At this point I am resigned to spending my entire vacation watching horrible things happen around the world and reading analyses of Revolutionary Girl Utena.
And when THAT show is your source of hope in a messed up world, it’s pretty sad.
Don’t get me wrong: I love me some Utena, and I do think its message is ultimately hopeful. But it’s not exactly a series of sunshine and lollipops.
Let me start over.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is one of my all-time favorite stories. It’s an allegorical shoujo anime fairy tale about a nonconforming young woman who decides to become a prince.
The series has it all: roses, fencing, surrealism, comedy, drama, deconstruction, lesbians, literary allusions, visual references to traditional Japanese theater and Western Art History, miracles, shiny things, witches, false memories, storming the castle, smashing the patriarchy…
So it’s pretty much the catalyst of some of my all-time favorite storytelling tropes.
But there are a LOT of content warnings in Revolutionary Girl Utena. Like, a lot. Like, an awful lot.
I’m not going to give a full plot summary, because a) this isn’t a formal essay, b) the series is almost twenty years old, and c) this is the Internet: you can find a summary online easily enough.
But I am gonna be spoiling the heck out of this series—and Episode 39 in particular. There’s also gonna be some general description of physical and sexual abuse (nothing graphic), because it’s kind of impossible to talk about the series as a whole without touching on that part of the story. You’ve been warned.
For anyone who wants a more in-depth description of the series, I’ll give you a minute to go read the Wikipedia page. Got it? Good.
Throughout the series, the characters of Revolutionary Girl Utena speak of the world revolution. For some, the revolution means power; for others, it means a return to innocence. The implication from the opening credits is that, when the revolution comes, it will be in an earth-shattering moment: after a great battle, the castle in the sky will crumble to the ground, and the old world will pass away.
That’s not what happens.
Because in the end, the revolution means something different.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is the story of two women: Utena Tenjou, the girl who decided to become a prince, and Anthy Himemiya, the girl fated to live as the Rose Bride. The story goes that a prince must rescue the damsel in distress, and the Rose Bride shall be his reward.
At first, Utena sees Anthy as a damsel in distress: passive, helpless, in need of protection. Anthy is Utena’s chance to prove herself as a prince. But as the series goes on, the viewer realizes that it’s not that simple.
Because a prince is an ideal that can never be real.
And the Rose Bride was never a prize to be won.
Remember those content warnings I mentioned? Those are important. In fact, they’re kind of the whole point of the show.
By the time the series enters its final arc, we learn that Anthy has been suffering countless centuries of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her brother. Anthy’s brother was once a prince, yet she saw that this one man alone was not strong enough to protect all the damsels of the world. So she sacrificed herself. She became the Rose Bride to protect her brother from harm.
Yet he resented Anthy for her sacrifice, and thus he fell from grace. He became a fallen angel. He controlled Anthy through coercion and force. And the two of them used her powers to manipulate the world according to his will.
Despite all the pain her brother’s schemes cause, despite all the abuse he inflicts upon her, Anthy stays with him. It’s the only life she knows.
Utena understands none of this.
When Utena was a young girl, a man on a white horse came to her in a time of sorrow. She was so impressed by this man, so the story goes, that she decided to become a prince herself. Yet even as she vows to protect the Rose Bride from danger and encourages Anthy to stand up for herself, Utena clings to her memory of the prince.
Utena pushes Anthy to step out of her shell, to make friends, to be social. She pushes Anthy well beyond her friend’s comfort level, and she never stops to ask if she’s going too far.
Eventually, Utena realizes how her efforts to shield and protect Anthy have hurt them both. Utena tried to rescue Anthy without ever knowing the truth about Anthy’s situation or trying to understand Anthy’s pain. And Anthy, for her part, has lashed out at Utena through lies, manipulation, and passive aggression. They’ve both made choices they regret, and they’ve done so because they were part of a broken system: one that strips people of their agency and forces them into impossible categories.
The prince who must rescue every damsel without regard for his own life.
The princess who must become a prize, lest she be branded a witch.
