Red Riding Hood (2011): The Heroine’s Journey Into the Forest – Athena Bellas

Figure 1: Red Riding Hood as powerful hunter, armed with a weapon in Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood

In the closing scenes of Catherine Hardwicke’s recent teen film Red Riding Hood (2011), heroine Valerie, armed with a dagger, journeys into the forest to hunt and kill the big bad wolf. After slaying the beast in a bloody battle, Valerie does not return home to be chastised by the traditional well-known moral of the tale: ‘do not stray from the path’.[1] No such moral exists at the end of this particular ‘Red Riding Hood’ retelling. Instead, Valerie rejects her family home and takes up residence in the forest with another wolf, her lover Peter, and the film closes on the blissful contentment of their (paranormal) romance. This article charts how, in this contemporary teen film, the trope of the female adolescent’s voyage into the forest represents an empowering entry into personal freedom, power, and self-definition. At the same time, the film displays the contemporary teen media landscape’s obsession with fairy tale and paranormal romance, with its emphasis on the pleasures of heterosexual romance between the desiring heroine and her ‘dark lover.’ The journey into the forest in contemporary teen films and television is significant to chart, because it is through the journey into this space, and the magical transformations that she undergoes there, that provides the heroine with a unique opportunity to shift into a position of power and liberty.

Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood emerges in a current teen screen media landscape obsessed with this aspect of the fairy tale and the paranormal romance. Interestingly, many of these texts, including blockbuster films like Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke 2008), The Hunger Games (Gary Ross 2012), and Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders 2012), as well as television series like The Vampire Diaries (Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson 2009-) and The Secret Circle (Andrew Miller 2011-2012), situate their heroine’s journey centrally within a forest space. As she journeys into the forest, the heroine undergoes an often supernatural transformation into a beast or beast-like creature such as a werewolf or vampire. During this metamorphosis, the heroine develops physical strength and prowess, bravery and fearlessness. The journey into the forest is the catalyst for the heroine’s beastly transformation, and her evolution into an empowered position in the world. In these teen screen texts, the enchanted forest space has become an imaginative horizon on which to explore and celebrate female mobility, agency and even aggression.

But at the same time, the heroines of these texts also encounter and fall in love with a magical male creature in the forest – werewolves, vampires, warlocks, and ghosts are particularly popular. In television series The Vampire Diaries, for example, heroine Elena becomes a vampire and as she discovers her extraordinary physical strength and her lust for blood, she also enjoys a romantic relationship with vampire boyfriend Stefan (as well as potential lover Damon). Similarly, in Hardwicke’s film previous to Red Riding Hood, the wildly successful teen blockbuster Twilight (2008), grounds the paranormal romance between vampire Edward Cullen and human Bella Swan in the lush geography of the woods.

In this way, these texts enact postfeminist rewritings of the fairy tale – retaining a focus on the pleasures of romance but also incorporating new elements like the female-as-hunter and the celebration of her agency, aggression and power. The representation of strength, freedom and mobility, coupled with an emphasis on the heterosexual romantic union, is particularly inflected by the postfeminist sensibility that surrounds much of contemporary teen screen media today. The postfeminist signifies a ‘move away from easy categorisations and binaries, including the dualistic patterns of (male) power and (female) oppression on which much feminist thought and politics are built.’[2] Rather than representing the heroine’s empowerment and agency in conflict with the romance narrative of the ‘dangerous lover’, the postfeminist text often unites these elements, allowing both to exist in a non-binaristic way, and not having to give up one element for the other.[3] In Red Riding Hood, for example, the story emphasises the importance and power of independent female mobility through the figure of Valerie as a powerful lone hunter journeying into the forest to slay the beast. But at the same time, it also emphasises the theme of escape through romance with the prioritisation of the heterosexual relationship. So this postfeminist fairy tale film wants, and has it, both ways; it navigates both paths through the fairy tale forest at the same time. On the one hand, it champions Valerie as an independent hunter but on the other hand it also promotes an image of fulfilment through love and a heterosexual romantic coupling. This film promotes an image of mobility across spaces but also across identities, for Valerie is both violent hunter and romantic lover in the forest. She is not locked into either identity, but rather is able to occupy both.

Fairy tale scholar Cristina Bacchilega writes that in contemporary retellings of the ‘Red Riding Hood’ tale, ‘straying from the path is necessary’.[4] Red Riding Hood constructs this necessary straying across the filmic landscape to celebrate the errant journey of heroine Valerie. Rebelling against the strictures of her daily life, Valerie escapes into the forest and is rewarded with knowledge, agency, power and the fulfilment of her desire. The film utilises the geography of the fairy tale forest to tell a story of female mobility and agency. Hardwicke’s film rewrites and revalues Red Riding Hood’s wayward journey in the forest – straying from the path is represented as not only necessary, but also positive, satisfying, and empowering for the heroine. This journey leads her to traverse broad new horizons of independence and transformation.

Figure 2: Snow White battles against fearsome creatures in ‘The Dark Forest’ in Snow White and the Huntsman. Like many heroines of contemporary fairy tale teen films, this Snow White discovers strength, power and bravery within herself in the forest space.

The moral of the tale, ‘don’t stray from the path’ dissipates in many contemporary revisions in favour of errant travel, and indeed, it is nowhere to be seen in Hardwicke’s retelling of the tale. No longer a didactic emblem[5], the path through the forest is presented as a positive opportunity for the heroine’s independent travel, which allows for a rebellion against the strictures imposed upon her as well as a transformation into a mobile, empowered position in the world.

Red Riding Hood: Pursuing An Errant Path

In both the Perrault and Grimm versions of ‘Red Riding Hood’, the heroines’ straying from the path has negative consequences – in the former she is killed, and in the latter she is devoured and only narrowly escapes death when the huntsman rescues her from the belly of the beast. Bacchilega reads these gruesome endings as punishments for heroines who have acted up and disobeyed orders[6], writing that ‘[t]he girl has learned her lesson: obey your mother and don’t give in to errant desires’.[7] In her extensive study of the evolution of the ‘Red Riding Hood’ tale in popular culture, Red Riding Hood Uncloaked (2002), Catherine Orenstein similarly points out that these endings functioned as ‘warnings’ for young girls to not disobey authority.[8] The admonishing warning ‘do not stray from the path,’ coupled with the heroine’s death at the end of the story highlight the negativity in which this forest voyage has been shrouded. However, in postfeminist cinematic retellings like Hardwicke’s, the heroine is not punished for her errant travel into the forest; her journey is not represented as a shocking transgression that must be corrected. Rather, the journey comes to represent the heroine’s agency and empowerment and the film celebrates this by allowing her to defeat the wolf, and rewarding her with the pleasures of an alternative path outside of her everyday life.

