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Review of Manga Cultures and the Female Gaze

By Brandon Murakami

Manga Cultures and the Female Gaze, Kathryn Hemmann, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Kathryn Hemmann’s first monograph, Manga Cultures and the Female Gaze (2018), is a significant contribution to the field of Manga Studies for its tracing of the impact female mangaka have had on both manga cultures as well as contemporary and transnational popular culture. By doing this, Hemmann’s work addresses “what it means to understand the female as a subject” through the medium of manga, and, more importantly, how readers, writers, and artists have diversified culture industries by utilizing the female gaze in terms of the kinds of stories told as well as the diversity of the creators themselves. Part of the allure of Hemmann’s book is their exceptionally clear writing paired with both their passion for the subject at hand and the occasional moments of personal history they pepper throughout the text. An example of this comes as Hemmann relays a series of questions they asked themself while working on a dissertation about the suffering of Kirino Natsuo’s female characters: “Wouldn’t it be nice… to write about something positive and uplifting for a change [as opposed to women’s suffering]? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to write about stories in which female characters do not have to suffer? Wouldn’t it be actually kind of cool to write about shōjo manga?” (5). This short but insightful anecdote then leads way to Hemmann’s core argument, that “female-driven fandom cultures have created a feedback loop that has driven cultural production and, with it, the culture of mainstream mediascapes” (7). Hemmann addresses how, through the medium of manga, strategic use of the female gaze pushes against the hegemonic “male-gaze” as well as masculinist and misogynistic ideologies (that, sad to say, are widespread and global) to impact other, related mediums and the culture industries—those domestic and transnational. They are quite ambitious in condensing this history of impact in a single volume. Yet, the intervention they make could not be more important in our understanding of the transnational flow of popular culture, the historical contributions of women creators in a predominantly male industry, as well as the influence and power of fandoms who create, read, and critique with the female gaze. 

Hemmann’s chapters are intuitively organized and showcase the lucidity of both their argument in each chapter and their interconnectedness to their overall project. Their second chapter, “Short Skirts, Superpowers, and the Evolution of the Beautiful Fighting Girl,” explores the female gaze in action by analyzing both Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth. Pushing back against the Japanese popular culture critics’ “phallocentric” points of view—such as those of Ōtsuka Eiji, Azuma Hiroki, and Saitō Tamaki—Hemmann highlights their limits in understanding the shōjo (“young girl”) and bishōjo (“beautiful young woman”) in relation to a female audience. Covering Takeuchi Naoko’s Sailor Moon (1991-97) and CLAMP’s Magic Knight Rayearth (1993-96), Hemmann points to how these two series mark a significant turning point against “patriarchal constructions of both shōjo and bishōjo characters and fandom cultures” (31). Of the two readings, Hemmann’s analysis of Magic Knight Rayearth is particularly intriguing as they explain the series’ tragic ending—which subverts the expected narrative conventions of the genre. While “youth and innocence have defeated maturity and adult sexuality… no one is happy” at Rayearth’s conclusion, thereby questioning the “cost” of victory and upsetting the cycle of overused tropes and narrative patterns (39). This exemplifies the power of the female gaze: women are agentic subjects rather than sexual objects “to be discarded once they are past their sexual prime” (39). In this way, Hemmann posits that both Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth are exemplary as early examples of how the female gaze can transform sexist, gendered tropes into appealing and empowering stories for its audiences.

Continuing their analysis of subversion in CLAMP’s works, the third chapter, “The Maiden and the Witch: CLAMP’s Subversion of Female Character Tropes” first analyzes two simultaneously published series by the group, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (2003-2009) and xxxHolic (2003-2011), each targeting a different demographic (shōnen and seinen, “boys” and “men”, respectively), before turning to a postfeminist and posthumanist reading of CLAMP’s seinen series, Chobits (2000-2002). At the core of this chapter Hemmann argues that CLAMP’s use of the female gaze subverts the sexist stereotypes of both the young girl (the objected and innocent virgin) as well as the older woman (the villainous, sexually awakened “mother” figure). This allows the series to “transcen[d] misogynistic genre stereotypes” rampant in shōnen and seinen and make possible “an alternative avenue for female empowerment” (48). Put another way, Hemmann argues that CLAMP’s success in creating strong female subjects in genres such as shōnen and seinen that would otherwise just sexually objectify them points to how hegemonic masculinist ideologies should not be taken for “granted during conversations about work by women, for women, and about women” (71). In a larger sense, the success of these series does indeed question the “validity and necessity” of the genres and their heavy reliance on narrative conventions and stereotypes (62). If CLAMP’s success laid the groundwork for more female creators to employ the female gaze within the manga industry, Hemmann’s following chapter explores how “amateurs” participate in the “media mix” and continue to subvert the male gaze within “male-dominated media ecosystems” (77). 

