[I had selective mutism growing up, but that anecdotal experience should not determine the strength of my argument. So, I’ll also give an academic-adjacent reading recommendation as my main source, Selective Mutism in Our Own Words: Experiences in Childhood and Adulthood by Carl Sutton and Cheryl Forrester. It’s an excellent book both for its readable first-person accounts of the condition and for its rigorous literature review and references to guide further research. I have also consulted with a professional speech-language pathologist friend to assist me with a mock “diagnosis” of Nanako’s silence and increase the clarity of my writing about communication disorders. A thousand thanks for her expertise!]
I don’t read much manga because I can’t stand the dominant publishing model: chapters trickled out in pulp-periodical magazines, collected and resold into volumes when they reach some arbitrary mass that continues to expand anyway because the incentive to sell another volume discourages writers from hitting real resolutions or, often, even moving the plot forward (I hear a whisper on the breeze, ~Nisekoi~). So, despite the common refrain that “the manga was better,” I like to stick to anime if only because seeing “(ongoing)” attached to a double-digit volume list makes me doze off before even starting. I’ve picked up a few manga for series that have impressed me beyond expectation, but only if they’re short, they’re serious, and they’re over.
I broke my usual habits then when I bought the manga for Senryu Shoujo, a spring 2019 anime series that, despite some initial enjoyment, impressed me so little that I haven’t bothered to finish it. With a bland high-school-slice-of-life 4-panel format, it’s got nothing serious to consider, at nine volumes, it’s too long to finish (especially without an official translation… I’ve limped along in Japanese*), and, ugh, it’s (ongoing). But even if I didn’t much enjoy either the anime or the manga (I only read the first four volumes as a compromise with my sanity), I do think that Senryu Shoujo did something well worth praising: its depiction of communication difficulties, specifically, the mutism of its lead protagonist, Nanako Yukishiro.
* [Note: in the absence of an official English edition, I have provided my own amateurish translations]
But despite the centrality of mutism to Senryu Shoujo‘s entire premise, the relative silence on the issue online has surprised me — maybe just a footnote here, a brief mention in regards to social anxiety here, and an abundance of misguided terms like “shy,” “introverted,” or “non-verbal” scattered around various reviews, impressions, and discussion threads. Otherwise, most viewers just seem to treat it like a cute gimmick. But in an odd way, I take that lack of focus on Nanako’s mutism as a quiet victory for disability representation in anime; Senryu Shoujo has managed to tell a story about living with a rare condition that impedes communication without, it seems, most viewers even noticing the difference.
In this post, I will try to define the disorder that prevents Nanako from speaking, because her almost total reticence goes beyond a mere personality trait like shyness or introversion. Then, I’ll return to the question of disability representation in fiction by discussing how I think Senryu Shoujo excels compared to other media depicting similar communication challenges.
Can Nanako Speak?
Just for fun, let’s introduce Nanako in the style of a short psychological profile:
Nanako Yukishiro is a first-year high school student who does not speak in most social contexts, including in public settings like at school (chapter 1) and in private settings like at home (chapter 23). Classmates note that she has not spoken since at least middle school (chapter 1) but her mother describes age-appropriate behavior like crying fits when she was younger (chapter 8). In place of speech, Nanako communicates non-verbally or by writing short senryu-style poems (chapter 1). Though unverified, she might use limited speech around her closest friends (see below).
Beyond her lack of speech, Nanako suffers from severe social anxiety well in excess of her age-peers. For example, she displays clear outward distress when asked to answer questions aloud in class (chapter 1), when ordering food in the cafeteria (chapter 1), and when among large crowds at a zoo (chapter 20) or at a loud concert (chapter 47). Though she excels socially and academically, especially in language and literature due to her strong interest in poetry (chapter 14), her inability to speak in class interferes with coursework (chapter 1) and her anxiety can trigger stressful panic attacks (chapter 20).
