Trigger warning: attempted rape, victim-blaming, gender policing, classism, control tactics
So I enjoy watching the anime Ouran High School Host Club, not least because it is completely and unabashedly ridiculous.
For those who are unfamiliar with it: it’s the story of Haruhi, a poor (or at least lower-middle-class) student attending a very high-class high school on a scholarship. Most of the students there are ludicrously wealthy, to the extent that they call people of Haruhi’s social class “commoners.” The school has an unofficial “host club,” where a gaggle of quirky, attractive boys cater to the emotional/romantic needs of their female “clients.” (Seriously, this is a thing in Japan – look it up.) Hijinks happen, and Haruhi winds up in debt to the host club, which they decide can be best paid off by having “him” work as a host. But then the big reveal! Haruhi is actually female, but due to her short hair and androgynous features, she looks like a pretty-faced boy when dressed in a male uniform. For various reasons the club decides to keep this a secret. Hilarity ensues.
And yes, yes, yes, it is problematic in the extreme. There is classism, there is privilege on display, there is gender policing and objectification and all of it. But for all of that, the show is cute as a damn bug, and manages to still be fun by never for a minute taking itself seriously. If anything, Haruhi is the audience’s representation, pointing out the privilege and the problems with a long-suffering sigh, and we find ourselves more often than not laughing AT the people enforcing harmful stereotypes, not WITH them.
All of which is a long-winded way to say that it’s just a silly cartoon, and set up from the beginning to not be serious.
So episode 8 starts.
And it’s pretty standard fare. This is the beach episode. There’s the predictable aside about how they could “only” go to a club member’s family’s private beach in Okinawa, because going to Fiji would be unfair to Haruhi as she likely doesn’t have a passport. There’s the bit where the Chivalrous Pervert character fantasizes about seeing Haruhi dressed as a girl, but since he won’t admit his crush on her, he assumes a fatherly role instead and prevents her from dressing femininely where anyone else might see her. There’s the game where everyone tries to discover Haruhi’s “weakness,” because it’s just not natural that a girl is so brave – surely she must be afraid of something!
All of which I could find fault with, if I were as humorless as misogynists claim all feminists are. But y’know, I’m not. It was all pretty funny, the way it was presented, and I giggled and enjoyed it the way I’ve giggled and enjoyed all the other episodes.
And then this happened.
Three of the girls (because they brought clients with them, long story) have climbed to the top of some rocks and are waving and calling down to Haruhi. Suddenly, two young men appear, making threatening/suggestive comments to the girls and actually going so far as to grab them and physically restrain them. And while it’s never explicitly said, the subtext is pretty obvious – these guys, they’re about to rape them. Rape is about to happen, right here, here in my fun innocent show.
But no! Because it’s Haruhi to the rescue! She – looking like a short, slim, androgynous guy – shows up, distracts the guys long enough for one of the girls to escape, and stands her ground to protect the other two even though she’s very obviously at a physical disadvantage. And I – I am cheering. I am so goddamn thrilled that this is happening. Even though she loses, even though one of the guys winds up throwing her off the rocks into the ocean, I am so proud of her for doing this. And because she bought the one girl enough time to find the others, the rest of the club shows up to a) rescue her, and b) beat up the would-be rapists. So yay! All is well with the world!
And then Chivalrous-Pervert-with-a-crush starts yelling at Haruhi. (Side note: the other girls, the ones who were in danger of being raped? We don’t see them again. No mention is made of whether they’re ok, whether they’re traumatized by this, whether they ever feel safe enough to come back to the club. An off-hand comment is later made that all the girls will receive money to apologize for the fun vacation being cut short – which is assumed will be added to Haruhi’s debt, since… rapists are her fault? whatevs – and that’s it. They are non-people. Other than Haruhi, nobody seemed to realize or care what kind of danger these girls were in, nor what fear they must have felt. Anyway.) See, Haruhi was in the wrong. She doesn’t have martial arts training, and more importantly, she’s a girl. She shouldn’t have confronted those guys. She was wrong, and possibly stupid and naive, to do so. Even though there was no one else around to help, even though three young women were in danger of being raped right then and there, Haruhi was wrong to risk herself to try and save them.
