My Fave is Problematic: I’m in Love with the Villainess

By: Caitlin Donovan March 6, 20240 Comments
Rae leans in to kiss a surprised, blushing Claire

Content Warning: Discussion of sexual harassment, queerphobia, transphobia

Spoilers for the I’m in Love with the Villainess light novels

Inori’s I’m in Love with the Villainess series offers a delightful queer twist on the “reborn as the villainess” genre. Office worker Ohashi Rei is reincarnated as Rae Taylor, the protagonist of her favorite otome game—however, Rae has no interest in romancing any of the male love interests. She’s head over heels for the game’s snooty villainess, Claire Francois, and makes it her mission to stay by Claire’s side, protecting her from the tragic fate she knows lies at the end of Claire’s storyline in the game. Claire, for her part, is horrified that the target of her bullying is now not only infatuated with her, but openly enjoying said bullying. 

I’m in Love with the Villainess starts out as a silly isekai romance but grows into a story that earnestly advocates for queer people, taking on complex subjects like homophobia, transphobia, and classism. However, the story’s reliance on messy tropes can sometimes muddle its messages.

Tired Tropes vs Queer Advocacy

Rae enthusiastically requesting that if Claire wants to step on her, she do it harder

Rae is an openly gay protagonist and she really wants her mean girl crush to step on her. This brings some laughs while being relatable to a lot of queer women, myself included. But, unfortunately, Rae’s behavior towards Claire often crosses over into sexual harassment. Rae doesn’t take Claire’s “no” for an answer. She insists on following her around and declaring her love despite Claire’s repeated requests she stop. She even becomes Claire’s maid against her wishes, and most indefensibly, takes advantage of that position to ogle Claire as she changes clothes. The changing scene is by far Rae’s worst moment, and her behavior settles down a lot after that. As Claire realizes her feelings for Rae, their relationship deepens. But it’s still an example of the tired storyline where an overly pushy love interest repeatedly disregards boundaries, but wins the girl over in the end.

Rae explains that gender DOES matter for her, and she wouldn't fall in love with a man

It also clashes with the series’ more sincere exploration of queer issues. One early stand-out moment is when Rae is asked point-blank if she’s gay. Another character comments that Rae must have just happened to fall in love with a woman, because gender doesn’t matter when it comes to romance. Rae corrects her, stating gender is relevant to her as a lesbian and she will never fall in love with a man. “Our love simply transcends gender” or “I’m not gay, this one person is just an exception” is a trope that was often used in manga and anime, especially in the ‘90s and ‘00s. It erases any acknowledgement of queerness from a queer romance. It’s been slowly falling out of favor in recent years as animanga has shifted to openly discussing queer identities, though some stories still indulge in it. It’s nice that the narrative gives Rae the opportunity to push back against this attitude and point out how it erases her as a lesbian.  

Likewise, the same scene calls out the prejudiced assumption that queer people are all predators. When Rae confirms she’s gay, Claire moves away from her, saying she’s afraid of what Rae will do to her. Claire’s attitude is called out, and the narrative unpacks why this social idea (and storytelling trope) is offensive.

Rae in her old classroom. "I've almost never had anyone I loved return my feelings."

It’s great to see a fun isekai rom-com discuss queer issues so seriously. It’s a moment that connected with me and many others. But calling out the predatory gay stereotype is unfortunately very muddled by how the series routinely plays Rae’s harassment of Claire for comedy. Claire has every right to feel uncomfortable around Rae, so it’s bizarre to have her called out for thinking Rae might do something to her.

To be fair, this is acknowledged by saying that Claire has a “right to distrust Rae because of the things she does and says” (vol. 1). The scene is more focused on contesting Claire’s assumption that a lesbian will automatically hit on every girl she sees. But that message would have been clearer if someone besides Claire had been interrogated on why they think Rae would be interested in them. After all, Claire knows Rae is interested in her. As it is, it can come off as if Claire only has a problem with Rae’s behavior because of her internalized homophobia, even though that likely wasn’t the intention of the scene.

Lene telling Rae that "homosexuality is not the only kind of forbidden love."

The sincere message about prejudices clashing with Rae’s comedic sexual harassment is a consequence of how I’m in Love with the Villainess indulges in a lot of well-worn tropes, including fraught ones. An example is when it busts out an incest story line. Tragic incestuous stories were once much more common in yuri, stretching all the way back to Dear Brother. Villainess hearkens back to this with a plot twist where some side characters are revealed to be in an incestuous relationship. They are treated as tragic and sympathetic because their love cannot be accepted by society; in the anime Rae even says “homosexuality isn’t the only type of forbidden love,” which directly equates queer sexuality and incest. This is something that bigots often do to stoke hatred of gay people, so it’s incredibly uncomfortable to have this rhetoric voiced by the lesbian protagonist. 

