Throughout history, women’s role, even when placed as subservient to men, has been one of influence, one that even when hidden away in the private sphere of the home, could change society. On the American Frontier, as men* explored lightly-populated land out West, sparking the mythos of the cowboy, the culture that developed was seen as not a real society–until women came West. With the arrival of women could then come business and structured government, improved travel modes and law enforcement, all the building blocks of a modern society.
The Western culture prior to the arrival of women was seen as amoral and directionless, uncivilized and almost childlike. The women who arrived–wives, mothers, daughters, prostitutes, and teachers–were expected to domesticate and educate the society, reminding them of the progressive modern culture back East. In literature of the American West, it is a common theme to depict that sole woman coming out West on the railroad or stagecoach and finding herself amid a wild masculine culture that both resents her and yet longs to be tamed by her. The women of these stories, usually a single sister or a teacher, is educated and cultured, modern and well-spoken, and she is shocked by the rough men she encounters. At the same time, she perceives their need and desire and uses it to her advantage. Typically, as women are scarce, the men are competing amongst themselves for her, even as each complains about settling down. Some of those men will become her platonic friends, but at least one or two will be in love with her, and will eventually succumb to her, forsaking his bachelor cowboy life to be a homesteader and husband.
This is not an idea that began and ended on the American frontier, but is entrenched in numerous cultures, as can be seen in a variety of literature and film. It is perhaps best illustrated by the “reverse harem” trope, a term likely coined from a common theme in Japanese anime (TV/film) and manga (comics). It describes a story wherein the main
character is a female who ends up having to live with or in close proximity to a group exclusively of males, all of whom are extremely interested in and influenced by her, whether romantically or platonically. Each male tends to be an archetype with a limited personality to provide contrast to each other and more importantly, to the more multi-faceted female protagonist. In shoujo manga or anime, Japanese comics or cartoons geared towards a female audience, most of the male characters are attractive, even if they are never love interests (e.g. Honey or Mori from Ouran High School Host Club). This is not a purely Japanese quirk, as the same can be seen in FOX’s New Girl. In Western novels or classical literature, not all of the “harem” is attractive, but they do tend to have archetypal personalities (e.g. Alcott’s Eight Cousins, Bower’s Chip of the Flying U, Barrie’s Peter Pan). The trope of the “reverse harem” is a strange one, even in its familiarity. It crosses cultures and time periods, presenting at times a seemingly misogynist viewpoint where women’s purpose is to give something to men, and in others, a rather feminist perspective where women are the real agents of change in a patriarchal world.
BATTLE OF THE SEXES
“One girl is more use than twenty boys” (Barrie 28)
The stereotypical differences between men and women often come into play in the reverse harem, as each has biased views about the other. The old “battle of the sexes” can be used for either comic effect or to add to romantic tension.
In most reverse harem stories, the female protagonist is outnumbered by the male characters. There may be another female, perhaps the protagonist’s friend (Phebe in Eight Cousins, Cece in New Girl, Renge in Ouran High School Host Club) or her nemesis (Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily in Peter Pan) or an asexual elderly or unattractive woman (the Countess in Chip of the Flying U), but never enough females to take too much focus from the protagonist.
The introduction of the protagonist to the harem is dramatic, displaying what expectations they may have of one another. In Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins, thirteen-year-old Rose is afraid of meeting her seven boy cousins, as she “hate[s] boys” and thinks they’re all “dreadful” (8-9). In turn, though her cousins are welcoming to her, they think she is meek and timid, a sweet creature to be treated kindly and watched over–it is a continuously uphill battle for Rose to earn their respect. B. M. Bower’s Chip of the Flying U features Miss Della Whitmore, a young doctor who moves out west to live on her brother’s ranch. When the cowboys on the ranch hear their boss’ doctor sister is coming, they decide she must be in one of three categories: (1) “Sweet Young Things, that faint away at sight of a six-shooter, and squawk and catch at your arm if they see a garter snake, and blush if you happen to catch their eye suddenly, and cry if you don’t take off your hat every time you see them a mile off”; (2) the kind who’ll “buy her some spurs and try to rope and cut out and help brand…wear double-barreled skirts and ride a man’s saddle and smoke cigarettes…try to go the men one better in everything, and wind up making a darn fool of herself”; or (3) “skinny old maid with a peaked nose and glasses, that’ll round us up every Sunday and read tracts at our heads, and come down on us…about tobacco hearts and whiskey livers, and the evils and the devils wrapped up in cigarette paper” (Bower). There is little room for Della to have an actual identity that isn’t defined almost entirely by her femaleness. She will either be too feminine, too masculine, or too inhumanly superior. Della herself expects the men to be gentlemen and to show off or at least pay attention to her, as she has always known men to treat her a certain way.
