Friday, April 25, 2008

Princes, Princesses, and Revolution: Gender Roles in Revolutionary Girl Utena

Once upon a time, a young princess was all alone, mourning the deaths of her parents. Along came a noble prince on a white horse who rescued the princess from her despair and comforted her. The prince urged the little princess to never lose her innate nobility and inner strength, and, giving her a rose signet ring, promised that they would one day meet again. However, the princess was so impressed by the prince and his manner that she vowed to one day become a prince herself and also rescue girls in need. Flash-forward several years, and now Utena Tenjou, a middle school student at the prestigious Ohtori Academy, is pursuing her princely ideals while searching for the mysterious prince from her childhood. While defending a friend’s honor, Utena is drawn into a mysterious series of duels against the Student Council for the hand of Anthy Himemiya, a strange girl known as the “Rose Bride” who holds the key to revolutionizing the world.
Thus begins Revolutionary Girl Utena, a manga and anime series from the early 1990’s about growing up and carving out one’s place in the world no matter what society may say. The series is rife with symbolism and allegory, to the point where a viewer is almost sure to be confused the first time she watches the story unfold. One of the most prevalent and obvious themes, however, and the one that this essay will focus on, is the system of gender roles present in the world, and the third-wave feminist attitude of breaking them in the name of individual freedom. Perhaps the best example of this theme is the title character herself, a girl who wears a modified boys’ uniform to school and dreams not of marrying a prince, but of becoming one herself. Utena’s journey to attain such a noble nature is contrasted by her “fiancĂ©e” Anthy, who embodies feminine passivity, and Anthy’s older brother Akio, who represents masculinity in a patriarchal society. It is by these two that Utena’s character is tested and her identity is shaped throughout the series.
A central theme of the world of Ohtori Academy is that “all girls are princesses.” However, this is far more sinister than the gentle, heartwarming message of A Little Princess, where all girls are special and deserve to be loved. This is a law set down by the series’ world of old: women are passive and submissive, and must wait for a male prince to come to their rescue. Any girl who should defy this law would be branded a witch, and, like all fairy-tale witches, suffer for her crimes. “These were the two categories into which girls were separated, and there was no in-between” (Lundy). From the beginning, Utena defies this creed, dressing like a boy, participating in sports, and dueling for Anthy’s freedom. These actions immediately draw the attention of her teachers, who scold her for breaking the spirit, but not the law, of the dress code, her female classmates, who idolize Utena for behaving so “princely,” and her male classmates, particularly Touga, the Student Council President, who see her as something to pursue and claim as their own, so they can make a “proper woman” out of her.
Despite her aspirations to break the status quo, during the first season, Utena herself is guilty of enforcing the school’s patriarchal regime through her relationship with Anthy, whose free will is subsumed by that of whoever she is currently engaged to. When she loses Anthy to Touga, he tells her that whatever friendship the girls shared was all a lie. Anthy may have acted more like a “normal” person than usual during her time with Utena, but only because that was what Utena had wanted Anthy to be. In doing so, Utena had unwittingly perpetuated the notion that a girl should be told how to behave around others. However, Utena learns from the mistake, and after winning Anthy back, allows her to act as is normal for her, rather than what is normal to Utena.
During the third season, Utena’s behavior shifts toward the other end of the gender spectrum under Akio’s influence. The Chairman, a mature, elegant, and charming adult, reminds Utena of the prince she idolized since childhood. As she begins to spend more and more time with Akio, eventually becoming his lover, Utena starts to take on more traditionally feminine traits, letting her goal of Revolution and winning Anthy’s freedom slip as a priority. This fall from grace is exactly what Akio wants. As a bitter shell of Dios, the ideal Prince in the world of Revolutionary Girl Utena, Akio possesses all of the traits expected of a man in a patriarchal society: he is sexually aggressive, powerful, and in control of the women in his life. By controlling Anthy, the Rose Bride, he controls the key to unlocking the power to revolutionize the world. And by controlling Utena, the favorite to win that power in the duels, he can easily take it for himself. He believes that a girl cannot possibly control that kind of power because she is innately a princess, someone who by definition cannot be an agent of change. This