The Female Gaze: Magical girls and the death of my childhood innocence

In Art, Arts & Entertainment, Columns, Film & TV
The girls in "Puella Magi Madoka Magica" more resemble how I remember old anime cartoons like "Sailor Moon" and "Mew Mew Power" to look like. Before I realized that they were absurd and slightly sexist. (Courtesy of Aniplex)

It never quite dawned on me that my two favorite magical girl cartoon shows from my childhood featured exaggerated portrayals of the female body that are problematic.

The other day, I was excited to show my editor an episode of  “Mew Mew Power.” His reaction was not what I expected.

“What the hell are they wearing?” he asked me.

I can’t say that I saw anything wrong with the female characters in “Mew Mew Power” and “Sailor Moon” as a child. I thought these shows were absolutely profound, like how the show “Puella Magi Madoka Magica” actually is.

Magical girl shows are a subgenre of Japanese anime where adolescent girls attain magical powers and usually use cutely-styled weapons.

“Mew Mew Power,” for instance, features five teenage girls who fight alien enemies after attaining special powers when their DNA become infused with endangered animal species. I was an animal enthusiast as a child, so to imagine attaining the remarkable abilities of a clouded leopard and gaining magical powers seemed awesome.

Even today, “Mew Mew Power” is the wallpaper on my iPod. That is the power of nostalgia I suppose, a false memory of how special a story really was.

Nostalgia roams in my car too, as I have a stuffed Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask dangling above the backseat.

I always woke up thrilled to see these female cartoon characters combat bad guys on Saturday mornings. I never questioned why they fought in revealing outfits until I got older.

At one point, I thought the “Mew Mew” outfits were absolutely lovely. As Zoey (Ichigo in the Japanese version), the team leader, transforms into her “Mew Mew” state; her hair becomes a Pepto-Bismol pink and she wears a bright matching dress with a corset and leg garter.

I once found the outfit astonishing, and I still do but for a different reason.

My mature female mind can’t help but wonder, what is the purpose of that leg garter? All of the five middle-school-aged heroines wear one too, and their outfits sort of resemble lingerie. They also have animal ears and tails. Interesting outfits for a kids cartoon show, I know.

On top of that, the girls also wore frilly maid outfits when they worked as waitresses at the Cafe Mew Mew, which was their homebase. It seemed as if it was crucial for the entire show’s production team to have their heroines display this kind of femininity in both spheres: combat and work.  

I watched the English dub version, which was supposedly edited to tone down the amount of nudity that the original Japanese version portrayed. Though this nudity was by no means graphic, consider it more like a Barbie doll without clothes. This version also made the girls a few years older than their Japanese versions.

“Madoka Magica” totally sabotages that lovey-dovey trope and many others, especially when compared with “Sailor Moon” and “Mew Mew Power.”

I recently began watching “Madoka Magica,” which is a fantasy anime that draws into more mature themes that appeal to me now as an adult, especially since they have more intricate outfits.

“Madoka Magica” offers a sinister twist to the magical girl genre. Compared to the romanticized story of “Sailor Moon,” “Madoka Magica” dives into dark themes and the detrimental consequences of attaining superhuman powers.

In “Sailor Moon,” its female lead Serena (or Usagi as she is called in Japan) portrays a dramatic teenaged girl who often acts irrational, especially when circumstances involve her love interest Tuxedo Mask. Tuxedo Mask always appears to save Serena (his pretty guardian in distress) and for a little girl viewing it in the 1990s, nothing sounded more romantic.

On the other hand, “Madoka Magica” does not focus much on romance like “Mew Mew Power” and “Sailor Moon.” The very little romance that does come up in “Madoka Magica” leads to a character’s demise. (A girl gives up her life for a boy who will never return her affections!).  

In fact, Madoka and each of the witch-fighting magical girls follows her own moral code. Tensions rise among them, for they are not a cohesive team like the Sailor Scouts, who share a common goal, which is symbolically emphasized by their uniforms.

Of course, Sailor Scouts all have different personalities, like the minor tweaks in their short-skirted uniforms. However, their internal conflicts are not as emphasized or as nuanced as those in “Madoka Magica.” This show demonstrates the dark side of being magical and not just exaggerated portrayals of the female body.

Another revelation that astonished me about “Sailor Moon” was how Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune were originally a same-sex couple, but the English dub edited their story and made them cousins. When I first saw them on TV as a child, I just assumed Amara was a man who would become a woman when transforming into Sailor Uranus. Looking back, I pictured a form of transgender transformation.

Seriously though, “Sailor Moon” is best kept as a cute childhood phase while “Madoka Magica” offers an intriguing alternative to this genre. ”Mew Mew Power” is best kept as a wallpaper.

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One commentOn The Female Gaze: Magical girls and the death of my childhood innocence

  • It can be hard to justify the bizarre outfit choices in magical girl anime, but at the same time you kind of need to allow context to factor in. Japanese culture has a huge impact on design choices in shoujo (pretty girl) anime, the era they come from and the intention of the creator.

    Mew Mew Power was definitely made to cater to both audiences, which is why it slants more on the side of sexist but Sailor Moon definitely was aimed at female empowerment. Creator Naoko Takeuchi said in interviews she wanted the outfits to reflect hyper femininity, as the girls embracing their femininity and not being ashamed of it. Sailor Moon was first written in the very early ’90s when Japan was in a phase of shaming women who were anything but docile and homely. Takeuchi was upset by this and wanted to empower young girls to embrace their gender.

    Of course large parts of this were lost in translation coming to America since this country didn’t have the same issues and Christian values demanded the changes of several characters like Uranus and Neptune.

    There is no reason to be ashamed of liking these pieces of media in the past, just remember to consider what caused them to be how they were and not look back with a strictly modern interpretation.

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