Harem Anime and Manga – Expectations vs. Reality
There are certain things that anime & manga fans tend to take in stride after following the medium for a while that, to outsiders, would probably seem ludicrous. One of these things is the existence of the “harem” genre. In anime & manga terms, a harem story refers to a romantic comedy where a boy, usually an average high school student, receives the romantic affections of several women, all of whom fall into different categories (ie. the shy one, the abrasive one, the upbeat one, the older one). The story follows the relationships between these characters and the awkward situations they find themselves in, feature at least some “fanservice” (putting the girls on display for the sexual gratification of the male viewer) and end with the most prominent girl being chosen as the “winner” – that is, if they ever end at all. Examples of the harem genre include Love Hina, following a boy who lives at an all-girls dormitory through a series of unfortunate circumstances, Nisekoi, following the heir to a Yakuza family being forced into a fake relationship with the daughter of a rival gang boss to avoid an all-out war, and To Love-Ru, following a high school student who gets married to an alien princess.
To somebody just getting into anime & manga, hearing for the first time that this description applies to so many stories is a little jarring. However, to longtime anime watchers, it’s just another genre, and a popular one at that. Harem has become so big in anime & manga that even sci-fi and fantasy shows such as A Certain Magical Index and Sword Art Online have incorporated harem plot elements, and doing so has only bolstered their popularity. With the anime & manga community now generally numb to the cliches and tropes of the harem genre, it’s easy to forget that, when looking at it’s very concept, there are a lot of issues with it, mainly the unrealistic expectations they set up in regards to how men interact with women.
On their own, these stories are relatively harmless. But, believe it or not, there are several men who take these stories as genuine guidebooks on how to get a girlfriend, and any deviation women may make from this formula is their fault. This has lead to many issues with how women are treated in the anime & manga community, as there is a clear disconnection between the expectations these shows set and the realities of speaking to the opposite sex. In order to understand this disconnect, it’s important to understand both aspects:
In harem stories, the man is completely passive. In fact, he is totally unaware that he is getting these girls’ attention, and gets their romantic interest by simply being placed in situations where he demonstrates his heroic or kind traits to them. This leads to an awkward dynamic as, for whatever reason, the girls are unable to communicate their feelings to him and he is incapable of picking up on them, but also implies that, in order to be successful with women, one must only wait for the opportunity to demonstrate their good points. Since these opportunities are rare if not impossible to come by in reality, this translates to the man attempting to spend as much time with the object of their affection as possible in order for the opportunity to eventually present itself.
The main defining characteristic that the protagonists of harem stories have is that they’re nice. Aside from that, their personality and appearance is made to be as average and bland as possible in order for the viewer to identify with them and place themselves into their position. Since the girls in harem stories typically have low self-esteem, they fall for the protagonist due to him either frequently complimenting them or simply doing nice things for them. By doing this, it creates the expectation that, in order to be successful with women, the only requirement is that you be nice to them.
Finally, there is the categorization of girls into specific molds. This is done to appeal to different fetishes and preferences in the anime & manga community, which are then exploited for the male viewer’s pleasure. In the harem genre, women’s desires and actions ultimately revolve around the male protagonist, and their bodies are toys for the male viewer to use sexually. After watching women being portrayed this way in several stories, the impressionable male viewer will, either consciously or subconsciously, begin to objectify women, either by placing them on a pedestal or ignoring their boundaries. When women revolve around you, why go through the effort of treating them like people?
In reality, passivity will, in most cases, earn absolutely nothing in dating. The man waiting to show his crush an opportunity to demonstrate their talents by being around them as much as possible will, in the best case scenario, lead to the woman mistakenly believing that his intentions are to be a good friend to them. In the worst case scenario, it will lead to the woman being annoyed or put off by their presence, but not willing to say anything out of fear of hurting the man’s feelings. After being in this position for a while, the man will complain about being “friendzoned” or place himself as the protagonist in a story of tragic unrequited love, when in reality he has done absolutely nothing to further the relationship.
Being nice is, obviously, a good trait. But it’s the foundation that more should be built upon, not the entire presentation. While in harem anime & manga girls have low self-esteem, in real life girls usually have higher standards than any man who is nice to them. Whether this includes physical appearance or a distinct trait that they prefer is their business. In addition, when the man is constantly nice to a girl and does not receive anything in return besides the two reactions mentioned above, they might begin to get frustrated and blame the girl. This is a very dangerous mindset to have, as it shifts the blame and serves as a way to avoid self-examination.
In harem anime & manga, women are, essentially, subservient to the man. In reality, women usually have social lives, things to do and other male friends besides the man who yearns for their affections. Because of the expectation set up in these stories, the man does not know how to deal with this and tries to get to the point where the woman’s life revolves around them by doing as much for them as possible. If the woman has other friends that they hold more prominently than them, they will take it as a slight against them or treat their friends as obstacles that are in their way. Ultimately, this perspective results in treating women more as trophies or lust-objects than actual people, as the desire to “own” a woman the same way the protagonists of these stories do outweighs their respect of the woman’s lives.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why harem anime & manga could be potentially dangerous to the impressionable and lonely young men who tend to make up their intended audience. However, this is not to say that all anime & manga is the same. There are, in fact, positive role models for how to act towards women that exist in this medium, and it’s important to acknowledge the good alongside the bad to provide a counterbalance.
