Maria the Virgin Witch and Compulsory Sexuality

Trigger Warning for discussions of sexual violence.

2015 in anime started off right, with an unusually strong winter season. The winter season is usually the dumping-ground for bad light-novel adaptations and harem fanservice, and sure, there was plenty of that. But even before that got off the ground, there was strong hype for Yurikuma Arashi, the latest work by Utena and Penguindrum creator Kunihiko Ikuhara (and something I’m sure will get its own post), as well as new seasons for fan favorites like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Durarara!! and Tokyo Ghoul. (One of those supposedly didn’t live up to its hype, but that’s beside the point.) Even among the new stuff this season, there were a lot of strong choices. Unfortunately, all that hype meant some of the best of them were overshadowed for all but the most diehard anime-viewers.

Then again, looking at the way a lot of the Fandom Feminist Internet (and by that, I mainly mean Tumblr) has wildly misinterpreted Ikuhara’s anime that aren’t Utena, I’m kind of glad that they’re not watching Maria the Virgin Witch–another new show with similar criticisms of the patriarchy (but far less trippy symbolism). This show deals directly with female sexuality and society’s oppression of it in ways that aren’t necessarily relatable or comprehensible to the socially awkward, sex-starved nerds who tend to spend a lot of time obsessing over this online. (Speaking as such a nerd myself.) Maria’s protagonist is a victim of something that a lot of these women—and most white, privileged women in the West—don’t often deal with, but is much more common to other women’s experiences, and comes up a lot in anime for whatever reason. That topic is: compulsory sexuality.

maria the vw 2

I was first introduced to the concept of “compulsory sexuality” when I saw it come up a lot as a critique to white straight women’s conceptions of the virgin-whore dichotomy like Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth. Books like hers focus a lot on how much the patriarchy sucks for the women seen as virginal and pure, when they decide not to act that way. Yet, they tend to ignore what it’s like for women on the other end of the equation. When you’re seen as already having “destroyed” your innocence, through sexual or other “deviant” behavior, or you’re born into that category by virtue of being a racial or sexual minority, the purity myth looks very different. Instead of being expected to keep your legs shut at all times, now you aren’t allowed to close them ever. You have to be completely sexually available to men, and if you’re not there’s something wrong with you.

“You’re already a bad girl,” you’re told. “So why aren’t you a bad girl in the way that makes men happy? How dare you define it in your own terms?” It’s another way that society defines women purely in terms of who we are to men, and denies us any kind of sexual agency. Because it primarily affects marginalized categories of women, though, it doesn’t come up in Western media that much. But maybe it works differently in Japan, because it seems to come up over and over again in anime, from Revolutionary Girl Utena to new Lupin III series The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. Of these, Maria is probably the most direct about this topic.

maria the vw 3

Maria is, as the title implies, a witch. And a virgin, having focused all her time and energy on improving her magic. Her fellow witches, her owl sex-demons (yes, really), and…well, anyone who comes to know this about Maria, finds this juxtaposition highly unusual. As a woman who’s already on the outs with the church and its traditional ideas about female sexuality, why hasn’t she popped her cherry yet? Even though Maria is still a young teen, she’s constantly subject to pressure about why she doesn’t just lose her virginity yet. Supporters of the church see this as a way to either win her over to their side, or weaponize her sexuality against her. All this is set against the backdrop of the Hundred Years’ War: Maria is in France, which saw the bulk of the conflict’s death and destruction, and wishes to stop the fighting. Both the church and the warmongers themselves, as well as many local people who rely on both, are opposed to this. Maria is a girl ahead of her time, and her time had swift ways to deal punishment to those who stepped too far out of line that way. Especially women, and especially witches.

