Representation of transgender and genderqueer identities in media is an important and powerful tool for promoting social acceptance and human rights for LGBTQIA2S+ individuals. Vera Mackie wrote, "Bringing transgendered narratives into the relatively mainstream [...] television has an important function in contributing to the recognition and of the belonging and citizenship of such individuals." One anime that has brought genderqueer identity into the mainstream successfully is "Ouran High School Host Club," ("Ouran" from here on out) a mid-2000s anime that subverted traditional masculinity in favor of a more gender-diverse cast of characters including a non-binary protagonist, Haruhi Fujioka. The anime stood out and made waves as it satirized the shojo genre and escaped American censorship of LGBTQIA2S+ related content. This paper will use a feminist and narrative perspective to analyze how "Ouran" encouraged viewers to question their taken for granted beliefs about gender and accept characters, and people, who do not fit hegemonic norms. A summary of the plot, characters, and setting of the episodes shall provide context and evidence for the analysis. Woven throughout the description of episodes 1 and 10 will be definitions of key rhetorical terms and analytical evaluations using the rhetorical lenses stated previously.
The exigence for analyzing "Ouran" is three-fold. First, the anime is largely considered to be amongst the shojo canon, representing an anime that follows almost all of the genre's tropes and styles while being original enough to garner fanfare by satirizing those tropes. The anime was wildly successful and was adapted for a live-action TV show and movie. Ouran High School Host Club has earned its place as one of the most iconic animes from the 2000s era. Today, the official website of FUNimation, one of the anime's U.S. market distributors, shows that with over 5,000 reviews, Ouran High School Host Club still has a 5-star rating (FUNimation).
Second, "Ouran" is unique in having a non-binary, genderqueer protagonist. Most gender-bender shojo anime feature characters who are hiding their gender identity due to outside circumstances and not because they feel their gender expression is an authentic representation of their gender identity. The anime explores beyond the boundaries of a plot involving a character simply cross-dressing for personal gain. Instead, "Ouran" features a protagonist that presents themselves androgynously on a daily basis and lives their life as if they were a male student. Also, the anime was novel for its satirical approach to familiar genre tropes in shojo anime, including harems, fan service, and female otakus. There is an immediate need to analyze TV shows that directly address themes related to gender, gender roles, and sexuality. Understanding how popular culture is disseminating information and messages about these topics, and critiquing a cultural touchstone like "Ouran" will help future content creators and communicators create better representations of LGBTQIA2S+ characters and nonbinary gender identities. Better representations of nonbinary and queer characters in popular culture will help educate the public about the needs and lives of LGBTQIA2S+ identifying individuals and can help in the promotion of equal rights policy changes, especially in school settings for LGBTQIA2S+ youth. Although Ouran was progressive for its time, it is essential to reevaluate this artifact to see where it was prescient and where it rhetorically supported more regressive social norms, but, with that concession given, this essay will stay focused on evaluating how "Ouran" encouraged viewers to question their taken for granted beliefs about gender.
Thirdly, only 16 percent of people in the U.S. report knowing transgender individuals, meaning that many peoples' only source of information about transgender individuals comes from media (Zhao 2). Forming a parasocial relationship with characters of minority groups, (for example, a non-binary anime protagonist) can lead viewers to feel less prejudice and have more positive feelings towards them (Zhao 3). Parasocial contact hypothesis (PCH) suggests "that parasocial contact facilitates positive parasocial responses and changes in beliefs about the attributes of minority group categories" (Schiappa, Gregg & Hewes 92). A parasocial relationship is a "seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer" (Horton and Wohl 215). In other words, people who watch a character or performer may feel a sense of intimacy that they project onto that character, and the spectator may then begin to also feel positive emotions for people who are similar to that character. Therefore, the representation of genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and non-binary characters in "Ouran" has the potential to change audiences' feelings about transgender and genderqueer people in their society. The social implications of changing audiences' feelings are far-reaching, because a generation of youth that is exposed to positive representations of genderqueer people may be able to contribute to the well-being of genderqueer people by promoting transgender rights, voting for LGBTQIA2S+ inclusive policies, and being kinder to transgender and genderqueer people they meet.