In one of the few moments that she describes her own condition, Nanako writes in verse that:
考えが / まとまらなくて / 喋れない
Kangae ga / matomaranakute / shaberenai
[My] thoughts / don’t stay straight / I can’t speak
By the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-V psychological manual, I think that Nanako presents a clear case of “selective mutism,” a rare anxiety disorder that prevents sufferers from speaking in specific, consistent contexts. In the most common manifestation of the condition, that means an inability for children with severe social phobias to speak in school, though as the accounts in Selective Mutism: In Our Own Words demonstrate, silence can extend into adulthood and appear in any social situation, even among close family. In the most extreme cases, called “progressive mutism,” sufferers sometimes stop speaking altogether for long periods of time.
To illustrate with my own experience, I grew up with a typical case of selective mutism. Beginning in kindergarten, I did not speak to any children or teachers at school, including my brother and closest friends. Though I could speak at home and around my neighborhood, as I aged, I did not grow out of the problem like most “shy” children. Instead, my silence extended to other public contexts like shopping, ordering food at restaurants, and making casual conversation with strangers. In moments of unusual stress, I sometimes even stopped speaking to my own family. When controlled by my mutism, I could only communicate by nodding, pointing, waving, or writing. Situations that required me to speak caused such overwhelming discomfort that I rarely left my neighborhood except to go to school, badly limiting my social opportunities.
Despite the churning anxiety within me, the condition had little obvious external impact on my life through elementary school. I still made friends and did well in school. But after I entered middle school, it became a serious problem as my silence attracted bullies and my extreme difficulty giving presentations or participating in class interfered with my academics. I only began to improve in my late teens, when I began whispering to my brother and a single close friend. By the end of high school, they had helped me expand that circle of whispers to about a dozen other friends, including some in a school club, my first ever voluntary extracurricular activity. Though I still never initiated conversation, I could make short, polite replies to teachers, strangers, and other children. However, I never felt fully comfortable with extended conversation until university and even now into adulthood people say that I speak with unusual shortness and quietness.
I want to emphasize the “coulds” in the previous two paragraphs: though selective mutism might present itself as mere shyness or introversion, it is neither a personality nor a choice.
Instead, it is a severe anxiety disorder that causes most of its sufferers real distress. As described in Our Own Words, it works like an extreme communication phobia that triggers the freeze reaction out of the fight-flight-freeze stimulus-response trifecta. Sufferers’ muscles tense in their throat and face, they may slow or stop their breathing to remain quiet, and their brains struggle to process thoughts while racing with anxiety. Though selective mutism is psychological condition, the physiological symptoms can make speech feel genuinely impossible, as if some block prevents thoughts from translating to speech. This can even cause an inability to use non-verbal communication, visible in the blank facial expressions and restrained, ‘quiet’ movements typical of children with selective mutism. In some cases, people with selective mutism cannot even write to communicate because they feel that their hands stop working.
Again, this is not a choice. The “select” in selective mutism refers to “select” social contexts rather than selecting not to speak (still, it’s a better name than the old diagnosis for “elective mutism” and the even older 19th century term “aphasia voluntaria”). Despite having no neurological or physical impediments that prevent the bodily action of speech, anxiety makes spoken communication feel impossible for sufferers of selective mutism. In my own experience, while confronted with mutism I often felt that nothing of me existed except for my sight, my hearing, and my shallow, silent breath. The rest froze. To recall Nanako’s poem, I could not connect my mind to my mouth — if I could even manage a coherent thought at all.
But though I find the depiction of Nanako’s silence immensely relatable and authentic to my own experience with selective mutism, let’s return to the professional diagnostic criteria to help rule out other possible communication disorders. The DSM-V requires that patients with selective mutism do not have another neurological, psychological, developmental, or physical condition that could “better explain” their lack of speech like severe autism, negative schizophrenia, or a fluency disorder (e.g. stuttering). I think that we can quickly eliminate most of those alternative explanations; because Nanako presents as a typical high school girl (boringly so…) with no difficulty succeeding in school or interacting with others beyond her inability to speak, I see no evidence for a competing mental illness or developmental challenge. Plus, her only obvious psychological difficulty, social anxiety, fits well into a selective mutism diagnosis.