The novels also do this even more indirectly, as Rae wishes people could be free to love who they want while seeing the siblings off, equating their situation to her own. This is definitely one of the most alienating elements of the first two novels, and the only saving grace is that Inori doesn’t show much interest in depicting the siblings’ relationship in detail.

Complicating the Comedic Lesbian

A smiling Rae thinking "making jokes and laughing it off is the only way I can get by."

However, Villainess can also give shallow tropes some interesting depth. The series isn’t just content to have Rae be a comedic lesbian character, but explores the societal pressures that shaped her. Rae is well aware she’s playing into some stereotypes with her over-the-top behavior, yet treating her own queerness as a joke is the only way she feels she can protect herself and still be open about her sexuality. 

In Volume 1 of the series, Rae talks about how “when you’re queer and you fall in love with someone who can never respond to your feelings in kind, they often still behave more intimately with you than they would with someone of the opposite sex. But after the moment you realize you’re in love with them, that just makes them feel even further away. If you run into this problem again and again[…], you might become the kind of person who can only helplessly laugh the whole thing off.”

Rae goes out of her way to avoid this loneliness tainting her relationship with Claire. She acts over-the-top partly to keep a distance between them, so it doesn’t hurt so much when Claire rejects her. After all, this way, Claire will be rejecting her because she’s weird and annoying, not because she’s gay. 

This doesn’t excuse Rae’s behavior, but it does make her very interesting. Rae’s character arc is about realizing her love isn’t doomed to be unrequited forever just because she’s queer. She realizes she is capable of giving Claire a happy life. She slowly learns to be more earnest in expressing her love, but never quite loses her goofy side. It’s a touching arc that highlights a lot of the messy struggles queer people can go through.

Lesbian Geeks and Transformative Fandom

Rae remembering the fanfic/doujin she wrote about Claire

One of the main draws of I’m in Love with the Villainess is the fun escapism and lesbian wish fulfillment it offers. Rae feels like an authentic representation of a lesbian geek. She engages in behavior familiar to a lot of queer fans in how she enjoys and transforms a story that’s not aimed at her. She ignores all the male characters she’s “supposed” to like to obsess over the cute mean girl who’s hated by the fandom. One of the scenes that hooked me on the novels is when the game’s menu screen shows Rae the option to be saved by one of the three male characters. Rae rejects this, literally willing a “Claire” option into existence. It’s a perfect example of how gay fans can rewrite narratives that originally made no space for them to include queerness. 

In fact, Villainess stands out among isekai because the story pays attention to transformative fandom and fan culture. In her previous life, Rae responded to Claire’s tragic fate by writing doujinshi where Claire rises from the ashes and becomes a legitimate villain conquering the world. It’s the epitome of “I don’t want to fix her, I want to make her worse.” Rae doing deep-dive research for her fanfic is also the most convincing explanation for an isekai protagonist knowing every facet of the story I’ve ever seen.

princely Rae princess-carrying Claire

Rae’s engagement with fandom, especially yuri fandom, is also shown to be vital for her journey in accepting herself as a lesbian. When she was a preteen struggling to accept her sexuality, a yuri light novel series helped her. Describing the novels, Rae states “[The main character’s lesbian upperclassman] was always there to validate the main character’s feelings, explaining to her that same-sex love wasn’t a sin. The main character resisted at first, but she slowly came to accept herself. Reading her journey, I felt like my own feelings were being affirmed alongside hers” (vol 2).

It’s a touching example of how queer media can validate someone who’s struggling. Rae even deals with the disappointment of her favorite lesbian in the series dying, by writing a new fanfic where the character gets to confess her love. The fanfic then gives Rae the courage to confess to her own crush. It’s a very sweet example of how transformative fandom can encourage marginalized fans to express themselves. 

Color Manga page of Claire reflected in Rae's eyes

Rae also feels like an authentic fan because she doesn’t just uncritically love every aspect of the game she’s transported into. In an accurate representation of how fans often nitpick things they love, she constantly snarks about how Japanese traditions have made it into this European setting because the developers were Japanese. And most interestingly, she’s even bothered by the original game’s transphobia. She explains that the game includes a curse “that made a person appear as a gender other than their true one, and Revolution used it for comedic leverage. This frankly troubled me a bit, given some of my personal experiences [with trans people].” Yes, it turns out Rae herself understands what it’s like to have a problematic fave. If she were real, we might be seeing a passionate article about Revolution from her on Anifem!

