A common complaint against shoujo manga is that it’s too obsessed with romance. When you look at shoujo as a whole, love is not just a major factor in a lot of series, often times it’s the only factor. It all boils down to a simple question: “Why can’t shoujo manga be more ambitious?”
To a fair extent, this criticism is justified, but I finished reading the English-language release of Hagio Moto’s The Heart of Thomas recently and the afterword by Matt Thorn provided an interesting context to the romance-heavy nature of shoujo as we know it. Thorn writes about how, in contrast to the shoujo manga of the time which assumed that girls had no interest in stories in the more adult side of relationships, manga like The Heart of Thomas were revolutionary because they introduced the thrill of romance and sexual desire to shoujo manga. This is not to belittle the shoujo manga before Hagio and her contemporaries as somehow inferior as that’s certainly not the case, but it’s clear there was a trend of chaste stories about daughters reuniting with their mothers and such, which was supplanted by shoujo manga as love story. Romance in shoujo is the 800 lb. gorilla now, but it wasn’t always that way.
It actually reminds me about one of the biggest difficulties in discussing depictions of women with respect to feminism, which is that both the denial and exploitation of women’s sexuality have been used to control women in the past, and good and bad intentions exist within various a complex array of cultural contexts. Romance in shoujo manga is a way for readers to learn about their own desires, but perhaps at the same time also a way to control their interests.
On a certain level, the reason behind the proliferation of romance-based shoujo is obvious: money. Girls liked romance, it sold a lot, and so it became de rigueur for an entire industry. It’s understandable, as is the criticism against it. While romance is just the thing that many fans (including myself) look to shoujofor, at this point, it could stand to have some more variety.
The funny thing is, I’ve recently begun to suspect shoujo manga is undergoing just such a transformation, but I’ll leave my thoughts on that for a follow-up post.