As a general rule we tend to gravitate towards what we’d call “underdog stories”. In YA, or other tales about teens, this “underdog story” often—historically—takes a particular shape. For boys (that is, male protagonists), this tends to manifest as “nerds versus jocks” and the familiar imagery of tall dudes in sports uniforms shoving scrawny glasses-wearing lads into lockers, or guffawing at their interest in science, or knocking them over so their Dungeon Master’s Guide falls into a puddle. For girls, you see this most as “bookish versus bitchy”, with squads (often trios) of heavily made-up young women throwing catty remarks from lip-gloss-coated smirks, often while dressed in pink or a cheerleader uniform, in stark contrast to the plain appearance and conservative unfashionable clothing of the heroine hugging books to her chest.
There are variations on type, of course (and this is a very Hollywood set of images, though it extends beyond that too), but in both gendered cases, the villain of the piece is an image of what’s conventionally attractive and cool, versus underdog heroes who aren’t. In their shadow, our geeky, less-attractive less-cool protagonist looks like a pigeon next to a peacock. But don’t worry, underdog: you have something that these nasty people who conveniently hit their growth spurt in time to be hot during their high school years don’t. That’s right, they might seem to have it all, but they’re dumb as rocks. And they have sex. And we all know that’s gross!
Watching the character Sonezaki move through her high school life in O Maidens in Your Savage Season, it’s not hard to guess what kind of character she identifies with in those many novels she reads. She is, after all, a True Intellectual, a Tormented Outsider, and truly, deeply, much more mature than those silly girls in her class with their shortened skirts and eyeshadow and interest in boys. They are The Other Girls in the tropey teen movie that is Sonezaki’s life, and she is clearly the Bookish Heroine. Except, of course, it’s a little more complex than that—as the series has begun to dig into with her personal arc.
Sonezaki is planted firmly in the realm of the Underdog as far as the usual structure of the trope is concerned: she’s socially awkward, not good at sports, a bit plain (and wears glasses, the universal signifier for Nerd), and she reads a lot. We learn in episode five that she’s been bullied throughout her childhood and tween years for being “ugly”, not fitting into those conventional barriers of what “attractive” is. She’s clearly been deeply affected by this, and it’s manifested as anger (and utter disbelief that anyone would find her nice to look at, as shown with her reaction to her love confession… which in turn unfolds into more anger). This anger is fair, of course, but it’s also pointed in a very specific direction: those Mean Pretty Girls in her class, who she clearly could not be further from.
There are a group of classmates (as noted above, they rarely travel alone—they “roam in packs”) who plague Sonezaki’s existence from early in the show: they are clearly wearing a lot of makeup, their skirts are short, and they talk and giggle loudly about sexual things. Their aesthetic and behaviour aligns them with the Gyaru subculture, which started with shirking “ladylike” norms in Japanese culture and has become stereotypically associated with promiscuity and vapidness. This stereotype may not align with reality (and, hey, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with enjoying sex and not being totally book smart), but this is definitely the angle Sonezaki is glaring at these girls from. And oh, she goes full throttle. She refers to their raunchy jokes as “the baying of lascivious beasts” and calls them “copulation crazed”. She literally thinks of these confident and sexually-interested girls as animalistic, and will use every Big Fancy Word she knows to convey this, just to really hammer home that she is above them. She, after all, is Not Like Other Girls.
The irony is, even as Sonezaki flees from sports class cursing these “filthy girls”, one of them (and the most blonde, tanned, and heavily made-up, too) is expressing sympathy for her; the same girl that compliments her appearance when she cuts her hair, and the same girl who later offers to share her lunch. She really isn’t painted as a bad or unkind person, in fact she seems pretty chill, all of which makes Sonezaki’s loud-mouthed loathing of her seem… well, just as shallow as it really is.
Sonezaki is an interesting and crystal-clear encapsulation of the weird vicious cycle that lives at the heart of this “bookish versus bitchy” trope. For a long time, social and fictional narratives have drawn a big dividing line between “smart” girls and “pretty” girls: the infamous “she wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts” binary. And yes, it’s understandable: a lot of young girls who liked reading more than they liked makeup, particularly at that gnarly, thorny, deeply weird in-between period where puberty is just starting to hit and everyone’s growing up (physically and emotionally) at different rates, ended up getting sneered at or felt like they were being left behind. It’s something I certainly went through, and I resented it, as I’m sure many other girls in my situation did. And this is not to say that that resentment isn’t valid. Kids and teenagers have a perhaps unique knack for crippling each other’s self-esteem, and we should definitely address that and the many, many other factors (advertising, social media, general adult influence, fiction) that warp us into little self-conscious monsters at that age.
