One of my earliest memories is sitting with my mother while she passed judgement on my brother and I. “Girls will love you,” she said to my brother, “because you’re beautiful.” He had, at that time, long curly blonde hair; and I now imagine that she caressed it as she spoke to him. “You!” she turned to me. “Girls will like you because you’re cheeky.” I don’t think my mother intended to hurt me, or even that her aim was to criticise me, but I was old enough to read between the lines. I felt clearly who she favoured, and who she found the most appealing. But, more than that, she was, I realised, so sure of her opinion that she was able to speak with such authority for other people, for the rest of the world, who would, I now knew, never like me for my appearance. For a period following this incident I would stare at myself in mirrors, at my large eyes and plump lips, which never before had struck me as unattractive, and become ever more disheartened, because my brother did not look this way. My mother had defined beauty for me, and it belonged to only one little boy in the world.
Moto Hagio is considered to be the most notable, and influential, creator of shōjo manga, which is to say manga that is aimed at a teenage female audience. While shōjo manga is not restricted to any particular subject matter, or genre, it generally features more prominent female characters, is more introspective, and more focussed on emotions and issues affecting young women, than traditional manga. Iguana Girl, which was first published in 1991, is the story of Rika, whose mother believes her to be an iguana and therefore ugly. This may sound something like a manga version of The Ugly Duckling or that awful Mask film, but the reality is something more moving and complex. Iguana Girl isn’t about being unconventional looking or different [or certainly not in terms of appearance]; it is not about the beauty within, or anything so glib. For Rika is not considered ugly by all, or even most; only her mother sees her that way. Indeed, her father calls her beautiful and boys find her attractive. There are, moreover, moments in the text when one is allowed glimpses of Rika as human, in other words as she appears to everyone except her mother, and she is, even in cartoon form, obviously a pretty girl.
Yet, while Rika is not ugly, she is often awkward and clumsy. For example, in one scene she runs to show her mother a bug in a box and accidentally lets it out to fly in her face. She is also, and more significantly, not stereotypically ‘girly.’ She is, with her interest in baseball and her ‘good throw,’ what we might call a tomboy, although that is a phrase that I dislike. In fact, one character says of her that she should have been born a boy. In this way, Iguana Girl engages with some of the issues surrounding gender roles and identity. What does it mean to be a girl? Or a boy? What is a boy activity? How should a girl behave? Certainly, Rika’s mother has firm ideas about such things. She considers grace and reserve – which her iguana daughter lacks – to be feminine qualities. When she has a second child, Mami, she is pleased that she now has a daughter with whom she can bake [suggesting she couldn’t with Rika]. Mami, we’re told, also looks good in a dress, while Rika does not.
However, one gets the impression that Rika’s awkwardness is not natural; it is her mother who makes her so by repeatedly criticising and abusing her. Likewise, if she is tomboyish, one might argue that it is because she has been raised to believe that she is unsuited to traditionally feminine activities. There are a series of panels in which Rika applies make up to herself, and the mother is angry when she finds out; so it is not that the girl has no interest in such things, simply that she has been convinced that they are shameful, and that she is made ever more monstrous or ridiculous by them. Rika isn’t born thinking that she is ugly, either; she learns her self-loathing about her looks. Iguana Girl is, therefore, as much about how one’s upbringing affects you, about parent and child relationships and dynamics, about nature versus nurture, as anything else. While Rika gives the manga its title, the most important character is, in fact, her mother. It is her disappointment in not getting the kind of child she always wanted that drives the action; it is her expectations that are not met. She cannot love Rika for what she is, because she does not see her as a person in her own right; she is, instead, a breathing, bumbling, broken dream.