(Please note that these posts are and will continue to be filled with horrible, horrible spoilers. If you haven’t seen Utena, please, for the love of whatever deity you do or don’t worship, go away and fix that.)
This wasn’t going to be the next Utena post, but, with all the recent debate about feminism, I guess I’m in a sex-and-gender sort of mood.
So, a question: who has power in this show? Is it Utena? The student council? Anthy? Cars? J. A. Seazer?
The answer is, of course, men. Or boys, as it were. People with penises.
Utena herself does a lot of conquering, but this is precisely what she’s meant to do. All according to plans drawn up by dudes. Akio means to hone her into a sword for his own use.
You could argue that Anthy is really the mastermind behind everything. Here’s one take on the ending:
… [T]he betrayal is just a final testing of Utena…to see if she can truly replace Akio in her eyes…Utena passes the test, takes on the suffering that Anthy rightfully deserved and now Anthy walks out on Akio in search of her new prince…who she will now torment at will. As soon as she steps off Ohtori Academy she lights a cigarette and grins. …
animekritik, “The Apocalypse Arc (Revolutionary Girl Utena)”
Not that kritik necessarily prefers this reading, mind; he just suggests it as a possibility. I’m not really feeling it, though. Maybe I just want the ending to be a triumph of sincerity, but I saw it as Anthy’s genuine rejection of Akio’s cycle — and her being in a position to leave it suggests that, indeed, she was within it, rather than above it. So, while she’s very good at manipulation herself, and while Utena may partly have been a pet project of hers (see here), I think that Anthy manipulates people in a way that most often serves Akio’s purposes.
Maleness is the force that drives the student council. Its apparently weakest male, Miki, is jerked around by his sister — but consider that she jerks by way of screwing around with men. She needs male aid to get under her brother’s skin. The council’s most obviously strong female, Juri, is essentially conquered (and cuckolded) in the third arc, her love interest used and discarded by the guy who removes her sword in the following fight. She does conduct that fight, but only under male auspices. Nanami spends most of the show agonizing over Touga. The whole student council is part of Akio’s plan.
Akio, Akio, Akio; penis, penis, penis. There’s a racial angle, too, but ADWM did it really well already, so let’s stick with the phalloi.
Does Utena actually manage to break the patriarchy barrier? I do think so, yes. But it’s not a straightforward, point-A-to-point-B sort of message.
She isn’t an unbridled force of liberation. She doesn’t win equality with her sword. Which is good, because that method risks being disingenuous — consider the Faux Action Girl trope. Battles for equality are never wholly physical, when they need to be physical at all. They’re ideological. We have on our hands brutish, poisonous, bad ideas, and you can only counter an idea with an idea.
Revolutions start as ideas, don’t they?
For much of the show, Utena is oppressed. She doesn’t exactly consent to this — like the viewer, she doesn’t understand the thoroughness of it at first. Her point of view is limited. Like every human being I’ve ever met, she is, given the right conditions, subject to deception and manipulation, sometimes partly because the manipulators are sexually attractive to her. She can’t just charge at oppressive social structures full-bore because those structures engulf her. She has to attack them from within, and that’s more difficult, and she is, after all, still half a child. She has to learn.
Let’s put it another way. Hélène Cixous famously argued that “woman must write woman. And man, man.” (No, the irony of my doing this post in the context of that quote is not lost upon me.) Utena’s overtures toward blurring her identity are conducted within the “language” or sign system allotted to her. For example, she appears to transgress by wearing a male uniform coat, but the Ohtori Academy uniform is Akio’s province. She beats men in swordfights using the Sword of Dios.
A revolution is distinguishable from a coup in that it represents an institutional shift rather than a mere seizing of power. To revolt, you must strive for a system that differs from the norm. It’s not enough to turn Akio’s own language, i.e. swords, against him. You need an alternative way of looking at things.
I like to think that Utena pulls this off. She loses the physical battle, in the end, but the idea of Utena effectively dismantles Akio’s system. She does more than achieve a position of power; she empowers others to step outside.
… Utena succeeds, not as a Prince, but as a Revolutionary, by inspiring Anthy to step up herself out of her subservient role as the Rose Bride and save herself. Thus, together they destroy the archetype of the Prince and the Princess and are on their way to create a new, more equal ideal as friends and soulmates. Their example also manages to help all the Duellists break from their fixation on their idealized memories and move on toward smashing their own coffins. This is the Revolution in SKU.
Yes, this. But I don’t want to leave off without acknowledging the ambiguity of the ending. We’ll see what we want to see. I mean to point out that it’s possible to see liberation in there somewhere. My attitude is, if you can see liberation, do.