Let’s be honest. The ‘magical girl’ trope used to suck when I was a kid, especially when girls are taught to hate themselves because ‘femininity = weakness,’ and gosh are magical-girl-shows ALL ABOUT showy associations of girliness. As such, the magical girl trope only pleased young girls who hadn’t yet learnt to think ‘girliness is a flaw.’ The older a girl got, the more she saw that many magical girls were shaped as vapid creatures obsessed with getting boyfriends or hiding their other life as a pop star, downplaying the fighting and dealing with schoolyard problems. Basically: sitcoms. So it’s no wonder women distanced themselves from ‘magical girls’ to try and preserve their sense of respectability. Until BOOM: Sailor Moon. But let’s build up to that.
What the heck am I talking about when I link magical girls to internalised misogyny? It’s the act of rejecting women, or yourself, for behaving/looking a certain way. The thing is, to quote everydayfeminism, “it’s not always other people or other genders that are responsible for sexism. Sometimes, it’s actually you.” Women oppress themselves and their peers, known as ‘internalised misogyny’—the act of involuntary perpetuating sexist messages within their societies and culture. Enter stage: the magical girl.
Women rejecting the magical girl was about refusing the perfect, pretty, insipid thing in a dress made of cake frosting because those girls are stupid. They’re stupid because the male ‘gatekeeper to being taken seriously’ said as much. We can’t relish looking like a cutie in a strawberry dress, despite being told that’s what we’re supposed to like, and be an intellectual at the same time. Because too much femininity also = fairly stupid.
Through socialisation, we learn that dreaming of saving the world is fine, but doing it as a women is only okay if we aren’t ‘too girly.’ We have to be sexy and wear Lycra—just look at the vast majority of successful female superheroes—which is super disturbing when you see this applied to twelve year old characters. It makes us reject the magical girl genre even more, declare it a moral duty to grimace and shake your head at anime because it’s a perverted wet-dream. Sadly, some of it still is since the market saw an opening for otaku culture and took the magical girl dream away from women and sexualised it for a male audience.
I want to talk about how magical girls are gradually being reshaped again into a positive, however. To read a discussion of its more complex associations, check out Jasmin Boehm’s post Musings II: Magical Girls, or, Empowerment VS Sexism.
Another term for magical girl is Mary Sue, a different way of debunking the power fantasy that young women can be heroes and still have it all. You’re not allowed. Only Batman can be rich, tragic, powerful, handsome, and popular. Not you, magical girl, that’s stupid.
Now, I said that magical girls developed out of sitcoms and school yard problems. Would you be surprised to learn that this genre effectively descended from the American live-action sitcom Bewitched (1964-72)? The creators of the first two series accredited as pioneers of the ‘magical girl genre’—Sally the Witch (1966-68, Mitsuteru Yokoyama) and Himitsu No Akko-chan (1969, Akatsuka Fujio)—both actually credit Bewitched as primary inspiration for their work.
This means that ‘magical girls’ as perceived by Western audiences today is actually different from its origins. It wasn’t even that girls wore frilly dresses in these early shows, it was just that these shows were dismissed as unsubstantial. We rejected the later incarnation of the pretty, puff-pastry magical girl with much more fervour because it partly seemed to confirm that even when we have superpowers and defeat villains, it’s only comical and the purpose trivial.
The magical girl we know today is actually defined as the ‘magical girl warrior,’ born from the popular 1992 anime Sailor Moon. It combined the magical girl with another Japanese genre: tokusatsu. A live-action genre aimed at boys with colour-coded heroes, transformation scenes, purposed with saving the world. So, when you combine Sally the Witch with Power Rangers, you get one of the most popular anime franchises ever. I mean, Sailor Moon is over twenty years old but it’s still relevant because it’s just been remade.
When I woke up at 5AM as a kid and turned on the TV, I used to pray I’d catch a random episode of Sailor Moon, but I rarely did. No one seemed to be airing it on the four channels we had available. So I ended up watching Spiderman, Superman, Batman, MANSUPERMAN, because it seemed to take forever for the West to realise that young girls dream of seeing themselves as fashionable heroes.
