(This is the first part in a multi-post series looking at Mai Valentine (Kujaku Mai)’s characterization, the implications of the narrative’s treatment of her identity as a woman and as a duelist, and how she adds to the overall Yu-Gi-Oh! canon as a main female character. This series is part of a larger series called “Girls Can Play Card Games Too!”, which analyzes the dueling prowess (and fails) and offering commentary on feminist and anti-feminist characterizations of select Yu-Gi-Oh! girls).
Let it be known that if you’re a girl in any Yu-Gi-Oh! verse, chances are you are not going to have a victory streak. In fact, in most cases than not, you will lose. A lot. And when you do win, it’ll most likely be against an inconsequential minor character who only sticks around for the duel’s duration and whose name is almost instantly forgotten an episode later.
Or God help you, all of your victories and tournament wins are off-screen.
This is the reality of the YGO-verse. If you’re a girl, your dueling is going to be subpar, mediocre at best. After all, we can’t have a girl upstaging the Yutagonist at a children’s card game, right?
But wait, a staunch Yu-Gi-Oh! fanboy cries in outrage. Yu-Gi-Oh! is a shonen anime, and its intended audience is 6-12 year old boys.
Little boys don’t care about girls winning card games–they want to watch boys like themselves to fight, to duel brilliantly and epically. The concept of a strong, independent female character winning important duels is beyond them and simply not good marketing.
But you know, we can’t just have a show with just guys! It’s just not realistic…never mind that our protagonist’s hair defies the laws of physics. We need girls so yeah, let’s throw in a cheerleader or two, and maybe sneak in some breasts for the older boys.
In all seriousness, and to the writer’s credit, Mai Valentine (Kujaku Mai for those who watch the original Japanese) is more than a pair of giant walking breasts. LittleKuriboh, bless his soul, hits the nail on the head by pointing out that Mai exists for fan service and perhaps, YGO’s lip service to providing at least some attempt at gender equality by including a female duelist. But I’d argue that we need to give the writers a little more credit and more importantly, give Mai Valentine more credit. Because for a token female duelist thrown out to even the gender playing field, Mai’s characterization–putting aside her debut duel–is actually quite rich, and she enjoys more growth and nuance than other more frequently recurring characters (cough, cough, Tristan). I’d even dare to say that her presence is absolutely essential to the characterizations of two of our main duelists–Yugi Moto (Muto Yugi) and Joey Wheeler (Katsuya Jounouchi).
So let’s talk a little about Mai’s character. Following the fashion significance rule of thumb of YGO (the more outlandish you look, the more important your character is to the overall narrative), Mai stands out from the crowd.
Unlike Tea Gardner’s (Masaki Anzu) plain Jane looks, Mai, true to her Japanese name (Kujaku means “peacock”) is sexy, stylishly dressed, with platinum-blonde locks exploding from her head. She has a very catty, domineering walk and talk, which comes from her background as a gamer. Her promiscuity is both a source of strength and humor–I find it hilarious that Tea’s feathers get ruffled when Mai reaches to hold Yugi’s hands. I don’t believe she’s at all romantically interested in Yugi–she’s interested in him as a Duelist–but the show’s insistent on voicing its disapproval of her sensuality through Tea’s instantaneous hostility.
Unlike Yugi and co, Mai’s interest in games isn’t as pure recreation, to her, games are a means to an end–living the high life of luxury and comfort.
“Mai, before we duel, I need to ask you a question…for what reason did you come to this island? For the fame? or for the prize money?” -Joey
Girl knows what she wants and the intense look she gives off when she answers Joey’s question says a lot about her character. It’s the first instance in this episode, we get a good look at her true self–someone far more crafty and cruel than the bubbly, frivolous girl she presents herself as. It’s also a moment of guarded honesty–she doesn’t know exactly why this newbie duelist tagging along the heels of greater dueling giants wants to know her personal reasons for dueling, but she’s going to give him the courtesy of being truthful.
Ouch. Dissing someone’s dream from your lofty morality throne on high, Joey? That’s not like you. And this is where we see the anti-feminist voice of the writing bite down hard. Frankly, I don’t see a problem with Mai’s motivations for dueling. Who doesn’t want to become rich and famous? You gotta do what you love and money certainly does help! But the narrative conveniently sets her up as the cartoonish antagonist in this match-up with Joey, whose motivation for winning the prize money are less self-serving than hers. Part of the twisted logic of the Yu-Gi-Oh! verse is that duelists with more to lose tend to be the ones that amp their game more and when you’ve got your sister’s sight on the line, you’re understandably more motivated to win. So while Mai’s reasons for dueling aren’t morally reprehensible, when juxtaposed with Joey’s, the narrative encourages us to view her in a less positive light.
Motivations aside, we also have the makings of the classic underdog matchup. We have Mai, the wily, experienced gamer up against Joey, the novice, transparent boy next door. Now, such a match where an experienced gamer trounces a noob isn’t going to be a very exciting one, so you have to throw the underdog a huge bone to give them a fighting chance. And Joey’s huge bone in this case, besides Yugi’s heavy coaching from the sidelines, is Mai’s flaw of vanity, both in power and in beauty, as exemplified in her Harpie Lady deck.
