How Sailor Moon Made Me A Feminist: An Ode to Magical Girl Shows

Cover image via akimiya on deviantART

I watched a lot of TV as a kid. As soon as I got home from school every day, I’d plop down on the couch, devouring either novels or whatever I could find on Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. And in the mid- to late 1990s, that often meant anime. While I adored the more boy-oriented Pokémon and Digimon like everyone else in my generation, I think it says a lot about me and the person I would later become that my first anime – hell, first serial television series I ever became obsessed with – was a horse of a very different color: Sailor Moon.

Sailor Moon is a show that is all about teenage girls learning to kick butt and take names, and with the exception of protagonist Usagi Tsukino’s (the titular Sailor Moon’s) love interest, Mamoru (also known as Tuxedo Mask), it’s uniquely girls who have this power. For a previous generation of girl TV watchers, maybe Sailor Moon was a breath of fresh air – finally, a whole show of female warriors and superheroes, not just tokens! – but for me, it was one of the first I saw at all. Maybe it’s the influence of Sailor Moon that is part of what made me a feminist, someone who didn’t think that being a girl was a weakness but was, in fact, a special kind of power.

But it’s not just Sailor Moon; there’s a whole genre of this anime, called Magical Girls. It’s a genre that’s been going strong since the 1960s – originally inspired by, of all things, an American show, Bewitched — but my generation was a big turning point for it, when magical girls started to get blended with superheroes and when many classic, influential works of it, like Sailor Moon herself and Cardcaptor Sakura, were airing on TV and filling up bookstore shelves. It also was influencing American cartoons, probably most notably The Powerpuff Girls, another girl-power show from the late ’90s that I adored.

As I got more into manga and anime as a teenager, I found myself, with one exception, pretty bored by the male-centric shonen adventure stories that made up the bulk of the popular series on Toonami and Adult Swim. Instead, I continued to find solace in the shoujo section of the manga aisle, namely, with other Magical Girl series. Not all of them were up to the quality of their predecessors, but at least it was nice to see girls like me – and girls not like me, for that matter – as the ones with the power to save the world, rather than yet another angsty boy. So when one of my Tumblr followers posted this essay from her blog The Afictionado about the feminist aspects of the Magical Girl genre, I wanted to further open up the conversation about this genre and how it both empowers young girls and reveals so many of the problems with other media’s take on “strong female characters.”

For starters, let’s talk about Magical Girl shows and femininity. In a lot of more typical superhero shows, the token female character has to learn how to be “strong” in traditionally masculine ways. While there’s nothing wrong with female masculinity, it’s often framed as if successfully being “like the boys” is how these girls succeed at anything else. Magical Girl shows turn this on its head, giving magical girls feminine outfits and often even girlier weapons or attacks. As The Afictionado writes:

[T]he genre emphasises the power of the young woman and shows the audience that being a girl doesn’t make you weak. In fact, it’s what makes you powerful—Sailor Moon features its girl team transforming into their flippy skirts and high-heels with “make-up” in their battle cry, and the weapons they use come in the form of winged wands and sparkly tiaras. That’s right, weaponised femininity. Instead of shying away from the traditionally girly in order to give themselves strength, the Magical Girls throw that very idea in the trash and face their enemies down empowered with the feminine.

This emphasis on valuing femininity spreads to the Western media inspired by magical girl anime as well. For an example, there’s one of my favorite episodes of The Powerpuff Girls, “Bubblevicious,” where the girliest and sweetest of the Powerpuffs, Bubbles, proves to her sisters that she’s as strong of a fighter as the rest of them.

What’s more, magical girl characters generally have depth beyond simply being capable fighters, unlike a lot of more typical “strong female characters” in the media. They’re girls we can relate to, who are not perfect and have real-life problems, and yet are still admirable. Usagi herself often cries, is clumsy, eats a lot of junk food and gets bad grades, and yet she’s still a caring person who, over the course of the story, matures into a determined woman who is more than ready to fill the big shoes awaiting her as Neo-Queen Serenity of Crystal Tokyo. But as mentioned before, if you can’t relate to Usagi – or the many other magical girl protagonists made in her image – there are usually other characters who fit the bill. As a good student, I couldn’t see much of myself in Usagi’s string of failing grades, so instead I identified with overachiever Ami (Sailor Mercury), and accomplished musician Michiru (Neptune). More athletic girls can find themselves in Makoto (Jupiter), or more butch girls can see themselves in Haruka (Uranus). There’s a Senshi for every girl, and later series followed this pattern. For example, in one of the series I loved as a preteen, Tokyo Mew Mew (dubbed as Mew Mew Power), the Usagi-like protagonist Ichigo is balanced out by more graceful, stoic characters like Minto and Zakuro.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica via geekrevolt.com

Puella Magi Madoka Magica via geekrevolt.com

The genre has become so iconic in anime circles that it even has its Watchmen, dark deconstructions of its various conventions: the most notable of that probably being Puella Magi Madoka Magica, one of the most popular anime series of the last few years. In this show, young teenage girls with “magical potential” are offered the option to become magical girls by a mysterious cat-like being called Kyubey, with one of their greatest wishes granted in exchange for using their powers to fight mysterious multi-dimensional abominations called “witches.” It darkens everything about the genre: Kyubey isn’t your typical cute animal familiar, and the cliché heterosexual love story that so many protagonists get ends up being one of the girls’ downfalls. Without giving too much away – because this is a series that you really should see – the series could possibly be read as anti-feminist for how Kyubey takes advantage of young girls’ emotions and they’re shown as potent sources for destroying as much as for saving the world. That is, if it weren’t for the ending, where the show’s Everygirl protagonist, Madoka, finally decides that she’s had enough and takes matters into her own hands. The Afictionado says:

And there is that all-important message again: simply because you are a young woman, it does not mean that you are weak. You have the potential to be powerful and you and your peers do not have to sit back and be the squealing, swooning victims in any system, not in spite of but because you’re a girl. You can go kick your evil oppressors in the chest with your pink ribbon-tied shoes, blast them with your flowery wand and use the power of your unshakeable bonds of friendship to shoot the bastards out of your lives and into oblivion.

