Bad Romance: A Defense of Reprehensible Love Interests in Otome and Beyond

My prince charming is your worst nightmare.

From the age that I can first remember feeling the pangs of infatuation and lust in my mid-teens, I found I had a taste for rogues, tricksters, baddies, and miscreants. In books, movies, manga, anime, and otome games, I rarely go for the hero of the story- my affections are generally reserved for the evil adversary, mysterious secondary character, or perhaps the dangerously playful womanizing side-kick. These characters are often sexy but would ultimately make terrible romantic partners in real life.

Recently I’ve been noticing in comment sections all over the internet well-intentioned people decrying these very sorts of characters that I am drawn to. Fans and non-fans alike are calling out reprehensible actions of characters as they see them. I think this is a positive reflection of wider discussions and movements that are happening worldwide right now regarding healthy relationships, love, affection, sex, and consent. These honest reflections on characters, from Sabrina’s Father Blackwood to the Sakamaki family of Diabolik Lovers, are valuable and worth noting. The relationships you see on TV or other media are often not good examples for real-life relationships to follow- sometimes these sorts of characters stray into cruel or even verbally and/or physically abusive behavior.

However, I do not believe that the answer is to eliminate such characters from the stories we tell and worlds we create.

One area that gets a lot of heat for these sorts of characters is otome games- perhaps because they are simulating a relationship with the player. Games like these feel more intimate than watching a movie or reading a book: usually a player uses their real first name in-game to enhance the immersion, voice-actors use dummy-head mics to record sound like they are right beside your ear whispering sweet nothings through your headphones, and choices in the game lead to consequences for the character you play as well as other characters in the game.

The first true otome game I played was Code: Realize, Guardian of Rebirth. It’s an interactive visual novel with a Victorian steampunk aesthetic, excellent Japanese voice acting, and odes to famous historical figures throughout.

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Code: Realize

A common strategy for playing otome games is play the main route with the main love interest first (often he’s featured on the cover, as with this example featuring Arsene Lupin) and then branch out to other romantic partners in subsequent play-throughs.

However, I always gravitate immediately towards the character that (you guessed it) is strange, aloof, mean, temperamental, and/or seemingly sinister. In Code: Realize, I went for Saint-Germain, an intriguing and mysterious white-haired gentleman voiced by my favorite voice actor, Daisuke Hirakawa.

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Saint Germain still image from Code:Realize, Guardian of Rebirth

*Warning:  spoilers ahead!*

My interest in Saint only grew as his complex and tragic story slowly unwound, with seemingly no means of a happy end. Still, I was caught completely off-guard when my first play-through ended abruptly with that is probably considered the worst possible ending you can get in the game: he murdered me.

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Scene from Code Realize, Guardian of Rebirth

I was shocked, bemused, and strangely thrilled by this sudden turn of events. Retracing my steps and choosing different directions on my second play-through, I discovered that he had some solid legitimate reasons for killing my character (really!) and in the less tragic story-lines he is actually a gentle, devoted, caring partner, despite a crushingly brutal past that haunts his every step.

Aside from his bad-ending (murder…) route, Saint is actually not particularly problematic, so I’d like to present a more blatant example of the “reprehensible love interest”…

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Diabolik Lovers, by Rejet

Diabolik Lovers began as an otome visual novel game franchise, but has since been turned into manga, anime, a stage musical, and tons of drama cds and merchandise in Japan. I stumbled upon the subbed anime on Crunchyroll a few years ago, starting a personal infatuation with this vampire series- a series featuring characters that are unabashedly terrible in their treatment of the female protagonist, Yui.

Yui is a Mary-Sue type character often seen in otome series-  aside from some rare moments of tenacity, she is presented as an unremarkable, quiet, polite young lady. She’s a sort of vanilla stand-in for the viewer or player, one which they can easily replace with themselves.

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Her potential suitors, on the other hand, are some very strong personalities. Their dispositions differ widely, ranging from hysterical and possessive to dismissive and toying. What unites all of the Sakamaki boys, though, is the way they all cruelly use and abuse Yui to sate their thirsts for blood and amusement.

