Joan and Utena

Today being the 600th anniversary of Joan’s (traditional) birthdate, we should all reflect on the phenomenon that is the Will (whether it’s human will, divine will, a combination of the two or what you can debate amongst yourselves and BTW since it’s Joan’s birthdate we should all reflect on the phenomenon that is Debate as well since no has been as great a debater and a great cause for debate as her).  In celebration of this date I will talk a little bit about cross-dressers in manga and how these stories can help us make sense of Joan of Arc’s own cross-dressing (whose motivations are considered somewhat of a mystery) .  [Dinosaur Comics‘ contribution for today is far funnier though]

Before Utena

The pioneer here, as in so many things, was Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka, whose mother used to take him to see the all-female Takarazuka Revue when he was a child, came out with the cross-dressing heroine Princess Knight in 1953.

The plot of Princess Knight is as follows: the king of a certain country has no sons to inherit the throne. He has a daughter, Sapphire, and he decides to have her play the role of a man so she may one day inherit the kingdom and thwart an evil duke who is next in line to the throne.  Notice that Sapphire hides her femininity and is thus in a different category from Joan of Arc, and instead more like the legendary Pope Joan (who rose to be Pope while secretly being a woman).

But there’s more to this than that.  Apparently, the angels messed up when forming Sapphire and she was born with both a boy’s and a girl’s hart.  Therefore as Chance would have it Princess Sapphire’s history (her father’s decision to raise her as a boy and everything stemming from that decision) recapitulates her peculiar biology. Viewed critically, I feel as if we’re witnessing a concern by Tezuka to neutralize Sapphire’s subversive transvestism by setting her apart from the rest of womankind.  Then again, I guess someone in the 21st century look back and find that this two-heart story is a sophisticated way of approaching the particular psychological makeup that drives people to cross-dress.  Any takers?

Riyoko Ikeda was one of many mangaka to be deeply influenced by Tezuka.  Ikeda’s masterpiece came in 1972: Rose of Versailles, starring the daughter of the head of the Palace Guards on the eve of the French Revolution. The father desperately wants a son and is disappointed to have a daughter. He regains his composure, names her Oscar, and proceeds to groom her as his successor. The plot so far may sound like Tezuka’s comic, but the differences far outweigh the similarities. Oscar’s father does not hide the fact that Oscar is a woman. All of Oscar’s acquaintances know what she is even though she dresses in military uniform as befits her position. A large part of the plot involves Oscar’s struggle to rise through the ranks and be accepted as an equal by other soldiers and society as a whole.

Rose of Versailles was so popular that already in 1974 a musical based on it was composed and performed by the Takarazuka Revue, thus completing a circle of influence from Takarazuka to Tezuka to Ikeda and back to Takarazuka.

Ikeda’s Oscar is closer to Joan than Tezuka’s Sapphire. Oscar never hides her female identity, although she becomes an object of both praise and ridicule for her military position and her cross-dressing. Unlike the case of Sapphire, we are never appraised of any biological attributes that might set Oscar apart from other women.

There’s this to say about Princess Knight and Rose of Versailles and how they differ from Joan of Arc’s own career: in both cases the cross-dressing is initiated by the fathers from the very moment of the girls’ births, in the case of Princess Knight her path is arguably laid out even before birth!  That’s not exactly the case with our next subject: Utena Tenjou.

Revolutionary Girl Utena

So at Utena’s school the girls wear white shirts and blue skirts and the boys wear white jackets with white trousers. Utena wears a black version of the regulation boys’ jacket, and bright red gym shorts with matching red socks (in the anime, for manga look at the pic below). The fact she dresses in male attire is as striking as how differently she goes about wearing it.

The boys’ show depicted in the show is called tsumeiri in Japanese and it was adopted in the Meiji Era from European officer corps uniforms. Utena’s modification allows her to act more freely in sports as she herself explains early on in the manga (page 5).  From the very beginning, then, Utena is portrayed to us as a pragmatic actor with an dash of vanity (no one else in the school wears bright red gym shorts). It reminds us of accusations of self-idolatry at Joan’s trial in Rouen and of the precise circumstances of the capture that led to that trial.   Mary Gordon puts it beautifully: “…a Picard archer seized her by the flaps of her beautiful gold and scarlet surcoat and pulled her ignominiously from her horse […] She was caught by the garment that she wore out of a love of display” [this is a good book].

