Content warning: sexual assault, racism, misogynoir, references to chattel slavery, child abuse (emotional, physical, sexual)
Spoilers for Revolutionary Girl Utena
The first time I watched Revolutionary Girl Utena, I wondered where this anime had been my whole life. As an American child growing up in the ‘90s, I was indoctrinated into anime fandom with the holy trinity of Sailor Moon, Pokémon, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Frankly, what drew me to check out Utena beyond the aesthetics and gorgeous cinematography was that one of the main characters was a Black girl. Anthy’s ethnicity, and by extension Akio’s, is left ambiguous to viewers and is never truly addressed. Whether this is intentional or not, it leaves space for Black and Brown viewers to read their own experiences into her character.
Anthy is a character you grow to understand and appreciate with each rewatch, and not nearly as flat or passive as she’s often labeled by first-time viewers. It’s difficult to assess how long Anthy has been abused since the story can get surreal and dreamlike, but even before her greater backstory is revealed the audience clearly sees Anthy being abused by countless other individuals. What makes this even more difficult to stomach is how little of a reaction this gets from the other characters in the series. The frequency of the abuse, coupled with the fact that both Anthy and her brother, Akio, are the only Black characters in the whole series, made me wonder if there was a larger point Ikuhara was trying to establish. This was when I learned of the concept of Adultification and how this phenomenon not only works against Black and Brown women and AFAB folks in our society today but also contextualizes aspects of Anthy’s story more clearly.
Adultification can be a difficult topic to explain without first defining what childhood is in sociological terms. In An Introduction to Childhood Studies, Mary Jane Kehily discusses how a “child is a biological reality, and yet the concept of childhood is made up of the socialized constructs of adults”. As Kehily describes it, “at the same time, every baby born is born into a social world, a linguistic world, a gendered world, an adult world full of discourse, with complex and contradictory meanings. The helpless and totally dependent human infant, without control or language, is given meaning by adults from the first minute its parent(s) start to interact with it in the context of a wider culture”.
The point Kehily is making is that while it is indisputable that children are children, not every child has the same childhood or experience with being a child. Thus the concept of what childhood means is born from the recollections, memories, and perceptions of adults. Memories, as any neuroscientist (or Ikuhara) will tell you, are not always the most reliable source of information. As we learn throughout Revolutionary Girl Utena, the pivotal childhood experience that inspired Utena’s desire to be a prince was an incorrect memory: she wished to become a prince not because of a prince, but from her desire to protect and save Anthy. Kehily describes this phenomenon: “[memory is] a slippery fish and operates often simultaneously at different levels, arguably being reconstructed over time. Early memories can be affected by later images, narratives, and experiences. Some seem clear, rational, and conscious, while others lurk largely unacknowledged at an unconscious level”.
If you had the privilege of having what is considered a childhood, then you were seen as a child growing up. What happens then, if a child isn’t perceived as needing their childhood by the adults around them?
Adultification is a form of racial prejudice where the children of minority groups, typically Black children, are treated by adults as being more mature than they actually are. This can take many different forms of microaggressions such as putting Black girls into the “strong, Black woman, who doesn’t need anyone” box, which has led to harmful situations like forceful arrests at school for minor incidents. Georgetown University Law Center conducted a study in 2017 and found that the survey participants perceive Black girls as “needing less nurturing, needing less protection, needing to be supported less, needing to be comforted less, being more independent, knowing more about adult topics, and knowing more about sex” as compared to their white counterparts. This perception causes real harm to Black youth on a number of different levels including the education system and the juvenile legal system. This harm can take the form of harsher punishments and greater use of force by officers.
Adultification can be particularly egregious in the legal system as “any single exercise of leniency is necessarily predicated on an initial recognition that the particular child who stands before the court is, in fact, a child”. Unfortunately, Adultifcaton plays out in different ways, particularly against Black girls who experience high rates of sexual abuse and may act out or exhibit their trauma in negative ways that route them into the juvenile justice system instead of them getting the support they need to heal from their trauma. This can then cause a cycle of further abuse and imprisonment, which has statistically and alarmingly led to Black girls making up 33.2% of the imprisoned population. When you also factor in all the abuse these girls went through, in an Oregon research study, for example, 76% are survivors of sexual assault and 63% are also survivors of physical assault.
