How Princess Tutu shatters the “rival” trope

By: Stephanie Gertsch May 9, 20180 Comments
Rue holding a piece of Mytho's heart

CONTENT WARNING: brief discussions of assault and emotional abuse.

SPOILERS: Detailed discussion for the entire Princess Tutu series; references to early events from orange and Princess Jellyfish.

Rivals! If a plucky but ordinary girl has eyes for the best boy in school, chances are she’ll have to face off with a mean hot girl who inexplicably wants to get said boy in her clutches. Where did this girl come from? Why is she so obsessed with this one dude? Who cares, as long as she gets what’s coming to her for interfering with the main character’s love life. There’s only room for one princess in a story!

Since the rival trope goes back to fairy tales, it’s no surprise that the Frankenstein’s monster of fairy tales, Princess Tutu, involves a pair of dueling princesses. But as the rules of the story break down, the designated rival becomes so much more: a strong and loving young woman, a good friend, and the heroine of her own story.

The female rival appears often across a wide variety of media forms, including anime. While her individual characteristics may vary, she can be identified in the wild by her beauty, confidence, and obsession with the heroine’s man.

In orange, the character of Ueda Rio pops up only to bully Naho and show how sweet and put-upon the heroine is. Rio asks out main boy Kakeru early on, but the relationship sours due to her jealous and controlling ways, and Kakeru later admits he only dated her because of her looks. We are not meant to sympathize with Rio for getting dumped, and her attempts to win him back become increasingly cringeworthy.

Ueda gripping Kakeru's arm. caption: Yeah, there's nowhere to go around here. I'm so bored.

In Princess Jellyfish, land shark Inari Shoko has built her career on seducing businessmen. Shoko is the woman the fujoshi cast fears the most: successful, feminine, confident, and sexy. In order to manipulate Shu, the protagonist’s crush, Shoko drugs, strips, and takes compromising photos of him while he’s unconscious. As Shoko wrangles Shu along on various dates, he spend all his time daydreaming of a storybook life with Tsukimi, a shy girl who becomes gorgeous via free makeovers but lacks the skill and confidence to use makeup and stylish clothes otherwise.

In all these shows, the main girl has incredible difficulty admitting her feelings and straightforwardly asking her crush out. She attracts the guy’s attention without seeking him out. While “be yourself” is good advice, passivity becomes an issue when overused as a narrative device, and it’s always contrasted with a controlling, aggressive rival.

Often there is a helplessness to the main girl, prompting the main guy to want to rescue her. The rival can unwittingly contribute to this factor by playing the bully. The irony is that by making the heroine seem small and pathetic, the rival only increases the heroine’s romantic appeal.

Ueda looking on in horror as Kakeru comes to the aid of the protagonist

While the rival is conscious of her own beauty and cultivates it deliberately, the heroine perceives herself to be ordinary until/unless she receives a makeover from her friends. Physically, the rival will usually have smaller eyes and a deeper voice than the heroine. Her clothing will be sexy rather than girly or cute. For contrast, she may have the opposite hair color—blonde versus brunette or vice versa.

These archetypes hold up a passive, childlike version of femininity as the ideal for girls. They are to be attractive and charming but must not be conscious of their own power. They should seek to be noticed by boys rather than doing the noticing and acting on it. They should appeal to a boy’s ego by needing help, not stroke their own egos by taking charge of their own beauty and charm.

The traits of the female rival are more traditionally masculine, and there are many male characters who also declare interest in a woman who initially responds with indifference or outright hostility. They may escalate into stalking, seduction, and manipulation to win her over. However, these characters are usually the protagonists, and the behavior is seen at worst as immature or clueless rather than malicious. In shoujo romance, it’s not uncommon for male leads to be playboys or employ seduction to get at the heroine.

Rue staring at Mytho from behind him

Manipulation isn’t a good look regardless of gender, but certain positive or neutral traits such as confidence, persistence, and sexual experience usually increase a male character’s value, but decrease a female character’s. The audience is conditioned to see men in the pursuer role and women as admiring from afar and responding to men’s advances.

In Princess Tutu, the main character Ahiru (or “Duck” in the official English translation) begins life as an ordinary duck. Because of her pure love for the mysterious boy prince Mythos (and with some literal story magic), she receives the power to become first a human girl and then the magical dancing Princess Tutu to restore pieces of the prince’s shattered heart.

