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Anime Pride Month: Utena, Identity, and Adolescence

It’s hard to talk about LGBTQ identities in anime without mentioning Revolutionary Girl Utena. Created by production staff from both Sailor Moon and Evangelion, this series uses the trappings of shoujo manga, fairy tales, Greek theatre, and avant-garde cinema to create a wildly subversive story about two queer girls trying to find their own path in a heteronormative world. It was way ahead of its time when it came out in 1998, and feels even more relevant today.

Also, it has an episode where a girl turns into a cow, because anime is nothing if not hilariously weird

The show immediately sets itself apart from other shoujo anime through its titular protagonist, Utena Tenjou. While many shoujo heroines tend to be ultra-feminine and demure, Utena is bold, hot-tempered, loves sports, and wears a boy’s school uniform. When she sees an older student violently bully her classmate, Anthy Himemiya, Utena immediately rushes in to save her, like a fairy tale prince rescuing a distressed damsel. But she soon finds herself in an endless series of duels to protect her new bride, who has the power to “revolutionize the world”.

Utena is a highly symbolic work. Pretty much everything is open to interpretation. But I think its central theme is about identity, specifically about Utena and Anthy’s struggle to break free of confining and arbitrary gender roles to discover their own truth and meaning in life.

Fun drinking game: Watch Utena and drink every time you see a rose. (Don’t actually do this. You’ll probably die.)

Society forces male and female gender roles on everyone, and it affects nearly every aspect of our lives. Being labeled as a boy or a girl dictates the clothes we wear, the food we eat, our work and social lives, and even how we see ourselves. We internalize these ideas at a young age, as they’re enforced by our parents, teachers, peers, and popular media. The fairy tales we learn as kids are a prime example of this: they almost always involve a princess being captured by an evil witch or stepmother, and a heroic prince saving her at the end.

But Utena deconstructs the fairy tale romance by showing how these gender roles can be toxic and oppressive. The “damsel in distress” trope makes its female characters helpless and weak, unable to do anything except wait for a man to save them. It puts unfair pressure on men to succeed, which can make them bitter and resentful. And it doesn’t make room for anyone outside the norm – dashing women, beautiful men, or anyone who doesn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. As Utena is told throughout the series: “You can’t be a prince, because you’re a girl.”

The Fresh Prince of Ohtori Academy

Societal gender norms are also enforced in the setting, the gilded cage that is Ohtori Academy. High school settings in anime are cliché nowadays, but there’s a reason they’re so common: our teenage years are when we try to figure out who we really are. We define our personality, appearance, career path, political and religious beliefs – and, of course, our sexual and gender identity.

But as anyone who was “the weird kid” in school knows, society hates people who are different and will do anything it can to make them conform. Utena’s independent spirit puts her at odds with her teacher, who constantly belittles her for wearing boy’s clothes, and the other duelists, who literally fight to prevent Utena and Anthy from being together. This gets more disturbing as the series goes on, and you see how much abuse Utena and especially Anthy endure just for being themselves.

Which must be why Anthy always has what I call “Gendo eyes”

Utena isn’t the only person trying to define her own identity in a world that’s stacked against her. Anthy Himemiya also struggles with this in a different way. As the Rose Bride, Anthy is the epitome of a fairy tale princess – demure, deferential, with seemingly no agency or motivation of her own. But behind her kind smile is a soul full of pain. Anthy is trapped in a cycle of abuse, with no escape and no freedom. Even Utena “saving” her doesn’t give her the independence she really wants. Anthy needs to save herself, to use Utena’s inspiration to break the cycle and become her own person.

I only watched Revolutionary Girl Utena for the first time this year, but it’s quickly become one of my all-time favorite anime. It can be cryptic and confusing, but if you enjoy shows like Evangelion and Madoka Magica, you’ll find a lot to love here. The characters are full of depth and intrigue, the story is packed with twists and reveals, and the themes of female and queer empowerment are as relevant today as they were when it came out over 20 years ago. It’s an inspiring show despite its dark moments, and well worth a watch this Pride Month.

When Steven Universe gives you a shout-out, you must be doing something right

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