Also, whether dark or light, straight or deconstructed, nearly every episode of every Magical Girl show, with their emphasis on girls solving problems and working together with each other, passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. They represent every type of relationship between women – and I do mean every. What’s especially interesting about a lot of these shows is not just what they do for women in general, but specifically for queer women. At the very least, they’re often chockful of lesbian subtext; in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Homura and Madoka all but kiss in the finale, and Kyoko could easily be read as in love with Sayaka. But some actually have canonically lesbian characters. They’re all over the genre – even Tokyo Mew Mew has a girl confess her love to another in its anime – but one of the most notable examples of this is, again, from Sailor Moon: Haruka Tenoh and Michiru Kaioh, aka Sailors Uranus and Neptune.

Sailor Neptune and Uranus via Fanpop

Sailor Neptune and Uranus via Fanpop

You’d be hard-pressed to find a queer lady anime fan for whom Haruka and Michiru weren’t somewhat transformative, even in the watered-down version the North American dub of the anime gave us (where the translators tried to pass them off as “cousins”). For me in particular, there were one of two fictional lesbian couples I was obsessed with in college who helped me come to terms with my own bisexuality (the other being Naomi and Emily from Skins). I was on a comics kick and decided to read the entire Sailor Moon manga, and those girls spoke to me.

Anime has a whole genre dedicated to lesbian relationships, called “yuri” (and a male equivalent, “yaoi”). But the couples in those shows never seemed very much like couples I knew in real-life. Except for Haruka and Michiru, despite fitting into some of the genre’s stereotypes (like their very butch/femme dynamic). Theirs was, for once, a realistic love story; they got to know each other and started fighting alongside each other as Senshi, and slowly realized that their bond was more than that. And what’s even better, the other Senshi accepted them completely; to them, falling for a girl was not all that different from Usagi falling for Mamoru.

It’s often not easy to be a feminist, queer anime fan, as the culture, like a lot of other geek subcultures, is full of less-than-savory elements. A lot of other anime – even some that I love – are far from feminist or empowering to women. But if there’s one thing that anime has going for it, it’s so many of those Magical Girl shows that have given us something that’s so rare in media from either side of the Pacific: truly strong, yet relatable female heroes, with close relationships – platonic or otherwise – with other women. I’ll always be grateful that Sailor Moon was on my airwaves as a kid, to show me that girls could do everything the boys could do – and often, even more.

Avatar of Rose

Rose is a 24-year-old Detroit native currently living in Boston, where she is working on her master's degree in musicology. Classical music, history, 1960s rock bands, cartoons, cats, Diet Coke, old movies and the Detroit Tigers are just a few of her favorite things. Besides Autostraddle, she has also written for Bitch and her own media-analysis blog. You should follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.

Rose has written 67 articles for us.

94 Comments

  1. Thumb up 6

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    ROSE THIS ARTICLE MAKES ME SO HAPPY. i’m not really an anime fan — i don’t know about any of the other shows or characters you mentioned in this article outside of sailor moon — but i was OBSESSED with sailor moon as a kid. my mom taped the show for me every day because i didn’t get home from school in time to watch it and once she forgot and i sobbed for hours because i didn’t know how i was going to GO ON in life without knowing what had happened in the episode. i had sailor moon dolls, coloring books, stickers, and a sailor moon costume. i just loved it so much. i never even thought about what a kickass feminist show it is, but holy hell — I LOVE YOU, SAILOR MOON. okay now i want to go find all my sailor moon coloring books brb.

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      Sailor Moon is the best! If you love it I would highly recommend checking out the manga, which has been recently re-released and is all over pretty much any bookstore manga section. It mostly follows the plot of the anime but is quite different in some areas, often being a lot darker, for instance. But I’ve read a shit-ton of manga and it remains one of my favorites ever.

      I also really enjoyed the Japanese live-action series, Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, though for that you’d have to scour the Internet for a subtitled upload of it. It has cheesy, low-budget special effects and the acting is all over the map, but it takes a really interesting, fresh approach to the anime’s first season plot and fleshes out all the Senshi much more. (Also, lesbian subtext up the WAZOO with Sailor Mars and Sailor Venus. Seriously.)

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    love everything about this article! i think i always tended to settle in a happy medium between shounen and shoujo series, but sailor moon and similar shows are especially dear to my heart for how inherently feminist they are.

    and on the sailor neptune/sailor uranus relationship– what i really loved about haruka and michiru was how they did and DIDN’T play into the stereotypical butch/femme dynamic. michiru is elegant, graceful, and ladylike; haruka is more in touch with her masculinity and is comfortable with variant pronouns. but michiru is by no means considered “weaker” by anyone– haruka becomes sailor uranus after michiru saves her, and michiru tends to do much of the saving from there on out. and while michiru thinks more logically (even ruthlessly, i’d argue), haruka is highly emotional and shows it. they’re both fierce soldiers in their own right, and the series portrays that and their devotion to each other equally well.

    tl;dr, y’all need to get into sailor moon stat because it’s awesome and will appeal to all of your queer feminist feelings!

