The setting: an exclusive high school. The scenario: A young female scholarship student in glasses and unisex clothing stumbles into a club in which a “harem” of boys entertains female students by flirting with them. Comic events ensue: She is mistaken for a boy, she breaks a vase and thus become indentured to the club to pay it off, the leader of the club becomes enamored of her (as him), and she is introduced to the club members, including a pair of melodramatic twins who perform an incestuous desire for each other.
What’s remarkable here are not the issues being raised—about class, gender, sexuality and the intersections among them—nor even the comedic and melodramatic ways in which they are being addressed. No, what is remarkable is the form and intended audience of the text: this work, “Ouran High School Host Club” (2002–2010), is a common example of the genre of Japanese manga called shōjo (in English, “girls’”), a genre aimed at a demographic of young female readers roughly 10 to 18 years old.
A number of basic questions come into focus, about the nature of reading and the workings of the imagination, the relations linking literary conventions, cultural codes and signifying systems and the forces and functions of the popular culture marketplace, among others. In this case, why would young women be drawn to stories about what is called, in Japan, bishōnen (beautiful boys) or “boys love”? How are we to understand the ways these young readers are engaging this play of gender roles, class restrictions and desire? Can we, in fact, generate a “general reader” in this context, or are there multiple ways in which these texts are being read, and even multiple responses within the minds of individual readers? Similarly, in what ways are these processes culturally specific to Japan, and how might we evaluate a foreign—say, American—readers’ responses to these conventions and codes?
Remarkable works like “Ouran” and other texts of shojo manga have reignited my passions in teaching and scholarship. In reminding me of those basic questions that drew me to the field, and in challenging what I thought I had learned, they have made all the difference.
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