Relationships are hard. It’s a fact that even people who have engaged in many successful ones can attest to, and things can be even more challenging for those who struggled to accumulate that kind of experience. Art and storytelling, and the ability to share that in our digital age, can communicate to an audience the feeling of struggling with these fundamental human experiences that others take as typical. Meet Mieri Hiranishi: She’s a manga artist with a thing for cool, short-haired women who has struggled with anything resembling dating or long-term relationships. Now her comic collection, which illustrates just what that kind of perpetual single-tude does to someone, has been picked up by VIZ to be printed.
What stuck out to me most about Mieri’s experiences was how universal they feel. Yes, her orientation and style preference does limit the options of crushes she could even consider (she concedes while browsing dating apps that she may be “too picky for (her) own good”). But most of what holds her back is made clear and followed up on by the book’s end as the all-too-common lack of confidence. Mieri is trapped perpetually in her own shell, only forcing herself out in futile efforts to aggressively reinvent herself in attempting to catch the eye of a crush. Her ill-fated attempt to get the attention of “Jay” early on codifies this, alongside her habit of admitting defeat forever in an approach after failing just once.
That said, while The Girl That Can’t Get a Girlfriend can ring familiar even for people outside the lesbian experience, it might seem bafflingly simple to any who enjoys a more consistent, “regular” dating life. This is part of what makes Mieri recounting her feelings so affecting, though: She hones in on how alienating it can feel to struggle with something that so many others seem to take for granted. “Is there something wrong with me?” or “Why is something so easy for others so difficult for me?” are easy questions to ask when it seems like everyone around you, including the people you’re interested in, fall into and out of relationships seemingly effortlessly. In contrast, you can scarcely seem to achieve even a first step. I imagine this could be downright aggravating to those in that more experienced camp, wondering why Mieri can’t simply “get over herself” and “put herself out there.” As much as these struggles hit close to home for some, one hopes it also demonstrates to others how hard it can be to crawl out of that sort of low self-esteem hole.
It’s an affecting, relatable setup that makes it somewhat amusing when The Girl That Can’t Get a Girlfriend ends up being, for most of its story, about Mieri getting a girlfriend. Her courtship and relationship with Ash can be positively sweet in its nicest moments, obviously meaning to convey the highs of what would be an absurdly short fling by the standards of people with a “normal” love life. But that’s the point of this kind of contextualization as well, as the inevitable banal tragedy of how Mieri’s relationship with Ash ends overshadows the next several years of how she struggles with life and purpose. This aspect could spark the question of “what is the big deal?” from the more well-adjusted. But Mieri’s honest introspection into her brief flurry of mindsets in the long wake of the breakup and her stages of grief invite empathy.
It illustrates that context, the emotional perils of only dating one person for a short time, and the resulting yearning codependency that comes from it, where The Girl That Can’t Get a Girlfriend produces its most effectively raw content. This collection of strips was never meant to illustrate the broader struggles of a queer dating experience; these are frustrations that are much more particular to this singular single. It does invite the question of how many people will be down to, effectively, read someone whine about their issues regarding a mostly-typical breakup to a short relationship, but what are these sorts of diary comics for if not that kind of thing? If the material doesn’t elevate to “profound” (nor do I think it is meant to), it does present the necessary interiority that leads to a sympathetic, entertaining read. It’s easy to see why these strips resonated with an audience that found and followed her, buoyed by the way the material can swerve between heady emotional struggles and laugh-out-loud irreverent punchlines.
This presentation works well enough in the perhaps now-expected framework of an autobiographical diary comic style. Mieri’s sketchy little figure of an avatar is endearingly expressive while pointedly obscuring any actual perception of how she might feel about her supposedly inappreciable appearance (though her occasional reflective descriptions as “an otaku with the fashion sense of a twelve-year-old” or “a gross otaku who draws cartoon lesbians while giggling to myself” can be darkly funny). On the flip side, she can draw the crap out of some hot butch lesbians; you can sense the aesthetic preferences of an artist brought up on anime and manga who would be attracted to types like Jay and Ash. Also notably, Mieri being a long-term Japanese-American transplant seems to have allowed her to handle the English treatment of her comic’s script herself, meaning so many of the terminally-online text choices like “My brain noped into another dimension” or “hot Grill i can’t” come off that much more authentic, which is vital in a pointedly personal story like this one.
The Girl That Can’t Get a Girlfriend is not an incredibly dense deep-dive into someone’s psyche, even for those who especially empathize with Mieri. Nor does it seem obligated to assign itself some arbiter of the queer experience. It is a simple, interesting reminder that everyone’s engagement with romance will be different, at least by a little bit. There’s no universal road to recovering self-esteem. However, it is still downright heartening and cathartic to see Mieri make some progress by the end, not necessarily because of personal intervention by anybody close to her, but merely out of incidental self-realization. Apart from the spots of bleak relatability, that sense of hope rings just as encouraging, inspiring other people to root for themselves as they may come to root for Mieri.