Watching Revolutionary Girl as a critique of Western feminism.
Warning: spoilers past about… oh, I’d say episode 34 or 35 of the TV series.
I love Revolutionary Girl Utena. Its a show I often return to, if only in thoughts, twisting things this way and discovering whole new layers I had completely missed previously. I also actively pursue people’s posts or essays on the show, as I often find myself seeing things in a new light upon completion. However, one area I see as curiously unexamined, at least in English language fandom, is the fact that Anthy and Akio are both depicted as people of color. To me, this seems like a very obvious thing to analyze and comment upon. For months my thoughts have been turning to this because I’ve been wanting to do a RGU post. But it wasn’t until yesterday evening that I was struck by something I’ve never noticed before.
Anthy is a woman of color; she and Akio both are rendered in a manner which visually implies that they of South Asian origin (specifically, its the mark each bears on their forehead, which is reminiscent of the marking many Hindus have on their own, in tandem with their skintone). And Anthy is the Rose Bride, the ‘victim’ of the narrative, subject to the whims of her unpleasant elder brother and the mercurial Student Council.
Enter Utena. Utena is blue-eyed and very pale (and, in the manga she is sometimes depicted as being strawberry blonde). And Utena is, at least on her surface, a Liberated Woman, as demonstrated by her rejection of the female serafuku and her decision as a young child not to grow up and marry her prince, but to become a prince.
Utena finds the Ohtori Academy system to be bizarre, and demeaning to Anthy. In her naivete she impulsively agrees to duel Saionji, although she really doesn’t understand the implications of that. And when she wins, and thus gains ‘possession’ of Anthy, the Rose Bride, she essentially tells her that she (Anthy) is free now, and can do whatever she wants. However, Anthy is bound to the system, and acts more or less as a maidservant to Utena. Utena caves out of exasperation, and also out of the realization that her triumph over Saionji won’t apparently, end the dueling system. So she sticks around to protect Anthy with the end goal of saving her.
And it is in here that you can see RGU as a critique of Western feminism, particularly in its approach toward “Third World” women.
One of the problems of Western feminism is that the dominant discourse fails to truly address the experiences and troubles of non-Caucasian women (and non-upper middle class women of any color, and homosexual women of any color, and…). Criticisms of this first appeared in the late 1970′s, but it hasn’t been until the past decade or so that the issue has gotten much play in academia. And even now the body of thought primarily concerns the experiences of upper-middle class, Caucasian, heterosexual women.
However, in addition to a lack of relevancy to non-Caucasian women, there is the problem of the Western, Caucasian feminist’s (heretofore to be referred to as ‘WC feminist’) approach to the non-Western woman when she does encounter her. Often there is a replication of the patriarchal structures which feminism claims to struggle against, a replication of the colonial hegemonies of European imperialism. In this setting, the non-Western woman is approached as ‘the other’ and as a being incapable of her own agency – succinctly, the non-Western woman is wholly oppressed and must be rescued by the enlightened WC feminist.
In this paradigm, Utena very clearly plays the role of the WC feminist. Even as she argues that Anthy is a ‘normal’ girl who should be permitted to live a ‘normal’ life, Anthy is still more object than human being to her. Anthy is Utena’s way of fulfilling her desire to be a prince; it is worth remembering that Utena initially becomes involved in the dueling due to Wakaba, not because of Anthy. Without Anthy, Utena could’ve very well come to act as Wakaba’s prince, even if it probably wouldn’t've captured her imagination in quite the manner that acting as a prince to Anthy does. Anthy is then a tool to Utena just as much as she is to other characters within the story.
The show through its remaining episodes ultimately deconstructs the notion of the prince, period. Utena’s prince, Dios, turns out to be a former ideal, while Akio, Anthy’s prince, is revealed to be the corruption of that ideal. Touga is shown to be a fraudulent prince. And Anthy coldly tells Utena she could never have been her prince after literally stabbing her in the back. In deconstructing the idea of the prince, though, it isn’t merely the male-oriented conception of the world that is knocked down, but the paternalism of Western feminism as well.
Who saves Anthy in the end?
Anthy saves Anthy. Utena provides the tools, but it is Anthy who walks away from Akio. In fact, when Anthy leaves Akio, she leaves him completely baffled; Utena is absent from the scene, her fate unclear, but definitively somewhere outside of the world of Ohtori Academy. Akio is preparing to re-start the duels once again, smugly telling Anthy of his plans, and is wholly blindsided by Anthy’s indication of her unwillingness to play along any longer. After all, her would-be ‘prince’ is gone – why would she have any reason to leave the game now?
Utena’s approach had shifted by the close of the show. She slowly comes to realize that Anthy is a real person, not just a playpiece in her fantasy of princedom. The transformation, admittedly, isn’t truly complete until she does get stabbed by Anthy, but the point is that she does get it, and in getting it, she ceases to utilize the old paternalistic approach to liberating Anthy. Had she failed to make the change, there’s no doubt Anthy wouldn’t've taken her own steps to escape her brother’s clutches, as Utena herself would only be offering voicelessness by other means. But, instead, Utena finally engages with Anthy on equal footing.
We see in all of this, then, a disassembly of the WC feminist approach to non-Western women, concluding in an alternative (and more effective) manner for WC feminists to meet with non-Western women. In this sense, RGU is a nearly perfect repudiation of colonialism and its continuing affects on Western discourse.
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I would like to make note here that I do not mean to allege that all Western feminism is colonialist in its approach to non-Western women; there is a growing amount of voices who disagree with the paternalistic approach to these women. However, the colonialist approach still prevails as the dominant thread in the discourse.
Also: picture above is taken from the website