Exploring Gender Expression and Attraction in ‘Cinderella’s Closet’

Hey there folks, it is me: Carrie “Shojo is My First Love” McClain, and I am back to regale you with Shojo manga that needs to be talked about. This month I am focusing on Wakana Yanai’s Shojosei (Shojo +Josei): Cinderella’s Closet series published through Seven Seas Entertainment with Translation by Faye Cozy, Adaptation by M. Lyn Hall and lettering by Elena Pizarro. The series follows “The romantic story of a plain country girl who’s crushing on her handsome coworker…and her transformation by an unconventional and stylish “fairy godmother.” 

As noted when I first saw the license announcement of the series online, I thought, “Ohhhhh, this is giving me big Princess Jellyfish vibes,” and I write that not out of snark but with great appreciation. There seems to be a formula that is emulated taking a page from the 2010’s Shojosei classic, and that means well for Cinderella’s Closet narrative touching upon gender roles and gender expression. With volume three finally in my hands, I wanted to attempt to deconstruct this while explaining why up-and-coming manga series are refreshing and making waves in the Shojo genre that continues to be a bigger part of the manga industry.

Minor and major spoilers for the first two volumes of Cinderella’s Closet are below in this work!

When rereading the first volume of Cinderella’s Closet, it was really important to emphasize our main protagonist, Fukunaga Haruka’s background. She was more of a tomboy-ish character who attended an all-girls high-school and who played basketball on the school’s team. The very first page of the manga presents her fresh-faced high school self in school uniform and a short and sweet to-do list that she wants to get done in college. It is an endearing list that she posts to social media that includes growing out her hair, having lots of friends, and finding trendy cafes to study at. Perhaps the big-ticket items on the list are “being more fashionable, having a boyfriend and having the campus experience.” All in all, it’s not unusual, and the next two pages mark a year’s time skip of college aged scrambling at her part time job.

Now nineteen-years-old, readers find Haruka barely keeping up: moving to Tokyo for school meant a reality check. She bounces from schoolwork to her part-time job. Tokyo is an expensive city to live, commute and attend college in, from the countryside. She sees other girls her age drinking all the trendy drinks at the trendy cafes that she can’t afford, and she considers them weirdos as she’s basically living paycheck to paycheck. She doesn’t have the time to consider what is in fashion as her necessities like food come first. She works hard and we learn that the one bright side at her workplace is the bright and friendly male co-worker, Kurotaki. He’s a guy everyone loves and likes to be around, and our girl carries a torch big enough to touch the Tokyo Tower for him.

Exploring Gender Expression

Upon coming home from a long evening at work, Haruka takes a call from a friend back home who is concerned for her old friend. It is revealed that Haruka stopped posting to social media AFTER she officially moved to Tokyo. Upon seeing her apartment, cluttered and in desperate need of a good clean and organizing session, she dives into bed, exhausted. Her inner monologue sadly reveals that just keeping up is tiring, and she hasn’t made good on her graduation to do list: fashion and romance is otherworldly at this point.  The next morning she concludes that inner monologue with, ”Yesterday’s me, full of hope and optimism, was definitely more feminine than I am today.” She is nowhere closer to the invented self she envisioned for herself as a happy go lucky teenager. She is nowhere closer to taking on the world and living a fuller, more colorful, happier life. No thriving; she’s just surviving. This clinched my interest of what I love to see in Shojosei–this internal battle of navigating life as a young woman and this internal of not living your best life–and the desire to break out and do so.

Cinderella Closet Vol. 1, Wakana Yanai. (Seven Seas Entertainment)

It is on this same page where she verbally drums up the enthusiasm needed to start her day when she accidentally scares a bystander, and they drop their belongings. When Haruka turns around, she finds an impossibly gorgeous girl kneeling down picking up her dropped purse and scattered belongings on the ground. When it is noticed by the other young lady that Haruka is staring, not in animosity but in awe, our protagonist apologizes and compliments the other girls looks. Haruka then starts rambling on about beautiful people and how it must be a pain to have such routines everyday to be pretty, despite her wanting to be more fashionable and cute.

The conversation takes an embarrassing turn as the beauty Haruko meets doesn’t mince her words and tells her to stay the way she is and to instead leave “the high level fashion to pretty people.” This first encounter leaves Haruka miffed, humiliated as she pitifully ruminates on all her struggles: she lives alone and has no friendships so far noted outside her interactions with her co-workers at the restaurant she works. She can’t find time to cook and eat healthier and certainly can’t find time to buy herself something like a cute top or a new lip-gloss to make herself stand out or feel good.

Upon eating dinner on her break at work, Kurotaki appears, and she learns that he’s called it quits with her current girlfriend. He offers to go out with her (seemingly alone with no other coworkers!) the upcoming week and on her birthday, no less! When Haruka gets home pondering if it is a date, or if her charming coworker is just being nice, she looks at a reflection of herself and can’t stand what she sees: unkempt hair, unruly eyebrows and old, unfaltering clothes she’s sporting. She is in need of a miracle, she needs….a fairy mother!

