Otomen: Sexuality, Gender Role, and Coming of Age

Series Info
Title: Otomen
Author: Aya Kanno
Media Type: Manga (Japanese comic)

Warning: Potential spoiler. Proceed at own risk.

Since the topic of this manga is somewhat controversial, let us first have a brief assessment of where each of our opinion stands in the topic of gender role.  Since most of us will be reading this from the privacy of our own personal space and away from prying eyes, let us all be very honest to ourselves here and just accept whatever first comes to mind after these questions (be as vivid as you can):

  1. Imagine a small boy in a playground. What does he look like? Is he playing alone or with a friend? Who is his friend, boys or girls? What are they playing?
  2. Imagine a little girl. Let her be our little boy’s sister (doesn’t matter if she’s younger or older, but keep track on that). What is she doing? What kind of friend does she have, boys or girls? What are they playing?
  3. There are bullies in the playground. They ganged up against one of the kids. Are they boys or girls? Who do they choose to bully, the little girl or the little boy?
  4. What do you think the brother/sister of the bullied would do? Does s/he fight the bully, or cry for help, or run to get help?
  5. The parents come to stop the bully. Who stops the bully, mother or father? Who comforts the frightened child, mother or father?

Here are my answers. Very stereotypical, I assure you.

The little boy is role-playing superman with his friends, all boys, while his little sister plays with her girlfriends in the sand box, building castles and pretending they are princesses. There is a boy, however, in her group who plays the prince helping princesses from a dragon, or thieves. (This is totally random, by the way.) The bullies are big fat boys, too large for their age. They come after our little superman and belittle him for being small and weak. The boy, like a good superhero, does not want to use violence, so he tolerates being pushed around. His friends are trying to help but are pushed away by the bullies. The girl, upon seeing the situation, runs towards their parents who are in a house nearby. They come at once. Their father chases away the bullies, while marking them down one by one to make sure whom he needs to speak to afterward. Their mother rushes towards the boy on the verge of crying. Upon seeing that he is quite alright, she holds him close for a moment, and tells him that he is such a great hero. He only sniffles in reply.

I guess this summarize for us what we(I) think about being a man or a woman. A man is forward and aggressive, prefers confrontation, and daydreams about being the hero or the coolest guy on Earth. Woman is more timid, less aggressive, does not prefer confrontation, likes cute things, does the comforting, and daydreams of a hero to save her or of love.

We all know that is just the stereotype of man or woman. People we know do not always possess all these quality let them be men or women. But by picturing a random scenario, we see the ideology we are raised to believe. (And I repeat, we are raised to believe.)  It is not taught in school or by parents, but it is implied everywhere in our culture that it has become as natural as nature itself.

And it used to be much worst and more rigid with men dominating the workforce and women confined mostly to their household. It used to be that only woman can concern herself with her looks and make-ups. Man who cared about make-ups was once obviously gay. Gladly, those perspectives have slackened now with more women in the workforce, and more men have to share the household responsibility with their wives. Men can now extensively groom themselves now without being scrutinized. We are being more open-minded than we were half a century ago.

But not all stereotypical thinking is gone. What do you think of a married female boss who spent most of her time at work as opposed to a married male boss who does the same? What do think of a man who likes doing house work, watches soup-operas, knits, and makes wonderful sweets, as oppose to a girl who studies hard, plays for a soccer team, knows nothing of cooking, and can kick bullies’ asses? Which one are you more uncomfortable with or more disagreeable?

We are more open-minded, but in a biased way. Women now are praised for braving into the territories that was once dominated by men, but men are not praised in the same extend when they brave into the female territories.

The pressure on men who intentionally or unintentionally crossed the line of gender role is the primary focus of the Aya Kanno’s Otomen. To complicate matters, our brave agonist Asuka Masamune is a high-school student who has been scrutinized by his mother because his father walked out on their family to become a woman!

Asuka loves cooking. He likes sewing, knitting, and making cute stuffs. He likes stuffed animals and sweets, and loves to read romantic shojo manga. He, however, spends most of the time fulfilling expectations. He is an athlete and a top-notch student who refuses cookies and cakes brought to him by his female admirers to retain the image of a cool grown man who doesn’t like sweets. His worst fear is to have people know of his guilty pleasures and become labelled as less-than-a man, or worst still, a woman.

