A Soft Defense of Axis Powers: Hetalia from an Old Hetalia Fan

When the news broke that we’d be getting a new Hetalia animated series in 2021, I wanted to be happy. I wanted to celebrate and relive my glory days in a fandom that came to define so much of my life but I didn’t feel like I could. Over the years, the anime and the fandom that surrounds it has been a, to be honest, mostly deserved problematic mess due to the series’ subject matter and what some in the fandom do. But, some bad apples were never meant to spoil the bunch and thus, I write to you all, a small defense of Hetalia from one old fan who wants to taste glory again. 

It was college, my first year and my first time really being away from friends and family for an extended period of time. I was alone, struggling and felt overwhelmed and afraid. My mental health was in the trash bin and I mostly suffered quietly reassuring my aunts and mom that I was fine and making friends when in all honesty I mostly ate lunch alone in my dorm and had to wait for my two roommates to be out of the room to do anything that I actually liked doing. This was before the Glorianna of my junior and senior years running the anime club and was me at my worst: isolated, insecure and overwhelmed. I had given up a lot of my anime and manga in the transition to college, desperately hoping that the intense fandoms I held in my “youth” would be the phase my aunt asserted it would be. I went to college trying to pretend like that part of me didn’t exist and failed in the second part of the semester. I was back into anime due mostly to a slate of series that would end up becoming formative to me thanks to RP and my then best friend, Nicole. It was thanks to her that I was brought into a little series called Axis Powers: Hetalia. Hetalia is a play on words for the Japanese words for useless and Italia for Italy. The series features around personified countries during mostly World War II but also has some other periods of time mentioned throughout history and modernity. The series mostly centers around the Axis Powers: Northern Italy, Germany and Japan and their struggle against the Allied Powers: England, France, America, China, Russia and whoever else decides to join them for the sake of narrative. 

You can see the inherent issue, right? Japan has a long history with not seeing WWII so much as a bad thing but a strangely fun part of history. To this day you can see people in Waffen SS uniforms for the sake of style and clout just walking around. Japan’s problematic love-love relationship with Germany and Nazi paraphernalia is not something I have time to go into in full here, but needless to say; Hetalia suffers majorly from the bias of a Japanese man who wrote a comic as a racist joke while he was living in New York and continued on to impress upon the world his biased history of the world. Taken as writ, Hetalia is kawaii propaganda and I loved every second of it. 

The countries have dynamic character designs and personalities: the history is loose but hey, that’s not why I was there. I was sold from day one. I had characters I fell in love with, ships I wanted to sail and navigate and more importantly, it gave me something to do with my time. See, Hetalia, for having such a weak plot has a ton of trivia attached to it. Each country has a human name, a birthday, things they like and don’t like and complex relationships not just tied to history. There are character songs, drama CDs, each country has their own version of the ending theme song not to mention at least 2 character songs that can tell you so much about them and their history that you’ll never learn in the main series of manga. There were interactive flash games, the original webcomic and oh the fandom flourished.

Hetalia is the best kind of series for fangirls active in the shipping arts; it’s sort of a boy’s love by omission. Most of the female characters are so weakly written that they don’t matter and most of the countries are male and often enter marriages or alliances with each other or have very close bonds with each other due to shared history. You could, in theory, make an argument for any ship and likely there was historical, social or political context for it beyond just the show putting them in a scene together. Immediately, I was enraptured. I spent time learning human names and birthdays (many of which I still know to this day), learning and translating character songs and writing; oh the writing. I carved up the map with my friends, laying claim to countries and taking a masturbatory pride in whose flag we claimed. The flags I flew and still do fly to this day are: France and Austria but I laid claim to many other countries. The series was exactly what I needed to help me connect to others.

