the_sun_is_up: Twilight Sparkle reading a book. (mlp - happiness is a good book)
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At first glance, Sugar Sugar Rune by Moyoco Anno is your typical Cute Witch tale. Best friends Chocolat and Vanilla are young witches-in-training and candidates to become Queen of the Magical World. They travel to Earth in order to collect hearts by getting boys to fall for them and then extracting those feelings of love in the form of heart-shaped crystals. Whoever collects the most hearts will become the next Queen.

So yes, this is a society that chooses its supreme leader based on how many boyfriends she can bag. If this sounds like a terrible idea to you, don’t worry: the author is very much in agreement.

What follows is a surprisingly intelligent and complex fantasy series that examines what happens when you pit two best friends against each other in a competition for power and popularity, a competition in which their chances of winning hinge almost entirely on their ability to conform to narrow-minded and restrictive gender norms. And it does so while also providing us with a pair of fleshed-out relatable heroines, a richly imaginative non-standard fantasy world, and Anno’s lovely josei-esque artwork.

The first hurdle that our deliciously-named heroines face is that the Magic World and the Human World have very different ideas of how a woman is supposed to act. Headstrong, confident, and aggressive, Chocolat was very popular in the Magic World where those traits are prized and admired, so she’s bewildered when all the human boys in her class find her too intimidating and avoid her like the plague. Shy, timid, and clumsy, Vanilla’s social life languished in the Magic World, but on Earth, her moeblob appeal makes her an instant boy-magnet.

The first two volumes are mainly concerned with Chocolat’s frustration at her inability to get hearts in the human world, and her inner conflict between her ambition to win the Queen contest and her desire to stay true to herself. Her mentor and her familiar (both dudes) give her some demoralizing advice on the subject:

Robin: In the human world, a girl with that kind of attitude is never very popular. You should have said “Thank you, I’m going to do my best!” sweetly and gently. If you don’t act like that, you’ll have no chance!
Chocolat: Shut up, old man!

Duke: Boys like it when girls act weak! If a strong-willed girl shows a sad face once in a while, boys like that!
Chocolat: I can’t do it.

Chocolat initially rejects their advice for the chauvinistic bollocks that it is, but she’s forced to confront the reality that human boys don’t want a girl with her personality, so if she wants to win, she’s going to have to fake it just like Robin and Duke suggested.

The pressure to use fakey feminine wiles to get ahead doesn’t stop with the mentors: it also shows up in some of the magical merch that Chocolat buys to give her an edge. For example, there’s the chapstick for “cuteness and conversation” which when applied, makes Chocolat say some very sugary and out-of-character things like “OH MY GAWWWWWD!” and “HELP ME!” when she’s surfing at the beach, even though she’s doing just fine and doesn’t need any help.

On the flip side, Queen Candy sends both girls this advice: “Be true to yourself, and you will grow stronger.” Chocolat is immediately reassured:

Chocolat: I understand. I was making things harder for myself by trying to change. Trying to force myself to fit in the human world. [...] I’m just gonna be myself! As tough as I’ve always been!

When she goes to school the next day, she continues to be her usual bold and confident self, de-pantsing a boy who’s flipping up girls’ skirts and being completely unfazed when some guys stick a frog in her desk. Of course, this just makes all the boys even more scared of her, leading her to observe, “‘Be true to yourself’... it sounds great but... I’m not popular.” And in Chocolat’s situation, popularity = power. By the end of the chapter, Chocolat’s authenticity and refusal to use artifice does earn her a single pink heart from a male friend, but it takes her a lot more time and effort than Vanilla’s “trip over something and get 10 hearts” schtick.

(As a side note, I love this subplot because I detest it when fiction, especially children’s fiction, just casually tosses out the “Be yourself!” aesop without addressing how insanely hard it is to do that. “Being yourself” usually means resigning yourself to a modest social circle at best, or loneliness and bullying at worst, so it’s refreshing to see Sugar Sugar Rune actually show those consequences.)

While Chocolat struggles to gain even a few measly hearts, Vanilla has more than she knows what to do with, but her life is still no picnic. In Vol 2, Chocolat makes the mistake of envying Vanilla’s situation:

Chocolat: Boys come to you when you fall down or you cry. Vanilla, you collect hearts so easily. I wish...
Vanilla: Easily? It’s... It’s not easy!! Chocolat-chan, you’re such an idiot. *runs away*

Earlier, Vanilla had related a story of how two boys had been picking on her, but she discovered that they only did it because they had crushes on her. She won two hearts out of the bargain, but she could only get them by being bullied first. Vanilla dreams of being tough like Chocolat, but she can’t afford to change because her success in the Queen contest depends on her being timid and helpless in order to trigger those protective moe feelings in her male peers.

The interesting thing about the contrasting gender norms of these two cultures is that Anno doesn’t seem to be favoring either side. This isn’t a case where one culture is held up as The Right Way to do things; both sides are wrong because both offer a restrictive formula for how a girl is supposed to be, instead of just accepting both heroines for who they are, and both sides cause a lot of unhappiness as the heroines try to shoehorn themselves into ideals that don’t fit them. Chocolat rails against the Human World and its easily intimidated boys who prefer their girls to be harmless and sweet, while Vanilla endures a lonely life in the Magical World where her peers look down on her for being shy and introverted.

My thoughts on this series are too lengthy to fit in one post, so: To be continued...

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