She’s one of the worse students in her class. Every time she tries to cook/bake for her special someone it’s a catastrophe. To walk like all human beings without tripping with the air it’s a challenge. Naturally, she sucks at athletics. In fact, she lacks almost every skill needed to function in society.
Ah, the struggles of being a romantic female lead.
But fear not. For every useless girl in a leading role there is a flawless male hero, always ready to save her.
And how could he not? He’s a prodigy. His endless intelligence is his superpower: it will not only make him reasonably outstanding in his field, it will make him excel in every single thing he does. At the first try, of course.
But is not easy being awesome at everything. His power is also a burden, you see: it makes all mortal tasks seem mundane and unworthy of his attention. His arrogance and over-confidence it’s only a consequence of the oh so cold self-awareness of being above everyone else…
If any of this sounds a little familiar, it’s because it’s basically the plot of classic 90s shoujo manga Itazura na Kiss.
With cold, brainiac Naoki and dumb, pure Kotoko, this manga it’s one of the greatest examples of this romantic trope. The story follows the lives of Kotoko and Naoki from high school through their married life, so character development it’s bound to happen. Still, the premise it’s rooted on this trope —one that continues to define them throughout the story.
Its popularity is something to behold: the manga itself enjoyed great commercial success in Japan at the time, and it has inspired countless adaptations. Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese drama adaptations were all released between 1996 and 2016. An anime was released in 2008.
The appeal of Itazura na kiss, like with all entertainment, it’s a reflection of society’s worries and ideas. And there seems to be something timelessly irresistible about the dumb cheerful girl who steals the heart of a highly capable hottie. Otherwise, stories like this wouldn’t still be relevant today, more than 20 years after the manga original release.
What the everlasting popularity of stories like Itazura na Kiss reflects it’s nothing new, but worrisome still: men are attractive when they are competent and reliable. Women are attractive when they are pure and dependent.
As a bonus, this trope often comes with the reinforcement of traditional gender roles. Characters like Kotoko always have a couple of scenes where they try to “become more womanly” so the guy they like will finally see their attributes and reward them with affection.
And how do they become more “womanly” anyway? For them, it’s quite simple: by doing chores such as cooking or baking for them, cleaning or ironing their shirts. Phrases like “become a good wife” are abundant. But because these girls are meant to be all cute and dependent, they can’t even have that. They, of course, make a mess, and whatever they manage to produce in that kitchen is not a) edible or b) up to the guy standards.
Yet all is well, because those situations produce “heartwarming moments” where the guy assures our girl that what counts isn’t her inability to be a functional human being, but the intentions of her oh so pure and noble heart. How cute she looks when she’s struggling always helps.
A common alternative have the main female character doing chores such as cooking because she has to. Her food gets insulted by the main guy, which makes her reasonably angry. To add insult to injury, the guy then shows her “how is done” by cooking something everyone agrees is the best thing they have ever tasted, insulted girl included. Scenes like this happen so often, I can’t help but think they mean to give the following message: when they get down to business, men are more capable than women.
This romantic trope is indeed popular with plenty of modern shoujo manga, but it’s not confined to this medium. In fact, I have yet to find a mainstream romance k-drama where the male lead isn’t outstanding/successful/a genius/millionaire. In contrast, their love interest is either a klutz or very troublesome. Or both.
Taiwanese dramas aren’t safe from this trope either, as we can see in series such as Back to 1989. The chemistry between the main leads Chen Che and Yen Zhen Zhen is great, little cute things they are. They are cute and funny when they are together, and communication between them improves gradually throughout the series.
So what’s the problem?… Well, maybe the fact that not even five minutes after they meet Chen Che has already saved Yen Zhen Zhen from death. Twice. Or perhaps that in 21 episodes the drama never misses a chance to create situations where Chen Che has to save Yen Zhen Zhen.
Now, Yen Zhen Zhen had a dream, a really noble one. How she achieves that could have been her most important character arc. But that dream is mentioned maybe three times in the series… Like it’s not really important to anyone. Instead, she spends most of the time making messes and chasing after Chen Che. Is only relevant near the ending, when the male lead leaves the means and clear instructions of what she should do to accomplish her dream.
It wasn’t enough to make him the white knight in her everyday life. By doing this, he becomes not an ally or a helping hand, but her savior.
That’s another possible consequence of this romantic trope, common in the dramas I’ve seen. The male lead is the real hero and his actions always have priority. The female lead dreams and ambitions (if she even has them), are less than subplots. And should they be part of the main plot, then the most important player in achieving them isn’t really her, but her very resourceful love interest.
Other variations of this trope
Not all cases are so in-your-face obvious. Or maybe they are obvious, but the main characters don’t exactly fit in what I call “the infallible brainiac” and “the useless girl”.
But maybe you will face:
• A high school shoujo with the most handsome and popular boy and the wholesome girl (classic). She does have something going on for her. Sports, maybe. But the story might still relish in the girl helplessness. (Or play it for laughs). This setting can come with a twist: the guy is actually a dork. But he is still popular.
• Female lead is in a complex profession, like the medical field. That should say a lot about her character, but she still is made to be very troublesome. (For laughs.)
• Mother won’t lose a chance to tell that troublesome daughter of hers to snatch some rich hot guy and live a submissive life of comfort. She’s so incapable that work and independency is clearly not an option for her.
• This one is popular in shounen. In whatever is most important in that world: magic, martial arts, swords, guns, etc… The main lead will start with a skill level that will only improve. The love interest will not fare so well.
For example, Ranma 1/2 (manga). Now, when it comes to conventional intelligence, Ranma is not the sharpest tool in the shed. Yet in martial arts, you can always count on him to come on top.
Main love interest Akane, however… Although she is presented as a capable fighter, she never measures up to the rest of the cast. Well, besides her herculean strength, but that’s mostly comedic relief (also popular in shounen). She just goes inactive for the most part. But every time she takes a challenge, she fails. For laughs, of course. That’s when Ranma comes into play.
In whatever shape or form this trope chooses to appear, there are some constants to watch out for.
Men will always shine brightest when they are fixing and saving. Women are highlighted when they struggle, or when they confess their most pure hidden desires. In both cases, they “look cute.”
Either way, both “the brainiac” and “the useless girl” need each other. “The useless girl” needs to be saved. “The brainiac” need “the useless girl” to exist a) so she can “brighten his world” and b) to prove his manliness. This goes with the traditional gender roles line of thinking: men capable of taking care of others are the ones who are really men.
Have you ever encountered this romantic trope? If so, what kind of impression did it leave on you? Do you know more examples? How often do you find yourself enjoying stories regardless of how you feel about this trope?
Itazura na Kiss images via Anime News Network
Back to 1985 screenshots via Viki
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