Let’s remember the setup to Utena’s career:

The time is long, long ago. A young princess has lost her father and mother and is engulfed in deep sorrow. A traveling prince on a white horse appears before her. He has a gallant figure and a kind smile. The prince embraces the princess and she feels wrapped in the fragrance of roses. Then the prince wipes her tears and says: “You are so small and yet can bear such deep sorrow . Do not lose that strength and that nobility when you grow up. Let this remind you of me.” [he slips a ring in her finger] “Will we meet again?” the princess asks. “That ring will one day lead you to me.” Was it an engagement ring? It is not clear, but the princess was so taken by the prince that she decided to become a prince herself. Is that really what she should be doing?? 

The last comment by the narrator is supposed to make us laugh as the princess’ decision to become a prince is most unexpected. We learn in the first episode that this “fairy tale” is nothing more than a stylized way to describe some hard facts. Utena lost both of her parents in an accident, and entered a catatonic state. Her memory of what happened next is very hazy, but she remembers a boy or young man taking care of her and giving her courage. She does not know the identity of the boy and she is not sure to what extent he is a real prince, but she is motivated to take care of herself until he returns.

Utena’s decision to become a prince is thus motivated by tremendous psychological distress and by the absence of a true savior in her life. The shadowy prince that appeared before her spurred her on but then disappeared. Utena becomes a prince in order to provide a substitute; if no savior will come then she will take matters into her own hands. By the time that the story begins and the plot starts to unfold, we find that Utena has grown very comfortable with her new persona.

Joan of Arc’s Career in the Light of Utena’s Story

I have already noted a number of ways in which Utena resembles Joan, but an overview of the beginning of the saint’s career in the light of Revolutionary Girl Utena will bring the resemblances (and consequent potential insights) into relief more clearly.

Joan fell into very dark times.   France was drained by constant battles with no end in sight.  In 1425 Joan saw her village burned and plundered and began to hear voices.  And this is right around the time she would be hitting poverty.  Joan did not lose her parents. Her father died of grief soon after her execution and her mother lived into the 1450s. Thus, Joan was not an orphan like Utena, her grief was shared by her community and her country and was not strictly personal. However, there are two observations that must be made here. First, when Joan set out on her mission she practically made herself into an orphan. She did not tell her parents she was leaving and she never spoke to them again. Moreover, the French in these times did take the situation very seriously and at a very personal level.

France was in need of a savior, and King Charles VII was hardly up to the task [Malkovich does a fantastic job portraying this fact]. The church, which the common people looked up to, was on the English side in the conflict.

I think it’s fair to say that this cataclysmic environment was equivalent to Utena’s sudden loss of two parents at a young age. Joan’s statements indicate that she heard and absorbed many stories and traditions praising the monarchy and the church when growing up even though she would not have been able to see much to revere before her eyes. The sum of the legends and stories she heard could be seen as a shadowy prince. The visions that she received in 1425 set her on a path to right the situation, and again I think a parallel can be established with Revolutionary Girl Utena. If neither Charles VII nor the Pope were to save France, then she would do it, she would become that prince.

If there is an insight that Utena’s story might have for us at this juncture is the following: the focus on becoming a prince/savior is not based primarily on gender. Utena becomes a prince because as far as she knows this is what it takes to overcome the situation she is in. It is not unreasonable to suggest the same of Joan. The fact is there were no female knights, and therefore if Joan had a fervent wish to save the country then cross-dressing and fighting as a man were the only options available to her. To conclude somehow, as many scholars have, that Joan was trying to make a statement for or against either of the sexes, or even for an androgynous mix of the two, is probably too much of a stretch.

Joan’s two main defenses, that wearing male clothing was necessary when fighting and living among men and that it helped defend her chastity, can be seen as stemming logically from this mission to be a savior/knight/prince to France. We can understand better how Joan insisted on wearing male clothing even when she was not fighting once we envision her transformation into a savior as a continuous (though temporary) state of affairs until such a time as the king or pope (i.e. the shadowy prince of legend) took her place. It would not do to be a part-time savior or knight.

