A rant about manga demographics
I'd like to play a game, but before we get to that game, I'll need to run through some stuff first. Otherwise, the game might not make sense to you, but I promise it will be interesting.
You know them. You love(?) them. They are manga demographics! You want to start an argument around the manga Thanksgiving table? Manga demographics! It's our politics.
In short, there are the "big 4" that people generally discuss, and they are shounen, seinen, shoujo, and josei.
Shounen/Shonen - aimed at young and teenage boys
Seinen - aimed at adult men
Shoujo/Shojo - aimed at young and teenage girls
Josei - aimed at adult women
There's also Kodomomuke which is just media aimed at children, with no distinction between boys and girls. This is "kiddie" stuff so things like Pokémon, Ponyo, Totoro, Digimon, etc. It's often left out of conversations about demographics because f*ck them kids.
So, in short, these terms are marketing-related and stem from the magazine or website in/on which your favorite manga was serialized. If the magazine or website does not find a core audience to monetize off of, it will simply go out of business. Now, there's a bit more to manga demographics than marketing, and TVTropes does a great job of breaking down the types of stories, themes, characters, and tropes you can find under each demographic in a nutshell.
For a deeper dive, there are plenty of academic videos and essays to help you understand the history, development, and influence of each demographic, like shoujo for instance. Not to mention the countless videos and essays from around the internet about manga demographics from a wide range of people like this mangatuber, who really didn't need to inform me about not reading a lot of shoujo/josei because I already know. I already know. Now, let's get to the game part.
Let's Play A Game
We're going to play the worst version of "I Spy" in existence. (I didn't promise you fun or a good game.) The game is simple.
Step 1) Navigate to Reddit's r/mangacollectors. I suggest opening the link in a separate private browser. No need to register. In fact, please don't. Reddit is not a replacement for Twitter because Reddit is a terrible, f*cking site, but that's a rant for another day.
Step 2) Click the "Collection" tag on the side and start scrolling through multiple people's collections. Find the shoujo/josei in each collection you come across. (Use a database like MangaUpdates or Anime-Planet to help you out. I personally find MangaUpdates to be the best resource for this kind of thing.)
Step 3) Take note of what you see.
BONUS ROUND: For an extra bonus, you can scroll via the other tags like "Haul" or "Showcase" or just sort posts by other criteria like "New" to see if you can find a difference. You won't. (Actually, wait. No, I lied. You do see a difference, but we'll get to that part later.)
GAME START: https://www.reddit.com/r/MangaCollectors/
Hey, welcome back! Let's compare notes.
In my opinion, r/MangaCollectors is simply a shounen/seinen Instagram subreddit. The sub as a whole favors action/adventure and fantasy titles with heavy battle/competition themes. Multiple people post their hauls, collections, and showcases each day. The monotony of seeing the same One Piece boxset or Berserk volumes is broken up by unoriginal questions about bookshelves and organization (like "Which bookshelves do I buy?" and "How does everyone organize their collection?"), common book problems (like warping, "yellowing," etc.), book disasters and quality issues ("Is this mold?", "Is this a misprint?"), book recommendations, stupid trends ("Judge me based on my fave 3 basic manga."), and questions about prices for old-ass manga from would-be scalpers that can't even do their own research.
Having played the "I Spy" game multiple times throughout the last few years I can say this, the common theme I find is that shounen/seinen readers don't read shoujo/josei but shoujo/josei readers do. IDK. Like Ghostbusters or something, the guys do not cross streams.
I can hunt around r/shoujo on Reddit and get annoyed by the shounen/seinen recs people give out, misattributing manga as shoujo/josei when they're not, or discussions about shounen/seinen manga, especially how it can appeal to girls/women when the opposite can be true too! It's getting to the point that the subreddit should save the headache and just rebrand to "Girls Talk Manga and Anime" or something as that would be a better description of what's going on in there rather than "shoujo." Outside of Reddit, I can find manga lists with all sorts of series on them from Goodreads, which has a large female audience. The lists differ wildly from My Anime List's Top Manga. My Anime List has a huge male audience btw.
