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Harem (ハーレムもの, hāremumono, "harem works") is a genre of light novels, manga, anime, and video games which focuses on polyamorous relationships. Originating in Japan in the 1970s, its popularity increased during the late 1980s and 1990s with the advent of dating simulator games. The genre often features a protagonist who's surrounded by three or more suitors, love interests and/or sexual partners. Harem works are frequently comedies that rely on self-insert protagonists of whom allow projection for the viewer, often accompanied with an ensemble cast of supporting characters. A story featuring a heterosexual male or homosexual female protagonist paired with an all-female/yuri harem series is informally referred to as a female harem or seraglios, while a heterosexual female or gay male protagonist paired with an all-male/yaoi harem series is informally referred to as a male harem, reverse harem, or gyaku hāremu (逆ハーレム). Although originating in Japan, the genre later inspired variants in Western media.
A harem structure is ambiguous. The most distinguishable trait is the group of polyamorous females or males who accompany the protagonist and, in some instances, live with the protagonist. Intimacy is customary but never necessary.
Typically, harem fiction fixes on key characteristics.
First, the protagonist, typically an everyman-archetype, has very little characterization other than being nice, reacting passively to their surroundings. This is done specifically to let the readers insert themselves in the character's stead or develop sympathy for the character.
Secondly, all the protagonist's love interests have low self-esteem, falling for the main character because of their nice personality and kindness or in more extreme cases, for showing basic human decency. The main character often spends time with them just to see their efforts to prove themselves to him.
Third, the protagonist in most cases is either dense towards the girls' feelings or turns completelly flustered at the slightest possibility of romantic reciprocration, completelly shutting the girl off or running away. The intention is often to leave the chances of him ending up with any of the girls in specific as ambiguous as possible, specially since as this characters are recognized as a self insert, not picking a girl allows the male viewers to fantasize with an scenario where they can end up with their favorite girl without having to dismiss the canon of the series.
A reverse harem is the gender opposite of a "straight"-harem, wherein a harem is directed towards male protagonists with women and/or gay men courting the protagonist. In a reverse harem, it focuses on female protagonists who are being courted by males and/or lesbians, usually seven or more.
Harem endings typically follow two different routes, the main character ends up with one or more of the women. Occasionally, a "harem ending" occurs where the protagonist ends with all of the women, but this is more common in works intended for older audiences.
Harem is considered to be one of the most traditional genres of anime and manga in respect to depicted sexual relationships, as most are heterosexual. However, this condition is not mandatory, and work in the genre can contain characters of various gender identities or sexualities. "Reverse harems" garner popularity, as they sometimes have the harem's genders mixed up without regard for the protagonist's sex or gender.
Thus, harem work in the genres of boys love or girls love is not something impossible, although they are much less common than the classic heterosexual examples.
Harem anime has come under criticism for a multitude of reasons.
Firstly, it promotes a false expectation of relationships, claiming that being nice will kickstart a relationship with someone, and eventually, the love interest will demonstrate their affection for the protagonist. It perpetuates mythos of men being entitled to female affection even if he does nothing for women. Often, real-life relationships require active participation from both parties, and waiting for the love interest to make the first move can lead to complaints about being "friend zoned".
Secondly, the way female characters are written often draws criticism and controversy. Female characters are carefully manufactured to fit any of the tropes of ultimate male fantasy infatuated with them, are written with a singular goal to get with the protagonist, and any character development is put off to the side in order to advance the plot. In real life, women are flawed human beings who have social lives and other friends, participating in social events with multiple people.
As such, it can lead impressionable male readers to react negatively to being rejected by women when they follow the harem anime route in order to build a romantic relationship.