However, I have a little more trouble with the physical or neurological impairments that could impede speech since Nanako’s silence makes it impossible to assess that speech. Luckily, my speech-language pathologist friend provides a clue: most people with physical or neurogenic communication disorders (for example, aphasia) will still try to speak despite the challenge in doing so. By contrast, Nanako never even makes an attempt. She does not speak in the anime and never uses speech bubbles in the manga. Instead, most chapters only translate her non-verbal communication into words in the same way that whispered dialogue-in-aside will sometimes float around other characters’ heads. For example:
However, the manga also includes plenty of examples of non-bubbled text coming from Nanako that look a lot like speech. For example, what about this short exchange when Nanako asks her maybe-boyfriend Eiji about options at a cheap ramen restaurant?
I have a hard time imagining her asking the specific question “What about this ‘flavor egg'” with just a quizzical expression. Or, how she could say “ouch” without saying it?
Or shout “stupid” without shouting it?
Or greet her clubmates when entering the room, followed by another probable shout?
Even if the above examples represent body-language translation rather than genuine verbal communication, at the very least, she makes all kinds of non-speech vocalizations to communicate:
I think that the above examples, with dozens more throughout the manga, demonstrate that Nanako can, in a physical and neurological sense, speak. Though I can’t outright dismiss the alternative explanations for her silence, I see no strong reason to support them either.
So, even without literal confirmation, I feel comfortable calling Nanako’s silence a form of selective mutism. When considered in the context of her unusual social anxiety, I can see another hint too: all of the examples of Nanako’s speech occur around her closest friends, especially with her sweet-heart Eiji. Just like I could manage quiet, limited replies among my whisper circles in high school, Nanako seems to speak when she feels safest with her clubmates. And then, even if Senryu Shoujo perhaps exaggerates her condition for comedic effect, her total silence still has plausible precedence in real-life cases of progressive mutism. In the literal sense of moving her mouth and making sounds, yes, Nanako likely can speak. But then anxiety catches her voice and locks it where she feels most comfortable, on the gorgeous pages of her poetry.
However, now that I have a tentative answer, I have another question to return to the issue of disability representation in fiction.
Should it matter?
Before addressing the question, first I think it will help to compare Senryu Shoujo to the only other depiction of selective mutism I have encountered in popular fiction, the Indian astrophysicist Raj Kuthrapali from the American comedy series The Big Bang Theory.
Early in the series, Raj receives a literal diagnosis for selective mutism from a psychiatrist due to his inability to speak with women. But then The Big Bang Theory and its awful, ubiquitous laugh track turn around to use Raj’s anxiety disorder as a reason to laugh at him when he has little panic attacks around women (and only ‘attractive’ women in a gross bit of casual nerd misogyny). Because ha ha ha, mocking mental illness makes for a great comic device (saaarcasssmmm)!
Raj’s substance abuse of alcohol to self-medicate his anxiety becomes another joke, and when he becomes a slobbering drunk by the end of the episode, trying to kiss women without consent (and even exposing himself to them), the laugh track calls it another joke. Oh, and then throw in some ugly stereotypes about Indians with their ~foreign~ arranged marriages and ~exotic~ subcontinental sex appeal (~orientalism~). Oh, and don’t forget the homophobic jokes mocking single men with traits that society codes as feminine. Raj likes aromatic shampoo and soft clothing so he must be a secret cross-dresser or gay man, right? Laugh when he doth protest too much — “I’m not gay.” Real men would never need to deny anything, eh fellas? Ughhh…
Yeah, if you can’t tell, I resent that Raj has become the most visible pop-culture icon for selective mutism in America (by its sixth of twelve seasons, The Big Bang Theory ranked among the top three American television shows by viewership ratings). He has little character or humor beyond his three stereotyped social disadvantages: anxiety disorder, Asian immigrant, and effeminate man. He just needs to drink alcohol and loosen up; or he just needs to capitulate his mental illness and give up (in favor of a sham arranged marriage with a lesbian woman); or, worst of all, he just needs to get over himself and man up.
