Sailor Moon and Femininity

It would be many years before I would understand that femininity, the practice of femininity, and the fetishization of femininity degrades all women. That femininity is not a “choice” when the alternative is derision, ridicule, workplace sanctions, or ostracization. That femininity is a set of degrading behaviors that communicates one’s level of commitment to male authority and women’s oppression. That femininity is coerced appeasement, regardless of how successfully it is now marketed to young women as feminism.

So says Jill Twisty at her blog I Blame the Patriarchy.

I agree with her. So much has been written on this topic that I don’t need to be convinced that such a statement is true.

But… What if there were no men?

Or what if men existed, but simply weren’t that important? What if we didn’t live in a patriarchy? What if we didn’t live in a world where men are assumed to be the standard normative subjects and the ultimate bearers of political, legal, social, economic, religious, and sexual power? What if “femininity” didn’t need to be defined according to its deviations from “masculinity” (which connotes maturity, power, authority, and rationality), and what if “femininity” weren’t something to be performed for a presumed audience of men (and women who wield a male gaze)? Would femininity still be perceived as a submission to oppressive phallocentric interests?

These questions form the core of why the manga Sailor Moon is so fascinating to me. A story about women, created by a woman, edited by a woman, written for a popular female audience, and enthusiastically embraced by an adult female fandom, Sailor Moon is an example of a homosocial female space in which women can talk about women and femininity without having to worry about what men are thinking.

Because the early volumes of the series are about young girls – and beautiful young girls (bishōjo) at that – their reception has not always been feminist-positive, however. For example, in his monograph Beautiful Fighting Girl, psychologist and cultural theorist Saitō Tamaki discusses the anime version of Sailor Moon as a prime example of why the “beautiful girl” trope appeals so much to men. In America, cinema scholar Susan Napier and anthropologist Anne Allison both take issue with the series, finding it a stale mash-up of tropes characteristic of the mahō shōjo (magical girl) genre as it has existed since the mid-seventies. Both scholars also view the anime series in particular as catering to a male audience eager for sexual titillation. Napier, for instance, finds the Sailor Scouts “lacking in psychological depth,” while Allison finds it troubling that the “girl heroes tend to strip down in the course of empowerment, becoming more, rather than less, identified by their flesh,” a trademark visual feature of Sailor Moon that “feeds and is fed by a general trend in Japan toward the infantilization of sex objects.”

Unfortunately, these evaluations do not take into account the female fans of the series, who seem to be less interested in the sexual aspects of the short-skirted female warriors and more eager to identify with the empowered femininity they represent. These fans are also willing to tolerate the weak characterization in the opening volumes of the series in order to enjoy the opportunities presented later in the story for the female heroes to develop their individual talents, personalities, and bonds with each other. In Sailor Moon, the female heroes begin as girls, but they gradually mature into capable and competent young women who must shoulder great responsibility and make difficult choices, usually without the support or interference of men.

To celebrate the recent North American release of a new translation of the Sailor Moon manga, an eighteen-year-old blogger on LiveJournal wrote of the series that:

[Sailor Moon] is a world where femininity is not something to be ashamed of, it’s the source of POWER. The girls don’t use their pretty clothes and jewels and compacts as playthings to impress men – these things are all weapons against evil, and powerful ones. They declare themSELVES pretty, needing approval from no one. Our hero possesses all the typical “chick” attributes – emotional, tearful, forgiving, loving, nurturing – and she uses these attributes to triumph and kick ass. She burns monsters alive with the purity of her love, sends out supersonic waves that shake the villains down when she bursts into tears, and her friendship and forgiveness is the most effective superpower one could ask for. The “girly” emotions and affectations are not something to be ashamed of or suppressed, but the source of the power these girls wield. They don’t have to imitate guy heroes at all or act “masculine” to be taken seriously – girliness is just as powerful.

Although someone like Saitō might see Sailor Moon as nothing more than a smorgasbord of tropes that can be endlessly combined and recombined to suit any male fetish, and although prominent critics such as Napier and Allison echo his reading, female readers find something entirely different in the series: they see a group of young women who fight not for the approval of a father or a boyfriend (or a male reader), but rather to achieve their own goals and ambitions. Moreover, they learn that being female isn’t something to be ashamed of; and, according to later developments in the series, neither is homosexuality or a transgendered identity.

Far from regurgitating the tropes of the magical girl genre, Sailor Moon creator Takeuchi Naoko overturned the conventions of both shōjo romance for girls and bishōjo fantasy for boys. Furthermore, the female fans of Sailor Moon aren’t invested in the series merely in order to lose themselves in fantasy (and spin-off merchandise), but rather because they find that the series empowers them to combat real-world problems directly related to the assumption that young women and the femininity associated with them exist only to please men. The fantasy created by Sailor Moon is not an escape from the gendered conventions and restrictions of reality, but rather a safe space in which these aspects of reality can be tested and challenged. Perhaps this is why Sailor Moon has appealed to so many women outside of its target demographic, and perhaps this is why it has appealed to so many boys and men as well.

