Reimagining Gender Roles Through Fairy Tales

by SnippetTee.

Ouran High School Host Club Fujikoka Haruhi Suou Tamaki

As kids, ideally and realistically, we were taught that the prince should always be the one saving the princess and not the other way around. And even in harem genre, regardless of how pathetic the male character is, for some reason there’s always that monumental moment wherein the guy rescues the female lead. Come to think of it, it doesn’t seem natural if the prince is the one being saved by the princess. Isn’t it?

Ouran High School Host Club characters Fujioka Haruhi Haninozuka Mitsukuni Hitachiin Hikaru Kaoru Morinozuka Takashi Ootori Kyoya Suou Tamaki Usa-chan

So let’s take for instance Ouran High School Host Club. Apparently, this anime isn’t going to be labelled as gender bender unless Haruhi didn’t act like a guy. Nevertheless, staying true to the fairytale structure, this reverse harem revolved around how every guy in the club tried to help, comfort, and save Haruhi. Well indeed, she chased Tamaki in order to save the club and to stop him from marrying someone he doesn’t love. However, what made it believable and idealistic was the fact that by the end of the story, Haruhi was heroically saved by Tamaki as she dramatically fell off the bridge.

Ouran High School Host Club characters Hatori Bisco

If we’re going to notice, most anime followed the similar romance structure over and over. Indeed, one might say that anime is constantly bending the “laws” of genders and sexualities; however that doesn’t take away the fact that these are viewed as taboos. Aside from that, little we noticed, these fairytale stories have that spellbinding enchantment which dictates the “order” of things and what is considered as natural. Believe it or not, the magic and romance of these stories also exist even in science and highly influenced us on how we created our socially accepted ideologies of sexualities and genders.

Ouran Host High School Club characters Haruhi

In a nutshell, it is apparent that the validity of cultural assumptions about masculinity and femininity is strongly legitimized by science. It was said that for decades, biologists patterned the explanation of the fertilization process on a fairytale. Plus, scientific thought has been shaped by a binary world view in which sex opposes gender, male / female, mind / body…. The language of these dualisms leads to an understanding of the world in terms of opposing pairs—like husbandos and waifus.

Ouran High School Host Club hand holding

For instance, back in high school, some biology textbooks depicted sperm as fearless warriors battling their way to an aging, passive egg that can do little but await the sturdy victor’s final, bold plunge. Aside from that, several authors exemplified how the egg’s role is likened to that of Sleeping Beauty: “a dormant bride awaiting her mate’s magic kiss, which instills the spirit that brings her to life.” Sperm, by contrast, have a “mission,” which is to “move through the female genital tract in quest of the ovum.”

Ouran High School Host Club Haruhi Tamaki

In other words, this fairytale-ish unification of the egg and the sperm, presents an excellent paradigm of the embedded beliefs that influenced biology through language and metaphor. Likewise, biology naturalized and shaped these cultural assumptions and gender roles—which aren’t necessarily true—by extracting such stereotypic behaviours of who must be and what it’s like to be feminine (passive) and masculine (aggressive).

Ouran High School Host Club Fujioka Haruhi

Arguably, we might find reverse harem to be more believable than harem, in most cases, because of how genders are performed—“the prince saves the princess” notion. But that’s only because if we’re going to think about it, fairytales do come true only if we conditioned ourselves to believe it and make it happen.
About the Guest Author:
A long time friend of Listless Ink, SnippetTee writes fascinating, highly intelligent, and profoundly analytic posts. It is my pleasure to bring some of that ease, style, clarity, and depth over from Lemmas and Submodalities.

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37 Responses to Reimagining Gender Roles Through Fairy Tales

  1. Aelesis says:

    Really interesting post. The analogy to the textbooks and gender-biased reproductory stuff surprised me!

  2. Valence says:

    Nice guest post!

