What is a Best Girl?

At its core, the concept of the “best girl” is a pretty silly one. It ultimately amounts to a fandom game, an arbitrary imposition of indeterminate criteria on a set of character for the sole purpose of crowning a champion. And yet, it’s a game I’ve invested myself into again and again. Perhaps, as the saying goes, “the joy is in playing.”

Nisekoi

Although I’d heard the term “best girl” thrown around a few times in my early days as an anime fan, the real watershed moment came when Nisekoi aired back in the Winter 2014 season. If I didn’t understand what it meant to be involved in a best girl war before the first episode came out, I certainly did afterwards. Suddenly, I found myself entirely swept away by the mudslinging, the memetic chants of “Chitoge Best Girl,” and the sweet satisfaction of laying down the cold, hard truth on Onodera lovers (you can still find record of my thread hijacking exploits). In short, it was a time of glorious fun. I said before that the idea of “best girl” is basically a game played with a fandom, and the Nisekoi best girl wars were certainly that—a low stakes, ironically high investment, inconsequential playground where the “goal” was basically a uselessly nebulous title that no one could actually claim for their chosen representative due to the resistance. To win only meant to have more people and more capslock shouts than the other guys.

It was in this lighthearted tempest that I first engaged with the idea of “best girls,” and I confess I found it a rather addictive experience, so much so that I imported the best girl game to many other shows I watched afterwards (sometimes, as in the case of Chelsea from Akame ga Killwith tragic results). But that initial experience is a full two years behind me now, and although I still play the best girl game (albeit with less warring with other fans), I’ve come to recognize that my application of the game is neither indiscriminate nor arbitrary. There are rules that I personally play by, and I’ve experienced the frustration of seeing others not play by those rules.

Love Live!

Nisekoi‘s Chitoge Kirisaki remains the purest example of what a “best girl” is to me, and I think the reasons for this are pretty clear. First, by its very nature, Nisekoi encourages the best girl game. As the harem of harems, it structurally encourages the audience to take sides and root for a specific girl to “win,” parading its cast around protagonist Raku to show off their assorted personalities and virtues for the benefit of the viewers. Said simply, Nisekoi‘s a shallow, objectifying sort of construction—although I’ll note this doesn’t necessarily mean that the best girl game is obligated to be similarly vacuous (certainly, it can be). Alternately, Nisekoi is just the purest best girl competition ever. To be so is its entire reason for existing. Second, Chitoge herself exists in the liminal territory between trope and actual character. She’s a tsundere to the core, but she also has assorted aspects to her personality that make just a bit more than that (the same can not be said of her compatriots)—which facilitates the ability to actually invest in her.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it was all obviously, transparently, flippant. Everything about the Nisekoi best girl wars was meaningless—and we all knew it. No matter how hard any of us campaigned, it was all just external noise that would never actually affect the canon story we were watching. Despite all the posts, all the gifs, and all the “arguments,” it was really just a bunch of people messing around. We invested ourselves, but with a sort of self-consciousness non-restraint born of the unspoken knowledge that it was all just a performance for our own entertainment.

What this all means is that the rules of the best girl concept as I understand it, I absorbed from Nisekoi and from rooting for Chitoge—and these were the standards I carried with me to the other shows I watched. One: the best girl game is just that, a game. Two: whatever my personal preferences may be (tsundere, genki types are the usual hits with me), the character needed to fit into that same category of not quite being a full trope and not quite being a full character.

Sound! Euphonium

I say this all in retrospect, though, because I didn’t understand these rules at the outset. It’s only after watching many shows afterwards and applying the best girl idea (or not doing so) to different shows that these patterns become clear. I didn’t care to bother selecting best girls out of casts of cardboard cutout trope characters (Is the Order a Rabbit? comes to mind), and the idea of choosing a best girl from some casts (the Monogatari series or Toradora!, for example) struck me as weird and wrong. But there were a whole host of shows in between those where I was happy to go at it (Love LabTokyo RavensKinmoza!).

