Fantasies and Nightmares in the Reverse-Harem Genre

By: Dy September 14, 20180 Comments

One of my favorite, uniquely anime genres is the “reverse harem.” Reverse harems center around a female protagonist who has three or more male love interests vying for her affection. Mostly, I love the genre for the romance, but I also find it refreshing compared to its male-oriented counterpart, the harem, which often portrays women as mindless bodies whose only concern is to get the attention of a man who shows little to no interest in them.

While reverse harems often feature well-developed female protagonists, alluring love interests, and sweet romances, they can also fall into more harmful patterns of depicting passive girls trapped in abusive relationships. Typically, a reverse harem shows its best or worst features in how it portrays its female lead, love interests, and romantic encounters.

A group of teens (the Host Club) stand frozen, drained of color and looking shocked. A little blonde girl points at them in the foreground. The subtitles read: "This is a reverse harem!"

Weak vs. Strong Female Leads

Female characters are often stereotypical even when they’re the protagonists, including in reverse harems. They tend to lack agency and lean heavily on other characters’ judgments – usually the male characters – or end up as damsels in distress. Conversely, better-developed reverse harems can have strong female leads who are driven by their own dreams and goals.

For example, the protagonist of the anime Amnesia doesn’t have much agency. An unnamed young woman repeatedly wakes up with amnesia in a different parallel universe on the same day. In each world, she finds herself in a romantic relationship with a different guy. She follows the guy’s lead with minimal to no hesitation and barely any input of her own, so that she comes across as flat and lacking interiority.

Toma and the protagonist face each other. The protagonist has a worried expression, and Toma looks angry.

Even after a traumatic experience she has with the character Toma, the protagonist still lacks her own will and ability to acknowledge how abusive and wrong his actions were. Toma captures the unwitting heroine, manipulates her into believing he’s her boyfriend, and drugs her so she’s unable to leave his apartment.

When she realizes what’s going on, he locks her in a cage against her will. Luckily, she manages to break free, but she concludes that Toma was a kind person who only wanted to protect her instead of seeing him as the abusive person he truly was.

A redheaded young woman looks seriously at the camera.
Yona of the Dawn

Yona of the Dawn, on the other hand, includes a protagonist who develops agency gradually and grows into a strong, competent individual with goals of her own. The series follows Princess Yona on her mission to reclaim the throne after her cousin, Soo-Won, kills her father and takes the crown for himself.

With the assistance of Hak, her bodyguard and childhood friend, she escapes from the palace, but many people lose their lives in the process. As a result, Yona decides she no longer wants to be a burden to anyone and leaves one of the only places she could be kept safe.

At first, she only cares about protecting Hak, the sole person she has in her life, but develops a desire to protect everyone in the kingdom once she learns more about the world outside of the palace and meets her destined warriors (a genre staple). The major turning point in her development comes when she opposes her late father’s doctrine of absolute pacifism by making Hak teach her how to use a bow and arrow.

Given that she’s the true heir to the throne, her decision to disregard a royal decree shows she’s ready to rule and is confident in her own methods above those of the former king. Yona’s transformation from a sheltered child to an independent woman who takes responsibility for herself makes her relatable to the audience and inspires viewers to make similar changes.

A redheaded young woman points a bow and arrow while a young man in dark clothes watches her.

Toxic vs. Healthy Love Interests

A harem wouldn’t be a harem without the love interests. It’s fine when the love interests are genuinely interested in building a relationship with the protagonist. Yet, many reverse harems rely on stereotypes of what girls are looking for in guys, including toxic personality types like the “bad boy.” These perpetuate false narratives that girls should accept being treated badly.

Diabolik Lovers only features toxic love interests. Yui, the heroine, is sent by her father and the church to live with a family of vampire brothers while she waits to become the sacrificial bride of their father, Karlheinz Sakamaki.

A girl with blonde hair leans away from a redheaded man in a hat. She is holding her cheek and frowning.
Diabolik Lovers

Many reverse harems have at least one “bad boy” type, but in this case all six of the brothers exude toxic masculinity. The way they have license to her body and suck her blood whenever and wherever they want, despite her feelings, is clearly coded as rape. Additionally, they berate her, disparage her, and physically abuse her.

Not only is Yui constantly abused, but the three mothers of the vampire brothers end up punished as well. Two of them are killed violently by their own sons for abusing them and one’s fate is unclear after their father locked her in a tower. While they arguably deserved what they got for being the root cause of their sons’ abusive nature, the real problem is that the creator chose to write them so negatively to begin with and then have the male characters punish and torture them.

What’s worrisome is that the series overlooks the wrongness of the male characters’ behaviors and portrays them as heroes. At the end of the first season, they save Yui from their evil uncle who tries to make her into a sacrifice and, in the second season, they rescue Yui from another group of vampire brothers who have kidnapped her. Based on their despicable actions, you would assume they’d be the antagonists, but instead they’re made out to be saviors.

