black butler kuroshitsuji anime manga gender analysis
Anime, Feminist/Gender Theory, Manga, Pop Culture

The Dark Gender Politics of ‘Black Butler’ Are The Secret To Its Success

Originally published on the Cosmic Anvil Recommends blog.

Written and drawn by Yana Toboso, Black Butler, or Kuroshitsuji, is a Victorian supernatural fairy story like no other. Dark, weird, and classically gothic, this manga is fantastically written, stunningly drawn, and hugely loved both in and outside of Japan. It’s popularity is so strong in fact that its franchise has stretched beyond the manga series and anime adaptations, but also into a video game, a live-action film, and even two musical productions (only in Japan, unfortunately).

Poster for the first Black Butler live action cinematic adaptation

Poster for the first Black Butler live action cinematic adaptation

Despite volumes of the manga selling millions of copies, Black Butler is surprisingly not ranked highly in lists of the most popular manga on sale at the moment, but what sets it apart from most of its competition is the level of adoration and demand for cross-platform adaptations. The fans aren’t just satisfied with reading the story – they want the story to be as real and interactive as possible.

This only leaves one question: What is it about this manga that’s so special?

For starters – and I know this word is overused – it’s truly unique. I love manga, but like any established medium, so much of it is stuffed with generic tropes, fan service gimmicks, and ‘this-seems-very-familiar’ premises. The genres and sub-genres – although endlessly abundant – are also incredibly rigid, and most authors seem to prefer to play it safe within these genres, telling the kinds of high-school romance or action-adventure stories that the audience is used to reading and therefore easy to sell. However, it serves to note that the biggest sellers at the moment – One Piece, Attack on Titan, Naruto, Magi and Kuroko’s Basket – are actually very distinctive, showing that if an original idea catches people’s imaginations, it can really take off.

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Magi Manga Cover

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Kuroko’s Basketball Manga Cover

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Naruto Manga Cover

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Attack on Titan Manga Cover

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One Piece Manga Cover

Black Butler is a manga that has certainly achieved this. Set in Victorian England, the story revolves around 13-year-old Earl Ciel Phantomhive; orphaned on his tenth birthday when his parents were killed in a mysterious fire. Upon their death, Ciel vowed revenge, and inadvertently summoned a demon – Sebastian Michaelis – whom he made a deal with: To help him enact his revenge in exchange for his soul. Until that day arrives, Sebastian poses as Ciel’s butler and aids him in fulfilling his family’s duties as Queen Victoria’s ‘Watchdog,’ solving crimes in London’s gritty underworld while facing other paranormal beings along the way. Even in the worn-out supernatural genre, it’s a pretty interesting set-up.

The characters, however, are the real heart of the series. Ciel Phantomhive is far from your typical 13-year-old boy. Despite running his family’s toy company, he has little time or interest in childish pursuits – preferring to spend his time reading the newspaper, intimidating businessmen, indulging in Victorian High-Tea, and picking over crime scenes with his tailor-made cane and permanent frown of disdain.

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Ciel Phantomhive

Sebastian Michaelis is quite simply what he says he is: “One Hell of butler.” He can do everything from cooking a three-course dinner from scratch in under an hour; to taking out armed mobsters armed only silverware. His demonic powers essentially give him enhanced strength, speed and invulnerability, but his slim physique and feline elegance are more reminiscent of Catwoman than Superman. Despite taking on a male guise, there are subtle hints throughout the story that Sebastian is in fact gender-neutral, which, coupled with his graceful but deadly demeanour, makes him a mysterious and unpredictable presence.

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Sebastian Michaelis

Sebastian also becomes the unwitting object of affection for rogue Grim Reaper (and fan favourite) Grell Sutcliffe. Grell’s sexuality is never openly discussed, but the batting of his eye lashes, the shimmy in his walk, and a certain Titanic re-enactment scene (pictured below) – not to mention his constant fawning over Sebastian’s assumed-male body – make it pretty clear what kind of stereotype he is supposed to be (…or perhaps not if you take a look at this interesting forum debate between fans). Whilst Grell is genuinely endearing, this comedic but negative stereotyping of gay men and women as camp, sexually devious, and always chasing after people they can’t get is unfortunately common in manga/anime of this genre. Sebastian’s indefinable character draws strength from exactly the opposite.

