Societal roles are interesting to look at. They’re things which are forced upon us, but because of how early we learn them, they feel natural and correct, making it hard for people to resist them even when they want to. It’s easy to compare social roles to the roles in stories, and few stories have more well defined roles than fairy tales and plays. Both Revolutionary Girl Utena and Princess Tutu—two shows with a common ancestor in Sailor Moon—look at roles in fairy tales and theater, the ways in which they converge and diverge in doing so gives room for a wide variety of interpretations on the subject.
Utena is a show which directly challenges the roles that society imposes. Initially these roles are presented in the same way they usually are. There is a feminine princess who’s in need of saving, and a masculine prince who loves all and is willing to sacrifice themselves in order to save other. Over the series however, this dominant view is challenged. The princess in Anthy is not nearly as happy as she pretends to be in her role as the Rose Bride, and she is hardly as submissive—a traditionally feminine role—as she acts.
The prince on the other hand is shown to be an utterly false and negative ideal. Akio, the true prince of Utena’s world, is a total monster: he abuses and manipulates everyone who gets close to him, to the point of raping multiple characters, most of whom are much younger than him. Akio as the prince lost his love of the world as he grew up. In Utena the prince is an ideal that can’t possibly hold up in the real world, and is just as damaging as the princess.
This is a direct subversion of what many stories tackling these themes would do. Utena sheds princess-hood(femininity), which is something that shows claiming to be feminist and critical of gender roles often do. But shedding femininity by forcing all strong characters to be masculine is hardly a true attack on gender roles. And so Utena denies prince-hood(masculinity) as well. Becoming the role which is respected would not truly free her. Utena gains freedom by rebuking all the roles society offers her, and refusing to conform to the rules society sets.
Utena tackles these societal roles very well, and in that space it uses fairy tales and theater to great affect. The shadow girls’ puppet shows are metaphors for the episodes, which are of course metaphors for society in general. And princes and princesses are used quite well in order to take a look at masculinity and femininity. But while Utena is able to use story roles in order to better its ability to comment on society, Tutu is more concerned with directly addressing roles within stories.
Utena is presented as a very real story which is actually occurring, in spite of its absurdity, but Tutu takes a completely different approach. The characters of Tutu are absolutely within a story, and over the course of the series become quite aware of this fact. The world of Tutu is a closed one in which all who reside within must obey the law of the stories. Everyone is given a role, whether important or not.
These roles are most clear in the main characters, who are of course the main characters of the fairy tale in which they reside. However one of the main characters, Ahiru, is aware — at least to some extent — that she has been given a role in the story and attempts to free herself from that role. In doing so she leads the other characters to rebel as well, attempting to avoid the downfalls which will lead to their predetermined and tragic ends.
Tutu mocks the idea of finding joy in people’s tragedies, even if they are fictional. But it also takes issue with the idea that people should follow the roles given to them, much like Utena. The characters despise their cruel fates and attempt to avoid them. Much as Utena rebels by becoming her own person and denying society’s power to control her create a better outcome for herself and others.
Both Tutu and Utena advocate throwing away the false selves people build in order to conform to society. Ahiru wins not as Princess Tutu, but as her true form as a duck. Utena wins not with the power of Dios, but by expressing her true love towards Anthy. Throwing off society’s shackles can’t be done by those still clinging to their personas, which is why Akio and the Raven can’t win. Only those who struggle as themselves can defeat society by forcing it to accept them for who they are.
This is best shown through the way the two shows’ settings are treated. Both Gold Crown Town and Ohtori Academy are places that are left when you express your freedom. Utena and Anthy disappear when they express themselves, and Ahiru ends up back in her original lake outside the town after saving it. You could see this as them being cast out of society by denying it, but it’s clear that they aren’t totally separated. In both instances the characters who leave make major impacts before doing so: the rest of the Student Council seems poised to leave in Utena, and the entire town is freed in Tutu. They are to some extent pushed out of society by expressing themselves and bucking their roles, but in doing so they make an impact and help push forward change.
Of course, Tutu and Utena aren’t the same and don’t make the same points. Utena is about adolescence, and the way societal roles influence people during that period of time. Gender and sexuality are two things which are intensely questioned by younger people, but at the same time are enforced strictly at that same age. To this end the prince and princess serve readily as the perfect roles to use as metaphors for this period. In Tutu the prince and princess aren’t metaphors, at least not to the same extent, and little is done to claim that these roles are inherently toxic. The negative aspect of these roles in Tutu comes from the fate set to befall those who hold them, not the roles themselves, and this is a key difference from Utena.
It could be said that while Utena wants to totally deny and tear down societal roles, Tutu merely wants people to have the freedom to ignore them and forge their own paths. Both advocate fighting for your right to express yourself, but Utena is much more radical about it. However, both do a great job at depicting the denial of imposed roles through theater and fairy tale aesthetics and themes, and both provide ample material to think about the topic.