Agency and Female Gender Roles in Shoujo Anime

by Keridwen N. Luis

(Talk given at MIT’s seminar Schoolgirls and Superheroes: Gender and Sexuality in Japanese Anime, February 24, 2003)

I want to analyze the issue of agency in female gender roles in shoujo anime by comparing it to a similar analysis of roles in Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  By “agency” I mean possessing the ability and the opportunity to take action; it is a term which can be contrasted with passivity.   In many ways the narratives are quite similar, and there are other ways in which anime completely subverts or violates these narrative traditions.   Sherry Ortner gives a brief analysis of Grimm’s Fairy Tales which struck me as being weirdly, not to say eerily, similar to the way gender roles operate in some shoujo anime.

Ortner writes “What I had not expected to see was a recognition in the tales that female characters had to be made to be passive, weak, and timorous, that is, a recognition that agency in girls had to be unmade. …although they are the protagonists, the action of the story is moved along by virtue of bad things happening to them, rather than their initiating actions as in the case of the majority of male heroes” (Ortner 1996: 9).  In other words, girls are not naturally passive, but must be made passive by the action of the story.  Their actions or agency must actually be removed from them.

Upon reading this, I was struck by its application to a great deal of anime.  There are many ways in which shoujo anime follows this convention; and other ways in which it breaks out of this mold. I would like to trace some patterns in the way that shoujo anime treats agency and the renunciation of agency in female gender roles. I will be speaking about female gender roles in specific, and shoujo anime in specific, since that is what I was particularly asked to speak about.  I will begin with a type of anime which is often seen as being quite typical of shoujo anime– the magical girl series.

Magical girls

Although magical girls appear to have a great deal of agency, in that they are typically saving the world from destruction at least once a week, this agency is constrained in many ways. To begin with, magical girls usually do not choose to become such. Their role comes to them in many ways, but choice is typically not one of these; they can be born into it, they can be destined to it, and can even accidentally become a magical girl, but it is rare– although not impossible (I don’t claim to have watched every magical girl series!) for a magical girl to choose to become one.

Magical girls also often die, which can be seen as a complete renunciation of agency– after all, there’s really nothing much more passive than being dead.  Yet the process of dying and coming back to life– a process which also often happens in these series– can be seen as a transformative sequence in which the magical girls can gain agency.  Although sometimes powers or memories are lost in such a process, often after a death and rebirth cycle, magical girls must become more active in seeking out their destinies, more questing.

Soap operas

Gender roles in many of the soap opera or schoolyard drama type anime follow the rules set out in Grimm’s Fairy Tales very closely. “Brother Dear Brother” is an excellent example of this. The evil agentic character is punished by humiliation, and two other extremely active female characters are punished by death. Ortner notes that active, agentic girls– and especially evil female characters, who are very active– are invariably punished in the traditional Grimm’s narrative, and that rule is being followed here.  The main protagonist, however, is extremely passive throughout the plot– things keep happening to her–and she seems to survive intact.  This is something of an exception to the “female characters must be made passive” rule, but it certainly follows the rules of rewards for passivity and punishment for action.

Escaflowne— which is not a schoolyard drama– is an excellent example of taking agency away from the main female character. She is an unusually active one; not only is she originally portrayed as surrounded by symbols of activity–  she’s an athlete, very active, and asks a male character to kiss her in the first episode- very daring – but goes on in the anime to, despite the fact that she is not a fighter of any type, make herself useful in the war by teaching, making decisions, and predicting the future. Toward the end of the series, her agency is completely removed from her in such a way as to almost negate it throughout the series. She is told that it is her fault that the war has happened, her fault everyone has died, everything is her fault because she has had doubts. Essentially, it is her job to be absolutely passive and to do nothing but have complete and utter faith in everyone else. The interesting thing about this is that it gives her responsibility for everything that has gone on without giving her any active agency or power.

Female roles in male-dominated anime

There is a type of shoujo anime with almost no female roles in it. Difficult to talk about, of course, when what I want to talk about are female roles in particular, but there is one example which I’d like to mention briefly in connection with female gender roles.

–Yami no Matsuei (Descendants of Darkness)

Although all the main characters in Yami No Matsuei are male (this is shoujo anime), there are female walk on characters, who have a very specific function. They die. This happens in almost every plot arc. The dying female characters interact with the main male characters and provide motivation and emotional maturation (and angst) for the main male characters.