To further clarify, the artifact this essay will analyze, "Ouran" was a single season, 26 episode anime series which initially aired on Nippon Television Network but aired in the United States on FUNimation Channel in 2009 (IMDb). The series' plot follows the antics of an all-boys host club at an elite, private high school for the opulently rich. Haruhi, the protagonist, is an androgynous scholarship student at the high school, and when they break a vase meant to be sold at an auction for 8 million yen, they are told they can pay off their debt to the club by becoming a host. Later, the hosts realize that Haruhi is biologically female, and they spend numerous plot arcs protecting Haruhi from being "outed" as female as they live their daily life as a male student would.
Episode 1 tells the story of how Haruhi Fujioka becomes a host. While looking for a place to study, Haruhi discovers the host club in one of the school's music rooms. A group of male students runs the host club, which aims to help students spend their nearly infinite free time by hosting and entertaining female students. When the hosts meet Haruhi, Tamaki Suoh, the club "King" flirts with Haruhi believing Haruhi is a gay male student who wishes to be entertained by the club. As a result of Tamaki invading Haruhi's personal space, Haruhi steps backward and knocks over an 8 million yen vase. To pay off their debt to the club, Haruhi becomes a host and begins entertaining female students.
Soon, the other hosts realize that Haruhi is "biologically female," but they decide to continue letting Haruhi host. During the episode, a subplot rounds out the characters by showing their behaviors and interactions. The club members generally welcome Haruhi with open arms. Despite the ignorance, teasing, and condescending behavior and words of the other students, Haruhi displays great patience, strength, and kindness throughout the episode. Many customers take a liking to Haruhi and request to see them again the following school day. One of Tamaki's clients, Princess Ayanokoji, becomes jealous of Haruhi because they are receiving so much attention (especially attention from Tamaki). As a result, Princess Ayanokoji begins bullying Haruhi and then attempts to frame Haruhi as an attacker. However, Haruhi's behavior has already won over the host club, who see through the Princess's deceit and eject the Princess from the club room. After Haruhi's clothes get wet from the Princess's attempt to frame them, Haruhi changes clothes. Tamaki walks in on Haruhi as they are changing and discovers that Haruhi is "a girl." Haruhi admits that they are, indeed, "biologically female," but then exclaims that appearances do not matter.
The narrative of the first episode establishes model characters, Haruhi and the hosts, and anti-model characters, Princess Ayanokoji, while establishing Haruhi as a likable protagonist that audiences can root for throughout the series. A narrative persuades through narrative fidelity and narrative probability. Narrative fidelity is achieved when a story provides good reasons for an audience to accept a moral; specifically, those reasons ought to be both humane and truthful (Sellnow 54). Narrative probability refers to the degree to which an audience would find the order of events, and causal relationships between events, to be plausible (Sellnow 54). When a story manages to provide both narrative probability and fidelity, it achieves narrative rationality (Sellnow 53-54).
Episode 1 establishes narrative probability by providing plausible reasons for characters to be in the setting, to interact, to bond, and to resolve conflicts. Haruhi is at the elite high school because they won a scholarship, discovers the club while wandering around looking for a place to study, and breaks the vase as a reaction to having their personal space invaded by the hosts. The club forces Haruhi to become a host because they want to replace the value of what was lost when the vase broke. The hosts believe Haruhi is a boy at first because of their appearance, including short hair, trousers, a sweater over a button-up long sleeve shirt, and a lack of make-up or accessories. Princess Ayanokoji becomes jealous of Haruhi because everyone pays more attention to Haruhi. Most of the students behave inappropriately and rudely to Haruhi because they have never met someone from the lower class before and are ignorant due to their status as the children of the super-rich. When Haruhi is framed, no one believes Princess because all of Haruhi's behavior has been consistently polite, kind, and honest. The events clearly track, with one event leading to another.
