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?