Maria’s being a witch is important, given the legacy of the trope in anime and in popular culture at large. “Witches” have long stood as warnings for girls who focus too much on themselves and not enough on domesticity or finding a husband: this is what you will turn into one day. Your power will corrupt you and make you evil, and you will be lonely with no husband or child to love. In anime specifically, the “magical girl” genre was inspired by the American show Bewitched, and many early magical girls were explicitly described as witches. Madoka Magica plays with this by having its innocent, sparkly magical girls corrupt into witches when consumed by the world’s despair (a theme more than a few people have interpreted as a feminist parable about female puberty). But perhaps the most important Anime Witch here is Anthy Himemiya from Utena.

anthy the witch

Utena is all about the patriarchy, and the way that it strictly prescribes roles for men and women, as “princes” or “princesses.” Everyone is either one of these things, or looks up to and wants to be like them. Anthy is the exception: the last woman who tried to usurp the prince role and failed, but less for masculine heroism (like Utena aspires to) and more to protect her brother. She wasn’t either role, but instead, a strange and uncomfortable merging of the two. For that blow against the system, refusal to follow its rules, she became a witch—and is constantly punished for it with the swords eating at her. She is the Other Woman, with no place even in the future her now patriarchy-corrupted brother promises Utena. Even before that finale, she had no agency in the world of Ohtori Academy, and it was all tied in with her compulsory sexuality. She was the spoils of whoever won the duels, and why shouldn’t she be? She was already ruined, so she didn’t get to say no. Anthy could only ever be cast aside in the perfect Ohtori world, ignored or turned into an object. So that’s how she was treated, and she was “evil” and “deviant” either way, and especially when she tried to find some small amount of agency in manipulation of others. (Hell, even the fandom buys into this.)

There are also shades of this type of female character in how Princess Tutu deals with its own “bad girl,” Rue. She is not a witch exactly, but a dark “magical girl” framed against a more “positive” one, as a way to critique these distinctions. Rue is actually very interested in a boy, but in a way deemed as too predatory, obsessive in the wrong ways. So Drosselmeyer casts her as the villain in his story, ignoring the pain in her life that’s made her the way she is. Once again, it’s because Rue doesn’t fit in the ideal world of Princess Tutu’s fairytale. Luckily, Tutu rejects Drosselmeyer’s divisions and reaches out to Rue, and they all find a happily ever after in a newer, more just world.

All of these characters inform Maria, and both our perception of her as audience members, and how she’s treated in our world. She, too, is punished for a strange combination of an accident of birth, and her choice to color outside the lines.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 7.36.20 AM

On the topic of witches, I should say it’s meaningful that this particular feminist critique is set during the Late Middle Ages. Though the Middle Ages in general are often associated with “witch hunts” and burning, it was really only at the very end of the period, moving into the Renaissance, when they became a widespread phenomenon. The publication of infamous witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum in the late 1400s, aided by the recent invention of the printing press, ignited the early modern “witch craze” or at least, spread it like wildfire. Maria is set right before the beginning of this hideous, misogynistic stain on European history, and I can’t help but think the historical placement is intentional. The women who were punished by it were those in similar positions to the witches of Maria’s world and the aforementioned anime worlds: those outside of society, or at least the traditional roles of maiden or wife. As the Reformation spread around Europe and more formerly-Catholic areas turned Protestant, similar ideas were used to attack and marginalize nuns, particularly ones who weren’t so eager to sacrifice even their limited education and authority for rushed, forced Protestant marriages. “Witch crazes” were ammo in both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and for those movements’ discontents.

Of course, the characters’ attitudes toward female sexuality aren’t just late-medieval with regard to witches, but women in general. The period’s great “thinkers” debated whether women were naturally “purer” than men or…get this…”more promiscuous.” And when we were the latter, female sexuality was seen as innately dangerous and predatory. There’s a reason that succubi show up way more in folklore and popular culture than incubi. They were the greater threat, since the people who believed in this stuff saw women as more erotically-driven. After all, women were believed to be less intelligent than men, and therefore more easily tempted by baser desires. It’s a view that shows up in female sexuality through the end of the 18th century, only really going away with the advent of Victorian sexual attitudes…but even that really only applied to privileged women. The “women are more sexual” ideal just went underground, applied only to women society had deemed “degenerate” in another way. In both cases, the “looser” sexuality of women was seen as more reason for men to control them.

maria the vw 1

Of course, one of the reasons why some women do fiercely guard their sexuality is the high personal cost if things go wrong. In the era before widespread contraception and safe, accessible abortions, casual sex was fraught with peril for independent, career-driven women. If you got pregnant, say goodbye to any other goals you might have: your job now was to take care of your baby. It also often meant swift marriage to its father, who legally owned you and controlled your entire life. Society still hasn’t fully moved past this—our society still isn’t comfortable with women who prioritize their careers over raising a family—but it was far worse in Maria’s time.