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      Yeah, that’s what I loved about them, too. They were strictly butch/femme in appearance, but – like most real-life butch/femme lesbian couples! – it had nothing to do with who was weaker or stronger, or who was more emotional and less emotional. They both supported each other and took an equal role in their relationship. Incredibly refreshing in the face of so much yuri and yaoi that try to replicate traditional gender roles as much as possible.

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        exactly! i think that was my favorite part about them, to be honest– yaoi and yuri really do reinforce gender stereotypes often, especially considering the whole seme/uke trope, but haruka and michiru were so blatantly the opposite. (they’re also eerily similar to my girlfriend and me, so it’s awesome to actually relate to these characters so well. nothing stops either of them from kicking ass in fabulous heels!)

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          Yeah, I’ve read a lot of slash and femslash fanfiction but I’ve never been able to get into the actual yaoi and yuri anime series because it’s often so stereotypical as far as gender roles and the seme/uke stuff (more so with yaoi, but definitely true of yuri as well). Although I have a few yuri guilty pleasures, like Strawberry Panic, and I’m always looking for recommendations of ones that are a bit better than the norm.

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          if you haven’t seen it yet, i definitely recommend maria-sama ga miteru, though it’s probably more shoujo ai in nature. there’s a canon lesbian couple in the series, and the relationship is given a lot of weight when one of the main characters has her storyline brought to the forefront. and i’ve been thinking about getting into strawberry panic, though i don’t know much about it– is it worth watching?

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          I liked it a lot. I mean, it’s full of yuri clichés but it’s cute and I felt myself really rooting for the main romance once they were given more backstory.

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          The only Yuri I’ve read multiple times with love is Girlfriends. Very normal teen girls, no magic powers or creepy Princess/School/Tournament elements. (Sorry, but I could not read Strawberry Panic! because the dynamics creeped me out)

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          I wasn’t a huge fan of the Strawberry Panic manga, but the anime is a very different story. The relationships develop a lot more naturally (though, still not as naturally as I wish they had). There is a “tournament” thing at the end but that’s not why they get together initially.

          I had a friend recommend Girlfriends and I might check it out. Have you read Kashimashi? That also felt a lot like normal teen girl dynamics. (I mean, except for the premise that the main character went through a sex change thanks to alien abduction. But I like that it’s implied that she’s always been a bit feminine and is clearly comfortable in her new gender identity.)

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          Ahh, Strawberry Panic is my guilty (actually not guilty at all) pleasure. You are so right, Rose, the anime is a million times better, even though the art for the manga is slightly less bad. I know it’s cheesy, but I feel like I deserve my fair share of lesbian fluff. :) Also, although it’s problematic that they never address the concept of homophobia / the gay issue at all in Stopani, I actually enjoy it because it feels like an impossible fantasy world. Literally every character is presumed to be gay. I don’t even think men appear in the series at all! (Although I guess that’s a pretty common straight of Yuri). SPOILER ALERT- I hate the anime ending, though! It’s not that I don’t love Shizuma/Nagisa, but I just feel so bad for Tamao and Miyuki. Nothing is resolved for them! They don’t get anybody to love! And Tamao is literally left at the altar!

          In terms of other Yuri, I highly recommend Aoi Hana / Sweet Blue Flowers because it’s super well-written and the art is gorgeous. Cute characters, too.

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      I dont know if you would classify this as yuri, but there’s a japanese graphic novel an ex-girlfriend gave to me called “Love my Life”, about the life and relationships of a lesbian college girl who, after coming out to her father, discovers that both her father and her deceased mother are/were gay beards who wanted a family (not a spoiler, its the premise of the anime). it was made into a movie as well. It’s really good, especially because, as far fetched as it sounds to westerners, THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENS IN JAPAN. a lot.

      Anyone heard of this?

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        It is Yuri
        The author has written at least three mangas I think.
        “Love My Life”
        “Indigo Blue”
        and “Free Soul”
        I really loved them.
        But in general, there is a massive amount of Yuri available on the Internet both Manga and anime.

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        Ebine Yamaji is THE BEST. I would really recommend her stuff, Love my Life especially. I’ve read an interview with her, and while she may or may not be queer, she definitely is writing her manga for queer women, not just about them. Akiko Morishima and Shimura Takako are some other good mangaka for realistic manga about queer people. Older yuri is also good (the genre started out as being oriented towards women, before branching out to be oriented to a variety of readers); I’d recommend “Shiroi Heya no Futari” and Riyoko Ikeda’s stuff. Nearly all old yuri suffers from Dead Lesbian Syndrome, though, just to warn you.

        In conclusion, there are a lot of wonderful lesbian/queer manga out there for the interested reader, and I am an enormous geek. Sorry about that.

  3. Thumb up 2

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    This article is fantastic. Thanks so much, Rose, for covering this.

    I had missed out on your Otakon experience the previous year, but I’ve noticed a lack of a few anime that I would consider important shoujo titles: Revolutionary Girl Utena (Shoujo Kakumei Utena), Princess Tutu, and… this isn’t an anime, but have you heard of the Takarazuka Review?

    I’m literally so happy to see this article it’s amazing this comment has made it onto the keyboard, because I just want to flail my arms like Kermit.