But immediately, upon entering the wider fandom outside of my friend group; I was met with a group of mostly young girls that…well, let’s just say weren’t always on their best behavior. Now, I’m not here to shame DFW Hetalia: but their tactics to abuse badges is why so many panelists have to go through hell now to get badges for their volunteers; not to mention their clichy nature and less than high regard for public spaces: they were sharks in bad wigs. The rest of the fandom…well, let’s just say that the stories, no matter how horrible, are often true. Many have kept the Nazi parts of their uniforms on screeching that it’s costume accurate. Some have posed in front of concentration camps…some have done other Nazi stuff. I can’t believe I’m writing this. Honestly, I was never shocked by this behavior mostly because most anime fans are already so culturally abandoned as Americans that we’d willingly side with literally any other country and the narrative as writ in Hetalia that Japan only joined the Axis Powers to make new friends. Hetalia also does a very smart narrative trick where it asserts that the countries as we see them are more representatives and they have “bosses” (the leader du jour) that really control their movements. So Germany didn’t do a Holocaust, Germany’s boss (Hitler) did. It’s a great narrative tool: it keeps the characters sympathetic: like a good German soldier, Germany was just following orders. 

To be clear, the bulk of the fandom isn’t running around as a bunch of cosplay fascists but the stories of bad behavior are hard to wipe away from the collective memory of the fandom and con world. Not to mention the real life consequences behind acting poorly. Think about the current angst that comes with being a fan of Harry Potter right now. It’s hard to distance yourself from the author’s objectively bad words and keep yourself steadily in the lane of fandom that doesn’t deny basic human rights to trans people. But now it feels almost dirty to be a Hetalia fan. The series has its own problematic elements if you ignore the less than perfect fandom and the less than perfect fandom is fed because the series is built on a problematic base. The rest of Hetalia centers around other world events and the movie doesn’t even talk about WWII. There is more to the series than its problematic base, but that will always be its foundation. It will always be a webcomic created by a man who clearly loves WWII and not so subtle casual racism and xenophobia.

But I’m still excited. I have made so many friends and made so many memories and got so much joy from this series. I was, and am, still a very proud Francis Bonnefoy and proud of the ships I sail. I’m proud of the headcanons and spirited conversations I’ve had. I’m proud of the nights I’ve spent up translating drama CDs and the pieces of trivia that are still in my mind a decade later. I’m still proud to be a fan of Hetalia but I am also so very aware of how very damaged this beautiful world I call home is. 

How Ludwig II Changed My Life

My history in the boy’s love space is indeed a storied one. I started in the genre of two pretty boys kissing when I was way below the age limit to be ingesting said content. But boy’s love kept me going while in high school as it gave me something to do and something to use to help me interact with my peers. Additionally, it helped me work through some gender angst I was going through at the time.

I didn’t remain enthusiastic about anime and manga when I went off to college; hoping that I would live my aunt’s asserts that my anime and manga fandom would be a phase I leave behind as I matured. That backfired splendidly in my sophomore year when I rediscovered anime and had gasp a small disposable income that no one could judge me over. I bought manga, watched anime and reconnected with a part of my soul that left me in my transition from youth to youth who could legally go off to war. 

But I still felt intense ennui and a lack of purpose in my life. I was in my late teens and away at college, still feeling much of the angst I felt when I was a young teen at home. That was until I met a very interesting King who would change the course of my existence. 

It was a gift. 

The manga was a gift. I was out with a friend and the spine of the manga caught my eye. Ludwig II by You Higuri. It had two pretty boys on the cover, looked historical and I was intrigued. I picked up the volume only to find that it was the story of a young stable boy and his dangerous love affair with the then king, Ludwig II, who is said to be mad. There is a shocking amount of drama and emotion in this story of what should be pretty straightforward for a boy’s love series; showing that indeed yaoi and shonen ai started as a parody of shojo manga. I ate it up. I loved the drama, the references to historical Germany (something that many people close to me know is a bit of an obsession) and I fell in love with the enigmatic and eccentric Ludwig II. 