Marilyn C. Wesley points out that often ‘women’s travel serves as a trope of female agency.’[9] To undertake a journey, beyond the limits of what is familiar and set, is to expand into spaces of ‘alternative possibility.’[10] Contemporary retellings of the ‘Red Riding Hood’ tale, including those seen in the teen film genre, have revised the tale to tell stories of female mobility and agency. In contemporary teen films like Red Riding Hood, Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett 2000), Ella Enchanted (Tommy O’Haver 2004) and Snow White and the Huntsman the fairy tale forest is invoked as the grounds for female travel where ‘alternative possibilities’ of identity, experience and desire can come into play. In these films, the heroine journeys from the limiting boundaries of her home and into the forest where she not only finds escape from these limits, but also undergoes empowering and powerful personal transformations.

The wide-open spaces of the forest in these teen films are liminal zones for adolescent transformations. Anthropologist Victor Turner writes that the liminal, the ambiguous territory of ‘betwixt-and-between’, provides a ‘time of enchantment when anything might, even should, happen.’[11] This ‘time of enchantment’ provides room for play, experimentation with multiple identities, and purposefully breaking rules.[12] Adrian Martin has applied Turner’s observation of liminality to teen cinema. He writes that ‘teen stories are about…the liminal experience: that intense, suspended moment between yesterday and tomorrow, between childhood and adulthood, between being a nobody and being a somebody, when everything is in question, and anything is possible.’[13] Catherine Driscoll similarly remarks that this is a utopian space for teen film, providing a ‘fantasy of freedom.’[14] This utopian sense of expanded possibilities and freedom in the teen fairy tale film is particularly embodied in the space of the forest, where magical transformations can occur (for example, Ginger’s transformation into a wolf in Ginger Snaps), magical powers can be accessed (for example, the teen witches who perform spells in the forest in The Craft [Andrew Fleming 1996] and in The Secret Circle) and encounters with paranormal or magical creatures take place.

This encounter with the magical and the supernatural in the fairy tale forest announces this space as one of potential to go beyond the structures and strictures of daily life, displaying the fairy tale’s ability to provide ‘open spaces for dreaming alternatives…announcing what might be.[15] What is particularly interesting about these contemporary cinematic rewritings of ‘Red Riding Hood’ is how the heroines’ straying from the path is positively valued, and her encounter with the wolf or other magical being is empowering rather than victimising. Indeed, as Catherine Orenstein notes, the heroine is now often reclaimed ‘from the belly of the beast and put in the place, and even in the fur, of the wolf.’[16] Orenstein goes on to assert that this contemporary shift in the dynamics of the tale ‘has turned out to be one of the most fertile and surprisingly recurrent themes [in contemporary fairy tale revisions]: the power of the wolf’s pelt to transform the heroine.’[17] These teen films mobilise ‘witch and werewolf identities to symbolise forbidden emotions such as power, lust, and rage.’[18] Sue Short notes ‘what is remarkable about The Craft and Ginger Snaps’, and indeed, I would add Red Riding Hood, is that ‘the female outsiders willingly embrace these castigated images [of wolf and witch] as an alternative to existing norms, adopting them as a measure of dissatisfaction and refusal.’[19] This subversion of expectation and movement into another territory altogether is what precipitates change and transformation, magic and enchantment, pleasure and power, for Valerie in Red Riding Hood.

The scenes set in the town are shot in often claustrophobic close-ups, and lit low-key to shroud figures in darkness. These tightly framed, darkened shots of the town, along with multiple scenes set in prison cells and tiny attics create a lack of space and freedom to move. Valerie is literally cramped in in the town, her movements and gestures restricted and made small by a lack of space. Set in vaguely medieval times – though the date is never specified – Valerie lives in a culture ruled by the severe strictures dictated by fathers and lawmen. She has been betrothed to a man she does not desire to marry, and has no choice in the matter. She is forbidden from speaking her mind, making plans for her own life, or even venturing out of the town and into the forest. Fred Botting writes that in the female Gothic, the heroine must often flee her home and enter the forest in order to escape from a ‘cruel and tyrannical familial order’.[20] Into the forest she goes, where her ‘desire wanders, off course, flying to “wild zones” where femininity encounters the possibility of becoming something other: the ruins and forests that are uncharted places of darkness and danger are also loci free from the restraints of law.’[21] However, Botting also points out that the heroine’s journey is often circumvented at the end of the novel when she is brought out of the forest, and she is re-domesticated.[22]

However, in Red Riding Hood, no such re-domestication occurs. Valerie violates all of these bans and decides to travel a forbidden path into the forest as a permanent escape, as a refusal of these expectations. She does not return home but rather permanently situates herself on the forbidden path. Traveling this forbidden path is a subversive move for Red Riding Hood. Her resistance to the limitations imposed upon her begins when she sets out on her journey into the woods, unsatisfied by the terms that limit her life set by her parents. The further into the forest that Valerie travels, the more expansive and panoramic her views and paths become. In contrast to the cramped, suffocated spatiality of the town, in the wide-open space of the forest, her strides are long, fluid, and assured. She shakes off these restrictions and is released into wide-ranging spaces open to errant traversals and multiple unbounded routes.

It is here that she finds a measure of freedom that she does not want to relinquish. In Red Riding Hood, the forest expands beyond the limits of the town Valerie lives in. When Valerie enters the forest, going beyond the barriers of the town, she is able to express anger, power, and desire – emotions ordinarily considered taboo for young women to express.[23] Mapping herself into this geography through errant travel, Valerie expresses anger and violence, and claims her power when she kills the wolf.

She declares in her voice-over narration that ‘I could no longer live there [in the town]. I felt more freedom in the shadows of the forest. To live apart carries its own dangers, but of those I am less afraid.’ While Valerie does not literally become a wolf as in other recent teen films like Ginger Snaps, she does nevertheless adopt a wolf-like identity. Valerie not only discovers that she has the potential to become a wolf – she is descended from ancestors who were wolves and thus has wolf blood coursing through her veins – and one bite from another wolf would activate her own becoming-wolf process. While this is not a process she chooses to undergo, she does decide to reside in the ‘shadows of the forest’ with the wolves whose language she is able to speak as a result of her lupine lineage, and she chooses this outside space as her residence. But rather than being punished with death, as in Perrault’s and the Grimm’s popular versions of the tale, Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood is actually rewarded. Having undertaken this subversive secret journey away from the familiar strictures of daily life, Valerie attains a space of her own and a lover of her choosing.

Figure 2: Snow White battles against fearsome creatures in ‘The Dark Forest’ in Snow White and the Huntsman. Like many heroines of contemporary fairy tale teen films, this Snow White discovers strength, power and bravery within herself in the forest space.

