*whispers* magical girls
*shrieks of excitement in the distance*
My last couple of posts have focused on Western character archetypes, so today, we’re taking things across the ocean to look at one of my favorite things to come out of Japan – magical girls! Full disclosure here: I went through my Obligatory Teenage Girl Japanophile Phase in 7th and 8th grade (age 12-13ish). My best friends of the time were both into anime/manga/all-things-Japan before I was, and I got sucked in with them. We tried to eat everything with chopsticks, pretended that we liked green tea (I actually do now, but the stuff we drank then was terrible), added -chan to the end our names, and spent way too long debating who our favorite Naruto characters were. Hey, I bet you were kind of shitty in middle school too.
But that thankfully wasn’t my first exposure to anime. I was one of the many many little girls obsessed with Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura between 1995-2002. I enjoyed them a lot more than I liked any American cartoons at the time. I’ll admit that my love for them never really went away; it just sort of faded into the background for a few years. For a long time, I thought that was the extent of the magical girl genre. I never sought out any of the anime that wasn’t dubbed and aired during Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block, so when I watched with my friends, we were limited to Naruto, One Piece, Inuyasha, and our favorite, Fullmetal Alchemist. Of course, among my issues with these was the general lack of female protagonists and the lack of whimsy/fun (I’ll reiterate that I’m not a fan of things that are dark/sad and I had a much lower tolerance threshold for that back then).
Like I said, I sort of moved on to other things for a long time, especially when I moved out of my Japanophile phase and into my metalhead/goth-wannabe phase in early high school. But I never stopped loving that type of character – girls with magic, who loved their friends and wore cute outfits, who were awkward in their “regular lives” but kicked nine kinds of ass when in their secret alter-identities. But lately there’s been a resurgence in magical girl fandom on the internet, especially tumblr. Part of this is because of the general 90s-nostalgia that’s just completely unavoidable in my generation, but it’s also in part because of the popularity of this new magical girl anime, Puella Magi Madoka Madica (which I haven’t seen, but I understand it’s a subversion of typical magical girl tropes).
But why are magical girls so loved among girls my age? And not just by us; magical girls have massive crossover appeal to other age groups and to men. But what’s different is that magical girl works specifically cater to young women and girls. I know as a 20-something female in America, I am thoroughly used to being ignored as a demographic that American production companies would want to attract. Hell, just look at the cancellation of the Cartoon Network series Young Justice, which was allegedly canceled because it wasn’t hitting its target demo hard enough – young boys. But it WAS hitting the young girls demographic; from what I’ve heard, the network didn’t know what to do with that, and pulled the show. They’ll use the justification of “girls don’t buy toys”, which is problematic in an of itself, to either cancel or not even greenlight cartoons that specifically target female audiences. Of course, I’ll admit I don’t have first-hand knowledge of what happens in the upper levels of cartoon production, or what executives are thinking when they make these decisions. But this seems to be in-line with other things I’ve heard from people who have worked in the industry.
But magical girls are different – not only are they directed at female audiences, they do so successfully. I think this is because we (of course this is a generic “we”, please remember I do not speak for all ladies everywhere because that would be silly) simultaneously relate to them and want to be more like them. Serena (or Usagi, originally) was nothing special in her daily life – she’s a bit of a crybaby, she doesn’t do great in school, she loves to eat, she’s clumsy, she’s lazy, and she doesn’t want to be alone. But when she transforms into sailor-suited pretty soldier Sailor Moon, she’s powerful, strong, compassionate, in charge, and wonderfully self-confident. I can’t think of anything I wanted more than to be able to open my magic compact (or wave my wand, or what have you) and become a better version of myself. And magical girl protagonists invariably find ways to bring their “normal life” selves closer to who their alter-egos are. They find that they’re strong and kind and confident even without magic powers, and wouldn’t we all just love to figure that out so easily? The self-help book industry makes millions on that desire every year.
Add that in with the common aspects of strong female friendships (which are vastly underrated and something I need more of in fiction), handsome boyfriends (who never steal the lead or the spotlight from their girlfriends), fun adventures, and great accessories, it’s not hard to see why graphics like this get so popular on tumblr (there’s many of them, and I have reblogged them all).
That brings me to something I’d like to note, one more important aspect of the genre and these characters: they’re super girly. These shows are awash in bright and pastel colors (especially pink), flowers, gems, dresses, and the leads never sacrifice their femininity for their power (which used to be a common trope in old Western fantasy/sci-fi). What’s more, they’re never denigrated for that femininity. Often underestimated, but then they’ll turn around and kick some jerk’s ass and look great while doing so. Who doesn’t want to be able to do that? I think it’s an important lesson for both men and women that just because someone likes wearing pink dresses doesn’t make them less badass or less good. Hell, their power often comes from their femininity, because hey, femaledom in real life has a kind of power of its own.
So I guess on that note, I want to recommend some of my favorite works that incorporate aspects of the magical girl genre (because my exploration of anime/manga in recent years has been… limited to say the least).
- The Daughters of the Moon book series by Lynne Ewing – four teenage girls have magic powers granted by the goddess of the moon, and they use them to fight evil and also high school
- The webcomic Princess Chroma found here – a direct parody of magical girls, but one that’s still really fun and is clearly affectionate towards the works it’s poking fun at
- My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – shut up, shut up, shut up, I KNOW, but the occasional adventure episodes (as opposed to the usual slice-of-life ones) are so purely magical girl even if they are ponies
- DC comic series Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld – the original series ran in the 80s, but can still be found in trade paperback on Amazon; there’s also a new series from last year called Sword of Sorcery: Amethyst, which I haven’t read yet and can’t vouch for, but it’s on my list