Bildungsroman reworked
August 7, 2013 12:12 AM   Subscribe

On the importance of Magical Girl Heroines & Weaponized Femininity: "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."
posted by jaduncan (38 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Warning: Huge huge spoilers about the series "Puella Magi Madoka Magica". Don't read this essay if you want to watch that series unspoiled!
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:51 AM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

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Make a contract with a patriarchal society and become a magical girl!
posted by 23 at 12:59 AM on August 7, 2013 [31 favorites]

Also, no lack on the article's part, but a list of coming-of-age anime stories about girls is incomplete with the non-magical girl Revolutionary Girl Utena (well, debatably non-magical girl) and Kino's Journey.
posted by 23 at 1:06 AM on August 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've been thinking about this since starting to watch Full Metal Alchemist - Brotherhood following the AskMe linked there. I'm ten episodes in and, while the story is okay, it's just... oh look, men everywhere. The main women characters are: evil, baba-chan (grandma), and Winry the mechanic tomboy. That's it. Secondary women characters are: military woman who looks and behaves like the men, mother and 3-year-old daughter whose important-to-the-storyline husband/father is killed, another young daughter who is killed, and a bookworm with a photographic memory. All of them are supporting characters, including the main ones. None of them are given agency, not even Winry, who with her skills should feasibly be earning her own living... no, she has to ask the menz for money to take the train.

I'm watching it, and my heart is sinking, thinking, "I want to watch Sailor Moon again." I loved the live action that came out a few years ago, it was awesome. Seventeen years ago, I got into the manga and joined a big fan website based in the US, I ended up becoming one of the forum "senshi", as we dubbed ourselves.

[Sailor Moon anime spoiler alert ahead of time]

The people who were drawn to Sailor Moon came from many walks of life, but one thing really shone through: they dreamt of a world like that one, where tolerance and diversity were good things. Where — and I'm taking simple attributes for clarity's sake — loving, playing, fighting, and crying were not split off like isolated character attributes that can only exist in one dimension ("women are crybabies", "men don't cry", "women are weak", "men are strong", so you're damned if you're strong and also cry), but as parts of a whole.

"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."

And then (spoiler alert) she meets another evil, a much greater one, Galaxia. Many of her friends are killed due to this evil. And she saves Galaxia. Because by now they've understood what TFA also says:

"And this is something Kyubey himself says, and the implications of it are astounding. Girls become women. Magical girls become witches."

Men become magicians. Alchemists. Mages. Wizards. Priests. The only female alchemist I've seen so far in "Full Metal Alchemist" is the nasty evil one, and it's such a tired trope that I don't know how much more of the series I'll be able to take before I start watching Sailor Moon Live Action again. Female maturity and deep intelligence, wisdom born of experience, well, what images are coming to mind reading that? Are they positive? Do they even exist for you? Maybe a grandma or great-grandma, if both you and she were lucky. But on a societal level? Where are the wise women? Where are the priestesses? Hell, where are the goddesses? We've got comic books being written about Thor, taking cues from Norse mythology. Where was Frigg in that movie? Oh, pay no attention to her, the one with real power is Odin. You even say the word "goddess" and people don't take you seriously afterwards. Say "God" in the right context and you get elected to office. "Goddess", you have no idea what you're talking about, you're an irrational hippy who reads fantasy novels and probably think there's actual proof goddesses once existed. (Never understood that stereotype. Not like Nike's symbolism isn't still alive and well in an anything-but-hippy context, for one. There's no doubt Greek goddesses existed and had priestesses in temples. "Yeah but we mean the matriarchal Goddess we assume you stereotypically want to bring back!" Well, actually, everything points to egalitarian societies when strong women deities were present. See also: Iroquois/Haudenosaunee beliefs, for a still-existing example. And the very fact that so much masculine deity proof still exists from ancient times, would also seem to show that there was never an active, violent reaction against men and masculine representations of spirituality like there was and still is against women/feminine representations. Point in case, this.)

Sailor Moon faces the all-powerful representative of the galaxy, the one who cared for souls before she began destroying them, and she opens her arms and embraces her.

"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."