Deborah Lutz observes that this decision to reside on the outside with a ‘dangerous lover’ constitutes an overwhelmingly dominant trajectory for contemporary romances.[24] Recent teen-girl films inflect their fairy tale forests with this overtone of romance, particularly of the Gothic variety, and Red Riding Hood, along with other popular films like Snow White and the Huntsman and Twilight, displays this inflection. Landscape unleashes romantic pleasures as the heroines of teen cinema navigate the tender geographies of the forest. The liminal movement from civilisation to forest is announced as an amorous, tender passage. Mapping herself into this geography, the heroine permanently situates herself on the edge, refusing to return to the orderly and the civilised. This decision to permanently occupy this outside-space registers dissatisfaction with what the civilised has to offer. Turning to the wilderness, the girl finds that it unfolds as the fabric of her desire. Remarkably, this is not a fleeting interval to be pursued before returning to the regimented world; it constitutes a real escape from it.

In these films, the girl’s passage through the wilderness is driven by a quest for knowledge. Valerie undertakes a journey into the forest in order to discover who the wolf is. Bound up with this knowledge quest is Valerie’s path towards romantic love with her gentle wolf-lover Peter.[25] Escape through love is, as Deborah Lutz points out, the dominant trope of many contemporary romances,[26] and films like Red Riding Hood follow suit. Escaping the regimented world by entering the fairy-tale forest with a beast-lover, a romantic map of tender exploration unfolds before the heroine. Some contemporary teen films like Red Riding Hood and Twilight, as well as popular teen television series like The Vampire Diaries celebrate the male wolf or beast as a romantic, gentle figure who brings out the latent wildness of the heroine. The teen girl journeys into the forest to hunt down and encounter magical creatures like vampires and werewolves; she then chooses them as lovers. Her desire is at the forefront of the rite-of-passage journey, and it becomes the very texture of the fairy-tale forest space.

Indeed, Marina Warner comments that postmodern rewritings of the fairy tale are overwhelmingly dominated by the idea that ‘Beauty stands in need of the Beast’ and that ‘He no longer stands outside her, the threat of male sexuality in bodily form…but he holds up a mirror to the force of nature within her, which she is invited to accept and allow to grow.’[27] In these rewritings, the beast is not a deadly, dreaded danger to the innocent heroine; rather, his gentle beastliness is attractive to the heroine and she pursues him as a romantic partner. Cristina Bacchilega comments that this romantic reconfiguration of the physical dynamic between wolf and girl is particularly potent: ‘By acting out her [sexual] desires the girl offers herself as flesh, not meat. The “carnivorous” nature of their encounter is transformed’ into a tender embrace.[28] This transit has become a mode of transformation, both for the hero and heroine. In this postfeminist retelling of ‘Red Riding Hood’, the heroine journeys into the forest and is transformed: she is given the space to act out violence and anger, but also desire and romance. In undertaking this journey, Valerie’s agency is activated and her desire mobilised.

The Fairy Tale’s Mobile Map: Errant Views, Expansive Vistas

In Red Riding Hood, the heroine’s physical mobility and liberty is echoed by the camera as it moves across the filmic landscape, and as the viewer’s eyes also move across this screened space, the mobility of the film’s cartography is revealed. It is significant that the teen viewer is so strongly aligned with the heroine’s mobility in this way, for this mode of filmic travel acts as an invitation to explore imaginative horizons and locations in which female liberty and agency is prioritised. This invitation to errant visual travel aligns the viewer with the active, empowered heroine and her mobile perspective.

The film’s and viewer’s movements across this landscape can be considered via Giuliana Bruno’s ‘moving theory of site.’ As the camera navigates its way through cinematic space, it becomes ‘a vehicle of travel.’ When ‘the movie camera becomes a moving camera’ it can literally become ‘a means of transport’ for the viewer.[29] Bruno is particularly discussing the mobile camera in urban spaces and scenes, but her moving theory of site is useful in this instance of fairy tale forest geography too. From the very beginning of Red Riding Hood, during the opening credits, the forest is announced as a map designed for errant travel, motion, and wide-ranging journeying. This opening scene provides the viewer with a moving map of the fairy tale forest space that will be navigated throughout the rest of the film: we are given an elaborately extensive visual itinerary of rushing rivers, jagged precipices, emerald green thrushes of trees, and soft snow-covered expanses. Each point on the map is lingered on and recorded in turn, creating a detailed itinerary of the fairy tale forest’s landmarks. In this way, the viewer is presented with a cinematic map of this space right from the outset of the film, situating attention in this geography and creating a map that we are invited to traverse throughout the rest of the film.

Figure 4: Venturing far from the limits of the town, Valerie finds beautifully expansive landscapes to traverse and vistas to behold

In panoramic aerial views, the camera pans and glides across these expansive locations throughout the film. This continuous, fluid, gliding motion of the camera across this topography highlights the mobility of this map. The viewer offered many multiple views of different points on the map to visually discover: rivers and rocks, trees and sky, snow and mountains. In being offered so many multiple places and vistas to visually contemplate, the viewer is invited to move their attention from location to location, perspective to perspective, across sweeping panoramas, encouraging us to encounter this map through transitory motion. As the viewer visually explores these vistas, the camera is always in motion, panning and moving across this geography to create a moving map of the fairy tale forest. This motion of the camera across the forest allows the viewer to explore and visually roam about this filmic map, visiting many points on its itinerary and exploring them from many angles, distances and perspectives.

This wide-ranging, roaming camera across open spaces presents an invitation for wandering, exploring, voyaging on an unbound map, echoing Valerie’s own freewheeling traversal of this open space. Viewers are invited to travel across this dynamic panorama of the forest in a similar way to Valerie, and it becomes a visually traversable geography. Aligned with Valerie’s point of view in this way allows the teen viewer to explore and consider the heroine’s unique position of liberty, mobility and agency. Conley asserts that the landscape in film ‘propels narrative but also, dividing our attention, prompts reverie and causes our eyes to look both inward, at our own geographies, and outward, to rove about the frame and to engage, however we wish, the space of the film.’[30] The wide shots of landscape, and the constantly moving camera across these stunning vistas, promotes a viewing of the film that is mobile. Conley writes that this mobility of vision can be thought of as ‘applied distraction’ and ‘free attention’, ‘being errant but available to fix upon and discern different mental and physical sites.’[31] The mobility of vision across this cinematic geography of the fairy tale forest can be considered an inherently errant process: it invites vision to roam across moving panoramas freely, and to explore the map in an unruly way. This errant roaming provides an invitation for the viewer to explore expansive imaginative horizons on which female mobility and agency are prioritised.

The forest emerges as a geography through which to explore female power and liberty in this film. As the heroine journeys into this space, as she travels deeper into the forest, her supernatural powers are gradually revealed to her and then exercised and enjoyed. The errant journey into the forest signifies a journey into power and freedom for the heroine undergoing a beastly becoming or a beast-like becoming. This geography provides an itinerary of the heroine’s transformations, and the viewer is invited to travel that itinerary of her evolution.

