I thought of her as a goddess once…
–Revolutionary Girl Utena, Episode 38 ‘The Ends of the World’
It’s a rough lot, being a woman in a fictional world, especially if your world is one built on the unambiguous lesson-teaching foundations of the fairy tale or the symbolism-laden slippery slope of myth. Either way, job options are scarce and you will inevitably end up in a symbolic or supporting role that props up the heroism of the main male character, be he Hero or Prince. This is something Revolutionary Girl Utena knows well, and goes to great measures to critique: first by showing a fairy tale maiden who aspires to be a Prince herself, and second by showing a fairy tale maiden who remains trapped within the expected archetypes of her genre and who is having literally the worst time in the world because of it.
Strap in, gang. It’s time for me to organise my thoughts on Anthy and what we learn about her in Episode 34, through the framework of theories of myth and how the show uses and then breaks them down. Absolute mega spoilers to follow.
I was rereading my old buddy Joe Camps recently, specifically the ‘Meeting with the Goddess’ chapter. It’s this, combined with the next chapter ‘Woman as Temptress’, that’s the biggest evidence towards the “Campbell says that The Hero can be a boy or a girl, but then he goes and says this shit, which really makes it seem like he assumes The Hero is always a dude” thesis. But anyway, you’ll never guess who I was reminded of:
“The ultimate adventure, when all barriers and ogres have been overcome, is commonly represented as a mystical marriage of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World.” (p. 111)
A mystical marriage to a triumphant hero? Hmm. Combine this with Campbell’s later definition that “Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know” (p. 116) and I couldn’t help but note the similarities between this mythic framework and the strange business of the Rose Bride: the girl who becomes “engaged” to the victor of the duels, a union that comes as a package deal with the promise of great knowledge and “the power to revolutionise the world”. She is a prize to be won, a somewhat blank, quiet and apparently personality-less piece in the greater puzzle of the duelling arena who will become an asset and aid to the hero who possesses her—she is knowledge, she is power, she is the pretty sheath that contains a cool sword that will help the hero’s quest. “She is the paragon of all paragons of beauty, the reply to all desire, the bliss-bestowing goal of every hero’s earthly and unearthly quest.” (p. 111)
At least, this is how she seems. As the audience comes to learn, The Rose Bride, Anthy, is her own person with her own fears, regrets, motivations, desires, and flaws—you know, all those things a fully-rounded ordinary human being has. But she’s been shoved into the role of mythical Woman and so she is seen only as what she represents rather than who she is as a person. She means something different to every duellist who fights for her, her individuality quietly or not-so-quietly erased along the way: to Saionji she is a trophy to show that he’s powerful, to Miki she’s a way to get the easy innocence of his childhood back, to Juri she’s a pawn with which to prove that miracles don’t exist. Even Utena falls into this trap and projects her own desires onto Anthy, jumping on the concept of Anthy as a princess that Utena, as an aspiring “prince”, must save and take care of.
If we’re looking at Anthy as Goddess, this is appropriate: according to Campbell, “As [the hero] progresses in the slow initiation which is life, the form of the goddess undergoes for him a series of transfigurations: she can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending.” (p. 116) Anthy is a mystical and mysterious figure who, again, is presented as a prize and an asset for the victorious duellist that will offer them knowledge and assistance in their quest for… whatever they’re questing for with the battles in the castle-topped arena. Utena sure doesn’t know, but for her, Anthy represents success in her goal to be “a prince who rescues princesses” so she barrels ahead into the adventure. And Anthy, dutiful guiding Goddess that she is, remains quietly by her side.
Utena realising that she’s been talking over what Anthy actually feels and wants in order to project her dream onto her—and realising that Anthy moulds herself to fit the desires of whoever she’s engaged to—is an important step in taking apart this illusion. Because once she’s learnt this, Utena endeavours (though… not always with total success) to be more mindful of Anthy and to try and treat her more like a human being and a friend, rather than a symbol of her heroic goal. The Hero of our story starts to see her Goddess as three-dimensional rather than just a symbolic figure who represents success and gained power, and so the folkloric pattern that Utena’s world is built on begins, slowly, slowly, but significantly, to fall apart.
Because the more we learn about Anthy, the more the series makes the point that being stranded in the role of Woman in a world of myth and fairy tale sucks. Now, as a brief aside, you may ask if it’s really sensible to talk about Utena in terms of myths and fairy tales interchangeably. I would say that confusing as it might be, a) being confused is the Utena experience, and b) they actually deal with a lot of the same material. Susan Sellers suggests in her book Myth and Fairy Tale in Contemporary Women’s Fiction that there’s a lot of thematic crossover between fairy tales and myths, and really the biggest differences are that myths tend to deal with the divine or semi-divine while fairy tales deal with magic, or that myths tend to end in tragedy and fairy tales tend to end in happily ever after. Most importantly for this post, both story types have a lot of issues with cramming their female characters into troublesome archetypes.
