On the importance of Magical Girl Heroines & Weaponized Femininity:
Let me start by saying that officially speaking, Sailor Moon is older than I am. I started watching while living in Singapore while I was four, so I definitely came in around the end of Sailor Moon R and watched Sailor Moon S despite the fact that it was played in Japanese with Chinese subtitles. When I moved back to the States, Sailor Moon started being released and aired in sub and dub form and being young and happy to actually hear a language I understood with a show I already liked, I watched the dubs. They’re not the shining star of any animated dub, but I went back several times as I got older, and rewatched the series, in dubs, in subs, all 200 episodes. I changed my self-identified scout, I understood what got cut out of the show, what was censored, I went back and relived my crush on Tuxedo Mask again…and again. In terms of “formative media” Sailor Moon is probably near the top of the list. I still have the sticker book I had when I was 5/6 that has a page dedicated to these magical girls, and they’ve been with me a lot longer than almost anything else, including Harry Potter, Avatar: the Last Airbender, and most other narratives, superhero, fantasy, or otherwise.
When I got the chance last year, I showed one of my girl cousins (who was twelve) the first episode of Sailor Moon. She came back to me about a week or so later and was maybe thirty episodes into the series, bursting with excitement over everything and every one.
I stopped to think about how much that meant to me. Then I thought a little harder. One of my best friends gave me an opportunity to cosplay as Sailor Scouts, and I leapt at the chance. I accidentally stumbled across the newer series Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and marathoned all twelve episodes. Then I made my best friend watch it.
Why does Mahou Shoujo stick with us? The show I loved when I was six is something I love when I’m twenty, and something my cousin who is a tween also loves. For that matter, Puella Magi is, essentially, an update of the classic Magical Girl story, with some genre subversions thrown in. What makes magical girls so important?
It clicked, today, and I think I’m stating the obvious here, when I say I didn’t get a whole hell of a lot of Female Coming of Age narratives in school, in the media, or otherwise. The word bildungsroman is practically synonymous with “story about a young boy who grows up”. It’s not that I can’t relate to those narratives - I can - it’s just that they’re not about me.
The Magical Girl genre is essentially a genre which explores the female Heroine’s arc, the female coming of age story, and the womanhood narrative with varying degrees of success or failure — but it gets explored. I’d be hard pressed to name a whole lot of series that allow women to play every single archetypal role in the heroic book the way say, Sailor Moon does. Because Usagi Tsukino is a regular girl who is sort of clumsy and a bit of a bad student, but kind and loving and sweet. She is the “regular young girl” who begins a journey into becoming a powerful woman. She might initially play at being the virginal Princess type, but let’s face it — her future child drops out of the sky, and there’s never any sort of real play at insinuating she’s a bad person because she grows up. Usagi is a Warrior, a Queen, a Mother, a Lover, a Friend, a Sister - the Heroine of the story. She saves her own boyfriend/consort’s ass regularly from the bad guys. Essentially, she’s the hero, and the story is about her.
It’s more complex than that, of course. Her weapons are pink and shiny and come in the form of compacts and wands with heart and moon shapes. She wears a sailor fuku, she’s got long flowing hair, she’s feminine, beautiful, and when she doesn’t trip first, she’s going to kick your ass in the name of the moon (and love and justice). Being a girl is her weapon. Being feminine and a woman is her weapon. Some of the other Scouts have other presentations of themselves and their genders, but that’s just it - womanhood and girlhood, and gender, and sexuality, and so on — has a spectrum. It’s all there.
Now look at Puella Magi. At only twelve episodes it packs a hard punch, and it’s so easy to claim that Kyubey represents the devil, with a contract waiting to be made to essentially use your soul to fight witches. This claim that the narrative is Faustian isn’t wholly wrong, but I’d argue it’s not all there is either.
Kyubey isn’t the devil. Kyubey is the society we live in, which takes up and preys on young girls at vulnerable times in their lives, and asks them to be perfect. Society asks girls to fight against evil, the icky, awful, and impure, and it keeps asking until we say yes. Yes to being beautiful, and perfect, and good, and pure, and sweet, yes to being a nice young lady, yes to fighting everything that is bad and evil and dangerous - to fighting the things that threaten us and our friends.
Except there’s a catch. We’re fighting ourselves. What they don’t tell you, society, or Kyubey in this metaphor, is that there is no way to prevent yourself from becoming what you started out fighting. You lose, in this scenario, every time. At some point, a young, “emotionally volatile” girl grows up and becomes a woman. One day, you hit puberty, or maybe you haven’t yet, and someone leers at you, or looks at you wrong, or calls after you and you are suddenly made aware of the fact that being a woman is dangerous. Growing up means something incredibly different for girls than it does boys.