In other words, to me the idea of “best girl” is tightly intertwined with a certain kind of show and a certain kind of cast. It’s got to be a fun sort of show that I maintain a sense of levity and casualness with, and it’s got to have characters who are fun and who I can somewhat invest in who also aren’t too well-developed. To treat a show that I deeply, seriously loved or characters that I truly respected with the levity of the best girl game—it’s just something I won’t do. So you won’t ever hear me talk about the best girl in Blast of Tempest or in Revolutionary Girl Utena. It’s certainly just me being self-serious about my anime, but those shows and characters simply mean too much to me for me to treat them like toys. I can’t—won’t—make the characters I love most part of my exterior fandom performance because they still hold a certain kind of sacredness to me.

I don’t know exactly what you’d call it, but it’s definitely not just fun and games.

I’m aware all of this runs the risk of coming off as somewhat judgmental, but I really don’t mean to deride those who are able to throw themselves into the best girl game no matter the show. I’m well aware that my limited definition of what a best girl can be for me isn’t a universal principle followed by everyone else. It’s just what works for me. And so I’ll continue to not only pick my best girls, but also pick my best girl shows. I’ll hold some characters up with the semi-serious title of best girl (which, for all I’ve said, I do believe is a crown worth giving out—if only for what it reveals about the one bestowing it), and I’ll maintain that some characters are just too good to be best girls.

It’s what works for me. And so, in closing, let me say it once more: CHITOGE BEST GIRL.

Nisekoi


This piece was originally published under the same title on Crunchyroll.com as part of the Aniwords column. The original post can be found here.

5 thoughts on “What is a Best Girl?

  1. I get where you’re coming from on not choosing best girls with certain shows (and I noticed that kind of language largely disappeared from your Hyouka tweets and writings as the show went on, aside from its vestigial remnant in the “weekly Mayakas”). I still have favorite characters in shows like Toradora and Gunslinger Girl, but like you said I seem to unconsciously draw a line in my head between shows like those and light popcorn shows like Inou Battle or Love Live. There really isn’t any particular rhyme or reason to who captures my attention from series to series, though, no matter if the show is fluffy or serious, other than that’s it’s basically always either the character I find the most interesting/intriguing or who entertains me the most. I do tend to prefer tomboys and playful girls to shyer/more bookish types (like I’ll take Honoka over Hanayo, or Ritsu over Mio in K-On), but even that’s not universal – Mai is my favorite Kanon girl and Yuki is my best Haruhi girl, and both of them are very quiet “speak only when spoken to” characters.

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  2. best girl is the proper/fav girl who we like/love and/or want her to end up with the boy she loves, I think.
    For Nisekoi, there’re many fan who love their fav girls and right now manga chapter 221 was released and the promised girl was revealed. Who will be the best girl of Raku? I think the hint/clues are spread in many chapters of manga. So there’s analysis that search for the most possible answer. And her name is…

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  3. “Everything about the Nisekoi best girl wars was meaningless—and we all knew it.”

    We did? O____O

    Before you get me wrong, I get the superficial appeal of Nisekoi. I don’t particularly care for that aspect of the show (I’m clearly not the target audience), but I acknowledge and appreciate it. What I find interesting is that the intended watchers are so eager to belittle the story, and the genre in general.

    Whenever I try to earnestly discuss Nisekoi, I hit a wall. “It’s just a harem fantasy”, “the only point is the best girl”, “everyone knows it’s meaningless” and the immortal “LOL, you’re looking for a deeper meaning in a harem show? XD”. The fans seem to have this preconception that harems are a shallow, guilty pleasure, a lowly indulgence that can’t possibly have a second bottom.

    I generally sympathise with the female characters more (again, I’m not the target audience). I don’t really care about the male protagonists, best girls or ‘who will win’ question, which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy harems. I watch them for the female casts and how they function in the convoluted love polygons. Oftentimes I get just what you described: Meaningless fan indulgence. Once in a while, however, the female perspective reveals a world of depth under the sugar-coated surface.

