A question I was asked recently got me thinking about the difference between the love anime directed towards boys versus girls. Now, this is by no means exhaustive, but the breakdown seems to be as follows:
Boys: There seem to be two basic types: Harem and otherworldly girlfriend (and sometimes they merge). The harem genre ranges from the blatant (Familiar of Zero, Love Hina), to the mildly plot driven (Tenchi) to the very well hidden (Utawarerumono). Now, there is nothing wrong with harems: I like Tenchi, and there are certainly reverse harems; Ouran High School Host Club is very popular. There are also females-geared animes that have elements of the harem. xxxHOLiC actually fits this, but for the fact that it’s not a romance. (Also, for this to work, the female audience has to identify with the male hero rather than the female love interests, which is a bit hard to pull off, as that mostly means the male hero can’t be hentai at all.)
The other type of boy’s romance is the otherworldly girlfriend. The first one to come to mind is Oh! My Goddess, but many other fit as well, such as Video Girl AI, and parts of Tenchi and even Familiar of Zero fits in a backwards sort of way – it’s a normal male in a magical world.
Girls: girls’ anime seems on the surface to be both more varied, but it really only has major reoccurring trope. It is the “girl is fish-out-of-water”; or at the very least, something drastic has changed in her environment. There are two (sometimes more, and very occasionally one, but most common is two) boys competing for her affection/attention. Important in this is that she needn’t like both of them; both of them just need to draw her attention. Actually, the less the girl likes a boy at the beginning of the series, the more likely he’s the final love interest. The two boys are often extreme opposites; one is blond/brunette, one has black hair; one is cold and distant, one is very kind (which is often taken to ridiculous levels or is a complete act); one is brand new and one the heroine has known all her life. Not all of these dichotomies exist in every anime, but several generally appear in each one. However, and this is important; both are very protective of her, even if they don’t seem to like her. Also, if either has athletic ability, either both of them do, or the one she finally chooses is better at sports/whatever. In Mars, Tatsuya is good at skateboarding, but Rei races motorcycles; in Marmalade Boy, both boys are good at tennis, but Yuu is better.
It’s interesting that while boy’s anime generally has one (otherworldly girlfriend) or many (harem) girls, girls’ anime has a duality. While each subgenre uses stereotypes (and the very best of all of them have the most realistic characters) in harems, each girl has a different personality on the surface, but all of them are devoted to the boy; he just has to chose which girl he like best. In magical girlfriends, while there is sometimes the girl next door character, more often the only real viable love interest is the magical girlfriend, who is utterly devoted to the boy. The conflict comes more often from making the mechanics of the romance work (e.g., there are time limits on the girl’s magic, the robot’s batteries are running out, in Chobits, the …unfortunate placement of a certain switch), while in a harem it comes from the girls competing with each other.
The girl’s animes certainly have stereotypes, but there is a bit more variety, and the boys are more likely to be nuanced than the girls in a harem: aside from being opposites and protective, the boys can have almost any type of personality and quirks. And the duality setup isn’t unique to anime. Various other stories from other mediums follow this pattern as well. The best example I can come up with off the top of my head is Pride and Prejudice. (Spoilers coming up: if you’ve not read Pride and Prejudice, go get a copy and read it. Now.) The main character, Lizzie, has to choose between Darcy and Wickham. The two of them are complete opposites – Wickham is blond, charming, lighthearted, and a complete bastard. Darcy is dark, cold, stand-offish, and surprisingly noble once he takes the stick out. In the first part of the book, Lizzie prefers Wickham and dislikes Darcy, which of course means that she’ll pick Darcy in the end.
Another difference between quality and generic romances besides the reliance on stereotypes is the focus of the story. The best romances have the plot move the story forward, ala Pride and Prejudice, Much Ado About Nothing, and Red River. In each of these, the plot drives the story and is interesting in its own right, but the focus and point of these stories are the emotions and how the plot sparks and changes the emotions of the characters.
These types of stories are more common in girls’ romances (I’m not biased, no not at all) while boys’ animes seem to be more plot driven, with the emotions of the characters feeding the plot, rather than the other way around.
A side note, because it wouldn’t be one of my posts if I didn’t mention shonen-ai; an odd side thing is that a lot of the non-one shot (i.e. porn) shonen-ai stories have many, many similarities with girls’ romances. This is because they’re written by girls for girls, more or less. Often, the two boys who would be romantic rivals in a romantic shojo manga are each other’s love interest. One theory of why this might be is because the drastic differences of the boys make the story more interesting and more romantic. CLAMP’s shonen-ai pairings are a good example of this. Fai and Kurogane; Watanuki and Domeki, Kazahaya and Rikuo; Yukio and Toya; the first generally lighter – either a spaz, or easygoing, or lighthearted, (more emotional, in other words, though not necessarily the same emotions a girl would have), generally slighter, smaller, and usually blond. The second is taller, dark, if he has a sense of humor it’s a bit sadistic, and very solid. Very much opposites.
Romance is messy indeed.
Once again, this is written with no research and less forethought. If you disagree, write a comment or something.