It wasn’t until I got to the end of the manga that I realized that the main character whose charm I fell for was based on a real person. There was a real King Ludwig II, with whom the mangaka fell in love with during a trip to Germany. The real Mad King was ruler of Bavaria, probably wasn’t gay for his stable boy but was known for fits of violence, mood swings and his odd tastes. He loved castles. He built two beautiful castles: Linderhof and Neuschaiwnstein. One is the model for Disney’s imagining of Cinderella’s Castle and the other was built on the instruction of “Versaille but make it German.” 

Ludwig II was a patron of the arts, namely Richard Wagner, whom he supported and loved. If not for Ludwig’s time and money, we would not have Wagner’s work. And Ludwig, in his delusion, loved pretending to be the great Swan Knight Wagner imagined. He even had a special grotto built in Linderhof to act as a operatic backdrop to watch actors in little swan boats perform Wagner’s work as Ludwig rode along in another little swan boat because one can never have too many swan boats. 

We don’t know what Ludwig II was sick with when it comes to his “madness”. We just know that he was unwell. And we know that after trying to sell Bavaria to make more castles, he was ousted from power and he drowned himself in Lake Stern, just behind Castle Neuschwanstein. 

Consider it serendipity, but like Higuri-sensei; I too fell in love with the King. Not just the fictional character crafted for the sake of voyeurism, but the complex man who clearly was a little too sick for this world but also gave us so much with so little credit. Many know of Wagner but few know of Ludwig. Think if we only knew Shakespeare but ignored Queen Elizabeth I.  I voraciously consumed information about Bavaria’s Mad King. I read books, researched, practiced my German: all of it to please My King. Ludwig became a strange obsession of mine that kept me going through a particularly challenging college semester. Before I knew it, I was in deep. So deep that a funny little mention by one of my philosophy professors struck me like a ton of bricks. He said that while he would be the professor in the summer abroad that he’d be visiting some castle in Bavaria. As if possessed, I asked if the castle was Ludwig’s; and imagine my shock when he said yes. He spent the spring semester mostly cajoling me into going to Austria. I balked most of the time. The cost, the fact that I never left the country like that except for a trip to Mexico as a child I barely remember, the cost, the fear, the anxiety, the cost were all things that kept me firmly in the States while my professor got to see a castle I had dreamed about. He spent the fall semester encouraging me to go to Austria but I was afraid to do so.

The following spring I decided to do it. I still don’t know what fully convinced me to do so. But I did it. I decided to go to Austria knowing that King Ludwig’s castles would be a mandatory tour for the summer program.

That summer, a month before my departure, my mom died.

I was convinced that was the end of my Austrian sojourn. Convinced that I’d never be able to make it to Austria. Burying mom would cost too much; that I would have to be there for my family; that I would be too fragile. My aunts and grandmother did not share my sentiment and in fact, encouraged me to go. And so I did.

I can’t tell you how exciting it was to see the signs in Bavaria for Castle Neuschwanstein. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to be able to use my meager German to get around and how amazing it was to see 

I was told by a small German woman that the castle would be a short walk up mountain but for my king I proceeded to take my fat and asthmatic carcass up mountain to see the facade that was in my dreams. I gazed upon My King. I gazed upon his creation: one of his two children. He made miniature castles too: his little children. I wandered the halls he wandered. Saw the lake that claimed his body. Saw his home and wept. 

I ate lunch outside of Neuchswanstein and then it was off to Linderhof. I saw his Grottoes where he had special performances, saw his gilded excess, and was attacked by one of his terrible swans. I knew more than one of the tour guides there and led my small group of mostly bored Americans as we wandered the palace of extravagance and decadence. 

I still have the swan I purchased while visiting My King’s home. I still have the photos I took while visiting My King’s homes. I still have the books, brochures, postcards and more I purchased while visiting My King’s homes. 