Although she works tirelessly for the prince’s happiness, she considers herself unworthy of him—all the more so since Rue, the most talented and popular girl in ballet school, has already claimed him as her boyfriend. The show first sets up a traditional rival character and then, by slowly revealing the rival’s humanity, questions the audience’s initial assumptions that women must compete with each other for love and that certain women deserve love while others do not.

Princess Tutu extending her hand

From her very first moment on screen (accompanied by a black swan), Rue is marked as a rival. While Ahiru is an adorkable klutz pre-transformation, Rue is admired by the other girls for her exquisite dance skills. Ahiru has round blue eyes and bright red hair, while Rue has wavy brown hair and narrow eyes with long lashes. Although both wear the school uniform, Rue wears a red dancing dress, not the usual pastel leotard.

When the girls transform into their respective magical girl forms, Ahiru’s dress is white and fluffy, showing only a small amount of cleavage, while Rue’s is black and full of sharp edges, with a plunging neckline. The viewer knows this person is up to no good and is going to go down so Ahiru can get her happy ending.

Ahiru is clearly the underdog: failing in class, socially awkward, and perpetually clueless. She stresses out over having even a normal conversation with Mythos (luckily, the plot keeps throwing them together). She only catches his eye when she transforms into her magical girl alter ego. An unassuming and innocent Cinderella, Ahiru has no power of her own but fights for the prince while expecting nothing in return.

By contrast, Rue starts out confident in herself and in full control of her power. She mastered ballet by years of work, not magical intervention. She lays claim to Mytho as her boyfriend, speaking his feelings for him when he cannot access his emotions. She puts down Fakir with biting sarcasm when he tries to interfere with her relationship.

Rue is also crafty. When another student challenges her for both her slot in the advanced class and Mythos’ love, Rue proves her skills by dancing a graceful pas de deux with the most clumsy dancer in the school—Ahiru. She knows what she wants, can get what she wants, and will dispose of anyone in her way.

Rue and Ahiru staring in opposite directions

However, the show complicates this heroine/rival narrative early on in subtle ways. Although Rue is often confused by Ahiru’s desire to be friends, she does slowly warm up to the other girl. Notably, in Episode Four, Rue steps up in a big way by challenging the antagonists of the week in order to save Mythos.

Although Tutu ultimately saves the day, Rue is the first of the two girls to take action, and without any supernatural powers either. It’s rare to see a rival putting herself in danger to do something selfless; her character should be established as selfish and unfeeling as early as possible. But in these early episodes, we are being influenced in subtle ways to see Rue as a complete person and not merely as a foil.

Yet, like all rivals, Rue sees her love drifting away from her. As Mythos begins to regain his feelings, he neglects his long-time girlfriend and becomes fascinated by the mysterious Princess Tutu. By expectation, this section should focus on the rivalry between the two girls and develop Rue’s jealousy insofar as it is a threat to Ahiru. Instead, Rue has a lot of screen time by herself as she starts transforming into the evil crow princess Kraehe—a role she neither had from the beginning nor immediately accepts.

It would be more simple from a narrative standpoint to pull a “twist” where Rue was Kraehe all along and was faking her friendship with Ahiru. Showing Rue afraid and confused over turning into something else yet ultimately giving in to jealousy complicates the story because it means the rival’s evilness is not a given.

Ahiru smiling at Rue

Usually, the rival’s point of view is not fleshed out because she’s meant to be a character for the audience to hate, not to sympathize with. Typical rivals like Rio Ueda appear fully formed, already manipulative and cruel, and determined to get the one man the heroine wants.

Orange would be a different story if it included scenes of Rio being drawn to Kakeru’s smile, Kakeru constantly talking about Naho while on dates with Rio, or Rio being genuinely hurt when her classmates turn on her. The more interior life a rival has, the less effective she is because ultimately, for the story to work, the audience has to believe that the rival’s feelings are not real and do not matter.

In Episode 13, Ahiru and Rue’s rivalry comes to a head in a dance-off where both girls compete for the prince’s attention Rue uses all her craftiness and theatricality to stack the odds against Ahiru/Tutu. Yet Tutu dances a partnerless pas de deux so beautifully sad that the zombified Mythos regains consciousness and chooses her over Kraehe, who glides away into the shadows, dejected. She says, “No matter what I do, my feelings don’t reach him.”

