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Archive for September, 2012

Skip Beat! is one of those highly addicting series that’s hard to put down. Funny and drama-filled, it follows Kyoko, a young woman who decides to get into showbiz to best the rising star guy who used her good nature and threw her away. Some day I’d love to write a review on the series in general, but today I want to focus on something in particular: how interactions between women are presented. As I watch or read Skip Beat!, I have noticed that on her quest to rise up the ranks of stardom, Kyoko frequently is met by adversaries who try their best to trample her. Those adversaries are usually women. This alone doesn’t necessarily bother me; getting into showbiz is extremely difficult so, it makes sense that rivalry occurs. What bothers me is that these female rivalries are very reminiscent of mean girl behavior between women frequently portrayed in fiction and that those rivalries make up a majority of female interactions in the series.

From very early on in the series, Kyoko is faced with mean girl behavior. First, Kyoko meets Kanae (a.k.a. Moko) at an audition, where Moko is snide and hostile toward her for no other reason besides that she thinks Kyoko seems too ordinary and is competing against her. Soon after that, Kyoko is assigned to assist Ruriko, an up and coming actress who is spoiled and refuses to work with others yet puts up a nice face initially. She singles Kyoko out from the beginning as someone to use and bully, but her jealousy grows when Kyoko receives attention from popular actor, Ren Tsugura, whom Ruriko likes. Then there is Erika, who is not only spoiled but also a daughter of a big time businessman who used her family’s power to get herself the best roles and thwart any potential rivals. On top of all these rivals, nameless girls are constantly taking jibes at Kyoko, too.

But is this trend of female rivalry in Skip Beat! that much different from rivalry trends in other manga? In shonen (boys’) manga, the hero often has plenty of rivals of the same gender. One of the best examples of this is Naruto. Naruto starts off as an outcast who is disregarded by his peers and even made fun of. But as he gets stronger and proves himself repeatedly, he slowly begins to win the support of those peers. This set up is similar to what is seen in Skip Beat!. Kyoko is often underestimated by peers, but once she proves her acting skills and confronts the rivals in question, the girls at least acknowledge her and many even come to like her. Ruriko’s “battle” with Kyoko makes her realize how much she really loves acting and that she needs to compromise to work with others. Erika decides to stop relying on her family name to get roles but use only her own skills. Some rivals, like Moko, even become friends with Kyoko. This last bit is especially important because it allows readers/viewers to see character depth and development beyond the initial mean girl attitude and shows positive female relationships. Once friends, Kyoko and Moko help and support each other, breaking from the generally catty behavior shown of other young women.

Perhaps the trouble lies in the fact that many of the interactions between young women, rival or not, are coated with displays of the jealous, nasty, sneaky, and cutthroat behavior, even though there are some good female friendships. This is enforced with comments about Kyoko and Moko’s previous attempts at friendship: Moko says that the reason she never made female friends was because they gossip about/backstab others and and Kyoko always wanted female friends, but was shunned by the girls at her school for simply being close to a popular guy. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture of how girls behave among each other. While mean girls do exist and work well for a drama, it is a shame that fiction continuously focuses strongly on the negative because it creates the idea that mean girls are around every corner and overshadows healthy female interactions and friendships. So, it’s not just Skip Beat! but the combination of so many representations of mean girls in fiction that’s the real problem.

Luckily, Skip Beat! does have some positive female interactions as well and provides a heroine who doesn’t let anything defeat her. There also seem to be less mean girl scenarios as the series has progressed. So, don’t let my musings about female interactions stop you from giving either the manga or anime a try if you haven’t already! For those of you who follow the series, what do you think about how female interactions are portrayed? Do they contribute to mean girl stereotypes or is it just another drama filled with rivalry?

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Imagine a world where magicians aren’t just the hocus-pocus men with a cheap-looking cape who pulls colorful tissues from their pockets and coins from your ear at a 10-year-old’s birthday extravaganza. We’ve all dreamed it at some point in our lives, right? But what if a world filled with magic wasn’t as lovely as many of us like to imagine? In a bleak parallel world of The Bartimaeus Trilogy, magicians are the elite, power-hungry, and self-serving people who run the British government, suppressing the commoners (that would be you and me) by keeping them ignorant or, if that doesn’t work, by intimidation and brute force. Surveillance spheres reminiscent of Big Brother are set up about London allow the magicians to watch the commoners going about their lives constantly. The commoners aren’t the only ones the magicians suppress. In The Bartimaeus Trilogy, magic isn’t some obscure skill that allows a person to make something levitate or shot sparks from her fingertips; a magician’s power comes from the demon he summons into his world, enslaves, and forces to do his bidding. You may have read fantasy novels about magic before, but this series is unlike any other.