So, whenever the topic of demographics comes up and people say, "It doesn't matter" or ask, "Why are you angry that Shojo Beat labeled Romantic Killer as a 'shojo?'", I think about the r/MangaCollectors subreddit. I think about people who dead-ass say, "Demographics don't matter. I'll read anything as long as 'it's good,'" but their collections look like this:
I can already hear your arguments. "Banana Fish is a shoujo!" Yes, it is. It's also one of the few common series I see in a heavily shounen/seinen collection along with series like Wotakoi, Junji Ito stuff, Ai Yazawa's works (Nana and Paradise Kiss), Sailor Moon, and other popular series, known to have cross-demo appeal.
Another thing to note is that most of these have anime adaptations and/or are known to be the "good" shoujo (or josei). Because all shoujo is deemed "lesser" than others. In other words, all "shoujo is trash."
Finally, Junji Ito is known and marketed as a horror mangaka. He's one of the few mangaka that ascends the whole demographic debate. People don't classify his works as "shoujo" or whatever. It's just horror. Unfortunately, that courtesy doesn't extend to all shoujo and josei works, and it drives me up a wall. But hey, at least there's one shoujo/josei series on the shelf, so 👍 (thumbs up).
I know what else you're going to say. You're going to say, "Aren't you a little harsh? They're just kids." You're right. They are just kids. You can also tell if they're new, even if they didn't tell you in the title, just based on what they have. I won't fault anyone with a handful to a couple of 100+ manga not having taste, but also, it's ridiculous that I can expect some shoujo in a collection of 500 or so manga if I'm lucky. It's especially egregious when I'm looking at collections that span thousands.
When you have 1,000+ manga and no shoujo/josei or just one random series, then we have a problem. Okay, *I* have a problem, but come the f*ck on. I'm supposed to give you a pat on the back for having one series/book out of 1,000+? Are you trying to give me a coronary?
Case in point:
This Reddit user boasts to have been collecting for 10 years,10 years, and the only shoujo/josei manga they have to show for it is Princess Ai, which was serialized in Wings and licensed by Tokyopop. The series has long been out-of-print (OOP). I would bet good money that the lone volume they have (out of three total) came from a RightStuf blind box. When your collection looks like this, with not even a GL/yuri title to trip me up (some of those are aimed at a female audience) AND you don't even have a female-targeted Junji Ito work to fall back upon, then it just feels personal. It feels deliberate. You're dodging shoujo/josei like you're Neo from The Matrix.
How can anyone collect manga for 10+ years and not find one or two (maybe even three) shoujo/josei to deliberately put on their shelf? Hell, how can anyone be at it for 5 years and not find anything? I couldn't even do it after 1 year back in the day when I had dial-up and no cellphone and didn't know what the f*ck a shoujo or josei were. Somehow, I stumbled my way to having shoujo/josei on my shelf, but I'll go easy on you. I won't even gatekeep. I'll even accept the list of usual suspects so Yona of the Dawn, Fruits Basket, Ouran High School Host Club, Banana Fish, Nana, Sailor Moon, etc. So, how in the world...?
"But, That Manga Hunter, they could be reading it instead, and they probably don't like romance," you whine, and perhaps, you're right; maybe they are reading it and not collecting it. I read quite a bit of shounen/seinen and don't collect it thanks to my local library and legal manga apps. Additionally, I have limited personal space and money so I'm really selective about what I choose to buy but even I have a couple of series on the shelf.
Addressing the second point, this is as good a time as any to hammer home that these terms are demographics, and demographics aren't genres. There's a lot of romance in shoujo/josei, but not all romances are shoujo/josei. Capiche?
Maybe, the whole avoiding a demographic has something to do with misogyny. Or, maybe they haven't had anyone to recommend shoujo/josei stuff for them to read.
Let's assume that it's the latter. You have no clue what to read or where to start. If you need suggestions, you can check out this r/shoujo thread (and dozens like it on the sub frankly) or this fave shoujo list from Goodreads. If you're especially a "big burly, hairy dude," you'll want to check out this list. You can also follow creatives that discuss shoujo/josei across social media. Or hell, you can talk to me on Twitter @ThatMangaHunter where I am most active. I've got tons of lists to comb through.
Are you winning, son?
If I surveyed people in a B&N about manga demographics, I bet I'll get wrong answers from confused people who don't know what they are before a store employee tells me to stop or else they'll call security. And, for the few people that "know" about demographics, they'll probably end up calling Horimiya a shoujo or something. In other words, they'll get it wrong, just like people on the internet.
