Tsunderes, ice queens, female characters hiding their feelings with anger and cruelty, oh my! Whatever name you give it it’s a common trope all over the shop, from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew to Pride and Prejudice (come on, as if that’s not one big game of “It’s not as if I like you or anything, Mr Darcy”) to modern high school comedies from all cultures—not always specific to women and girls, of course, since the ‘bitterness masking embarrassing mushy feelings’ thing is rife in many forms throughout every genre, ranging from cute bickering to outright abusive behaviour. There’s something interesting and occasionally a little iffy going on with this archetype. What does is say about us as consumers that we love seeing this in our media so freakin’ much?
On one hand, it’s definitely wish fulfilment—especially where it appears in things like harem stories/games and romantic comedies where some degree of audience insertion is encouraged—we want to believe that, no matter how awful the person we like behaves, it’s all just a front to hide their True Feelings and beneath all their snarky bravado is a warm, loving caramelly centre that we are special enough to bring to the surface. Hell, the appeal of the ‘tsundere’ (a Japanese term, one who switches between two facets of their personality: ‘tsuntsun’, aloof or irritable, and ‘deredere’, lovestruck) has been full on explained with science:
“Essentially, when someone is consistently unpleasant towards you, it establishes a behavioural baseline that colours your expectations. When that person becomes more pleasant, even if it’s by a tiny amount, you interpret that as progress, which is psychologically stimulating.”
So, science says it’s more rewarding if someone is awful to us at first and then slowly gets nicer, making less of an impression than if they were nice the entire time (and, naturally, capturing our hearts more than if they were consistently a total ass). Fiction-wise, it definitely fits better into a romantic arc. It’s simply more fun and more interesting to watch an icy personality defrost, a golden example for creating (or at least creating the image of) deep, layered characters, and commenting on the human condition of burying our feelings and insecurities beneath protective layers. It feeds into the ‘everyone has hidden depths’ thing as well as the ‘she’s just playing hard to get’ thing, one of which is notably more problematic than the other.
Let’s face it, this trope saturates media so much it’s become a stock character and in many cases a self-aware parody of itself (see Lucky Star, pictured, which leans on the fourth wall so much it’s barely stable), and it’s difficult to gauge when it’s been done well because it’s done so often we’re basically numb to it as an audience. It’s almost accepted, in a way, that if one character is being outright rude to another it’s a sign of underlying sexual tension. Which leads to hate-ships, which is a conversation for another day, but closer to home, it feeds into an unfortunate social stigma that creates problems in the real world.
It’s that old schoolyard thing—if a boy is picking on a girl in grade five, it’s probably because he likes her. If a girl is being stuck-up and aloof to a guy in high school, she probably has the hots for him. Now that I think of it, the tsundere/ice queen archetype could very well factor into the idea that young women ought to be standoffish about their affections, because launching straight into pursuing them would be too forward and harlot-ish. In the meantime, it definitely feeds the social ideal that if a girl is acting like she doesn’t like you, she probably secretly does, so you should keep pressing until you unlock that character development.
I can hear the sirens going off now. On one hand the tsundere is a harmless, occasionally fun and occasionally annoying character type that’s practically a staple of romantic comedy, on another, it comes lead-weighted with really problematic implications. The ‘defrost your ice queen’ romantic arc especially plays into the idea that you can win over any love interest with pure perseverance, protagonist powers and possibly a musical number. At what point does drawing the deredere out of the tsuntsun go from cute to patronising to the character? I don’t know about you, but there’s a fine line between satisfaction at seeing a character’s true self shine through their cracked shell and having them accept their own feelings, and seeing them squashed into complacency by their love interest—often played as heartwarming or funny.
Hey, sometimes it’s genuinely adorable. But sometimes the entire business is ridiculous—as with all things, it’s about striking a balance. A slow build to romance based on mutual trust, for example, as opposed to just having a blushing heroine beating her eventual but expressedly hopeless love interest to a cartoonish pulp for 23 episodes and then having them kiss on the 24th just in time for the finale. That is funny, and maybe even endearing, to a certain point, but after a while it just becomes a tired and irritating (and again, ragingly problematic) device for lazy love stories. At what point does back-and-forth banter and maybe some slapping (by the tsundere girl of course, because double standards) become a glorified abusive relationship?
And at what point does getting the tsundere to level out her feelings and be honest with them become a project for the protagonist, as exemplified in The Taming of the Shrew and its modern incarnation 10 Things I Hate About You, which, for all I love about that movie, still has that inherently iffy element to it. Romancing Kat starts as a bet, guys. It grows into something else, but by the end everyone’s still caught up in messy feelings that they’re angry at feeling, and the answer is to settle back into the ideal romance once you’re won over with charm and material gifts. And then there’s a band playing on the school rooftop, so no, I’m not saying that teenaged rom-coms are a perfect window and guidance into how we should live our lives, but everyone raised on them will process and absorb what they’re seeing. And that is, for the most part in these cases, angry girls that just need fixing. Surely we can do better than that.
You could start, perhaps, by acknowledging that the anger issues are in fact issues—see Kelly from Misfits, whose quick and fiery temper is both a plot-starting device and a marked and explored character flaw—and attempting to trace them back to their roots—see Taiga from Toradora!, (pictured above, in deredere mode), whose arc looks into the kind of life events and family situation that could strand a developing girl in an angry childlike state with a need for asserting her authority. All in all, kind of pointing out that being cold to or verbally/physically abusing people should not be functional or celebrated, let alone fetishized, behaviour.
You can see why the tsundere is a staple of a lot of harem shows—there’s definitely an element of greasy fun in setting up an overtly powerful female character and then dismantling her appearance of power, especially if it’s by the well-meaning hands of a love interest which pretty much assures that it’s the morally right and ‘heroic’ thing to do.
Again, on one level, that’s fine and could be quite poignant, on another, it can be a cog in the creepy wish fulfilment power trip machine. It can also lead into dubious consent and other cringey, frightening territory, because everything that happens comes with the justification that the tsundere in question really does like the ‘hero’, thus no matter how much she protests obviously she really wants him. God, I shuddered just typing that. Why are we still writing these things?
Tsunderes can be wonderfully fleshed-out, layered characters that demonstrate how people deal with their emotions harshly, or they can be flat, tantrum-throwing plot devices that encourage negative stereotypes that carry over into real life. After all, every assertive and angry woman is just an adorable ideal hiding within an insecure shell, and all she needs is the right love interest to break her casing and bring it out. Yeah, that’s awkward. Not the kind of thing we want to be beaming to multiple generations through our media. And I say that in all seriousness and mean it, without a blush or a stammer.