Musings on Magical Girls

I’ll confess to being old enough that I didn’t grow up on Magical Girl anime. My first exposure to Japanese animation would have been Astro Boy, primordial source of robots with a heart of gold, mad scientists, and boots that deny ankles.

In the nineties, though, Sailor Moon came along. I enjoyed the focus on female characters and how they were empowered. I’m not talking about their ability to use magical attacks, I’m thinking of their ability to make decisions. Agency, in other words. Serena, the title character, is not brave. She has to drag herself into conflict, and she usually has to make the decision to go without much help. Serena isn’t strong, or fierce, or smart, or even hardworking. Yet she is the leader of the Sailor Scouts. Why? I wondered. Her willingness to suffer for what is right, and her compassion for others, are the qualities that make her outstanding. The moral, and I sense a Japanese mindset here, is that leadership should be based on character, not skill. I’m on board for that.

The series explores personal relationships and talks about the importance of things like friendship, honesty and loyalty. Middle grade stuff that imparts worthwhile values. So far, so good.

What gives me a lingering feeling of dismay, though, is the linking of female power to sexuality. When the girls transform, (by speaking the magic phrase, “Sailor Moon Make-Up,” no less), they acquire sparkly lipstick, their school uniform blouses tighten to body-shirts, and their hemlines rise drastically. While these abbreviated outfits are perhaps a little more suited to fighting, they are far from ideal. I would write it off as fan service if the series were being marketed to boys. When aimed at girls, though, the message seems to be that power comes with makeup and sexy outfits.

If this only happened in Sailor Moon, I’d shrug it off. However, it seems to be widespread. In Pretty Cure, the magical transformation also results in revealing costumes, to the point where some conservatives complained about Natalie’s bare midriff. In Mew Mew Power, all the girls get scanty outfits. In Digimon Frontier, Zoe, the token female, gets more than a costume makeover, her pre-adolescent body gets several years more mature so that she can fill out her bikini. (None of the boys show more skin; they get armor and stuff.) In Card Captor Sakura, the card-driven magic doesn’t endow Sakura with a change of clothes, but her sidekick is a costume designer who sews up a new outfit for every adventure. To be fair, not all the costumes she produces are revealing, but the message that clothing matters is there.

I like to joke that you can tell whether a cartoon is intended for boys or girls by the clothing. If everyone wears the same outfit week after week, it’s for boys. If there are constant wardrobe changes, it’s for girls. Okay, I’m not really joking. As a rule, it works quite well.

While we’re on the topic of sexuality, kudos to the makers of Sailor Moon for including a lesbian couple. Please note that if you only saw the American dub, you might be under the impression that Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus are close cousins who just happen to hold hands sometimes. In the subtitles for the original Japanese soundtrack the dialog is clearly romantic, and there’s no mention of them being related. Listening to the English soundtrack while watching the original subtitles is amusing, especially when an earnest line about spending the night together is replaced with inane chatter about eating treats. I give part points for making the outwardly feminine Neptune the one who takes charge of their relationship, rather than the androgynous Uranus. I’m prepared to believe that stems from a desire to break away from stereotypes and make them real and complex characters. I take points off for making the pair of them hostile outsiders to the rest of the scouts. The two of them are older than Sailor Moon and her friends, and they take a much harder line in their war on evil, being prepared to sacrifice innocents to achieve victory. So the lesbians are antithetical to the moral theme. Sigh.

Until recently, I thought I was alone in thinking about magical girls from a mature perspective. I was delighted to find out I was wrong. Thanks to a review by Derek Newman-Stille, I’ve become aware of Shattered Starlight, Nicole Chartrand’s webcomic about a magical girl who has grown up and tried to leave that life behind. It isn’t going well. She has adult issues and a lot of anger. Also, she’s a Montrealer, so her magical staff is a hockey stick. Check it out.

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