If you haven’t read Sailor Moon, the Kodansha Comics re-release is beautifully published and contains a wealth of translation and cultural notes that help make sense of the story and characters. The first two or three volumes of the series can come off as a bit childish; but, as the characters grow and mature, the story does as well. If you’re a girl or a guy, or if you’re a serious manga reader or don’t read many manga at all, Sailor Moon is worth reading simply for the experience of entering a world in which femininity is indeed ” is not something to be ashamed of” but instead “the source of POWER.” The manga is also an excellent introduction to an alternative realm of discourse (common in Japanese manga and spreading to Western comics – partially due to the influence of Sailor Moon) in which female writers and artists can tell their own stories without really worrying about how men are reading and looking at them.

If you’re intrigued, check out the Sailor Moon Manga Moveable Feast hosted by Sean Gaffney’s at A Case Suitable for Treatment over on Manga Bookshelf.

8 thoughts on “Sailor Moon and Femininity

  1. toranosuke says:

    An interesting interpretation. Certainly, I can see how this argument functions, that the Sailor Scouts are pretty for themselves, and not for any men, and how it’s all about feminine power. But, even as a manga by women for women about women, with a real minimum of male characters in it to exercise their “gaze” or desires or societal expectations upon the Sailor Scouts, doesn’t Sailor Moon serve to reinforce gender norms and such, rather than combat them?

    I mean, I guess I can understand what one is saying when one argues about using the makeup compacts and the short skirts and all the pink and stars and everything as “feminine power,” as embracing femininity as power, for themselves and not for a male viewer… or something. But, wouldn’t the show (or the manga) be so much more powerfully feminist if there were no compacts, no pretty “star magic makeup power”? Less shopping, less ditziness and “math is hard” stupidity on Usagi’s part, less fawning after Tuxedo Mask as if Prince Charming is the goal in life… and more reinforcement of the idea that girls don’t have to be girly? Or is that just giving in to a certain “girliness is weak and stupid; boyishness is better” sort of discourse?

    Sure, there’s the homosexuality and transgender stuff later on in the series that confuses all of this, but, even so, is it feminist to teach the audience of this manga that female/feminine power comes from makeup and glittery unicorn rainbow pink star magic and being pretty and cute? Or is someone like Ed from Cowboy Bebop, who’s not really girly at all, but isn’t really “masculine” either, a better role model?

    • Kathryn says:

      Doesn’t Sailor Moon serve to reinforce gender norms and such, rather than combat them?

      By including openly gay characters and openly transgender characters not as novelties or afterthoughts but as fully developed members of the central cast, and by having the majority of its heterosexual female characters choose to abstain from romance and marriage in order to uphold their political and military responsibilities, I would argue that it doesn’t. Also, the very premise of the series – a super sentai team composed of young women who aren’t support or healing characters but who can really fuck shit up and actually kill people with their powers – is fairly subversive. Furthermore, despite the superficial celebration of stereotypical girlish femininity in the opening volumes of the manga, there is also a great deal of gender slippage not just in terms of characterization but also in terms of the nature of the emotional bonds between women.

      But, wouldn’t the show (or the manga) be so much more powerfully feminist if there were no compacts, no pretty “star magic makeup power”? Less shopping, less ditziness and “math is hard” stupidity on Usagi’s part, less fawning after Tuxedo Mask as if Prince Charming is the goal in life?

      I think the manga in particular would be a lot less interesting if it didn’t begin like this and then develop into something much more mature and nuanced. In fact, I think the character development that occurs over the course of the series, especially where Usagi is concerned, is quite powerfully feminist. In an eighteen-volume manga, I wonder if it’s perhaps unfair to base one’s judgment of the central character on the opening volume, as many critics of the series seem to have done. It seems to me that doing something similar with an established work of literature would be considered irresponsible.

      Is it feminist to teach the audience of this manga that female/feminine power comes from makeup and glittery unicorn rainbow pink star magic and being pretty and cute?

      I think this question applies more to the anime (which focuses much more on rainbow-colored sparkly clothes-changing naked time when the girls become Sailor Scouts) and less to the manga (which focuses more on the badass speeches the girls make as they transform), but it’s still an interesting point. I would say, however, that although it’s sexist by definition to teach girls that there is a difference between “female/feminine power” and “male/masculine power,” it can easily be considered feminist to teach girls that they are not prohibited from wielding real power simply because they are girls, and that they don’t need to act like boys in order to have access to power. Besides, if power comes from wooden phalluses (which may occasionally contain unicorn hair) in the Harry Potter universe, who says it can’t also come from glittery unicorn rainbow pink stars? In any case, in terms of power actually being derived from cuteness (which is indeed problematic), it might be interesting to compare Sailor Moon (in which the correlation is not emphasized) to something like the Pretty Cure franchise or the work of Tanemura Arina (in which it absolutely is).