I'm still friends with many of the people I met thanks to Sailor Moon. All of them, without fail, have grown (many were preteens when we first met!) into wonderful, creative, tolerant, strong, and yes, loving individuals. Naoko Takeuchi did a wonderful thing when she wrote this series. Having a model for that sort of life, as a woman, is so important. You know it's "just a story", and yet, it is a story. One you believe, because that's the kind of world you want to live in. And the genuinely awesome thing is, that is the kind of world we're starting to actually live in. Marriage equality is a reality now. (Sailors Neptune and Uranus were a lesbian couple; the Sailor Stars were transgender.) The Internet has given a voice and communities to women who, before, often suffered in isolation because that's what society does to women who speak up. It isolated them, told them "no, THIS reality is THE reality, what are you going on about wanting equal pay? Women have it good staying at home taking care of kids! It's your own choice! And if you're harassed, it's your own damn fault, I've seen what you wear!" Well, a world in which women are no longer cut off from one another, means a world that's going to have to deal with its nonsense sooner or later. And it ain't physical strength or weapons or money or connections or implacable logic that will save us, it's love. ("Ohhh that's so woo!" Meh. Tell me what matters most to you in life. I'm willing to bet it boils down to love. Its overarching value, its ability to transcend and celebrate difference, has become ridiculed in our capitalist society. Universe-engendering, bisexual Eros, both feminine and masculine, going from a force equal to that of Chaos in pre-Hesiod Greek creation myths, to Eros male son of Aphrodite, to Eros the cherub who could change the course of life, to Eros the baby who shoots pink arrows on greeting cards you pay a few bucks for.)
posted by fraula at 1:24 AM on August 7, 2013 [40 favorites]

Kunihiko Ikuhara directed a lot of Sailor Moon and co-created the Utena anime, just sayin'...
posted by lumensimus at 1:32 AM on August 7, 2013

There's actually guys who complain about the lack of magical boys series? When there's been mecha series for decades? Consider a mecha as a metaphorical masculine replacement for an absent father, and there's your "magical boy" series.

Anyway, with the capitalized "Heroine", I was dreading some Campbellian crap, but this actually makes some really good points, especially about Puella Madoka.
posted by happyroach at 2:09 AM on August 7, 2013

Lol, not to get too critical of a very nice and silly article, but I think that the "Kyubey = Patriarchy" part was a bit off. I'd say Kyubey is closer to being a stand in for the director or even the audience. He has a quota of drama which he needs to fulfill, i.e. he needs so many emotional highs and emotional lows of a certain quality before he can go home. And when the characters don't oblige him, he manipulates events so that they do reach these highs and lows. Besides, how could the patriarchy be so cute?

I'd also disagree with the equation that "Witch = Bitch", and the argument that it is when the characters fight back against men that they become witches. Kyoko is willing to break man arms for fun, and will casually let people die in return for power. Homura is an ubermensch who fights with everything short of tactical nukes (and given another shot at Walpurgis Night I'm sure she would have graduated to those). They are the strongest magical girls for most of the series, and this is largely because they focus on themselves and their own power rather than what is good for other people. So clearly there is no conflict between being a magical girl and having a somewhat Kissingerian outlook on life.

Sayaka on the other hand becomes a witch not because she fights back against men or because she gives in to sexuality. Rather it is because her somewhat brittle idealism collapses when she realizes she has become a lich, and she turns to nihilistic despair. Killing a few people on the train was just the final symptom of that collapse.
posted by Balna Watya at 2:15 AM on August 7, 2013

I read the title as "revoked", which I thought looked really interesting!
posted by thelonius at 2:17 AM on August 7, 2013

Nitpicking to be polite: why not link to the original post rather than a retumblering?
posted by MartinWisse at 2:25 AM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

My favourite Sailor is Sailor (47967) 2000 SL298, one of a number of tiny trojan Sailors that lie in the elongated, curved regions around the trailing L5 Lagrangian point 60° behind Sailor Jupiter.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 4:11 AM on August 7, 2013 [9 favorites]

If we're going to drag the actual solar system into this, is Sailor Pluto upset about getting demoted? Are there Sailor Asteroids? There is a Sailor Moon, but no Sailor Demos or Phobos? No Sailor Ganymede or Titan? Are all these Sailor Scouts yours except Sailor Europa?
posted by JHarris at 4:20 AM on August 7, 2013

Good call MartinWisse, it was my mistake. I've just contacted the mods.
posted by jaduncan at 4:38 AM on August 7, 2013

Yeah, good point Martin. I changed the link in the FPP. (Here's the earlier, re-Tumbled URL for posterity and for enjoyment of the "SHOOTS CONFETTI" comment.)
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:43 AM on August 7, 2013

Are there Sailor Asteroids?

There is a Sailor Moon, but no Sailor Demos or Phobos?
Sort of.
posted by Gordafarin at 4:59 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

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.