Positive Role Models
Yamato Naoe – Maji de Watashi ni Koi Shinasai!
Yamato Naoe is the protagonist of the visual novel Maji de Watashi ni Koi Shinasai!, or “Majikoi” for short. He is a member of the Kazama Family, a group of childhood friends, and serves as the group’s tactician. The novel follows their adventures as they get involved with classmates and people around the city.
The main important thing Yamato has that other protagonists lack is social experience. As a result of having a large group of friends that he makes a daily effort to grow and keep maintained, he knows exactly how to speak to other people, as well as girls. This experience gives him the confidence to be proactive. When a girl grabs his attention, he makes a conceited effort to show them the good parts of his personality, instead of simply waiting for fate to drop an opportunity in his lap.
In addition, Yamato is not simply nice. He is highly intelligent as well as sneaky and manipulative, but not to the point where he would hurt innocent people. He has other defining character traits that cause girls to become attracted to him, and know how to use these traits to his full advantage. This is not because he wishes to own the girls or have their lives revolve around him, but simply because he likes them and wants to have a normal relationship with them. It’s plausible that girls would like him, but not every girl that he knows is attracted to him, nor does he expect things to be that way.
Hachibei Maeda – Ai Kora
In terms of role models, you could certainly do better than Hachibei Maeda, the protagonist of the manga Ai Kora (Love Collage). He is an incredibly open pervert and fetishist who is not attracted to girls, but to their individual parts. After a fire claims the dormitory he was planning on staying in, his teacher offers to let him stay in a shed in the girl’s dorm. Since said teacher has his ideal legs and the other girls living in the dorm have his ideal eyes, breasts and voice, he happily accepts.
When reading that description, it would seem odd to place him on a list of positive role models for how to speak to women, but Hachibei, for all his faults, is completely and totally honest. He does not put up a front around the other girls and never once lies about his intentions, while at the same time he makes an effort not to violate their boundaries. Because of this, the other girls in the dorm come to accept his presence and his quirks since they understand how he operates and that he would never do anything truly bad. This stands in contrast to the harem protagonist, which, if they come to have feelings to any girl at all, will typically take at least a hundred chapters to confess.
While the manga does place him in situations where he gets to show his good side to his objects of affection, Hachibei, like Yamato, is proactive in his pursuits. In fact, calling him “proactive” would be a massive understatement. Throughout the manga, Hachibei goes to extreme lengths and performs massive feats of strength to get girls’ attention, and after watching him try so hard to make them happy, the girls naturally become attached to him. Not because he’s simply “nice”, but because he genuinely wants to help his crushes and makes a conceited effort to do so, while at the same time being completely upfront about his attraction to them. When put together, those two traits make a powerful combination.
Laslow – Fire Emblem Fates
Note: technically, this example is from a video game, but since the story and art style are heavily influenced by anime & manga, it’s included here.
Laslow is a mercenary and subordinate of Xander, one of the princes of a fantasy kingdom called Nohr that comes into conflict with another called Hoshido. He has a reputation for being a massive flirt and a skirt-chaser, with his efforts usually being violently unreciprocated. Despite this, he continues to hit on every girl he sees, including allies and enemies.
Even though Laslow’s attempts at courtship are mostly unsuccessful, his attitude exemplifies the best traits of the above characters. He is perceptive and can pick up on when a girl is feeling down, and does everything he can to cheer them up. He is completely honest about his intentions whenever he flirts, complimenting them both in order to get their attention and because that’s genuinely how he feels. Whether or not they reject him, he doesn’t really mind, as he takes all his failures in stride.
These are all good traits to have, but there is one important aspect that ties it all together. Putting it simply, Laslow LOVES women. His flirts and pick-up lines are not done out of a desire to prove himself or sneak into a relationship by becoming friends, but because, if he did not frequently compliment women, the pent-up love he has for the opposite sex would explode. This is a really good mindset to be in, as some men let the frustrations of dating get to them and begin to blame their problems on women. That thought never even enters Laslow’s mind, as he all he can see in every woman is their attractive parts.
When pursuing a girl or entering the local dating scene, the number one thing to look at beforehand is your own motivations for doing so. Are you doing it because you want to “prove your manhood”? Because you saw in a cartoon or comic book that men get rewarded with access to women’s bodies for being nice? Because you’re sexually frustrated? Because you’re lonely and want companionship? These are not necessarily bad motivations as they come with being a man, but if they’re all you have, then you might want to rethink your approach. If the answer is “Because you love women”, then you’re doing at least one thing right.
What do you think? Leave a comment.