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      Thanks! I considered including Utena and Princess Tutu, but since I haven’t seen very much of them yet (although they are definitely both HIGH up on my to-watch list), I didn’t want to speak authoritatively on them. So I just focused on two magical girl series that I knew really well. Hopefully a lot of what I said about the genre as a whole applies to them, too!

      And I haven’t heard about Takarazuka Review, is that a live-action series? (The only Japanese live-action I’ve seen in Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, because I’m a huge Moonie if this article didn’t make clear, haha.)

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        Utena and Tutu are both so good–they both take fairy tale formulas and deconstruct them, and one of the reasons I love Utena so much is that its take on love and the types of love that are capable is refreshingly complex. (The first season is very much an introduction to the cast–things really get interesting once the Black Rose saga starts!)

        You should probably watch the whole series before you watch the Utena movie, though. ^_^ It basically retells the story in a new way, and you don’t want to spoil the ending of the series!

        And Tutu arguably has less lesbian content, but the feminist content and the fairy tale deconstruction are amazing.

        As R says below, Takarazuka Revue is an all female acting troupe in Japan. It also grew up in the same hometown as Osamu Tezuka, who created Princess Knight, a proto-magical girl. Takarazuka Revue is also connected to The Rose of Versailles, which started a lot of shoujo tropes (and could also be arguably feminist, but I’ve seen very little of it myself).

        The Revue is interesting in its own right, especially because of the play of gender roles, but also because it feeds into and has fed from the shoujo genres. I’ve been lucky enough to watch a few shows in person, and one of the finale parades at the end of the big shows is like being thrown into a shoujo manga, complete with crazy amounts of sparkles, sequins, disco balls, and random feather arrangements.

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        Oh, you should definitely see Utena if you like PMMM. I haven’t seen PMMM yet but I was recommended it based on liking Sailor Moon and Utena, so –

        Revolutionary Girl Utena does a lot of trope twisting as well, playing with ideas of femininity and passivity as well as fairy tale archetypes and completely subverting them. (It’s also pretty overtly queer. Completely overtly, in the movie, but I liked the TV show much better and would recommend watching it first. You can stream it online, it’s kind of hard to find on DVD.) It borrows from Takarazuka review as well.

        Trivia: originally, the writer of Sailor Moon intended for Haruka and Michiru to be MEMBERS of the Takarazuka review and the idea just got scrapped.

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      Takarazuka review YES!!!!!! I live in Osaka, and see it advertised everywhere. I saw it for the first time about a month ago – they did an adaptation of “the count of monte cristo”. The actresses who play men’s characters are sooooo hot up close, but if you’re in a nosebleed section, they really do just look like dudes, and sometimes you forget the characters are all female.

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    Thank you so much for this! This is precisely why I think coming out in an anime circle gave me a sense of belonging and self assurance in my identity that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. <3 squeeeeeeee I forgot how adorable Haruka and Michiru are! Be still my feminist heart!

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    Oh my god, you have no idea how much I loved this article! I loved anime shows as a kid, like the rest of the 90′s kids, but I was obsessed with Sailor Moon, and would be mesmerized by their outfit/power transformations. Looking back I remember my favourite characters were Sailor Neptune and Uranus! I wanted to be them so badly, I thought they were so badass! I’m not really into anime today, but Sailor Moon will always stay special to me.

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    YAY THIS ARTICLE!! Rose, thank you SO MUCH for writing about Magical Girls; I didn’t realize it was a specialized subgenre, but now it totally makes sense. Sailor Moon was so formative for me, and I cannot even begin to express the impact that Haruka & Michiru had on me as a tiny queer. When I saw two girls cosplaying as Sailor Uranus & Sailor Neptune at Wondercon in 2011 & later saw the same girls at Dyke March later that year I FLIPPED OUT and probably embarrassed myself in front of them.

    Honestly, Sailor Moon & the Spice Girls were why I was a wee feminist. I still have my sailor moon tokyopop mangas on my bookshelf and I refuse to get rid of them.

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    oh man, I love Madoka so much, it makes me cry every time I watch it. Cardcaptor Sakura is also pretty great, it’s so upbeat and cute, plus there’s gay in it, too!

    (this also seems like a good time to mention one of my favorite tumblrs, fuckyeahsubversivekawaii)

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    For those of you who need an excuse to watch Madoka, here’s a really good scene (possible TW for the language the dudes in the subway are using to describe their girlfriends): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqPntVlsN-k

    (This is from the English dub, and I would recommend watching the subtitled version as I think the Japanese voice-acting is better, but either way, the series is really good. And I didn’t get to mention it in the article but it has one of the best anime scores I’ve ever heard, too.)

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    As a massive fan of Sailor Moon I’ve decided to take your advise and I’ve gotta say: PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA is incredible! The cotton wool buds with moustaches in particular had me hooked if I wasn’t already. Great article and it’s nice to have the feminist edge to it as opposed to simply seeing a lot of school girls in short skirts.
    X

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    this was the perfect article, especially with Toronto’s “Anime North” right around the corner. Also I’m glad I’m not the only one who realized Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune were not “just cousins”.

    Sadly, no matter how happy this article made me, it cannot defeat the sadness that comes with remember the ending to Madoka. (falls over)

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    Great article!
    I didn’t watch tv growing up so I’m left out of the whole 90s kid tv thing and I never really thought anime was my thing…Until I saw how easily you can read feminist ideologies or queer relationships into them. madoka, brs, even k-on.And explicit relationships Aoi Hana, Sasameki Koto, Strawberry Panic… As whole genre anime is really interesting into how it deals with queer relationships even if it’s not in the best way

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        AOI HANA. I was waiting for someone to mention it! The anime gave me all the feels and I highly recommend it. As someone who recently went through the coming out process, I related a lot to Fumi. I read the manga as well and enjoyed it.