What Princess Tutu shows us is that both roles are unfair. Obviously, Ahiru suffers because she feels ordinary and inadequate. While most heroines are too shy to speak their love, story rules dictate that Ahiru will literally disappear if she ever declares her love.

Rue covering her face

However, Rue is in a terrible position as well. After working for years to earn status as a dancer and Mythos’ attention, she loses on both counts to a newcomer who just happened to receive superpowers. The heroine must patiently endure until she is finally rewarded with love, but no matter how much the rival tries, she will never be worthy of love. As Drosselmeyer (the narrator/puppet master) notes, “The second princess is a princess who isn’t loved no matter how much she confesses her own love.”

Although Rue is sympathetic, she’s not merely a victim. She does bad things, most notably poisoning Mythos with raven blood on her father’s orders. Under the influence of the blood, Mythos becomes cruel and starts turning into a raven himself. Rue stays by his side, eventually coming to regret her decision and to see how her father used her. All the while, both Evil!Mythos and the raven mock her and tell her that no one else would ever love her.

These statements hurt because, when applied to rivals, they’re true. Rivals are essentially unlovable and unable to get a relationship if they don’t resort to underhanded tactics. At best, they’re only attractive on a superficial level. The unraveling of Rue’s past explains a great deal about her character: a young orphan, mocked by the raven as a “pitiful human,” she only found happiness when dancing with Mythos. This is why she held onto the relationship so tightly, even at the cost of his happiness.

Ahiru looking at a sad Rue

It would be easy to say that Rue brought misery on herself with her jealousy and possessiveness, and that she deserves her abusive father and boyfriend. She says to Ahiru, “You’re thinking this serves me right, aren’t you? Go ahead and laugh at the foolish girl who got tricked by a raven.”

However, Ahiru doesn’t accept this. She refuses to leave her friend in trouble and enlists her help to restore Mythos. Ahiru can be naively optimistic: To her, the sad Mythos, the gentle Fakir, and the kind Rue are all the real versions, no matter how cruel those people act at times. Even so, Ahiru’s faith gives each of these characters the chance to become better versions of themselves. Even though Rue has opposed her as Kraehe, Ahiru still wants to be her friend.

Finally, when Mythos is about to be eaten by the raven, Rue offers herself up in his place to undo the curse of the raven’s blood and save him. Her ability to confess her love turns from a liability into an asset: only Rue could run down a street into a raven army screaming “I love you” at the top of her lungs.

This scene completes Rue’s arc in two ways. First, it shows how she has overcome her original fault of being so desperate for love that she would hurt other people to get it. Second, her actions draw on her passionate intensity. While she has gained some of Ahiru’s heroism, the two girls still have very different personalities. Rue acts while Ahiru is frozen in indecision (although later Ahiru does find her own strength as an ordinary duck). No longer competing, both girls help save the town.

Rue being carried off by ravens

At the end of the series, both an ordinary duck and an ordinary human grow beyond their story-determined roles and find their own happiness. Both their endings break story convention.

As part of this shift, the love triangle becomes less and less important during the second half of the show. Rather than “winning” the prince and getting a permanent makeover to princess status, Ahiru embraces her duckness and ends up with someone who likes the real her just fine. Rue, after pursuing Mythos for years, making some big mistakes, and finally trying to repair them, becomes the princess of her own story.

Ahiru receives deserved praise as a sensible heroine who refuses to engage in girl-on-girl hate, but Rue is an extremely subversive character as well. Even pre-redemption, Rue is a delightful character with confidence, intelligence, drive, and theatricality. She is the perfect complement to the innocent and spunky Ahiru.

However, she also develops into so much more than a rival. The story builds a character the audience is conditioned to dismiss and then flips expectations by diving into her motivations and perspective.

Rather than functioning as a simple foil to give the plot more drama, Rue has a complex interior life. Unlike most rivals, she gains insight into her flaws and makes amends. We see a rival neither humiliated nor sidelined, but given a story arc of her own—all without losing the boldness and romantic forwardness that made her a distinct character in the first place.

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