    I guess that in history, and even right now, we keep to our ‘mindsets’ of what each gender should be: men being the ones with supposed, raw power, and heroism to save the females, while females with grace, patience and beauty. Hence the reverse harem works better IMO since it’s usually about males who surround and vie for the female’s love and affection, unlike normal harems where every female lead is usually breasts (or lack thereof) on legs.

    However it’s a bit strange to use the biology of our reproductive systems in conjunction with the idea of gender roles, but I’ll stick with that, it’s kind of cool. Yet you might see that now gender roles are being reversed. Women have become more forthcoming, with more power compared to their compatriots centuries ago, while more and more men are breaking gender boundaries and taking up jobs in the nursing and fashion industries, long-thought to be female-only regions. We also see more and more females who like ‘bishounen’, as seen by the latest trends in J-pop and K-pop, what the old guard like to call’ girly boys’. True, these men may be more feminine, yet they now draw more attention. Same goes for those outgoing, tomboyish girls that seem to be the trend in our music industries. Gender is a funny thing.

    • SnippetTee says:

      Indeed, modern women are becoming more and more pro-active than the traditional ones. However, there are some things that are difficult to let go and erase. Regardless of how open minded we are, we can’t deny the fact that society still sees “the prince saves the princess” as the default structure. That’s why I think that it’ll take some time before fully we get rid of these supposed gender roles, as you mentioned media comes into play… But, clearly we’re seeing progress in viewing genders.

      Thanks for sharing your insights.

  3. ayame says:

    Another excellent post 🙂 The biology explanation was enlighting and kind of funny at the same time. I liked how you combined it with Ouran Host Club because this anime has shown and spoke about sth else I’m going to post about sometime and it’s quite against the idea of the prince.I found it amusing how each of us focuses on something else completely and thus it becomes more enjoyable. Fairy tales with genderbender aren’t always like this in terms of gender. Think of RGUtena or Rose of Versailles or even Princess Knight (although I can’t really speak for the last coz I don’t remember its end)

    • SnippetTee says:

      The biology part is really funny, I imagined Ouran High or other reverse harems have that reproductive imagery… sperms trying to win an egg. In the end only one winner will emerge. IRL though, it’s possible to have princes since you can have twins, triplets etc. Yet again, multiple sperms sharing an egg is not considered the “normal” case. Likewise with the shows that you mentioned, RGUtena and ROV are labelled as gender bender for the very reason that the characters went over and beyond the presumed gender role–a woman “should” be saved by a man, not by another woman.

      Btw, thanks Ayame for sharing your thoughts and good luck on your post.

  4. Ryan A says:

    Biology has it’s ways of showing us certain truths, but I feel we’ve developed the capacity over time to judge things for ourselves. If biology were like a parent, and we the children, we’ll eventually have to begin making our own decisions outside biological limitations. Imagination helps, and imagination, as well as experience in life, begin to manifest in ways biology may not enjoy, yet fiction generally stays within the realm of what is biologically consistent. Sperm and ovum, typically within a female are necessary, for reproduction, but socially it’s not that simple. If a female wishes to have a baby without a male partner, if a couple wishes to raise a child but avoid giving birth.. we’ve challenged the way biology has shaped us, while still adhering to some basic principles of survival and continuance.

    And there are hardly limits in fictitious worlds. Wonderful, but perhaps also dangerous.

    • SnippetTee says:

      “yet fiction generally stays within the realm of what is biologically “consistent”.”
      Thanks for bringing this up, but this is where I have questions–how did the “prince saves the princess” become biologically consistent. Because when it comes to how we view genders, I believe that the possibilities of performing these are endless, it just happened that to simplify the order of things we tend categorized things in binary terms. That’s why sometimes when watching anime or other shows, I’m thinking why not “princess saves the prince” or “princess saves the princess” became the default ideology, and what’s the point of having a gender bender category–are we really “bending” something?

      … we’ve challenged the way biology has shaped us, while still adhering to some basic principles of survival and continuance.
      I really liked how you touched the issue of survival and continuance, it sounds so profound. Personally, I think pro-creating is just one of the excuses in building these fairy tales. And if there’s something to challenge, it’s not biology itself, but how we build this so called-fictitious world and embed it IRL.