Asuka obviously confuses gender role with sexuality. His confusion is due to his mother’s fear and his father shocking confession. Asuka was too young back then to understand that his father wanting to be a woman has nothing to do with the liking of cute and girly things; a confusion which I believe is still true for many of us grown-ups. His mother’s strict view of men only enforced that connection, and Asuka was left to live in hiding for the rest of his childhood.

Things fall apart when he fall head over heel for one Ryo Miyakozuka, a girl from the same school. She invokes all kind of girly feeling from him including the fantasy of one true love.  He, of course, is more desperate than ever to get rid of his girlishness to be a real man for Ryo. Alas, the more he is in love, the more he fails to control the impulse, thus showing, unintentionally, the more girly side of him in front of his dream girl.

Does his liking of girly things make Asuka anything but a man? Obviously, no. Asuka may not be running after skirts, but he likes girls. He is as serious with Ryo as a teenage guy could be with a teenage girl. For Asuka, it’s love before sex, to love before to be loved, and giving before taking which basically, as one of his friends put it, makes his heart purer than any girl he had known.

Funny that girls should be associated with purity as if boys could not possess it. Kanno made this association repeatedly throughout Otomen both in comparing Asuka to girls and by Ryo’s own behaviour.

Ryo is supposedly a non-stereotypical Japanese girl. She cannot cook or sew. She likes guy-flicks, and, being raised by a martial artist, she is one herself. She has a nerve of steel and can calmly lead them through when Asuka is afraid.

Still, she possesses the quality of a girl: purity.

She is very understanding of Asuka’s condition, and accepts him as he is. When Asuka has to meet Ryo’s father who also has a very strict view of men, she stands by him and encourages him. When he tries to be a ‘real man’, she watches with concern. Ryo might be a stereotypical girl in most of her mannerism, but she is unconventional in her open-mindedness. Her understanding gave Asuka the space necessary for him to grow comfortable in his own skin. He was able to stand his ground against all criticism because he knows that he is loved, and grows past his insecurities to really be a man.

It is not just Asuka who suffers from this kind of scrutiny and judgement. Many of the characters that Asuka meets along the way also suffer from stereotyping. Many he has helped to come to term with themselves.  One interesting character is a junior in Asuka’s school who is often mistaken for a girl even though he is a boy. He suffers differently from Asuka who in all appearance is manly. It takes time for him to understand that his suffering is mostly from his own stereotypical thinking than how other people has treated him.

However, there are more abstract and far-reaching topics that Otomen does not address, like men as the protectors and providers. These are the roles most affected by the recent recession in the US where many man became jobless and dependent of their wives. Some can survive this role-switch rather easily, some with difficulties. This is not a problem of identity like Asuka’s case, but rather of self-worth and pride. We used to, and many still, believe that man’s value came mainly from his success in work, the amount of money he brings back home, or the power he has. Women, on the other hand, are given values by their household, their children, and their husband before their jobs.

Kanno still writes Asuka as the protector and provider, the archetypical role of men. But she also writes Ryo as Asuka’s protector. In fact, the first time they confess their feelings for each other was through their promise to always protect one another. Asuka still does most of protecting, but we see Ryo steps up now and then (and typically end with Asuka professing dreamily of how cool Ryo is.)

So, I don’t think Otomen is a manga that plays on role swapping – it does very badly if that is the intention – but rather about the possibilities gender roles have blinded us from. This story, in essence, is still a typical Shojo manga. Asuka is still the gentleman, Ryo is his lovely sweetheart, but that is not all that there has to be in them and their relationship. Sadly, the progress in that part is pretty much non-existence and we are still left to see what would become of them. Hopefully, Kanno can regain the momentum of the story since it has decelerated (up to chapter 14) after the first few chapters. She has been dwelling too much on the ‘coming of age’ theme that it has become redundant. She might want to remember that coming to term with oneself is just the start of many things, and one of them is how the relationship with others will form.

All in all, I would say it is quite an interesting read. If anything, this manga really does serve its purpose; that is to make us rethink our view of gender roles, its relation to sexuality, and what it really means ‘to grow up’.

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