Recently, debate about shoujo manga has centered around “girliness.” Although the word can have multiple meanings, in the context of shoujo it generally refers to pink hearts, sparkles, and school romance, all things you may very well see if you are to pick up a random volume of shoujo. Writers have been addressing how the girliness of shoujo is seen by people of all varieties, girls, guys, those intimately familiar with manga and those who hardly know anything, and any issues that arise from that perception.
The definition of shoujo manga comes into question as a result. Is shoujo defined by those aesthetic and thematic tropes, or is it something much broader? Is shoujo manga simply any comic that runs in a shoujo magazine, no matter the content? But while these are all very good questions, I feel like they are obscuring a very important idea that is more fundamental to manga and storytelling in general.
Setting aside whether or not shoujo is limited by tropes, average girls and impossibly handsome men covered in hearts and sparkles do not preclude good storytelling. It may not be someone’s cup of tea to read about the trials and tribulations of a 14 year old’s love triangle, but there is no ironclad rule stating that such a story cannot be not only entertaining but also legitimately good and able to speak to a wider audience.
Brigid Alverson equates shoujo manga with trashy romance novels, stating, “You read your chosen genre for relaxation, not literary quality.” While I do read shoujo for my own comfort, I also actively look for literary quality in it and am frequently rewarded as a result. I do not believe that it is some rare feat to find strong storytelling and strong characters in shoujo, whether it’s from the 70s or from this past decade, and that is also largely because I do not see shoujo as being limited by convention.
I’m not saying that one should just accept everything without a critical eye, but simply that when the reward is less stellar, one should not necessarily condemn the tropes from holding back shoujo, but perhaps view it as an individual story failing to use those elements in an effective manner. The potential for good, strong fiction is still there and the fact that the heroine’s parents died, conveniently leaving her to fend for herself, is not a death sentence for quality. It is not only possible to appreciate both shoujo which has all the trappings of “girliness” as well as shoujo which eschews that aesthetic, but to appreciate both on equal levels. Just because you enjoy the unorthodox doesn’t mean that the orthodox is inherently worse or vice versa. Shoujo is both and everything in between, and in every case, whether the manga are adhering to convention or not, good stories can be told, and found, on a regular basis.