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How many times have you read a story about a nice girl head over heels for a guy who seems to treat her like dirt yet is still supposed to be a “good” guy, the guy all the girls dream about? Fiction often gives us tales that are more fun in one’s dreams than in reality and the rough, forceful guy appears to have landed a place in the dreamworld of many a teenage romance stories. But what does it say to young readers, both male and female, if the guy who treats the girl poorly ends up capturing the girl’s heart, sometimes over the choice of a “nice guy” rival? It’s one thing to see that scenario once or twice every couple of years, but when it’s in every other story, people unconsciously start forming ideas over what they read and see everyday. That’s why I was happy to see one manga series that seems to have something else to say about romance to its readers.

In Otomen, Asuka, the guy who loves things like cooking, sewing, romance, and cute things, falls for Ryo, the girl who can’t cook or sew, but can show you martial arts skills that would make even a burly guy think twice about challenging her. It’s the typical opposites attract, but instead of the good girl-bad boy combination that seems so prevalent nowadays in which the good girl must soften the guy’s hard exterior, Asuka and Ryo accept each other as they are and help each other grow. As two people who fall outside gender stereotypes, it can be hard on them to accept themselves at times. Asuka especially is burdened with self-doubt about himself. When he first meets Ryo, he worries that she won’t like a guy who has “girly” interests. But when Ryo discovers Asuka is, in reality, not someone who society would traditionally call “manly,” she doesn’t like him any less. In fact, she accepts him completely, making Asuka realize he wants to, and can, show Ryo his true self. Ryo’s one of the first people he’s felt like he can truly be himself with.  When Asuka starts to feel down about himself, Ryo is always there, cheering him up and accepting every part of him.01_050

While Ryo is much more comfortable with herself, even she has moments of self-doubt. When Ryo is elected to represent her class in a contest to find the most ideal woman in the school, Ryo feels a lot of pressure to not let her classmates down. But she knows that while she might look pretty, internally, she doesn’t match what society thinks an ideal woman is: a woman who is delicate and demure, can cook beautiful and tasty meals, make tea, clean, etc. She’s not good at household things and would choose an action flick over a romance any day. She tries her hardest, but after failing the first two rounds, her classmates are calling her clumsy and Ryo feels she’s a disappointment. Asuka attempts to cheer her up, but Ryo says she’s realized that as a woman she needs to learn things like sewing and cooking and generally how to be more feminine. In one of my favorite moments so far, Asuka confesses he likes her just the way she is and wants her to stay like that. He tells her that if she can’t cook or sew, he can.lotomen_v05_p043

In a way, that really sums up what Asuka and Ryo’s relationship is like; what Asuka feel he lacks, Ryo makes up for and vice versa. It’s one of the most balanced relationships I’ve seen in more recent shojo. Is it a little too rosy and perfect? Yes, but in comparison to other romance fantasies, I love this one which shows a type of relationship with an underlying message that’s healthy and modern: find someone who thinks you’re wonderful for all your faults and all your strengths and support each other.

If that isn’t enough of a message for you, Otomen also goes so far as to make fun of the jerky love interest type. One of Asuka’s friends, Yamato, a boy who looks like a girl, but wants to be manly, struggles with impressing girls so, he does a practice date. It turns out Yamato is one of those people who buys into the idea that jerky guys are cool and as a result, he comically makes a mess of his practice date. He shows up late dressed like a punk(?) because cool guys are supposed to make their girls wait, tries to act tough, pulls his “date” forcefully along without saying anything, and more. I loved this chapter since everything Yamato does to be the “cool” jerk ends up going over poorly. While stuff may seem romantic in fiction, it may not be so cool in real life and Otomen depicts this in quite an amusing fashion.

What do you think? Is Otomen giving readers a better idealized relationship or is it just another example of unattainable perfection? And what do you think of the other relationship trends in fiction? Seriously problematic or just fantasy?

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51HS5B-v9gL._SY300_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.51iSqS6G3KL._SY300_

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.

51yi06ATKLL._SY300_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.

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