Yeah, chances are high that I'll get it wrong too because I'm not perfect either. Lastly, there are the publishers to consider. Romantic Killer "controversy" aside, this is as good a time as any to bring up that publishers re-market manga all the time. All the time. In May 2021, Kodansha had two back-to-back digital sales. One week was devoted to shoujo/josei (internet archive here) followed by shonen/seinen (internet archive link here). Take a look for a minute and see if you can spot the differences. I'll wait.
Time's up! The shounen/seinen list contains nothing but shounen/seinen manga whereas the shoujo/josei list has titles that aren't shoujo/josei. Also, is it just me, or does the guy's list contain fewer gay titles? Like none at all. Additionally, the guy's list is full of action titles whereas the girl's list is full of romance titles. So, the manga that doesn't belong on the shoujo/josei list are:
1122 for a Happy Marriage by Peko Watanabe (serialized in Morning Two magazine)
10 Dance by Inouesatoh (was serialized in Monthly Young magazine before moving online)
I Want to Hold Aono-kun So Badly I Could Die by Umi Shiina (published in Afternoon magazine)
Love and Lies by Musawo (serialized in Manga Box magazine)
Sweat and Soap by Kintetsu Yamada (published in Morning magazine)
Hopefully, I got them all. Coincidentally, most of these are seinen magazines. Kodansha could have slipped in some female-targeted titles without the guys being any the wiser. Would the guys bat an eye if Whisper Me a Love Song (serialized in the female-targeted Girl's Love/GL magazine Comic Yuri Hime) was on the list? What if Kodansha casually slipped in Life Lessons With Uramichi Oniisan or Nodame Cantabile?
How about Haru's Curse? Considering that the mangaka's follow-up work Yakuza Fiancé is serialized in Monthly Afternoon, this might be a good time to introduce more people to Asuka Konishi. Likewise, Kodansha could have slipped in one of Ema Toyama's works besides or in addition to her shounen series I Guess I Became the Mother of the Great Demon King's 10 Children in Another World. I mean, why not? More readers = more $$$, right?
Now, it could be that Kodansha noticed a lot of women have read/purchased Sweat & Soap and the other four books through their internal sales and marketing data. More pointedly, I am a woman, and I have personally read or am reading 4/5 of the above titles based purely on an interest in the story and art rather than demographics, and anecdotally, I hear a lot of chatter about Aono-kun in shoujo spaces.
So, maybe Kodansha is on to something, but at the same time, there are titles that an overwhelming amount of guys read and enjoy like Wotakoi. So, does that make Wotakoi a seinen now!? Whatever reasons Kodansha has for doing this, know that they won't be the only ones to do this. It's just annoying that they won't market series aimed at shoujo/josei readers to shounen/seinen readers. There's no reciprocity. It seems to me anyway.
Its arguments like these, in addition to the old standby of authorial intent, that make people question whether we still need demographic labels, and just like the article I linked concluded, I think the answer is mixed. I think labels are helpful, just not in the way we're using them now. I don't think adding qualifiers to genres like "shoujo romance" are helpful. For one, people already equate shoujo with romance, and mostly m/f straight romance at that.
Another point taken from the article is how limiting demographic labels can be for shounen/seinen as well. If shoujo equals romance, then shounen equals action/adventure and Kamehameha-ing people into next week when that's not all there is. As far as non-action/adventure battle manga is concerned, Death Note and Case Closed come immediately to my mind. There's also In/Spectre. (All mystery manga btw mwa-ha-ha 😈. ) Outside of mystery, romance manga like Fly Me to the Moon serves as a good example as well.
In the U.S. market, there's a variety of shounen/seinen manga that's easily seen and available thanks to anime adaptations, word-of-mouth, and strong marketing and pr campaigns. I feel that it's not always the case with shoujo/josei manga. The manga that quietly counts as shoujo/josei gets the "general audience" treatment, and those still don't end up in enough people's collections or conversations to make me a happy camper. Do guys just have a girl manga radar or something?
Everything isn't equal, and I don't know how to fix this imbalance. Perhaps, we should remove demographic labels and just go with genres instead. Mystery is mystery, right?
As a manga fan, it's frustrating. It feels like more works once serialized in shounen/seinen magazines get licensed quicker and pushed harder than their shoujo/josei counterparts. We've seen this movie over and over again. How else can you explain this chart-topping shoujo series just finally getting a license in English with 10 million copies in circulation WITHOUT AN ANIME? It's dozens of licenses like these that make us mad at VIZ and frankly the manga publishing industry at large. We shouldn't have to rely on VIZ, but for a long time, they were the only ones delivering the goods.