Figure 5: Aerial views of the forest geography in Red Riding Hood provide the viewer with a mobile map of the enchanted forest space during the opening credits

The cartographic encounter with the fairy tale forest, both for the heroine and the viewer, is an unruly one in Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood. For Red Riding Hood, this unruliness is expressed through the forest journey. She ventures into the forest as a measure of her dissatisfaction with what everyday life has to offer, and refusing the terms it sets, she escapes into the wild. In the forest, she is able to access and express anger, violence and desire – actions and emotions ordinarily deemed taboo for the young girl to express. But rather than being punished for expressing these taboo emotions, and violating the restrictions that forbid her going into the forest, Hardwicke’s fairy tale rewards its heroine with a romantic union. Choosing a wolf as a romantic partner, and deciding to live in the wolf-inhabited woods, Valerie finds herself in a wide-open space that she can navigate as she pleases. Hardwicke’s cinematographic representation of the forest invites the viewer, too, to navigate this space in a similarly errant fashion. The viewer is presented with a map of expansive vistas and panoramas with a mobile camera, a detailed, sprawling, moving geography of the enchanted fairy tale forest. Given such mobile, extensive views, the audience is given the opportunity to visually explore and roam about this map, enacting an errant visual voyage across the image which allows for an imaginative exploration of a space defined by female mobility, agency, and liberty. The film celebrates such unruly travel, as not only a necessary act for Valerie to undertake to discover and kill the big bad wolf; it is also represented as a pleasurable journey, for she finds an independent space to inhabit and chooses the wolf lover that she wants. She has strayed from the path, and having found both agency and romance on the fringe of the forest, this Red Riding Hood stakes her claim on it as her own.



Bacchilega, Cristina, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997

Botting, Fred, ‘The Flight of the Heroine’. Postfeminist Gothic: Critical Interventions in Contemporary Culture. Eds. Genz, Stephanie and Brabon, Benjamin A, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007

Bruno, Giuliana, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film. New York: Verso, 2002

Conley, Tom, Cartographic Cinema. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007

Driscoll, Catherine, Teen Film: A Critical Introduction. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2011

Genz, Stephanie, Postfemininities in Popular Culture, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009

Lutz, Deborah, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006

Lutz, Deborah, ‘The Haunted Space of the Mind: The Revival of the Gothic Romance in the Twenty-First Century’. Empowerment Versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Goade, Sally, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007

Martin, Adrian, Phantasms: The Dreams and Desires at the Heart of our Popular Culture. Victoria: McPhee Gribble, 1994

Orenstein, Catherine, Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale. New York: Basic Books, 2002

Short, Sue, Misfit Sisters: Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006

Sweeney, Kathleen, Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age. New York: Peter Lang, 2008

Turner, Victor, Process, Performance and Pilgrimage: A Study in Comparative Symbology. New Delhi: Concept Publishing, 1979

Warner, Marina, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers. London: Vintage, 1994

Wesley, Marilyn C, Secret Journeys: The Trope of Women’s Travel in American Literature, New York: State University of New York Press, 1999



The Craft. Dir. Andrew Fleming. 1996

Ella Enchanted. Dir. Tommy O’Haver. 2004

Ginger Snaps. Dir. John Fawcett. 2000

The Hunger Games. Dir. Gary Ross. 2012

Red Riding Hood. Dir. Catherine Hardwicke. 2011

The Secret Circle. Exec Producer Andrew Miller. 2011-2012

Snow White and the Huntsman. Dir. Rupert Sanders. 2012

Twilight. Dir. Catherine Hardwicke. 2008

The Vampire Diaries. Exec. Producers Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson. 2009-



[1] Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Red Cap’. The Great fairy tale tradition: from Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm: texts, criticism. Ed. and Trans. Jack Zipes (New York: W. W. Norton 2001), 747

[2] Stephanie Genz, Postfemininities in Popular Culture (UK: Palgrave MacMillan 2009) 24

[3] Deborah Lutz, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 2006) 12. And Deborah Lutz, ‘The Haunted Space of the Mind: The Revival of the Gothic Romance in the Twenty-First Century’. Empowerment Versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Goade, Sally, (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2007) 90-91

[4] Cristina Bacchilega, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1997) 68

[5] Catherine Orenstein comments on this didacticism of the Grimms’ version of ‘Red Riding Hood’ when she writes that ‘the Grimms’ overarching aim – the clarify their lessons, teach morality to children, and promote their German middle-class values for the new Victorian family: discipline, piety, primacy of the father in the household and, above all, obedience’ in Catherine Orenstein Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale (New York: Basic Books 2002) 55

[6] Cristina Bacchilega, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1997) 69

[7] ibid 58

[8] Catherine Orenstein Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale (New York: Basic Books 2002) 55

[9] Marilyn C Wesley Secret Journeys: The Trope of Women’s Travel in American Literature, (New York: State University of New York Press 1999) xvii

[10] ibid, xv

[11] Victor Turner, Process, Performance and Pilgrimage: A Study in Comparative Symbology. (New Delhi: Concept Publishing 1979) 94 original emphasis

[12] ibid, 38

[13] Adrian Martin, Phantasms: The Dreams and Desires at the Heart of our Popular Culture. (Victoria: McPhee Gribble 1994) 68

[14] Catherine Driscoll, Teen Film: A Critical Introduction. (Oxford and New York: Berg 2011)


[15] Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (London: Vintage 1994) xvi emphasis added

[16] Catherine Orenstein Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale (New York: Basic Books 2002) 153

[17] ibid,163

[18] Sue Short, Misfit Sisters: Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage (New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2006) 36-37

[19] ibid, 105

[20] Fred Botting, ‘The Flight of the Heroine’. Postfeminist Gothic: Critical Interventions in Contemporary Culture. Eds. Genz, Stephanie and Brabon, Benjamin A, (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007) 175

[21] ibid

[22] ibid

[23] See: Kathleen Sweeney, Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age (New York: Peter Lang 2008) 131-137; and Sue Short, Misfit Sisters: Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage (New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2006) 35-37

[24] Deborah Lutz, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 2006) 5

[25] See also Ella Enchanted (Tommy O’Haver 2004), where Ella journeys through the forest to find out about the curse of obedience bestowed on her at birth. This quest for understanding the curse leads to her undoing it and finally becoming autonomous. As in Red Riding Hood, there is a simultaneous romantic rite of passage alongside the knowledge quest, as Ella meets a prince in the forest, has adventures with him, and falls in love.

[26] Deborah Lutz, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 2006) 87

[27] Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (London: Vintage 1994) 307

[28] Cristina Bacchilega, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1997) 63-4

[29] Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (New York: Verso 2002), 15, 135 and 24

[30] Tom Conley, Cartographic Cinema (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press 2007) 1

[31] ibid 18

In the Eye of the Beholder: Bishounen as Fantasy and Reality – Christy Gibbs

Abstract: Since the international popularisation of anime and manga, the bishounen has been one of Japan’s best recognised archetypal figures. But where did this stereotypical look come from, and is it a purely fictional representation? This paper examines the bishounen not just as he appears on the page or screen, but also how he appears in the international fashion and music scenes, as well as the way in which he influences, and is influenced by, Western versions of himself.