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Every night in my dreams, I see you… I feel you…

The dynamic between Ciel and Sebastian is often mistaken for something perversely sexual and has inspired a wealth of, uh, not so tasteful fan fiction and art, but though I agree it is a perverse relationship, it’s certainly not a romantic one. Despite Toboso’s seductively penned expressions and glove removal sequences, Sebastian actually has no discernable sexuality. It is more of an unhealthy co-dependency to satiate unhealthy desires that he and Ciel share. For Ciel, it is the desire for revenge, and for Sebastian, it is the desire to consume Ciel’s soul. Sebastian – like the witch in the Hansel and Gretel legend – is ‘fattening’ Ciel’s soul up as he helps Ciel get closer and closer to his ultimate goal. In that role, Sebastian appears caring, nurturing, and protective, and sometimes it seems that even Ciel mistakes this for the guidance and companionship he has been missing in the wake of his parent’s demise, forgetting that behind beneath his loyal butler’s skin beats the dark heart of a predator.

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“One Hell of a Butler.”

Although there is something negative to be found in the twinning of androgyny with the monstrous, I think that what Toboso ultimately proves by playing on that connection in Black Butler is that we are perhaps more uncomfortable with androgyny then demonism, and this is the story’s unique appeal. The glimpses of Sebastian in his feminised demon form are more tantalising than his acts of inhuman strength and violence. Sebastian’s gender is a riddle that we – as readers in a gendered society – long to solve.


@SpannerX23 on Twitter.

By night, Hannah is a geeky feminist blogger, but by day she is a freelance artist who specialises in comic book and children’s book illustration. Check out her website here if you’ve got a project you want to bring to life with bespoke artwork 🙂

And don’t forget to check out the official Cosmic Anvil website for original creator made comics!

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Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Selfies – “Electronic Masturbation?”

Written and posted for new blog, Fanny Pack, on 19th November 2014. Please head over there and follow them for more of the same Feminist articles written by myself and others!

Today’s technological advances have made it possible for us to make as many self-portraits as many times a day, hour, or even minute, in any place, and then exhibit them instantly for public exhibition and judgement on the Internet. For women, who have long been models on which to project fantasies of the ideal rather than the real, the significance of this has perhaps been undervalued. Gaining full control over the capturing and displaying of one’s own image today – especially in an image-obsessed digitalised culture – is no small achievement or freedom. Prior to this, the portrayal of the female form as a passive image rather than active participant has been an enduring cultural tradition. Instead of being directed, caught, degraded, positioned, posed, or manipulated by someone else with or without your own permission, the Selfie truly reclaims the autonomy to take a picture on your own terms and decide who your audience is.

“Electronic masturbation” – Karl Lagerfeld’s provocative dubbing of the Selfie – was clearly intended as a slur. After all, the solitary act of masturbation is for self-gratification only, and there is nothing more self-gratifying than a self-portrait, right? Of course it makes perfect sense that an icon of the fashion industry – an industry that makes it’s money telling us what to wear and how to look – would disapprove of a medium that undermines this power. Lagerfeld is right – the Selfie is “electronic masturbation” – and just what’s so wrong with a little self-gratification?

The backlash against Selfie ‘culture’ boils down to this:

We question why the taker of the portrait has chosen to take a flattering picture of themselves. We question why their self-gratification has to be acknowledged in a public forum. We question why women continue to present an image of themselves that they have been culturally conditioned to present – idealised, sexualised, and for the viewing pleasure of others.

If all women went against this idealism in their Selfies, would we applaud their honesty, though? In a culture we have constructed for ourselves that continually over-values physical appearance, why are we so irritated and surprised that the majority of women are still more comfortable covering their faces in layers of foundation and mascara, taking a self-portrait from a flattering angle, and then distorting it with an Instagram filter rather than share a brutally honest one and risk attracting negative judgement?

Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Idealising beauty is certainly damaging, but that doesn’t mean we should always demonise vanity. In every image we create or capture there is an automatic disconnect between the person and the portrait of the person. In a sense, we create an alter ego of ourselves in every one of these portraits. Every time we digitally adjust these portraits – even as little as a change in brightness – we are confirming that this alter ego not only exists, but that it is the ‘better’ version of us. This is not vanity, but wish-fulfillment. Yet, for women in particular, vanity is a dirty word. The cultural twinning of vanity and sin can be traced back to the artistic tradition of depicting women with mirrors in classical portraiture, which itself can be traced back to Biblical lore. This is vanity punishment; a concept that teaches us that a woman is supposed to be effortlessly and naturally beautiful for the pleasure of others, but not for her own pleasure. It has helped mold our definition of feminine beauty in art and pop culture as one idealised through the eyes of male heterosexuality, and conversely both elevating and condemning female vanity.

If we change our perception of vanity, then perhaps we can change the way we perceive Selfie culture – as wish-fulfillment, as self-gratification, self-definition, and ultimately self-empowerment. Take pride in your own unique image, beauty, and sexuality, and feel empowered by the autonomy to capture, share, and immortalise it. If digitalism has made us the photojournalists of our own lives, why should we feel ashamed in being a bit vain about it?

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Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Society and Politics

A Response to ‘Women Against Feminism.’

Imagine this:

The year is 2014. You are a white Western woman. You wake up in the morning in a comfortably sized house or flat. You have a full or part-time job that enables you to pay your rent or mortgage. You have been to school and maybe even college or university as well. You can read and write and count. You own a car or have a driver’s licence. You have enough money in your own bank account to feed and clothe yourself. You have access to the Internet. You can vote. You have a boyfriend or girlfriend of your choosing, who you can also marry if you want to, and raise a family with. You walk down the street wearing whatever you feel like wearing. You can go to bars and clubs and sleep with whomever you want.

Your world is full of freedom and possibility.

Then you pick up a newspaper or go online. You read about angry women ranting about sexism and inequality. You see phrases like ‘rape-culture’ and ‘slut-shaming.’ You furrow your brow and think to yourself: ‘What are they so angry about? There is no such thing as sexism anymore.’

Now imagine this:

The year is 2013. You are a 25 year-old Pakistani woman. A few months ago, you married the man you love. A man you choose for yourself. You are also pregnant with his child. You see your life stretching out before you, filled with hope and happiness. Suddenly, you and your husband are dragged away from each other. You are both beaten with bricks and batons. You can’t fight back. You can’t escape. No one comes to help you. Through your fading vision, you look up, and look into the eyes of one of your assailants: into the eyes of your father.

The year is 2013. You are a 23 year-old Indian woman. You are a physiotherapy student with a promising career ahead of you. You are sitting on a private bus travelling home alone on a warm December evening. You gaze out of the window as the buildings of New Dheli rush past you and feel content. Suddenly, a blunt force hits the back of your head and you fall to the floor of the bus. A group of strange men are standing over you. They bring the metal bar down on you again and again and again until all you can taste is the blood filling up your mouth. You pray that you will die soon. And you do, but not then. You are raped, beaten, and tortured over and over again. Death is slow and agonising.

The year is 2014. You are a 13 year-old girl from Niger. You no longer live there though. You are now living in the neighbouring country Nigeria, sitting alone in small room on a small bed in a small apartment high above the city of Kano. You are not allowed to leave. Your stomach is swollen from the unwanted life growing inside of it. You had no choice. The father is a man in his 40s. He is a businessman. He has bought you as his wife. You were a penniless, uneducated girl when he came for you. You don’t know of any life you could have had. Neither did your family: just one less mouth for them to feed. You still have the body of a child, and it’s straining under the pressure from the one inside of you. You feel like you’re about to be split in two. You don’t wonder if you will survive the birth. A part of you doesn’t want to.