Plus, there are remarkable differences between shounen/seinen and shoujo/josei works, and my best quick explanation of that is smut, ecchi, and fanservice works. If you read smut like I do, there is a fine difference between one that is for the "male/masculine gaze" versus the "female/feminine gaze." And for every shounen/seinen smut I genuinely enjoy, there are dozens that just don't make the cut.
Additionally, there's how Boys Love/BL is received. BL works written by men for men or a "general audience" get praised incessantly (like Gengoroh Tagame) whereas BL works written by women for women get yelled at for "fetishizing men/men relationships" when the truth is more complicated than that. Setting aside smut/ecchi/fanservice works for a minute and talking about "regular" works, there is something about shoujo/josei that works for me, and I am not always able to pinpoint why. To quote a famous old guy, "You may not have noticed, but your brain did."
As I alluded to above, people generally don't throw around demographic labels IRL while they're shopping at Barnes. You know what I hear instead?
"I saw this on Netflix!"
"I saw that on Crunchyroll."
"My friend told me it was good."
"I've heard great things about this."
And so forth. Somehow the same dozen or so series keep being recommended to the point of being eye-roll-inducing to me. So many "beginner manga" lists heavily favor battle and action-adventure shounen/seinen manga as seen here or here, and "top" manga opinion-based lists and searches also suffer from the same issue as seen here and here:
Heaven forbid I like and/or prefer other genres and themes than battle action/adventure. I cobble together my own "beginner shounen" list of just Rumiko Takhashi stuff as a half-joke on Twitter, and I still get this sincere response:
Here's an actual great "manga for beginners" list. If you haven't read a manga and it interests you, check it out. That's what all recommendation lists are supposed to do. If there's at least one work in there that makes you go, "Hmmm. I haven't heard of this. It sounds cool. I'll check it out." Then, Mission Accomplished.
The manga demographics discussion may be just a circular internet argument that just won't die, and I'd like to move past that as much as I've been thinking and researching about it, but I can't. Because of all the above. The same negative attitudes towards shoujo/josei just won't die, and that's just online.
For people who aren't chronically online and aren't just anime-only watchers, how do they find new stuff to read? At cons? Because I've been to those general recommendation panels, and I suffer through the same shit, different day. Nothing but shounen/seinen stuff and maybe 1 or 2 shoujo/josei (if I'm lucky) that somehow broke through the consciousness.
Besides cons, I doubt people just do the old-fashioned thing of browsing around big box bookstores and seeing what strikes them. I still do that from time to time with mixed results, but hey, someone's got to read something that's new and fresh and talk about it. Otherwise, we'll be recommending the same Big 3 manga for another decade, and that would be an injustice to the dozens upon dozens of manga that are out there in print right now that are perfect for you to read especially since we all know that the Big 3 will always be there. They are popular. They ain't going anywhere. So is Berserk and a lot of other shounen/seinen manga. People will discover those naturally or have them shoved in their faces by a well-meaning stranger, friend, or family member who won't STFU about it.
Furthermore, that's just what's available physically right now and in the near future. (Don't get me started on digital-only manga.) Combining the manga that's newly licensed and just released with the manga of years past, we should have pictures of full shelves containing diverse manga. We should see collections that reflect you and what you're into, and we should see collections that contain something from the "Big 4" demographics because they cover a wide range of genres, themes, and topics. Whatever you're into, you're bound to find a manga for you.
My terrible "I Spy" game isn't patented. You're free to play it across social media or IRL. Take a good look at your own collection and spot the shoujo/josei on your shelf. It's fun for the whole family in time for Thanksgiving!
Whether you have been reading and collecting for 10 months or 10 years, all I ask is one thing,
"SHOW ME THE SHOUJO!"
Where is it? If you don't have any female-targeted works on your shelf, maybe ask yourself, "Why?" Because you're missing out on a lot of great series right now spanning dozens of genres and themes. While not every shoujo and josei manga will be to your liking (it certainly isn't always suited to mine either), there will be at least one, if not several, that you will enjoy. If shoujo/josei readers can read and collect shounen/seinen manga (and they do!), then the opposite should hold true for shounen/seinen readers, but it's not. So, let's change that.
Show me the shoujo!