Exploring Attraction

Now, the big reveal of Cinderella’s Closet is that Hikaru–the pseudo Fairy godmother character whom Haruka feels indebted to is in fact, a young man who dresses up and navigates the world presenting as a young woman. Yes, the very same Hikaru who is glamorous and sharp tongued and took pity on Haruka and aided her in the makeover because he saw her in earnest wanting to change. Before the big reveal, he, still dressed as a woman, reassures her that is normal to want to look nice to impress someone, especially someone you like when Haruka cries and tells her would be savior that her confidence is shot, and she fell behind in her plans to be the woman she wanted to be. 

While her being asked out by Kutotaki, her crush is the catalyst that brings Haruka and Hikaru back together, it is then when Hikaru presses personal responsibility on the girl: it is her own responsibility to make things work since she’s an adult– “there’s nothing appealing about self-deprecation.” He’s referring to the way Haruka speaks to and about herself and her failures to change herself for the better. Another visitor to the salon laughs at “Hikaru’s venom,” but the timid Haruka isn’t turned off this time, signifying a bit of growth on her part to hear the difficult things that need to be said.

Dolled up, she meets Kurotaki outside the restaurant where he’s even forgotten that they had plans (on her birthday, no less), and he’s blown away by the girl in front of him. Led on by the courage given to her by Hikaru when he was still dressed as a girl, she lays out her feelings to Kurotaki as she was excited to go out with him and he, feeling decently horrible, takes accountability for his actions. He sincerely apologizes for not only forgetting but offers to make it up to her and suggests a date, a real date!

Afterwards, Haruka returns to the salon where Hikaru gave her the makeup with many thanks and a request for the other “girl” to “teach her magic.” Haruka is going headfirst into becoming a new woman as she mentions that she wants to be more confident and brave enough to go after what she desires including liking who she is in front of the man she likes. Hikaru reluctantly agrees, and the next morning Haruka awakens in her very clean and tidy apartment to a half naked young man who she’s never seen before exiting her bathroom. To her surprise, it is Hikaru: her new friend is a he and not a she. Hikaru teases her mercilessly, thinking she’ll be weirded off and makes an exit, back dressed as a girl, wig and all. Yet to his surprise, Haruka comes back as she’s made a genuine connection with him and doesn’t judge him. She also often refers to him with they/their pronouns as they get to know each other more and tries not to assume that he dates/has dated or is attracted to only women later in a conversation when they get to know each other more in the second volume.

Cinderella’s Closet Vol 2, Wakana Yanai. (Seven Seas Entertainment)

In the second volume of Cinderella’s Closet, after the two young adults cement their friendship, Hikaru comes over to his newest female friend’s apartment. She’s invited him over in a gesture of thanks as she’s going to cook him a meal with the vegetables she’s received back home. Hikaru is shocked as one: he’s not often thanked and gifted such kind gestures from those he calls friends and two, her apartment once again is a mess! As he assists her in cleaning up, they suddenly find her high-school uniforms and related memorabilia in the clutter. After a little prodding, the young man dresses up in the likeness of a high school boy and is a little overwhelmed by Haruka’s reaction. 

He’s used to compliments and praise when he dresses and presents as femme and yet now without all of that, he’s surprised that her new friend thinks he’s also good looking. He even goes on to ask in a suggestive tone when things between them have been different if they knew each other earlier in life–which the girl blissfully misses out on. Hikaru appears to be developing feelings for the earnest and hard-working Haruka–and she has no clue which adds a level to not just this developing love triangle but this deconstructing of the Cinderella myth/story narrative that has begun.

Exploring Emotional Intelligence

At the end of volume one of Cinderella’s Closet : bubbly drunk Haruka reassures Hikaru that she doesn’t think he’s weird for his cross dressing (his words) or presenting sometimes as femme. She brings up that everyone is different in the world–no one person is the same. The kicker that captured not just my heart but Hikaru’s as well was the young woman apparently saying that if her crush Kutotaki was the type of person to think or express that Hikaru’s preference to dress feminine was gross–he simply wouldn’t be someone that she’d end up loving. For her, Hikaru is too important to her for that. It is a stunning, heartfelt, and completely honest statement that serves as a cupid’s strike to the young man’s heart that could serve as a confession, out of context.  I love this moment as it demonstrates the earnest and loving nature of the young woman and the breaking of the wall that the young man, her friend, has held up.

Hikaru often calls his friend Haruka, his country bumpkin of a girl–a bit slow when it comes to social interactions, romance, and the like. Yet, the girl is brutally honest at times, and she’s too easy for him to read. He constantly is amazed that she cares about him and reminds him; their friendship is important, and she’s not afraid to let him know of his strengths–and his flaws. She makes it a point to genuinely thank him when he aids her in her quest and does her best to be a good student when he teaches her about makeup, clothing, and being more secure and confident in herself. Sure, there is very much a Gap Moe element in the story with Haruka being a plain Jane type of girl with a big heart who is very earnest ,and Hikaru, who time after time, is a bit heavy handed with his advice on fashion, men and relationships. 

