Books: Manga Cultures & the Female Gaze

April 20, 2020 · 0 comments

By Shelley Pallis.

suparobo07Kathryn Hemmann’s new book, Manga Cultures and the Female Gaze, quotes an incident oft-cited in discussions of fandom – Anne Rice’s complaint that critics of her vampire novels were “interrogating the text from the wrong perspective.” Rice was famously furious that many of her readers disapproved of the direction her books were taking, turning this into one of several well-documented quarrels over fan fiction and the law. “Who is a writer, after all,” comments Hemmann, only half in jest, “to tell readers how their work must be interpreted?” Readers can read what they want into a text, and for women, that often means “resistant reading”, even arguing against what the author seems to be wanting to say.

Hemmann describes the history of manga as perceived through the eyes of three men – Eiji Otsuka, Hiroki Azuma and Tamaki Saito, and criticises them for not considering the possibility that women might be reading and appreciating the manga and TV shows that they are writing about. “Readers of all genders,” Hemmann writes, “can find appeal in stories that offer a pointed critique of the narrative refusal to see female characters as anything more than the objects of male discourse and desire.” The initial examples here are two poignant anime/manga serials for girls – Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth, both of which end their first arcs with remarkably downbeat, traumatic confrontations and denouements, liable to be read differently by girls and boys.

9783030180942Frederik L. Schodt is dismissed for not trying hard enough, which seems a trifle unfair on the man who included a whole chapter on shojo comics in his landmark book Manga! Manga!, and devoted a quarter of its translated section to The Rose of Versailles. Meanwhile, other authors have been dancing around issues of the female gaze ever since 1980s fanzines started squeeing about Patalliro. I’m not sure how influential female writers on anime and manga, such as Trish Ledoux in the USA and Helen McCarthy in the UK, both of whom edited magazines, or indeed the likes of Lorraine Savage and Jay Felton in The Rose, would take to the implication that the field was some sort of sausage-fest that never bothered to consider women’s viewpoints. To be fair, Hemmann is not suggesting so much that women’s voices were suppressed, but that criticism remained male-dominated, and nobody would argue with that. In the case of 1970s TV anime, for example, the vast bulk of writing on the subject is indeed by male authors remembering their childhood viewing, favouring constant discussion of sci-fi battles, rather than the gentle pastorals for girls that matched them in the ratings.

But none of the women listed above are mentioned in Hemmann’s book. Why complain about the absence of female voices, while simultaneously ignoring all those female voices? You can blame The Patriarchy, if you like, for their work being somewhat harder to find that whatever some latter-day dude-bro has said on Twitter, but in a book that goes on to discuss “fan cultures”, the fan culture of those smart, subversive women is not examined. This is not an uncommon blind spot – some of the forgotten figures of pre-21st century fandom have resorted to addressing it themselves. Possibly, their early writings, when held up to the laser-like scrutiny of modern wokeness, will be found to be wanting, but I would have been interested in hearing that, too.

Hemmann points to other issues – there is an ongoing argument in manga history, for example, about the degree to which it is centred on the achievements and work of Osamu Tezuka. Hemmann suggests that it’s Tezuka the man, glad-handing the largely male US comics establishment, that established assumptions about how important Tezuka was. A feminist lens might seem ill-suited for focussing on this particular issue, as Tezuka and his estate have been incredibly successful in pushing their brand also in Japan, in competition not only with women, but with other men. But Hemmann is not complaining about the general assumption that Tezuka was the “god of manga” – the point here is far more nuanced, that Tezuka was assumed to be the “creator of shojo”, because early US critics believed the foggy presumptions of male opinion-formers.

Once again, this is an interesting idea, but something of a (forgive me) straw man. There aren’t any citations here showing to what degree people really did think that Princess Knight was the first shojo comic. “They always mention Tezuka’s Princess Knight,” fumes Hemmann, “they” being an unspecified group of “many Anglophone scholars.” I don’t know who this is supposed to mean, and I suspect it might be a smackdown for some conventioneering ignoramus the author once ran into, rather than a passage that seriously addresses a recurring error in comics history.

princessknight0Here I am demanding more citations to bolster Hemmann’s claims of male domination and misunderstanding, but most readers are sure to regard that as a waste of time. Hemmann spends a lot of pages railing against injustice, and I would make the modest proposal that the best way to fight it might be to deny it entirely. On the understanding that her time would have been better spent telling me what Ledoux and McCarthy got right, rather than what Otsuka and Saito got wrong, I actually think Hemmann’s approach could have been more radical. This book could be a stepping stone to a truly interesting exercise… Would it be possible, could it be possible, to write an account of manga cultures that solely cited female authors, creators and critics? If men are going to ignore Hemmann’s work anyway, either as feminist cant or a conundrum unanswerable except by women, then why not throw them out completely? Possibly that’s a step too far, particularly for a young academic still clawing up the tenure track, but maybe some old feminist critic with nothing to lose might like to give it a whirl, just to really put the cat among the pigeons? It’s the sort of provocative exercise I would enjoy seeing from Anime Feminist – which, oddly, being exactly the sort of collective that Hemmann ought to be celebrating, is also unmentioned in this book.