Probably one of the reasons it was so runaway berzerk popular during Claremont's run - women got to do everything, from stern taskmaster leader/punk icon to Interstellar Boss of Everything to scenery-chewing, world-destroying villain. And they got to do it with credibility.

Also, surprisingly, Discworld. (And I don't mean the well intentioned but kind of dumb Monstrous Regiment).
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:06 AM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

There was going to be a Sailor Eris, but whenever she was around everyone started fighting.
posted by 23 at 5:08 AM on August 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm not buying Madoka as a commentary on patriarchal society. Bits and pieces, maybe like the arc with the violinist, but there are more significant things happening in that series than gender imbalance. (Utena, on the other hand...)

Also, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has a decent share of women characters. Olivier Armstrong certainly has both agency and power, and Winry, the more she shows up, becomes a character with some agency of her own. It's still definitely genderslanted, but overall I was impressed with how well the show treated its characters.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:46 AM on August 7, 2013

...And when I think of a female alchemist in FMA, I think of Izumi Curtis, although Mei Zhang is also a practitioner of alkahestry (the Xingese equivalent to alchemy).
posted by sukeban at 5:54 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Madoka is trash because it presumes the most powerful force in the world is the feelings of teenage girls, reducing them to balls of hypersensitive angst
posted by MangyCarface at 6:37 AM on August 7, 2013

> There's actually guys who complain about the lack of magical boys series? When there's been mecha series for decades? Consider a mecha as a metaphorical masculine replacement for an absent father, and there's your "magical boy" series.

And then there's Evangelion. The father is the enemy, and the mecha is the soul of the dead mother.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 6:45 AM on August 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Madoka is trash anime because it presumes the most powerful force in the world is the feelings of teenagers girls

You're new at this, aren't you.
posted by 23 at 7:34 AM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Madoka is anime because it presumes the most powerful force in the world is the feelings of teenagers.

You're new at this, aren't you.

To be fair, western movies do quite a bit of this. Its just easier to ignore or overlook when the actors are live, 25 year olds.
posted by Slackermagee at 7:37 AM on August 7, 2013

MangyCarface: "Madoka is trash because it presumes the most powerful force in the world is the feelings of teenage girls, reducing them to balls of hypersensitive angst"

Well something had to balance out all those hot blooded teenage boys who save the universe with nothing but the power of being hot blooded teenage boys.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 7:41 AM on August 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

Huh. I have only the smallest exposure to Sailor Moon, but I've watched Utena (and the movie, which made the series look sedate and straightforward and strangely lacking in tires), and so I'm rethinking it in the light of this essay.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:58 AM on August 7, 2013

Slap*Happy: "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.


Probably one of the reasons it was so runaway berzerk popular during Claremont's run - women got to do everything, from stern taskmaster leader/punk icon to Interstellar Boss of Everything to scenery-chewing, world-destroying villain. And they got to do it with credibility.

It's really a remarkable thing how strong X-Men is in this regard considering when and how it got popular and the fact that writing great female characters was the furthest thing from the minds of so many of the writers - it's been repeatedly blunted by hamhanded objectification far far too many times in the hands of lesser writers, and there are plenty of counter-example characters in the books, and rumor has it that many of these characters came directly from Claremont's fetishes rather than any desire to create great female characters for the sake of having great female characters, but nevertheless there's a huge tradition of great woman characters with boatloads of agency in X-Men books past and present. I really enjoy the all-woman X-team in the current X-Men run (though as much as I love Brian Wood, why isn't a woman writing this book?), but there's a long way to go beyond Storm, Rogue, Jubilee, Kitty Pryde, Rachel Grey and Psylocke (who, thank god, stopped having the cheesecake overshadow the character in the past few years) to even begin really utilizing the deep bench of great female characters from X-Men books past in it.
posted by jason_steakums at 8:03 AM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Goddammit, you guys have to go and have an interesting conversation on a day when I am absolutely hosed at work. TOTALLY NOT GENKI.
posted by maryr at 8:30 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

This article makes me regret I never got into magical girl anime at all.
posted by immlass at 8:36 AM on August 7, 2013

I watched Magica Madoka purely on the basis of this essay, and I am grateful to the author. I also agree with virtually everything she says about the series and patriarchy.

Rory, I think you're being too literal. Certainly Utena takes the issues of sex and patriarchy more directly, but I think that if we look at things Magica Madoka is exactly as described here, especially the witch = bitch and Kueby = patriarchal society parts.