It’s not hyperbolic to say that meeting King Ludwig II changed the course of my life. Without him; his charisma, his story, his madness; his glory, I would have stayed in the States. I wouldn’t have gone to Austria. I wouldn’t have left the States. I would have stayed small and I would have abandoned anime, manga and yaoi. I would have cast aside those parts of me that are now so important. I would be an entirely different version of myself; one I can barely fathom even if I truly stretch the limits of my imagination. 

I’m a different person because of King Ludwig II. And I do believe because of him; I have been changed for the better.

Return of the Hype

Man, it feels good to be the king.

Finally, after the summer that hype died, I finally know what it feels like once to be pandered to. My patience has paid off. Now I get to have my time in the sun. Today I want to talk about how I have been vindicated and all by a special anime announcement.

I’ve gone on record saying that Kou Yoneda’s Twittering Birds Never Fly is on my recommended reading list to better understand me as a complex human person. And it’s one of my favorite boy’s love mangas of all time. And after the summer where hype had left me, I found that I quickly retreated to things that made me feel alive. Twittering Birds Never Fly was one of those series I took refuge in and I continued to fawn over the brilliant artwork, complex storytelling and excellent pacing. Here’s a brief synopsis: Yashiro is the boss of a rather lucrative yakuza group and he is…complex. He has pent up feelings from a crush he’s had since high school on top of a sex drive that would make most hosts blush. Emotionally, he’s pretty calm, you never really know what he’s feeling as he often will say rather cruel things with a smile. Yashiro finds himself smitten over his new bodyguard, Doumeki, who is pretty aloof and pretty cold but rather quickly expresses feelings for the handsome Yashiro. Yashiro wants nothing more than to sleep with his bodyguard but Doumeki confesses that he is in fact impotent. The series covers plenty of twists and turns, emotional highs and lows and lots of yakuza action as well as a love story that makes sure you feel every ounce of tension between the characters. The cast is actually fairly large, you meet plenty of other yakuza bosses and plenty of underlings but no one is a waste of space or is just a filler character. I could honestly write an entire blog post on just how much I love this series but I want to highlight a particular point: the series is problematic but there’s a few things that save it; what saves it is context and reward.

Yashiro is a garbage person and I’m not going to fight anyone who dislikes this series’ strange obsession with sexual violence and the cesspool that is literally every character. Really, there’s only a couple of characters that you can “look to” for relief one of them being Yashiro’s childhood crush, Kageyama and Yashiro’s underling, Nanahara, and really that’s it? Everyone else is pretty terrible but it is a series about gangsters so abandon all hope ye who enter here. But for every act of violence, every cruel sexual act, every crass line is framed in a way that does not reward terrible characters and without giving too much away, no one really gets off easy when they do something terrible. I can respect that this is a bitter pill to swallow narratively but no one gets rewarded for being a monster and that’s what makes it so much easier to digest this series for me. It was, in fact, the darker storyline that really related to me. Longtime blog readers will know that my childhood and teen years were a little less than sugarplums and rainbows so I don’t always relate well to candy-coated stories: I can relate to Yashiro’s background of abuse, pain and wanting to run away from feeling anything negative and thus sinking into hedonism.

But considering that I was one of five people in the U.S. to read this series, I never held out much hope that it would get an anime. In fact, I had done a few fan casting moments with friends. I had picked Daisuke Namikawa for Yashiro and Kazuhiko Inoue for Doumeki because of course I did.  But oh I was wrong that no one would be willing to animate this wonderful manga. Blue Lynx decided to take a chance and have animated this series and I was over the damn moon. When I saw the mangaka tweet about the pilot, I nearly cried. The animated teaser was so fluid and so beautiful and seeing the lines from the first volume of the manga come to life with brilliant color just made my heart sing. So that’s what color Yashiro’s suit is. That’s what Doumeki sounds like. That’s what the city looks like and Yoneda-sensei’s art style lends so well to being animated. She has a mastery of lines, proportions and design and it looks almost like someone just filled in the manga pages with color.