    Nisekoi is a prime example of that. Beneath the shallow harem story lies an intricate, in-depth study of the sensitive temperament, its social perception, the stereotypes and prejudice around it and their impact on a sensitive person. Of course, I’m speaking of Onodera.

    Watching the show from the female perspective, I felt like I’ve seen something completely different than the fandom. To me, it was always a story of a ‘girl next door’ set against love rivals so appealing they seem crafted for their role. Whether they won the genetic lottery or ‘that’s just how the world works’, she’s doomed to lose just because she isn’t like them.

    Ironically, Chitoge ruffled my feathers for the very reasons you mention: She is the ‘best girl’ by definition. A pre-designed, genetically engineered, mentally conditioned super-waifu, an alchemical concortion of matching, compelling tropes. Everything about her makes her the race favourite. Even her romance is guided by the hand of God. She can – and will – win by the single virtue of being a Chitoge.

    This is cast against a cute, but otherwise ordinary girl. Onodera fights an uphill battle against this (and other) artificially created monsters, and it’s clear from the start that she’ll lose. Interestingly this makes her the most relatable character in the series, precisely because she’s not just an alchemical mix of the most suitable tropes. In fact, her most defining trait is her sensitivity… And she’s one of the most authentic sensitive characters I’ve seen in popular fiction.

    Onodera fights not only against the invincible opposition, but also against her nervous system and the prejudice around her. She has to deal with limits of her temperament, deep-planted insecurities, constant gaslighting and an internalised belief that there’s something wrong with her. She is easily flustered and over-stimulated, she needs to do things at her own pace… And everyone tells her it’s something she needs to fix. She’s treated as though she was fundamentally flawed, even if others gladly benefit from her good sides (empathy, intuition, wisdom, consideration and innate kindness). She shines in the moments when she’s true to herself, showing that she’s sympathetic, perceptive, a deep thinker and the best judge of character in the cast. Nevertheless, she’s constantly thrown back into insecurity by people who look down on her. Even her quote in the popularity poll – a timid ‘Is it okay for me to win?’ – relfects a deeply negative self-image.

    This is very accurate of the sensitivite people in real life. I’m saying this both from experience and academic knowledge: The unique needs of the sensitive people are largely misunderstood and framed as flaws, while their strengths go grossly under-appreciated. The effects on the self-esteem can be devastating, in the exact ways Nisekoi portrays. Sensitive people often feel that they’re doomed to lose because of what they are, just as Onodera has no chance against the outgoing, assertive, thick-as-a-brick Chitoge. In the end, it’s her own fault. She should have been born a perfect, extroverted harem heroine instead of a sensitive person.

    This alone makes the Nisekoi best girl war meaningful. It doesn’t matter who wins; it’s all about what it delivers along the way. Nisekoi delivers an accurate, authentic portrayal of an important psychological trait, its consequences and the treatment it receives. It’s a shame that the audience completely missed it. After all, Nisekoi is just a harem romance, and a harem romance is just a shallow, objectifying, guilty pleasure. There’s no way it could contain a second bottom.

    Onodera would disagree, but who would ever listen to her?

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    • This comment is epic. It also seems like the sort of thing someone who’d say “Onodera best girl” would like. And as the background of this blog ought to imply… we don’t want any of those sorts ’round here. 😛

      This is a very sensitive take on Nisekoi as a whole and Onondera in particular. I find it astoundingly generous, perhaps to a degree I can’t find it within myself to agree with – but I have my fair show of shows (including harems) that others consider to be complete tripe that I’ve found deeper meaning in, so who am I to deny that to you? Especially since I’m with you in that I often enjoy harems for similar reasons to you, that is, their exploration of the female characters’ perspectives. One of my favorite things about Nisekoi is Chitoge and Onodera’s friendship.

      In any case, the “best girl wars” I called meaningless where not the wars within the show itself, but those in the exterior fandom – i.e. people yelling in good humor at each other on forums about which of the girls they liked best. In other words, a fun game played by fans adjacent to the show itself.

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