The show has a useful analogue to this, too: Maria will lose her magical powers when she loses her virginity, thanks to the meddling archangel Michael. This not only keeps her from getting together with the boy she wants (Joseph), but also makes her an easy mark for the church once they learn her secret. Raping Maria shuts her up, and leaves her powerless and no threat to them. Sexual violence has been weaponized against women who step out of line throughout the centuries, but especially in times when effective contraception and safe abortions were nonexistent. It’s a metaphor that hits a little too close-to-home for many women.

So like Penguindrum before it, I can easily see people dismissing Maria’s feminist credentials for that plot point. Sensitively portrayed though it may be, using sexual violence to advance the plot cuts too close for many, and it’s also poorly handled in just about every other show. But to me, that’s all the more reason Maria deserves kudos for getting it right. Maria is indeed a feminist anime, for the poignant and direct way it engages with the pitfalls of female sexuality in a deeply patriarchal culture. It’s a testament to how great this season of anime is that I can say that. We thought we were blessed just by getting a new Ikuhara show, and Yurikuma Arashi has hit it out of the park consistently with its portrayal of lesbian oppression in Japan. For once, though, there’s more than one feminist-minded, woman-centric anime to choose from among currently airing shows. Do yourself a favor and give them both a look.

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Re-posted From Tumblr: Princess Tutu, Media Analysis and Feminism

This is an entry from my old Tumblr (the one I deleted about a month ago). I was requested to make this available again, so I dug it out of my archives and reposted it. I first wrote this on February 5, 2014.


I’ve thought a lot about what frustrates me about social justice conversations about media on Tumblr, and something that Gabbo articulated in response to a post I made about FMA (of course) keeps coming back to me. It’s not just that the social-justice conversations push out every other way of analyzing media – though that’s part of it – but the way people are talking about it. They’re making representation arguments, and not thematic arguments.

Representation and “strong female characters” are important, but it’s frequently a very…surface-y way of looking at a narrative. It’s also primarily a systematic problem, rather than an issue with one particular narrative. Even one or two “badass” female/POC/LGBTQ characters doesn’t necessarily mean a show is overall progressive, which usually has far more to do with its themes. So, you see people using the “representation” argument to completely miss the real point of the story with regard to social-justice narratives…in both directions. There’s plenty of using it to beat up on a fairly progressive story, and using it to applaud a more reactionary one.

But perhaps what’s most frustrating is when those things line up, and there is a good feminist reading to be had but… people won’t talk about other than “it has badass ladies!” Like with anime, I think the only ones where I’ve seen a lot of discussion on how it promotes feminism through its themes are ones where it’s really obvious, like Revolutionary Girl Utena or Sailor Moon. Otherwise, it’s all about “this has great ladies you should watch it because ladies!” which is just the tip of the iceberg.

One such example of this is Princess Tutu. I’ve gone back and forth on whether I consider it a “feminist” anime, since for me, that definition requires actually focusing on issues related to gender roles and sexism, not merely having good female characters. Ahiru and Rue are great, don’t get me wrong, but writing women well and focusing on their stories seems like something we should expect from media, not something that gets you a gold star. But as I’ve delved more into the themes of Princess Tutu in working on my thesis, I’ve discovered there is a lot there to qualify it for a feminist reading. It’s not as explicit as it is with something like Utena, but it’s there.

(ETA: SPOILER ALERT FOR THE ENTIRE SERIES)

For example, there’s the issue of “agency” and how it’s denied to women by a patriarchal society that dictates our choices. I’m not a fan of how the concept gets distorted on Tumblr, as you know, but it is an important issue. Princess Tutu is all about the characters in the story regaining it from the writer who controls them from beyond the grave. Drosselmeyer could easily be read as a patriarchal figure and so the characters’ struggle against him, to be allowed to design their own fates rather than fit into his boxes, is a feminist one. I don’t know if that’s what would argue, since two of those four main characters are male (including the one with the overall least amount of agency throughout the story, Mytho), but then again… someone could counter that saying that Mytho’s and Fakir’s arcs show how patriarchy can hurt men, too.