“Behold, my Harpie Lady Beauty Combo! With this card, my Harpie-chan becomes more charming, beautiful and stronger!” -Mai
Deck archetypes–particularly for recurring YGO duelists–are never chosen randomly. Mai’s Harpie Lady deck perfectly encapsulates her approach and personality–beautiful and far more deadly than one would presume. While stats-wise they are subpar–even this early in the metagame–they are very well-supported. Mai utilizes a whole array of magic cards–Cyber Shield (Cyber Bondage), Elegant Egotist (Kaleidoscope), Rose Whip to name a few–to multiply and max out their force. Rather than the usual crush and grind we’ve seen the earlier male duelists follow (see Yugi and Kaiba’s first match-up–they literally just throw monsters at each other, with a stray magic or trap thrown in), Mai’s Harpie Lady deck is far less straightforward, matching well with the clever seductress persona she exudes when she challenges Joey to a duel.
“That which is seen, yet cannot be seen”: Beauty and Faith
Even though we’re invested in their duel–Duelist Kingdom duels are pretty much a free-for-all with all sorts of convoluted, arbitrary rules thrown in that don’t currently exist in the metagame–the real game of interest being played out to us is the psychological aspect of the duel. Mai is meticulous in her approach–she might be a tad mouthy–then again, which duelist isn’t?–she plays the long game and picks her opponents strategically. Rather than risk getting kicked out of the tournament early, she bulks up on star chips by taking on weak opponents and saving her stamina for bigger game. She carefully picks field types that will best serve to her monster’s strengths (Mountain, in this case). And when she finally selects her opponents, to shake things up a little, she draws them into a psychological battle with her “aroma tactics” card trick.
It’s all in the set-up and while Mai’s not making any illegal plays or cheating by playing her little card ESP trick, the duel doesn’t let us forgive her for playing on the psychological weaknesses of our underdog hero. It’s funny that they make such a huge fuss about Mai not looking at her cards, but let it slide when a male duelist decides to use the same tactic of fudging the rules a little and trip up his opponent by playing a card without looking at it (see Yugi’s ridiculous play of “Devil Sanctuary” in his Battle City duel with Marik)–apparently when a guy does it, it’s not just okay–it’s actually a righteous thing to do.
You might recall this cryptic sentence from the original Yu-Gi-Oh! Season Zero, which covers their escapades prior to Duelist Kingdom, including how Yugi and Joey became friends in the first place. The main and most obvious context they use this phrase is an allusion to their friendship, which is something that actually both irks and intrigues Mai, who can’t wrap her head around the idea that friendships with rivals in a high-stakes tournament are sustainable.
“If you only fool around with your friends, you’ll never become a True Duelist. Even your friends today could be your enemies tomorrow. That is what being a Duelist is. A Duelist cannot trust anyone but themselves!” – Mai
Mai, burdened by her past experiences, is a realist. She plays rough and isn’t afraid to resort to “underhanded” tactics to give her that winning edge–but she does have a drive for the game. Unlike Yugi and Joey who have previously played recreationally, dueling is her career, not something fun to do with your friends after school. Ironically, friendship and camaraderie with others are luxuries she can’t afford on her quest towards living the luxurious life.
But in keeping with the “that which is seen, yet unseen” motif, Mai’s failing–similar to Joey’s temporary struggle to escape his panic and figure out her card trick–is that she can’t see beyond the closed off walls of cynicism she’s erected to protect herself. Her reaction to Yugi’s cryptic hint is telling because while she plays it off with dismissive scorn, part of her is anticipating, waiting for something to happen. Despite her worldliness, there’s a small part of her that’s interested in being proven wrong.
And while most adults would be able to empathize with Mai’s cynic philosophy, her viewpoint just doesn’t mesh with the overall narrative’s message of friendship.”Show me how it works.” “Show me how strong your friendship is.”–she says, insisting on seeing some kind of ironclad proof beyond reasonable doubt. These statements are generally interpreted to be condescending (especially in the 4Kids dub, which doesn’t pull any punches in upping her antagonist status here), but I believe Mai, even at this point, is genuinely interested in seeing a miracle–but she’s missing the key component of a miracle–that miracles need faith to work. And yes, faith is something that’s also “seen, yet cannot be seen”!
We know how the rest of the story plays out. Mai places her faith in the wrong thing–she places faith in beauty and the plot sets her up to show that her greatest flaw is her vanity. Mai’s independence and self-reliance are transformed into traits of self-centered vanity. Her female pride and strength–the beautiful Harpie Ladies–are reduced to enfeebled, wrinkly crones at the hands of Joey’s Time Wizard. And this is supposed to be seen as poetic justice–with the righteous, earnest man showing the woman her place beneath him. A woman’s power lies in her beauty, but such strength is ephemeral and can easily be taken away with a magic wand, a phallic weapon no doubt purposely chosen.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Yu-Gi-Oh! is antifeminist, this episode debuting Joey and Mai’s first match is easily one of the most antifeminist episodes in the entire Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise. We have Mai, a smart, strong and yes, beautiful woman, and how is she portrayed? Largely as a villain (though certainly a more benign one), and as a character whose most redeeming features are cast in an unflattering light. She’s beautiful, but vain, clever but close-minded, worldly but also self-serving. For the purposes of the plot, Mai is treated as another “obstacle” of convenience for our plucky heroes to overcome and her defeat is the cost paid for giving Joey his first duel milestone.
Don’t get me wrong. Joey is an awesome character and he really grows both as a character and as a duelist. But I can’t help but think that Mai, like most female Yu-Gi-Oh! characters, gets the short end of the stick. Luckily, thanks to her shrewd accumulation of Star Chips, this one defeat doesn’t cost her the tournament (like it would have for Joey), but it costs us a fair evaluation of her character. Fortunately, the writers see fit to “rectify” and expand her character development in future duels, both in progressive and regressive ways.
And a Happy Valentine’s Day to you all. In the next post, we’ll explore Mai’s characterization in the second half of the Duelist Kingdom arc, with a focus on her role in shaping Yugi’s journey.