Figure 1: The manga Princess Princess (Mikiyo Tsuda, 2006-7)

In the aesthetically distinct universe of Japanese animation, cultural constructs of gender and sexuality can be complex and challenging to navigate. However, perhaps no archetypal anime figure is as curious to the non-Japanese viewer as much as the bishounen. Best known for his physical attributes – a slender and willowy body shape, artfully arranged hair, narrow and angular features, and often pale, delicate-looking skin – the bishounen is, as the literal translation informs us, a beautiful young man, or ‘pretty boy’. His gender is often ambiguous, his sexual orientation even more so; even for those who watch anime or read manga on a regular basis, it can be difficult to discern whether his relationships with other characters lean towards romance or are merely affectionately platonic.

To those unfamiliar with a wider scope of Japanese popular culture, it is only within this fictive context that the bishounen would appear to exist. From an Anglo-American perspective particularly, it is difficult to take a cartoon character seriously, much less one that wears flamboyant clothing, makes over-the-top arm gestures, and who strikes seemingly casual poses with one hand placed on hip. Cross-dressing is also a common theme for the bishounen-centric manga or anime, for any number of reasons – most of them more on the ridiculous or humorous side, as in the likes of Princess Princess (in which an elite boarding school who elects students to take on the role of Princess in order to in order to break up the monotony of living in an all-male environment) and Gravitation (involving a male pop star who dons a sailor uniform in a ludicrous attempt to appeal to his aloof boyfriend), are nothing if not intentionally absurd. Anime such as Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son), which depict male cross-dressing in relation to any realistic statement of self-identity, are relatively rare.

Moreover, if those same characters were to appear in just about any mainstream American film or cartoon, most would associate their various mannerisms with gay, or at least extremely camp, stereotypes. Western mainstream media is used to viewing stereotypically effeminate male characters through a homosexual lens, and this is certainly sometimes the case in anime, even when a title is not a yaoi or boys love one.[i] Given that Japan is a country where one’s sexual practices are generally understood to be a personal and therefore private matter, it would be perfectly logical to assume that the bishounen is a figure with little, if any, basis in reality.

In fact, such an assumption, however rational, would be a false one. The genre of boys love aside chances of an anime bishounen actually being gay are fairly slim. Anglo-American sexual and cultural limitations would seem to be ‘more threatened by depiction of intense same-sex friendships than does Japanese culture’, commentator Patrick Drazen notes. ‘The reason is that American pop culture often limits its options to “sex” and “not sex.” Japanese culture makes room for a much wider range of relationships’ (Drazen, 2003, p. 103).

Perhaps a more accurate way of approaching the bishounen is to look not at what messages he is (or is not) attempting to convey in terms of sexual orientation within the narrative, but rather to discuss what type of role he fulfils as far as the audience is concerned. In doing so, it appears evident that the bishounen’s job is not to make any sort of explicit statement about his sexuality, but rather to exist as a specific form of eye candy for his largely female demographic; a physical representation of one of the Japanese woman’s ideals of the perfect guy. The bishounen is by his very nature androgynous, and therefore an iconic symbol that has the potential to encompass the strength of traditional masculinity, as well as the grace and beauty of the stereotypically feminine. Regardless of whether anime bishounen are based on real historic figures (Hakuouki Shinsengumi Kitan), re-imaginings of Western stories (Romeo x Juliet), or entirely original characters (The Vision of Escaflowne), they are all therefore given the same intense beautifying treatment.

In contrast, the conventional image of what constitutes an attractive male in much of the West has often been muscular and assertively powerful, evoking perceptions of physical dominance, authority and control, while the attribute of ‘prettiness’ is considered a feminine trait – the opposite of being masculine or ‘manly’. In Japan, however, being pretty does not necessarily mean sacrificing masculinity, and more recently, the West has also seen a growth in this new image of what constitutes male attractiveness. It could be argued that this new masculinity has been influenced since the mid-1990s by the increasing availability of popular and mainstream anime titles such as Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach.

In order to explore how modern conceptions of the bishounen character arose, it is first necessary to pinpoint when and how he came into being within the mainstream culture of his birthplace. The term itself is first found in the Meiji period (1868-1912), where it was used to describe especially beautiful pre-adolescent boys, who were often involved in homosexual relationships (Pflugfelder,  1999, pp. 221–234). Although the word was not in usage prior to this, we might also be reminded of the popularity of Japanese theatre over the previous two centuries, where gender reversal was commonplace.

After women were banned from the kabuki theatre stage in the mid-1600s due primarily to problems arising from prostitution, physically effeminate male performers took on the role of women in their place (Bullough, 1993, p. 242).[ii] Such actors often maintained their dress outside the theatre, compelled to experience first-hand the everyday life, customs, and etiquette of the women they played, many from early childhood. At its height of popularity, some kabuki actors became so sought-after that they became leaders of women’s fashion. While the actors who played women’s roles emulated the manners and dress of high-born ladies, the audience, largely made up of peasants and townspeople, created a space in which performers could potentially become trendsetters in bearing and clothing (Scott, 1999, p. 39).

The temptation to view men who cross-dressed as a part of their art outside the theatre as homosexual is a natural one for many in the West today, and that many of these performers were indeed engaging in male/male relationships is probable. However, Anglo-American culture lacks a common understanding of when and why labels of sexuality are applied in Japanese culture. Whilst alternative sexual practices in Japan today, including those with long historical traditions such as homosexuality, cross-dressing, and transvestism are not widely publicly accepted, there has consistently been a large gap between how one is expected to behave in the outside world, and how that same person may act while taking on the role of entertainer. In a country where standing out from the crowd in any way is usually thought of as socially undesirable, anything that occurs within a framework of fiction – from kabuki and opera to anime and mainstream television – is not considered to be an accurate reflection of either an individual or society as a whole. Consequently, a transvestite who appears in a film is seen as a performer rather than a demonstration of an individual’s real expression of sexuality, and a drag queen depicted on a show lives only in the land of television – a world from which most Japanese feel detached (Buckley, 2002, p. 94).

For example, whilst the televised portrayal of a character named Hard Gay, as played by comedian Masaki Sumitani, depicted a man dressed in a black PVC fetish outfit who ran around the streets of Japan performing acts of charity for unsuspecting bystanders, the show gained national attention and popularity, and was deemed suitable to air on a Saturday evening variety show. Of course, Hard Gay is an overt homosexual parody (in reality neither gay nor a fetishist), and not a bishounen by any stretch of the imagination; his television persona serves to illustrate the ambiguity between screen and reality. In contrast, Japanese stage and film actor Saotome Taichi is a modern example of a figure that embodies the bishounen aesthetic, yet is not spurned or ridiculed for how he dresses, speaks, or behaves during his performances. Well known for playing both beautiful young men and women, Saotome was trained from a young age in the field of female impersonation. An official fan club was established in 2006, and tickets to his kimono dance performance at the Taishokan theatre the following year sold out within a day.