Additionally, the episode establishes narrative fidelity with events that provide evidence that Haruhi is a good person, rational, down-to-earth, and a valuable member of their society. Throughout the episode, the story intentionally depicts Haruhi in a sympathetic light. It is revealed that Haruhi's mother died ten years before and that they are a brilliant student. Haruhi can relate to both male and female students as a host, wowing the female students by talking about helping their father run the household after their mother died. Haruhi is frugal with their money when sent to buy coffee for the club, and willing to work hard to repay their debt. Throughout the episode, Haruhi does not bother to correct any of the students about their assumption that they are male and accepts a make-over to become an attractive male host. Cumulatively, Haruhi's actions seem rational, good-natured, and masculine. So, when it is revealed that Haruhi is "biologically female" their calm explanation that "In my opinion, it's more important that people be recognized for who they are rather than what sex they are," is backed strongly as a moral to be accepted by the audience. Haruhi has established credibility as a "good guy," and their androgynous appearance and masculine behavior align with their wish to be seen for "who they are." Haruhi is a genuinely good person and liked by everyone, so the narrative argues, they should be recognized for their character instead of their sex.
The first episode of "Ouran" is a narrative of good quality, accomplishing narrative rationality and effectively arguing the moral that people should be recognized for who they are, regardless of their biological sex. If audiences accept that appearances and biological sex do not matter, they may be more open-minded when they meet or work with non-binary and trans individuals in their lives. In the same way, episode 10 mirrors episode 1 with another narrative that encourages viewers to accept gender non-conformity. Episode 10 introduces Haruhi's father, Ranka, who challenges hegemonic expectations about gender and what a family can look like, especially with respect to how a father should behave.
In episode 10 of "Ouran," the other hosts from school visit Haruhi on the weekend, hoping to see how "commoners" live. When Ranka comes home, and the hosts meet him, the Hitachiin twins literally walk over Tamaki, the club president, so they can introduce themselves to Ranka and shake his hand, saying, "It's nice to meet you, Haruhi's Dad. We're good friends of your daughter's, the Hitachiin brothers." They comment about how Ranka is the first "real transvestite" they have ever met, but their tone and body language clearly show they are pleased to meet Ranka and hold no disgust or disapproval. The background turns pink with stars and swirls to metaphorically indicate that the twins are "starstruck" with Ranka. This scene establishes that the characters the audience has grown to like over ten episodes of screen-time like Ranka, and therefore the audience ought to like Ranka too. The hosts treat Ranka's "cross-dressing" as little more than a novelty as if they were simply meeting someone who held a unique job, and as model characters in the narrative, the hosts set a precedent for acceptable behavior in the story. The already established precedent for the host club is that they represent the most "civilized, chivalrous" masculinity in the school, and their goal is to make feminine presenting people happy and comfortable. Additionally, the story has established that the hosts accept Haruhi's masculine presentation, so there is narrative probability they would also accept Ranka's femininity.
When the hosts extend their kind behavior to Ranka, they are affirming his femininity and modeling how masculine-presenting people should treat gender non-conforming people. Their behavior is still clearly problematic, as they use offensive language, and their "chivalrous" behavior reinforces heteronormativity and patriarchy. Patriarchy describes a social system which centers family units with male figures as the central authorities responsible for the welfare of the family members and community (Sellnow 161-162). Heteronormativity is the privileging of heterosexuality and people who are cisgender (Sellnow 162). However, as a product of the early 2000s (when most media was still only representing transgender and gender non-conforming people as jokes or being explicitly transphobic by only portraying them as victims of violence), the anime was improving gender-diverse representation in media. The hosts indulge Ranka and act as his entourage publicly as they walk to the supermarket, and none of them worry about Ranka's comments about the hosts being handsome. They openly and publicly accept Ranka's bisexuality and model allyship. Kyoya, the club's vice-president, is revealed to be good friends with Ranka, calling Ranka a "beautiful person." Roses fill the background of the screen as Kyoya faces Ranka, and they press their hands together with familiarity. As a whole, the hosts completely accept Ranka's bisexuality and gender non-conformity, and their nonchalant attitude normalizes Ranka's gender expression. They still respect Ranka as Haruhi's father despite Ranka not looking or acting like the heteronormative masculinity expected of a patriarchal figure.