And that’s not all. An anime means merch and after the pandering that came with the summer that hype died, now I get to feel what it’s like to be pandered to. Yashiro and Doumeki dressed as 1920s American Gangsters? Sold. Want to see Yashiro and Doumeki dressed like they’re going to the beach? Done. Want to see side stories, omake, hear Drama CDs and see promotional art? You are in luck. It’s wonderful to see one of my favorite series of all time all over my social media feed. It’s wonderful to hear people talk about a manga that when I mentioned it, no one else seemed to know about. It’s wonderful to feel hype for once. I want to see how they’ll adapt certain parts of the manga, how they’ll tackle certain issues. Will things change? Will they stay the same? Oh the suspense is killing me, I hope it never stops.

I was worried that the hype center of my brain had died, that I had lost something, that I would never be excited for something again. But no, dear reader, I’m not broken: just bored. And now, I have something to look forward to, something to set my sights on, something to look forward to and talk about, study, and discuss.

I can’t wait for this anime to really get started. And it feels so good to be excited about anime once more.

Falling in Love With Anime Again

_Wise men sayOnly fools rush inBut I can't help falling in love with you (1)

Ah, yes. Now is finally the time for me to do my long-awaited total autopsy on the myriad of reasons I hated Yuri on Ice!. Just kidding, we will talk about that a little but really only to highlight on a bigger point. This, much like Deadpool is a love-story. It’s the story of how this anime Stella got her groove back and how I fell for the medium that propelled me to middling convention success.

But some background. I sound so tsundere talking about YoI because honestly, it’s fine. My feelings have long since simmered away from active hatred to just more of rounded disappointment. It’s odd watching an anime that was like genetically modified for me to like it. Victor’s every 90s anime boy in one and Yuri’s literally a cinnamon roll with no personality. But to me it was so aggressively average that its stans simply exhausted me. I had no patience or desire to deal with people who said it’s the greatest show ever. It was Free! but with ice-skating instead of swimming down to the completely interchangeable doormat of a dark-haired main character to the far more charismatic side cast and a second season full of more interesting characters that we can’t focus on because we gotta focus on the breeding pair that faces zero tension or conflict.

I’m getting ahead of myself.  We’re here to talk about love.

So after my heart was ripped out of my chest by the summer, fall and winter of gay ice-skating, I was actually pretty burned on all things. It was like the world had lost its luster and while I still very much enjoyed the classics (they’re classics for a reason) I had a hard time enjoying new things. Close friends and followers will recall my immense disappointment with Pokemon: Sun/Moon and Pokemon: Ultra Sun/Moon. It was like a fog floated over me. I was afraid to like anything too much for fear that I would hear Victor’s smug cackling in the back of my mind as if to mock me and my feelings of ambivalence and continue to damn me for feeling something that wasn’t unfettered and overly enthusiastic support.

And then Hitorijime My Hero started.

This is an old boy’s love story. I vaguely remembered each character or at least the shape of them. The plot is…simple? Setagawa is a high-school student who looks up to his sensei, Kousuke and Kousuke is older and a teacher and thus conflama. In addition there are side characters who are far less important than Masahiro Setagawa and Kousuke Oshiba: they matter the most to me and the most to the show. And honestly, breaking it down, this is a re-skinned Gravitation but instead of Shuichi being an idiot, he’s a sensitive and conflicted student who falls in love with the only person who treats him as a complex human being rather than a pawn or puppy and the stand in for Yuki Eiri is actually loving, kind, supportive and protective: so the opposite of Gravitation. It’s a simple little story. It isn’t trying to be more than  what it is. It isn’t claiming to be more than what it is. It’s a basic love story with plenty of heart and even though the last couple of episodes with Kousuke’s dumb and contrived plan to “test” his relationship are stupid on Yuki Eiri levels; I can mostly forgive this show.

The show never tries to be more than it is and is really simple. And for that very reason, I fell in love. It wasn’t the greatest, no one said it was the first, the best, the anything. This goes back to my earlier thesis statement of people reading too much into “It’s okay.”