      Thanks for bringing the topic that got me into writing this post.

  5. Hana says:

    Fairy tales are funny things, aren’t they; perennially popular due to their colourful characters and happy endings, yet often dark morality tales in disguise, and also fun to subvert and allude to in other works… I enjoyed your exploration of fairy tale roles in Ouran, which is a good example of how the audience gets to ‘have their cake and eat it’, in terms of the strong characterisation of Haruhi who is just as capable as the boys, but is also swept off her feet by one. Your reference to the biology textbook is interesting, and an entertaining illustration of how anything factual can be presented as a narrative. Not that the making babies example is a fiction of course, but the way that the components can be described using traditional/ patriarchal world-inhabiting fairy tale gender roles clearly indicates a certain perspective.

    To go back to the anime example, I’d say that harem and reverse harem shows are just as fairy tale-ish as each other, with reverse harems – being less common – having an edge due to their ‘refreshing’ aspect. If fairy tales are fantasies or dreams by definition, then they rarely come true. If/ when they do, then they are arguably no longer fairy tales, as they would have been subjected to some degree of transformation or compromise. Or, as you say, ‘belief’ and ‘conditioning’. Still, I enjoy their use in anime/ stories, though perhaps more in shows that experiment with or subvert them.

    Thanks for the read, Snippy!

    • SnippetTee says:

      but the way that the components can be described using traditional/ patriarchal world-inhabiting fairy tale gender roles clearly indicates a certain perspective.
      I truly agreed with this. I happened to reference biology because in most cases science validates our world view, so I was thinking it might be able to explain for a bit why reverse harem seemed more ideal than harem. Come to think of it, males were first to become doctors and biologist so it’s no wonder if the language is inclined more on the patriarchal ideology.

      If fairy tales are fantasies or dreams by definition, then they rarely come true. If/ when they do, then they are arguably no longer fairy tales, as they would have been subjected to some degree of transformation or compromise.
      I agreed, but ironically dreams fuel humans to keep going and achieve something. Also, there are so many ways to create our own fairy tales, but I don’t understand why for some, their fairy tales become compromising, as you have mentioned.

      Btw, thanks for your thoughtful comment, Hana. I also enjoy watching these types of stories and genres. I remembered fangirling Ouran High because of how funny and cute the characters were.

  6. gozieson says:

    This really depends on the thoughts and views of the male and female in a relationship. It all comes down to who is willing to make the first move and whether or not both parties will respond to any sort of advance by the partner.

    Normally it is thought that the person who makes the first move would be the protective one, so it would be interesting to see the female actually trying to step it up first before the male tries to.

    • SnippetTee says:

      Indeed, I’d also like to view it that way. But we can also have either both feminine or both masculine in a relationship. I mean this is not to limit the definition into same sex couples because you can also have a combination of an effeminate guy and a feminine girl… I guess, no one really has to be the “male” or “female” it all goes down to how you’re going to mix a good chemistry on the relationship.

      Thanks for sharing your insights.

  7. Pingback: Re-imagining Gender Roles Through Fairytales « Lemmas and Submodalities

  8. Nerin says:

    I really do get quite tired of that traditional gender role dynamic being used over and over.
    That is part of why I like yuri so much as it has such a range of roles. When the prince/princess dynamic is used in yuri, unlike the traditional version, who is in the prince or princess role may change which makes it much more interesting for me.

    • SnippetTee says:

      I agreed. I’m also a yuri fan, that’s why sometimes I wonder how come the girl to girl portrayal of a relationship is not the traditional version of a fairy tale.

  9. Leap250 says:

    When you put it in that sense, a reverse harem actually sorta does hold some similarity to the biological concept of reproduction. Male competition and such, lol.

    Then again it could be the female that’s “weeding out” the rest, waiting for that one male that suits her or deems worthy of her being. So in a sense, the damsel in distress could be passive-aggressive as well, and not just passive. Well, I say that, but rarely does it occur (in Utena, maybe, I’ve yet to figure out) without having the undertone of the female’s interest being a woman as well.