More of what I’d say would be from the “weaponized femininity” angle: again, another idea that gets distorted a lot on Tumblr, but which I think is pretty awesome when that’s really what’s going on… and I strongly believe that is the case with Princess Tutu. This anime is a truly genuine case of a feminine-coded “compassionate” value system triumphing over masculine-coded “aggressive” one. Ahiru heals people through the Power of Love, expressed through dance. Rue’s crowning moment is about compassion and sacrifice, and about learning what genuine love is and that she is both deserving of it and capable of giving it to others. But it doesn’t end there. Because the thing that makes Princess Tutu really and truly feminist in my mind, and that makes it a shining example of “weaponized femininity” is that this – get this – isn’t limited to the girls!

A lot of what bothers me about how (distortion of) the “weaponized femininity” concept is used on Tumblr is that it is gender-essentialism (so, a type of sexism) dressed up in a progressive veneer. People are so quick to talk about how awesome it is that this or that female character is admirable and courageous but still girly, but still a non-combatant… and ignore that the boys are still being praised and held up as role models for their masculine combativeness. The boys are still marching off to battle while the girls stay home. They’re not praising femininity, they’re praising fitting within your gender role. And that’s not progressive and it’s certainly not feminist, no matter how you slice it.

But Princess Tutu doesn’t do that. Its weaponized femininity, its uplifting of feminine-coded values like compassion and sacrifice and that someone can be a lover and accomplish just as much as a fighter, extends to the boys. It’s truly committed to upholding peace and compassion and creativity, all those things that make up feminine-coded “ethics of care”, over masculine-coded aggression. Both its boys have some shades of this – Mytho can only become the heroic prince through gaining his heart back, after all, and through his friends’ compassion – but the big one here is Fakir.

If it’s not obvious, Fakir is my favorite character in Princess Tutu. I’ve joked it’s because his superpower is writing, which is what I do best, but it’s more than that. Fakir’s arc is about him embracing his identity as a lover, not a fighter, and realizing his talents and abilities matter even if they aren’t the ones that he’s been told they should be. His “place” in Drosselmeyer’s story is as the knight, destined to protect the princess (Ahiru) with his sword. (And die in the process, because Drosselmeyer’s an asshole who doesn’t care if he wastes the potential of the best fucking character in the entire damn story.) But Fakir’s not very good at being a knight, and he doesn’t really want to be one except that he’s told that that’s what he’s expected to do. More or less, Fakir can be read as an example of how boys are hemmed-in by gender roles, too, since the patriarchy tries to force him to be a masculine combatant that he’s just not.

Fakir’s arc in the second half of the show is all about embracing his real talents, which are about creativity. It turns out he has a real knack for writing, and a rare gift that he can change the fates of his friends and himself by putting pen to paper. Ah, there’s that classic adage about the limited power of war and aggression: the pen is mightier than the sword! That’s Fakir. And it’s in using this power that he’s ultimately able to help save Gold Crown Town.

(Oh, and we can also go on about how much he, like Rue, realizes his talents through love – realizes it through his love for Ahiru – but I’m not going to turn this essay into gushing about my OTP. I won’t, I won’t!)

So through Fakir, we see that our culture’s bias toward masculinity and masculine-coded types of conflict-resolution hurts everyone, and femininity and feminine-coded values are presented as liberation for everyone. It’s not about fitting in with gender roles, because femininity is valued across the board. And it is only through embracing that femininity that our characters can fight those trying to destroy and control them, so it is truly weaponized.

I’m not a huge fan of “difference feminism” (where this “promote feminine values” stuff comes from) a lot of the time, but I do agree that the bias against the feminine in our society is a reflection of society’s bias against women, and as such, it hurts women even if they’re more masculine. And it hurts men, too, in how it discourages them from understanding the women around them, and forces them to try to be someone they’re not if they have any feminine qualities. Princess Tutu‘s embrace of femininity as a source of power is, thus, subversive and feminist.

