The Feminism of Sailor Moon
If you grew up watching TV in the 1990s, there is no way you escaped seeing at least a few episodes of Sailor Moon. The Japanese anime series about teen girls named Sailor Senshi fighting bad guys from outer space, was a hallmark of girls' after-school cartoons. It was many kids' gateway to anime but, more importantly, Sailor Moon proved that children’s programming that centered on empowered young women had serious commercial power and popular appeal. It redefined and revived the "magical girl" genre in its native Japan and its overseas influence has shown up in girl-power shows like The Powerpuff Girls and, more recently, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
This year, Sailor Moon is back. First off, a reboot series called Sailor Moon Crystal began streaming on July 5th. Its first episode went up on Hulu and anime streaming site Crunchyroll, in Japanese with subtitles in various languages. It promises shinier, updated visuals, but with the same classic story that fans have come to know and love across the history of the franchise. Also, in May, anime and Japanese comics company Viz Media began rolling out every original Sailor Moon episode week-by-week on Hulu and their own site NeonAlley. For people who don't want to watch the subtitled version, Viz is also releasing a faithful English dub of the original series on DVD/Blu-Ray later this year.
The 200 original episodes streaming on Hulu are uncut, which means they keep storylines that were nixed from the show’s original American release in the nineties. Haruka and Michiru, the series' Sailor Uranus and Neptune, were a lesbian couple who helped girls around the world come to terms with their sexualities—if they were lucky to get a non-censored version of the series. Unfortunately, many international versions erased the girls' sexualities, including the one released in the U.S. and Canada. They weren't the only LGBTQ characters altered in the English dub, and those changes tarnished the series' progressive legacy for many years.
As Viz Senior Manager of Animation Marketing Charlene Ingram said in an interview with Anime News Network, "I'm really excited about Haruka and Michiru's relationship, and keeping it true to the original. I think we're living in a really exciting time where that won't be seen as scandalous. I think it'll just be seen as a beautiful romance."
Sailor Neptune and Uranus, being adorable.
Sailor Moon may seem silly, but I know personally that the storyline resonates powerfully with many fans. Before it became an animated TV show, Sailor Moon was a serial comic, which is known in Japan as manga. Reading the manga version of Sailor Moon when I was in college helped me come to terms with my own bisexuality and realize that I wanted a relationship with another girl like Haruka and Michiru had.
Sailor Moon is hardly perfect from a feminist standpoint, of course. As much as some fans praise it and other magical-girl series for "weaponized femininity"—feminine-coded attacks and outfits as sources of power—some people read this more as "weaponized gender-essentialism." While characters' civilian personalities run the gamut of gender expression—tomboy Sailor Uranus often wears traditionally masculine clothes, for example—all the crime-fighting characters transform into impractical miniskirts and high heels when they take on the bad guys. It's awesome to show that there's power in the feminine, but not when it's compulsory. Plus, it's hard to argue that their costumes are purely about "empowerment" when those tiny miniskirts result in so many panty shots.
Another common feminist criticism is that in the early anime episodes especially, Usagi (the titular Sailor Moon) often cries and acts like a damsel-in-distress, needing the mysterious man Tuxedo Mask to save her. In most versions of the story, this is fixed by character-development: Usagi's "weakness" at first is simply due to her being a young teen who’s in over her head, and she doesn't stay that way. As she grows in strength, she becomes more confident and the dynamic reverses itself, with Tuxedo Mask needing rescuing by the girls instead. However, looking back at the old anime, it's inconsistent that one enemy has her charging proudly into battle while another reduces her to tears and requires the assistance of Tuxedo Mask or the other fighters.
Usagi in the trailer for Sailor Moon Crystal.
But where it gets feminism right, it gets it very right. One of the more interesting subtexts of the old anime is how often consumerism is used to take advantage of young women. The male villain Jadeite's many schemes to harvest human energy typically involve feminine-coded consumer activities, including a jewelry store, a fitness center, and a talent search. As a friend put it to me, "Sailor Moon feels like it's training girls to be constantly wary of situations where people are trying to sell you things." When Usagi transforms into Sailor Moon to defeat Jadeite, she accompanies it with a speech about the evils of "taking advantage of young girls' dreams" for selfish, harmful gains.
The series also makes a point of showing a wide variety of personalities, interests and gender expressions among the Senshi. From bookish Ami (Mercury) to athletic Makoto (Jupiter) to artistic Michiru, there is a Senshi for every girl. Additionally, the series often makes a point of commenting on how the less traditionally feminine girls have trouble coping with gender roles, like how Makoto learned to cook because she was mocked for being a tomboy.
The new Crystal reboot follows the original manga story, which spends less time fleshing out the team's personalities and family lives than the familiar TV show storyline does, and is much darker in tone. The premiere episode uses the same plot as the anime's first episode, but there are already changes that reflect the manga's differences. Most of its visual gags and camp are gone or, at least, toned-down. The pacing is quicker, and the focus is squarely on Usagi, with Tuxedo Mask in the background. The best is its new theme song, which includes lyrics any feminist should love: "We are not helpless girls / Who need men's protection."
All in all, the rebirth of Sailor Moon means more quality girl-targeted media, and will hopefully show a new generation of young women that they can be strong and fight evil, too.
Related Reading: What I Learned About Gender and Power from Sailor Moon.
Rose Bridges is a staff writer for Autostraddle, where she covers news and entertainment, including a monthly anime/manga column called Q-taku.
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