Figure 2: Japanese stage and film actor Saotome Taichi

Nonetheless, the real-life depiction of the bishounen dates back much further than popular Japanese theatre, and can be traced to the tenth century where the Imperial Court of Heian-kyo (now the city of Kyoto) held sway. The Heian Court was the centre of aesthetic sensibilities of all varieties: Japanese music, poetry, calligraphy, and clothing fashions all found their deepest roots here, where aristocrats were obsessed with the pursuit of beauty. It was not simply that cultivating beauty meant a person was sophisticated or fashionable – it also implied a sense of morality. George Sansom, a pre-modern Japan historian, writes: ‘The most striking feature of the aristocratic society of the Heian capital was its aesthetic quality … even in its emptiest follies, it was moved by considerations of refinement and governed by a rule of taste’ (Sansom, 1958, p. 178).

Standards of aristocratic male beauty here were in many ways similar to those for female beauty. Both sexes whitened their skin with rice powder, blackened their teeth using a liquid made up of acetic acid and dissolved iron, and prized a rounded, plump figure in order to physically display the leisure and riches that the peasantry – those with leaner figures from less food intake and darker skin from labouring outdoors – could not afford to obtain. It was fashionable for men to have a thin moustache or tuft of beard at the chin, but large quantities of facial hair were considered especially unattractive (Topics in Japanese Cultural History).

Naturally, Heian beauty is interpreted in a more contemporary, bishounen-esque framework as far as anime and manga are concerned: The Tale of Genji, originally written by Murasaki Shikibu during the Heian period, has had several adaptations, the most recent of which was an 11-episode anime series in 2009. While most of the characters have the creamy white skin of the Heian-period principles of beauty, there is physically little else to tie the anime and Heian ideals of attractiveness together. Genji, with his slender silhouette and narrow features, has nothing that sets him visually apart from any other bishounen that might be seen in any other mainstream anime production, historically-themed or otherwise.

While the bishounen ideal may have been cemented in the Heian era, a quick survey of Japanese popular culture today, even disregarding the anime and manga industries, reveals that far from being a storytale figure, the bishounen also exists as a true world representation. Host club workers, although a far cry from what has been depicted in the extremely popular Ouran High School Host Club anime series, are perhaps the most obvious example to draw from, with many of these young men looking almost like a parody of anime bishounen caricatures. Similar to their hostess club counterparts, where male customers pay for the attentive company of beautiful young ladies, host clubs employ men who are paid to converse, pour drinks, light cigarettes, entertain by means of fun stage performances, and generally flirt with their female clientele. Upon a first visit to a host club, the customer is presented with a menu of each host on offer for her to decide which host she like to meet first. Once she has chosen the host she most prefers, she designates him her named host, with the employee then receiving a percentage of all future sales generated by that particular customer. Most clubs operate on a permanent nomination system, and a host cannot be changed once they have been nominated excepting under special circumstances. Regular payment is determined by a host’s commission on drink sales, and for this reason, the environment can be highly competitive, with tens of thousands of dollars sometimes offered to the host who can achieve the highest sales (pripix).

The typical host look, made up of an appropriately dishevelled dark suit and collared shirt, bleached hair, and expensive silver jewellery, is paired with a stage name often taken from a favourite film, manga, or historical figure that may describe their persona. The overall effect is usually one of an anime bishounen made flesh and blood. The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (Jake Clennell, 2006), a documentary-film interviewing several hosts and their customers in a popular club in Osaka, paints a very pragmatic picture of the host club industry – one which survives by seducing customers without having to depend on the more overt sexual appeal of strip clubs or brothels. ‘For girls, we are products’, states one such worker. ‘If she wants a humble, cool guy, I can be like that. If she wants a funny guy, I can be like that too.’ ‘Let’s say I do fuck her. That girl will probably never come back’, another points out. ‘At that point, there won’t be anything else I can give her … Knowing how to give them satisfaction without sex – that’s the point.’ While hosts can and sometimes do have sex with their clients, this is clearly not the purpose of this institution’s existence.

Tajima Yoko, a professor of women’s studies at Hosei University in Tokyo, explains the host club phenomenon by the conventional Japanese male and his lack of true listening to the everyday concerns of his partner. ‘Men, married or not, in our culture do not listen to their female partners’ problems carefully … They only tell women what they want them to hear. Men don’t consider women equal partners’ (New York Times). Although there is no official count of the number of individual clubs, the host club industry employed an estimated twenty thousand men in total as of 2005 (Japan – Facts and Details). Some of the larger and more commercial clubs, such as New Ai (New Love) in Shinjuku, Tokyo, employ approximately eighty workers whose sole job it is to fulfil the emotional needs of the women who frequent the club, in part by existing as beautiful objects of fantasy (New York Times).

Such a concept is alien to most of the rest of the world, suggesting that outside of Japan, the majority of countries do not have the numbers of the right type of customer – that is, one willing to spend several hundred or thousand dollars per visit purely to be kept company by a score of pretty men – to support such an industry. While the idea of paying for sex is universally understood, the thought of paying an equal amount or more for the pleasure of someone’s company is simply baffling to many people. In turn, although some host workers are foreigners, host clubs are generally not known about, or else poorly understood, by overseas visitors, and very few customers are non-Japanese. As with the Japanese sex industry, there is a very distinct preference for both the customer and the host to be Japanese, and it is not uncommon for many bars and clubs to have signs outside saying “No foreigners admitted.”

Tellingly, a great deal of the reactions by foreigners to the business of host clubs has tended to be negative. ‘Even if they had equivalent in the UK I don’t think I’d go’, reads one response to an online article. ‘British guys (sorry to say this) don’t really seem to maintain their looks or interest in a womans [sic] needs for long enough.’ ‘I don’t find them attractive in any way, and I don’t want to pay for the “companionship”’, states another (UK Fashion, Lifestyle & Beauty Blog). Keywords commonly associated with host fashion outside of Japan include “tacky”, “fake”, “creepy”, and “sleazy”.

However, in other entertainment industries, the cultural crossover in terms of what women find attractive in a male is more evident. The music business is one such industry, and in Japan, the most extreme form of the bishounen can be found here. Visual kei – literally visual style – is a uniquely Japanese aesthetic music movement inspired by Western glam metal bands such as Kiss and Twisted Sister (High Music XRD). What these bands inspired in visual kei was, as the name of the movement implies, the importance of appearance as an essential part of the musical style, sometimes even above the music itself in terms of importance.

Bands including The Gazette, Versailles, and Alice Nine are today known less for their music and more for their eye-catching make-up and wardrobe in some circles. The visual kei look is ethereally dark, glamorously androgynous, and elaborately punk, often all at once. Many artists are particularly effeminate in appearance, and it is not uncommon for some to pose explicitly as females, wearing dresses reminiscent of Regency, Rococo, and Victorian fashion. Their ‘maleness’ as we might understand it comes across strongly in their vocals, which are usually anything but gender ambiguous.