Just as Utena held out hopes for her prince to return, Joan of Arc believed that King Charles VII would rise to the occasion. He never did, at least not during her lifetime. In the midst of what must have seemed like an extension of her term as a savior and buoyed by the all the attention and the success, Joan began to write haughty letters to France’s enemies and design her own stylish accoutrements of war. In Utena’s terms it is as if she went from being a temporary prince in lieu of an absent one, to being a permanent prince who believed that “princes are those who do not lose their strength and nobility, regardless of whether they are male or female”.

~ by Haloed Bane on January 6, 2012.

16 Responses to “Joan and Utena”

  1. Great post. I was wondering if anyone would commemorate her birthday (outside of desperate French politicians), and I’m glad it was you.

    To conclude somehow, as many scholars have, that Joan was trying to make a statement for or against either of the sexes, or even for an androgynous mix of the two, is probably too much of a stretch.

    But is it also a stretch for Utena, Princess Knight and its kin? Lord knows there’s just as much ink spilled over their gender and androgyny, in our circles.

    • That’s the question. Of course, Joan was a real person whereas Utena was literally manufactured by others (and in a historical period obsessed with the question of gender to boot) so I think it’s far easier to argue the case for her and Oscar and the like than it is for Joan..but I don’t know… It’s a good question.

  2. Great post.

    To chime in with 2DTeleidoscope’s question… it may not be too much for the manga/anime characters to make a gender statement, but I am ambivalent in how men are making that statement through woman characters dressing up as men.

    I mean, I get it. If I were a woman I’d want to be a man too in some form… but that’s me and I hold manly virtues very highly. I’m just not comfortable with the authenticity of the statement, or if it is authentic, I find it rather naive.

    • And yet even when manga characters are wholly produced by women writers, someone could come in and argue that the medium as a whole is patriarchal and the statements are bound to be prejudiced (and not genuinely feminist) in any case. Tough, tough question.

      Who has the power to make an authentic and productive gender statement? Don’t ask me, but it’s possible artists are the least capable to do so.

  3. This is awesome. What I find most striking though, is that we have some gender themes which can be compared to a history that is perhaps far more dramatic and consequential than fictional counterparts. To have these stories is wonderful, no doubt, but to understand that this person, Joan, lived and died some 600 years ago carries a greater weight, personally.

    And I agree with GL in that I believe it’s not that women want [or need] to be “a man too in some form” but having the ability or choice to do whatever it is a man may do (it isn’t specifically about gender but choices imo). Thinking about Joan, or any female really, I can only imagine that somewhere there was this undying feeling of “If he can do it, why can’t I?” Sounds like fundamental chivalry, and I don’t believe the thought pattern it’s too far fetched for anyone of the Medieval period and thereafter.

    So thinking about these writers, if a young boy said, “she can’t be a prince, she’s a girl,” I have a feeling the best response would be, “can she not?” If the writing (or history) is trying to make a statement, whatever, but if the writing makes me confront and assess my own internal doubts or negative forces, I find that more purposeful. But I don’t find the intent to make a statement necessary for such reflection to occur.

    • Absolutely. The fact that Joan actually lived is literally fantastic. More than that, I’ve heard it said she is the most documented historical figure of the Middle Ages; there are tons of eyewitness accounts (friendly and hostile) of her actions and certain facts become undeniable and extremely difficult to explain away.

      This “If he can do it, why can’t I?” mentality is just what Utena is all about, and then Joan maybe goes a step further and says “If he can’t do it, does that mean that I can’t?” and proves everyone in her society wrong.

      I agree with you, ultimately Utena makes us think about this stuff and this is what makes it so successful.

      • I haven’t finished Utena (about 50% done), so I stepped very lightly through this post, but I’ll have to do something about that to witness the full effect of her actions and mentality.

        • Actually, I wrote this post from a very general perspective and not taking into account the last 10 episodes or so of the show. There are no spoilers at all. The final arc of the show has all sorts of stuff that one would have to consider, but I’ll let you deal with that when you get to it.

  4. There is also the Fate/series (Fate/Stay Night, Fate/Zero Fate/Extra, etc.) that does uses Joan, but mostly as background material for Saber. I would mention that that universe seems to have a Matsumoto-ish genetic repeating of females, with three of the Sabers from different time periods all looking about the same. One is based on Joan of Arc, One is mistaken for Joan of Arc, and the last looks almost identical to the second one.