All these characters are taken by surprise in their biases. Rose’s cousins are rambunctious, but kind and caring, and she ends up enjoying each of their separate qualities. The cousins in turn are surprised at Rose’s steely resolve to do what she thinks is right, and her tendency to flare up when she sees meanness or foolishness in any of them. Della is of course not what the cowboys expect; she is cultured and tough, able to discuss art and shoot a gun, and thoroughly unflappable except when people she cares for are hurt. The cowboys are rude and unruly at times, and Chip, the most important and most handsome of the lot, is surly and sarcastic. As they all–Rose and her cousins, Della and the cowboys–get to know each other, they have a lot in common, but the fact that there is a gender divide makes the protagonist “other” and her actions are always placed in the context of her femaleness.
The TV show New Girl, which premiered in 2011, long after Eight Cousins and Chip of the Flying U debuted, plays off the same ideas within the reverse harem trope. When protagonist Jess applies to be the roommate in a shared loft apartment of three men, her new roommates are hesitant to take her on, not because she is a stranger, but because she is female: “Pro: They smell nice. Cons: Every once in a while, the mood changes and you’re not sure why. They’ll ruin your life if you let them; they’ll break down your will to live” (“Pilot”). In contrast, Jess sees herself as their equal, different more in personality than in gender specifically, and wants to make friends. She would be right. Though Jess’ tears and constant replays of Dirty Dancing after her breakup are played for humor, they are not all that different from her roommate Nick’s tears and nonstop drinking whenever he has a breakup. Yet all Jess’ actions are attributed to her being a woman (according to her roommates) and Nick’s actions are seen as just facets of his personality. Even after the roommates know Jess better, this remains an issue. In her attempts to be more like “the guys”, Jess begins a purely sexual relationship with Sam, a man she meets online (“Katie”). After getting to know Sam better and finding he is a kindly pediatrician, she falls for him. This is seen as proof that girls can’t resist their feminine instincts. The fact that Nick was in a similar situation previously (“Jess and Julia”) has no bearing.
This forced divide, based less on biology than on social conditioning, locks female characters into the expectations of their gender, and allows male characters to be defined on an individual basis. This is a tendency historically as well, but in a story where men outnumber women, it almost inevitably makes the woman a representative of her sex, while the men are intentionally distinct from one another.
The anime Ouran High School Host Club has the same format, and veers into some uncomfortable waters (see “The Sun, the Sea, and the Host Club!”, when to demonstrate to female protagonist Haruhi that she should be careful, her male classmate Kyoya pretends he is going to molest her). But there is a subversiveness in Ouran. It takes place in a private high school, where a group of rich “handsome boys with too much time on their hands charm and entertain girls who also have too much time on their hands” by playing as “hosts”, a sort of non-sexual escort (“Starting Today, You Are a Host!”). The female protagonist, Haruhi, is a scholarship student who gets mistaken as a boy due to her plain clothes, and is enlisted as a host through a series of silly events. The boys are drawn to her, and quickly realize she is actually a girl, so begin to treat her with a weird mixture of deference and condescension. Yet each of the boys fits a certain archetypal personality that pokes fun at typical male anime characters, so none are as complex as Haruhi. Unlike the many nameless girls who make up the hosts’ adoring fans (and clientele, seemingly), Haruhi is not easily impressed and can treat the boys like friends. Yet the boys see her as different, and continually remind her of her femaleness. When she is dressed in feminine clothes or doing typically feminine things, like cooking, some of them are absolutely beside themselves with awe.