Figure 3: Visual kei band Versailles

First emerging in the late 1980s, the visual kei movement was pioneered by acts such as X Japan, Buck-Tick, and D’erlanger. By the mid-1990s, a boost in popularity throughout Japan meant that the most notable of these bands were achieving high commercial success, with the likes of X Japan, Luna Sea, Glay, and Malice Mizer receiving large amounts of media attention. This last group became especially famous for their live performances, which featured lavish historical costumes and stage sets. Mana, co-founder of Malice Mizer, would go on to create his own clothing label, Moi-même-Moitié, in 1999, coining the terms “Elegant Gothic Lolita” and “Elegant Gothic Aristocrat” (Steele and Park, 2008, p. 54). He is regularly featured modelling his own designs in the quarterly Gothic & Lolita Bible, the top publication of the Lolita fashion scene, yet retains his mysterious persona by rarely speaking in public. In most interviews past and present, Mana is known for whispering his answers into the ear of a band member or confidante, using Yes/No cards, or expressing himself in mime.

Gackt, who abruptly left Malice Mizer at the height of the band’s success in 1999, began pursuing a career as an actor and solo artist, and is currently one of Japan’s best known pop idols. Since his time apart from Malice Mizer, Gackt has been making regular alterations to his style: his hair has morphed from straight, long, and jet-black to blonde and spiky in the blink of an eye, and he has experimented with nearly every shade of red and brown in between. His naturally brown eyes frequently change colour thanks to habitual use of green or blue contact lenses. Yet whether he plays a gang leader (Moon Child), samurai warrior (Bunraku), or feudal warlord (Fūrin Kazan), the main trademarks of Gackt’s appearance has remained the same – pale, slender, and virtually ageless.

It is therefore no surprise that Gackt has styled himself on, and even provided a model for many bishounen of the manga, anime, and video game industries. Characters from The Rose of Versailles, Rurouni Kenshin, and Final Fantasy VII, among other titles, have all been incorporated into his look at one stage or another, to Gackt’s rising popularity. Sentiments like those referenced by anthropologist Laura Miller in Beauty Up towards stars such as Gackt (‘He has a body so beautiful it’s like an art object … I’m filled with fantasies of the excitement that would happen if we were in bed’) are far from unusual among fans (Miller, 2006, p. 156). Strictly speaking, the cut-off age for bishounen-hood is eighteen, at which point one becomes a biseinen instead – a beautiful man, usually described as more handsome than pretty. Now in his forties, Gackt, still flaunting the cool delicacy of his features, is living proof that age is not necessarily a barrier to adhering to the bishounen style.

Neither are Gackt’s charms restricted to a female fanbase. In 2010, Gackt announced that his live performance at Club Citta in Kawasaki, Kanagawa, would be for men only, reportedly in an attempt to reverse the recent trend among Japanese males of shunning traditional male stereotypes to get in touch with their feminine side, and instead celebrate ‘the way of the man’ (Japan Today: Japan News and Discussion). Over one thousand men attended the sold-out show, while sixty women listened from the lobby and countless others from outside, cheering the men on as they entered (Ningin).

Other Japanese musical stars have found their fame through group collaboration. While the boy band fad in the West has died down somewhat since the 1990s, pop boy bands in Japan are among the most successful of all genres of Japanese music. J-pop found its way into major mainstream success during the same decade, gaining a commercial peak with individual female artists such as Hamasaki Ayumi and Utada Hikaru as well as with idol units (popular singing and dancing groups), many of them all-male. In particular, the talent agency Johnny & Associates, which exists exclusively to train and promote male idol groups, produced several extremely high-profile groups during this period such as SMAP, Tokio, and Arashi. American boy bands such as The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync likewise debuted in the 1990s, only to peak and then either disband or sharply decline in popularity in the first years of the new millennium. In comparison, Japanese boy bands continued to grow in number and reputation, with huge acts like EXILE, NEWS, KAT-TUN, and Hey! Say! JUMP joining the idol unit craze.

Like the Western boy bands of the 1990s, aesthetic appeal continues to be a significant factor in the popularity and marketing of these all-boy Japanese groups, and it is easy to see the similarities between The Backstreets Boys and Hey! Say! JUMP, Westlife and KAT-TUN, or ‘N Sync and Arashi not only in terms of sound, but also in general style. Posters, album covers, and promotional photos depict these bands casually standing or lounging about dressed all in white, for example, as they gaze coolly at the camera. Other images show the band members in jeans and black leather jackets, long coats with scarves draped nonchalantly about their necks, or with the slightly ruffled suit-and-tie look.

Figure 4: Boy bands N Sync and Arashi

However, looking past some of these blinding similarities, there are also some significant differences. For instance, it is difficult to find members of any of these household-name Japanese boy bands with facial hair, while there usually seems to be at least one, and sometimes two or three Western boy band members sporting a well-groomed beard or goatee. The same contrast can be seen with regards to boy band members with piercings or tattoos; the resident ‘bad boy’ of the group is usually evident in a Western boy band, while that figure is conspicuous only by his absence in the Japanese version. Hair tends to be a little longer in Japanese male idol groups, with a particular emphasis on eye-covering fringes and painstakingly placed wisps, whereas only one or two boy band members out of any given group in America might be known for their longer locks.

Overall, Japan’s male groups are typically gentle in appearance, perhaps a little more friendly and accessible. Whilst not precisely androgynous, they are a less extreme version of the bishounen of the visual kei scene. Where The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync took pains to keep from appearing too pretty by balancing out the more delicate-looking members of the group with a couple of tougher, more traditionally masculine individuals (and presumably thereby avoiding any gay slurs), the members of KAT-TUN and Hey! Say! JUMP make their living off being beautiful.

Furthermore, groups like this earn their idol status not only by singing, but also by acting in television dramas, appearing on variety shows, hosting charity events, and endorsing products such as Coca-Cola, KDDI Corporation mobile phones, Wii video games, and the Japan Tourism Agency. They are a constant, inescapable presence in nearly all aspects of Japanese daily life, and they take pains to form an image based on their individual talents or personality traits as being a part of a cohesive unit. Predictably, their female fans are both numerous and extremely passionate. In 2010, a Tokyo-based freelance journalist wrote:

Then there is Arashi who celebrate each other’s birthdays and vacation together. It seems incredible that Arashi is popular worldwide for simply being good buddies but this kind of interaction is so rarely seen in celebrities. In Japan, the interaction is rehearsed and simulated. Overseas, variety shows specialize in people openly feuding. With these types of entertainment, it is no wonder that the good-natured humor of Arashi, along with their sappy sweet pop songs, is healing the world’ (The Asahi Shimbun Digital).

