Sixteen, Straight and Sexy

Performance and the Feminine Ideal in Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side

[This essay was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon!]

“I don’t think I’m very good at being a girl,” I admitted to a friend sometime in 2012. I was seventeen and in my last year of high school, and I’d never been kissed. Actually, I had almost no interest in boys, or dresses, or makeup, or anything else I’d come to think of as a hallmark of femininity. Most of all, I felt fundamentally undesirable because of it; if I couldn’t respect myself as a woman, how could anyone else?

“That isn’t the kind of thing you can be bad at,” he said, as if things really were that simple.

Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side — or, to be precise, TMGS First Love, the DS remake of a PS2 game — is all about performing femininity. Set in a Japanese high school, it’s a typical if unambitious entry in the genre of otome games, dating sims with a female lead explicitly targeted at women. The plot follows your everygirl heroine as she tries to win over an eligible bachelor, and completes her last three years of secondary education on the side. Gameplay consists of raising stats through various extracurricular activities during the week, and raising affection by inviting boys out for dates on weekends. Like many otome protagonists, your character has a customisable name, and lacks a face or a voice or even much of a personality. Romance protags are usually cast as a cipher for a couple of basic reasons: one, this makes it easier for the audience to empathise with her, and two, this allows her to plausibly form a relationship with any other member of the cast.

There are a total of ten romanceable men, although it’s unlikely — and actually somewhat disadvantageous — for you to meet them all in the same run. Six of them are your schoolmates, while two more are secret characters who attend other schools and are unlocked through specific methods. The last two bachelors are both teachers: one is in charge of your character’s homeroom, and the other is the school principal who hopes to someday “raise a lady”. The game’s romance arcs are aggressively G-rated, rooted in fairytale logic and a refusal to acknowledge that teenagers might have desires, but that’s still pretty uncomfortable.

Visual novel games like this are designed with multiple story routes, each of which offers unique content, and thus a single playthrough isn’t enough to get the full picture. Consequently, my experience with TMGS was composed of two complete runs, as well as two more I couldn’t bring myself to finish. The first time through, I aimed for eccentric artist Shiki Mihara, and neither the plot nor the gameplay particularly gripped me. But I decided to be open-minded, and got back on the horse despite my doubts: maybe, I thought, another run would put things in perspective. Next time around, I won over stylish delinquent Madoka Kijyo, but around the midway point I started to feel like something was off. (And not just because my character had to completely neglect her grades for him, either.) Fighting through my inhibitions, I clocked my second run and threw myself into pursuing school idol Kei Hazuki. By that point, though, the game had lost its lustre, and I gave up about two-thirds in. I later forced myself to return to the game for a fourth and final time, solely because I needed more information for this piece, and that was all. I can pretty safely say I’m never going back.

It took me a while to work out quite what about the game was bugging me, but the realisation hit me like a truck. On one hand, you’re modelling a particularly reactive form of femininity by moulding yourself according to your guy’s preferences, which includes dressing in a style he likes and choosing dialogue options you think he’ll appreciate. But this is complicated by the “skinship” system introduced in the remake; you can use the DS’s touch screen to pat and rub your date, and this feels like a far more effective way to raise their affection. (You do have to use it in moderation, though, since getting too grabby makes guys withdraw.) And it’s really, really weird that the game expects you to hop back and forth between a very assertive femininity and a very reactive one almost seamlessly. Granted, there are going to be differences in your performance depending on who you’re pursuing — some guys like you to be more forward, while others prefer to take the lead themselves — but the point remains the same: you’re acting out an incredibly complicated mix of femininities in order to conform to a ridiculous ideal.

And this isn’t just a fictional expectation, because it speaks to a really fundamental paradox in the way women are taught to approach dating. We’re supposed to exercise agency when we interact with men, but only to the extent of displaying interest. (After all, a girl who’s being too forward must have something wrong with her. Desperate? Slutty? The dreaded Daddy Issues?) Things like this just reinforce the paradigm where women are reduced to sexual gatekeepers: if she’s taking actions that mean she’s into you, then you’re clear to proceed. This is also evident in the aggressive way the game enforces its characters’ chastity, despite the fact your character can have been dating any number of the cast for years. The raunchiest it ever gets is letting the player kiss their man during the ending, and it feels a lot like you’re rewarding him for keeping it in his pants. I think a lot of other otome games also display this really profound phobia of female sexuality, but that’s a discussion for another time; for now, suffice to say that your protagonist in TMGS has perfect control over the way she performs both her gender and sexuality.

The thing about Tokimeki Memorial is that it makes being a teenage girl look easy. It’s come up before on Zeal that a lot of fiction about teenagers sets its cast’s emotional struggles against melodramatic or apocalyptic scenarios, because that evokes a mood which speaks to the difficulty of it all. There’s a fundamental difference between idealistic fiction and fiction which deliberately ignores complicated facets of human experience, and the way Tokimeki Memorial portrays an easy school life is much more the latter. Growing up and carving out an identity for yourself is frankly tough as hell, especially as a young woman being forced into the eyes of society, and the game’s refusal to admit as much kind of makes the whole thing ring false.

This is a game where it’s very easy to make everything go right. Something like doing badly in exams merits nothing more than an offhand acknowledgement from your heroine and, in the absolute worst case, loses you a week of in-game time to remedial classes. Even your stress parameter barely affects you until it climbs to 100, and there’s no reason you would ever allow it to get anywhere near that high. The only real threat to scoring an ending with your guy of choice comes in the form of the bomb system, and even that’s more of a false danger than anything. If you’ve been ignoring a guy for too long, regardless of how much he likes you, a menacing bomb symbol appears next to his affection meter. If you don’t manage to deal with this in time it will explode, massively decreasing your affection scores across the board and barring you from some endings.

