Continuing my exploration of Otomen, I sat down to read the next three volumes of this slightly goofy tale of a young man struggling to keep his socially accepted manly image when his really passions lie in “girly” activities like sewing and cooking. In these volumes, protagonist Asuka is still trying to juggle his inner self with his exterior image and what society’s expectations are for a man, but he’s unwittingly started to gather a group of guys (and one girl) who also have qualities/interests that are considered weird for their gender. For now, rather than serious and continuous drama, Otomen touches on social questions through somewhat over-the-top episodic “adventures.”
At volume 6, this series continues to depict issues of gender roles and stereotypes well. Creator Aya Kanno seems determined to tackle all taboos of things considered too feminine for men to be interested in. Asuka’s main interests are cooking and sewing, Juta creates a popular girls’ comic, and three more male characters have appeared whose interests are makeup, flowers, and music considered too feminine for men’s taste, respectively. Almost all of them feel the need to hide their interests, even Juta who is constantly trying to get Asuka to be himself, and other characters who buy into gender stereotypes make comments reinforcing traditional ideas.
I like how Kanno is handling character development; even as Asuka and the others find fellow men with interests outside the narrowly defined socially accepted masculine interests, none of them suddenly shout to the world, “I like cute things!” or what have you. When the whole of society seems to look down on something, it makes sense that the characters in Otomen aren’t jumping to reveal their secrets. But with each encounter with someone else who has similar struggles, Asuka gains some small amount of confidence and sees his struggles reflected clearly in other people. He also gains acceptance within his growing group of friends. However, even with that, others in Asuka’s life still hold tightly to traditional gender roles, making him feel forced to keep up his act of macho-ness. That feels like a very realistic situation.
In addition, Kanno makes a good point in volume 5 about female and male roles in society. Ryo, Asuka’s girlfriend who has more masculine traits than feminine, is elected to represent her class in a contest to find the most ideal girl. Ryo doesn’t want to let her classmates down, but she’s not good at traditionally feminine things like flower arranging or cooking. Even with Asuka’s help, her lack of skill in those things is revealed to the school and she faces some criticism and disappointment. However, after a pep talk from Asuka, Ryo wins their acceptance through her hard work. She may not be the traditional ideal woman, but the crowd is not only okay with that, they’re impressed by Ryo’s mix of femininity and masculinity. This is just one example in one story, but I think this speaks to the overall trend of society being able to embrace females with masculine traits/interests more easily than males with feminine traits/interests. Certainly, that’s true for American society. As a woman, I can take a martial arts class, play video games, and choose career over family with perhaps some resistance from society, but if a man took ballet classes, collected dolls, or wanted to stay at home and take care of the kids, he’s looked down upon.
However, while I love how Otomen has explored male characters who break gender stereotypes, I can’t help but wish there were more female characters behaving outside gender roles as well. Ryo is a lot of fun to watch since she often takes a different role than other high school romance heroines, but the other girls are shown drooling over handsome guys, squealing about new makeup products, and reading shojo manga. No offense intended against any of those past times, but they’re all extremely gender stereotyped. There has also been a case of the often portrayed vicious female rivalry over a guy and the ugly ducking makeover scenario. These are small things considering my overall enjoyment of the series, but I would like to see another female character who isn’t typical.
In short, even with some slight drawbacks, Otomen continues to be a fun series prepared to deal with all sorts of male stereotypes and some female stereotypes. The growing cast of characters are likable and cute and the somewhat crazy episodic adventures they go on often make modern statements about gender. I’ll be sure to review the next few volumes and I’d like to do a special post on relationships in Otomen since I couldn’t fit it in this post.