While the hosts are spending time with Ranka, the episode shows a flashback to Haruhi's childhood. In the flashback, a co-worker tells Ranka that Haruhi probably did not invite him to bring-your-parent-to-school day because they were embarrassed by Ranka's cross-dressing. In response, Ranka defends himself, saying, "So I like to wear women's clothing! What's it matter? I'll never love anyone the way I loved Kotoko, and she never had a problem with it! So lay off, would ya!" When Ranka gets home (in the flashback), Haruhi says they did not invite him because they saw how hard he works and wanted him to be able to rest on his day off. Haruhi's choice to not invite their father is a sign of affection, and they are not embarrassed that their father wears women's clothing. In this scene, the doubtful, disapproving co-worker is used as an anti-model or a person who exhibits behavior that is undesirable and wrong, while Haruhi is a model character. When Haruhi is not embarrassed that their father wears women's clothing, they prove the co-worker wrong and empower their father to dress however he pleases. This scene also uses narrative fidelity: since Haruhi is a "good" (good in a hegemonic sense of upholding values that Eurocentric, capitalist societies value) person (down to earth, kind, patient, hard-working) who does good things the audience "ought to" identify and accept the moral of the story because they see that Ranka is shown to be a model parent, whose child loves them so much they worry about his needs before their own. With the support of values such as family, love, and kindness, the moral of the story is strongly supported with (hegemonic) "good" reasons to accept the moral.
It is also important to note that even though the co-worker disapproves of Ranka's gender non-conformity and is acting as an anti-model within the framework of the episode, the co-worker does not threaten, harass, or indicate any type of malice for Ranka. In fact, the co-worker walks Ranka home after work to make sure they get home safely. In this episode, even the person least accepting of Ranka's gender non-conformity still cares for their safety and well-being. The moral of the story is that everyone, even judgmental anti-models, ought to behave with human decency, kindness, and respect for gender non-conforming people.
"Ouran" positively portrays the protagonist's father as an openly bisexual, gender non-conforming, widowed man who works as an entertainer in an okama bar. The anime encourages viewers to accept non-heteronormative masculinities as acceptable for father figures. The positive portrayal of Ranka encourages viewers to treat gender non-conforming people with respect and friendliness. Hopefully, audiences will see this episode as an example of an alternative family structure and think more positively about parents who happen to be transgender or gender non-conforming. The episode shows the possibility for loving, successful gender non-conforming parents fulfilling their parental obligations and maintaining positive relationships with their children.
Incidentally, in episode 10, Tamaki acts as a foil to Ranka; Tamaki calls himself Haruhi's "daddy" throughout the series as well as in episode 10. Tamaki Suoh, the tall, blond club president gets requested by more customers than any other host. Tamaki cries frequently, is flamboyant, conceited, and dramatic, and refers to his vice president Kyoya Ootori as "mother" in a running gag. (Nothing ruins a joke more than explaining it, but the joke stems from the absurd juxtaposition of Tamaki calling himself "daddy" while behaving like a toddler, crying, and running to his "mother" Kyoya.) Overall, Tamaki does not fit into many of the stereotypical qualities of hegemonic masculinity. Hegemony refers to the ideology that empowers the elite and disempowers all others, and masculine hegemony is an ideology which describes gender and power inequities in ways that account for multiple masculinities while oppressing all forms of masculinity other than heterosexual masculinity (Sellnow 162). Even Tamaki's womanizing behavior, which is usually associated with toxic masculinity, is subverted because he is motivated by his wish to please women by giving them what they want in the form of flattery and romance. Toxic masculinity is a type of masculinity based on internalized harmful socialization of masculine ideals, usually starting in childhood, that defines ideal masculinity as related to toughness, stoicism, heterosexism, self-sufficient attitudes, and lack of emotional sensitivity ("Harmful masculinity").
