Over the weekend, I participated in a discussion about josei manga (manga for women) on Ed Sizemore’s Manga Out Loud podcast, along with Manga Out Loud regular Johanna Draper Carlson and guest David Welsh. I was pretty surprised to be invited to this discussion since I’m not particularly knowledgeable about josei manga, nor have I written much about it here at Manga Bookshelf. In the end, though, I was quite thrilled to be there, as the topic resonated strongly with me in one way especially.
I’ve harped a bit on this before, in articles like Twilight & the Plight of the Female Fan at The Hooded Utilitarian, about fan perception of fiction for girls, and most recently in a mini-rant (scroll to item 3) about industry perception of boys’ love manga. One of the things that bothers me most as a fan of comics created for female readers is how little respect they command outside of their target audience (and often even within their target audience), to the point that we as an industry end up either apologizing for or deliberately concealing their intended demographic in order to try to make them palatable to others.
Publishers do it, and who can blame them? Would Ooku and Bunny Drop sell if they were marketed as part of a josei line? Would Wild Adapter have remained in print so long if TOKYOPOP had released it on their BLU imprint? Sadly, the answer is, “probably not.” Everybody’s research has proven to them that while women will buy books marketed for men, the opposite is simply not true. So who can blame them for trying to attract a broader audience, if all that means is that they simply decline to mention that a book was originally created for women? It’s still the same book after all, right? Do I want to see these things in print, or would I rather they just faded away, like all the books from Aurora Publishing and NETCOMICS, whose awesome collection of women’s manhwa apparently couldn’t survive even in digital form?
Readers do it, and it’s hard to blame them either. Who hasn’t been put in the position of having to over-explain to a skeptical friend, “I know the cover is pink, but it’s really good, I swear!” We explain because we think we have to, and we think we have to because we’ve been conditioned to believe that something specifically created with girls or women in mind is less well-crafted, less intelligent, and less universally relevant than something that’s not. I came down pretty hard on female readers in that earlier HU article for distancing themselves from “girly” stuff, but there are a lot of reasons why that happens, a lot of traps set for women to fall into, and it’s really quite difficult to avoid those traps since they’ve been in place for so long.
We’ve been told repeatedly (and many of us, recently) that certain traits most often attributed to works for women are inherently inferior to those valued by men, and it’s difficult to make an argument against biases that are treated as fact to begin with. Not all that long ago, for instance, after I’d taken the time to write a thoughtful, heartfelt explanation of what I look for in fiction, how I talk about it, and why I think that is important, a man commented with this reductive statement, “MJ: Your school of fiction was established over 200 years ago: sentimentalism. It had its virtues, but there are good reasons why sentimentalism is generally deprecated today.”
Well. How can someone argue with “facts” like those?
And the truth is, I’m far from immune to the traps, especially when it comes to talking about romance comics, and particularly boys’ love, which I’ve made the mistake of critiquing as a genre in the past. Take my writing for the recent Manga Moveable Feast, for instance. Though I think I should be able to say, “Wild Adapter is an excellent manga,” explain why it is excellent, and leave it at that, what I found myself saying (sometimes subtly) throughout all my features was, “Yes, Wild Adapter is BL, but you should read it anyway, because it’s an excellent manga,” or even “Yes, Wild Adapter is BL, but you should read it anyway because this really smart man says it’s an excellent manga.” It was desperate and out of character, but I could feel myself doing it, and I couldn’t stop because I felt so strongly that the series was being dismissed out of hand specifically for that reason.
So what can we do when the biases are so clear? What can we even ask for in an industry that struggles for readers regardless of demographic?
Maybe all we can do is continue talking about it, at least for now. So, readers, what do you think?
Download the podcast, “The Plight of Josei Manga,” at Manga Out Loud.