The “media mix,” is, as Marc Steinberg explains, the “phenomenon of transmedia communication, specifically, the development of a particular media franchise across multiple media types” (78). Hemmann’s fourth chapter, “Queering the Media Mix: The Female Gaze in Japanese Fancomics,” focuses on dōjinshi (“self-published fanzines”) of CLAMP’s xxxHolic. Hemmann also introduces elements of a common subgenre of shōjo manga, “boys’ love” (BL), such as the seme/uke pairing which they expand on in chapter five. What is particularly significant in Hemmann’s analysis is the effect the female gaze has on BL narratives; these narratives challenge the preconceived notion that the “passive partner should always be depicted and read as female” thus, BL “queers” gendered stereotypes through homoerotic pairings (88). Ultimately, for Hemmann, dōjinshi made by fans “creatively subverts the sexism, gender roles, and narrative phallocentrism implicit in many manga narratives written for a male audience” at the same time that the production and circulation of dōjinshi participates in the media mix, and by extension, opens it up “influence of queer and female voices” (81, 95). It is this influence that Hemmann examines in popular culture of the past decade (2010s) within a transnational context in the following chapter. 

Continuing their examination of dōjinshi, “Beautiful War Games: Transfiguring Genders in Video Game Fancomics” looks at how Japanese fans utilize BL tropes and conventions to queer both (male) characters and “masculinist ideologies” in Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VII (1997) as well as disrupt “sexist depictions of femininity” in Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Warriors Legend (2016) (105). In their analysis of 50 dōjinshi of the Cloud/Sephiroth pairing, Hemmann concludes three narrative patterns that each “[subvert] the grand narratives of the source,” in other words rejecting the violence of the game’s original plot to imagine a different (and more romantic) ending (109). The dōjinshi thus arises as an embodiment of “resistant reading” (109). It is here that Hemmann transitions to the divided controversy surrounding Linkle, a supporting character in Hyrule Warriors Legend.

At the core of the debate over Linkle is not her existence in the game, but rather her character design which, for American feminist audiences, was seen to continue the trend of the “sexualization of young female characters in video games” (117). Hemmann, however, notes that “Japanese fans see no reason to take a straight male gaze for granted in their reading and reception of any given text” (117). For Japanese audiences—and, implicitly, as a result of the female gaze’s impact on Japanese popular culture—they argue that “it is generally understood that the male gaze and the female gaze can coexist without conflict, often within the same text,” a development only possible when the female gaze has made a palpable impact on the production of popular culture (118). Thus, the production of dōjinshi as well as fan-made games reveals how digital texts can be “challenged” and indeed, “deconstruct[ed] and reconfigure[ed] to better reflect social and political concerns as well as [the creators’] own personal identities” without adherence to presumed readings (118). Continuing their analysis of fan-produced narratives of the Legend of Zelda series, Hemmann’s penultimate chapter addresses the universally acclaimed Switch-platform game, Breath of the Wild (2017).

In chapter six, “Link Is Not Silent: Queer Disability Positivity in Fan Readings of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” Hemmann analyzes fan-produced texts which portray the widely popular fan theory that Link, the protagonist and character the player controls, is “hard of hearing or speech-impaired” and, in turn, imagine a world (albeit, a virtual one) where “difference is enthusiastically accepted” (125). Taking an interdisciplinary approach between Queer and Disability Studies, Hemmann seeks to “explore queerness beyond representation” and how digital mediums—such as video games and social media—allows for transnational fan communities to create nuanced “heterogeneous readings and interpretations” (126). 