Some hardcore fans will argue that by the end of the plotline their favorite boy truly loves Yui and is deeply devoted to her, but let’s be real here: that doesn’t excuse the abuse, and nobody is compelled to watch the Dialover anime or play the Dialover games because of the romance. The average viewer would be repelled by the sadistic, narcissistic, misogynistic and psychopathic actions of the Sakamaki family (some of my friends certainly are). The Sakamaki brothers each in turn physically restrain Yui, attack her verbally and physically (mainly through biting and taking her blood against her will) and deceive her naive and trusting nature unendingly. Each boy has a different demeaning nickname for Yui (Pancake, Sow, Bitch-chan, and so on…). So why are some people, like myself, drawn to these characters who are obviously toxic?

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This scene from Watamote is literally me T-T

This conundrum has fascinated me for some time. Why am I attracted to characters in fantasy that would make me miserable in real life? Is this predilection linked to the dark triad of features that supposedly signal a capable mate, triggering some biological response in me? Am I simply bored by predictable good guys and their chivalry? Is it pure masochism on my part? While not everyone falls for the charms of the bad boy, i’m certainly not unique in this regard, and there are lots of potential reasons someone might be willingly pulled over to the dark side.

Whatever the reason, the truth is that I and many others enjoy these sorts of flawed, dangerous, cruel characters, even when they are at their worst. While I understand the criticisms of series like Diabolik Lovers,  I believe we mustn’t equate a portrayal of an abusive or problematic fictional character with the actions of a person in real life or an endorsement of these kinds of relationships.

It’s okay to enjoy a romantic fantasy, even a dark and twisted one.

I am an advocate for the freedom to read, write, and create without restrictions. No work will be pleasing to everyone, and some may find certain works distasteful, but we must remember that these stories are fictional. When I immerse myself in an otome game, it is my choice, and I can withdraw my consent from the experience at any time by pressing the “power off” button on my Vita. I don’t confuse the tangled relationships in the fictional stories I enjoy with my real life relationships, which are thankfully much less dramatic than the ones I read, watch, and play.


 

Abuse is wrong. Verbal, physical, and sexual abuse have no place in a healthy relationship. Consent is vital. I don’t condone abuse in real life.

The fantasy world of books, movies, and video games are a space where the dangerous sides of love and lust can be explored safely- the cat and mouse game, which is exciting in theory but potentially devastating in real life, can be enjoyed in a make-believe format in which the consumer controls (while enjoying being “controlled” artificially).

We can and should continue to reflect on characters, and each person can determine for themselves what they enjoy or do not enjoy reading, watching, or playing, but there should be no shame for enjoying reprehensible love interests in fiction!

 

Bad Taste in (Fictional) Men

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by freaky and evil characters.

I’ve blogged previously about how Elijah Wood was my first crush, and he’s pretty cuddly generally speaking, but bear in mind that I developed that crush only when I saw him with unnaturally pale stabbed-by-the-nazgul-help-me-i’m-dying eyes. I remember that moment, when my adolescent mind was like “oh”.

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^so healthy, so wholesome

It was only downhill from there, my friends.

In most stories the main protagonist is presented as the desirable one, clean-cut and clean of conscience. Yet I’m always drawn to the dark and devilish characters, who are sometimes but not always the cunning asshole characters, the ones who are equipped with a snarling mouth, deeply condescending voice, and heavy lidded eyes full of spite.

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Or, sometimes they are good, well meaning characters who are facing something tragic and/or are severely misunderstood.

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^Brandon Lee as The Crow

Occasionally they are cocky and controlling, complete with lust for power and soulless eyes.

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^Ezra Miller as Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin (yeah, I know, totally evil character, I’m not proud that I was attracted to Kevin! But Ezra IS really handsome, so I hope that has a lot to do with it…)

Usually the characters I am interested in are different than the characters my friends (and the general public, I’d think) are drawn to.

In my mid-teens, the tumultuous time of hormones and serious crushes, I fell head over heels for Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, and his plentiful eyeliner. Subsequently I sought out more of his films and swooned over Edward Scissorhands, Ichabod Crane, and Sweeney Todd. Johnny was my first HARDCORE crush. Perhaps the most hardcore i’ve ever had or will have T-T

While I had a fleeting crush on Ron in Harry Potter, Snape and Lucius had more staying power.

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Criss Angel had a claim to my heart at one point, too. I remember rushing home from theatre practice so I wouldn’t miss Mindfreak (as well as InuYasha, but my anime crushes could fill an other entire blog post, so I won’t go there for now).

