If you’ve ever read an issue of a women’s magazine like Glamour or Cosmo, or maybe just glanced at the covers while you’re waiting in line at the supermarket, you might have noticed something that is, on reflection, kind of strange.
Men’s magazines like Maxim usually have pretty girls on the cover. And women’s magazines like Glamour and Cosmo… usually have pretty girls on the cover. Which doesn’t seem so strange once you realize that while Maxim is selling you a message of “You, too, can have a pretty girl!” these magazines are selling you something to aspire to: “You, too, can become a pretty girl!” What does it mean to become a pretty girl, though? It means to see yourself through the eyes of men – and that’s why the covers of women’s magazines and men’s magazines end up looking pretty much alike.
It’s the same thing, by the way, with comics. In manga, you can see a sharp line between comics for men and comics for women, and though that line’s blurrier in the U.S., the vast majority of mainstream comics are written for an audience that’s male as a default. Both the popularity of manga and the growing visibility of geek girls are starting to break open that assumption, and sites like Girlamatic are doing a lot to create spaces where girls can be the default. But whether you’re reading a comic for men or one for women, you spend a lot of time looking at girls. If you open up a shoujo manga, you’ll see girls posed as if they were pin-ups, drawn to emphasize their beauty and their sexiness. It’s not as blatant or as raunchy as it would be in a typical shounen manga, but it’s there.
In movies, in T.V., in advertising, all day long you see women used as symbols for sexiness, women whose only purpose is to stand there and look pretty. It’s not surprising if that way of looking seeps into even comics written by and for women. But it does create a strange double vision. You’re supposed to identify with the main character, with her hopes and dreams and worries; at the same time, you’re always watching her, because comics are such a visual medium. She’s modeling how women are supposed to act, how women are supposed to look, what it means to be a woman. You’re identifying with her – but you’re also comparing yourself with her.
One of my favorite recent manga is After School Nightmare by Mizushiro Setona. The main character, Masshiro, is a hermaphrodite. He is – and I realize this is entirely impossible biologically, but it’s almost justified if you keep reading until the end – male above the waist, and female below the waist. He lives as a boy, and this sort of works for him until one day, just before kendo practice, he realizes to his own horror that he has started menstruating. For the rest of the series he is haunted by his sex and his sexuality. Can he live as a boy? As a girl? As both? Is he in love with Kureha, the pretty traumatized girl, or with Sou, the kendo-playing boy who can’t escape his sister’s shadow?
It seems like an unusual set-up for a story (and that’s without getting into his school’s bizarre dream clinic), but as I kept reading, I started to think that Masshiro’s situation wasn’t so unique after all. To a girl of eleven or twelve years old who has to suddenly confront the complexities of womanhood – periods, body hair, the distant possibility of sex – Masshiro’s horror looks like the most normal thing in the world. The only difference is that he has some justification for being horrified! Girls are told every day that what they’re going through is normal and natural; that’s not wrong. But Masshiro is so compelling as a character because he provides a space for yelling and screaming and getting angry and scared.
So the dynamic in After School Nightmare is inventive and brilliant; it straddles that line between voyeurism and identification. It’s painful and funny and awkward to watch Masshiro put on a skirt and try to negotiate his life as both feminine and masculine; it looks just a little bit off, just a little bit wrong. But at the same time, you can look at him and say, That’s me. Or at least, There’s someone who gets how hard and weird it is to figure out shaving your legs. And in the midst of realizing that I had been Masshiro, once upon a time, I felt that much more compassion for my gawky terrified teenage self.
One of the reasons for the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is how it simultaneously validates teenage anxieties and provides a glimpse of a way out. High school is hell, literally; lovers can suddenly change into vampires, literally; your life is controlled by shadowy forces. And then, in the midst of that, it shows a girl who has all the normal vulnerabilities, but also has the resources to overcome them, in her supernatural powers, in her friends, in her determination to survive. It’s never glib; Yes, it’s scary, it says. But you can do this too.
After School Nightmare affirms that it is frightening to have to deal with becoming a woman, that gender roles are often arbitrary and ridiculous, that sex can be used as a weapon, that it’s hard to deal with love and sex when they’re bound up with pride and ego and defensiveness and the need to prove oneself. But we see Masshiro taking the tiny, difficult steps towards discovering who he is, accepting himself, affirming himself – and we cheer for him.