In these stories, the women are more likely to see themselves as able to deal with the men as people, without gender or sexuality getting in the way, unless there is one male they are explicitly attracted to (the love interest). But for the men, the women are always something different and set apart. This seems to hold true in real life. A 2012 study from the University of Wisconsin showed that among (heterosexual) male and female friends, especially young adults, males or more likely to see the female friend in a sexual way, even if they did not pursue a relationship (Bleske-Rechek). The researchers suggested that evolution as well as historical precedence were to blame–throughout most of human history, the majority of close male-female relationships have been romantic or sexual rather than platonic.
WOMEN AS DOMESTICATORS
“Then [the boys] all went on their knees, and holding out their arms cried, ‘O Wendy lady, be our mother'” (Barrie 73).
In English author J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, young Wendy Darling is incited to leave her home and go to Neverland with a variety of temptations, such as flying and mermaids, but it is respect and the need for someone to tuck the Lost Boys into their beds and darn their socks that is too much for Wendy to resist (p. 34). She is to become the boys’ “mother”. Freud would have a lot to say about this idea of a mother–there is no father/husband to interfere in the relationship, just boys and maternal woman they can all rely on. Peter Pan himself is sometimes referenced as the “father” of the boys, but as he often forgets they exist, he is more of a statement on a perception of absentee fathers than on any real paternal instinct of protection or responsibility. As John remarks when Wendy calls him the boys’ father, “He didn’t even know how a father does till I showed him” (104). Also, as Peter insists he is a boy forever, and Wendy is from the first pages of the book aware of her impending adulthood (she is also first to initiate a kiss, implying adolescent desires), she is more genuinely a mother than he a father. The Lost Boys recognize this and never question her role as mother.
Maternal instinct is not sexist, of course, any more than paternal instinct, but in the reverse harem, there is no paternal instinct among the male cast. They are boys, regardless if they are the genuinely eternal children of Peter Pan, the adolescents and young adults of Eight Cousins and Ouran High School Host Club, or the actual grown men of Chip of the Flying U and New Girl. The female protagonist is more practical and mature than the men, even if she is technically younger. People always say girls mature faster than boys, which may be true, but girls are not naturally more like parents than boys are, except when culturally conditioned to think so. It makes one think of how adults may coo that a girl who plays with dolls and strollers is preparing to be a mother, and then chuckle that a boy will only destroy and tear off dolls’ heads–a terrifying omen if parental tendencies truly did begin in toddlerhood.
In Alcott’s Eight Cousins, teenage Rose quickly shifts from a girl intimidated by boys to a motherly figure. The first instance where she earns her boy cousins’ respect is when she takes on the role of nurse to her cousin Mac when he is ill and in danger of going blind. As the narrator describes, the “womanly power of self-devotion was strong” in Rose–she is innately maternal (Eight Cousins 123). Mac’s mother, Aunt Jane, is not an emotional person, so Rose picks up what Aunt Jane has neglected, and nurtures Mac throughout his illness, and actually after he is better, and well into his adulthood. Mac is the nerdy “Worm”, socially awkward and ill-mannered, so Rose begins to raise him up right, though he is a year or two older. In the sequel Rose in Bloom, Rose encourages Mac to go to parties, dress up, talk to girls, and even teaches him how to dance. His parents request this, telling her Mac needs to be polished, instead of going about polishing him themselves. It is not only Mac that Rose mothers. Her cousin Charlie is spoiled and reckless, thanks to an indulgent and silly mother, Aunt Clara. Though Aunt Clara is criticized by other characters, they all pressure Rose to straighten Charlie out. Charlie turns to her for this too–at times wanting Rose to be his sister or his girlfriend, but really seeking her to be his mother and to scold him when he’s naughty and cheer him on or every success. No one ever suggests that the other boy cousins take on a paternal role with awkward Mac or foolish Charlie, though the eldest cousin, Archie, is depicted as being nearly perfect. Everything is Rose’s responsibility, because she is female and therefore a mother, regardless of whether she actually has children or not.
