The popular romantic comedy anime Ouran High School Host Club has been widely beloved by fans for many years, in part due to its groundbreaking treatment of LGBTQ+ topics. With the show being released in 2006, and its manga counterpart in 2003, the writing is surprisingly progressive in its treatment of characters’ identities. Though sometimes played off as jokes, the series’ portrayals of cross-dressing and same-sex kissing, among other examples, made it stand out to viewers.
However, despite these achievements, Ouran also falls victim to certain stereotypes that potentially undo its good qualities in other moments. The franchise is making its way back into the headlines with an upcoming live action musical reboot. Before its premiere, many longtime fans and newcomers may want to (re)watch the anime, and it’s important to scrutinize both how Ouran succeeds and possibly fails in its queer representation.
Ouran High School Host Club follows Haruhi Fujioka, an honors student and “commoner” who accidentally falls in with the school’s male host club when she accidentally breaks a vase. Initially believing her to be a boy, the other hosts slowly discover their error, with leader Tamaki Suoh realizing last. When he walks in on her changing, Haruhi replies with one of her more notable lines: “Listen, senpai, I don’t really care if you guys recognize me as a boy or a girl. In my opinion, it’s more important for a person to be recognized for who they are rather than for what sex they are.”
Haruhi lives by this motto for the entire series, not caring one way or another what she wears, who she appeals to, or about fitting any molds based on her gender. Furthermore, she often tells her classmates not to judge people based on appearances. Other characters express similar sentiments – Haruhi’s father Ryouji, for example, is an openly queer professional cross-dresser who goes by the stage name “Ranka.” Ryouji dresses as a woman often and lives openly as he pleases. He’s also supportive of Haruhi’s choices, never challenging her participation in the host club.
In addition to gender expression, Ouran also normalizes same-sex affection, even in small moments. When Haruhi trips and accidentally kisses Kanako Kasugazaki at the dance, she says to herself that she never imagined her first kiss would be with another girl. Though Kanako thinks Haruhi is a boy, having Haruhi’s first kiss be a same-sex one – which she states she doesn’t mind – further emphasizes her fluid identity.
Unfortunately, other homosexual moments in Ouran High School Host Club only exist for comedic effect and are often undermined by other plot points. For instance, the Hitachiin twins Hikaru and Kaoru purposefully play up the “incestuous brothers” trope to please certain club patrons, but it ultimately boils down to familial queer-bating. Despite declaring that they have “homosexual tendencies,” neither ever seems to be seriously interested in men, and they both display feelings for Haruhi at one point. Hikaru even goes on a date with Haruhi, reinforcing the underlying need for a heteronormative relationship to root for.
The twins are minor offenders compared to Tamaki, though, who has a difficult time thinking outside of a heteronormative binary, and when he does, it’s in a dismissive way. Though the line is supposed to be a joke, Tamaki declares that he and Haruhi are clearly the romantic leads in their story, making the rest of the hosts the “homosexual supporting cast.” While the twins take revenge on Tamaki by pranking him during the physical exam, it’s still not a comment worthy of the series’ more progressive moments. Tamaki’s words also play into other instances of “gay panic,” when minor characters encounter Haruhi and are frightened by their attraction to her.
Tamaki spends most of Ouran trying to get Haruhi to dress like a girl, unable to wrap his mind around her lack of femininity. He rejects being attracted to someone so masculine and forces womanhood onto Haruhi, imagining her as a damsel in distress he can save. Even with other characters, Tamaki plays into stereotypes – he calls Kyoya “Mommy,” since he himself is “Daddy” to the club. Though they are both male, since they are the “couple” that runs the club, someone has to play the “wife.”
These aforementioned examples are just a few of many – the show is comprised of both positive and questionable tropes. In some ways, the more troublesome moments make the series difficult to view, particularly 15 years later when the dialogue about queer identities has grown and changed so much. In other ways though, the comedic, slightly self-deprecating way these jokes are told come off as a humorous way of commenting on the exact issues they’re portraying. Regardless, Ouran High School Host Club still made strides for its time and continues to have a significant impact on fans new and old.