Thursday, October 11, 2012

Skip Beat! Deconstructions: Sho and Ren - Similarly Dissimilar

Disclaimer: Spoilers for Skip Beat! Also, discussion on stalking, abusive behavior, assault.

I said in my “Family” post that Sho and Ren have both had similar upbringings. Both were raised by their biological families, both had a stable, affectionate environment growing up, and their creative endeavors were tolerated, if not encouraged.

Added to that, both of them are good-looking and very successful with the ladies. Though Sho works his charm more often, it is implied that Ren had his fair share of escapades when he was younger. (This will come in play later on.)

So both men already have very similar attitudes, and that’s not even before we go into their relationships with Kyoko.

How does this relate to “Skip Beat!” being feminist or not? Since most popular works nowadays feature some sort of romantic storyline (often in the form of a love triangle), it’s a veritable goldmine for exploring issues of gender, gender roles, rape culture, and more. Even “Twilight”, which is hailed as one of the most misogynistic books of all time, has a few glimmers of feminist hope, depending on how you look at it.

In terms of exploring gender roles and rape culture, “Skip Beat!” provides several good examples, and all of them have something to do with Kyoko, Sho and Ren.

Looking at them separately, you can tell who falls into which archetype - Sho is the impulsive bad boy with terrible communication skills, while Ren is the brooding hunk who… also has communication issues. Yeah, in a way, these guys are pretty much two sides of the same coin. Both have a hard time expressing their thoughts and wishes in a coherent manner, but while Ren is more willing to wait things out, Sho is the one who will jump in a fight without second thoughts. In fact, it is implied that Ren was a little like Sho when he was younger.

Question: Does Ren’s hatred of Sho born in part of Ren’s hatred of his younger self? Discuss.

It’s obvious those two can’t stand each other. Almost from the first moment they’re seen together, they’ve covertly/openly antagonized each other. There doesn’t seem to be much motivation for that on Sho’s end, except for maybe the fact that Ren’s occupying the first spot as Japan’s Best Star. Meanwhile, Sho doesn’t really end up on Ren’s radar before Kyoko falls into the picture. So, for the most of it, the conflict between these two men comes from their relationships to Kyoko.

I already mentioned in previous posts that Sho and Kyoko have a strange dynamic. They hate what the other represents, but their feelings towards the person are complicated. At first, he’s painted as a freeloading sleaze, but things get complicated in chapters 80 through 100, when a rival band starts stealing Sho’s image, and one of the members starts stalking Kyoko.

Those chapters are a key point for several reasons. One, we get a better idea of Sho and Kyoko’s relationship. Earlier in the manga, they interacted for an extended period, but that didn’t give a good idea about the kind of friends they were. Kyoko accurately guesses that Sho is demoralized by the copycats, and brings up his spirits (presumably so that she could demolish them later). In spite of their overt motivations, it’s clear that they don’t hate each other completely, and while that can be attributed to creating tension for the love triangle, it’s still an amazing characterization detail. “Skip Beat!” is not just the story of a spurned girl getting revenge, it’s about childhood friends, torn by circumstance and bad choices, trying to reconcile the current reality with their nostalgic memories.

The second reason this arc is important is because of Reino, the stalker. It’s the first time in the series that we’re dealing with rape culture, and it’s important to examine this moment.

At first, Kyoko doesn’t consider Reino, the vocalist of Vie Ghoul, as a threat to herself (she mispronounces the band’s name as “Beagle”, much to Sho’s delight). It isn’t until she reveals her connection to Sho that Reino takes notice of her. In a scene so painfully realistic it might actually be triggering for some readers, he makes a comment about her hair and talks about how interesting she is.

Once Kyoko is safe in her room (at this point, she’s doing a shoot in Karuizawa), she impulsively calls Ren, with whom she’s been having a close friendship. However, when Ren asks her what’s happened, Kyoko freezes up - Reino hasn’t done anything overtly aggressive, but she is scared, and she’s confused about her reaction. Ultimately, she doesn’t tell Ren anything, but her tone of voice is enough to have him hurry over.

This is so realistic it’s not even funny.

A while ago, this story made its rounds on the Internet. Ana Mardoll (whom I keep quoting because she’s awesome) used it in one of her Twilight deconstruction posts, and points out the obvious problem: unless a guy explicitly states his bad intentions (as in: “I will hurt you,”) society will downplay his behavior and make it out that the victim is overreacting. The situation I described above is this, exactly - Kyoko was accosted by a guy who is clearly creepy, but she can’t bring herself to share her fears with her “friend” because she doesn’t want to trouble him unnecessarily.

However, Reino is a threat, and when he later chases Kyoko into the forest, his intentions are pretty clear - he wants to hurt her. While Kyoko manages to overpower him at first, she can’t chase him away for good - he states explicitly that he will continue to hound her until he has consumed her mind. If not for the intervention of Sho, and then Ren, perhaps he would have.

So, at this point we have had an attempted assault, and a possible continuation of the stalking were it not for the two love interests. How is this handled?

Well, it pains me to say this, but this is a problem I find with “Skip Beat!” - on their own, Sho and Ren have meaningful interactions with Kyoko. But put them in the same room together, and the cock contest begins.

When discovering that Sho was the one who initially protected Kyoko, Ren reacts with cold anger - anger that Kyoko thinks is directed towards herself. It’s not until later that they smooth things over, and Ren realizes how he came across (in reality, he was angry at himself for not being there for her earlier).

You don’t need me to post a pic of Edward Cullen for you to recognize the device. It’s a cheap way to put more tension in, but it’s particularly vile in the context of the story. Kyoko has been stalked and assaulted - she is visibly upset, and is afraid that she and Sho haven’t gotten rid of the stalker for good. But as soon as Ren puts his pouty face on, everything stops and she is worrying over him.

Even after Ren has his own confrontation with Reino, he has the gal to berate Kyoko for… I don’t know, giving him an opening or whatever. This passage got so close to victim blaming it was scary - the only saving grace is that, after some proper communication, Ren recognizes his blunder and gives Kyoko the support she needs and deserves.

This passage is not so much a strike for me as it is a warning. It sets off the major “Who’s better for Kyoko?” fight between Ren and Sho, which would escalate further in the Valentine’s Day chapters and the latest ones. But we’ll leave it for tomorrow. For now, the point is that when those two are together in the room, Kyoko has no chance of opening her mouth, which is also one of my problems with the manga.

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