I was floored with how hyperbolic the discussion around YoI was. Yuri is not the first anime character with anxiety. Victor is not the oldest love interest in a boy’s love series. Yurio is far from the most complex rival. All the beats of the series have been done by other series (some series have done those beats better) and while sure, YoI did fine with its depictions, it was far from the best, brightest or anything: it was an animated television show about ice-skating that was very gay.

But what Hitorijime My Hero does well, it’s good at. The voice acting (at least subbed, I cannot speak for the dub) was wonderful and from the start of episode 1 with Setagawa saying that he looked up to the heroes he saw on television and how they helped him cope with his less than ideal life. I loved the opening theme, the closing theme. I loved all of it. And I was far from the only fan talking about the show. But no one had the audacity to say that the show was doing anything revolutionary. I fangirled over this series like many I’m sure did when they decided ice-skating was cool. I sketched costumes, learned theme songs, memorized dialogue and I fell deeper and deeper for the show. I finished season one satisfied and despite my love of it, it passed through me. My life moved on. It didn’t make history, I wasn’t forever changed. I was fine with it and still am. I never finished my costume but the high I felt while trying to morph my body into something that looked like Kousuke Oshiba is a joy I still feel.  The anime made me happy for one glorious and fleeting seasons and like then, it was done.

Hitorijime My Hero never tried to be more than what it is. And for that, I love it.

 

The Woman, Framed

“I hope she'll be a fool -- that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.png

I still remember the first boy’s love series I picked up as a young one. It was Gravitation when I was a youngling and almost immediately I loved how radically different the series from from the shonen action fodder that dominated my anime landscape.

Ever since then, I’ve been a huge fan of shonen ai. For one reason or another, I found the aesthetic and tone much more rewarding and interesting than the typical  romance anime and their shojo counterparts. But because shonen ai by default focuses on male characters, the women in them tend to be…well, they’re something. And sure, we’ll pause here for the folks saying:

Well, why are you up in arms about the women in a boy’s love comic?

Because biologically, I’m female and boy’s love is, hilariously, mostly read by women; particularly, young women and the internalized misogyny attached to the genre can be very damaging.

Today we’re going to go over the three main ways women are framed in boy’s love narratives.

For some vocabulary, framing is how we look at a person or a person’s actions. We’ve talked a lot about framing this year but I think it’s an important part of fictive language. Even though we may know a character is in the wrong or in the right, the framing around that act or character can flip those two things very easily. Again like with Killmonger in Black Panther or Thanos in Infinity War the movie frames them oftentimes in the right even though we know they are both genocidal and very very wrong. Framing is an issue because as a viewer, it isn’t always easy to point out the negative in that character. If everything else in the film or work is telling you that this thing, character or act is okay it’s difficult to buck against that even though you may know logically or in your heart that it may not be true.

And now without any further interruption: here are a few ways that women are framed in boy’s love.


The Woman, Obstacle

This is probably the most common and most hurtful. The woman in so many narratives from Gravitation to Yellow feature subplots or plots where the woman stands in the way of the love between the two male leads. Now, this isn’t entirely unheard of. Sometimes men do discover they do not care for their female partner and try either out of curiosity or genuine desire to be themselves be with a male partner. And sure, not every woman is gracious during such a time but the idea that the woman is a consistent barrier to love is frustrating and exhausting. You also see this a lot in fanfiction where authors who wish to ship two male characters will demonize the female aspect the more canonical heterosexual pairing. This is troubling for more than one reason, the first is again the often flat out demonization of the female for standing in the way. Gravitation is the example I’ll use because it is still one of my favorite animes of all time and does absolutely face is issue. Right as Yuki and Shuichi are ready to finally say they are together, a young woman appears claiming to be Yuki’s fiance. This throws a wrench into the entire plot of these two men finally accepting that they may have feelings for each other and the plot (which is peak Murakami hating women and she will continue to do this in almost all of her works for the series) is a series of sight gags trying to get this woman (whose name I refuse to Google or recall) out of the way. Her refusal to “give up” Yuki, a man she is promised because Yuki’s father is a terrible garbage fire of a person along with the rest of the Uesugi family is seen as not courageous or valid but as irksome and immature. Eventually, the plot of the anime and manga give her the sloppy seconds that are Hiro and she is forgotten as Shuichi and Yuki find better things to argue about like whether Yuki is bisexual or gay.

