By Alice Newkirk
Seventeen years ago, a few weeks after Titanic won eleven Oscars, a few months before the Lewinsky scandal broke, and around the time you likely started a venerable lifetime of watching Spongebob, an animated TV show called Revolutionary Girl Utena began airing in Japan. It drew heavily from the tropes of shoujo, a genre of Japanese media aimed predominantly at teenage girls, followed the lives of a group of high school students and was filled with roses, ballgowns, and princely characters; despite all this, the show was neither pure nor innocent. Although it had all the hallmarks of a lighthearted show for young girls, Revolutionary Girl Utena was truly revolutionary — and its use of a framework designed primarily to pander to young girls helped expose many of the unhealthy attitudes directed at women. It uses the traditional fairy tale tropes of prince, princess, and witch to examine the way society treats female power. Revolutionary Girl Utena is a fundamental deconstruction not only of the outward manifestations of the patriarchy, but of the underlying tenets which work to undermine the agency and independence of women.
It can be hard to talk about Revolutionary Girl Utena’s subversive aspects because one of the major themes is manipulating, suppressing, and outright destroying the narratives of women, and as a result talking about many of the more complex aspects of the narrative requires divulging huge spoilers. There is not a single female character whose arc does not in some way subvert the simplistic narrative originally created for them. Even the series’ eponymous main character, superficially already liberated from the restrictive bounds the narrative places on women, has her identity examined.
At the beginning of the series, the show’s heroine Utena is already an oddity at the school because she refuses to wear a girls’ uniform: instead, she wears the male uniform, plays basketball with the guys, and challenges people to sword duels for the honor of her female friends. From the beginning of the series, she is explicit in her desire to be a powerful prince, instead of a passive princess. But her rejection of passive femininity is only the beginning of the discussion. The rest of the show examines the ways her form of rebellion implicitly plays into the patriarchal narrative of active masculinity/passive femininity, as she struggles to find ways to escape the system instead of just subverting it. Utena sets up another female character Nanami as a rival to the main protagonists. Yet over the course of the show, her actions are contextualized, and it becomes clear that the prince/princess dichotomy has been guiding many of her choices. Nanami is still allowed to be cruel, manipulative, and petty, not an innocent victim — but the show exposes the way her actions are heavily determined by the constricting gender roles within which she works.
Even now, seventeen years later, many narratives about “strong women” revolve around women taking on traditionally masculine roles in a rejection of femininity. This is Revolutionary Girl Utena‘s starting point, not its end goal. It’s not just interested in showing that women can be princes too—although they can—it’s interested in looking at why princesses are considered inherently powerless, how female power is vilified and rejected and what heavily enforced gender roles do to both sexes. Even when women are vengeful and self-destructive, Utena insists, they have the right to live their own lives without the suffocating pressure of societal expectations.
This places it well above plenty of more recent narratives that claim the title “feminist” for nothing but a simplistic rejection of one gender role or another, even when the rejection is in some ways reinforcing patriarchal norms. Revolutionary Girl Utena isn’t interested in working within the confines of a flawed system; it is interested in destroying that system entirely and building something new. It’s a form of deconstructive analysis from which many modern works could learn a thing or two.