Hemmann’s own blog entertainingly details some of the troubles that Palgrave Macmillan had finding peer reviewers for this book, after the original editor left the building with a thumbs-up and a you-go-girl. I highly recommend this anguished account of dealing with whoever it was that read it for Palgrave, as it is as witty, angry and passionate a polemic as you are liable to read about the perils of academic publishing, and makes very clear, for both author and publisher, why it is crucial to have more than one pair of eyes assessing a manuscript. It also affords us a glimpse of Hemmann’s struggles to get a decent cover out of a publisher criticised elsewhere on this blog for slapping any old thing on the front of its books. The result, incidentally, flips the concept of Casey Brienza’s Manga in America – whereas Brienza’s cover showed a female creative at work, seen from behind with her face obscured, Hemmann’s has her looking out at the reader, claiming her space as a subject, not an object.

Another aside on Hemmann’s blog alludes to an apparent lack of interest in academia in endorsing the book. Not every publication rolls out with a couple of puffs on the cover from prominent peers, but the practice of soliciting advance blurbs is increasingly common, and would have really helped this title justify its £44 price tag to potential customers. It was a little surprising not to see a kindly comment from the likes of, say, Susan Napier, Rayna Denison or Sandra Annett to help get a sense of how Hemmann’s work fits into the field. But I can well imagine half the world of academia backing away from a thesis that discounts the relevance of any man that dares to comment on it. Even among female reviewers, I might expect to see reluctance to wade too deeply into Hemmann’s brand of reader-response criticism, with its denial of authorial authority and the very notion of peers or a worthy canon.

intro-1574273828Take post-structuralism to extremes, and everybody’s opinion counts… which means nobody’s does, while Hemmann’s post-post-structuralism occasionally seems to elevate the opinions of random internet posters, and sometimes female creators (but certainly not Anne Rice!). Hemmann’s interpretation of the female gaze does not merely call upon men to acknowledge the presence and preoccupations of female viewers, but also challenges female writers to do the same, even if they thought they already did. Like others who have tried to instigate cultural revolutions, the standards are so giddily high that possibly even the author does not live up to them – part of the book cross-examines Hemmann’s younger self, a graduate student badgered and brow-beaten into studying “real” books rather than the shojo manga that seemed much more interesting and appealing.

It’s a clarion call so ardent that I can see it instilling a degree of self-doubt in pretty much everyone – if you showed this book to Mariko Ohara, for example, she might fret that her own work on images of mother-daughter conflict in manga and science fiction might lack a certain ideological purity. On the subject of women fighting women, Hemmann points to the possibility that allegorical mother-daughter conflicts might be a straight copy of the primal boys-against-men formulae of boys’ comics. You have to go into the footnotes, which are often just as idea-packed as the main text, to see some other comments on the subject, such as the idea that an evil bitch-queen fighting earnest schoolgirls is itself something of a feminist victory.

Hemmann’s introduction takes pleasure in the discovery, much like Raechel Dumas in her own work on the monstrous-feminine, that it really is okay to enjoy what you’re writing about, and by the third chapter we are treated to a long discourse on CLAMP – that all-female creative collective that gave us Tsubasa, xxxHolic and Chobits. CLAMP are in a fascinating position, because they are a bunch of women that write both “for boys” and “for girls” – Chobits, in particular, with its android-women-as-computer-tech plot, would seem at first like an incredibly male-gazey sort of thing. Ah, says Hemmann, that’s the problem – Chobits was created by women and had a substantial female readership, but all Tom Lamarre can do when he writes about it is talk about women as abstract concepts, rather than as the people who wrote the fricking thing, and many of the people who read it.

oC8NRvlFsQnbp02hf5sBxyBRYO8It would have been great, here, if Hemmann could supply some chapter-and-verse discussions of what some women have said about Chobits, in order to demonstrate just how wrong all these men (well, Tom Lamarre, anyway) are. But while the author has a couple of personal opinions to offer, there is not a whisper about Chobits from any female critics. I fear that Hemmann has been let down again by the sisterhood. Apparently all those women who enthusiastically watched Chobits were not moved in any way, at any point, to say anything about it. I blame The Patriarchy.

The next three chapters are about fandom – comics written by fans, fan fiction about video games, and fan interpretations of the Legend of Zelda. That’s all very well, but we’re stretching our definition of “manga cultures” here to anything that Hemmann feels like writing about. A final chapter returns to the “cross-pollination of shojo manga”, a more interesting topic that frames the rise of shojo in the US manga market as the discovery of an entirely new genre, market and consumer base that briefly created a sudden boom in the figures. However, it soon turns into a discussion not of manga but of all those Tokyopop comics that pretended to be manga, so once again, it’s a free-for-all of whatever you want.

But this is the point that Hemmann wants to make – that there are assumptions, within culture, within publishing, within academia, that fans are “pseudonymous amateurs who are primarily consumers. However, it is far more accurate to think of fans as producers of content – not merely as consumers.” Henry Jenkins has been saying this for decades, of course, but in siting it within a feminist critique, Hemmann highlights a burning issue. Fandom, the book concludes, is a “very serious business,” a comment that contains multitudes. Because while it is serious for its participants, and a business for some, I query whether it is really that big a business. Certainly, understanding fandom, and the way it interacts and recommends and shares its interests, is a crucial factor in understanding the way that modern media works. But many of the colossal failures in modern media have also come from grossly over-estimating fandom’s willingness to put its money where its mouth is.

Hemmann is not talking about buying power; this book is not interested in that kind of capital. Hemmann is interested in the Nebraska schoolgirl who draws a Sherlock fan-comic and loves it with all her heart, and wonders, secretly and full of self-doubt, if anyone else will love it, too.

That’s what I think, anyway. I might be “interrogating the text from the wrong perspective.”

Manga Cultures and the Female Gaze by Kathryn Hemmann is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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