It took me a little while, but thanks to Melinda Beasi I finally caught up with a long review at Manga Curmudgeon by HU columnist Erica Friedman discussing A Drunken Dream. It’s in many ways a response (either intentionally or otherwise) to my series of posts on the book, and particularly to my discussion of critical reactions to the volume. It raises a bunch of interesting issues which I wanted to try to address.

So here is an excerpt from Erica’s review (my apologies to Erica if I mess up some of the coding; I tried to get it all, but probably missed some):

So, when people who have read a million shoujo stories look at the genre, they tend to be very offhand about it. “Spunky young heroine who makes friends easily. Hot older guy she falls instantly in love with. Sullen and withdrawn guy her own age who she’s clearly going to end up with in the end. And of course a tragic past full of secrets. But again, shoujo is not where you go for originality.” (With apologies to Sean Gaffney who is not at all dismissive of these things – in fact, he embraces them with fervor.)

What this means is that anyone who does NOT read the genre, is likely to read all these jaded, dismissive accounts of the genre (often by people for whom the genre is not intended) and assume that that’s just the way it is. Couple this with the natural tendency of the “critic” to pretend their condescension is in some way objective and …yes, I’m going to say it…the unrelenting, aggressively clueless sexism of about 80% of the men involved in the comics industry and their less creative, but no less vociferous male counterparts in comics criticism…you get a world of upturned noses and sniffiness at anything created by, or worse – for – females.

Shoujo manga is aimed at girls. Young girls are casteless in the world of entertainment. Basically no one gives a crap about them. The color pink is regurgitated at them endlessly as if being 9 and female means that one is essentially color blind to any other color. And heaven forefend that anyone, anywhere, that makes books for girls should EVER be taken seriously.

Except Moto Hagio. Her work, we are told sniffily, is NOT LIKE those other, pinker, sparkle-pony-er kinds of shoujo. This is *serious art,* that we are meant to take very seriously. You can tell it’s serious and important, because male critics deign to look at it at all.

Humility, thy name is shoujo manga.

Moto Hagio is a woman who drew manga for girls. Young girls – girls of the age where it is perfectly acceptable for many people to eroticize them, but not to take them seriously as people, with their own requirements, fantasies and interests. She took them seriously. No surprise, as she had been one herself. As hard as this is to believe I also was a young girl once. Moto Hagio’s works talked *directly* to the young girl I had once been….

Shoujo manga is (often dismissively) summed up as stories of the heart. But shoujo manga is not just about romance – it is about emotional interplay. Where shounen heroes gain physical power, shoujo heroines gain emotional power. Shounen heroes beat their enemies to make them their friends – shoujo heroines love their enemies until they love them back. The characters here are lovable – which is a risk we take with these stories. We’re not sure that the heroine will be plucky or that everyone will love them back. But like most contemporary shoujo, A Drunken Dream contains stories of emotional interaction, and emotional growth that comes from communication.
Moto Hagio is, like all other “classic” writers, doomed to be over-thought by adults, when if you just handed the average teen her work without making an assignment out of it, it would probably go over well. (Better yet, make is slightly forbidden, like Death Note.) Fantagraphics has done a lovely job with the book and in doing so has all but guaranteed the separation of Moto Hagio from her *actual audience* – teen girls.

I think there’s a real risk, though, in over-analyzing this volume. Moto Hagio’s stories are, as I said at the beginning, masterful largely because she did not set out to be so. She wrote from the heart, stories that girls could understand, enjoy, identify with. She was the Stephanie Meyer of her time and only now, when we look back on a body of literature that spans decades, we see that it’s a little silly to dismiss it (or glorify it) because it’s shoujo manga. What A Drunken Dream offers is as much or as little as we want to see. If we stare too hard past the cute girl looking back at us in the mirror, we might in fact see the deathly crone behind her…but why would we want to do that? Can’t we just take the cute girl at face value? Isn’t she “important” enough on her own?

Moto Hagio is a woman, who draws stories for girls. She is a Master of her Craft. She is a groundbreaker in her field. None of these statements are contradictory.

A Drunken Dream is a must-read for any serious student of manga. While you’re getting a copy, buy one for a niece or friend – and don’t tell them it’s “important.” This way they’ll be free to just enjoy it, tropes and all.

I’ve quoted a great deal of this, but I hope people will go read the whole thing as well.

So to highlight one point to start:

I think there’s a real risk, though, in over-analyzing this volume. Moto Hagio’s stories are, as I said at the beginning, masterful largely because she did not set out to be so. She wrote from the heart, stories that girls could understand, enjoy, identify with. She was the Stephanie Meyer of her time….

I think this is really wrong. I’m no expert on Hagio, but from what I’ve gleaned she saw herself from the get-go as an artist. She was engaged with some relatively scandalous European literature, and was part of a self-conscious group of supportive artists. In addition, as JRB points out in the comments on Erica’s post, , many of the stories in Drunken Dream were not actually shojo, but were aimed at other demographics, including josei (older girls and women.) From comments JRB has made in the past, I believe that at least a couple of the stories were even presented in an explicitly “art” context (though I may be wrong there.)