Another aspect of Adultification is the “fast girl” myth. Young Black girls and AFAB folks are often considered to be “fast” if they are experiencing sexual situations at a young age or even have an interest in romantic partners. Generally, if these youth act or dress “older than they appear” or biologically develop faster than their peers they could be labeled as “looking grown,” and this makes them easily vulnerable to predators. However, this classification has roots in colonialism as Black women and other women of color were often regarded by white colonialists as highly sexualized and were frequently exploited. This internalized stereotyping can make socialized Black women and AFAB folks feel there is something wrong with them because of the body they were born in. Overall, what makes Adultification and its subsidiaries particularly insidious is the sexualization of young Black girls. As Dr. Monique Morris describes it, “[Adultification] stripped Black girls of their childhood freedoms [and]…renders Black girlhood interchangeable with Black womanhood”.
We can then take these lenses and apply them to Anthy’s story. Towards the end of the series, we get the backstory of Anthy and Akio/Dios being huddled together in a cabin reminiscent of early colonial America. There doesn’t appear to be much in the modest home aside from a large pile of hay and a fax machine ratting off request after request for Prince Dios to go off on some heroic mission. He’s clearly overworked and exhausted, but he keeps accepting these requests to help other people. Anthy sees the toll being a Prince has taken on Dios, and in an effort to save him from presumably dying of exhaustion, she faces the angry mob of villagers herself.
There’s a clear distinction between Anthy and the villagers; while the mob is comfortably clothed, Anthy wears only a ragged, red dress. It’s clear that Anthy and Dios are incredibly impoverished and, given the early colonial vibes of their cabin, I can’t help but ponder if these are perhaps subtle indicators that Anthy and Dios are or were formerly slaves. In colonial America, children born of slaves were not exempt from servitude, and in fact, there are reports of children as young as three years old being forced to work. These children were not afforded the luxury of childhood as their owners did not view them as children but as property. They saw them as little adults and treated them horribly.
We could argue over the actual ages of Anthy and Akio/Dios until we are blue in the face, but it doesn’t change the fact that in that flashback Anthy is designed to look like a child. Regardless, Anthy faces the mob down and refuses to give her brother to them—and she is punished for it. The image of Anthy being impaled by the swords is haunting and echoes the violence that can stem from Adultification in the real world. Anthy is further denied agency when the villagers reduce her defiance as “sorcery” and condemn her as the “witch” who stole away their servant.
Anthy is forced to live, seemingly forever, in eternal suffering, an agony she continues to carry during her school life. Even the educational system in the show is structured around Adultification since the faculty at Ohtori Academy are rarely seen and the only disciplinary action that takes place is Saionji’s off-screen suspension. The student body is therefore left to deal with its own problems and, since there isn’t any adult supervision at the school, it mostly operates within the confines of what “society” deems to be socially acceptable. As Edward Morris writes, “Schools not only serve as sites for the construction of race, class, and gender identities[;] they also reproduce existing inequalities in these areas…schools solidify, or even exaggerate, the inequalities children bring with them to school”.
Despite Utena’s rebellious attitude, it’s Anthy who usually experiences the worst of the student body’s frustration. I cannot stress how much Anthy gets slapped throughout the show, especially in the beginning, and there’s also a general socially accepted lack of regard from the other students for Anthy’s well-being that feels… intentional.
How faculty views a child can determine the amount of time and resources dedicated to that child. This can result in harmful reactions to a child’s behavior including harsher punishments. The Georgetown study indicates that in 2013-2014 Black girls accounted for 8% of K-12 enrollment and 13% of students suspended. Additionally, Black girls are twice as likely to be disciplined for dress code violations and three times as likely to be disciplined for disruptive behavior, bullying, and fighting than white girls of the same age.
There’s certainly an air of misogynoir underlying the cast’s treatment of Anthy. Wakaba’s jealousy of her in relation to Saionji, in particular, is the first instance that comes to mind. When Utena asks if Saionji and Anthy are together, Wakaba is incredulous. She even remarks, “Someone as cool as [Saionji] would never fall for HER!”. Now I realize our girl Wakaba has got it bad for Saionji, but still, to me, it feels like a big reaction and statement to make of someone the audience has only seen water plants and get slapped. Even Utena herself is not exempt from the lack of disregard. Take for instance the first time Utena notices Anthy and Saionji, she remarks, “Ah lover’s quarrel, they should do that where no one has to see it”. She’s concerned when the violence escalates, but not concerned enough to go down and do something herself.
Years of repeated trauma push Anthy at fault for her own abuse. Since she was considered a “witch” for so long, Anthy began to behave wickedly behind the scenes, aiding in many of Akio’s schemes. Regardless, it’s hard to see her as entirely complicit in Akio’s actions, given the amount of power he wields over her and her complete lack of other connections before Utena.