        Also, Madoka is one of my favorite anime of all time. If you are reading this and haven’t watched it – stop what you are doing, and watch it now. It’s only 13 episodes, and I was really blown away by it.

  12. Thumb up 4

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    Too. Many. Feels.

    I remember watching Sailor Moon because the transformations were just magical and I’m pretty sure it made me gay. I had a serious thing for Sailor Pluto because she was such a woman compared to the other sailors and she had really nice clothes omg the memories are flooding! I later watched Utena when I was a little older and that seriously solidified the gay then Catholic school happened….sigh.
    I made it out alive and I still love Sailor moon with all my heart. I REMEMBER CRYING SO MUCH WATCHING SAILOR SATURN GETTING REBORN! Ugh, I need to stop now…

    I’m just so happy you made this post Rose! *tears of joy*

  13. Thumb up 2

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    Ugh, Sailor Moon! I remember throwing fits when I was six when we’d drive my dad to work in the early morning if we weren’t home by 7 a.m. so I could watch Sailor Moon. I still have the dolls and my old VHS tapes. The show always made me feel like being a girl was the most awesome thing ever.

    Also… Haruka and Michiru, man. I just can’t handle how perfect they are for each other. Haruka has the most epic entrance of any character ever and I love how no one questions her gender identity or their relationship. I love the hints that Michiru is a femme top, I love the way they talk to each other and respect each other together and as individuals. I love how proud they are of each other and, in general, really love their characters even outside of their relationship (they added a much darker, more mature element to the show, imho. In the Japanese version, they really are battle-hardened warriors, not nearly as silly or naive as the sailor scouts.)

    Is it wrong for me to want to base my future relationship off lessons I learned from kiddie anime?

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      NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOPE!

      I in fact want relationships like Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, the platonic relationship between Sailor Mars and Sailor Mercury and the mentor relationship of Luna and Sailor Moon.

      My relationships have been mapped out thanks to Sailor Moon.

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      Also also (Because, you guys, Sailor Moon is my Buffy. I could write multiple thesis papers on this show) I love that we actually get to see Haruka and Michiru in love. This is a kid’s show, and we have two leads holding hands, kissing, fighting together, having tender moments and oh my goodness, the little, almost background quips in the Japanese version (most notably in the park walking away from Sailor Moon when Michiru is pulling Haruka away and she says something along the lines of “Michiru, you’re hurting me! I want you to touch me gently” and Michiru just laughs and says “Later, when we’re alone.”) We also see Haruka regularly flirting with other girls, which made my little self feel like it was totally normal. These weren’t just two women who fell in love with just each other and would be dating men otherwise. Haruka would always be a race car driving, butch lesbian who “didn’t like popular men” and Michiru would always be a violinist, femme artist who was more of a general than any other woman on the team.

      It feels natural. Their love feels epic, even. Like something the viewers should be striving for in their own lives. No one calls them out. No one (that I can remember at least) is homophobic or sees anything unnatural about them. The closest to negative feelings we get is when the girls are sad Haruka isn’t a boy. They also aren’t fetishized. They’re drawn with respect and are seemingly very private about their personal life. It’s romantic, not erotic. Their love is held up as just as strong as Sailor Moon/Tuxedo Mask’s and I think that’s refreshing and special.

      It was also powerful enough that the American producers freaked and tried to cover their relationship with that horrible “cousins” plot element that often became so assertive it broke continuity (like when villains would know they’re cousins even when they were in disguise) and it just made them look incestuous. No one has that kind of body language with their cousin. It’s also why they never dubbed the last season of the show: between Haruka and Michiru being more obviously a couple than ever and the Sailor Stars [who all presented as men outside of their transformations and even dated some of the scouts] they couldn’t edit it enough to make it “child friendly.” (In general, the dub is just awful. All kinds of wonderful, powerful dark moments were dubbed over.

      Obviously I have a lot of feelings.

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    This article warms my anime-loving bi heart. I was a young adult in the 90s, so I didn’t watch this stuff then,but I am going to check out Netflix and YouTube for these titles. Thanks so much for writing this, rose!

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      Sailor Moon and PMMM are both difficult to find on Netflix iirc, and most of what you’ll find on YouTube are just isolated clips. You’re more likely to find them on various sites with illegally uploaded anime.

      ETA: Actually, somehow I was unaware when I made this comment that PMMM was available subbed on Crunchyroll. Go watch it over there!

      Alternately, you could also buy the three DVDs for Puella Magi Madoka Magica on Amazon. That show in particular is really worth checking out; it’s only 12 episodes, so it’s quick run, but it will blow your mind and have you thinking about it for long after you finish it!

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    This article is perfect. Growing up, I was obsessed with Sailor Moon. And now, the voice of English Sailor Moon is in my grad program! We’re really good friends and all my childhood fantasies have come true!

    A few weeks ago, someone who didn’t know that she’s Sailor Moon was like, “Her voice is just so familiar.” Little did she know…!

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    Thanks for the article; seeing anime-related stuff on this site is great. I was really into Sailor Moon as a kid, and have been obsessed with Madoka for the past year. Magical girl shows are great, for all the reasons you listed and more.