Now, this is very disturbing on several levels.  The female characters dying provide the agency for the male characters, in other words, female characters have become the ultimate in passivity, dead, in  order that the male characters may become more active, more agential.  It is almost as if they must sacrifice whatever agency they had to the main male characters.

One reason this may be happening is because this anime is intended for a female audience, and for this reason, it is necessary that the female audience identify with the main, male, characters.  A friend of mine, J.J. Andrews, pointed out that the female characters may be being “cleared out of the way,” as it were, to make room for the female audience to identify with the male characters without being reminded of female gender roles.  As long as there are no long-term, important female characters on the screen, the male characters are what we must identify with.  Yet this process is disturbing because although it allows the female audience to identify with the male role, it does so at the expense of the female characters.

Different Gender roles

— Seraphim Call

It’s a very peculiar series, as it is a series of vignettes rather than a continuing story.  What we get are  a number of different examples of girls’ lives, and thus, a number of different examples of gender roles, all female. Some of these are quite disturbing, such as a genius who must lock herself away because she can’t look at men without fainting, or, a girl who has a fan club because of her childlikeness. Others of them show very strong levels of agency, such as the girl who has her own superhero mecha team, or the young athlete who must be persuaded to sit for the artist. Most of these stories are about identity but identity is not an issue which can be divided from agency.

–Revolutionary Girl Utena

It’s important to talk about Utena because this anime actually deals with gender roles as one of its themes. It also will show a complete reversal of the sort of process we’ve been seeing so far. Of course, not all anime has the same kind of Grimm process, if you’ll forgive the pun, as I hope I have been able to show. Utena, however, is the great exception because gender roles are not taken for granted; they are actually one of the things which are considered in the story.

In this story, Anthy as the Rose Bride represents the traditional passivity of the fairy tale heroine; she is utterly inert to begin with, yet her rewards  are empty, and instead of being rewarded for her passivity with marriage, she is punished by marriage (or engagement). Our protagonist Utena, on the other hand, is constantly active, she is surrounded by active symbols. She engages in active sports– basketball, soccer– and she is always stretching which is an interesting visual metaphor for challenging herself. Ohtori itself is structured like a fairy tale, and therefore Utena, who straddles the line between the hero and the heroine, will eventually have to choose which she wants to be. Because she is female, Ohtori tries to force her into the heroine role. And we have to ask ourselves what would she have been rewardedv with if she had accepted that role? Remember the quote, “In the end, all girls are like the Rose Bride.” The Rose Bride is a figure completely without agency, and being without agency also has no hope, or dreams, almost no self at all because all of that has been (self?) sacrificed.

Another very important factor is the relationship between Utena and Anthy. Utena is deeply disturbed by Anthy’s lack of agency, and spends much of the series encouraging Anthy to be her own person and reclaim her agency.  Their friendship becomes the means through which Anthy realizes that reclaiming her agency is an option, because, in the end, Anthy must rescue herself. In that moment, Anthy gains back her agency.

This can be seen as a complete reversal of the setup we have been seeing so far, or, if you like, a metaphor for someone having to decide between accepting societal gender roles or being a human being.

It’s interesting to note that the movie’s theme was mainly about escaping Ohtori, and that Utena herself became, literally, a vehicle for Anthy’s escape, thus, Anthy became the protagonist. In this version, Anthy, who slowly gains agency through the series, forcibly and suddenly gains agency, almost taking it away from Utena, and must surmount challenges in order to enter the real world; yet, neither of them can escape until they do so together, cooperatively.

The theme in the movie of “murdering our princes” is also quite interesting, because in the series, there is a lovely fairy tale about a prince on a while horse which turns out to be just that… a fairy tale.  Murdering the “prince” turns into a vivid metaphor for destroying the illusion of needing to yield your agency to another (a male), as Grimm keeps telling us that we must do.  In the movie, Utena’s obsession with her prince, played by Touga, establishes her as a “normal” girl (she even kisses him, in an attempt to balance out the fact the she also kisses Anthy in the movie), yet she moves past this with her desire– and Anthy’s desire– to break out of the illusion of the fairy tale and into the real world.  In the series, Utena rejects the role of the princess because of her love for Anthy, and that proves stronger than the illusion of the fairy tale of societal gender roles; she preserves her active self, and through doing that, proves to Anthy that she, too, can be a human being.  Thus, the revolution.


Ortner, Sherry B.  1996   “Making Gender: Toward a Feminist, Minority , Postcolonial, Subaltern, etc., Theory of Practice,” in Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture.  Boston: Beacon Press.


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