Even now, even at this point, I am looking to give the show a pass. Because Haruhi stands her ground, angrily proclaiming that she’s very sorry if she inconvenienced anyone – must have been such an ordeal, jumping into the ocean to save her – but she doesn’t think she did anything wrong. Even if it was risky, it was her decision to make. And again, I almost applauded the tv.
…And then every other character, even the ones who have traditionally been shown to be much more reasonable than Crush-Man, chime in to agree with him. She scared them. She made them worry. She put something they considered theirs – their girl – at risk, and it was wrong of her to do so, and she owes all of them an apology.
…So I have this friend. He’s a dear friend, I love him very much. But it has occasionally dawned on me that he loves me the way one might love a pet or a small child, not the way one loves an adult. It’s a small thing, a minor thing really… but when I go for a walk after dark, if he’s there, he follows me. Doesn’t matter that I go on these walks by myself all the time. Doesn’t matter that I do have some self-defense training and I’m not afraid to use it. Doesn’t matter that the whole point of these walks is to have some alone time where I can think and breathe and be silent. He will follow me. I’ve asked him not to. I’ve yelled at him not to. Doesn’t matter. Because, as he’s explained to me, he loves me enough that he wants to ensure my safety even if it means losing my friendship. He wants me to be safe, even if it means I accuse him of disrespecting me and ignoring my wishes.
And that’s… sweet? Kinda? Maybe? But again, it’s not how you treat an equal. It’s how you treat someone you feel you have authority over and responsibility towards. It means that our friendship isn’t as strong as it would otherwise be, because in the back of my mind, I know he doesn’t consider me a full human. And if I told him this he would probably never understand, because there’s a large portion of society that teaches that treating women like pets is, in fact, the courteous thing to do.
Anyway. Moving on. I only bring that up because to me, it feels like that is what the guys are doing to Haruhi here. No one is willing to acknowledge that it is her body, her safety, her choice. (Also, no one is willing to acknowledge that the alternative was to sit back and do nothing while – I cannot stress this enough – three other young women were brutally raped.) All they see is that something they value (as they obviously DON’T value the female clients they invited to come along) was threatened, and it’s Haruhi’s fault for putting herself in that position.
And… she buys it. She apologizes. And I want to weep.
And then, to put the icing on the cake, one member of the club – one of this tight-knit group, her only real friends – threatens to rape her. Not subtly either – we’re talking full-on grabbing her, throwing her on the bed and straddling her, all the while talking about how she could “pay her debt with her body.” To teach her a lesson. To teach her that she’s vulnerable, that she’s weak, that she could be raped.
He doesn’t mean it. Of course he doesn’t. She even calls him on that – and even in that moment, I was proud of her, proud of her absolute unwillingness to be cowed, to look the man looming over her in the eye and say “Oh come off it, we both know you’re not gonna do it.” But the fact that Haruhi is a Grade-A badass doesn’t excuse the fact that he crossed a line. You don’t threaten to rape someone to teach them to be afraid. That is, to put it politely, Not Cool.
And the guys… they’re never called on this shit. It’s never pointed out that they are, in point of fact, 100% in the fucking wrong here. And it hurts. It hurts because I like the show. And yet I have to come to terms with the fact that female voices, female experiences and fears and desires are pretty much completely disregarded, except when they serve to feed male egos. I also have to come to terms with the fact that the show decided to throw some gratuitous rape threats into the middle of an otherwise happy-go-lucky episode, with no warning or hint at the drastic change in tone, and apparently didn’t think there was anything wrong with that.
I don’t like reading too much into things. I am not Ana Mardoll, gods bless her patient soul. I’d far rather just take the thing in the spirit in which it was meant and enjoy it for what it is. But sometimes problems are so blatant, so hurtful, that I can’t ignore them even when I’m really trying. Ouran High School Host Club, what the hell were you thinking??