The maternal qualities of Della in Chip of the Flying U are complicated by her being a doctor. She is the most reasonable choice to take care of Chip when he is injured falling off a wild horse, as she can set broken bones and prescribe medicine. In fact, the mundane nursing and assistance while Chip is disabled is done by a young boy. But while Chip is healing, the task of building up Chip’s confidence is Della’s. She cheers him when he is worried that others see his injury as a sign of weakness. Della also is the only one who really understands how much Chip hates being “helpless” and tries to accommodate his ever-changing moods and insecurities. As Rose in Eight Cousins takes over Mac’s sickroom and tells others how to behave around the invalid, so does Della, interceding whenever Chip gets into a fight with someone during his convalescence. This has little to do with Della’s medical training–this is her natural instinct, understanding Chip and knowing how to handle him and calm him down, almost as if he were a child. Though several older male characters care for Chip, not one steps into a fatherly role. It is entirely up to Della to be motherly and nurturing.
Motherly behavior comes up in Ouran High School Host Club as well, when Haruhi steps in whenever the boys fight with one another or suffer some indignity. She is the one who, despite knowing the boys for a shorter time than they have known each other, figures out what is wrong with Mori when he lets Honey abuse him (“Honey’s Three Bitter Days”), and encourages Honey to make amends with his brother Chika (“Chika’s ‘Down with Honey’ Declaration!”). Again in its subversive way, Ouran does show Tamaki continually attempting to one-up Haruhi in her maternal role by trying to be paternalistic towards her, but as he is unwittingly in love with her, he never is an actual fatherly figure. It is similar in New Girl, whenever Nick tries to give Jess advice or take control in some way–he always seems to be slightly in love with her, so his slight paternalism falls flat. Jess is not maternal by being a domestic goddess in the shared loft, as Schmidt, a neurotic control freak, likes to cook and clean. But though Jess fails at making dinner often, she bakes and makes the home a comforting place, offering to make tea for her roommates or listen to their problems. She becomes a staple in their lives, being kind and compassionate, and motherly in the way they come to emotionally rely on her, even if they don’t rely on her for other needs. With few other female characters staying in the male harem’s lives, the protagonist becomes the main woman in all their lives, reminding them of a time when there was one main woman in their lives–their mother.
The motherly role is less blatant in all these cases, but still similar to that of Wendy being taken in by the Lost Boys. The reverse harem in the female protagonist’s life do not see her as one of them, a person with a personality and individual attributes, but as a vague mother figure, who can help them behave and can provide comfort. In a primarily male story, females are domesticators, grounding a disorganized community into a structured society.
WOMEN AS CIVILIZERS
“‘What clever boys you must be!’ said Rose, smiling upon her kinsmen like a little queen upon her subjects” (Eight Cousins 16)
Women in the reverse harem are not only expected be mothers–but as women who came out West were thought to bring civilization to a lawless land, so women are also expected to bring about order in a broader sense than the domestic sphere and to push the men to indeed be men, in the sense of being adults and not children. Wendy Darling, on the brink of adolescence, accepts her adulthood, even as she loves playing and imagining, because her play and imagination are colored by her own maturity and forward-thinking. At the end of Peter Pan, she brings the Lost Boys to her own parents and so leads them out of Neverland and into the growing up of the real world. Wendy “likes to grow up” (Barrie 178) and she does, trying again and again to get Peter to do so also. But Peter is horrified by the inevitable steps: school, the office, and growing a beard (Barrie 175). The other boys forget Neverland and become mundane adults; John is a “bearded man who doesn’t know any story to tell his children” (Barrie 178). But without Wendy, they all would have remained in Neverland, where Wendy alone acted as the adult.
This may be why, beyond the supposed maternal instinct, the female protagonist of a reverse harem story takes a leadership role. She is more self-aware and future-oriented. She has a better sense of the way things should be. In Alcott’s Rose in Bloom, the now grown-up Rose encourages her cousins to consider their futures. She chooses a career of philanthropy in the early chapters of the book, determined to use her wealth wisely and not waste it, while most of the boys are floundering confusedly about. As in the prequel, Eight Cousins, we see Rose taking control of Mac and Charlie, whose mothers don’t know what to do with them. She begins with her maternalism, as demonstrated earlier, but she also pushes the both of them to pursue actual careers. Mac is brilliant but not practical, going into medicine because it is what is expected of him and he likes it well enough. Rose is the one who asks him why he doesn’t do something with his poetry, leading him to take risks for his art and forge a name for himself. She also brings order to wild Charlie, who has an alcohol problem, distancing herself from him until he can fix his life. Charlie is perpetually a child, thinking his charm is enough, so Rose wakes him up to the real world by letting him know what people actually think of him. She is more than a mother–she is a voice of reason.
