Twilight, Fruits Basket, and Reverse Harems

| Friday, March 30, 2012
Today's Tune: All The Rowboats

I bet that title caught your attention, eh? Eh?!

First, I'll get the obvious out of the way: Twilight has been discussed and dissected absolutely to death. I know. Even so, there's no denying its impact on young adult fiction, and that's the angle I wanted to explore with this post.

Love triangles are nothing new in the area of Romance. They've existed essentially since the genre's inception. This is how stories work: they need stakes and opposition. You can't let your protagonist achieve their goal in the first few chapters. There's no story if you do that. Therefore, obstacles must be placed in the way of the goal. The goal of a Romance is for the couple to get together and have their Happily Ever After. So, how do you keep the couple from achieving that for several books? LOVE TRIANGLE, OBVIOUSLY.

There are many other methods of creating obstacles and tension in a Romance, but the triangle is a tried-and-true favorite. Anyway, my point here is that I'm aware Twilight did not invent the Love Triangle. Everyone knows Dawson's Creek invented the LT. I KID. However, I do think Twilight and the subsequent Paranormal Romances did contribute to a recent trend. I often hear people complain about LTs (myself included; I hate them), but that doesn't mean I don't think it's an important trope to explore.

In Western culture, we still maintain some pretty rigid ideas about how girls/women are "allowed" to express romantic interest and sexuality. We're supposed to be the monogamist, the loyal other, the nurturer, the sexual gatekeeper. It's our job to keep the wandering eyes and penises of males in check. We're supposed to live to simultaneously please our partner and remain chaste for him, denying his amorous advances (because men are all horndogs) until he's made significant commitment to us. Until we've "tamed" him. (For the record: I do not believe men fall in line with any of these social stigmas, either. Men are not dumb animals, and that implication is old.).

If a girl strays off this well-worn path, if she dares to date more than one person at the same time, or she takes ownership of her sexuality and is unashamed of desiring sex, or she acts like anyone other than the wide-eyed virgin waiting to tame her prince? She's vilified. She's a slut, a bitch, a tease, a corrupted vessel. These archaic ideas are veeeeeery sloooooowly altering, but they still have an intense grip on us.

My point here is that Twilight, for all its potentially questionable themes, made strides toward breaking that pattern. Yes, really. Bella desired sex and Edward had to be the gatekeeper. She was given two equally attractive suitors and wasn't vilified for wanting to be with both of them. Not only that... she had several additional tertiary romantic potentials. She never gave the others the time of day, but they were there.

All of this ties into a deep, old fantasy for women: sometimes we desire the affection or sex of more than one partner, too. This seems like a revolutionary concept to many people. OMG! Some women don't actually want to fall in love with just one guy? They actually enjoy being desired by someone other than their "intended?" They actually want sex? Sometimes KINKY sex?! But these are all MAN things! Actually, no. They're human things. Some people want monogamy. Some want to date around. Some want to wrap themselves up in the fantasy of a hot vampire and an equally hot werewolf and maybe some other hot human randoms finding them a desirable partner. Of having all the boys in the yard.

Japanese pop culture is a little more up on the desires of its ladies. Granted biases still exist, but the prominence of Shoujo Manga (manga "for girls") evidences the fact that they're not afraid to cater to what girls actually want -- anything from yaoi (male-male romance/erotica) to reverse harem.


This is where Fruits Basket comes in. For the unfamiliar, this is a story about an average, plain, not-super-bright-but-very-kind girl named Tohru Honda and her adventures with... a whole bunch of supernatural boys. Who turn into animals when they're hugged by a girl. Obviously, a lot of hijinks involving romantic tension and hugging lots of cute boys ensues. Throughout the series, a significant Love Triangle is formed. I will not spoil you by telling you how it plays out, but suffice to say that I, LT hater extraordinaire, didn't totally hate it. In addition to the two main romantic interests, several other male characters express interest in Tohru or repeatedly flirt with her. She has her very own reverse harem of hot dudes to enjoy... though she tends to be flustered and bashful more often than not.

These things exist in Western culture, too -- just read any fan fiction site ever and you will find plenty of slash and reverse harem style stories. However, that material isn't coming from official channels. We're not publishing (very many) stories like these. No, these stories come from the source. These stories are coming from the girls and women who want to read them.

