Why is the Reverse Harem so Underappreciated?

At the time of writing this post, I was coming off of a pretty bad depressive spiral. In fact, the initial draft for it was written while a little tipsy, a bit lonely, and very heated. It wasn’t any good at all, and it’s long gone to the trash bin. But the idea that started it got me really thinking about something.

I’ve learned I can gauge my mental health pretty well by what media I’m hyperfixating on at the time. In the midst of this spiral I fixated on an old favorite flame of mine: Uta no Prince-sama. Now, I love this franchise and have since the anime released in 2011 – but it’s a weird love. It tends to slip my mind until I’m in this kind of spot again, and then it suddenly springs out from behind the bushes and takes over my life. Like some kind of kitten found wandering the alley behind my apartment.

Uta no Prince-sama was originally an otome game (a visual novel targeted towards women) released in 2010. It now includes a series of games, an anime with four seasons, a rhythm game phone app that found its way to the international market (Utano☆Princesama: Shining Live), and a film released earlier this year. It’s one of those sillier stories by a lot of critics’ standards, I’m sure. A young girl enters a renowned performing arts academy where she hopes to graduate and become a music producer. She has to team up with a student aiming to become an idol, and if they’re successful in their final project they get to join a well-known agency. And, plot twist, of course this academy forbids any sort of romance between them.

Instead of a two person team, Haruka ends up producing for a group of six (later seven) boys. Since it’s a reverse harem series, each idol is a potential love interests. They all adore her from the start. And they’re all super dreamy, romantic, and sensitive. Pick a guy, any guy; a member of STARISH is just your type, I promise.

And I got to thinking, why is it at my all-time lows that I always seem to fixate on UtaPri, even if I’ve had nothing to do with it in months? It’s not the music, and the rhythm game is only a temporary distraction. I keep coming back for something else.

At it’s core, my falling back to the series comes to it being a comfort thing. That comfort came from something that otome games and related media instilled in me when I was a preteen watching Ouran High School Host Club for the first time. It’s this sense of wish fulfillment I literally had not – and frankly still often don’t – experience anywhere else. A female main character, with a good story and a plot not just about her romantic interests, surrounded by guys competing for her affection but not usually being gross, toxic dicks about it. They care about her and their friendship as a group too much for that. And if one starts to act out, he gets chastised. They love, cherish, listen to, and above all respect her – all while displaying traits that toxic masculinity traditionally tells men not to show in our society.

Basically, the reverse harem is written entirely with the female gaze in mind.

What floors me is that it isn’t larger in Western markets. It’s starting to get a bit larger now, especially as visual novel phone apps become more popular. The Mystic Messenger hype of a few years ago certainly helped in that department. But it’s still not something I see regularly. I just don’t get it.

The romance genre is built on the wish fulfillment of women. The love interests are men we want in our lives, who don’t require us to play mother or therapist. Emotionally open, respectful, and whatever other combination of traits you could possibly want. Of course there are exceptions to that rule; there’s always a bad egg or two. But really, when the female gaze is given free rein you see where a lot of our wishes rest. We hope to find that one, the who’s got it all.

The reverse harem is huge for preteen and teen audiences. Most otome games and anime take place in high school-esque settings or age groups. Traditionally, high school is a time for raging hormones and interest in romance – just look at most tv shows and books released with a teen target audience. Add romantic options? It’s an easy sell. But it’s also a good indicator of how young women are already realizing, on some level, what not only their desires are – but why what they deserve seems unattainable in our society. They just may not have the concrete reason for why yet (don’t worry, it’ll come with time).

But beyond that – it’s a genre where the girl is the main character. Where she is not only the one making the romantic choices, but she has a story. She is the one who is going to fix the problem, save the world, fight the big bad. It’s not just about the romance – generally that’s split pretty 50/50 with the actual plot of the story. They’re intertwined, but that’s the point of the romance genre in general! So the audience can project on to a female main character who is the lead in a fantastic story and is going to get the romantic lead.

Give that to a teen girl, and she’ll be hooked. She doesn’t get it that often – I didn’t, that’s why I literally hunted for reverse harem shows after I watched Ouran the first time. Thanks to the major rise of YA novels in the last couple of decades, female leads are becoming much bigger. But we’re still seeing plenty of girls saying, “I never saw something like this before.”

But now we come to the question though, of why isn’t reverse harem larger past the teen age group (at least for Western markets)? I’ve got plenty of theories. Most of them are rooted in sexism, of course. The idea that romance is bad enough as is, but then you’re going to let a woman pursue multiple romantic interests – at the same time? Well that’s just not allowed. Because see, that’s the dividing line. A love triangle, where two individuals (typically men) are pursuing a woman and she’s torn up over which one to choose? That’s alright. But a woman making choices, seeing which of her options is better for her out of a group? No. No, we can’t do that.

Regular harem stuff? Sure, let men have options. That’s totally normal (and often leads to very disturbing media). And we will, of course, ignore the way that the gay dating simulator Dream Daddy blew up when it was released in 2017. That’s totally different too, obviously.

I would love to see more reverse harem media – and I would really like to see it stretch beyond teen audiences. It is the absolute pinnacle of wish fulfillment fantasy, where women finally get to project on to a story that is built entirely with them in mind. Where they are shown actively making the choices because hell, that’s what they want. Bring it to the adult romance realm. Write a book, a series. Keep it chaste or make it smutty. Make it gay. Do it all!

Bring out stories that give women a sometimes shockingly large number of choices. Make me stare at them all and think, “Oh my god, I literally can’t decide who I like more.” Because we need more stories where women get to live out those fantasies, with leads where they can project. I miss having that space.

And some never got it at all.

On Dream Daddy

I actually liked the game. I was impressed by its portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters, and I think it’s important that a gay dating simulator that wasn’t as… bad (to put it simply) as Dramatical Murder got a lot of attention. What I’m mad about is that it was allowed to succeed and celebrated by adult audiences, while dating simulators targeted towards women almost never get half the attention.

Is some of that attention due to the fetishization of gay men? I’m positive that it was – and that’s a whole other issue. But one I’m not really in a position to discuss as a gay woman.

Thing is, adult women aren’t given those sorts of stories, whether they be straight or not. Let alone one that crosses media formats and gets the attention it did.

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