So, if Raj is the competition for fictional representation of selective mutism, I’ll gladly take Senryu Shoujo over The Big Bang Theory. Sure, the manga and anime are obscure relative to the once most-popular television comedy in the US. But Senryu Shoujo does a much, much better job depicting disability because, in an ironic way, it almost doesn’t. Nanako is just a normal high schooler that does what every other slice-of-life anime girl does: she makes friends in her club, has stupid romantic misunderstandings, and I dunno, turns into a cute little moeblob:
Though Senryu Shoujo bores me, maybe I should count that dullness as a good thing. Neither the anime nor the manga sensationalize Nanako’s condition or turn her into the target of mean-spirited jokes. Of course, as the main character, she provides the basis for much of the series’ humor. But, crucially, she does so because she has her own good sense of humor rather than out of mockery. Nanako is a silly, funny girl by her own right. The series encourages the reader to laugh with her, not at her.
When Nanako has her cute little moeblob meltdowns, Senryu Shoujo attributes them to trivial issues attached to her own personality like her crush on Eiji rather than her disorder. And then when she does have genuine panic attacks, the series stops the humor to give her the help she needs. For example, in the first chapter a math teacher shocks Nanako by calling on her in class. When she doesn’t reply, he realizes his mistake, apologizes, and gives Nanako an alternative assignment. The scene still has a joke — Nanako couldn’t solve the math problem — but only because she hadn’t paid attention in class rather than because of her difficulty speaking. An even better moment occurs during the zoo visit in chapter 20. Nanako feels trapped in a massive crowd pulsing forward to see a popular panda exhibit. So, she retreats to a quiet bench where she can relax in the company of her good friend Eiji. The scene gives a serious, sympathetic look at the real negatives of living with selective mutism without putting undue focus on Nanako’s inability to speak.
For an anxiety disorder that makes sufferers so afraid of social scrutiny that they literally silence themselves, I think that lack of focus is key. Senryu Shoujo is a modestly popular manga with mass serialization about a main protagonist suffering from a rare anxiety disorder that prevents her from speaking. But then instead of focusing on that issue, Senryu Shoujo defines Nanako by her ordinary high-school antics and love for senryu poetry (and maybe, her cute mutual crush on Eiji).
Here, I think it helps to compare Senryu Shoujo to another anime about communication challenges, A Silent Voice (Japanese: Koe no Katachi). The film tells the story of Shouko Nishimiya, a girl with hearing impairment, and her old bully Shouya Ishida as they grow up to reconcile and overcome their childhood regrets. It carries a strong anti-bullying message about accepting people with differences. However, I think it still others people with disabilities just a little bit by putting that disability identity first. Unlike Nanako with all of her special interests and quirks, A Silent Voice perhaps defines Shouko more by her deafness than her own unique personality. As a result, I worry that A Silent Voice skirts close to “inspiration porn,” a genre of storytelling that uses people with disabilities to evoke sympathy or awe — “Wow, I can’t imagine living like that!” — but still othering them regardless by focusing on the disability rather than the person. A Silent Voice has a meaninful thematic purpose to drive that focus, but the sensational melodrama in the movie perhaps overstates the point.
By contrast, Senryu Shoujo focuses so little on Nanako’s differences that, to return to my point in the introduction, few people have even commented on it. Sure, Nanako doesn’t speak. But so much more goes on in her happy, healthy life. Almost nothing distinguishes Senryu Shoujo from the dozens of other feel-good, high-school slice-of-life manga on the market. And as odd as it might sound, I think that represents real progress for disability representation in fiction. I’ve written the last 3000 words about Nanako’s mutism, but in its first four volumes, Senryu Shoujo itself maybe gives the topic just a few dozen. Rather than othering Nanako for her inability to speak, the series’ casual silence on the issue helps to normalize it.