While recently re-reading a few of my Fruits Basket volumes, I made the connection that these stories sell so well and become so popular with young women because they explore something deep inside us that perhaps isn't fully realized. We're conditioned from a very young age to believe there's ONE perfect man out there for us, and we need to "wait" for him, both in the literal sense and in the sense of our sexuality. However, these stories are poking under the surface of that conditioning. What if we don't want to sit around waiting for one special man? What if we enjoy being desired by multiple partners? What if we want a choice?

Twilight and Fruits Basket don't completely break the bonds of the stigma -- both Tohru and Bella end up with their one "true love" and fall in line with the typical ending of happiness in monogamy. And I'm not saying that ending isn't realistic. I myself tend toward monogamy. Many people do. But this trend toward girls who are desired by two, three, four-or-more other characters may be tapping in to the idea that men and women really aren't so different. Some of us want marriage and the white picket fence. Some of us want the chance to date every pretty potential mate we come across. Some of us want both, or something in between. There's nothing wrong with any of those paths.

No, harem-style fiction isn't realistic. Ordinary, uninteresting girls don't go to school one day to find every eligible member of the opposite sex drooling at their feet. But that's part of the fantasy, and it's a fantasy girls and women are saying they want. The problematic elements are there, of course, but maybe it's time to look deeper into the subtext of femininity, desire, and sexuality that's being scratched here.

My opinion? I think this, like anything else, is girls and women saying they want choice. They want options. I think the trend toward multiple romantic interests for female characters may be an exploration of that in a "safe" sort of way.

What say you, readers? 


13 comments:

{ E.J. Wesley } at: March 30, 2012 at 7:22 AM said...

I'll confess. I jumped over here when I saw the title! : )

You make some good points here, lady. I'll not be the first to say that Twilight, and the themes presented therein, don't exactly hold up well to scrutiny. However, as you pointed out, it does offer up a few twists on the whole female/male coupling scenarios.

I think we need more of that too. Sexuality (in YA particularly) is still pretty rigid. Truthfully (and this probably says a lot by animal magnetism... or lack thereof), I think male harems are much more common. I can recall lots of girls with multiple boys chasing them, but not may dudes with a horde of girls fawning over them. Makes for a good story, because it plays up to male egotism, but not sure how 'real' it is.

{ prerna pickett } at: March 30, 2012 at 8:01 AM said...

Great points. What's wrong with a girl having more than one love interest? And what's wrong with her not being able to make up her mind? She shouldn't be villified for it. Most women (And men) don't fall in love with just one person. I will admit, I'm not a fan of LTs, but if they're done well, then I don't mind so much.

{ Rachel } at: March 30, 2012 at 8:05 AM said...

Women are so used to "waiting" and keeping chaste/etc. It comes up a lot in older fiction - I'm taking a History of English Language class right now in college - and we're looking at stuff from the 1300's and 1400's where women are supposed to be virginal and tainted if they are not. Its also really interesting to talk about love triangles (although in real life I feel like the triangle is more of a square, lol! Bobby likes Katie but Katie likes Shawn who is dating Sally but Sally has a crush on Bobby etc lol).
I do have to admit I read Fruits Basket in high school (i worked for the town library) and did not really enjoy them. Not because of characters more of the premise when she hugged a guy...etc...But to each their own [opinion] :)

{ We Heart YA } at: March 30, 2012 at 8:11 AM said...

We say that maybe it's about having your fruit basket and eating it too!

Wait...

Lol. Basically we think you're right, that wanting to be attractive and desired by multiple parties is a human thing, not just a man thing, and it's great to see women getting some of that (no pun in tended) in contemporary literature. Not that we endorse rampant meaningless sex, but we wouldn't mind seeing some of this country's Puritan foundations shaken off.

Also, we think it's more about "sowing wild oats" than about choosing between monogamy or not. Lots of people settle into monogamy when they're ready, when they've found someone suitable. So it doesn't have to be a one-way-or-the-other choice; people can comfortable live all over the spectrum throughout their lifetimes.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: March 30, 2012 at 8:27 AM said...

Thanks for your thoughts, guys! Yael also had a response, but she couldn't post a comment for some reason. Her response to this post is here.

Rachel - No worries. It's a pretty fluffy story ;) Not going to lie, I still love it.