Read any feminist woman ruminating on her childhood and her own growth from girlhood to womanhood, and you'll find that there is often a narrative of herself being viewed in radically different, and usually negative, ways as she grew. Or heck, just read that Onion article titled "young girl blossoming into beautiful object".

Power, and the violation of patriarchal gender norms that comes from girls possessing power, is viewed completely differently as girls grow into women. Girls with power are, in pop culture, accepted. They can be Magic Girls because they're cute and non-threatening from a patriarchal standpoint (we could draw an analogy here with repressive societies which force adult women to wear clothing that completely obscures them, but do not mandate young girls wear the same because as they aren't sexually mature they don't represent a "moral threat" to the men of that society). You'll note that in pop culture there are no Magic Women. Compare Snow White to the Wicked Queen, for another example.

Power is acceptable in girls because they are otherwise harmless. The same power in grown women makes them a threat to the patriarchal order. We could draw comparisons with how "masculine" behavior in girls is cute and gets them the label "tomboy", the same behavior in sexually mature women is seen as threatening and gets them the label "dyke".

Back to Magica Madoka, I'd argue that the transition from Puella Magi to Witch makes perfect sense as a metaphor for girls growing into women. We see three different Magi to Witch transitions in the show: Sayaka, Madoka, and Homura. The last two being interrupted before completion, but I'm including htem here because they do fit the pattern perfectly.

Sayaka's transition is not only a metaphor for girlhood to womanhood in patriarchy, but explicitly a puberty metaphor. She becomes a witch as she is forced to alter her self image in view of the changes to her body, the puberty metaphor couldn't be more obvious if they put a sign on it.

Madoka's transition comes after she is physically beaten, defeated by a stronger foe and she realizes that no matter how hard she tries she will *never* be strong, never be able to beat that foe.

Homura's transition comes after she realizes that despite her effort her dream cannot become reality, that her every effort is making the situation worse, and that the way the world is set up is all but designed to assure that she can never win.

All three can easily be seen as symbolic of a girl's growth into womanhood as she realizes the patriarchal nature of society. They had power as girls and because they were girls they were cute and harmless, but as they grow out of their childhood, shed their illusions about the world (willingly or no) they become women, and women with power are never seen as cute and harmless by a patriarchal society.

In many ways we can directly compare the way Puella Magi deconstructed the magic girl genre to the way Neon Genesis Evangellion deconstructed the giant robot genre.

It could be argued that the giant robot genre fills much the same place for young boys that the magic girl genre does for young girls. Both present young protagonists granted a sort of preview of an idealized vision of what they might imagine adulthood as being. The young boy sees himself leaving behind his weak, small, "feminine", body and growing into a strong, large, protector of those he cares about; it's an almost perfect vision of the idealized patriarchal view of manhood.

And NGE turns it on it's head. The robot isn't armor, it isn't protective, it *hurts*. The boy does not cast aside his fears and emotions and grow into a strong and firm man, he tries to push aside his emotions and in the process wounds himself deeply. The preview of patriarchal manhood turns from dream to nightmare, it can't be controlled, it leaves the boy vulnerable, it is built on the sacrifice of the women he loves and cares about, and rather than growing as a person he finds himself told that he must push aside who he is in order to adopt a false image of manhood.

Utena was much more explicitly about sex, sexism, patriarchy, and society. But make no mistake, Magica Madoka is every bit as much about those topics, it just does a better job of cloaking them in symbolism.
posted by sotonohito at 8:39 AM on August 7, 2013 [17 favorites]

As far as it goes, it's worth noting that Sailor Moon is pretty old, and even Utena is getting kind of long in the tooth. In recent times it seems like the portrayal of female characters has become well, more like they are made of by and for his who have had no actual contact with women. Even as the average breast size has increased, they seem less human. Frankly,I blame the whole "moe" phenomenon, in making female characters that are specifically designed around the fetishes of socially isolated male viewers.
posted by happyroach at 9:10 AM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're new at this, aren't you.

Anime isn't a genre. The best resource for Japanese animation (and really, all world animation) outside the genres popular in the West (shonen and shojo, really; a little seinen, not really any josei) was the sadly deceased Iwa ni Hana (link goes to It makes me so sad that it's gone, because it was like a museum of beautiful animation you've almost certainly never heard of. Even though the gorgeous layout of the site is broken and most of the images are missing, I'd still recommend trawling through the archives and reading the text. The site's author wrote beautifully and intelligently about animation, aesthetics and culture, both pop and "high." Also, Same Hat is still a pretty good resource for seinen and gekiga stuff, with a particular focus on horror, weird fiction and the avant garde.