And this is something Kyubey himself says, and the implications of it are astounding. Girls become women. Magical girls become witches. There’s no stopping it, the process happens whether you want it to or not. You grow up, sure, but there’s a reason for it. Sayaka Miki fights relentlessly against the evils she sees in the world, but she becomes obsessed with her imperfections and failures, she berates herself for falling short of her own standards, and for standards thrust upon her, and she literally can not win. The standards are always changing, they can’t be met, they’re meant to keep you fighting, but only in a certain way, only the way society wants you to. Sayaka loses her cool, she overhears some men say awful, horribly misogynistic and sexist things about their ‘girlfriends’ on a train, and she loses it. Sayaka reacts to the endless stream of hatred and misogyny set up in a patriarchal society that has been asking her to fight against women who failed to met society’s expectations and while we don’t see the results of her losing her cool on the train directly, we can all imagine that she could have beaten these men up, or she could have killed them. In the end, the result doesn’t matter. The losing her temper does.
You become a witch or a bitch the day you fight back. And even if you don’t fight back, you’re going to become a witch or a bitch eventually. That’s the unfortunate truth of growing up female — sooner or later, society will betray you. And while you might not become Walpurgisnacht, it can be as simple as a hiss in your ear, or a seething message in your inbox. You’re an emotionally out of control girl, you’re evil, you’re bad, you’re a slut, a whore, or a bitch, or hysterical, or over reacting. You become a woman in a society that hates women. And if and when you react, you get tossed straight into the bin of evil terrible things.
Puella Magi is a story about young teenager girls who, while exploring who they are as people, their sexualities, their lives, their desires, hopes, wants, wishes, and dreams — find out that society is going to see them as shitty monstrous plagues upon the world sooner or later. And you can try to stop it, or take it back, or hold out hope, or you can lose your unholy shit and hit back. You can say the idea of witches is complete and utter bullshit, and women and girls don’t deserve that fate. You can fight against it, you can be Madoka Kaname, or Usagi Tsukino and you can fight against people who prey on other girls and women for having anything special or bright about them and try to make it something terrible or wrong.
Magical Girl stories are stories about growing up and becoming a woman, and protecting other women, saving other women, following desires and dreams and wishes and then kicking the bad guys in the face with your high heeled boots. The weapon is womanhood and girlhood and your sexuality because that’s the weapon society gave you and told you you were going to hurt yourself with it. Except the thing is, you don’t have to hurt yourself. You can protect yourself, and your friends, and your ideas, and feelings, and some days, yes, you fall down on your knees and sob messily because you can’t defeat every bad guy on your own, or ever, or alone - but goddamnit you have the ability to take power in your agency and who you are. Society doesn’t OFTEN tell girls that. We don’t often get the message that who we are is okay, acceptable, powerful, or amazing, much less that it’s also okay if we don’t succeed every single time. We know the fight is a part of our lives, but survival is the minimum. Getting stories about winning beyond that is amazing.
This is why I cringe when people complain loudly that there aren’t “Magical Boy” series for them to watch. To start with, there are already several series that involve young boys transforming with magical powers and skirts/wands/sparkles/etc. There’s also already an abundance of available fantasy male heroes who start off on Hero’s journeys that describe the process of growing up and becoming a “man” in society. Magical Girls is a genre that relies on a female narrative, on becoming a woman, on relative experiences of love and sex and dreams and wishes that are influenced by the treatment of women in society. That doesn’t mean men can’t enjoy these stories, or relate to them, or that people who don’t fall in the binary gender spectrum can’t relate to them (on the contrary, there’s a lot of reliability in not “fitting” gender roles or expectations in the series I’ve just mentioned), it just means that this genre is built on something very specific to a narrative that is not male dominated, that isn’t a male narrative. There’s, uh, a reason why Mamoru Chiba is the major male love interest, and why PMMM features only one male love interest who ends up with someone else. The ability to find WOC and QWOC in Magical girl series is also a big part of the genre, and pushes the majority of the focus on female pleasure rather than the dudes. Yes, the Male Gaze exists in much of the genre, but… Tuxedo Mask is also clearly a young girl’s dream man. But so is Sailor Uranus. The crushes and loves are often more fluid than they would be elsewhere, and equally important, they’re not in the perspective of Prize/Not prize and give an active role to the women in the relationships.
Magical Girls are important to real girls because they tell us stories about ourselves and our powers, and we need them, because girls need to see themselves as heroes and saviors too.