Fanworks, as they argue, “push the culture forward” because they can imagine “more supportive spaces to explore representation,” echoing the impact that creators—industry and fans alike—have had on normalizing the female gaze across the Japanese media mix (126). Hemmann’s most spectacular sentence finds its home in this chapter: “This portrayal of Link as neurodivergent and differently abled in the context of a homosexual interspecies relationship effectively serves to queer the ableist and heteronormative ideologies that inform the narrative of Breath of the Wild” (130). Indeed, the widespread acceptance and perpetuation of Link’s various “differences”—queerness, disability, social anxiety, etc.—imagines “deeper configurations of belonging and exclusion” and an “almost utopian reality” where there no one is “othered” to the point of rejection (139). These kinds of fan readings, Hemmann argues, not only reject the inherent “straightness of the text” and the “exclusionary ideologies” implicit in video games but have, by extension, questioned the “normative ‘default’ avatar” as “male, straight, neurotypical, and able-bodied” in their transformation of Link in this case (140). Looking beyond this particular instance, Hemmann suggests how these kinds of fan communities and the interconnectedness of social media platforms possess the “potential to facilitate the spread of acceptance and positivity, not just across borders of difference in personal identity but across national and linguistic borders as well” (140). Perhaps, appropriately, Hemmann’s final chapter then turns to the influence of the female gaze and of shōjo manga on American cultural productions as well continues their discussion of “transnational manga fandom communities” (15). 

Hemmann’s final chapter, “The Cultural Cross-Pollination of Shōjo Manga,” fulfills the book’s ambitious trajectory by addressing how the female gaze by professionals, fans and fan communities alike have thus impacted the global culture industries. After tracing the publishing history of shōjo in the American mediascape, Hemmann then turns to contemporary examples of its influence on shows such as Bee and PuppyCat (2013—) and Steven Universe (2013-19). The easter egg allusions of shōjo—such as the reference for Sailor Moon in an episode of Steven Universe—as well as the literal inspirations of shōjo—that the titular Steven is himself a magical boy—go beyond visual representation. As Hemmann argues, “These themes of shōjo manga found their way into online message boards and comment sections, and they exerted just as much of an influence on the dominant conversations of fandom cultures as they did on visual motifs and stylizations” (155). This then, as Hemmann suggests, is the raison d’etre for the rise in female animators and comics artists in contemporary culture today: nurtured and inspired by the strong female characters and the challenging of masculinist, misogynistic stereotypes, creators like Rebecca Sugar, Natasha Allegri, and countless others, continue to contribute to the feedback loop of shōjo manga and in the application of the female gaze. In the final pages of their book, Hemmann addresses the increasingly blurry line between the “professional” and the “amateur” particularly as content industries and social media have become “more creator-centered media econom[ies]” (165). By pointing our attention to the ways that “fandom is a digi-gratis space” fulfilling ultimately two purposes, “play” and “profit[,]” Hemmann leaves us with much to consider as more and more examples of the fan-turned-successful-content-creator invokes the history they map. Thus, we might be more attentive to not only the creative potential of the individual fan-creator but also to the longer lasting impact their work might have on the transnational level. 

While Hemmann’s work is impressive in its scope, and its dialogue with relevant and major academics in diverse fields is a much-needed intervention in the influence of shōjo on transnational popular culture, there are a few shortcomings for readers to consider. First, the range of texts Hemmann covers is quite limited given the scope of their texts of analysis in comparison to shōnen’s and shōjo’s long history in Japan, and one wonders how the female gaze works across the genre in a post-Sailor Moon era. Second, an interesting addition might be statistics and financial numbers of the “official” and “amateur” industries to give a better sense of scale and fiscal power that fandom has, comparatively. Third, while Hemmann does spend some time with social media and social networking sites, the rise of content-creator platforms (like Patreon, for example) and its impact does cross the reader’s mind, particularly in regards to the last two chapters. Finally, one does wonder how Hemmann would read works by female authors that do not necessarily employ the female gaze but engage in the “fan service” the shōnen genre is well-known for and how they might read manga series that are much more contemporaneous than those they mention here. For example, Ōtaka Shinobu’s Magi (2009-2017) series, Kato Kazue’s Blue Exorcist (2009—), Adachitoka’s Noragami (2010—), or Gotōge Koyoharu’s Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba (2016-2020) either cater to the envisioned male audience or seem to neither take up a male nor female gaze.  

All in all, Kathryn Hemmann’s insightful book adds a much-needed perspective on our understanding of the field of Manga Studies and its interconnectedness to closely related disciplines and mediums, particularly as Japanese popular culture, despite the relative cooling down of the “Cool Japan” frenzy during the 2010s, continues to inspire and draw audiences to professional and fan-made content. At the same time, their lens of the female gaze, particularly as it extends throughout the genre of shōjo manga and related mediums, is indeed a useful tool for analysis and critique of a specific trend in what is often seen as an overwhelming flood of content from creators and fandom communities; perhaps, such a lens may further transform the genre, the medium, and the field, to more diverse, accepting, and inclusive futures. 

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