However, it’s also important to address that that resentment can easily spiral into toxic thinking of its own. Fine, so I don’t fit in with those girls who know how to be feminine and pretty. But I’m not lame for being different, I’m special. This? This is counterculture. They’re following trends like sheep while I’m over in the library being wise and intellectual while they’re being ditzy. They are the vapid villains of every YA novel and teen movie, dressed in pink and giggling wickedly, and you know I’m the hero because I have brown hair and glasses and make a point to mention that I’ve read all the classics.
I will admit to having been a pretentious little crap of a teenager, and I can absolutely see the appeal of this archetype. It has its place, especially (obviously) in books about and for teenaged girls who like to read. They provide escapism and vindication, a little power fantasy in which these nasty pretty girls who kiss and go on dates are two-dimensional caricatures that can be punished for the petty joke they made at your expense last recess. But buying into this “I’m not like those girls” mindset—and applying it to real girls—can enhance your anger and isolation in unhealthy ways. As seen in Sonezaki, it can swirl around inside you until it loops and comes back out as cruelty of your own.
Sonezaki has ideologically distanced herself from these Other Girls so much that it’s contributing even more to her sense of isolation. She’s associated sexuality with these Common Slatterns so deeply that she feels disgusted by her own (perfectly natural!) sexual curiosity—she’s clearly fascinated, but feels the need to justify her explorations by only doing so through Serious Literature. When she tries a new haircut she feels torn between wanting to be pretty and feeling stupid for wanting that, stepping too late into a performance that she doesn’t quite know the lines to, and a performance that she’s trained herself to see as vapid and useless. And she feels deeply, gut-wrenchingly weird about the idea of a boy liking her, and about her liking a boy. Pfft, she doesn’t… she’s not the type to like boys! To want to be cute for a boy! Disgusting! That’s what Those Other Girls do!! Not her! She’s… why, she’s Different! Isn’t she?
It remains to be seen how the rest of Sonezaki’s arc will play out, but given where it’s at so far, I have high hopes that it will continue to unpack these ideas. O Maidens seems to be, at its heart, about the many ways that female sexuality is policed, patrolled, and parcelled. Other plotlines, like Niina’s chilling backstory about her “purity” being fetishized in her youth theatre days, or the “novel research” storyline where Hitoha is basically trying to package her own sexual experiences for market consumption*, show this theme through men directly trying to control young women’s self-image and sexual lives. It’s an interesting contrast to have Sonezaki’s arc (so far, anyway) be so much about the alienating messages that she’s internalised and is dealing with herself (while also dealing with one of the most wholesome male characters in the series).
Sonezaki, like many young women, has been told over and over that she must fit a certain mould to be attractive, and of course that being attractive is the most important thing that she could be. Not fitting this mould sees her cast off in the eyes of society and ridiculed by her peers, who are all buying into these harmful messages whether they realise how harmful they are or not. This on its own is a powerful and important theme to talk about, but O Maidens takes this one step deeper and looks at how this system of codes and messages works to make girls not only loathe themselves but loathe each other.
Sonezaki, pushed to the margins, clearly found refuge in a new model of self-image: The Smart Girl, The Bookish Heroine, She Who Wears T-Shirts While Those Other Common Beasts Where Short Skirts. At the fringes of the party, she found a punch bowl full of Not Like Other Girls Juice, and she’s been drinking deep ever since. It tastes good, but it’s not that healthy in the long run.
All five main Maidens have a lot of growing to do, caught as they are in the midst of the weird, confusing world of sexual awakening and everything that comes with that in the contemporary world. Sonezaki is clearly starting to reassess the binaries through which she’s seen her school life so far, and the walls that she’s accordingly built around herself. Perhaps ironically, the catalyst for this is her storyline playing right into one of the other big tropes of The Bookish Heroine underdog story: a boy who likes her and thinks she’s cute just as she is. It’s clear that Sonezaki never considered herself romance protagonist material, but this sweet boy’s sincere affection for her has started to knock down some of the internalised hatred she carries around with her.
Maybe the divide between Her and Other Girls isn’t so high, and maybe that isn’t such a bad thing—maybe they can get an honest communication going rather than glaring at each other over the fence. One of her Gal classmates has already attempted to extend an olive branch, and as Sonezaki unravels her feelings and begins to confront more of her own internalised misogyny, I feel like there’s hope for a resolution there. As it is, we’ll have to wait and see, but I’m excited to watch Sonezaki’s high school adventure veer, at her own deciding, away from some of these old tropes and towards something more positive.
*Which, as an important sidenote, has the bones of a really funny and pointed critique of the world of erotica and the policing of female expressions of sexuality but, as it is, is currently the most uncomfortable plotline in the series. Stop that.