Sunday, April 28, 2013

Akagami no Shirayuki Hime and Women with Agency

Last post, I discussed how we were able to apply and connect Twilight criticism to the Japanese manga Black Bird. When looking at popular culture, from any country, I am always looking into what kinds of behaviors that piece is trying to teach the target audience. Does this show/book/song try to tell people what is considered masculine? Is it trying to tell women how to attract men? Are the young men and women reading that YA novel truly connecting and understanding what the author is trying to imply they are going through? How does that particular fandom respond to certain characters and what kind of fan enterprises are they embarking on? These are all questions that many pop culture critics and scholars research and expand on to further, scholastically, understand what constitutes "popular" and what a phenomena reflects back on to the culture that is consuming it.

While I was reading Black Bird, it was impossible not to see the obvious and tonal connections between the book/movie and the manga. As I said last post, Twilight could have been a shojo manga, it's tone, characters, and plot fit into the established genre so well. It was no surprise that the Japanese market picked it up and was widely popular. Never mind what unhealthy information about relationships the two imparted to its readers.

This post, I am looking at the complete other end of the shojo spectrum with a manga that's not too widely popular and a lot less soapy. Out of LaLa magazine, the one publishes Natsume Yuuchincho, comes the story of Shiyuki, or Snow White, is a rather inverted look at the fairy tale.

When was the last time a shojo manga really showcased a female protagonist that had agency? Who was able to help themselves and not emotionally, or situationally, rely on the main love interest to save her? Let's be honest, those female heroines are few and far between in the world of Japanese manga. Part of this is a slight reflection on the gender politics in Japan; the ideal female in Japan is a young, cute, housewife who will raise the kids and maybe have a part time job no the side, but no real professional job prospects. We see this reflected in the way that so many shojo manga show their female leads and the other females surround them being rather obsessed with boys and trying to find a good husband. 

Reading Akagami no Shirayuki Hime was such a breath of fresh air when it comes to how a woman can be focused on a career and care more about their goals than finding a man. Shirayuki, who is the protagonist, is a young herbalist, though she is called a pharmacist in the manga, who has has very rare bright red hair (the translation of the manga in English is The Red-haired Snow White). She has also caught the attention of the prince of her nation, quite unwillingly, and ends up fleeing to keep her independence and to not end up being his concubine. 

Throughout the chapters that are out so far, there are scanlations up on numerous sites, there are major parts of this story that particularly love. Shirayuki has agency, she has the ability to exert power over her own future. Unlike with how often Harry Potter had to overhear things in the Harry Potter series, Shirayuki, while not holding political power, has the power to make her own decisions and to be apart of her own development. When she is held captive, she helps herself. 

Part mixing of numerous European fairy tales, part subversion of those fairy tales, Akagami is able to express that a girl who has the talent for healing, always a desirable trait and sign of intelligence and status, is actually desirable and attractive. Of course, there is a clear innocence to the relationship between Shirayuki and Zen, the prince that she befriends in the first chapter. Their relationship slowly develops over the length of the story and is not automatically placed on either the lust or "love at first sight" tropes that many shojo manga and romance novels heavily rely on. 

As I was reading Akagami I got to thinking; Why is a shojo that is aimed at a much younger demographic the one with an independent heroine, while the manga aimed at older women is the one asking us to sympathize and identify with a girl who can't really do anything for herself? Do people, aka the editors, think that older women won't read about a woman who had some agency or can make her own decisions? 

This particularly interested me because I recently read that most YA novels read in the US are read by adults. The Hunger Games and Twilight were not only read by their aimed demographic. Numerous adults, myself and my friends included, all read YA titles. I've heard a couple of ladies who read and review romance novels (go to who complain about how paranormal romance novel authors continue to make women weak, even when they could do whatever they wanted because they are writing OUT of the normal boundaries.  

Even in the American market we can see the continued weakness in some genre fiction, sadly the ones that are usually written for and by women. Why is that? With the manga market I can understand because the editors that are working with those mangaka are usually men. They are aiming to send out manga that will attract a wide readership, and they also think that they understand women. Yet the American romance publishing world is written, published, edited, and read by women. 

At least the younger generation is getting more powerful female protagonists to identify with. If I hadn't started reading fantasy fiction when I was younger, I would have been stuck with certain books that wouldn't have given me the strong and capable female characters that I know exist. Suzanne Collins and Tamora Pierce can keep writing and focusing on females for as long as they want. 

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