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Here are some more that come to mind:

Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler (X2)

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Clancy Brown as The Kurgan (Highlander)

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Ville Valo (H.I.M.)

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Tim Curry as Darkness (Legend)

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Timour Bourtasenkov as The Wolf (Red Riding Hood, 1997)

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I also fell hard for Louis and Lestat, at which point I realized I totally had a thing for vampires- capable fangs, pale skin eclipsed by crimson, captivation by luminescent eyes, an uncontrollable craving that drove them to desperation… freaking gothic euphemisms for sexual expression!

I’ve sought out so many vampire movies, but Interview with the Vampire is something truly special.

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Bonus points for Armand!

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Triple bonus points for QOTD lestat!

Now that i’m into kpop (namely SHINee), the music videos and performances that excite me the most are usually the ones involving aesthetics of darkness:

 

Tricksters and eccentrics often also captivate me:

Michael Sheen as Castor/Zuse from Tron: Legacy

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Heath Ledger as The Joker

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Hiddles as Loki

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^Yet more bonus points for sexy mouthguard!

Heck, even Kenny from Kenny vs Spenny has given me feelings a few times, and Kenny’s whole point is that he’s (sorry Kenny) kind of a mean, obscene, no holds barred asshat!

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^(Deep down I think you’re probably a nice guy though, right Kenny? Reeeeallly deep down? Maybe? >.> )

I say all this with the caveat that I DON’T think it’s a good thing to want to date someone who is actually emotionally manipulative, controlling or otherwise horrible to you. Happily, I  fell in love with my husband, a man who is warm, funny, silly, and kind- the opposite of a creepy, manipulative, controlling jerk!

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^& He puts up with my fangirl ways! ❤

To bring all of this full circle back to Lord of the Rings, here is a word of advice: never tell your friends “you know, there’s just something about Grima Wormtongue”, because they will never let you live it down.

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“Who knows what you have spoken to the darkness,

alone, in the bitter watches of the night?”

 

 

Graphic Novels for Pride Month!

June is Pride Month!

Graphic novels are a huge interest of mine, so i’d like to share some awesome LGBTQ+ graphic novels to check out if you haven’t already! 🙂

 

Heathen by Natasha Alterici, Charles Martin, Rebecca Rutledge and Kristen Grace

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Love is Love by Marc Andreyko, Phil Jimenez, et al.  (anthology, tribute to victims of Orlando nightclub shooting)

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Are You My Mother? By Alison Bechdel

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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

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Wet Moon by Sophie Campbell

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The Bride was a Boy by Chii

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Anything That Loves edited by Charles “Zan” Christensen

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Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse

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Transposes by Dylan Edwards

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Moonstruck (Series) by Grace Ellis, Shae Beagle and Kate Leth

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Husbands by Jane Espenson et al.

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Bingo Love by Tee Franklin, Jenn St. Onge, Joy San and Genevieve FT

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Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir by Nicole J. Georges

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As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman

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Kim Reaper by Sarah Graley

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No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics edited by Justin Hall

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Adrian and the Tree of Secrets by Hubert and Marie Caillou

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Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele

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My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Nagata Kabi

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QU33R edited by Rob Kirby

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100 Crushes by Elisha Lim

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Beyond: The Queer Sci-fi & Fantasy Comic Anthology edited by Sfe R. Monster

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Blue is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh

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Dar: A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary, Volume One by Erika Moen

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On Loving Women by Diane Obomsawin and Helge Dascher

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Princess Princess Ever After by Katie o’Neill

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Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince

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Sunstone series by Stjepan Sejik

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Snapshots of a Girl by Beldan Sezen

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Wandering Son by Takako Shimura

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Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag by A.K. Summers

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Go for it, Nakamura! By Syundei

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My Brother’s Husband series by Gengoroh Tagame

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Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

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Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash

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The Backstagers by James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh

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Kim & Kim by Magdalene Visaggio, Eva Cabrera, and Claudia Aguirre

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Spinning by Tillie Walden

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The Less than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal by E.K. Weaver

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Taproot by Keezy Young

 

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A Rather Overdue Love Letter to Elijah Wood from Alberta’s Unfortunate Fangirl

