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How An Anime Made Me A Feminist, by Markgraf aged 24 and a bit

2011 June 2

Team BadRep were sent a writing prompt this month: What is your favourite film or TV series, and why? If it’s what you’d call ‘feminist-friendly’, what about it appealed? If it isn’t, how does that work for you, and are there nonetheless scenes, characters and so on that have stayed with you and continue to occupy a soft spot for you as a feminist pop culture adventurer?

Comic by Markgraf.

Now stop asking such awkward questions.

Gather ’round, Internet; let me tell you the tale of how I became a feminist. It’s a good one, I promise. Take a seat, please! Open your mind-hatch and brace yourselves for my infosquirt.

(How many articles have I opened like that? ALL OF THEM)

I discovered that I was a feminist at university. I was nineteen. It took an enthusiastic, fiery, inspirational woman with icy blonde hair and a stack of books about gender and queer theory explaining to my class that feminism was, you know, Feminism, and not, in fact, the exclusive reserve of stereotypical humourless Second Wave womyn-born-womyn fanatics.

This came as a great relief to little transgender me, and highlighted that everything I thought about sexuality, gender expression and the nature of equality neatly fitted under the feminist banner. What a relief! So that made me a feminist, because I held those views. And those beliefs were almost unanimously implanted in my psyche by an anime called Revolutionary Girl Utena at the age of about fifteen.

image from the series showing Utena and Anthy together

They love each other very much. Did I mention how gorgeous this series is?

An anime? I hear you cry! An anime? Being feminist? An animé?, your incredulous cries ring loud through the intertubes to my desk, what, the Japanese cartoons that are full of the degradation and exploitation of women, where the source material contains less-than-consensual sex and the American dubs sanitise out all the lesbianism? Surely not.

Where did all this incest come from?:(

Well, actually, yes. It’s true as treacle. Readers who’ve seen it will already know why, of course, but let’s take this from the top – be warned, people who haven’t seen it: here be spoilers.

Revolutionary Girl Utena is a shoujo (“girls'”) animé set in a high school. It’s all very sweet to start with; you’ve got the hero (Utena) and her best friend, and you’ve got the absurdly powerful school council. And then there’s a heavy injection of what-the-fuck when you meet the Duelling Theme. There’s a mechanism in place for long, convoluted reasons, whereby selected Duellists – designated by rings – duel (with swords) to win the Rose Bride as a prize. Her name is Anthy, and her entire purpose is to be a fought-over, won-and-owned slave.

So far so messed up. But it’s fucked up for a purpose. The hero, Utena, has a prince complex. She wants to – literally – be a prince that rescues princesses – that’s her gender expression. She cross-dresses habitually and is frequently described as “a tomboy” (despite actually being quite femme), and she falls in love with Anthy, primarily by wanting to save her. The whole series is full of fluid, ambiguous gender expression and sexuality, and it’s treated and handled in a non-sensational, perfectly intelligible way. Nothing is mysterious or exotic – it is just the way it is.

The greatest thing about Utena, however, is that it tells the story of a woman who desires and ascribes to an atypical gender expression and her struggle to make her gender expression fit and work in a world that is vehemently and viciously opposed to it – and wins. Sort of. Utena’s own end (and I’m sorry for the spoilers here) is sacrificial and tragic, but in sacrificing herself she saves and liberates her friends who go on to live and love as they want. It’s not your average coming-of-age, adolescence-is-hard story: there’s pitch black themes of rape and sexual coercion in there that are painful and harrowing to watch, but resolve themselves. It’s a story of survival, but it’s not just a story of female survival. There’s Utena who is absolutely not your average girl, and there’s Mamiya and Miki, both femme men, and survivors of the destructive obsession of others.

image showing Mamiya and Mikage standing together


So I fell madly in love with it, as I’m sure you’ll understand, because it was a thing that showed me that there was hope for me, as a trans* person, because here was a whole series full of atypical gender expression that just existed, neither as a joke nor as a plot point. It also demonstrated to me me that it is possible to fight and vanquish your ascribed social role. It’s a story of seeing oppression and unfairness and fighting it with every fibre of your being. Utena literally gives her life to liberate Anthy from her sexual degradation, slavery and torment because she cannot live in a world that would condone and support such condemnation. Every time I watch the series to the end (and it’s bloody long!) I end up in floods of tears and with a profound desire to march around town shouting at people.

Usually I draw things instead. But, you know, the desire’s there.