I think a lot of the confusion comes from the classification. Lots of "genre" anime is grouped by demographics, so you can have westerns, romances, comedies, high school dramas and cooking shows all in the same genre, with the same genre trappings. But there's more than one genre and plenty of stuff that is more art than product. Japanese animation is diverse enough that there really is something that will be interesting to you, no matter who you are.
posted by byanyothername at 9:16 AM on August 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

oh look, men everywhere

I never thought I'd hear this about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. For a show about two brothers, set in a militaristic, patriarchal society, it's about as diverse as can be. Olivier and Izumi, among others, are outstanding characters, and the ensemble cast is so central to the show that supporting characters are rarely unimportant, regardless of gender. And the show's hardly uncritical in its treatment of masculinity, paternalism, and the patriarchy. Wrath's story arc alone addresses these issues on multiple levels. I can't say more without completely spoiling the show, but please do give it a chance.
Anime isn't a genre

Yep. But it muddies the issue to call shonen, shojo, and so on genres, when they're really demographics, as you say.
posted by knuckle tattoos at 9:23 AM on August 7, 2013

happyroach: "Frankly,I blame the whole "moe" phenomenon, in making female characters that are specifically designed around the fetishes of socially isolated male viewers."

It's certainly the case that many of these socially isolated viewers get rather, um, upset when a company that usually delivers them a nice fresh yearly based of moeblobs instead makes something for girls.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 9:28 AM on August 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

*Obligatory mention of Buffy The Vampire Slayer as the best female Bildungsroman the West has yet to offer*

But thanks for this post, I desperately need to give anime another chance!
posted by Mooseli at 9:58 AM on August 7, 2013

At first I was all, "Heh heh, hey what about Sailor Quaoar amirite?!" but then I googled it.

In summary, people like the Sailors and liking things is cool.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 10:44 AM on August 7, 2013

I too watched Magica Madoka purely on the basis of this essay, and don't have a lot to add to the analysis already made in this thread.

However Kyubey's ears coming out ears character design managed to disturb me than most stereotypical "horror" character designs. I found it hard to look at Kyubey at all and wonder if that was part of the point.
posted by bswinburn at 2:53 PM on August 7, 2013

ʃ( ◕ ‿‿ ◕ )ʅ

I still haven't watched the last episode. It was delayed by the great quake which threw a monkey wrench in my anticipation machine. Not sure if I should read these treatises before eventually going back and marathoning the whole series.
posted by zengargoyle at 8:20 PM on August 7, 2013

The analysis of Kyubei representing the patriarchy is interesting. I would generally agree with it except for maybe the reasoning behind Sayaka's transition from magical girl to witch. If I remember correctly Sayaka's fall wasn't really based on the fact that she was a lich but more on the realization that she had sacrificed her life for something that was not what she originally thought it was.

She makes her wish to heal her violinist classmate because she thought she unconditionally loved him, but realized that as time went on she didn't really want him to be happy as she wanted his love and gratitude. To me the view that Kyubei represents the patriarchy isn't quite right, it's more that he represents the system that you simply cannot defeat or perhaps the reality of what you want versus the ideal of what you want. It chooses you at a period of transition in your life and gives you what you think you want most at that moment in time. Of course, you're screwed, because without that critical life experience (and sometimes even with it) your choice is going to be incorrect because there is no way to foresee all of the consequences of what you want and also there's a pretty damned good chance that you're not even sure what you really want (Sayaka, again).

This reminds me of Book 2 in the Tiffany Aching series and that question that keeps popping most stories you get three wishes, and what's the third thing that you always wish for? As Granny Weatherwax knows, in any story worth telling, the third wish is always that you wish for everything to go back to the way it was because those things that you wished for with your first two wishes were not really the things that you wanted.

Unfortunately Kyubei only gives the girls one wish.
posted by C^3 at 8:57 PM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ahhhhh, I adore magical Girl animes. I was hooked, especially once I found the manga. My favorites are Saint Tail and Fancy Lala, but I have a really soft spot for Wedding Peach (especially for the hysterical speeches each of the girls give right after they transform) and Pretear. I never got into Sailor Moon, but I may have to give it another try.

One thing I adored about Gundam Wing was that there were as many female characters as male, and every character had a story arc (though for some of them - Relena, Quatre - you had to do a lot of reading between the lines).
posted by Deoridhe at 12:46 AM on August 8, 2013

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