Dear Elijah Wood,

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My friends have been tagging me in posts like these ^ with lots of exclamation marks to let me know you are coming to the Calgary Expo next weekend; this is because I have awesome friends who know that I enjoy travelling to the nerd expos, that I am a huge fan of yours, and that LOTR was my first ever fandom. Unfortunately I won’t be able to realize my dream of meeting you this time, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Now, about The Lord of the Rings. My Dad got me into the books when I was 10 years old. He wanted to make sure I read them before the movies came out, and for that I am eternally grateful. The books were (and are) life-changingly excellent, and catapulted me into a lifelong love of reading. The movies took my interest to the next level- Dad and I bonded over the cinematic masterpiece of the trilogy as each movie came out. I got “the shakes” after watching The Fellowship of the Ring in the theatre because it affected me so much (ok, maybe that was also partially due to sitting tensely and staring at an illuminated screen for 3 hours straight).

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^ Freaking iconic!

LOTR became my obsession, I was seeking it, seeking it, all my thought was bent on it. I had a literal shrine in my bedroom with everything from a paper-mache Sting dagger to a Gandalf the White cardboard standee that my shy mother somehow haggled off of a movie store employee because she knew it would bring me joy. I took a replica One Ring off of a bookmark and attached it to a necklace that I wore to school regularly- I remember being called “Ring Girl” because of it. I got a set of plastic Fellowship figurines for Christmas one year and took them into the snowy woods with my camera, attempting to recreate scenes from the movies. (The resulting photos were about as impressive as you’d expect).

Elijah, you were also my first ever crush. Because I’m a freaking weirdo, I realized you were my first crush in The Fellowship of The Ring when Frodo was stabbed with the Morgul blade by the Nazgul and his eyes became all pale and creepy.

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^ boyfriend material

I had an account on one of your fansites where I posted in forums for the first time in my young life, squeeing enviously over posts where other girls recounted times they met you in person at various events. I frequented lordoftherings.net and refreshed the page every 10 seconds so I could hear every version of the randomized intro “Hi, this is [actor name] and welcome to lordoftherings.net”, but I especially got excited to hear your voice.

While my tween obsession of near-stalker levels has faded, I am definitely your fan forever.

I tried drawing you as Frodo a few weeks ago. I wish I could say that I cut the left side of the picture like that for artistic or compositional reasons, but really it was because I made your right eye freakishly large. Sorry.

I’m a married woman now, but once a fangirl always a fangirl. I’m an eternal Ringer- as both a Lord of the Rings fan as well as a member of a handbell choir- how about that. Speaking of handbell choir, I was in the novice group previously but I lost my mind and managed to shoehorn my way into the advanced group when I found out they are learning none other than THEMES FROM THE FREAKING LORD OF THE RINGS!

Last year I had the privilege of meeting and getting a picture with Mr. John Rhys-Davies at the Edmonton Comic & Entertainment Expo. He complimented me on my cosplay. I told him “you’re my favorite dwarf forever” and he said “aw, I love you”. My little hobbit heart grew three sizes that day.

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I also managed to get a pic with Sauron himself. He’s actually a really nice guy.

The year before that I met Billy Boyd and was entranced by his Beecake concert. Bought all the CDs!

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^ (Sorry Billy, the real picture is on an external harddrive tucked away somewhere and I am too lazy to find it at the moment, but here is a blurry picture of the picture of me and Billy Boyd, screen-grabbed from a picture of me holding the picture of me and Billy Boyd!)

I’d very much love the opportunity to meet you too, Elijah. I was more than ready to drive or fly to Calgary to see you.

But Elijah, would you believe that the very weekend you are visiting is the same weekend I am going to my first ever Library Conference, and as a speaker? I have worked at a library for 7 years and in September I am beginning my Master program with the goal of becoming a librarian. At the Alberta Library Conference in Jasper, Friday afternoon, I am doing a presentation session on the versatility of the graphic novel format. I’m super passionate about it and excited for the opportunity (been prepping it and working on my public speaking skills for several months!), but I can’t say i’m not bummed out that I am missing the opportunity to see you at the expo in Calgary.

So, since I can’t say it there, let me say it here- I think you’re Terrific with a capital T, you gave us the perfect Frodo and made my tween heart flutter- thank you for coming to Alberta- I hope you have fun in Calgary, and I’m sorry I’ll miss you when you’re here!

-Sincerely, Shauna

P.S. if you have time, feel free to swing by Jasper and crash the Alberta Library Convention! You know you want another adventure in the mountains! XD