Like Charlie and Mac, Chip in Chip of the Flying U is living in a static fashion, unconcerned about the future. He is a gifted artist, but he gets annoyed when people harp on it, like a shy teenager would. Della, a woman of the world who has pursued her own dreams of practicing medicine, can’t understand why Chip would never put his talent to use and to remain in a position that doesn’t allow him to live up to his potential. She ends up forcing his hand by letting his art be seen and making it a point of pride for him to concede that he is an artist. Without Della, Chip would be unchanging, as complacent as the other cowboys he works with. Thanks to her, Chip can finally grow up, and by doing so, be worthy of Della. This is the same implied goal for Mac and Charlie, who each hope to earn Rose’s love. Perhaps it is his disinterest in Wendy’s love that keeps Peter Pan from staying in the real world. Settling down is the most recognized part of adulthood.
Growing up is something that never really happens in the anime of Ouran High School Host Club, as the characters are still adolescents at the end, and despite the cast of New Girl being past 30, they never do seem to get it together. For the latter show it is a choice of the writers’, as whenever the New Girlcharacters do have it together, they fall apart. Jess loses her stable job, Cece and Schmidt’s relationship is always threatened, Nick’s writing (when he finally does it) is terrible, and Winston’s nice normal girlfriend suddenly becomes irritating and weird. Whether this is meant to represent millennial lives or is simply a tactic to keep viewers guessing when the show has an undetermined end, it can be unsatisfying and frustrating to watch, perhaps because we as viewers know that everything does have a trajectory and goal.
Is it misogyny to present women as natural mothers and men as eternal children, or is it actually misandry, marking men as incapable creatures who need women? Perhaps both, as it boxes each in, idealizing all women and thus minimizing qualities by making them merely innate, and allowing men to never aspire to be self-aware and reliable. In the pre-21st century novels discussed, women are held up as leaders, independently spearheading their own growth and success, while dominating the men by being indispensable and inspiring. It is feminism–Rose, Della, and Wendy are powerful and don’t actually need the men for anything. But it also means they are doomed to attach themselves to people who are not their equals. Interestingly, the modern women, Haruhi and Jess, while being independent and strong, don’t seem to understand why the men in their lives cannot get it together and flail about aimlessly. They expect the men to be their equals, and don’t expect to lead or be led.
*NOTE: The American men referenced in this statement are mainly white, and all non-Native American/indigenous peoples. The American West was already “civilized” by Native American civilizations, though not in the densely populated way Americans had come to perceive civilization
Alcott, Louisa May. Eight Cousins. 1875. Puffin Books, 2004.
Alcott, Louisa May. Rose in Bloom. 1876. Puffin Books, 1995.
Barrie, J. M. Peter Pan. 1911. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980.
Bleske-Reschek, April, et al. “Benefit or Burden? Attraction in Cross-Sex Friendship.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, vol. 29, no. 5, 2012, pp. 569-596. SagePub, doi: 10.1177/0265407512443611. Accessed 23 Oct. 2016.
Bower, B. M. Chip of the Flying U. 1940. Public Domain Kindle eBook.
“Chika’s ‘Down with Honey’ Declaration!” Ouran High School Host Club, episode 18, Nippon Television/FUNimation Entertainment, 1 August 2006.
“Honey’s Three Bitter Days.” Ouran High School Host Club, episode 12, Nippon Television/FUNimation Entertainment, 20 June 2006.
“Katie.” New Girl, season 2, episode 2, FOX, 25 Sept. 2012. Netflix.
“Jess and Julia.” New Girl, season 1, episode 11, FOX, 31 Jan. 2012. Netflix.
“Pilot.” New Girl, season 1, episode 1, FOX, 20 Sept. 2011. Netflix.
“Starting Today, You Are a Host!” Ouran High School Host Club, episode 8, Nippon Television/FUNimation Entertainment, 23 May 2006.
“The Sun, the Sea, and the Host Club!” Ouran High School Host Club, episode 8, Nippon Television/FUNimation Entertainment, 23 May 2006.
Brittany Ann Zayas