      In my final assessment, if fans of the series in Japan, North America, and Europe say that Sailor Moon inspired them to not be ashamed of their gender and to create stories and art focusing on female characters who aren’t defined by their relationships to men, I’m understandably hesitant to label their interest in the series as sexist.

      As for Cowboy Bebop, that series is an entirely different can of worms. Somebody (*coughcough*) should totally write an essay about it…

      • toranosuke says:

        Thanks for taking the time to write such a thorough and meaningful response… I apologize to be basing my understanding of the series on only the anime as broadcast here in the US back when I was in middle school, and not on an appreciation of the full range of the whole manga series.

        Now I’m all the more curious to read/watch later in the series. Because I have to say, growing up, watching Sailor Moon on TV, I didn’t find it groundbreaking or empowering or inspiring, but just excessively girly (and yet I did keep watching, and I did enjoy it more than DBZ…) I wonder if anyone has written on the energy power levels in Dragonball as a metaphor for comparing penis size, if you get my meaning. Oh my god, Kakaarot has got 30,000 energy levels; I’ve only got 10,000. I guess I need more training! … All that emphasis on sweaty, musclebound male bodies groaning and screaming as they release their energy in showy effects… There’s gotta be something to that.

        … Now, I really don’t have the background in media studies and feminist theory and everything that you do (so well-spoken, my god!), so I don’t know that I’d ever actually write/publish anything on it, but you’ve started to get the gears turning, maybe just a little bit, to start to think about what it is I like so much about an Ed character, and how it can be analysed and examined and described in an academically appropriate and meaningful way. First thoughts? Spike, Faye, and Jet fit into stereotypical molds (to some extent) and play out their genders more or less as expected – Faye very much fitting the femme fatale mode, while Jet is big and brawny and macho, and Spike the suave “ladie’s man” I could never be, even if his clumsiness and foolishness in some respects does make him rather relateable. Yet, Ed breaks the mold because, even going beyond other tomboy characters who I might throw into a similar category (Kitty Pryde, Kaylee Frye, Willow, the latter two who were obviously influenced heavily by Whedon’s love of the former), Ed is androgynous. Her femininity doesn’t enter into the equation really at all, except in so far as that, unlike Spike, unlike Jet, unlike the vast majority of male characters who come to mind at the moment from just about any series, Ed is not beholden, at all, to societal expectations of masculinity – nor of femininity. Ed doesn’t need a magical compact, or any other symbols of standard femininity to be awesome, she’s just herself, and cute without skirt or boobs or pretty hair. She’s brilliant, genius-level talented at all sorts of electronic/internet skills, mature, adult-level useful to the team, but free to be in touch with her childlike energy & creativity in a way that societal expectations deny manly man to be.

        …. Hm. Definitely something worth more thought. And, in any case, a series I’ve been meaning to rewatch. (Also, one of these days, I really do need to rewatch Samurai Champloo from an Okinawan Studies point of view.)

        • Kathryn says:

          Thank you so much for your thoughtful response! And thank you as well for the original questions.

          I just wanted to add that this blog…

          http://ghostlightning.wordpress.com/

          …is running an occasional episode-by-episode commentary on Cowboy Bebop that I really enjoy. The author touches on issues of gender without being heavy-handed, and it’s been really fun for me to revisit the series from the perspective of someone who’s interested in all the little details.

  2. electrizer says:

    Hi there! I just found your blog and I loved it. Im a fan and I take a great interest in Japanese culture. I’ve added you to my followed blogs.

    If you’re interested I’ve reviewed two books by a Japanese author Akira Yoshimura, and one added today. http://ihatemybrain.wordpress.com/

    Keep up the good job! Will stay in touch :)

  3. Anne says:

    I finally got a chance to sit down and read this piece in its entirety today. Brilliant work!

    This line: “…the female fans of Sailor Moon aren’t invested in the series merely in order to lose themselves in fantasy (and spin-off merchandise), but rather because they find that the series empowers them to combat real-world problems directly related to the assumption that young women and the femininity associated with them exist only to please men” really speaks to me personally, as someone who grew up with the series and treated Usagi, Ami, and Miwako like role models.

  4. Dougal says:

    A really thought-provoking post that I’ll be mulling over for a few days. I’m really glad to have discovered this blog.

    I wonder too whether it’s fawning for Tuxedo Kamen, or whether his not-quite-off-stage roles reinforce the argument you make here — he’s a male character significant in his absence (and ambiguous, too, with the mask / casual clothes split) and so he’s much more a narrative device for female-centred activity and planning than he is a traditional male hero who arrives to fix things.

    Thanks again for the post, though.

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