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!

 

Care about your kids? Canada, Let’s Talk About Sex-Ed

In 2015, the year I graduated with my Bachelor of Education, a new sex-ed curriculum was introduced. It is a heavily updated version, the result of a lengthy consultation process involving child development experts, educators, police, and thousands of parents. It provides health information for students that is scientific and unbiased. It is inclusive and consent based.

Some infuriating news is emerging from Ontario right now as Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced that the new Ford government has made good on campaign promises to set sex-ed back 20 years to a curriculum that is so far removed from the realities of 2018 as to be an absolute embarrassment.

HIT ME BABY ONE MORE TIME

Fellow Canadians, remember 1998? The year of our insane ice storm that encased cars in ice, devastated power lines, ripped trees from their roots, and formed icicles as tall as your house?

Yeah, you know, 1998, when

  • Windows 98 was released by Microsoft
  • Titanic and A Bug’s Life hit the theatres
  • Pokemon Red and Blue were released in North America
  • Furby was the most anticipated Christmas gift

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Yes, that’s when the former health curriculum was made- a time before wifi and camera phones. It was a time when cyber-bullying and sexting weren’t even on our radar, and neither were visible, meaningful discussions about consent.

I’ve seen protesters, opponents of the 2015 sex ed curriculum, holding posters saying “Say NO to irresponsible sex ed”. You know what was irresponsible? Using the 1998 curriculum for so long when it was so far behind the times.

I get it, talking about sex makes some people uncomfortable. Guess what folks, that’s WHY we need comprehensive and factual sex ed in our schools. Real sex-ed saves lives.

If you think it’s solely the responsibility of parents to discuss sex, do you trust that all OTHER parents are teaching THEIR kids about respect, consent, sexting, cyber-bullying, and sexual violence? If you read the news regularly, you know this isn’t the case, and kids suffer for it. Sometimes they die because of it.

Kids are going to learn about sex before they are adults, and not just from their schools or parents. Most grade 8 students have seen their fair share of hardcore pornography.  This is reality. Is this how we want our kids to learn about sex?

We need to acknowledge the importance of all kids receiving a proper health and sex education that will prepare them for the world.

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TOO MUCH TOO SOON?

There are tons of myths floating around about the new curriculum that make it sound like some pretty “explicit” stuff will be taught to young elementary school kids, but it’s simply not true. For example, consent is examined at a young age as a concept (as in “you can say no if someone asks you do to something that makes you uncomfortable”) but it is not framed in the context of sex for that age group.

For that matter, don’t believe the myth that engaging critically and matter-of-factly about sex is going to make your kids want to start trying things with themselves or others (the opposite is true). 

Kids are going to learn bits and pieces from all over the place- a solid sex ed curriculum in public schools ensures that they get accurate FACTS. Education is the best form of protection there is.

SO, WHAT IS IN THE CURRICULUM?

The 2015 curriculum is equipped for fostering safety and empowerment in students by introducing the following concepts at developmentally appropriate times from K-12:

  • Learning about the proper names of body parts, which child-abuse educators urged would empower kids to speak up about violence and abuse
  • Personal and online safety, including cyber-bulling and sexting
  • Respecting differences, including sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression (recognizing that respecting these differences is enshrined in Canadian law )
  • Healthy relationships, respect, identity, sexuality

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For those who disagree with the updated curriculum, you have the option of pulling your kid from health classes if you like. That is your choice. Heck, you can even withdraw your kids from public school completely and homeschool them. Unfortunately, instead the “Progressive” Conservatives are regressing the curriculum for the entire student body.

Now teachers are left in the uncomfortable position of having to alter their plans toward a curriculum that is clearly not in the best interests of the students.

SO WHAT CAN WE DO?

Some teachers are firmly refusing to revert back to the old 1998 curriculum, and in doing so are taking a stand against this ignorant knee-jerk decision. One inspiring sexuality educator in Toronto, Nadine Thornhill, is creating a video project to ensure the 2015 curriculum is still accessible to anyone who wants to access it.

Just as some educators refused to address parts of the new curriculum when it was implemented in 2016, so too other educators will now surely elaborate on topics in the classroom as they see fit regardless of the current regression to the 1998 curriculum.

I hope that school and public libraries will also increase the visibility and accessibility of titles that address consent, comprehensive sexual education, gender identity, gender expression, LGBTQ+, and online safety.

Soon I will post a blog post with recommendations of book titles on these topics.