In my last post about Revolutionary Girl Utena, I compared Utena to Jesus Christ on the basis of her being an unexpected revolutionary who does, in a sense, break the system she challenges, but not in the way that the other characters (or the audience) expects.
After reflecting on the series a bit more, I realized that there’s a much more obvious parallel: Utena loves Anthy the way Christ loves the Other.
What is Love?
Aside from a plea to hurt me no more, love in Revolutionary Girl Utena is both the romantic kind (subtly between Utena and Anthy specifically) and a much broader kind in which Utena genuinely strives for Anthy’s wellbeing. In other words, Utena loves by acting, although feelings may certainly be involved as well. One of her first acts of love is to challenge the people and the system that treat Anthy as an object, even though Utena doesn’t fully understand what she’s getting herself into. Utena attempts to humanize Anthy again by repeatedly telling her that she doesn’t have to accept being the Rose Bride or being traded around like an object. Anthy, having been so abused and dehumanized, doesn’t seem to get the message until the very end of the series.
What is Other?
But we need to unpack just how otherized Anthy is. For those unfamiliar with the concept of “Other,” it basically describes any individual or groups of people that have been historically and systematically oppressed and marginalized. Its roots are in post-colonial theory and it works on the premise that those who do not fit into the dominant, ruling group are “other” by virtue of “they are not us” or perhaps “they are not human.” This is used in the context of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, ethnicity, mental and physical ability and a host of other intersecting identities and realities. Who are the outcasts? Who are pushed to the fringes of society physically, culturally, and spiritually? Who is despised? These are all Other, people whom Jesus made a point to associate with and call his beloved disciples.
Anthy is clearly despised and subjected to constant abuse, both verbal and physical. She is slapped in the face at least once per episode for several episodes in a row, sometimes in Utena’s presence. Her race makes this disproportionate abuse especially obvious. Anthy is the only dark-skinned student at Ohtori Academy and that, whether or not the characters openly acknowledge it, makes her an easy target. The Nanami Squad™ invents plenty of reasons why they have every right to bully Anthy. She allegedly thinks she’s better than everyone because she’s dating Saionji. She thinks she’s so special because she’s the Rose Bride. Yet it’s that very status as Rose Bride that others Anthy from a different angle: the female one, with “bride” displayed in the series as a traditional, subservient role.
However, the tides begin to shift once Anthy becomes Utena’s bride. Utena resists the idea that she owns Anthy in any way despite Anthy’s contentedness with her situation. The more she learns about Anthy’s condition, the more she realizes that Anthy is safest with her. Utena works within the structure she steps into, but changes the implications of the roles she and Anthy fill. She stubbornly insists that Anthy has a will of her own despite Anthy’s unreadable, gentle smile.
Pale Savior Narrative
Utena’s conception of herself as a prince and her role as the dualist engaged to the Rose Bride feeds her ego a little too much, which she does admit toward the end of the series. Even so, her relationship with Anthy still has the markings of a pale savior narrative. She doesn’t see a chance of Anthy saving herself and becomes Anthy’s prince or savior in her own mind. What makes this more complicated is Anthy’s distinct lack of interest in changing her own situation, but that lack of interest comes from simply not having the option ever presented to her. I don’t think Utena means to treat Anthy as a helpless, unfortunate princess who she must valiantly save, but it ends up happening anyway. Even though her ego does bust in the series, she still attempts to be a prince–to be that savior–in the end.
Utena may be a pale savior, but she’s unsuccessful. She doesn’t actually save Anthy, at least not in the way she expects to, not in a way that most people would consider successful (similar to Christ). She doesn’t get the gratification of seeing Anthy to safety and, in turn, making Anthy dependent on her. She tastes failure and so perhaps the series finale breaks the pale savior narrative.
In the movie, Anthy has a more active role in her and Utena’s escape from Ohtori, but this is marred by how dramatically lighter her skin is. Darker-skinned series!Anthy mostly receives while lighter-skinned movie!Anthy gets more of a balance between acting and receiving.
Salvation and Agency
What Utena does offer Anthy, however, is encouragement and devotion that ultimately makes Anthy realize her own agency. Utena does not actively save Anthy and Anthy is not passively saved. Instead, Utena’s actions are a catalyst that enables Anthy to finally leave Ohtori Academy. Anthy becomes an active participant in her own salvation or liberation.
So, too, is it with Christians. On one level, we do passively receive our salvation, as it’s freely given to us, yet at the same time we actively participate in it not because we save ourselves but because we choose daily to pursue a Christ who has granted us a revolutionary grace. This means stepping out of illusions and realizing that we now have the agency to walk away from toxic circumstances, just as Anthy leaves Ohtori on her own to pursue Utena. When Akio tries to keep Anthy in the same othering position, Anthy now confidently says no.
Part of this world’s fallenness is the reality of othering, systematically and individually. From an intersectional perspective, we all have ways in which we other and are othered. Jesus Christ relentlessly tells us that we are more than how we’ve been othered because he so freely extends his grace and love. When we accept that grace, we become strengthened to extend that same grace and love to the Other. We are not anyone’s saviors, but we do repeat that message. We are called to, like Utena, see who is Other and say, “You don’t have to accept being treated that way. You don’t have to accept being in this situation.”