    • SnippetTee says:

      So in a sense, the damsel in distress could be passive-aggressive as well, and not just passive.
      Yes definitely, the damsel in distress concept..,In Utena, Anthy might not be bothered that she’s engaged with Utena–a girl. However, it’s so apparent that this is being condemned by the other student council members. I remembered Touga mentioned to Utena that “swords doesn’t fit with skirts”. So clearly, it tries to convey that there’s a particular fairy tale structure. But, Ikuhara is just so genius to use and challenge this to craft a really interesting plotline.

      Anyway, thanks for that really interesting thought about damsel in distress.

  10. Anya says:

    You have really entertaining science textbooks, mine just say something along the lines of “Here’s an egg. Here are sperms. They swim up.” without any fairy tale flourish.

    These gender roles make me really happy to see some scenes in the Precure franchise, where the guy can’t do anything and the girls have to save him (in Suite, Cure Muse even had to carry the boy in princess-style pose). Yeah, she’s cute, a loli, full of frills and ribbons, but she’ll still kick your ass.

    Like many commenters also mentioned, it’s part of what makes yuri interesting. I like how there’s no pressure for either side to have to be the ‘lead’, the traditional male role, and the role falls on their personalities or alternates between them.

    As for “protecting”, I don’t really like it when one has to protect the other regardless of if the couple’s straight/yuri/yaoi. I like to see back-to-back badasses.

    • SnippetTee says:

      It’s not just the fairytale metaphor that was thought to us, I remember there’s also that lymphocytes, the soldiers of the body. But I think, it’s better if we just have that neutral language. so that we can avoid stereotypes.

      Precure sounds cute based on how you described it, I guess I have to check it out. Anyway, I think that’s also what I liked about yuri, anyone can be the lead, and the characters have more options or not restricted to any gender roles unlike in yaoi which has seme/uke division.

      … I like to see back-to-back badasses.
      I like when both are pretty and sweet, I think that’s much cuter. ^^

      • Anya says:

        Well, Precure are back-to-back-badasses that are the CUTEST AND PRETTIEST AND SWEETEST EVER. The following video is the most adorable thing ever.

        Best part? She kicks ass. A lot. Though the main yuri pairing in suite has to be Hibiki X Kanade, in all the Precure I’ve seen those two have the highest unresolved lesbian sexual tension XD

        Well after all this rambling my point is that back-to-back-badasses can still be pretty and sweet and cute ^^”

        • SnippetTee says:

          That looks pretty cute and the yuri tension is always lovely and entertaining to watch. Thanks for sharing this. Now I’m starting to be convinced that back-to-back badasses is sweet and cute.

  11. So, a few things:

    First, Snippet, you NEED to start reading “Woman: An Intimate Geography” if you haven’t. It’s a more even-handed collection and examination of the science and biology surrounding women that seeks to recast some of those scientific narratives along more female-friendly lines. FOR EXAMPLE, according to its author, once the egg chooses a sperm, it actively rejects all others using powerful chemistry. The idea there maps strongly onto the strange love triangle between the Hitachiins, Tamaki, and Haruhi.

    Secondly, I find it interesting that you comments focus primarily on the gender equality of yuri, while ignoring the centrality of seme/uke in yaoi works. Maybe it again comes from a simplistic subversion of gender binary: Women are subverted by shedding passivity/princess roles whereas men subvert themselves through the adoption of uke/princess roles…

    • SnippetTee says:

      Sorry if you feel like I’m being biased. It just happened that most of the commenters were talking about yuri, but indeed, I’m really more of a yuri fan… But anyway, I definitely agreed. The binary (masculine + feminine) plays a huge part in defining gender roles, as you have mentioned. Sadly but, femininity is usually being stereotyped to passivity—the one being penetrated. So likewise with your “uke” example, the one who gets penetrated is the one who’s considered as the princess / passive role—a feminine role. It’s amazing how this single act profoundly impacted the definition.