    I actually feel like anime in general is better than…most other forms of media…in terms of focusing on female characters’ stories, and giving them depth, etc. I don’t watch a lot of shounen, mostly shoujo and seinen, so maybe that’s why, but it seems like shows with predominantly female casts are the norm these days. And any dramatic series are usually about girls’ stories, and girls’ pain, and girls overcoming hardship, etc. I see way more anime pass the Bechdel Test than I do live-action western TV. I know anime obviously has its problems when it comes to female characters – namely the rampant objectification and infantalization of women in shows aimed at male otaku – and that a lot of anime with mostly-female casts that pass the Bechdel Test also constantly objectify their characters with tons of fanservice and moe pandering. But I see plenty of shows that don’t pander, or at least not too blatantly, and still tell girls’ stories and have what I would consider strong female characters (while comparatively the male characters are bland and not given nearly as much depth, when there even are major male characters at all – it’s interesting). And well, that’s good enough for me…sorry, that was kind of rambling.

    Anyway, I see that people are recommending yuri anime/manga here, so I’ll just say: Aoi Hana, Girl Friends, Octave and Sasameki Koto are all great yuri manga. They’re cute and romantic, and all of them actually address issues of sexual identity and homophobia to some degree (well, I guess Girl Friends doesn’t specifically go there, but it does deal with all the pain and second-guessing that comes along with falling for your best gal pal). That’s pretty rare — most yuri (and yaoi) anime/manga I’ve seen just gloss right over the whole same-sex thing, and don’t actually have any of the characters identify as gay or bi (usually they just they just have feelings for their love interest that is “love so strong it transcends gender” or something, rather than the character actually being interested in the same sex).

    Also everyone should watch Bodacious Space Pirates :|a Despite the title, it’s not raunchy, and there’s no fanservice at all (I think “bodacious” was supposed to mean “audacious” rather than “curvy” in this context…) The girls aren’t objectified. The cast is almost entirely female, the focus is on the girls’ relationships with each-other, and there’s even a cute canon lesbian couple that is treated completely normally. It doesn’t exactly have a very complex story or anything, but it’s really fun, and imo really feminist.

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      Absolutely seconding Aoi Hana (you might find the manga/comic version under the name Sweet Blue Flowers) for its sheer magnificent complexity in terms of art and narrative.

      Octave is just a rough and honest look at a very confusing moment in the lives of two young women, one of whom is trying to really start her life and the other, older and wiser but still very open to hurt just as anyone else. God, I feel like re-reading it right now.

      Or you can try Gunjo by Ching which is just a brutal, emotionally pulverising experience. All these I’d recommend for more adult audiences (Aoi Hana begins as the sort of story fit for teenagers, and then it really grows. Been reading it since I was young and now I’m an adult and feel like I can look back at some of the things that I felt empathetic about and feel sympathetic instead because — hey, I went through that too, kiddo).

      For more comedic and lighter stories, I’d recommend Girl Friends by Morinaga Milk and Sasameki Koto as well.

      If you want anime, then definitely check out Utena (especially the movie!). The film does a really fantastic job of being a metaphor for… everything. From coming out of the closet to becoming an adult. Aoi Hana has an animated adaptation, so does Sasameki Koto.

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      Yeah, the interesting thing about yaoi/yuri anime and manga compared to Western shows that deal with LGBT themes is they kind of have the opposite problems. In the West, they dwell a little too much sometimes on sexual identity and discrimination from society, often more worried about what label they’re going to give a character than having his/her/their sexuality play out on-screen. And the “coming-out crisis” plot has become a cliché. It’s to the point where people can sometimes get the impression that LGBT lives are all hardship, and very little fun.

      And then on the flipside, a lot of anime and manga just has same-sex couples falling into each other’s arms, without really addressing the issue of homophobia or identity politics at all. Yeah, it’s nice to imagine a world where this isn’t an issue, and some yaoi/yuri (people keep bringing up Strawberry Panic and I think it’s the perfect example of this) can come off as that sort of ideal perfect little queer paradise. But at the end of the day, it just doesn’t ring true that these characters wouldn’t think about that at least a little bit, especially if they’ve previously dated people of the opposite sex (as is sometimes the case). Especially if it’s supposed to be set in modern Japan, which is hardly a non-homophobic society (even if the homophobia there is quite different in many respects from homophobia in the West).

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        If you are interested in some yuri manga that address some issues without excessively dwelling on them, I would recommend Honey & Honey, Hanjuku Joshi, and Girl x Girl x Boy.

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    (Long time lurker, first time posting!)

    I absolutely adore Madoka Magica. It’s actually a really interesting show from a feminist perspective. The whole thing can easily be seen as a metaphor for the treatment of women in society, as pointed out by the post from Afictionado. Then, of course, the ending happens (I won’t spoil it :p). I might have to go watch it again for the…5th time, I think?

    Also, I suppose while we’re on the topic of LBGTQ-friendly anime and manga, I would recommend Wandering Son. The manga is by the same person who did Aoi Hana (I think), and it provides both a sensitive look at several young people exploring their gender identity and one of my favorite casts of characters in all of anime.

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    I get a lot of Sailor Moon post in my twitter feed, and I was so pleasantly surprised to see one from Autostraddle <3 <3
    I did not notice if anyone mentioned that they are creating an all new Sailor Moon series as we speak/type, but it is supposed to more closely follow the manga. And from what I understand, Naoko Takeuchi will have much more involvement with it. So, hooray!