attitude, conceited and sexist as it is, stems from Akio’s noble past; he was the Prince who did nothing but rescue Princesses. Thus, it is his duty to “rescue” Utena from her path, before she is struck down as a witch for her hubris. Anthy, who sealed the Prince away from the rest of the world and took on its hatred in the form of a million stabbing swords in his stead, is already damned to be the Rose Bride forever, but Utena can still become a Princess, if only Akio can stop her. While it may seem that Akio has good, if warped, intentions at heart, however, he is actually “more that of a spoilt child than an actual adult, claiming his own maturity where there is not yet any” (Harpy). He manipulates Anthy and Utena’s emotions, using sex and their love for him as tools to keep them in his thrall. Once Akio has taken what he wants from Utena, the sword that will break down the door to Revolution, he “hacks at the door with his sword, aware that every time he strikes the door it wounds Utena. She staggers towards him as the sword breaks and he informs her that the seal can never be broken now. He can always start over. The Rose Bride will be his forever” (Satan). These are hardly the words and deeds of a noble prince, even one with outdated views of how the world works. “Where Dios comforted and healed the sick, Akio feeds on weakness and insecurity, nurturing only his lust for absolute power” (Ohtori). It is this callous nature that allows Utena to see Akio for what he really is, and break away from him to return to her original goal of becoming a genuine prince for Anthy’s sake.
In the end, Utena finally reclaims her nobility and acts as a true prince, seeking to rescue Anthy from her pain and bring her back into the living world, just as her prince had done for her. “The ‘prince’ is anyone who is noble, selfless, truthful. […] Thus in the world of Utena, it is possible for a man or a woman to become a prince, and in so doing, our heroine breaks through the mold of the two limited roles to which women had been assigned up until the Revolution. Not a princess, or a witch, but a true prince” (Lundy). Unexpectedly, though, something goes wrong. Anthy falls into the darkness, and Utena disappears amidst the Swords of Hate and the crumbling ruins of the dueling arena. Utena’s strength gained her the power of revolution, but in doing so, she lost her place as either a princess or a witch. Without a place for her, the world thus ejected her from it.
Despite Utena’s apparent failure, the series ends on a triumphant note. After so many years of letting herself live a false life trapped in the role of the Rose Bride, Anthy packs up and leaves to search for Utena in the world outside of Ohtori Academy, leaving her brother and his control behind her forever. When Utena became a true prince who sacrificed herself to rescue Anthy from her pain, Anthy decided that it was time to rescue herself. “She no longer had to be the Rose Bride, she was no longer under Akio's control. And she was the only one who realized it. So she left” (Satan). “This time, it’s my turn to go. No matter where you are, I swear I’ll find you,” she promises an absent Utena before she picks up her suitcase and walks through the campus gates and into the world outside of the school, the “real” world. The school bells that had formerly rung to signify the end of a duel and Anthy’s continued servitude peal once again, this time in celebration of Anthy’s freedom.
Many anime series reinforce traditional gender roles, implying that while a girl can easily be capable of fighting monsters and performing “many brave deeds and [becoming] a strong character, […] in the end, she still must end up with a prince” (Lundy). While love is a beautiful thing and should involve supporting one’s partner through whatever challenges life may throw at him or her, Utena herself raises an interesting point when the subject of jumping through hoops in order to find a romantic match is brought up: “what’s wrong with not getting married?” Revolutionary Girl Utena defies expectations by having Utena and Anthy both decide that they do not need a prince to protect them, and can make their own way in the world. This attitude usually coincides with second wave feminism, but the way it is brought about, by defying traditional gender roles and breaking free of the “princess/witch” binary that had chained them for so long, marks Revolutionary Girl Utena as a third wave work. It is a tale fraught with pain and mistakes, but Utena and Anthy are both growing up, have “tasted adulthood only through pain, [are] able to recognise the end of the 'game' and leave the garden” (Harpy) that is Ohtori Academy, and enter the real world. By questioning and discarding the expectations placed on them as girls, Anthy and Utena have become mature, independent adults.

1 comment:

Maria said...

thank you for posting this! i love this series. i wonder that you don't talk about juri at all tho... i thought it was interesting that in the series, both girls and boys fight for the power of the rose bride.