The young men of Arashi may be a little too conventional to indulge in cosplay or model their looks after specific anime characters, but their style cannot help but be at least indirectly influenced by the bishounen aesthetic. Very few anime bishounen have any trace of facial hair, and as has been previously discussed, these types of characters are well-known for their slender frames, unblemished skin, glossy hair that falls just so over the eyes, and a coolly tantalizing aura. The similarities are not hard to overlook.

It is apparent that there has been some crossover of the appeal of the bishounen in today’s Western entertainment industries with newer boy bands such as British group One Direction, although the most notable increase with regards to the popularity of pretty boys has been seen in the film industry thanks to the widespread popularity of franchises like Twilight. Although most non-Japanese teenage girls may not know the meaning of the word bishounen or have any understanding of what anime or manga is, the traditional sex appeal of the rough, tough, rugby-player style body currently competes against the slim, milky-white skinned young male as so obviously embodied in the character of Edward Cullen.

The film versions of the Twilight novels chose to amplify the tension already seen in book format, where two young men compete for one girl’s romantic interests and the heroine constantly bounces between the two, who are physically complete opposites. Edward is exceptionally slim, pale to the point of being sickly-looking, and has an aura of cold intensity about him even after becoming romantically involved with Bella. The very name Edward, which roughly translates to ‘wealthy guard’, conjures images of English nobility and old world romanticism. Conversely, Jacob Black is of Native American descent, and has dark hair and eyes and russet skin. A tribal tattoo on his right arm completes the slightly roguish look. Although he is originally described as tall and lanky in the first book, the films portray him as relatively muscular; a fact that is only accentuated by his usual style of clothing – or lack thereof. Where Edward is cool, Jacob is passionate and adventurous, and where Edward turns into a sparkly, ostensibly prettier version of himself, Jacob quite literally transforms into a wild animal.

As was no doubt the intention, the competition between Edward and Jacob transcended the screen and became embedded in popular culture. Did main protagonist Bella – and by extension, the audience – lust after the beautiful, sharp-edged Edward, or did she prefer the brawny, more earthy charms of Jacob? Did fans desire pretty, or lust over handsome? Posters, shirts, and an array of other types of merchandise proudly display an allegiance of either Team Jacob or Team Edward, and have been snapped up by teens and tweens in their thousands.

Ultimately, however, it was Team Pretty who won the race, winning not only the girl but also, in overwhelming numbers, the most fans. In a poll carried out in 2008 by Novel Novice Twilight, a website dedicated to exploring the relationship between the Twilight series and its fans, Team Edward won by nearly double the score, earning over five thousand votes (Twilight Novel Novice). In 2009, Robert Pattinson was chased into traffic on a New York City street by a mob of frenzied fans, and the following year, People magazine listed Pattinson in their “World’s Most Beautiful” issue because of his ‘pale, otherworldly complexion’ (New York Daily News, People).

Unsurprisingly, the amount of anime bishounen who also fit the unearthly beautiful vampire mould are numerous: Zero, Kaname, and just about every other male vampire from Vampire Knight, Solomon Goldsmith and Hagi from Blood+, Shido and Cain from Nightwalker: Midnight Detective, and Trinity’s Blood’s Abel and Cain Nightroad, to name just a few. This is not to suggest that Stephanie Meyer was directly influenced by anime or the figure of the Japanese bishounen, but rather that due to the current influence of anime in international popular culture, non-Japanese audiences are becoming more receptive to the pretty boy as one ideal of male beauty.

Figure 5: Trunks from popular male-orientated anime Dragonball Z

However, although the sheer popularity of characters such as Edward Cullen would appear to indicate that the West is becoming more open to pretty young men being an acceptable form of heterosexual attractiveness, it also illustrates that we are far from being able to think of prettiness as a form of real masculinity. The hate that has been directed towards Patterson/Edward Cullen suggests that traditional notions of masculinity have not been eclipsed, and there is a substantial reaction against bishounen-type characters in the West despite the undoubted popularity of the figure amongst teenage girls. While we usually insist on polarising prettiness and masculinity, in Japan this does not seem to be an issue. Japanese studies Professor Kenneth G. Henshall points out that ‘deliberately enhanced “effeminate”, flower-like, graceful beauty has rarely been considered the antithesis of manliness in Japan, either by women or men themselves’ (Henshall, 1999, p. 4). Mainstream notions in Anglo-American society that correlate being pretty and being homosexual are gradually changing, yet slurs such as “pretty boy”, “queen”, and “fairy” are still commonly applied to men who are perceived as being too feminine in appearance, or who are especially fastidious about their physical presentation – regardless of whether this has any kind of connection to sexual orientation. In contrast, Miller has written, ‘I do not see current male beauty practices [in Japan] as a type of “feminization” of men … but rather as a shift to beautification as a component of masculinity’ (Miller, 2006, p. 126).

Given that manga, while rising in awareness and popularity in America and elsewhere, is nowhere near approaching the types of sales figures in Japan, this should not come as a surprise. Manga makes up nearly forty percent of total book sales in Japan, and to a large extent is responsible for normalising the bishounen aesthetic (Craig, 2000, p. 110). The bishounen has been a central figure for much of manga and anime’s modern history and is not limited to genre or demographic, even appearing in titles aimed at a primarily male audience such as Trunks from Dragonball Z, Sesshomaru from InuYasha, and Sasuke and Itachi from Naruto, as well as the conventional female-orientated fare. However, the influence of the young female consumer in Japan cannot be underestimated, and much of the entertainment industry caters to her tastes and desires. Whilst the stories depicted in anime and manga may not be a direct reflection of Japanese society, the prevalence of the bishounen has undeniably gone a long way in giving society the okay to emulate the look without being frowned upon or ridiculed for it.

Perceptions are gradually shifting in the West as well, and in many cases it appears that pretty is becoming the new brand of sexy for men. However, without the same sort of normalisation that Japan enjoys, it is doubtful whether the gap between male beauty and stereotypes of weakness and femininity will be bridged to the same extent in the near future. The bishounen outside of Asia is beginning to gain some currency, but ‘safe’ Western notions of duality – masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual – may be too ingrained to ever be disregarded completely.


i Both yaoi and boys love are popular terms used to describe fictional media (usually referring specifically to anime and manga), that focuses on homoerotic male relationships. The genre is largely created by and for a heterosexual female audience, and is distinguishable from what is commonly known as gei comi, bara, or mens love, which caters to a gay male audience and tends to be created primarily by homosexual male artists.

ii Eventually, still finding similar problems, all male actors became required by the authorities to shave their hair in the style of mature men so that they would be less attractive to their audience.



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Christy Gibbs is a graduate from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, and has recently completed her doctoral thesis whose topic explores representations of sexuality in contemporary Japanese animation. She is currently working in rural Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher and is also a regular columnist for Forces of Geek, a blog focusing on a variety of pop and geek culture worldwide.