If magicians sound like terrible, unsympathetic beings, well, the author, Jonathan Stroud, won’t let readers off so easily. The first book of the series, entitled The Amulet of Samarkand, introduces us to Nathaniel, a 12-year-old apprentice magician trying to work his way through the cold system. Like all magicians, at a young age, he was separated from his parents and placed under the care of a full-fledged magician to cultivate those skills. Under the strict eye of his uncaring master, young Nathaniel was raised and studied the basics of magic. At last he is going to summon his first demon. That’s when his path collides with Simon Lovelace, a charismatic and established magician who cruelly and mercilessly humiliates the boy at a social gathering. Enraged by the mistreatment Lovelace inflicted on him and betrayed by his master who did not raise a hand to stop him, all in order to preserve his own image, Nathaniel plots revenge. Summoning Bartimaeus, a witting demon of power beyond the usual capabilities of a young apprentice, his first order is for the demon to steal a powerful magical item from Lovelace. With that one order, Nathaniel finds himself wrapped up in plots of murder, espionage, and rebellion.

Some of you may have noticed that I make no mention of a female character. Indeed, there is no lead female character in the first book. This disappointed me a bit. While I was somewhat unconvinced that the story was anything amazing at the beginning, the more I read, the harder it became to put it down; I ended up reading The Amulet of Samarkand quicker than I’ve read any book in a while and loved it by the end. I thought it would be that much better if there were just a female character who played an active part. Well, Stroud didn’t disappoint and upon picking up the second entry, The Golem’s Eye, I was introduced to the strong-willed and determined Kitty.

Unlike Nathaniel, Kitty is a commoner. As a young child, Kitty and her friend experienced the inequality of their government firsthand when a magician attacked them and then easily convinced the court system that he only acted in self-defense. Many of the commoners around Kitty are too scared or ignorant to do anything about such a corrupt system, but not her. Soon after this incident, Kitty joins a small group who have chosen to resist the magicians’ rule.

While Kitty only makes one brief appearance in the first book, in the second and third she is just as important a character as Nathaniel and Bartimaeus; she isn’t just some token female character created to appease female readers. The series is set up so that each main character gets chapters from their point of view which creates a feeling that each of them is equally vital to the story. And like the rest of the colorful cast, Kitty is a complicated character who avoids stereotypical traits. For once, the female lead is not involved in a romance (nothing against romance, but it’s a nice change) and it is made clear that she is a force to be reckoned with. Kitty gets my seal of approval.

In the three books that make up this trilogy, Stroud paints an addicting tale full of complex and fleshed out characters in a dark world. Flipping between the narratives of Nathaniel, Bartimaeus, and Kitty, he allows readers the insight of circumstances of each major group (magicians, demons, and commoners) that gives the series a well-rounded and more complex view of events. As these characters try to maneuver in the dangerous world where one wrong step could mean disaster, collide with each other, and grow, one can’t help but get caught up in their lives.

The series is young adult fiction and suggested for kids aged 10 and up, but Stroud’s masterfully crafted story allows older readers well beyond that of the suggested age group to enjoy it, too. It is humorous, thinks to Bartimaeus’ snarky and witting commentary, and adventurous yet full of social commentary, deep characters, and darker elements of the plot that ground it in the realms of reality and add intellect not seen in all of fiction. The trilogy is an original take on magic and the plot is filled with truly unexpected twists. If you liked Harry Potter, especially the later half of the series, or are just looking for a well-crafted and intelligent fantasy that will suck you in completely, I can’t recommend The Bartimaeus Trilogy enough.

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Manga, like fiction in general, doesn’t always give us the best female characters. Many female characters’ minds are filled with thoughts about appearance, such as if their chests are too small or if they should diet, and their aspirations and dreams seem limited to those that involve guys, everything a girl is supposed to think about in a nutshell so to speak. No surprise, they often are unable to handle anything more than making a meal or doing the laundry by themselves and sometimes the heroine can’t even do that.

Not Haruhi Fujioka, the blunt and independent heroine of Ouran High School Host Club, a romantic comedy about a “commoner” on a merit scholarship at the ritzy Ouran Academy who, after knocking over a vase and being mistaken for a guy, is commandeered into becoming part of the school’s host club (a place where, in this case, beautiful/handsome young men converse and entertain patrons) to pay off her debt. Of course, shortly after joining, the boys of the club all realize that Haruhi is, in fact, a bona fide girl. Yawning at the prospect of yet another heroine forced to cross-dress while surrounded by beautiful boys who will surely fall in love with her, one by one? Well, Ouran does things a little differently.