      Btw, thanks for your recommendation. I will surely check that out. The love triangle that you mentioned between the Hitachiins, Tamaki, and Haruhi sounds interesting.

  12. Yerocha says:

    Tamaki being the hero seems to have less to do with gender and more to do with him playing the stereotypical “prince” figure. Individual personalities of the characters can have more to do with who is considered the dominant partner than gender. Try to imagine the finale of Ouran you mentioned, but replace Haruhi with Utena. Suddenly having the girl do the rescuing becomes easier to see.

    • True, but the story was ABOUT Haruhi. In this case, the imagery of the source work supports her thesis about the woman as the passive object of competition and subverts the idea that she is really the one in charge… 😉

    • SnippetTee says:

      I think it’s significant that Tamaki plays the hero/prince part considering that this is a gender bender series. I don’t think that act is just a coincidence. I believed it’s a necessary scene for the characters to live up with their expected roles and in order to put that extra fluff. As for Utena, she has a somewhat different angle. It’s interesting because her options were more open than Haruhi. Utena actually wants to become a prince but at the same time she also longs to be with her prince.

  13. Nopy says:

    Sadly, reverse harems seem to be the norm in real life. We say that our society has gender equality, but things still seem very polarized in terms of specific roles.

  14. TheNewTheory says:

    A very interesting topic indeed.

  15. Overlord-G says:

    This reminds me of a news bulleting my good friend Chocokara read online. According to what he read, the Japanese government plans to ban the creation of strong, independent anime women because it turns Japanese men into homosexuals…
    First of all, I know SOME male otakus can be mentally insane but…turning gay because a woman isn’t stereotypically a damsel, or in cliche anime cases, a swarm of mindless locusts who want to eat a moronic, useless macho meathead’s strudel?! Are you serious bro?!
    There’s no way Japanese men are this stupid or lacking leiderhosen (Sorry if I spelled it wrong).
    It HAS to be the foreign government up to their usual world domination schemes.

    Anyway, about the main subject, the classic prince and princess dynamic is fine and all every now and then, but I’d rather watch shows where women merely want to kick ass and the last thing on their minds are cinnamon toast winkies. One “Hopeful” example is Rinne no Lagrange. I’m putting my money on 3 anime this Winter season: Bodacious Pirates, Symphogear and Lagrange. Please do not disappoint me…

    • SnippetTee says:

      Somebody just recently linked me to an article that says strong anime girls are making anime boys gay. I find it really ridiculous—plus so what if some Japanese men turn into homosexuals, it’s always up to the person to decide. But anyway, I’m hoping that you’re enjoying your winter anime picks. Thanks for another passionate comment.

  16. Yi says:

    Lovely article! You make a great point about established gender roles. Its use in language especially reaffirms this view. I think we can broaden the prince saves princess into simply active and passive roles. It’s why men are expected to chase women in today’s society. They’re the ones to propose. They’re the doers… etc. etc.

    I think even in this age where gender roles are much less emphasized, we still find it to be more resonant, as is the case with reverse harems versus harems. The idea of multiple guys chasing after one girl is just so much more believable than multiple girls pinning for one guy.

    Thank you so so much for the beautiful guest post, Snippet. ^ ^ It’s an honor, and I’d love to do something with you again (either here or on yours). Cheers!

    • SnippetTee says:

      I think we can broaden the prince saves princess into simply active and passive roles.
      It’s interesting how these terminologies are also gendered. The believability of harems is mainly due to how bias our language is. If these words are interchanged to describe genders it creates that “doesn’t seem right” feeling.

      It’s an honor, and I’d love to do something with you again (either here or on yours).
      Aww, you keep on thanking me, Yi… but yeah, thank YOU for hosting my post. I love the idea of collaborating with you. It sounds fun. I’ll work with you anywhere, let me know if you have an idea and I’ll also let you know if I have.

  17. Foxy Lady Ayame says:

    Reblogged this on compass on my field trip.

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