CLAMP, an all-female team of manga artists and writers from Japan, has left their mark on the comics sphere with their subversion of misogynistic genre tropes. The iconic four-member team (Satsuki Igarashi, Tsubaki Nekoi, Nanase Ohkawa, and Mokona) upends those tropes by publishing works that challenge gender and age stereotypes as well as the conventions of demographic genres. One such work is xxxHolic (pronounced “Holic”) which critiques the misogynistic tendency in anime and manga to villainize older women who are sexual and powerful.
On the surface, xxxHolic conforms to many of the conventions and character tropes common to manga aimed at a male audience. The protagonist of the story, Watanuki, is male. The main female characters of the story, Yūko, has a more passive narrative role. Yūko serves as the somewhat villainous foil for innocent Watanuki. As Yūko is not granted equal screen time or narrative depth to Watanuki, xxxHolic positions men as subjects and women as objects.
Yūko is first introduced in xxxHolic as an eerie woman surrounded by mysterious smoke. Her narrow eyes make her seem somewhat sinister, and her long black hair is haphazardly spread across her clothing like a spider’s web. The black crescent moons that adorn her seat and the choker around her neck associate her with darkness and magic. In fact, she is the anicent and powerful “Dimensional Witch” (Jigen no Majo), capable of granting any wish for a price equal to the value of the wish (taika). When she agrees to grant protagonist Watanuki’s wish, Yūko is menacing as the shadows seem to engulf her. Therefore, the reader is led to believe that Yūko is a dark and evil witch.
Yūko’s sexiness (her shapely figure, slender limbs, and exposed skin) is arguably a negative aspect of her character. According to the conventions of shōjo manga, tall and beautiful women who possess sexual maturity are invariably deadly and evil. The overt sexuality of an adult woman is thus contrasted against the virginal innocence of a typical shōjo heroine.
Yūko is a spell-casting witch, a trope familiar to audiences not only from manga such as Sailor Moon but also from Disney movies. The witch is usually seen as an older woman who is either a black-hearted queen, an evil sorceress, or a vindictive stepmother. She is easily identified by the lethal threat she poses to the hero or heroine. She is feared for her female sexuality, for her old age, or for her intelligence and capability.
However, Yūko the witch can be seen in a more positive light. She is not the threat that must be killed and overcome, but instead she is an emblem of feminist empowerment who should be celebrated and embraced. Though she looks wicked, Yūko is also a tough–loving nurturer. Yūko does business with several troubled yet naïve young women who usually end up more miserable than they were before they met her. But a closer reading of these encounters reveals that the price Yūko asks her clients to pay is often mere self-reflection. She forces them to question their motives and beliefs in an attempt to make them understand what they are really wishing for. The price, which is often mercilessly extracted, is painful self-examination.
When she asks a client (seen above) to decide between destroying evidence of a murder she committed and being truthful to herself and the law, Yūko hovers over the woman seductively and guides (instead of manipulating) the young woman to make a difficult decision. When the client continues to avoid responsibility for her actions and insists on erasing the photo from existence, Yūko advises to not use her words lightly and grants the woman’s wish, the unhappy consequences of which she understands only after its fulfilled. The seemingly evil and uncompassionate Yūko tries to advise and protect young women like her aforementioned client from making greater mistakes and facing more terrible consequences.
In some aspects, xxxHolic conforms to many of the genre conventions of shōnen and seinen manga aimed at male audiences. It has a male protagonist through whose point of view readers engage with the fictional world. Nevertheless, Yūko and her position of power is prominently featured on the covers and in the content of the manga. Despite not being a point-of-view character and being a witch, she is the heroine of her hidden story within the story.
The worldwide success of xxxHolic demonstrates that female creators are able to spin gendered tropes in gendered media in a way that overturns sexist notions while still appealing to a broad and diverse audience. CLAMP proves wrong those who claim that media targeted at males has a more general appeal and sells better than media targeted at females. The bestselling manga of CLAMP (all of them) prove that readers of all genders can find great appeal both in stories that subvert demographic genre categories and in critiques of the objectification of female characters.