    Also, I wanted to suggest a series I really enjoyed, that I did not see mentioned… but maybe that's because it is arguable whether it falls into the yuri category or not. It's called El Cazador de la Bruja.
    Basically strong bounty hunter lady picks up seemingly weak fugitive girl (we later learn she is amazingly powerful). We watch them fight and protect eachother, and grow very close throughout the series. I really appreciate that Nadie the bounty hunter appears the be naturally tough and strong (but we still see she has a sensitive side), while Ellis grows into her strength, learning to be more comfortable with herself (as she learns how to handle her powers, etc) trying not to give away too much, but I love this show, and I think you guys might like it!

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      Yeah, I’m super-excited about the new Sailor Moon anime! Though I was a bit bummed that it was delayed until 2014, but I’m excited to see something that more closely follows the manga since I prefer it, and where Naoko Takeuchi is more involved (because she seems like such an awesome, feminist person even besides being super-talented). Hopefully the delay means it’ll have more time and get better, rather than getting mired in Development Hell. And hopefully now that our society has progressed on queer issues and a lot of the new anime seems to be geared toward older fans anyway, there won’t be the ridiculous censorship of Haruka and Michiru’s relationship that we got with the first anime’s North American dub.

      (That being said, I hope the Sailor Moon fanbase doesn’t get all divided over this like, say, the Fullmetal Alchemist fandom has been ever since they released the Brotherhood anime. I don’t know if every series needs to replicate its source material exactly, as different media invite different narratives – and FMA is definitely one where I prefer the original anime, which diverged significantly from the manga – but Sailor Moon I really think could benefit from this. The manga, in my opinion, is just a much stronger, darker, deeper story, and it always felt very episodic anyway.)

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    Oh wow, I really loved Sailor Moon when I was about 6 or 7 but did not recall there being any queer ladies on the show? in all fairness I don’t really remember most of the plot, but how could I have missed this? I should make time to rewatch it.

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    AHH STAHP. My younger brother, my cousin and I all watched Sailor Moon movies pretty much every weekend, and my friends and I in elementary school assigned ourselves/each other Sailor Scouts for LARPing (yes, I know) — I was Sailor Pluto, because she was a BAMF, and the Build-A-Bear I still carry everywhere is named Pluto in her honor. Last month, I reread the manga up to my favorite arc (the introduction of the Outer Scouts) and told all of my friends who judged me that their souls just weren’t pure enough to appreciate the magic. Sailor Moon was, I think, my first experience with queer characters, and it’s definitely shaped me for the better. Now, I’ve just gotten an amazon gift card for graduation, and I *might* have to go and buy the reprinted box sets…

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    This speaks to me as a 22-year-old who refused to watch Sailor Moon as a child because I very adamantly believed that it was “too girly” for me, and who is currently borrowing her friend’s box set to read because she has accepted that she is more femme than butch and now wants to read stories about pretty girls whoopin’ ass because they’re finally relevant to her.

    Also, Sailor Mars is a fox.

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      I think Sailor Mars turned me bisexual. Honestly. Especially with those transformation sequences…

      I was reminded of this when I was re-watching Fullmetal Alchemist and had a crush on Roy Mustang and was thinking, hmmm, I must have a thing for snarky dark-haired anime characters with fire powers.

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    Shockingly, as an anime fan, I’ve never watched or read Sailor Moon! It’s something I plan to rectify. I’m considering picking up the reprinted manga but I was wondering if anyone could tell me if the translation is decent? By which I mean, they aren’t pretending Haruka and Michiru are cousins like I’ve heard they did in the dub?

    Also, I recommend Utena too. It’s quite surreal and you can read it so many different ways. Plus it has some kick-ass songs!

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      According to wikipedia, the translation is good and retains their relationship. I’ve been meaning to buy them but I keep on delaying because I want to get the pretty boxset.

      And I second your Utena recommendation. I love this show and can’t recommend it enough.

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        Thanks for the reply. I never thought to check wiki, oops!

        Oh, a box set would be nice. I might wait for that. I think they’ve released almost all the volumes now. I’ll have to start saving my monies :D

        This has also reminded me to get back to playing Bishoujo Sensei Sailor Moon: Another Story on SNES. Never read or watched it, but loved the games o_O

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          They’ve already released the first boxset (which has the first six volumes in it), and the second one is scheduled to be released in October.

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    This has nothing to do with anything anyone else has said, but BEWITCHED inspired this genre? That may be so, but have you SEEN that show? I watched it for a little while with my mom last fall, before deciding it was repetitive and the husband character was a misogynistic cad. I mean, the main character keeps trying to AVOID using her magical powers because he wants her to seem normal. And she’s OKAY with this. It’s infuriating. (My mom told me that it pretty much summarizes why there needed to be a feminist movement a few years later.)

    If anyone actually DOES want to watch a show about a magical girl from the 1960s, I recommend I Dream of Jeannie. It still flunks the Bechdel test (and how!), but Jeannie is a much better character. She’s no pushover, and employs all kinds of clever strategies (usually magical, but not always) to get what she wants. Great fun.

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      I think Bewitched inspired the Magical Girl genre in terms of girls who were like witches/fairies who were also dealing with everyday life. Early Magical Girls were a lot more just “cute witch” stories, and it didn’t really get blended with superheroes/saving the world until Sailor Moon came around, which combined it with tropes from more male-centric action-adventure anime.

      If you read the blog post I linked to from The Afictionado, she goes more into the history of the Magical Girl genre and its inspiration/predecessors.