Once teenagedom hit, my internalised misogyny made me scorn the pretty heroines who thought that high school and friendships were just as important as saving the world. I even turned my back on my favourite comic, W.i.t.c.h., and I kick myself over that now—I want to know how it finished, but the comic is out of print. I’d been raised to believe that MAN PROBLEMS were more dynamic, more serious, more tragic and meaningful because no one called Batman a Mary Sue. As my perceptions evolved, it wasn’t until I was sixteen and stumbled across Tokyo Mew Mew that I felt something cathartic and gratifying about a genre I’d never truly been exposed to.
But we’ve seen a resurgence of the magical girl warrior with shows like Madoka Magica (2011), the biggest anime hit of the past five years, and as Gabriella Ekens puts it, “US-made cartoons are getting more mahou shoujo-tastic by the day.”
As if trying to reclaim the pretty crème-fresh aesthetic of magical girls with heartfelt issues as worthwhile stories, like Sailor Moon, shows like Madoka Magica explore friendship, death, and balancing life with heroism in a way that grips modern audiences with shorter attention spans.
Is it that fourth-wave feminism—with the handy tool that is the internet—has reached more women and emboldened them enough to shout: being pretty and liking cakes are not divorced from being capable heroes?
For this reason, and as an apology to the heroines I hated because of my teenage internalised misogyny, I became fascinated with magical girl stories. Maybe my gender crisis (wanting to be a man) wasn’t purely to do with the fact that I also like girls, but with my internalised hatred of being umbrella associated with other women and all things womanly, which you remember, means stupid and weak. I’d been socialised to hate myself, despite being a product of that socialisation.
Now, I embrace the magical girl and the magical girl warrior without shame. It’s what I tried to write without realising it, and then told myself off for writing ‘too many women characters.’ So today I write magical girls with pride.
Young girls need it. They’re still being told that they’re genetically coded to love pink and simultaneously that all things feminine are inferior. And as fourth-wave feminism reaches my generation—those of us who took earlier feminists’ hard work and achievements for granted—we also need magical girls to tell us that pink isn’t weak, we can love it because it’s nice and not because we’re meant to, we don’t have to be tomboys to be taken seriously, and because we’re realising feminism is still necessary. We need to claim ‘femininity’ as a strength, not a thing to cut out and reject.
Sorry, to our younger selves.
What’s your story of magical girls?
9 thoughts on “Magical Girls: Internalised Misogyny and Genre Rebirth”
Mary Sue is not “the power fantasy that young women can be heroes and still have it all”, but “overly-underdeveloped characters that don’t give off any feeling of a three-dimensional depth or believability to the audience” (source: https://hatedlove6.deviantart.com/art/Mary-Sues-Part-1-185285110). I think that Mary Sue is hated not because of gender, but because of its superficial characterization. You’re missing the point.
Have you ever heard of a well-beloved comic hero called Batman? Because I would argue he’s a Mary-Sue who has it all but lacks three-dementional depth. Yet for some reason, his backstory and repetitive arch is not viewed vehemently in the same light as, say, his female counter-parts.
My point was that magical girls are about girls accepting their femininity as a part of their superhero form, rather than rejecting their femininity as a weakness, which is a completely separate conversation from being a Mary Sue.
i wouldnt say that batman in the movies is a mary sue. a mary sue is a 1 dimensional character that doesnt feel realistic and doesnt feel like they worked to get to where they are and it often feels like the universe bends backwards to suit them instead of them working in the confines of the universe. batman does not feel like a mary sue because it doesnt feel like the universe is just giving him what he wants all the time and ALSO he has an interesting more 3 dimensional personality
ill give you an example of a strong a strong and near perfect female character that i also dont consider a mary sue. Olivia Armstrong from Fullmetal Alchemist. she is strong, smart and is very well respected by her men and she is a general. but she doesnt come off as a mary sue because she has a tough personality and a survival of the fittest mentality. she believes in personal responsibility and respects others loyalty that work to a achieve their goals. aka its 100% believable that she is the kind of person that would work hard to get as perfect as she is today.
Ray from Star wars was not like either of these two characters. . she didnt have that outlook in life. she didnt have that personality. instead it was almost like everything was just given to her. and she had a very uninspiring uninteresting one dimensional personality. she felt more like a political symbol than a character. that is why she is a mary sue.