Moreover, just reading Hagio’s stories you can see the ambition. It’s like reading Phillip K. Dick or even Ursula K. Le Guin. Yes, the stories are genre stories, but the author clearly sees those genre tropes as a way to talk to and think about the world of literature and art outside of genre. Stories like “Hanshin” and “Iguana Girl” focus on explosive themes using the resources of comics in dramatically non-genre ways. Even “Bianca,” which is genre as genre can be, is self-consciously about the power of art qua art.

Erica talks about the fact that Hagio appeals to those who feel different. And yes, that difference is about being a woman and being queer. But it’s also about being an artist. Denying Hagio that, insisting that she’s great because she was an unselfconscious genre writer writing for girls, seems to me almost tragic. Even after all this time, even despite her fame and influence, she can still only be acknowledged and admired if she jettisons her ambition and comes in under the cloak of intending to do what everybody else intended to do? I mean, Hagio Is not a girl. She’s an iguana. How much more clearly does she have to say it?

In that vein, I don’t understand how you do Hagio any favors by insisting that the reason that there’s little analysis of her work is that no analysis is needed, or that we need to read her as young girls if we’re to be true to her work. Great art doesn’t suffer from being over-thought. Indeed, thinking often is part of an emotional response; it’s inspired by a connection to the work and can add to and flesh out that connection. Writing about the story A Drunken Dream, for example, made me love that story more, not less.

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: I have no problem with people responding emotionally to the work (or responding in a non-overthought way, if that’s a preferable term). I’ve got no problem with people writing essays that reflect that approach — or with writing reviews which (like Erica’s essay) are explicitly intended to act as recommendations. I have nothing against that. My argument is simply that Hagio is a conscious and subtle artist, whose work is also usefully approached through “over-thinking”: that is, by attempting to work out her themes and ideas in a more systematic and aggressive way. Further, I think that if there was a critical community that wanted to approach her that way, there would also be more of an audience for her work.

Because, contra Erica, I do not believe that the “average teen” would instantly fall for these stories. Kids who are into shojo are into shojo as it is now. Hagio’s stories don’t look or read like the things they’re are reading. They don’t have lots of character development; they are weird and fractured, their art looks (from the perspective of a current shojo fan) wrong. And, further, they are filled ye to the brim not only with the celebration of difference that Erica points out, but also with a concomitant self-loathing. There is a large measure of misogyny in Hagio’s work — more than in the much-sneered at Twilight series, for example.

I think for this, and other reasons, A Drunken Dream does not translate to current day genre desires in the way that Erica would like it to. Folks like Erica who are “serious student[s] of manga” may want to read the book. But other people aren’t going to care, even if you don’t tell them it’s good for them. That’s why the book has topped some critics best-of lists but has excited very little other interest, as far as I can tell — not because it’s been marketed as “important”, but because at this point its primary interest is in fact that it is important. The genre market it was intended for has moved on.

Finally, I”d like to address the sexism charge. Again, here’s Erica:

Couple this with the natural tendency of the “critic” to pretend their condescension is in some way objective and …yes, I’m going to say it…the unrelenting, aggressively clueless sexism of about 80% of the men involved in the comics industry and their less creative, but no less vociferous male counterparts in comics criticism…you get a world of upturned noses and sniffiness at anything created by, or worse – for – females.

Again, I”m not sure that Erica is talking directly to me here…but I have seen at least a couple people in the twitterverse accuse me of sexism because of my take on the book. Erica’s arguments I think fits with that; her essay is in many ways a plea to be left alone; to let the work of girls be treated as girls work, created by women for the girls who are its primary readers. The suggestion is that it’s condescending and sexist to use different standards to look at the work — standards which are more usually used to speak about “art” rather than girls’ genre literature.

Erica sneers at folks who present those other standards as “objective”. (She does directly aim this criticism at me in this comment.) And I actually agree; those other standards aren’t objective; they’re simply a different way of looking at things. However, many, many works by women have been read using those standards, and not found wanting at all. To name just a handful of people who spring to mind off the top of my head, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Zora Neale Hurston, Alison Bechdel, Lynda Barry, Cindy Sherman, and on this blog recently Aline Kominsky-Crumb…all have been approached from a perspective that assumes they are conscious artists who should be judged as such.

One could argue, in fact, that approaching women artists that way is a feminist project. It presents the work of women as relevant not just to girls, but to the history of art. In fact, including women in this history changes the history of art and how we think about it. So, for example, Moto Hagio’s Hanshin uses the repetition native to comics to fracture identity and narrative in a way that is emphatically gendered. Reading it in the context of comics-as-art, therefore, changes how you see not just Hagio’s work, but the possibilities and traditions of comics as well. I’d argue it makes comics more feminist.

There are different feminisms, of course. Creating your own institutions and insisting on your own individual standards and reality is absolutely feminist too. It’s a way to strengthen one’s own community and oneself. It’s part of sisterhood, and is a longstanding and powerful response to sexism. The downside of this approach, however, is that it can lead to self-ghettoization and consequent irrelevance. You end up with an inability to talk to other people, which ultimately leaves you unable to affect other people or other conversations. That can end up perpetuating the problems you’re trying to address.

There are downsides to using or engaging with “art” standards as well. Those standards (despite real changes over the year) are still coded male in many ways; they can be used as an excuse to dismiss or denigrate work for reasons that connect to prejudice or misogyny. I don’t think my analysis of Hagio did those things…but one can never be too sure of oneself. So I’m grateful to those like Erica who challenge my preconceptions and ideas (whether she wrote her piece specifically with me in mind or not.)

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