Gather round, gang! Like I did a few posts ago with The Cauldron of Story, it’s time to take some literary theory I’ve come across in my research and apply it to modern media—in this case, Barbara Fass Leavy’s weighty and extensive discussion of folklore about supernatural marriages, and an overtly cute anime about a dragon who is also a maid.
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In Search of the Swan Maiden: A Narrative on Folklore and Gender dives into various folk tale tropes regarding human beings marrying magical beings, and the quests, tragedies, and general shenanigans that stem from that. The book itself is named after the key concept that Leavy brings up again and again, the swan maiden, a female character type whose “story is that of a being from a supernatural realm who is constrained to marry, keep house for, and bear children to a mortal man” (introduction), but also delves into other story types such as the animal groom, where “the [male] supernatural mate is frequently a beast, often a human being suffering from an evil spell or punished for some transgression against an evil witch” (p.101). Obviously, Beauty and the Beast first springs to mind from this definition, but the main archetype Leavy talks about in the animal groom chapter is the story of Cupid and Psyche, which is about a mortal woman’s marriage to a god.
Both of these story types (there are more in the book, but let’s focus on these two for now) offer up fairly gruelling narratives. Swan maidens are often (not always, but often) miserable in their marriage to human men, and end up stealing back their magic garments, wings, or seal pelts and escaping back to wherever it was they came from. Leavy defines the Cupid and Psyche type story as one where some sort of taboo is placed by the male supernatural being, like the wife not being allowed to see her magical husband or reveal his true nature to her family, no matter how much she wants to reassure them that he’s really a hot guy cursed to look like a snake. The wife inevitably breaks this taboo and if that isn’t the tragic end of the story, she has to go on an epic quest to win back her scorned husband (there’s a lot of discussion about whether or not Psyche having a very active quest narrative qualifies her story as feminist or not, since she’s being proactive and kind of a badass, but only so she can slip back into the wifely role alongside her man. Which is very interesting, but again, a topic that’s going to get too big for this one post).
Basically, people have been telling wild and whacky tales of people marrying and consorting with magical creatures that can shift between animal and human form forever. Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is really only the latest bud in a literary trend embedded deep in the collective imagination. The show tells the story of Kobayashi, a geeky office worker who stumbles drunk into the forest one night and rescues an enormous wounded dragon. Still intoxicated, she asks the dragon to come stay at her house sometime, and the dragon, named Tohru, takes her up on this offer the next day. Naturally, since Tohru can’t fit through the apartment door in her delightfully bodacious and building-sized dragon form, she shapeshifts into a cute girl. And signs herself up as Kobayashi’s maid, in full costume. Because yay! What’s more fun than anime maids?
So, with no context, this would land Tohru in the swan maiden camp—out of a sense of obligation to a human, she discards (at least temporarily) her true animal form and takes up a domestic role in the human world. The obligation is self-imposed, though, because Tohru wants to repay Kobayashi for saving her life, and also admits loud and proud to being in love with her. Is this an animal groom tale, then, with Kobayashi, a normal mortal woman, entangled in a supernatural contract (at least symbolic of marriage—Tohru lives with her now, after all) with a creature that’s part human and part monster? Surely not, because there’s no taboo (Tohru being a dragon isn’t even treated like a secret that needs to be kept, really), and no curse. She also isn’t trapped in the “marriage” like a lot of her fellow heroines, except, again, by her own self-imposed obligation that stems from gratitude and compassion for Tohru.
Neither is a perfect fit, possibly because it’s a modern anime drawing on many more ideas and trends than just old folklore, but it’s also worth noting that one of the reasons the water is delightfully muddied is because both characters are women. The traditional swan maiden roles of woman-as-supernatural and man-as-ordinary are immediately thrown out the window given that both the mortal and the magical character in this relationship are ladies. The same way the format of man-as-powerful-beast and woman-as-mystified-innocent-wife are thrown out, because given how gendered they are in their original iterations as Leavy outlines them, they just don’t fit over the situation between Kobayashi and Tohru. It’s an entertaining and intriguing decision, both in how it flips and muddles a lot of these old, old folktale ideas, and how it flips and muddles the modern Magical Girlfriend genre (which, in itself, could be called today’s version of these magical marriage tales).
I mean, cards on the table, if Kobayashi had been a teenaged boy I probably wouldn’t have given this show two seconds of my attention. But giving the role of stupefied Everyman that an adorable magical creature dressed as a maid is life-affirmingly in love with to a female protagonist rather than the usual male one, mixes up the formula just enough to create something new. Drawing on this ancient worldwide tradition of animal groom and swan maiden stories, you get modern iterations like My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox, The World God Only Knows (with the demon girl, at least), even Love Cells and, dare I say it, Daily Lives with Monster Girls. Or indeed any series where, whether there’s magic or not, the male lead is characterised as bland and somewhat blank, yet one or more beautiful, talented and far more interesting female characters are inexplicably crushing on him enough to let him become the focal point of the show.
Kobayashi still has a lot of those generic romance protagonist traits—kind of stoic and deadpan, coasts through life, and most importantly has a cute dragon girl attached to her with all her love—but by giving this role to a female character it quietly upends a lot of these deep and ingrained expectations we have about the supernatural marriage genre, whether in the form of modern anime or folklore. Why shouldn’t we have tales of swan maidens married to women, or animal grooms taken in by men? Why shouldn’t we give a woman the chance to be the Everyman at the centre of adorable supernatural shenanigans? Why should a magical anime girlfriend be exclusively attracted to deadpan dude protagonists? It’s a dragon! Do dragons even have a concept of gender and sexuality?
I’m possibly (definitely) making Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid out to be deeper than it is, but it would discredit the show not to point out that it’s playing with some very old ideas, which in themselves have very entrenched attachments to gender roles. Perhaps Tohru is a swan maiden in the human world by choice rather than being trapped by loss of her wings, perhaps she’s an animal groom who simply has a more honest and open and funny relationship with her human object of affection than some old examples. Perhaps there was no subversive intent behind the creation of the show at all and they just thought a cute lesbian maid dragon would be appealing for a change. But the author is dead, and I think this kind of show is very much the modern version of an animal groom/animal bride tale, and it’s cool to see how in this particular case a lot of these old ideas are being quietly but overtly tweaked and played with.