Trans Joy and Trans Tragedy

One big reason that Rae feels so authentic as a lesbian geek is that the author is one herself. Inori, the creator of I’m in Love with the Villainess, is a trans lesbian, and this “own voices” aspect of the story is another reason fans find this series special. Inori is also clearly invested in using her platform to advocate for both gay and trans people, and directly confronts homophobia, transphobia, and queer stereotypes in the narrative.

I’m in Love with the Villainess advocates passionately for trans people. In the second novel, it’s revealed that a side character previously treated as male, Yu, is actually a girl. Her mother changed her sex through a magic spell to force her to live in a body she feels uncomfortable with and to present as male. But she wants to be able to live freely as a girl. 

Princess Yu
Yu reveals her true gender

In Volume 2, Yu’s girlfriend, Misha, explains, “Everyone sees Yu as a boy, but she’s a girl. Growing up, she was eternally confused. There was a gap between us—between what Yu knew to be true and what everyone else saw.” Yu’s friends help her come up with a plan to help her escape her abusive mother and live openly as the girl she truly is. When Yu announces to everyone, “Yes, I am, in fact, a girl. I will no longer lie to you, or to myself. I wish to live out the rest of my days as my true self, the girl you see before you,” it’s exhilarating and triumphant.

Yu’s situation is a take on the magical sex change, or TSF, story. But Inori complicates the wish fulfillment of such a story by textually comparing Yu’s fantastical situation to trans people experiencing gender dysphoria. Rae directly explains to the audience, “Being queer in my previous life, I had met people with all sorts of queer experiences. A number of those people had struggled with gender dysphoria, and some had found wellness and peace in changing their mode of dress, or taking hormones, and other such things” (vol 2). She even goes on to directly advocate for trans people to receive better medical support, impressing upon the audience how important this is: “Even treatment aimed at merely alleviating [gender dysphoria] symptoms can be absolutely critical, even lifesaving” (vol 2).

character sketch of adolescent Misaki
Preteen Misaki’s character design in the manga

The reason Rae is so passionate about helping Yu live freely as a girl is because of her experience with a friend in her previous life. Rae reveals that her friend and former childhood antagonist, Misaki, confided in her about being a transgender man after they reconciled in college. Misaki eventually committed suicide. In Volume 2, when Rae laments that “the world… Misaki’s parents blamed him. They called him weak, said he was wrong to feel how he did. […] I don’t ever want that to happen again. After they’re gone, it’s too late,” her grief is palpable. It’s surely a grief the author herself shares over the suffering of trans people in a word that is often horrible to them. Inori is clearly trying to impress on her audience how important giving trans people support is, and it’s not my place to debate her right to explore trans tragedy alongside trans joy.

  But it’s also undeniable that depicting a suicide to illustrate this point could cause serious discomfort to trans readers. And though Inori does flesh out Misaki somewhat, it is unfortunate that the character mostly functions as a troubled antagonist, and then a tragic symbol. It would have been great to see him as a fully realized character. The English translation also muddles things further, since Misaki’s true gender being a plot twist also means Rae inexplicably misgenders her dear friend before the reveal.

Inori does mitigate Misaki’s tragic ending a bit by including a section in Volume 4 where Rae and Claire rescue a trans woman from transphobic prosecution, and help her access the same “crosswise curse” that tormented Yu so she can change her own sex. Inori makes it clear her world has a happier tomorrow in mind for trans people.

The Power of Unsubtle Storytelling

Misha asking if Rae is "what they call 'gay'"

I’m in Love with the Villainess is often blunt as a sledgehammer, but that might be exactly what makes it connect so much with fans. A writer more concerned with subtlety wouldn’t have Rae literally turn to the camera and explain what gender dysphoria is and how Yu’s situation is a metaphor for this. Yet the story so directly making these connections and advocating so clearly for trans people is exactly what makes it so important to fans. Inori knows these issues are vital, so she doesn’t want anyone to misunderstand what she’s saying. 