Haruhi sits in a charge and smiles faintly. Roses are imprinted on the screen around her.
Ouran High School Host Club

On the other hand, Ouran High School Host Club has an ensemble of characters who act as love interests but, more importantly, become true friends of the heroine. The titular host club is a group of boys at the uber-wealthy Ouran Academy who entertain girls over tea and hors d’oeuvres. When the heroine, Haruhi, accidentally breaks an expensive vase, they mistake her for a boy and have her to join them to pay off her debt.

Ouran High School Host Club parodies reverse harems and points out the problematic traits of the male character types. Yet despite starting as caricatures of common reverse harem personalities, the boys of the host club become well-rounded, relatable, and likable characters.

After they find out Haruhi is a girl, most of them develop feelings for her, but they always treat her with respect and protect her. With every encounter Haruhi has with each guy, she learns more about them, building a true and healthy bond.

For example, Tamaki, the president of the host club, acts cheerful and carefree, but his rich grandmother split his family apart because his mother was his father’s mistress. At the end of the anime, Tamaki is about to leave for Paris to marry Eclair, a haughty girl who promises to reunite him with his mother.

Haruhi, having bonded with everyone and truly becoming acclimated with the host club, successfully stops Tamaki and convinces him to stay in Japan. Because of the strength of their mutual bond, Tamaki avoids a loveless marriage and Haruhi is able to keep her new host club “family” together.

Assault vs. Romance

As romances, it makes sense for reverse harems to have intimate scenes. The reverse harems that have executed this well have produced beautiful romantic scenes between two consenting individuals, depicting healthy displays of affection. However, many reverse harems often feature “intimate scenes” where the male leads violate the protagonists’ personal space without their consent, leading to harassment or even assault.

Brothers Conflict, is a perfect example of confusing attraction and love. In Brothers Conflict, when Ema’s father remarries, she moves in with her 13 new stepbrothers who don’t waste any time trying to get acquainted with her.

Setting aside the fact they’re siblings, the problem isn’t that they develop crushes on Ema, but the way they express their love. The series itself conflates romance and attraction; each episode begins with a romantic introduction where two brothers confess their love for Ema amidst a colorful background and falling rose petals. However, the behavior within the episodes themselves is far from romantic, as the brothers constantly make unwanted sexual advances toward Ema.

Two young men crowd a young woman with a squirrel on her shoulder. Everybody looks concerned.
Brothers’ Conflict

The brothers pursue Ema immediately after she moves in; they only seem to notice that she’s a woman and have no interest in learning who she is as a person. The writing downplays how most of their attempts to get closer to her are actually harassment, and their focus on a physical relationship causes them to cross the line into assault on a few occasions.

The first brother, Tsubaki, kisses Ema by force and mounts her on multiple occasions, only stopping because someone else walks in on them. Another brother, Fuuto, sneaks into her bedroom and crawls on top of her while she’s sleeping.

A third brother, Natsume, kisses her when she tries to confide in him about something that’s on her mind, but instead of apologizing for the unwanted kiss he just affirms his love for her. Natsume’s desire to get physically close to Ema is more of a priority for him than listening to her dilemma and getting to know her.

After each occurrence, the protagonist simply moves on, even though she was clearly uncomfortable. The brothers’ actions are treated as harmless behavior from feisty boys.

A scene at night. A young woman stands in the foreground, looking thoughtful, while a white-hair man sits in a chair behind her/
Hanasekeru Seishounen

Hanasakeru Seishounen is a wonderful example of a romance done well. A wealthy young lady, Kajika, is challenged to a game by her father where she must choose one of three men to marry that he has secretly selected. Like with Ouran High School Host Club, the protagonist builds a relationship with the male characters and romantic feelings naturally bloom.

Kajika has a natural gift for bonding with people quickly because she’s able to see who they truly are and find a way to relate to them. That personality trait is what causes Lee Leng, Eugene, Ramaty, and Carl to fall in love with her. She puts time into each relationship, getting to know each individual and listen to their hopes and problems, and they’re more than happy to reciprocate.

All of the male love interests treat Kajika and her boundaries with respect, even knowing they’re competing against other men. They express their love by telling her how they feel, caring for her needs, and spending time with her. They are well-mannered and don’t pressure her into doing anything she’s uncomfortable with.

When Kajika has her first kiss with Rumaty, he asks her if it’s okay to kiss her before he does. When another character, Eugene, asks to kiss her, she politely rejects him, and he complies without it hindering their relationship. At the end of the story, she realizes who she’s truly in love with and they confess their feelings to one another.

A group shot of the entire Ouran Host Club, with rose petals flowing in front of them.

When a reverse harem is done right, it can be an excellent vehicle for telling female-driven stories for and about women. With a strong lead and a positive supporting cast that cares for her and respects her boundaries, there is potential for a multitude of inspirational stories. And of course, a number of reverse harems have done that successfully.

Unfortunately, there have been many reverse harems that instead highlight negative stereotypes about women and what they desire. I’m sickened by how often creators portray female characters as weak and submissive, and put them in situations where they are repeatedly harassed and abused.

Going forward, I hope anime studios will take their inspiration from series like Yona, Ouran, and Hanasakeru, and make more stories that emphasize women’s strength, competence, and ability to lead.

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