    Also the Einzbern women all seem based on one woman.

    • I even know of a 1975 manga (Knight of the White Lily) that is almost like a parallel universe remake of the Joan of Arc legend (protagonist named Jeanne as well)! But I haven’t had a look at it. I don’t know anything about the Fate/series, but I’ve heard of this Joan connection too…

  5. the focus on becoming a prince/savior is not based primarily on gender. Utena becomes a prince because as far as she knows this is what it takes to overcome the situation she is in. It is not unreasonable to suggest the same of Joan…

    Even though Oscar had rather less choice in the matter compared to Utena and Joan, she sort of does the same after the ball where she dresses as a fine lady for the first time and dances with Fersen. She is so in love – a hopeless love – that it seems like ‘re-becoming’ a man and remembering her wider duty to France as a soldier is more important and, funnilly enough, the way to gain closure over the one-sided relationship. Also, I wonder if there are any records of women admiring Joan in a similar way to how Oscar and Utena are also admired by females as well as males, as it’s also interesting how Oscar and Utena react to such female attention, as if they really were just chivalrous men with no time for fangirls.

    • Yup, I agree with you. I think Ikeda handles that whole development of Oscar really well, though I’m not sure I believe that she ever abandoned Fersen in her heart.

      The pioneer feminist thinker Christine de Pizan was a huge admirer of Joan’s (though I don’t think she ever saw her physically). Her poem on her is very famous and could be considered a medieval fanletter in one way:

      One thing that everyone who all the men Joan met personally remarked on was her breasts. Everyone commented on how nice her breasts were. I see this as a parallel to Utena’s long pink hair (and Oscar’s long beautiful hair too)..since Joan had her hair cut short for battle, the breasts served as that feminine marker which Utena and Oscar had by way of hair length. Mind you, Joan was more often than not surrounded my men so I don’t know to what extent she could have developed a female fandom à la Utena..

      • So, Joan is also responsible for all the boob-service anime we now have… Lol. I hadn’t come across the Christine de Pizan poem, interesting how Joan comes across as a Madonna figure in it. Thanks for the link.

        • At the same time Christine calls her “champion” and “principal chevetaine”, which are terms used for men. Not only that, she talks about Joan “carrying the crown”. Maybe it’s no accident that the French King didn’t lift a hand to help her when she fell into the hands of the English. She was becoming too much of a threat to him..

  6. “then cross-dressing and fighting as a man were the only options available to her.”

    I will point out that really most armour is fairly unisex; you only really modify for size and height. Fighting in a poofy dress or heels is generally bad idea (footing) and so is very long hair (hard to fit a helmet, can be grabbed).

    Also, this varies by time period, but aristocratic men’s fashion has almost always been as frippery as the fashion of aristocratic ladies. There’s more than just a gender dynamic in Joan’s case, there’s a class dynamic as well. In this sense she’s doubly scandalous – she’s a commoner who adopts the dress of a man but also a knight.

    • You call it “unisex”, by which you mean both sexes would wear the same thing, but consider that only men would wear armor, so in the medieval context this was 100% male attire. And of course fighting was 100% a male activity. So you’re right, purely in terms of functionality she would need to wear “unisex armor”, but she wouldn’t see it as that, she would be seeing it as stepping into a “male world”.

      Noblemen had lots of fashion back then, but my sense is a lot of it was dictated by tradition and the family colors, etc. But Joan would come up with stuff out of the blue..which of course relates to your second point: the class issue. Joan was a peasant, so she had no point of reference for which to develop her frippery. She literally looked at everyone else’s stuff and designed her own based purely on her own taste (and God’s command, I guess). And if you read the descriptions of her designs, well, they were very striking and particularly visible (the Gordon book talks about that).

      The class issue is huge (some writers say it’s the no. 1 issue here) but I think in the 21st century it’s also a bit easy to overestimate it, because we tend not to believe in miracles. What I mean is that medieval man was used to hearing stories and tales of magic, paupers turning into princes, prophets sent from nowhere by God, and so forth, so once they saw Joan’s effectiveness I think it was easier for her to deal with class prejudices than it would have been if she were in, say, 18th century France or 19th century England.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: