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.

Permitted and Prohibited Desires

Title: Permitted and Prohibited Desires:
Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan

Author: Anne Allison
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication Year: 1996
Pages: 213

I am not a fan of theory. To be perfectly honest, I find the vast majority of it, from Barthes to Foucault to Kristeva to Butler, very difficult to read. The ideas are interesting, certainly, but the contexts often feel dated, and the language is occasionally impenetrable. I suppose this is an occupational hazard, though, as specific terminology is needed to express certain ideas, and the names of theorists are useful as metonymic signifiers of certain strains of thought. Also, although pure theory can sometimes come across as bogwash, its application to more textually grounded studies helps to both deepen and widen the scope of the topic, making something like pornographic manga, for example, relevant to the non-specialist.

In Permitted and Prohibited Desires, anthropologist Anne Allison applies gender and cinema theory to adult manga, arguing that its pornographic elements attest more to the weakness of men than they do to the exploitation of women. Allison reacts against the position of feminists like Andrea Dworkin, who argues that pornography is always misogynistic, and Catherine MacKinnon, who treats pornography as both a reflection and cause of gender inequality, in order to argue for a more nuanced view of how gender functions within pornography, which restricts male social and sexual roles perhaps even more than it restricts those of women.

In the erotic manga that Allison discusses, women are indeed penetrated, gazed upon, and reduced to a spectacle against their will, but men are often absent or unnecessary. Allison demonstrates that the male position of dominance is undermined by the fact that the man is often unable to obtain consent from the woman, as well as by the fact that his genitals are never directly shown but instead replaced with inanimate substitutes like baseball bats and soda bottles. Many scenarios do not feature men at all but leave a woman or pair of women to their own autonomous devices. When the two sexes are paired, however, the display of aggressive female desire often leaves the man impotent, thus driving him to lash out violently at his partner. In other words, the pornographic manga that Allison discusses betrays a strong stake in maintaining a fiction of male domination. It also goes out of its way to construct a clear opposition between male and female sexual identities. Although the man’s position as aggressor and voyeur is meant to empower him, the necessity of his resort to violence suggests that his gaze is not as powerful as it might seem.

Allison does not challenge the notion that the Japanese social order is inherently phallocentric, but she argues that its economic and organizational structures put an enormous burden on men. She sees the brutalized women of pornographic manga as representing real women – such as the potential sexual partners who make themselves unavailable to the reader, or the wives and mothers who are perceived as single-handedly managing a household in which men have become irrelevant. However, these fictional women also stand in for other things that chain males to patriarchal societal expectations, such as entrance exams and companies that require infinite hours of overtime. Allison states that the relatively open acceptance of erotic manga, which are published so as to be easily consumed during a commute, functions as a pressure release valve that allows men to indulge in superficially subversive fantasies before then returning to their primary roles as workers. Pornographic manga thus provide an escape for men, but the escape is only temporary and belies numerous fears of male impotence and powerlessness.

Fun stuff, right? Actually, oddly enough, it is. Allison writes in a very accessible style; and, when she refers to critical literature to make her argument, she draws out and pinpoints exactly what she is referring to. She will never merely cite the Freudian understanding of castration anxiety but rather delve into it in detail, explaining how it differs from a Lacanian understanding and how both understandings relate to the manga narrative in question. As a result, I feel like I learned a lot from Permitted and Prohibited Desires that had nothing to do with manga or Japan. Also, for readers who might not be familiar with the visual conventions of Japanese pornography, the book is filled with well-chosen illustrations that are sufficiently not safe for work. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, after all.

But don’t let me fool you into thinking that discussions of erotic cartoons, adult manga, and censorship laws are all this book has to offer. Sandwiched between chapters on fictional fantasy women are two essays on Japanese motherhood that had previously been published elsewhere to great acclaim. According to the book’s introduction, these two chapters, “Japanese Mothers and Obentōs” and “Producing Mothers,” are based on Allison’s own experience as a mother of two young children while doing research in Japan. Although the purpose of these two chapters is to show how women are almost coerced into becoming good mothers by school regulations concerning everything from uniforms and homework to the prepared lunches children must bring to school with them, the author’s descriptions of her own hardships and surprises are fairly entertaining as stories in and of themselves. These chapters are aptly illustrated with images from Japanese magazines that showcase the obentō lunchboxes that constitute such a large symbolic portion of the relationship between mother and child in Japan. Allison ties these two chapters into the larger theme of the book with a highly relevant discussion of mother-son incest fantasies, which she uses to show how both parties are bound to state ideology even in pornography.

Although Allison’s application of psychoanalytic theory to erotic manga reveals many aspects of the psychology of the male reader, it neglects to take into account the position of female readers, either of pornography marketed towards men or of josei manga, which can be equally pornographic. Allison’s study of pornographic manga is highly useful in its analysis of how women are constructed in narratives written by men and for men, but I feel that work still needs to be done on how women are characterized in narratives written by and for women. Also, Permitted and Prohibited Desires discusses real women primarily in the context of “traditionally” accepted roles like housewife and caregiver. Allison succeeds in showing how these roles have been fetishized by Japanese media and educational superstructures, but she also risks the perpetuation of this fetishization by arguing that it is only through their mothers that men in Japan are able to enter into adulthood. The roles of women as sexual objects and as mothers are given primacy in Permitted and Prohibited Desires, but obviously these roles are far from the only roles occupied by both real and fictional women in Japan. Nevertheless, I feel that this book serves as an excellent foundation for the study of female characters in manga, and it can be easily supplemented by the numerous works that have followed in its wake – one of the most recent being the newest issue of the U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, which collects a handful of essays on shōjo manga written by Japanese academics.

Before I wrap up, I must admit that I am writing this review partially in response to the recently published essay collection Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives edited by Toni Johnson-Woods. The essays in this book cover a wide range of topics, but they are less analytical than descriptive, explaining manga to an audience that has presumably never seen or read one before. The book also succumbs to one of my personal pet peeves, the italicization of Japanese words that have become common in America, such as anime, manga, shōjo, and shōnen. This stylistic decision is disconcerting not only because the introduction attempts to argue that manga are a truly global phenomenon (using evidence like a picture of a section of bookshelves clearly labeled “Manga” in a Borders book store), but also because such words are used so frequently in all of the essays. I was hoping that this collection would be to the study of manga what Susan Napier’s Anime is to the study of Japanese animation, but it’s just basic information presented in a somewhat unprofessional manner. That’s a harsh judgment, I know, but my disappointment is commensurate to my expectations. In the end, I still find myself searching for the perfect book about manga, but Permitted and Prohibited Desires will do well enough for now.