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    This article makes me want to check out more anime! I liked sailor moon as a child and REALLY liked Haruka and Michiru in high school, but never found a lot of anime that really spoke to me… I think it’s the character’s hyperbolic and childish way of speaking and acting that’s always been a bit of a turn-off (and I live in Japan, haha). I think I need to give it more of a chance…

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    While this article had some very valid points, could we talk about how Sailor Moon’s main heroine features a Caucasian, blonde-hair, blue-eyed girl? And aren’t they all white actually? Could we also talk about how these female heroines, while strong and bad-ass and whatnot, are sexualized and infantilized (pigtails, big bows, etc. – come on!) to a far greater degree than their male counterparts?
    Also, if someone has already mentioned these things, I apologize. There are a ton of comments and I haven’t made my way through them all yet.

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      Except she’s not Caucasian. Anime characters may look white to Americans, but Usagi and her friends are intended to be Japanese characters, despite the blonde hair and blue eyes. (Keep in mind that anime characters often have purple or blue hair, too. As for the big eyes, those eyes are unnaturally large compared to ANY human eyes.) Japanese viewers read anime characters as Japanese unless they’re indicated as being something else – which clearly isn’t the case when the characters have names like “Usagi Tsukino” or “Minako Aino.”

      In fact, part of the reason that Americans see these characters as white has to do with how we’re socialized to see white as the default. In Japan, however, the default is Japanese: http://kotaku.com/5627268/why-do-japanese-characters-look-white

      Your make a good point with the sexualization (although, there are a great deal of Magical Girl anime that are less sexualized than Sailor Moon), but with race I think it’s important that we keep in mind that this is coming from a different cultural context. We can’t apply American racial dynamics, and the problems with them, to entertainment originally designed by Japanese people for a Japanese audience (unless you’re specifically critiquing a North American translation). Not that Japan doesn’t have problems with racism – it definitely does – but its problems are different from the ones we have in the U.S.

      Re: how they’re “infantilized,” I think we should question why we automatically see certain things as “infantilized” or weak. As I said in the article, part of what makes the Magical Girl genre so progressive to me is that they take these things that are traditionally considered girly or weak and instead turn them into a strength and source of power.

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    This article is perfect! Thank you for writing this. I was a huge anime fan as a young teen and I agree that it was liberating and transformative for me as an adolescent. I loved Sailor Moon and was so infatuated with the relationship between Michiru and Haruka. I think that was the first lesbian couple I saw portrayed positively in the media. And am I the only one who remembers fansubs on vhs (I think I’m showing my age)?

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    This is so well timed. My wife just made me watch Sailor Moon (she has been a fan since childhood; I had never watched it) and we’re through Sailor Moon S and I am SOLD. Like, making Michiru/Haruka fanmixes and posting them on 8tracks sold. I have no shame.

    The only thing I didn’t like is that in the first season or two it seemed like Tuxedo Mask was saving the day every other time but after watching several seasons it becomes clear there’s a solid arc there where Usagi really comes into her own.

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      i think this is my main problem with the first two seasons, which i’ve been rewatching recently. also i don’t really care about usagi and mamoru as a couple and chibi usa is so irritating. :/
      i always liked haruka and michiru so i’m going to struggle through r and move on to s soon.

      rose, i think it’s interesting that you see the hyperfeminine outfits/weapons of the senshi as empowering. i thought they were designed to appeal to the male gaze since the series does have some hetero male fans.

      oh and no mention of the new version of sailor moon that is coming out this year and is supposed to be a bit darker/more faithful to the manga? i’m excited.

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        The series does have het male fans but the costumes were designed in the manga which did not assume het male fans. The costumes were designed to appeal to Japanese girls as the of height of feminine prettiness, which has an aspect of the male gaze because mainstream femininity always has a componant of that built into it, but they were definitely designed as girls fantasy outfits and not as fan service.

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        I should point out that I didn’t see a lot of the “weaponized femininity” as empowering until I read the blog post that I linked to here, and which was really the jumping-off point for this whole article. I’m not going to deny that there are definitely some parts of Sailor Moon that are sexualized, including with their outfits, but I don’t think it’s the girliness there that’s the issue, I think it’s just how revealing they are: the short skirts and such. Or the even more, well, revealing transformation sequences (even more so in the original Japanese version, they got rid of some of the explicit outlines in the North American dub).

        And as Bhan said: the original manga wasn’t for a male audience at all, and since a lot of that came from there, I don’t think that was the intent.

        And I’m definitely excited for the new anime! Especially as someone who prefers the manga. I just didn’t say anything about it because I’ve heard very little that’s conclusive, and it also recently got pushed back another year, to 2014. I’m really hoping it doesn’t get stuck in Development Hell.

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    Thanks so much for writing this. As geeky as it sounds, I think manga and anime–whether magical girl, yuri, or something else–is a big part of many queer women’s experience. The relationships between the girls in Madoka, especially, spoke to me a lot. I feel silly admitting it, but I’m really glad you gave voice to this phenomenon of queer women identifying with characters in manga and anime, and it seems like many other people feel the same way.

    On a side note, one of my favorite things about Madoka Magica is Madoka’s relationship with her mother. It’s a positive relationship, treated seriously and acting as an important part of Madoka’s character. That was just really refreshing for me.

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      Yuri manga and magical girls series have been a big part of me coming to terms with being gay. Yuri manga like Plica-chan, the works of Morishima Akkio, and many other manga artists helped me realize that I wasn’t alone. And Magical girls gave me kick butt ladies (some of who were lesbian:Haruka and Michiru *fangirl*)

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