Another example of this is Lizzie in Black Butler. Lizzie is…well, she is a precious little thing (says this Sebastian through gritted teeth). Lizzie is Ciel’s fiance and she is entirely oblivious to the obvious relationship between Sebastian and Ciel while also managing to be the one thing that keeps Ciel from completely diving off into the abyss of the black space where Sebastian’s heart would be. Lizzie’s helplessness and stupidity (which is somewhat corrected in later parts of the manga and the movies but as far as I am concerned, the damage is already done) make her an item that often requires saving: she is in fact that only character that requires as much saving as The Little Master does. Her needing rescuing and just well, existing on screen takes moments away that are more vital to the narrative and Black Butler has a lot going on; story-wise, we simply don’t have time to humor Lizzie and thus she’s consistently one of the least popular characters in the series.


The Woman, Duplicitous

Ah yes, the woman who plays the field for the sake of ruining the main couple. If there is a more common trope in boy’s love, it’d likely only be rivaled with bad hand proportions and hair that covers over one of the protagonist’s eyes. I’ll pull one more Gravitation example because this is my blog and I can do what I want. Yuki’s sister, Mika (who confirms the concept of the Uesugi family being full of garbage people) spends most of the manga and a vast majority of the anime gaslighting Shuichi for the simple sake that she doesn’t like the pink-haired brat with her precious little Eiri. There’s just one problem: this is awful and manipulative and tiresome. And while, yes, Gravitation is an adventure in keeping Yuki Eiri miserable, it’s particularly harmful because Mika is one of the few female characters that: 1) is important 2) has a great deal of lines and 3) isn’t a moron. Mika’s fall from grace is tragic because of what she could be which is a supportive sister who does rightfully have some reservations about her brother’s new boyfriend. We’ll pull a recent example as well, Hitorijime My Hero is the anime that made my heart sing after the Summer of Incessant Ice Skating. Hitorijime My Hero is pretty standard as far as boy’s love plots go centering around Setagawa ( a high school student ) and his mentor and crush Kousuke. During one of the later episodes of the series, Kousuke’s somewhat overly protective friends including one of his stylish female associates decide it’s a great idea to plant seeds of doubt in Setagawa’s mind. Keep in mind, Setagawa comes from what may be one of the more tragic of backgrounds for a mainstream boy’s love character that includes him being a former member of a gang, a neglectful mother and him struggling with the fact that he is in love with a man that’s easily 10 years his senior. It’s actually such a turn from the heart of the series that it took me a while to get back to it: I felt Setagawa’s betrayal and resented the show for using such a cheap trick for the sake of plot advancement.