She also doesn’t allow homophobes and transphobes to feel comfortable reading her work. She directly calls out potential homophobes in her audience with lines like “Japanese people will happily indulge in gay or lesbian media, but the moment they learn a queer person is actually among them, they act as appalled as any conservative” (vol. 5). An example of how Villainess filters out homophobes and transphobes can be seen in the Crunchyroll comments for Episode 3 of the Villainess anime where several commenters expressed disgust this show about two girls in love dared discuss LGBTQIA+ issues. “It was a cute yuri, now it’s just gay,” one commenter snarls with a complete lack of irony. Inori gives fans who are happy to enjoy lesbians as a fantasy but whip out the slurs the second a gay person talks about prejudice a rude awakening. She makes it clear this story is not for them. Inori taking a stand like this and challenging her audience is invaluable. 

Viva la Revolution!

Claire asking in horror if she'll have to wait on people at the cafe. Rae is unimpressed

This same challenging attitude extends to other themes in the story. Inori makes it clear her story very much sympathizes with the marginalized and has her heroes fight for social change. This is especially refreshing to see in isekai, when there’s been a huge trend of justifying protagonists buying slaves. In contrast, Villainess depicts the heroes fighting to help the marginalized. While Rae’s first priority is always Claire, she also constantly advocates for social change. She directly confronts the church about their homophobia in Volume 2, she’s a passionate trans ally who goes all out against transphobic authority figures, and she gently challenges Claire on her classism several times. Granted, Rae’s desire to help Claire see the struggles of the common people is partly to avoid Claire getting guillotined, but it’s clear Rae also sincerely believes the cause is just. 

Classism is often treated as a character quirk or set dressing in villainess stories, but I’m in Love with the Villainess seriously engages with it. Claire’s slow arc of unlearning classism is satisfying. She genuinely comes to passionately fight for the commoners and willingly gives up her status as a noble. Villainess also occasionally shows a deeper understanding of poverty than  many stories, recognizing that “Poverty is evil. And our politicians are neglecting those citizens who live in this wicked condition. In other words, the flaw lies in the system itself” (vol 2).

Rae and Claire dressed as fencers in an Utena homage

That said, the actual depiction of the commoner’s revolution does leave something to be desired. Despite the story showing understanding of the systemic nature of poverty, it quickly becomes more concerned with delivering plot twist after plot twist about the warring factions. The resolution of the storyline focuses on defeating an evil mastermind who’s been secretly pulling the strings. Everyone agrees to transition to a constitutional monarchy way too easily and this gets a lot less attention than the action packed fight against the villain. Rae is the only main player in the revolution who is a true “commoner,” as even the leaders of the commoner movement are revealed to be disgraced former nobles. It feels like Inori wasn’t sure how to tackle such a complex issue while keeping the story exciting, so it became an action hero battle against a one-dimensional villain.

The Eternal Tragedy of the Single Season Yuri Anime

The successful commoner’s revolution is an important element of Villainess, which is why it’s disappointing that anime-only fans won’t get to see it. The anime also stops just before the exploration of trans issues that Villainess is known for. It seems unlikely the anime will get a second season, considering even the first season wasn’t given a lot of resources. A comparable isekai yuri anime, The Magical Revolution of the Reincarnated Princess and the Genius Young Lady, got a smart adaptation that cut down on the source material’s repetitive elements. In contrast, the Villainess anime spent a lot of time on the neverending student duels rather than focusing on the core relationship elements fans were there for. We only see a hint of where Claire and Rae will end up.

Rae and Claire with two small children of their own

This is a shame, because Claire and Rae’s happy ending is another thing that makes Villainess special. The story acknowledges that social change isn’t always immediate, so while Rae and Claire put forth arguments for gay marriage to the kingdom’s politicians, it isn’t legal yet. This is clear send-up to the continuing fight for gay marriage in real-life Japan. But Rae proposes to Claire anyway. They live happily as wives and they are recognized as such by everyone around them. They also adopt children and are genuinely wonderful mothers to them. This is heartwarming and affirming, especially considering the continuing struggle gay couples face when adopting in Japan. The second novel’s “happy ending” also isn’t a true ending. There’s three light novels after that, and they all depict Claire and Rae as a stable, adult married couple who’ve created a wonderful family. It’s nice to see the couple’s adult domestic life, which is usually just an epilogue for yuri series starring teens.

Rae and Claire sharing a kiss at their wedding

I’m in Love with a Villainess is full of questionable tropes, uneven writing, and muddled execution. But its earnestness and heart shines through. Some of its fumbles are even endearing. The story’s blend of indulgent wish fulfillment and straightforward discussion of overlooked LGBT issues is exactly what makes fans fall in love with it. It’s not a perfect series, but if you can deal with its rough patches, you might find a rewarding, charming story filled with queer joy.

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