Totally agree :). As a woman that likes to look feminine and blonde (blonde being another chapter). When I stepped out of my comfort zone to explore and achieve greater things (besides being a mum, wife, cook, maid and nurse), the odd thing was I had more astonishment and praise from men for doing so, and I found women scorned me from behind my back!
I enjoy being very feminine knowing I have strength, because like you mention, to appear feminine (and blonde) you were thought weak and silly, which I was not (well not unless I had consumed a few glasses of vino).
I actually found this empowering in itself. To feel confident and appear feminine was strength itself. To enjoy being feminine AND confident is powerful 🙂
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Yeah, it’s a mixed bag of reactions. Some men praise you for “not being like other women” (which is ALSO another issue) but some men praise you and still don’t expect you to succeed. But women scorning each other is why we need to encourage young girls to praise each other for having confidence, and praise each other for being comfortable with however they choose to express themselves (black lipstick vs pretty dresses vs both at the same time).
But it’s difficult, since girls are told they’re not pretty enough or skinny enough or “this and that” enough. So we learn to admire the celebrities we’ll never meet who embody these things, but hate the girls around us who fit the “right” category or girls who refuse it entirely.
Complicated. Feminism is necessary. Basically, let’s stop telling boys they “can’t do that/like that because it’s girly” and maybe girls will stop hating themselves for being raised and praised for fitting inside a feminine box.
im going to be totally honest. if you worry so much about what everyone tells you or says to you , the problem isnt other people. the problem is you. why are you so thinned skinned?’
“But it’s difficult, since girls are told they’re not pretty enough or skinny enough or “this and that” enough.?”
guys go through similar sort of scrutiny as well.
you want women to praise each other all the time? wouldnt that just make women weak if they are so coddled all the time? i am a girl and i was never coddled like this and i came out a stronger person out of it. i choose what i want to be without caring what other people think. but if other people make a fair point about something that i can improve on (like not getting overweight for my own health) then i just improve on it without getting so emotional over it.
thats what true strength is. knowing when its a good idea to improve yourself if people inform you about it but also knowing how to tell other people to fuck off if you dont agree with their opinion on what you should change.
certain things people tell me to change (like wearing more make up or weaking more dresses) but i dont do it because i dont care for it. its not to my taste and i tell these people to fuck off. but if people tell me that i need to lose weight because its unhealthy for me to get too fat, i dont mind taking that in to consideration because what they said is just factually true .
you know how men like to mess with and make fun of each other all the time? its an evolutionary tactic in bedded in male instincts to make them stronger so that they can train each other to deal with much larger threats in the future. (since traditionally men had to do the fighting and hunting which put them in danger often)
learning and training each other on dealing with smaller problems in a controlled enviroment works as a sort of vacine for them to deal with the real and bigger threats later on.
if you do nothing but praise people and treat them with kids gloves all the time, guess what? they grow up weak and coddled and unable to deal with real and actual threats in the real world.
proof of that is in the military
did you know that most females in the military arent feminists? ive heard this personally from a lot of people who work in the army. its because in the military they honestly dont have time to worry about first world problems like you do like “people calling them fat or ugly” and instead they have to worry about making themselves actually useful to the squad so they dont endanger their fellow soldiers by messing up and being incompetent.
they dont go around worrying about how they are going to be perceived as women in the army and instead they worry about how they are going to IMPROVE THEMSELVES(self reflection and self improvements seem to be terrifying notion to modern day feminists now a days) so that they dont drag down their squad.
but if you guys are talking about how you can find strength in typically feminine roles and behaviours… thats true too. women who scorn or look down on women for taking on more traditionally feminine traits and roles don’t really understand what true strength is(and the scorners are often the screachy whinny annoying kind of feminists that get upset over everything and somehow think that getting offended and upset over everything means that they are being strong… no. no it doesnt. if anything it shows weakness to get upset over so many minor things that you dont really need to get upset about)
. true strength is being able to stick to what you want to do or how you want to be without letting people scorn you out of it. true strength is ALSO knowing how to sometimes take peoples advice on self improvement when it is needed.