The Woman, Pious Saint

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the woman as victim and saint. This one is strange at first because it makes you wonder why it’s such a bad thing. Isn’t it good after all of these examples of women who are bad that a woman can be good and pure? Well, here’s why it’s a problem: it removes a woman’s agency and choice. A noted example is Lies are a Gentleman’s Manners where Dr. Haskins’ wife is absolutely oblivious and in the dark about just how much of a tool her husband is. Dr. Haskins is as garbage of a garbage person as you can get, he’s been cheating on his wife since before they were even married and in one of the best parts of the manga, Dr. Haskins is entwined with his polo partner: Danny, who mind you is also engaged to a lovely woman; all the while, Dr. Haskins refuses to acknowledge the commitments either men made to their respective future wives and during their time entangled, Danny’s fiance is looking for him, calling for him and she almost catches them in the act and while Danny struggled to stop the encounter, he didn’t want to be caught.  During the whole thing Dr. Haskins continues not only egging Danny on but actively stopping any of his partner’s protests towards the act. It’s selfish and terrifying. This sets up one, Dr. Haskins as a tool (we’ll pause here for people saying he’s gay and just trying to live his life but cheating is cheating) and that his wife can do no wrong as she is during him cheating with Danny which is alluded to be one of many times, is conveniently out of the country . What’s even more tragic is that Dr. Haskins is a loving family man on the surface despite his affair with the series protagonist, Johnathan. One of the most interesting scenes in Lies are a Gentleman’s Manners involves Johnathan meeting Dr. Haskins’ wife and daughter and she is nothing but gracious and loving and treats the starving college student to a lavish ice cream sundae. She seems totally unaware that her husband is a serial cheater and she praises how loving her darling is despite her constant traveling for work.

This is tragic. We see a woman who is so in love with her husband that she cannot see what is in places a very obvious lie. There are chapters in the manga where it doesn’t even seem like Dr. Haskins cares much about hiding his torrid affairs from his doting wife and robbing women of agency is a huge issue in any narrative. At least if she knew about the affairs, it would still be tragic but it would either be her choice to stay or her choice to leave: both automatically give her more power in a narrative that is strongly run by one man. And yes, it isn’t her story Dr. Haskins being married is a huge part of the story. And his wife isn’t even given the chance to be an obstacle like Lizzie from Black Butler is; she’s just sort of there and she does her best to be supportive and kind. She does eventually become a bit of an obstacle, Johnathan does feel immense guilt after meeting his lover’s wife but not enough to stop sleeping with Dr. Haskins as a means to achieve his goals.


I’m going to take a moment here to address that pin I’m sure all of you have of:

Well, it’s boy’s love. What do you expect?

Here’s the thing. I know plenty of boy’s love stories that feature almost zero women entirely, especially if all they are going to do is be blocks of wood or literal obstacles to plot. Fumi Yoshinaga is an excellent boy’s love mangaka and many of her works either feature no women at all or they are relegated to supporting roles which means they cannot ruin the plot. Even Yoshinaga-senpai’s most noted female character in Antique Bakery appears for an episode and vanishes after dropping a bomb on the plot that is neatly wrapped up within the same episode she appears. Kyo Kara Maoh features several female characters that either push the main pairing together or are there to support the other main characters and not a single one is an obstacle to plot: some are antagonistic but none ever grind plot to a stop.

And here’s why we’re doing this: readers hold onto that misogyny and perpetuate it. I’ve been reading shonen ai for longer than I feel comfortable admitting as well as just shonen anime in general and years of women being irksome plot obstacles sticks with you. Even now, if you’ve been blessed or cursed to read any of my fiction, you can practically see me struggle with writing female characters that aren’t either aggressive Mary Sues or utterly useless pieces of furniture. It would be one thing if that internalized hatred simply stayed on the page but it leaches into other aspects of life. It forms and informs casual sexism and keeps old stereotypes afloat through confirmation bias. It fosters a complacency that means we don’t challenge the norms of female characters and thus create a feedback loop that perpetuates all the things we hate about them and quells any desire to change them for the better.

What’s even more fascinating is that many boy’s love novels are written by women who seem to hate or are irked by women; it’s typically the male shonen ai creators that either don’t worry about female characters at all or show them in a more complex light either as mostly supportive or actively antagonistic. And it is almost entirely women who read (indulge) in shonen ai so this harmful message is really hit home.

Challenging female characters regardless of genre is one of the only ways we can continue to hold creators and characters to a higher standard. Having the same message hammered into your head over and over again that just by being a woman you are lesser in a narrative is immensely hurtful and readers deserve better. They deserved to be loved, respected and appreciated. If we can do it for the boys, even in a trashy shonen ai manga, we can do it for the girls.