As Sellers says, there’s a lot of crossover, so why not look at Utena and Anthy’s story as a deconstruction of archetypes in both myth and fairy tale? Though the show is much more openly playing with heroism and womanhood in terms of fairy tales, Revolutionary Girl Utena fits quite nicely into The Hero’s Journey pattern, which combined with all the connections that mark Anthy as Campbell’s Goddess character, sets it up as a modern myth of sorts. Or, at least, initially. The fairy tale backstory that frames Utena’s story “breaks” as the series goes on, so it makes perfect sense that The Hero’s Journey structure should fall apart too, as the grand ideas that form the foundations of our hero’s worldview are taken apart and proven wrong. Whether we’re looking at Utena as a wannabe mythic Hero or fairy tale Prince, a massive part of taking the shine off these ideals is Anthy. In fact, I like examining Anthy’s character through the lens of myth and the lens of fairy tale side-by-side, because it creates a beautiful paradox that I feel is definitely part of the show’s commentary.
Pushed into the role of the Campbellian Goddess, Anthy is amorphous and symbolic, “undergoing a series of transfigurations” to be whatever her current “triumphant hero-soul” needs her to be. But as we learn in the Big Reveal in episode 34, she is also constantly being punished for the time she stepped out of her assigned fairy tale archetype. So, world, do you want her to stay rigidly within her type and never change? Or do you want her to be ever-changing?
Ah, but it’s a silly question given context: it’s totally fine for Anthy to “undergo transfigurations” when it suits the Hero she is playing Goddess to. What she is being punished for is changing archetypes on her own terms. When she stepped out to protect her brother she removed herself from the neat trope of the helpless passive Princess who needs a Prince to rescue her, showing her own agency and motivations. Within the fairy tale framework there isn’t any room for ambiguity and self-motivation in a “good” female character (a Princess), and so her only option was to be jettisoned into the role of “bad” female character (a Witch) with even the tiniest step outside of that box.
Basically, as The Woman of patriarchal myth and fairy tale, Anthy’s only options are to be either the Princess Who Needs Rescuing or The Goddess, Guide to the Sublime—anything else will earn her a gut full of symbolic-but-still-very-sharp swords. Either way she’s reduced to a symbolic role and solely defined by the way she provides goals for the man in her story, be it the mythic Hero who will mystically marry her as a reward for completing his quest, or the fairy tale Prince who will rescue her from the tower (and probably end up marrying her as well).
And, I reiterate, Revolutionary Girl Utena goes to great lengths to show that this sucks. Anthy, as Symbolic Woman of myth and fairy tale, is trapped in eternal agony. She is the symbol of “the boon of love” (p. 118) but also the target of all the world’s loathing. She is expected to transform absolutely to be whatever the hero of the story needs her to be, but is being eternally punished for changing the pattern of her character based on what she wanted. She represents success and promise, but can never have any wishes of her own. In being everything to everyone, she herself becomes no one. She is stuck in a misogynistic labyrinth of paradoxes and double standards that is implied to have lasted, and will last, for as long as time itself.
To borrow phrasing from Sarah Nicholson’s critique of Campbell, who Anthy is as a person is “lost to the greater symbolic Woman”. Revolutionary Girl Utena plays with and breaks down mythic/fairy tale archetypes and shows the anguish that comes when you apply these tropes to real people—this is true for both the Prince and the Princess. Or the Witch. While jamming them into easily-categorised and highly-symbolic roles will help a story along and help with getting its message across, real women have more to them than the archetypes and representative purposes they’re assigned in fiction. Being treated like an object and punished for trying to do your own thing hurts.
The reveal in ‘The Rose Crest’ was a clever dig at the unfair double-binds folklore has been putting girls and women in for time immemorial, and young Utena’s reaction—declaring that she will shake the mythic/fairy tale system up even more to try and save poor Anthy from the suffering wrought by the harmful and ingrained power of story—was an immensely powerful response to that commentary. Must all girls make themselves easy to slot into Princess or Witch, or make themselves amorphous for the purpose of guiding their Hero? The episode ends with Utena saying “no”, and it’s revealed that (whether or not she remembers it fully) her true quest, the true quest of Utena the Hero and Utena the show, has been to rescue girls from the pain of being stuck in a patriarchal fairy tale. It’s particularly telling that this rescue can only be achieved by breaking the entire system, and particularly powerful how Utena maintains that it’s something worth fighting for until the very end.