Anthy and Utena learn to accept each other exactly as they are. They reject the categories society has chosen for them, and they forgive themselves for their mistakes. In the climax of the final episode, Utena reaches for Anthy’s hand—not in an effort to rescue Anthy but to help her, to support her, to show her compassion and love.
And in the final moments of the series, Anthy Himemiya—the Rose Bride, the prize to be won; the girl who survived countless centuries of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her brother; the girl who lashed out and lied and manipulated others so that the broken system could continue—makes a choice. She gathers her things. She dons her best outfit. She says farewell to her brother, her abuser, the man she once gave her life to protect.
And she walks away.
Because, you see, the power to revolutionize the world isn’t a grand, forceful thing. It’s much, much smaller than that.
It’s the courage to leave an abusive relationship. It’s the willingness to accept other people for their flaws. It’s accepting yourself as you are and forgiving yourself for the deeds you’ve done. It’s extending that grace to the people around you.
It’s reaching out to support someone in pain, not trying to be the hero who rides in on a white horse to save them. And it’s treating others with genuine compassion.
So if that’s what folks mean by “love wins,” then I guess I can’t fault them for that. I still say you need to go a step further—love the person, flaws and all, not the ideal of the person nor the abstract concept of love.
This week has been rough. I don’t think I need to say why. But just in case, here’s a link to an NPR story.
It’s been rough for me because I’m a gay, cis, white, male, college-educated, Lutheran social justice advocate (and I know I’m gonna get some flack for using the words “social justice” and “advocate” on the Internet, but whatever) with a firm conviction for human rights, diversity, interdependence, and compassion.
It’s been rough because over fifty of my LGBT brothers and sisters—most of them people of color and Latinx folks at that—were murdered or injured on Sunday. It’s been rough because this was a targeted attack: the shooting happened at a gay nightclub on Latin night. This isn’t an Area Homosexual Saves Four From Fire headline, where the adjective is irrelevant and ridiculous; this time it matters.
It’s been a rough week for me because I haven’t seen those stories make headlines. It’s been rough because those stories have been lost in the ongoing clamor about the shooter’s motives and the need for gun control.
It’s been a rough week for me because I was still in shock on Monday when I saw a certain horrible man who is running for president do exactly what I was afraid he would do: turn the blame on “radical Islam” and call for the closing of America’s borders. What’s worse: he did it in the name of the LGBT community.
He cried out for hate, and he did so in my name.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but just for the record, that horrible man does not speak for me. For anyone reading this who has been attacked by the words of that horrible man, regardless of where you come from or what your background is, you are welcome here. I will stand by you as best I can.
It’s been a rough week for me because I was still angry and scared and hurting on Tuesday when I saw the conversation shift entirely to gun control, which was not unexpected, but the bluntness of the shift surprised me. Some of my friends posted memes on Facebook that called for an immediate ban on assault rifles, ammo sales, handguns—all of it. Others posted comments about how responsible gun owners shouldn’t have their rights taken away.
I felt caught in the middle.
In general, I am pro-compromise, pro-negotiation, pro-finding a third way if possible between two extremes. So my normal response would be to say, “Hey, folks, what’s really at stake here? What are we really fighting about? What is each side willing to give up so that we can reach the greatest benefit for the maximum number of people?”
But I am way too fucking tired this week to have that conversation.
I’m tired of watching politicians condemn the crime without acknowledging the victims’ lives. I’m tired of ideologues on both sides use their deaths to push an agenda. It’s not that their deaths are being politicized that bothers me; it’s the fact that the policies being pushed this week do not get to the heart of the issue.
Because we live with this fear every day.
And disarmament, while an admirable goal in itself, won’t end suffering. It won’t end the suffering of queer folk or trans folks or Muslims or people of color or folks who are all of the above. It won’t stop the suffering of folks in Syria and the Middle East. It won’t stop the suffering of folks who choose to lash out at others.
It won’t bring the world revolution.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that gun control alone won’t heal our wounds.
(Though I do think there’s room for compromise on gun control: one that gets to the heart of the issue, one that listens to the concerns of both sides, one that keeps people safe from harm while preserving the intent of the 2nd Amendment.)