Throughout the series, Tamaki asks Haruhi to behave more "like a girl" and turns into a puddle of tears when Haruhi refuses. Tamaki's wish for Haruhi to behave "like a girl" is a joke that pops up in almost every episode, but Haruhi does not indulge Tamaki. Unquestionably, Haruhi's ability to stay true to their presentation in the face of so many social pressures to conform to cisgender expectations mirrors how gender non-conforming and genderqueer people resist pressure to hide their gender identities in real life. Instead of Haruhi caving into expectations, it is always Tamaki who is left in a puddle of tears, and his tantrums show that his desires for Haruhi to conform are childish. In episode 10, when the club comments on Haruhi's pink dress being cute, Haruhi yells at them, "Shut up! Get the hell out of here!" In no way is Haruhi pleased by the other hosts' pressure to "act like a girl." The other hosts do not notice that Haruhi wears a dress paired with blue jeans, combining the masculine coded pants with the feminine coded dress for a non-binary gendered aesthetic, which breaks the expectations of both the masculine and feminine hegemonic expectations.
At any rate, "Ouran" uses many problematic ideas about chivalry to inform the hosts' behavior towards feminine presenting characters; but at the same time, uses the hosts as the butt of satirical jokes which criticize their heterosexist behaviors. Since the show satirizes the shojo genre, many of the behaviors female characters have in traditional shojo shows are adopted by the hosts. For example, the hosts are shown pining over their love interest (Haruhi) with ridiculous fervor, second-guessing every decision they make, and crying when their love interest does not notice their efforts. The hosts effectively function as Haruhi's "reverse-harem" (a term used broadly in anime fandom), which, as a story-telling device, flips many gender expectations on their head. Instead of there being one popular boy in the school, who represents "ideal" masculinity, the show portrays multiple masculinities. Tamaki is the "prince," Kyoya is the "cool," type, Honey-senpai is the "boy-lolita," the Hitachiin Twins Hikaru and Kaoru are mischievous pranksters, and Takashi "Mori" is the quiet, gentle giant. The show does not center any type of masculinity that relies on violence, heterosexism, self-sufficiency, or emotional distance. Instead, all of the hosts have their own strengths and weaknesses, and through interactions with Haruhi, the down-to-earth, level-headed protagonist, the audience can make judgments about those personality traits. In episode 1, Haruhi calls Tamaki's flirting with customers "ridiculous." When Tamaki is teaching Haruhi how to be a host, he tells them, "You have to learn to be a gentleman and please the ladies," but Haruhi responds, "I just don't think its all that important. Why should I care about appearances and labels, anyway? I mean, all that really matters is what's on the inside, right?" Haruhi always grounds the show and points out flaws in the way the other hosts approach the world, helping them learn to be less offensive to the people they call "commoners."
In summary, "Ouran" is successful in portraying a non-binary character and a gender non-conforming character positively, while challenging masculine hegemony with the male host characters. The anime depicts some of the many challenges of living as a genderqueer or gender-variant person, including social pressures to conform to hegemonic norms. Unfortunately, while "Ouran" gives a fairly accurate representation of how people pressure genderqueer and gender-variant people to conform, it also reinforces that toxic behavior by showing characters used as models in the narrative pressuring Haruhi to "act like a girl." Future communicators and animators should reserve gender-policing behaviors only to anti-model characters in narratives in order to avoid sending the message that "good" people would pressure a non-binary person to express their gender differently. Overall, the anime does its best to portray characters like Haruhi and Ranka positively, which encourages audiences to form a parasocial relationship with them. As discussed above, parasocial relationships with characters and performers who are part of a minority group can help viewers feel less prejudice. Fighting the stigma surrounding gender-variance will help trans-issues get more visibility, promote acceptance, and contribute to a more friendly political climate that will allow transgender and genderqueer people to fully participate in society; reducing their overall risks of encountering violence (Human Rights Campaign). Positive representation of genderqueer and transgender people in media is, therefore, a powerful tool to dismantle stigma and promote LGBTQIA2S+ rights. "Ouran" was a good step in the right direction when it was released in the 2000s, but newer anime should strive to do better and listen to LGBTQIA2S+ people's concerns and critiques of past works in order to create content that responsibly represents the community.
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