I’ll start with the lesser spoilers first. As I mentioned before, something that happens throughout the show is other people telling Utena what she can and can’t do because she’s a girl, and her fighting against that. About a third of the way through the show (near the end of the first arc), Utena is finally defeated in a duel by Touga, who uses her dreams of finding her prince against her, making her question if it was him. It wasn’t. Anyway, this complete loss, and his taunting of her throughout the duel and afterwards sends her into a mental breakdown, where she withdraws completely from the world and tosses aside her more tomboyish traits for stereotypical feminine traits. More specifically, she starts acting like a yamato nadeshiko, completely quiet and demure, looking down as she walks, etc. During the course of an entire episode, her friend Wakaba tries to bring her out of it, and in the course of it says something rather iconic and showing of this series’ feminist roots. Utena remarks that she’s acting like a normal girl, to which Wakaba replies “normal isn’t normal for you.” In other words, “this isn’t your normal.” Or “stop following societal norms and be yourself.”This brings about another point I started to mention last time. This show is heavy on fairy tale tropes, especially the Damsel in Distress, the Wicked Witch, and Prince Charming. Yes, for most of the show, Utena serves the role of the Prince, but at times like this above mentioned one, she falls more into the Damsel in Distress. Likewise, while Anthy is primarily seen to be the Damsel in Distress throughout the show, she’s actually also the Wicked Witch. Meanwhile, her brother Akio, who likes to think of himself as Prince Charming, is actually the big bad of the whole show, forcing Anthy to commit her various horrors throughout the show. He also regularly rapes her (which is only shown through before and after shots), and once even rapes Utena (which we see the entire time happening with the camera zoomed up on her face while she tries to talk about anything else to take her mind off of it).
Late in the series, it’s revealed that once upon a time, there was a prince (Dios) who went around the world saving all of the princesses. And back then, all girls were princesses, and he saved them from EVERYTHING. Not just dragons and the like, but also from not having a date to a play, or needing help changing a light bulb. He was running around so much that he became exhausted, and his sister, trying to protect him so he could finally rest, told all the villagers who were demanding his help that she had taken him away for herself. At this point, she became the evil witch, and the villagers stabbed her with their swords. Dios became Akio, and the witch who was being impaled by a thousand swords for all eternity was Anthy.As a little girl, when Utena lost her parents and wanted to die, Akio showed her Anthy’s eternal pain, telling her that only a prince could save her. When Utena tried to help her, and asked why he wasn’t, he replied that he no longer could. It’s at this point that Utena decides to become a prince to save Anthy. She forgot most of this as she grew older, but remembered the ring being a promise to lead her back to something. And she retains this determination in the face of constant hardships and others telling her that she won’t succeed.
This goes so far as even Anthy literally backstabbing her in the end. Utena has been defeating Akio in a duel, using the sword of her heart rather than the Sword of Dios (which she used for the first half of the show or so), and puts herself between Akio and Anthy to protect Anthy. At this point, Anthy runs her through with a sword, telling her that she could never be her prince, because she’s a girl. At this point, Akio takes her sword and proceeds towards the gate of eternity to try and regain the power of Dios, telling Anthy to get between him and the thousand swords. Utena drags herself to her feet, and even after Akio breaks the sword, she continues forward, using her bare hands to force the door open, revealing that it is a coffin with Anthy inside. Utena tries to pull her free, whereupon she takes the swords for Anthy.The next scene shows that the school has moved on, most people forgetting about Utena, or only discussing rumors about how she was badly hurt. Akio begins planning again for another series of duel games to try and achieve his goal, when Anthy reveals to him that Utena actually changed things. The students of the school that she helped still have their issues resolved, and more importantly, Anthy no longer fears going out into the world, nor will she allow her brother to abuse her anymore, and she heads out into the world to find the girl she loves. Some people theorize that the movie is the sequel to this, another world where this time, Anthy saves Utena.
However you look at it, the show is all about what it means to be a woman, both in society and within oneself. More specifically, it’s about being true to yourself, regardless of what society has to say on the topic. Considering that modern society tells boys they can be whatever they want, but still tells girls that they should be housewives and mothers and caregivers, this is a powerful message of a girl constantly being told that she can’t BECAUSE she’s a girl, then proving everyone (even other girls and the girl she loves) wrong.