But we never get to talk about this when we make issues of social-justice all about representation. It’s important, but the issue of whether a work as a whole is progressive or not should really come down to its ideas, its themes… what it teaches people. And it’s not only because focusing on representation only can give undue credit to not-so-progressive works, but that we rob the ones that are doing it right of what is truly interesting about them, why they are doing it right. And one of those is Princess Tutu.

That said, even Princess Tutu has way more to it than just how it deals with feminism, and those conversations are getting pushed to the wayside, too. But I have to save that shit for my thesis…

Twelve Days of Anime #3: Writing My Thesis on Princess Tutu, and Finding a Place in Anime Academia

princess tutu mytho duck dance

The second Trigun post is getting delayed a day or two, since today’s a pretty busy writing day for me. That, and I realized I was about to embark on this project without talking about the biggest anime writing project I embarked on this year: my master’s thesis.

As I’m sure you all know by now, I’m a musicologist, and one of my major areas of interest is studying the use of music in film media. I knew from well into last year that I wanted to write my master’s thesis on something related to it, but it was only when I watched Princess Tutu for the first time in summer 2013 that it came to me: I should write it on the use of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in film and television. I’ve been obsessed with his four-opera masterwork since I was in high school, and Wagner’s music and writings have had a huge influence on the art of filmmaking. It’s hardly a new topic, but I’m probably the first to apply it to Princess Tutu.

The brainstorming and preliminary research took me the rest of that year, and the actual work of writing the thesis began for me in February of this year. I finally finished my thesis last month, after endless research, revisions and…oh yeah, 93 pages of writing. (Though, as I said on ask.fm, that was one of the easier parts.)

Not that it didn't feel like this sometimes.

Not that it didn’t feel like this sometimes.

“Anime academia” spreads across a wide variety of fields, but one area it hasn’t really touched down in yet is musicology. My field tends to be a few years or decades behind the times in general—we only really got on the feminist-theory bus around 1990, for instance—and so film/television studies is just now making its rounds as the Hot New Musicology Trend. That means big-name filmmakers are well documented, but there are still a lot of diamonds in the rough to unearth, and that includes anime. Academics studying anime music have written a lot on Studio Ghibli films and Cowboy Bebop, but not much else. Occasionally you’ll find something about anime in a paper on the Japanese pop music industry, which seems to draw more musicological interest than the anime behind so much of J-pop’s overseas following.

That makes it considerably easier to break new ground in talking about something like Princess Tutu than, say, in my thesis chapter on Apocalypse Now. Yet, studying something unknown brings up its own project: explaining why it should be studied in the first place. Why should anyone else care? It’s a cliché for “pop culture” academics to use their papers as an excuse to fanboy/girl all over their favorite thing for an audience, but I didn’t want to do that. No one wants to do that. My thesis was about the ways that new works reflect Wagner’s current reception and interpretations, so hopefully I managed to justify it to stuffy old classical-music snobs who don’t necessarily care about anime. Still, when I presented a paper on Princess Tutu’s music at a conference this past May, my panel was one of the emptier ones I attended.

princess tutu kraehe and tutu

Actually, that’s kind of an unfair way to characterize my field, even if its increasing focus on stuff like film scores, rock music and queer theory has received its fair share of snooty pushback. One of the things I increasingly find is that other musicologists are very accepting of and surprisingly interested in my studies on music in anime. And I don’t just mean other film musicologists, many of whom also focus on so-called “nerd stuff” (one of the new friends I made at AMS this year is writing her dissertation on Star Trek) and are used to raised eyebrows when they talk about their work. Even the people working on more traditional fare seem intrigued, especially when I tell them that the anime I’m studying uses a lot of Wagner, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and other Great Dead White Guys Canonical Masters in ways that comment on that music. Maybe I can show them that anime does have more to it than the “Pokemon and hentai” stereotype, that it can be as artistically-groundbreaking and thought-provoking as any other medium.

Or maybe academically studying anything lends you a degree of authority and respect that distinguishes you from the average fan. Or maybe they really do think I’m just like those 15-year-old otaku jabbering on forums about No Game No Life. Who knows? As long as I get room to make my case, I don’t care if some of the people letting me in are holding their noses. I’m sure I’ll win some minds and hearts over to the idea that what I research and write about has value, and a place in the field of musicology.