These are fictionalised accounts of real events that have happened to real women living in our world today. They follow the past 250 years of women and men campaigning for women to be given equal rights to men to prevent these kinds of injustices and abuses on the grounds of gender taking place. Over the course of this time, campaigners – Feminists, both female and male – have been locked up, beaten, tortured, and even killed, in the pursuit of equality. They did this with pen and ink and print; they did this with their voices; they did this with their bodies; they did this with art and music; they did in courts of law and halls and houses of government that they fought be to allowed into.

They did this so that women would no longer been seen as property, livestock, breeding machines, sex objects, punching bags, or infantile morons. They did this not just for themselves, but also for their daughters, and their daughters, and their daughters for generations to come. They did this for women they would never meet – women who lived across countries, across vast oceans, across the entire globe, and even across time.

They did this so that women like me – a white Western woman – could attend school and university; to learn to read, write, and think critically; to gain a degree; to get a job and be paid an equal salary to a man in the same position; and to sit here with my own computer and type all of this.

Feminism is a movement for freedom, equality, choice, love, compassion, respect, solidarity, and education. We may argue, we may disagree, we may struggle to understand the choices and perspectives of others sometimes, but these core beliefs of the movement have never changed, and they never will.

That is why I am a Feminist.

If you feel that you have so far lived your life unaffected by even the mildest form of sexism – anything from feeling uncomfortable when a man catcalls you in the street, to feeling scared walking home alone at night in a secluded area – and are treated with love and respect by every man in your life, then to you I say: I’m glad for you. If you don’t think you need feminism, then that is a victory for the movement. You have fulfilled all those dreams that every suffragette being force-fed in prison and every ‘witch’ burnt at the stake dreamed you would one day.

But perhaps take a second to consider the life of the Pakistani woman who was beaten to death by her own family for marrying a man of her choosing. Or the life of the Indian woman who was raped, beaten, and murdered on a bus by a gang of men. Or the life of the little girl in Niger who was sold to a man more than twice her own age and forced to carry a baby that may kill her to deliver. Do they still need feminism?

And perhaps take a second to consider this too: Even in our liberal, Western world, why do women still only fill 24% of senior management jobs? Why are more women than men domestically abused or even killed every week at the hands of their male partner or ex-partner? Why is there still a pay gap (in the UK specifically) of 15% for women doing the same jobs and working the same hours as men?

And what about on a cultural level? Have you ever noticed how comedy panel shows usually only have one female panellist compared to 4-5 male ones? That almost every dieting product on the market is solely aimed at women? How a lot of newspapers and advertising campaigns will use a sexualised or pornographic image of a woman to sell news or products that have nothing to do with sex?

Or perhaps on a personal level: Do you choose to wear certain clothes because you want to or because you feel ‘unfeminine’ if you don’t? Do you choose to cover yourself up because you want to or because you feel ashamed or intimidated by a man looking at your body? Do you shave your legs and underarm hair because you want to or because you will look ‘ugly’ if you don’t? Did you parents dress you in pink as a baby because they liked the colour or because you were born a girl? Do you want to have children because you want to or because you are a woman?

When you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning, do you see yourself through your own eyes, or through the eyes of the men that will look at you when you walk out the door?

The fact is, like it or not, you still live a world where gender matters. Where gender controls not just the entire course of your life – but the lives of women all over the world. Every second, a child will be born female in a country where she will persecuted for this random biological occurrence for the rest of her life. So before you hold up your anti-Feminist placard proudly and smile at your own sense of empowerment, think not what Feminism can do for you, but what it can do for that one girl. She needs someone to stand up for her. That someone could be you.

UPDATE: Click here to read my follow up to this article: ‘Equalism: The Feminist Alternative?’


This is a response to ‘Women Against Feminism’ groups on Tumblr and Facebook.

The stories of the women mentioned in this post were sourced from these sites:

http://feminist.org/blog/index.php/2014/05/29/pakistani-woman-stoned-to-death-for-marrying-a-man-of-her-own-choosing/

http://feminist.org/blog/index.php/2013/01/02/indias-tipping-point-death-of-rape-victim-sparks-global-outrage/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-27619295

Other facts and statistics were sourced from here:
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/international-womens-day-2014-the-shocking-statistics-that-show-why-it-is-still-so-important-9177211.html

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