Rumination on some real life issues have compelled me to look into this subject and its depiction in the realm of anime and manga.
Just like the reality in most part of the world, gender segregation in competitive culture has always been apparent in sports drama animango. In itself, it’s deep-rooted in the perceived idea that women are inferior competitors to men, which indirectly led to all-male sports series dwarfing their female counterparts in number. Typically, female characters in that series occupy the relatively static role of manager, sidelines supporter, and/or love interest, while audience raring for good depiction of female competitors have to look for all-female sports series, which are decidedly less popular and harder to find.
What about the few sports/games that allow for both genders to compete on equal terms, though? Suetsugu Yuuki’s Chihayafuru depicts such situation through the competitive card game karuta, and it’s a great exemplary series. Having just re-watched the second season in particular, my appreciation toward the series have increased even more by seeing lots of female characters fulfilling variety of important roles (player, tactician, poem reader) in a mixed environment. The inclusiveness of karuta itself is aptly summarized by Miyaguchi-sensei, an adviser to the protagonists’ team and newbie to the sport:
“The more I learn about competitive karuta, the more magical it seems. Gender doesn’t matter. Size doesn’t matter. Intelligence and strength don’t matter. Age doesn’t matter. Every poem sends you back a thousand years. How many sports are capable of such a feat?”
In a mixed competitive environment, some degree of sexism tends to be inevitable. It’s a natural byproduct of most culture in the world, which encourages the idea that boys are inherently more suited to competitive activities, while girls lack the required tangible and intangible qualities to be taken seriously as a competitor. The idea of a boy losing to a girl (particularly in sports/games, even the non-physical ones) is often seen as a shameful thing, akin to how a high-seeded team’s defeat to a clear underdog is perceived as a ‘choke’ or something self-inflicted rather than a validation of the latter’s capacity. With such an internalized mindset, even well-meaning male competitors could come across as condescending, i.e. calling a girl who can mix it up with them as “one of the boys”, or using the dreaded “you’re [insert complementary adjective] for a girl” qualifier.
(and of course, there’s the overt kind of sexism, when a competing girl faces an incredibly hostile atmosphere rife with misogynistic slurs, incessant harassment, and inability on the dudes’ part to see them as anything other than an object to hit on…)
Keeping that in mind, I don’t really like the idea of a narrative work deliberately overlooking or glossing over unsavory aspect in competitive culture. Depicting the kind of adversity (within reason obviously) that would only be experienced by female competitors adds a sense of authenticity to the proceeding, and yields inspiration by showing how our protagonists rise above that. It’s always important to remember that a media showing sexism or perversion (or any kind of objectionable behavior, really) doesn’t necessarily mean as endorsement of such behavior; the important thing is the overall tone and attitude against such thing, as well as enough characters acting as counter balance for a net positive message.
Along that lines, I really dig Chihayafuru’s approach in tackling this very issue. It’s mostly light-hearted in nature, but it addresses and shuts down harmful gender preconceptions within the context of its karuta-centric storyline—not by glorifying its female characters as implausible ideals of badassery, but by providing a diverse set of personalities and roles for them, while also allowing room for relatable and humane character flaws. We’ve got Ayase and Oe, who deal with frequent adversity like a boss; Shinobu, the quirky and incredibly strong reigning Queen; Sakurazawa, an adviser with Gregg Popovich-esque tactical acumen and long-term management; Yamashiro, certified and expert card reader; and a bunch of female players with various playstyles and background. Chihayafuru simply permeates with well-earned respect for the females in karuta community.
Casually sexist remarks and derision by some characters happened, and even the ‘good guys’ like Komano and Nishida are prone to segregated valuation based on gender presumptions—along the lines of “she doesn’t play like a woman!”. It’s pretty understandable considering all the cultural upbringing, and just as important as the female characters showing their worth, there’s value in highlighting characters internalizing new ideas and questioning the worldview that they’ve been taught. You don’t become progressive (or, maturing) just because somebody else told you to, after all; it’s an internal process. It’s not about tokenism or merely knowing the correct things to say or not, but to actually act and react to things with proper respect and fairness.
Forget what you assume, remember what you actually see and learn. That’s a useful principle to be a good competitor, in gender discourse, and in general life, I think.
As an another example of similar unisex series, there’s Hikaru no Go, Yumi Hotta’s smash hit manga that focused on competitive go with a touch of supernatural. However, while I love the manga to death, it’s hard to argue that it’s gender-progressive; at least on the surface of it. All the females are firmly background characters and as a whole they’re portrayed as having negligible role in the go community, as most of the plotline and individual arcs are overwhelmingly centered around the male players. That may in itself reflect the disparity in number between male and female go players in real life, but it’s still a bit disappointing, considering that it’s written by a female author and also supervised by female pro Yukari Umezawa (at the time a Dan 4).
Still, that doesn’t mean there’s no positive or interesting thing that can be gleaned from it. There’s a chapter (pictured above) dedicated to aspiring pro Asumi Nase, in which she thrives in an initially hostile environment, a go salon with shady adults, and re-affirm her passion in the sport. I also like how Fujisaki Akari went from an obligatory love interest character with schoolgirl crush on Hikaru (who never fails to patronize her) into someone who develops a genuine interest in go and eventually become the emotional anchor of the middle school go club. There could’ve been a lot more attention to these two girls’ story, but in principle I consider them as a step in the right direction.
There is also a unisex football/soccer series with a grade school cast, Ginga e Kickoff , which I haven’t seen (prominent aniblogger Guardian Enzo is a big fan). In general, as a fan of sports/passion-related series, I’d love to see more of unisex titles in the future. Works that not only challenge and buck the trend, but potentially inspire aspiring little girls out there to take heart and pursue their passion in the face of adversity.