Shounen and Shojo manga and anime cover a wide range of genres from action-based shounen to romantic slice of life Shojo. One subgenre of Shounen and Shojo is the harem and reverse harem genre. A harem genre focuses on a teenage male who becomes the romantic object of multiple females. Prominent examples of harem manga are Highschool DxD, Date a Live, and Rosario + Vampire. On the flip side, the reverse harem centers on a young female who is pursued by multiple male characters. Prominent examples of reverse harems include Ouran High School Host Club, Diabolik Lovers, and Boys over Flowers.
Using a visual novel type format, most of the characters and plots in harem manga/anime are generic and formulaic. The male protagonist, usually depicted as an average guy, finds himself thrust into a situation that results in him attracting multiple females. For example, he goes to a mostly female school or finds himself living with one of his harem. Throughout the duration of the manga or anime there will be many opportunities for fanservice such as a beach episode, panty shots, and clothing damage.
The harem genre, being a subgenre of the Shounen/Seinen genre, is tailored to a young adult male audience and serves as a form of wish fulfillment with a large cast of beautiful young women fawning and fighting over a fairly average young man. Aside from the audience stand-in protagonist, the character types of the female cast of any harem anime/manga remain constant. For example, you have the Tsundere, the Lolita, the Childhood Friend, and the Seductive One. While the protagonist is average in terms of appearance and academic standing, he will still have character development either in physical prowess or personality in order to protect his harem. Issei Hyoudou of Highschool DxD is initially a perverted harem seeker who is then reincarnated as a devil to serve his main love interest, Rias Gremory. As he gains his harem, he seeks to become stronger in order to protect and become worthy of the love his harem showers on him. This garners him more girls where by the end of the manga he has almost all the female characters in love with him.
In harem genre anime and manga, the girls of the harem are more action-oriented and initially can have more power than the male protagonist whilst still emulating typical female stereotypes such as cooking meals for their love interest, being relegated to the damsel in distress, or remaining flat character types with zero character development. The harem genre is problematic in terms of how young male and female readers and viewers understand being a man, woman, and a realistic relationship. The male reader perceives that they should be strong and strive to continue to get stronger in order to win the heart of a beautiful woman. It can also suggest that you can be a completely average Nice Guy and women will just fall upon you and fight over you. While female readers may come to understand that being a woman is about being attractive, sexually suggestive, and yet dainty enough to be rescued by the man. Yet, the harem genre does offer more agency to female characters than a reverse harem genre and thus has more positive and diverse gender representation.
Under the Shojo genre, most reverse harem manga and anime focus on the romancing of the main female character by multiple male characters. Unlike the average male harem protagonist who can develop into a strong leading man, the female harem protagonist remains static. Many have little to no characterization except to emulate typical feminine stereotypes such as being kind, patient, virtuous, loving to all creatures, and knowing how to cook. Typical examples of reverse harem heroines include Yui Komori of Diabolik Lovers, Ema Hinata of Brothers Conflict, and Ritsuka Tachibana of Dance with Devils. They also tend to be soft-spoken and spineless, helpless to the ‘romantic’ advances of her male harem. Yui Komori is frequently abused by her harem for her blood and while she does initially struggle against their advances she ultimately gives in. All this is framed in romantic and sexually suggestive poses such as a male character drinking from her upper thigh to another character marking her several times across her chest. Ema Hinata has 13 stepbrothers who all inexplicably fall in love with her and throughout the anime force themselves upon her whether it be a stolen kiss or almost sexually assaulting her. Despite being forced to accept the harem’s ‘romantic’ advances, the female character remains caring and loving to her male harem. While the female character’s characterization is limited, the male harem while still fitting into the typical tropes of a reverse harem anime receives more characterization; specifically a troubled past that the female character is instrumental in helping them get past their inner demons. The callous and abusive behavior of the Sakamaki brothers from Diabolik Lovers toward Yui is brushed aside due to their familial, mostly maternal issues. Yui continues to live with the Sakamaki brothers and accepts them frequently drinking from her. There are a few examples of female harem protagonists subverting feminine stereotypes such as Haruhi Fujioka of Ouran High School Host Club and Sunako Nakahara of The Wallflower. Haruhi Fujioka is a girl who forgoes her feminine identity instead preferring male clothing and a masculine identity in that she is a part of the Host Club instead of one of the fawning customers. Sunako Nakahara subverts female stereotypes by foregoing conventional beauty practices and feminine hobbies. The main love interests of Haruhi and Sunako, Tamaki Suoh and Kyohei Takano respectively, fall in love with them regardless of their adherence to gender norms.Yet these heroines who subvert many of the typical female harem characterizations are still returned to the gentler, more romantic tone of Shojo manga and anime. Haruhi and Sunako are forced to become more ladylike by their main love interest, coincidentally both are beautiful young blonde men with tempers. Both Haruhi and Sunako still emulate a few feminine archetypes in that they both take care of household chores and support the male cast. Haruhi helps her ‘harem’ to work through their issues such as the twin’s overdependence on one another and Tamaki’s familial issues. In The Wallflower, the four main male characters of Ranmaru, Takenaga, Kyohei, and Yuki wouldn’t be available to survive without Sunako doing the household chores for them.
The harem genre and the reverse harem genre upholds and subverts gender stereotypes. In the harem genre, female characters can be powerful action girls, confident in their body type or simple wish fulfillment fanservice characters. The target demographic of a harem manga and anime is young adult men and thus female characters serve to titillate the reader and viewer as opposed to playing a role in the story as in other genres of anime and manga. While a reverse harem has a few exceptions to the typical protagonist most of the action and characterization focuses on the male characters while the female character upholds many of the traditional gender stereotypes. Despite Shojo manga being targeted at a young female audience, the typical heroine has less agency and character development. Perhaps due to the visual novel format of reverse harem anime and manga, the characterization and character development focuses on the male love interests instead of the female viewpoint character since she stands in as the viewer or player. Or it’s the belief that young girls and women go crazy for a cast of beautiful boys, which they may be onto something with the popularity of Boy’s Love manga and anime with the female demographic. Regardless of beautiful boys, the depiction of female characters in harem and reverse harem manga and anime may affect how young girls and women perceive themselves and their approach to future romantic, likely heterosexual, relationships. Since Shounen and Shojo manga and anime is read and viewed by a female audience perhaps there should be more subversions of the feminine ideal than adherences.