In the second volume of Cinderella’s Closet, Haruka is invited by her crush, on an overnight camping group trip. Excited and nervous, she brings along her bestie Hikaru, presenting as femme who can only shake her head as the girl excitedly packed more camping gear and goods, which surprises the guy she crushing on later…in a good way. Both Haruka and Kurotaki spend time together, putting together campfires much to an irritated and soon drunk Hikaru. As the two chat and get to know each other more, the young man is sure to let her know the truth: he didn’t not see Haruka as more than a coworker before. It was only when she dressed up to meet him that he saw her in a new light, and she needed to know “men are simple creatures;” he is not excluded from that. 

Cinderella’s Closet Vol 2, Wakana Yanai. (Seven Seas Entertainment)

In that same conversation, Kurotaki states that they shouldn’t jump into dating when pressed for an answer as Haruka does say that she likes him and wants to know if they can proceed as more than friends. His reasoning (which sounds like a cop-out, honestly) is that he believes that the girl has a romanticized image of him–he’s like a prince. This ties into the fairytale themed pull of the manga’s narrative: Cinderella, pure of heart, changes her outward appearance, meets the prince with help of the fairy godmother, and thus-lives happily ever after. 

He suggests that the two get to know each other more before deciding to date. Kurotaki acknowledges that the perceived “prince” image isn’t one that he wants Haruka to have of him–for good reason. Not many people want to be placed on a pedestal. Instantly, the girl has a flashback memory of Hikaru chastising her about her attitude about her crush, telling her to “stop glorifying him.” This here is an important development in not just their budding relationship but in how these young adults are still growing up and learning to be more self-aware of themselves and each other, which chalks up to more character development in my book.

I also find this recurring theme of meaningful friendships and deepening relationships that is worth following in Cinderella’s Closet. Hikaru–who comes across as cold and uncaring at first–is a young person who doesn’t have many, if any, close friends or romantic prospects. He finds that he is someone who matters to Haruka, who is so very heart on her sleeve about him and everyone else in her life. In both his femme presenting self and his male presenting self, he finds surprising sides to these two new people in his life: Haruka and Kurotaki. 

He’s falling in love with Haruka while promising to be her side as her confidant and friend while finding that Kurotaki is actually a decent guy that he’d be friends with in another life. At the end of volume two, he finds that he’s spent time with Kurotaki in both versions of himself and that he treated him with respect and consideration–even though Kutotaki hasn’t put it together that Hikaru and “Kou”–the name he came up with on the fly, are the same person. 

Seeing Hikaru be able to explore his feelings of not just falling in love (and trying to figure out what to do with those feelings) but being welcomed, invited, and cared for by a friend adds to the story here as he’s a character that I want to see more growth from. Seeing his character evolve on the page as someone who is realizing he’s cared for and loved is sincerely worth reading and pouring over as they are new to him as a young adult.

Cinderella’s Closet Vol 2, Wakana Yanai. (Seven Seas Entertainment)

Overall, Cinderella’s Closet as a newer series has impressed me with its layered yet messy narrative about first loves and growing into the person that you want to be. I really appreciate the deep emphasis on friendships in this series as they are imperative to fictional relationships as they are in real life. Playing off the Cinderella fairy tale gimmick, in just two volumes, the series has managed to help deconstruct the more romanticized and idealized notions of romance today and the realities behind it. I do see the narrative building the mangaka has created plot wise that uses these young adult characters, through gender expression and attraction. I think I am most happy to see the current trajectory of Haruka–once lamented on her inability to be the person who she once dreamed of being, weighed down by fear and doubts.

Sure, a huge part of her wanting to change: to learn makeup and how to dress was to find a boyfriend–the love of her (college aged) life. And as the story in Cinderella’s Closet has progressed, she gained friendships, self-awareness, maturity, and the self-confidence to be a woman she can be proud of…later down the line. I love that she has the courage to try: going places by herself to explore the city, to speak her mind and how she feels and to be the type of woman who can be counted on by her friends. Again, this is what I love to see in Shojosei–blending the best of both genres into something contemporary, relatable, and page-turning. While not perfect, I am emotionally invested in how Haruka, Hikaru, and Kurotaki have grown throughout the story. While placed in situations where they get to explore their attraction to others and how they express and react to other expressions and performance of gender, Cinderella’s Closet continues to add to a complicated but endearing story about youth that I am still reading and reaching for more volumes.

Cinderella’s Closet is published through Seven Seas Entertainment and can be found where more comics and manga are found.

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  • Carrie McClain is writer, editor and media scholar. Other times she's known as a Starfleet Communications Officer, Comics Auntie, and Golden Saucer Frequenter. Nowadays you can usually find her avoiding Truck-kun and forgetting her magical girl transformation device. She/Her

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