(Though I may get some flak for speaking of compromise instead of rallying behind one side or the other—but again: whatever. I’ll deal.)
(And truth be told, at this point, I am so fucking tired of grieving that if it would prevent another mass murder, I would gladly throw my support behind gun control.)
(As long as the victims’ stories—their names, their lives, the people they loved—are not lost in the process.)
I’m also saying that pithy statements like “love is love” and “love wins” just aren’t good enough.
Jay Rachel Edidin’s Twitter/Tumblr essay from earlier this week makes the point better than I can: “love” isn’t in danger here—people are.
“Don’t buy into the HRC love-looks-the-same-for-everyone gentrified queerness. It doesn’t. It shouldn’t have to.”
Queer folks of color, immigrants, Muslims, trans folks, and especially gender nonconforming trans women of color…
That’s what’s at stake here. Not “love”—lives.
THAT’S why Orlando is so terrifying to me and to so many of my queer friends. That’s why we’ve been exchanging quiet, sometimes private gestures of love and support all week long.
We live every day with the knowledge that we could be targeted. It’s not something I dwell on, personally, and I don’t let it stand in my way, but it’s there.
I posted on Facebook on Sunday (and in a blog post from a year ago) that Brandi Carlile’s cover of the Avett Brother’s “Murder in the City” strikes a chord with me because, yeah, that’s a very real possibility. Even in liberal cities like Seattle and Portland, hate crimes happen [edit: hyperlink added 6/28/16] ESPECIALLY against queer and trans folks of color.
“If you’ve never been afraid to hold hands in public, don’t you fucking dare tell me that our love is the same.” (Edidin)
That’s why I’m pissed off that the conversation moved so quickly from the queer Latinx victims and their families to the usual overtures about gun control. That’s why I’m fucking furious at Donald Trump for blowing hot air about radical Islam—with zero regard for the queer Muslims who are suffering as a direct result of that horrible man’s ideology.
That’s why I cannot accept slogans like “love wins” and “love is enough.”
“Don’t you fucking dare tell me that our love is the same.”
Love in the abstract is never enough. Love in the abstract cannot end violence. It’s one thing to say that you “love love,” that you “love humanity,” or even that you “love the gays.”
Forgive me if I doubt your sincerity. In my experience, that’s just not how love works.
Love cannot exist as an abstract concept.
Love doesn’t work as an ideal.
Love is a picture of a puppy posted on a friend’s Facebook wall after surgery. Love is a hastily written postcard from a friend across the world. Love is an in-joke with one’s mother: reaching out to touch fingers like a chimpanzee reenacting the Sistine Chapel. Love is banding together with a community of strangers in a candlelight vigil.
To paraphrase Madeleine L’Engle: love is never abstract; it is always particular (A Circle of Quiet).
Prayers aren’t enough. Thoughts aren’t enough—even love isn’t enough. Not without concrete action. Not without the particulars.
Gestures matter. Before you get angry, before you start calling for policy change, ask yourself: “am I truly supporting the people in need here?”
Am I the prince on the white horse— that toxic, impossible ideal of masculinity that no man can live up to, that symbol of masculine power that casts all women as damsels, witches, or brides?
Or am I genuinely reaching out with compassion and support?
I can’t tell you what to do. I can’t tell you what will make things better. But I can offer advice based on my own experiences.
Listen to folks in the margins. Hear them. Learn from them. Walk WITH them, not FOR them.
“Love the people it’s dangerous to love.” (Edidin)
(I shouldn’t need to list all the folks in that category. If you’re reading this, odds are good you know who is marginalized.)
(And even nonmarginalized folks have their own pain. None of us are flawless. None of us are undamaged. To paraphrase CLAMP, tellers of several of my other favorite stories: I don’t think anyone is truly free from scars. I don’t think anyone is truly alone.)
I don’t know what the world needs right now. I don’t know what will heal our wounds. All I can do is pray, ponder, and philosophize.
And I can act: I can listen, I can offer support, I can reach out my hand to those in pain.
So until things get better, I’ll keep looking for the little ways I can help support others. It’s about the only thing I can do.
“Grant us the power of world revolution.”