The keyword in the description is comedy. This series satirizes a lot of trends and stereotypes seen in manga such as harems, cross-dressing, and the types of characters that show up in the romance genre. For example, it is not uncommon to see characters in the romance genre divided between the characters involved in the romance and the romantically uninvolved side characters. In Ouran, the male lead of the story, Tamaki, literally draws a line on the floor to separate himself, the self-deemed love interest, from the rest of the main cast who he labels the “sexless” characters. Or how about the scenario where a love interest is thrown into a rage when someone causes the poor, defenseless heroine to cry? In this series, a fight occurs when it looks like Haruhi has been hurt and is crying, only for it to be revealed that she was not upset, her contact just popped out. 

The characters are equally entertaining. While Tamaki is prince-like in many ways, he’s also a narcissist and a (well-intentioned) idiot who is so blind about his feelings for Haruhi that he believes he has fatherly feelings for her; Kyoya is the “cool-type,” but is also propelled by making a profit and known as the “Shadow King” for his puppet master behavior; despite being a senior in high school, Honey looks and acts like a kid from elementary school yet is a master at martial arts and incredibly scary if woken up. The list goes on, but these are the types of characters you get with Ouran High School Host Club.

So, it is no surprise that the heroine of the plot is not so typical either. In many ways, I feel like Haruhi is almost the antithesis of a majority of heroines. She is intelligent and has dreams of becoming a lawyer rather than dreaming of boys; she’s independent and not afraid to speak her mind. This all comes through in the story, like the reason she attends Ouran Academy. Haruhi wanted to go there to get her closer to reaching her dream and achieved this through her academics. Compare that to heroines who choose schools based on how cute its uniform is. I also want to add that I’ve seen spunky heroines and meek heroines, ditzy and misunderstood, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across a heroine who is blunt and somewhat apathetic like Ouran High School Host Club‘s lead. It’s good (and amusing) to see such a different personality!

Because of this, like the story itself, Haruhi is put into classic manga scenarios, but usually handles them rather differently than your average manga heroine. For instance, if a female character with long hair has to cut her hair, it’s seen as a sacrifice (Sakura from Naruto, Keiko from Yu Yu Hakusho). In Ouran, Haruhi used to have beautiful long hair, but after a neighborhood kid stuck gum in her hair, she cut most of it off without batting an eye. The boys of the series regret the loss of her long hair, but Haruhi could care less. While I probably would be in the former category if I suddenly had to cut my hair, I love Haruhi’s attitude. She is removed from social pressures about appearance.

Another example is how Haruhi handled being mistaken for a boy. I have seen the cross-dressing scenario in manga before, but her reaction to the situation is unique. She doesn’t care about dressing like a guy. In fact, right after all the boys of the host club have finally realized that she is really a girl, she says, “I don’t really care if you guys recognize me as a boy or a girl. In my opinion it’s more important for a person to be recognized for who they are, rather than what sex they are.” (Episode 1, anime version) Seeing people for who they are on the inside is something that Haruhi brings up multiple times throughout the series. Can you imagine what fiction would be like if we saw more heroines with attitudes like this?

This outlook applies to her attitude toward the host club members as well. Instead of being one of the masses who can’t help but be charmed by the beauty of the boys of the host club at first glance (a scenario that appears in other manga in a non-comedy setting), Haruhi sees them for what they honestly are, the good and the bad. The audience is often treated to her humorously blunt insights such as when Tamaki goes on a rant about his beauty, Haruhi honestly thinks hard on the right word to describe him and comes up with “annoying,” instantly deflating his ego like a needle to a balloon.

The series is not without some problems. One such problem occurs in an episode in which, after Haruhi stands up to a couple of male bullies and is hurt in the process, a couple of the characters, and thus the story, focus too much on the fact that Haruhi was a girl going up against guys and the physical disadvantage she has as a girl instead of the idea that she needed to learn that she can rely on others sometimes, which I think was the main point of the episode. However, my overall impression of Ouran High School Host Club and its female lead are very good. So, if you’re sick of stereotypical heroines and plots or just want something a little different and fun, check out Ouran High School Host Club! You can watch the anime for free and legally on Hulu.com, but if you want the complete story, be sure to pick up the 18 volume manga series it is based on.

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