The connection between the treatment of Anthy and the treatment of Black girls today is summed up by Dr. Monique Morris: “We’ve constructed ideas about Black girlhood in our contemporary consciousness and public discourses that really relegates Black girls to a space of both not being a good girl because they’re masculinized and/or present themselves and express in ways that have typically been associated with masculine identities, or they are relegated as hyper-sexual and unfortunately regarded as disposable because they’re not seen as good girls, they’re girls who are somehow deviant in our public consciousness.” Young Black girls are taught by society that they need to behave and operate in a particular manner, and if they don’t meet those expectations they’re further compressed into a box. It becomes an exhausting self-fulfilling prophecy with no winners. Dr. Monique Morris claims, “Black girls experience ‘Adultification’ when they’re as young as age five… which impacts how we respond to them, whether we recognize their traumas, or if we think they just have attitudes, [and] whether we respond to them when they’re in moments of crisis with comfort and care and nurturing and love, or if we regard them as disposable because they should know better”. Anthy becomes an adult in society’s eyes the moment she stands up for her brother, and just as quickly a scapegoat for all their anger.
This is why Utena and Anthy’s relationship is significant, because ultimately Utena is the only one who ever viewed Anthy as an equal. From the beginning when Utena first “wins” Anthy it’s clear that she’s not interested in utilizing Anthy for her own benefit, in contrast to how Touga and Saionji treat her. Whenever Anthy attempts to serve Utena as the Rose Bride, whether it be cooking, cleaning, or even bringing up the engagement, Utena is very uncomfortable. It soon becomes clear to Utena that Anthy has no one outside of Chu-Chu. Seeing how isolating being the Rose Bride is, Utena resolves to help Anthy make friends and “become a normal girl”. However, by the end of the first arc, Utena’s goal shifts from making Anthy into her idea of a “normal girl” to attempting to release Anthy from her role as the Rose Bride.
Even after making that resolution, it is a long time before Utena realizes her impulses are still selfish, and that “saving Anthy” is in part more about Utena becoming the ultimate prince than about Anthy herself. The changes come slowly, in the form of Anthy and Utena starting to sleep facing each other rather than in bunk beds; or in a conversation with Juri where Utena clearly voices that her love for Anthy is “different” than the obsessive and selfish feelings that Juri and Shiori have for each other.
The biggest turning point takes place with Utena and Anthy gathered around a table discussing plans for the future. When Anthy asks Utena if she’s heard of cantarella, Utena says “no”. Anthy explains that it’s a poison that was used long ago by the Borgia family in Italy and she “happened” to use the same poison to make the cookies Utena was eating. Utena is shaken for a moment by the implications before responding, “what a coincidence… I put poison in your tea”. Anthy herself is surprised, and then both consume their supposedly poisoned treats. Both girls at this point have felt betrayed and wronged by each other, and this conversation is a subtle way of them acknowledging that, taking accountability, and accepting their flaws. The conversation ends with them firmly grasping each other’s hand and promising to have tea together again in ten years. And because of this openness, Utena is able to pull Anthy back from suicide that same night.
Utena sees Anthy for who she is and understands that everything she did was a matter of survival for her. Regardless of the terrible things she has done, Utena still chooses to support and fight with Anthy rather than fight for her, which subverts the white savior trope (Utena may not be white, but she is in the racial majority at Ohtori, and thus has accompanying privilege). Anthy never needed a savior; all she needed was someone who wouldn’t control her life and make decisions about her future without her consent. That’s what makes the final episodes of Revolutionary Girl Utena incredibly poignant since Anthy betrays Akio to help Utena, and in return, Utena uses her remaining strength to free Anthy of her suffering. In the end, Anthy does get to be a “normal” girl—she’s finally allowed to be an adolescent rather than the symbol of a Bad Woman.
The final scene of Anthy leaving Akio to find Utena outside the closed walls of Ohtori Academy is beautiful; the series shows how extremely difficult it is to leave abusive environments, and it often feels like survivors are stuck in a vicious cycle with no way out. It takes so much work and courage to permanently leave an abusive environment, so when Anthy is finally free of her pain and serenely walks through the gates of Ohtori Academy on her own terms it is a beacon of hope to abuse survivors everywhere.
Black women and AFAB folks are subjected to various acts of violence on a daily basis, and Anthy’s experiences are a reflection of that. The true tragedy of Adultification is that Black children are often denied happy and healthy childhoods, and Anthy’s story resonated with my own and family members’ experiences. Abuse is a very isolating experience and often it can feel as though other people wouldn’t understand, couldn’t understand, or that your experiences are a burden to others. It took a long time for me to realize that with the support of loved ones you can be given the power to change your circumstances. Anthy’s story is a tale of tragedy and love and above all, it’s a story about hope and survival, and the hope that we can break out of the structures and cycles that dehumanize us. The scene when Utena releases Anthy from her prison is a perfect reflection of how love and support can and will revolutionize the world.