Asuka Masamune is everything society says a good, traditional woman should be: Asuka sews like no one’s business, cooks meals that are both delicious and aesthetically appealing, likes cute things and sweets and would choose pink over blue any day, has pure ideals of love, cleans, etc. In other words, this protagonist is the ideal woman. The thing is, Asuka is a guy. With that one detail, his interests become something to be ashamed of instead of proud.
As a child, his frail mother discovered his inclination toward sparks, cute things, and love stories and she begged him to give up his hobbies, saying that’s not what boys should be interested in. After this, Asuka realized his true self was a self he could never show. In a society where men are supposed to reject everything feminine to be considered “manly,” if his secret were to be uncovered, it would earn him scorn worse than if he were a man with the plague in the middle ages. Thus, he hid his true self well and struggled to become the ideal man. At seventeen, he’s an accomplished athlete, he’s stoic and tough yet chivalrous, and he applies himself to the warrior spirit. Everywhere he goes he sets the bar for the other guys and the girls love him for his cool image. Yet it’s all a facade and to make things more complicated, he’s fallen in love with the new transfer student, Ryo. What’s a guy to do when everything he really loves is considered taboo for a man and he’s constantly having to keep up a persona?
Otomen explores an issue that only a small portion of fiction dares address: the invisible, inflexible box that men are forced to occupy. It is cramped and ancient yet to step out of that invisible box and do something that is not limited to the limited definition of the ideal man means facing the firing range of society. Staying in the box is no easy task either. After all, the ideal man is more akin to a statue than human with his inability to show emotion and his purpose to be stable and hard. While women struggle to rise above stereotypes of weakness, men are pressured not to do anything to suggest any likeness to women. Unfortunately, as Otomen depicts, men and women alike hold people to these stereotypes and, sadly, many of us never question them.
Through Asuka, we get an idea of what it means to be a man struggling with societal expectations and personal feelings. He worries if his crush, Ryo, will ever be able to love a man who likes things that are not masculine. We also see the day-to-day fight he deals with to be someone completely different from who he really is. He feels he has no one to confide his true self to, not even his family. However, as readers soon discover, Asuka isn’t the only one who doesn’t fit the narrow molds assigned to genders; Ryo can’t seem to pull off things girls are supposed to be good at like cooking or sewing to save her, but is as tough and unshakeable as any “manly” man; and finally, Juta, a fellow male classmate who writes and draws a successful shojo series under a pen name. These are the first of what appears to be a growing cast of characters who don’t fit in a neat, old box of stereotypes and slowly Asuka is able to be honest about who he is.
So far, the series has tackled these issues relatively well. Mixing drama with comedy and romance in an episodic manner, it can exaggerate and go off into the realms of the fantastical, but it’s an enjoyable read that mixes in bigger messages about gender roles in a big way. It’s one of the few manga I’ve read where a male character has had an interest in things that are traditionally associated with women without being made a joke (usually a thinly veiled one about that stereotypes gay men).
It’s not easy to juggle ideas of gender roles and at times I worried about stereotypes creeping in. The words “manly” and “girly”get thrown around a lot, which is an easy way to describe some things, but ultimately sticks to traditional ideas of gender. Asuka also has to play the hero like a traditional male protagonist. This sends the message that Asuka is still a man in the traditional sense. But even when I began to feel something was becoming a bit stereotypical, the series usually got back on track. For example, at times I felt Ryo was becoming a typical female love interest in that she gets saved by Asuka repeatedly, but then the series throws in scenes where Ryo works together with Asuka.
In closing, what I’m really liking about Otomen right now is that it addresses both female and male stereotypes, even if it’s not always prefect. I’ll be reading to find out if that continues as the series goes on!