier release than storing up every frustration and then exploding all over family, when they mostly aren’t the reason for it ^^.
Melinda Beasi saysSeptember 13, 2010 at 1:55 pm
Oh, I’m so glad my experiences have resonated with someone else! :) Heh. And yeah, it’s hard for me to relate to the kind of josei you describe here as well, not that we see much of that kind of thing in translation here. I think I sort of fall between the josei cracks. I enjoy a lot of the stuff we see here, like Nodame Cantabile, though it is about characters much, much younger than I. I don’t have a lot to relate to with the office-lady type of manga, since my work experiences have been mostly unconventional—theater, music, computer repair, and back to theater & music (but on the non-performance side) again. I’ve only ever worked in the arts or for small businesses. And though they may have manga about 40-something women in Japan (I wouldn’t know—we’ve never seen any here), I suspect the fact that I’m career-driven, married without children, & am the primary breadwinner for my household may put me out of touch with most women my age in Japan as well. If there’s josei out there about women like me, I’m not sure what it would be. I’d love to see it if it’s out there.
Estara saysSeptember 13, 2010 at 2:54 pm
See, this is where – although I have read and understood your changing feelings on scanlations – I could at least recommend manga much of an age group with the heroines of Nana or a tiny touch older, that you can only get in scanlation and that are so old that I rather doubt we’ll ever get a license (Oishii Kankei, Ashita no Ousama).
But an interesting manga about 40 year olds? Even My Darling Daughters by Fumi Yoshinaga had the heroine in her 30s tops. Fortunately I also read sf&f and some of the major characters or even protagonists are our age, so yay!
Melinda Beasi saysSeptember 13, 2010 at 2:59 pm
I did love All My Darling Daughters, though in some ways I felt more of a connection with the heroine’s mother than anyone else! Heh. I’ll hold off on taking scanlation recommendations, though it is soooo tempting in this case. *sigh*
Estara saysSeptember 13, 2010 at 3:39 pm
Fair enough ^^.
Cait saysSeptember 13, 2010 at 7:56 pm
I think we talked about this in the past, but I know from my own experiences (not unlike your own in that transience has been a big part of my adult career) that shojo is something that I have grown, as I have gotten older, to appreciate more. And I think a big part of that is settling into a feeling of comfort with myself where I stopped caring how the things I like affect other people’s perceptions of me. I was never really the kid who fell in with the crowd or did or liked things (or at the very least claimed to) just because everyone else did or said they liked them. But at the same time, I was very much obsessed with the “image” of myself that I presented to other people, not in that I wanted to be different for the sake of being different, but that I was different and wanted to experience the often unique things that I enjoyed, but I didn’t really want to attract attention for being different. And the way I found to cope with that was by projecting a very simple and predictable outer personality that people would see, think they had a handle on, and then dismiss and ignore in general. Which is what I wanted. Now, as for what I am trying to say here, the trouble with projecting yourself in this manner is that any little change or variation in what people perceive you to be like, or what people assume your interests are, are things that they will take immediate notice of. So, growing up, I intentionally and actively avoided anything that did not fit the mould I created for myself. This included the music I listened to, the games I played and even the sorts of things I was willing to talk about with people.
Now in my 30s that attention is something I still don’t really want, but at the same time, I’m not about to deny myself experiences that I might enjoy just because I am worried about what other people are going to think or say to or about me just because I’ve travelled outside their preconceived notions of the kind of person I am supposed to be. I hide the yaoi stuff from my family and the people I work with (or rather, simply omit that I read it), but I still do read it. I listen to all the different kinds of music I want to listen to, and while I don’t offer up that I like certain artists or genres people might be surprised I like, I’m not terribly concerned if they find out, because I am not terribly concerned with what they think about it. They can’t hurt me with their surprise, or even their disdain. I’m not going to stop or feel like a loser because they attempt to ridicule me for it. And while it is still simpler to avoid the irritation of being told by my mother that I should stop reading or buying “those cartoons” by keeping it out of sight and away from conversation, it’s not justification enough for me to even consider closing myself off to even the most inane of shojo manga. A lot of it is pretty entertaining, and it’s true that that’s really all that matters. That I enjoy the experience.
Melinda Beasi saysSeptember 14, 2010 at 10:29 pm
I’m sorry that it’s taken me over a day to respond to this comment (things have been a little nuts) because it really made my day. I’m always blabbering on about my feelings and such, it’s really a relief to have someone else share theirs here in this space.
I’ve never avoided attracting attention (I was super-outspoken and stupidly honest as a teen, which certainly didn’t do me any favors) but I definitely care about people liking me (or at least respecting me) and spend a lot of time angsting over those who don’t and why.
Cait saysSeptember 14, 2010 at 10:59 pm
I know how busy goes. There are entire weeks where I have to cherry-pick what webpages I’m even going to keep up on reading, let alone trying to engage in discussion.
I was honest, sometimes brutally so, or rather, I’ve always been that way, I just tend not to offer up that honesty without some sort of instigation, because I really don’t like it when people are looking at or listening to me. I don’t really know why that is, and it’s probably a very different kind of discussion for another time and place.
I get away with reading shojo manga at work because despite my coworkers thinking me not so much a “girly” kind of woman (and I’m far from being one), the occasional boob flash in a panel is enough to distract them from what I’m reading (thank God for fanservice?). That or they’ve all, as non-manga readers, lumped all manga into one category and make no distinction between genres to the point that “for girls” or “for boys” doesn’t even register with them.
Ginnytoo saysSeptember 18, 2010 at 3:09 pm
I enjoyed this post, and I am a kindred spirit. I am a 58 year old, happily married woman who loves Jane Austen books, the Harry Potter series, and…Fruits Basket. All of these books explore relationships in deep and satisfying ways. I would also defend Twilight, though, particularly for the recurring theme of putting the needs of other people before one’s own selfish desires. I enjoyed Bella’s nurturing relationship toward each of her hurting parents, Jacob’s fierce protection of Bella, the Cullen family’s denial of their own nature for the good of mankind, and Edward’s constant deference to Bella’s needs. Although there are obstacles, most of these books end in ridiculously happy endings: double or triple weddings, One Big Happy Weasley Family, or the weaving together of one clan with another in multiple ways. When the suspense is over and I have finished reading the closed canon, it is still comforting to read it over and over, experiencing all the romance, as if it were happening for the first time to people who are close to me.