The Dark Bride and the Pale Prince

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.

*      *      *

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

Empty Movement.

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10 Responses to The Dark Bride and the Pale Prince

  1. 2DT says:

    You’re giving me flashbacks to gay and lesbian literature… Audre Lorde and that bunch.

    I haven’t seen much Utena (I find myself saying this a lot lately…), but I don’t mind being spoiled.

    Anthy saves Anthy. I like this.

  2. Miss Y. says:

    There must be something wrong either with my reading comprehension skills or your way of explaining things, but I fail to understand your logic. Exactly how did you proved your thesis that Utena critisizes Western feministic approach towards eastern women? The way I see things, it doesn’t disagree with the feminism as a western idea itself (I hope you won’t argue with the statement that it starteded in the Western countries rather than elsewhere) – it merely shows the futility of trying to measure other acording to your own scale. It doesn’t necesserily mean it is targeted against Western way of seeing things – if anything, I believe it strongly oposes passiveness of Eastern people regarding the patrialchal system within most (not all) of Eastern women are trapped.

    I think that Utena was needed for Anthy’s feeing herself. Afterall, she gave her inspiration to do so. Without her and the fresh view and attitude of hers – even if they were a little bit skewed and immature – it would never occured to Anthy that she doesn’t have to be the Rose Bride for eternity. Himemiya wasn’t rescued by Utena, who herself had to abandom her childlish illusions – she escaped by her own will, when she felt ready. The same thing could be said about Western feminist – they won’t be able to do the job instead of Estern societies – thay can only show their fellow females that being a slaye of men isn’t the only solution and the one way of living. The choice is still theirs and – as Anthy – all they have to do is to stand for themselves and start their own emancipation process.

    • Aile says:

      Miss Y. Says: “Exactly how did you proved your thesis that Utena critisizes Western feministic approach towards eastern women?”

      I think the author probably didn’t mean to have discovered the one true meaning of Utena, but rather toys with the Metaphor the characters’ relations can serve as. There are criticizism to be made in the approach western feminism takes to the third world, just as you can criticize Utenas approach to Anthy etc – characters here as personifications of ideologies. The author made that connection, and added that layer to illustrate his/her point about western feminism. It’s kinda similar to when a modern theater regisseur decides to make Hamlet a banker, to illustrate a point about the financial crisis, using the characters as metaphors. It probably wasn’t Shakespeares original meaning, but it works because the same metaphors (characters power relations) can relate to it.

      As for the post itself, thought-provoking idea (I’ve seen the same arguments already floating around somewhere else before) and I think at least some people in the Utena writing staff were conscious of that connection (instead of Shakespeare and the banker example, for example) because it fits really well.

      It would really help your article if you include some of the actual actions of western feminism you find paternalistic. As it is, there are just assertions now.

  3. Dr. Weeaboo says:

    Interesting theory, but I don’t know that it was necessarily targeted specifically at Western feminists so much as any group/individual that paternalizes another victimized group/individual (which does include certain kinds of Western feminists). Although I know that Americans and other Westerners who view Japanese anime often assume that because they “look Western” and have blonde hair or blue eyes, they are supposed to represent white people, Japanese viewers think that those exact same characters look Japanese. (The response that scholars who do ethnography on this stuff often get when they ask Japanese people is something along the lines of, “Well, they’re speaking Japanese aren’t they? They’re obviously Japanese.”)

    From that perspective, though, this also works since the Japanese were quite paternalistic towards their East and South Asian counterparts, viewing them as an oppressed group that needed to be saved from Western imperialism through Japanese imperialism, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century. Japanese avant guarde movements in the 1960s and 70s were very critical of this stance and Utena, according to its director, was primarily inspired by those avant guarde movements. Those movements were also critical of America’s wars against communism in Korea and Vietnam and the Japanese government’s support of America during that time, which helped to fuel their economic boom. They also formed links with other social movements around the world that were rejecting a variety of different ideologies, including the paternalism of early Communist doctrine. Japan also had its own home-grown brands of feminism, and I’m not sure what their relationship was to other countries, but it might be worth looking into. My guess is that the critique is directed more towards paternalism and exploitation in general rather than any specific instance of it, but I think it definitely applies in the case that you’ve made.

    As for why Anthy is dark-skinned, one of the reasons, and I know this may sound a little silly compared to many of the deeper reasons some things in the series have, is that Chiho Saitou really liked Lala from Gundam. A lot.

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  5. odorunara says:

    I love Utena (and The Rose of Versailles, Otomen, Takarazuka, and all the fun gender-queer Japanese manga/shows). I think this is a great article. Anthy’s race was always at the back of my mind when I watched (why are she and her brother a different race than literally all the other characters?, etc.), but I really like your ideas and explanation.

    While the show maybe wasn’t a direct criticism of Western feminism, I like this interpretation. Additionally, the same is true if you remove race from your specific argument. I think a lot of Nice Guys™ think that if they “save the princess” (female target of affections), they will win her heart. But, like Utena, they don’t realize that their princesses are individual people with feelings, personalities, and hopes. Anthy was an object to everyone–Utena’s “princess” to save, Akio’s pawn, the Duelists’ tool to eternity. However, Anthy is a person with her own will.

    I find myself, like Utena and Oscar (of BeruBara) wanting to rescue an Anthy or a Rosalie and train her to be like me, but in the end, that’s ridiculous, isn’t it?

    Anyway, I’m glad I stumbled upon this post. 🙂

  6. ahelo says:

    I think Utena made Anthy realizes that she needs to be saved. While Utena’s goal derailed in the end; at least Anthy was able to change. Well Anthy does save Anthy, but she wouldn’t be able to do so without Utena. No sexism/racism included; its basely from the story itself.

  7. Great post. I’m a grad student working on literary analysis and gender studies, and I have wanted to examine Utena from this angle for months. I’m presently working on an article that examines the series through the lens of lesbian criticism, but the racial politics are extremely interesting also. We should talk some more some time!

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  9. alsozara says:

    Finally got around to watching RGU, and why Anthy looked Indian is something I wondered about throughout the series. This is a pretty interesting interpreation of it, and I’m inclined to agree.

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