We Heart YA - An excellent point, and I think that might be why we're seeing an upswing of this sort of thing in YA. Many adolescents are still figuring out who THEY are, let alone the sort of person they want to be with. It's pretty difficult to know exactly what you want in a partner when you're still in the process of figuring yourself out.

{ Liv } at: March 30, 2012 at 11:28 AM said...

I'll admit, I did the same as E.J. :D

I read Fruits Basket in high school as well. The love triangle here didn't bother me as much either. I feel like although the MC shares a lot with PNR heroines, her love interests were much more complex than we're used to. (Plus, they existed outside of their relationship to her.)

I think open relationships are actually becoming more common with teenagers, i.e. girls and guys not defining themselves as mutually exclusive. I'm not sure how much of that is done because of social pressure vs their will, but my sister tells me it is *really* growing. Maybe it will make the transition into YA. Who knows?

{ Phire } at: March 30, 2012 at 1:28 PM said...

I have few cogent thoughts to make but I wanted to comment and say that I really enjoyed the post and the point it makes.

I do want to point out that Japanese treatment of women in pop culture is at least as messed up as North American views of women in pop culture, though I think in a different way. It's been a long time since I've read Furuba; the examples that come most readily to mind are Marmalade Boy and Ranma 1/2. In the first, the female lead is encouraged to forsake her own goals/love interest for the sake of 'familial harmony' -- please. In the latter, all three Tendou sisters are bare caricatures of female archetypes (the mother, the shrew, the innocent) to say nothing of Shampoo (the 'black widow') or how these women are treated by the male characters in the series (deplorably). I won't even start on CLAMP.

I totally agree with your assessment that it's interesting that certain aspects of Japanese comic culture seems okay with catering to women's desires and reading habits, but I feel like that doesn't necessarily come from a place of understanding and respecting their audience. Shoujo manga is respected about as much as chick flicks are within the 'serious film industry', and much of what you find outside of the romance genre would fail the Bechdel test.

Anyway, none of what I say is at odds with your analysis here; they exist in parallel planes. I just thought it'd be an interesting addition, maybe.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: March 30, 2012 at 1:59 PM said...

Phire - Oh yeah, absolutely, and I'm glad you weighed in on that. Similarly to Twilight, I don't think the intention was to break gender roles or be revolutionary about female sexuality. In fact, both of these series lean heavily on very traditional roles for girls. Primarily, the image of the "normal," frail, self-sacrificing girl who falls directly into the role of happy wife-and-mother character.

I think this stuff is only barely scratching the surface, and you're completely correct that it's less about understanding and respect and more throwing ladies a bone because they know this is what sells. I'm hoping that we can maybe use this type of thing as a springboard to writing content that women want to read because it's what they're looking for, rather than going, "Just put out some more of the frilly sparkle stuff, the girls love that shit."

{ M.C Eging } at: March 30, 2012 at 3:09 PM said...

Quite the eye catching title. Thanks for the insight.

{ Adrianne Russell } at: March 30, 2012 at 4:18 PM said...

I think about this a lot, particularly in my own work. I gave a story I was working on to a beta reader and the response that there was no way a girl would try to date more than one boy at once and it was even more ridiculous that she would consider having a sexual relationship with them both. However, it was that reaction that let me know I was completely on the right track. :)

{ Sarah } at: December 8, 2012 at 6:48 PM said...

I wonder how the recent 50 Shades phenomenon plays into this (or does not). I'm not sure whether the choice to follow your kink plays into the "give women what they actually want" theme or the fact she's submissive plays more into the stereotypical feminine role. But I do know it was popular.

{ jupete } at: September 23, 2014 at 8:58 AM said...

tohru is far from dumb. i'm tired of people calling her dumb. she's explored other options about who she is and in the end she chooses ridiculous selflessness. her way of thinking certainly isn't realistic, but she does help everyone live in "harmony". i also do believe kindness pays off. whether they love you or not, it's remembered. and tohru is shown as very flawed and angsty inside and insecure but she keeps trying. personally, i think usagi tsukino (specially in the manga, because she's more mature and no-nonsense) or sakura kinomoto (despite being only 10) are better "current role models" though. they're kind but confident. i used to be very confident, cheerful and sweet, but my parents are the strictest and they kept telling me i was wrong and that everyone would hurt me when i was actually so happy being like that... i dont get it.

{ samia hussain } at: June 12, 2017 at 4:12 AM said...

nice post

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