The thing is, it’s so heavily flagged that it’s nearly impossible to mess up. First you’ll get a warning from your brother in which he implores you to “start treating him nicer”, then you’ll run into said guy looking angry after school, then you’ll start receiving phone calls from him after dates with other men, and only then will the bomb actually go off. If this sounds like a tremendous amount of leeway, that’s because it is. It’s also really easy to deal with: you simply need to give up a Sunday to call and set up a meeting, and you don’t even have to show up to the date anyway. (Blowing him off does mean that the bomb will return again sooner, but it’s still exceptionally manageable.) Really, the way these guys feel entitled to your time even when you have no interest in pacifying them is just about the only thing Tokimeki Memorial halfway nails about being a woman, and it feels like a pointless obstacle rather than commentary.

The game isn’t devoid of female characters, though, and there are four you can meet and befriend: studious Shiho, aesthete Mizuki, fashionable Natsumi, and sporty Tamami. Each of these girls also has a crush on one of your possible suitors, which means things have the potential to get pretty ugly. If you’re friends with a girl and gunning for the same guy she is, you’ll eventually enter “VS mode”, in which you compete against each other for your crush’s heart. I’ve never actually gotten into VS mode, but the misses haven’t felt much better; my second run was spent avoiding Natsumi like the plague as I closed in on the boy she’d been eyeing up, and it was awful.

Despite their comparative lack of screentime, though, the women of Tokimeki Memorial feel like the most human characters the game has to offer. Their male counterparts have flaws which are universally downplayed, romanticised, or aren’t even faults at all. One bachelor has a terrible attitude towards his studies, for instance, but it’s handwaved as part of his cool-delinquent aesthetic, while another’s failings are — gasp! — being a little too eager and having no previous experience with women. In comparison, all your possible female friends have pretty gaping character flaws, and the narrative never shies away from spotlighting them: Shiho is severe, Mizuki snobbish, Natsumi flighty and Tamami unassertive. These are the girls you’re cutting out, the ones who lose to you because they don’t perform femininity quite right. And you are cutting them out, because your goal in Tokimeki Memorial isn’t really to win over a guy: it’s to become the kind of girl he couldn’t possibly say no to, performing an impossible standard of femininity in order to tick all his boxes.

It’s pretty telling that the closest thing the game has to a male lead and “official” romance is Kei Hazuki — school idol, straight-A student and model on the side. But winning over the most popular boy in school isn’t easy, and your parameters all have to be fairly high in order to get that happy ending. You have six major stats: intelligence, fitness, style, arts, social, and charm, and you pick one to focus on each week. Naturally, trying to increase any given stat winds up decreasing a couple of others, meaning that it takes careful planning to raise them all more or less equally. So, by the time you’ve won Kei’s affection, you’ll be top of the class, not to mention super-fashionable and charming and fit and artistic and popular. As with any guy, once Kei likes you enough you’ll be able to ask him questions on dates about topics verging from hobbies to romance. Ask him about the type of girl he likes, and you’ll get this response:

He’s talking about you, of course, but he’s also talking about a type of girl who doesn’t exist outside shoujo manga. Tokimeki Memorial is the kind of game which thinks being clumsy is a character flaw, as if that makes up for the fact your heroine is perfect in every other way. And this feels like a massive, massive betrayal.

This may sound trite or naive, but it doesn’t seem like so much to expect media targeted at women to be on my side. I do genuinely love otome games and believe in their potential as a genre, not least because they acknowledge people like me as a legitimate audience. Yet here I was, forcing out women who dared to be themselves in the face of a monolithic femininity, and I’m not sure I can emphasise how deeply that hurt once I realised it. I was the Other Girl all through high school, the one who felt like she kept losing to girls who were “better” at being women — and, to be honest, I still haven’t been able to shake off the kind of thinking which reflexively treats them as threats. The difference these days is that I understand there is no Perfect Feminine, just women doing their best to try and live up to it: the kind of girl you play as in Tokimeki Memorial doesn’t exist, and that’s okay. After all, you can’t lose to something if it isn’t real.

I went back to the game in the process of writing this piece, although it nearly killed me, in an attempt to go for a friendship ending with one of the girls. At worst, I figured it could be a nice break from having to cater for the men; at best, I was hoping against hope for a little subtext. Unfortunately, neither of these wound up happening, and my experience with this run was unimaginably boring. Not only had I fulfilled all the ending’s requirements within the first year of play, leaving me with nothing to do, but the game kept giving me slaps on the wrist for not pursuing a guy more actively. The girl I was trying to befriend kept inviting me on double dates, just in case I’d forgotten this was really about Romancing The Bachelors, and my character’s little brother was constantly getting on her back for not having a boyfriend. “Promise me you won’t become an old maid?” he asked, as if being single at sixteen meant I was guaranteed to die alone and virginal and unloved.

And here is the truth that Tokimeki Memorial hits on, even if it’s not intentional: that femininity is deemed to be worth jack shit if it isn’t “properly” and heterosexually aligned. I identified as asexual during my own high school days and so, no matter how willingly I was deprived of masculine validation, I felt invisible as a woman. My labels have shifted a little over time — these days I default to bisexual, although I can count the people I’ve been attracted to since puberty on one hand — but the trap I keep falling into hasn’t.

I am twenty years old, and I have only just learned to stop measuring my entire gender performance against male approval, as if I was being graded on some kind of test. That may seem like a small and obvious step, but noticing the problem is so much harder than it sounds. I am glad, despite its intentions to the contrary, that Tokimeki Memorial could teach me that much.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Gaby Lax’s story.