I do feel a tinge of cynicism here though — I suspect that Senryu Shoujo has perhaps escaped notice because Nanako’s characterization fits well into the “dandere” character archetype for shy, awkward moe anime girls. Though Nanako’s closest friends treat her with perfect respect, other students (and even her own overprotective father!) dote on and diminutize her because they consider her silence “cute.” In a moment of self-awareness of its gendered standards, the manga even includes a chapter that compares Nanako to a Yamato Nadeshiko, the feminine ideal out of Japanese classical literature that emphasizes demure, submissive women. In that sense then, I do worry that Senryu Shoujo might go too far towards fetishizing Nanako’s disability rather than normalizing it by turning mutism into a moe-fied gimmick to increase her character appeal. Genuine sympathetic moments like Eiji’s compassion for Nanako’s panic in the zoo chapter convince me that the series can maintain its respectability, but I wouldn’t mention the criticism if I didn’t feel that it had some validity.
With that said though, do want to conclude with a final bit of praise for Senryu Shoujo as a sort of defence: if a Silent Voice carries a moral targeted at general audiences about extending kindness to people with disabilities, to me, Senryu Shoujo feels something like an aspirational power fantasy for people with mutism. Nanako isn’t just cute, she’s cool. She provides a desirable — if somewhat unrealistic — image for living a dream life without ever needing to speak. She goes through high school communicating by writing poetry and everyone loves her for it. Oh, if only I could have done that! She’s awesome, (or well… at least as much as a pink-clad poetry buff can be…).
On more mundane issues too, in Senryu Shoujo I see a sort of egalitarian ideal along the lines of the “social model of disability.” The social model proposes that the way society reacts to disability causes the disability rather than the impairment itself. For example, In Our Own Words describes discriminatory situations such as people with selective mutism failing classes or dropping out of school because they could not complete their oral coursework. However, if they had received alternative assignments, they could have succeeded just as well as any other student. Social rigidity disadvantaged them, not their mutism. In that context then, the aspirational fantasy in Senryu Shoujo isn’t one of having more power than others but of having equal value. Nanako’s teachers and friends make full accommodation for her silence, thus enabling her to participate in a happy school life as if she had no mutism at all.
To insert a caveat, I don’t want to overemphasize the social model too much. As a severe anxiety disorder, selective mutism causes real psychological distress and deserves its classification as a mental illness. It warrants serious intervention by teachers, psychologists, and speech-language pathologists.
But reading Senryu Shoujo, I imagine how wonderful school could have been without the cruel peers who bullied me, without the ignorant teachers who punished me for *not* disrupting class, and without the well-meaning but ineffectual professionals who dragged me through years of fruitless therapy. So much of the distress that came from living with selective mutism came from the way other people treated me, not from the condition itself. For the most part, I enjoyed my silence — until someone insisted that I satisfy the social expectation to speak. Only then did mutism become an anxious, writhing curse. Why should I speak? Why should it matter? Don’t you understand me well enough already?
As much as it embarasses me to indulge in a sentimental fantasy, in Nanako I see something like the ideal life I could have lived even without speaking, if society had a little more care for people with communication differences. Nanako doesn’t speak. But in the world of Senryu Shoujo, that doesn’t matter.
Yeah, maybe Senryu Shoujo didn’t impress me as a comedy manga. But as a light commentary on living with a silent, invisible, but painfully obvious disorder like selective mutism, oh, what a lovely thought — to be boring.
To close, I’d like to give a brief note about the grammar used when discussing selective mutism. In this post, I have asked if Nanako “can speak” while trying to diagnose a clinical cause for her silence. However, I switched to “doesn’t speak” for the more conversational second half. I never used “won’t speak,” because remember, selective mutism is not a choice. Consider the different shades of meaning in these three sentences:
- “She won’t speak” — placing an incorrect focus on choice, thus implying that the person with mutism is responsible for her own disabling anxiety disorder.
- “She can’t speak” — placing an accurate focus on the disability, but still implying the otherness of the person with mutism.
- She doesn’t speak — placing focus nowhere, perhaps implying simple, non-judgemental acceptance.