I absolutely recommend Revolutionary Girl Utena to you guys – I mean, it’s not without its problems, nothing is – because of how powerful and liberating it is to watch, but I caution you that the themes get darker than the forgotten recesses of hell and some bits are genuinely hard to watch. Each character is sympathetic, but flawed to fuck, and no-one emerges at the other end untarnished – and that’s perfect. Everyone fights and is wounded, because that’s how life is. Everyone’s got a streak of trauma or viciousness in them, because that’s how people are. Despite its weird, fantastic elements, it’s very engrossing and believable – and that’s what makes it so effective. It deconstructs the idea of rigidly set, gender-ascribed roles in an allegorical tale full of people. Flawed, understandable, hurting people.

And that is why I am a feminist. Because my adolescence was spent watching the adolescence of Utena. Do seek it out. It’s incredible. And deeply, deeply weird, but we all love that.

Images courtesy of Giovanna at the fantastic Empty Movement Utena fan resource.

21 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    June 2, 2011

    My adolescence was filled with Neon Genesis Evangelion. Which probably explains why I’m the neurosis-riddled mess I am today, but doesn’t adequately explain the feminism thing. Apart from the whole mother-as-giant-robot thing, obviously. Ngh.

    I should definitely hunt down Utena. Do you know if there is anywhere it can be obtained?

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    June 2, 2011

    Your absolutely recommending Revolutionary Girl Utena aroused my interest sufficiently to check it out for DVDs available from Amazon. The main contenders, seem to be a movie which is Region 2, and inexpensive:

    Or a Region 1 boxed set which works out to something a little north of £50 (including postage) for four discs.

    Its being Region 1 isn’t a problem for me (although it would be for a lot of people in the UK), but I find the price off-putting.

    Would the movie make a good first sampling of Revolutionary Girl Utena? Or do we need to see the original series?

    Oh, and there’s also this available for pre-order from American Amazon:

    I thought that there would probably be more on Japanese Amazon, but that it might not include an English language soundtrack and/or subtitles. To my surprise, there seems to be less available in Japan, and it’s all on VHS (no DVDs). VHS! Who has VHS in 2011? (Answer: the Japanese, perhaps.)

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      June 2, 2011

      I repeat my question:

      Would the movie make a good first sampling of Revolutionary Girl Utena? Or do we need to see the original series?

      • Taimatsu permalink
        June 2, 2011

        The movie is basically the 40 episodes of the TV series, squashed into 90 minutes, with at least 50% more weirdness and 30% more hair. Some of the plot and characterisation is fairly different. Do watch it, but I would suggest not watching it first. It might be quite hard to understand as a first view of the Utena phenomenon.

      • Markgraf permalink
        June 6, 2011

        I advocate the series over all else, really. The movie is great, but only really works after you’ve seen the series.

    • Markgraf permalink
      June 6, 2011

      Ebay is where I got my series collection on the cheap!

  3. Jenni permalink
    June 2, 2011

    Daddy Markgraf is looking damn fine in that cartoon. Gaston-style manly chin scratch. Woof!

    I am currently watching Utena. It’s fab. The music makes me so happy.

  4. Stephen B permalink
    June 2, 2011

    Note to self – I need to watch all of ‘Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex’ again. And buy a “Loki Did It” t-shirt.

    • Markgraf permalink
      June 2, 2011

      Screw buying one – make one! Fabric paint and HOURS OF MESSY HILARITY

    • Jenni permalink
      June 2, 2011

      I ordered mine last week. In lime green.

      Er, at this rate we will all have them. (BadRep uniform?) Dammit, Rob, you trendsetter.

      • Markgraf permalink
        June 2, 2011

        Wait, what? you can actually buy them?!

        • Miranda permalink*
          June 2, 2011

          Rob’s got this one I think!

          That’s the Better Myths one anyway.

          I want to watch more Utena. I’ve seen the first couple of episodes where it’s just starting to lay out the plot but it was late at night at your place and I only watched the first two! Must sort that.

          • Markgraf permalink
            June 2, 2011

            Yes, that’s something we must fix or we’ll literally die.

            That t-shirt is the greatest thing since my hair. I need one.

  5. June 2, 2011

    I wanted to watch this when I was fifteen, seeing as I was obsessed with Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth. But the series never made it to my country.

    Also, can I credit Sailor Moon for making me feminist? Not strictly true, but I loved it so much.

  6. Sarah Jackson permalink*
    June 4, 2011

    This sounds amazing, thanks for sharing! Definitely going to seek it out.

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