The Politics Of Girls Drawing Manga

girls drawing manga gender and discrimination

As someone who works as a designer and teacher I got around to have many many people show me their portfolios and ask for advice about how to improve their skills and works in hopes to better snatch a place at a design school or to be more attractive for potential employers.

Very often when I have that kind of talk with girls and young women, the conversation is difficult, because what they show as their current portfolio is heavily influenced by manga, anime and manhwa.

I say it’s difficult because I respect what these women and girls do and I appreciate it, but at the same time I know that they are going to have a really hard time getting respected in the industry and academia space.

Sure, there is an easy argument to be made that you wont find much opportunity to work as a manga artist in the west, because the demand is not that high. …at least compared to the demand for concept painting, 3D modelling, western animation art and cartooning. So, I think it’s the responsible thing to tell theses young aspiring artists that their focus on manga style artwork is putting them into a niche and to recommend to them that they have better chances to find work if they present themselves as more versatile.

But you can do that without treating them like inferior artists. Unfortunately the tone with which manga-inspired young artist get confronted often is massively disrespectful. The sentiment is a weird cluster of ideas, that boil down to “You got talent but your infatuation with asian aesthetics ruins your chances of becoming a good artists”.

These young artist are often ghettoized and only accepting western aesthetics and approaches will make the gatekeepers give them any credit for what they do. Communities do that, popular artists do that, recruiters, and even art teachers… which for me – being an art teacher myself – is INFURIATING!!!

I find myself often having to remind young artists that it is okay to be interested in doing the kind of art they are interested in doing.

While my rant here focusses a lot on that problem in realms of comic art, it applies just as well to games, since this is where I meet most of the young female manga-style artists I mention here. Even though a huge chunk of popular gaming culture is japan-centric, being a manga-centric artist is still treated as an inferior approach.

I mean, if you have not experienced/observed this phenomenon, cool. Maybe it’s more pronounced here in Germany than in other western countries. In my 10+ years of being a professional artist and in my +5 years of being a professional art teacher, I stumble upon this dismissive behavior and the young people discouraged by it with shocking frequency.

When I say “discouraged” I usually don’t mean the artists in question are no longer willing to go pro. But they are visibly uncomfortable with what they usually enjoy drawing, they are preemptively defensive about their work, expecting to get some sort of harsch comment. They also feel kind of lost, since the one approach to art they had was shot down and now they look for advice to fill that void.

Why have a gag reflex against Manga and Anime?

The established comic culture (meaning US superhero comics and franco-belgian stuff) was kinda baffled about how successful these books became in the late 90s early 2000s and they quickly had to give room to the proudly self-proclaimed “otakus” in their spaces… meaning store shelves, publisher portfolios and conventions.

The invasive nature of this new exploding genre and the up to this point strange storytelling tropes made it hard for many of the US and Franco-Belgian comic fans to adapt to this new branch in what they thought was their culture. So Manga and Anime got badmouthed pretty hard. “Repetitive, black and white mass produced toilet paper books, read from the back to the front, no backgrounds just speedlines everywhere, all characters have the same face, silly big eyes, stupid soap opera romance stories, tentacle porn, gay sex…”

The territorial reactions to Anime and Manga in the comic community where not only culturally ignorant but also deeply misogynistic.

People to blame for the unwarranted popularity of this inferior art form were quickly identified: young women and girls. Because this is the new audience that Manga culture brought in. Female Manga fans. They bought the books, they attended the cons, they did the cosplay and they aspired to become comic artists themselves…something US and Franco-Belgian comics never even remotely achieved in this scale.

Manga and Anime was that weird stuff girls for some reason liked, even though it’s about boys kissing and romance and badly drawn, so those girls probably don’t know what a good comic looks like.

…and now imagine being a girl trying to get recognition for drawing Manga style herself.

As one anecdote: There is an art teacher (!) and award winning german comic artist who publicly states in an interview that the current generation of male artists does the more interesting stuff compared to female artists, because the girls have not been interested in comics for boys and now are wearing figurative blinds because they come from the manga corner. Source, german:(x)

…imagine having this person as your “authority” on art in class?

The Anime and Manga centric DIY culture is one of the major entry points for young women and girls to get into drawing and painting.

I believe my responsibility as a teacher is not to shape my students in my own image. I believe my responsibility is to help my students become the best version of themselves.

And I also believe this principle should apply to every fucking internet commenter, person asked for advice and any publisher of educational content.

One day we will be old and our understanding about what makes great art will be retro if we are lucky, and obsolete if we are not… but we wont be the “authority” on design forever and that is for the best. So let’s stop pretending we are the alpha and the omega today. We are not. Instead of taking whatever foundation a young artists brings to the table away from under their feet, rather build upon what they have.

It’s not that fucking hard. Really, we just have to accept that whatever the girls bring to the table is as valuable as what we boys grew up with. We just have to accept that whatever the girls like and enjoy and want to do is worth liking, enjoying and doing. We just have to recognize that the privilege of boys being the first target audience for comic culture does not entitle us to treat girls like guests and make the rules. Easy peasy, right?

Right?

Notes:

I know that boys like Manga and Anime too. A lot actually. But male-centric Anime and Manga have never been remotely treated as alien and problematic as the female-centric ones.

Thankfully, digital concept art as thing grew and provides another big access point for female artists. Those who come from Anime and Manga still have to put up with the same gender-discrimination bullshit like 15 years ago.

I understand that I probably skipped some nuances about what constitutes Manga and Anime and Manhwa. Correct me in the comments. :)

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4 Comments

  1. it also goes the other way round, i am a female artist and although my art has nothing to do with Manga and I grew up with franco belgian comics, I am always promoted as Manga Artist on conventions. Only on German conventions though, they seem to be unable to wrap their heads around a woman drawing something else than Manga. Consequently I get seated with other woman, who do full blown manga style instead with my male colleagues I share style and genre with.

  2. I think its annoying how, like the author says, there are these ‘gate keepers’ who kind of decide what is good art and what isn’t. Its ridiculous! If there are a lot of young women and girls interested in manga, then young girls and women should produce manga. Clearly there is a market. To be honest sometimes going to art school just morphs your art too match a certain acceptable look, yet ironically at the same time difference is celebrated. Its like whatever appeals to guys is what is right.

  3. Here in Brazil manga and anime are substantially linked to youth culture of any ethnicity or socioeconomical status and still I’ve witnessed situations like the ones you described, but I think the nature of this problem is cultural appropriation and individual perception.
    Lots of people I know who appropriate MAINSTREAM manga methods lack individual perception. Like Marvel/DC comics, they have strict codes which limit the artist’s output. The result is always amateurish.

    Steal from the best.

  4. I’m a female art student currently living in Berlin and an aspiring comic-artist. The reason I ever started to draw comics were manga. I’ve started out with a manga-style but grew out of it on my own since I wanted to try something new. That said, it almost reeks of hypocrisy how young people (especially women who draw in a shojo-style) are forced to adapt “acceptable” styles while established artists are free to completely disregard an entire medium (manga) on superfical and ignorant grounds.

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