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What I Learned About Gender and Power from Sailor Moon

My life began in 1995 — the year I turned eight and became a divorced kid.

From that year onward, until I turned thirteen, my sister and I were shuffled between my mother's apartment in New York City and my paternal grandparents' condominium in West Orange, New Jersey every other weekend to fulfill the visitation requirements of our parents' divorce settlement. Our time at our father's home, which he shared with his deeply Catholic relatives, was unstructured and pointless. I spent hours pinching the loose skin on the back of my great-grandmother's hands while she watched Vietnamese soap operas during the day.

I knew, little girl that I was, that putting up with all of this was my only option. I realized this the moment I found my father packing his bag in my parents' bedroom and found the edges of his brown eyes engraved with deep grooves. He wanted me to beg him to stay – but I simply blinked and walked away. I knew then that something important to my family was in motion, and that my feelings had no place in it.

"I am Sailor Moon! I will right wrongs and triumph over evil — and that means you!"

Sailor MoonDrawn by its gender-appropriate pink box and sparkly text, my father gave me a VHS tape of Sailor Moon episodes during one of our visits. I expected to hate it, just as I hated his other sad, insipid gifts: jeans two sizes too small, lacy ribbons for my knotted hair. Nevertheless, I grabbed my little sister and a bowl of potato chips from the kitchen and locked our bedroom door behind us to watch it.

Now that I'm an adult, describing Sailor Moon is a little embarrassing… but here's the deal: Sailor Moon is a magical girl who goes to middle school by day and uses miraculous powers to battle evildoers from outer space by night. Everything about her is feminine, from her pleated mini skirt to the sparkling backdrop of her transformation sequence. She is also a clumsy gluttonous crybaby, an F-student, and as boy-crazy as a cat in heat throughout the first season. Despite all of her personal shortcomings, she dedicates her life to fighting for, as she puts it, "love and justice."

This was a world where girls were fighters. Where they could eat all the food they wanted. Where they could cry.

My wish to join Sailor Moon became so insistent that I resorted to desperate measures to lengthen my visits. In addition to pausing the videos, I began to tape large sheets of tracing paper to the screen and trace the images so they could keep me company in corporeal form. I would keep at least one folded up in my pocket during Mass, moving it between my fingers for comfort like a paper rosary bead.

On our hour-long drives back to our mother's apartment, my father would ask us, "Do you think your mom loves you as much as I do?"

2.

Back home in New York City, my friends were beginning to talk about this thing called "Girl Power." Well, not so much talking about it as shouting the phrase whenever they got excited about anything. My best friend and fellow divorced kid, Samantha, introduced me to the concept: "It just means that when girls do something it's better because we're girls!" She would usually conclude such statements with cartwheels, no matter where we were. The Spice Girls filled me in on the rest of the idea.

At their peak in 1997, the Spice Girls infected the globe with their brand of Girl Power, a slippery idea that, thanks to its broad marketing, is hard to define without resorting to punchy buzzwords. Individuality. Success. Catsuits. Kicking ass. Femininity. Independence.

According to the tenets of Our Ladies of Spice, Madonna is Girl Power. Margaret Thatcher is Girl Power. Rachel Ray is Girl Power. I am – therefore I am powerful.

The funny thing about the Spice Girls is that all five of them went by reductive aliases — mostly adjectives: Sporty, Scary, Posh, Baby, and Ginger. The object of this branding was to make their personalities simple to understand and as accessible to young girls as possible. Samantha decided early on that she was Sporty Spice, which only served to increase the frequency of her cartwheels. But I had a hard time deciding for myself, since as far as I could tell, there wasn't a Smarty Spice.

2 ½.

My father, a hair stylist, used to insist on grooming my sister and I while we visited him. All of the particularity I see in myself was reflected in those moments: when he evened out bangs aligned between his fingers, peeked into the shower to make sure that I was shampooing correctly, and shaped my hair into nauseatingly girlish sculptures that made me look like a Vietnamese Cindy Brady. It seemed to get worse as time went on and I progressed further and further away from his vision of me. Despite his lack of control over the war, he acted as if each strand of my hair that he cut was a redrawing of the battlefield between himself and my mother.

3.

the whole sailor moon squadShortly before I entered high school, I made the conscious decision to cut my father out of my life entirely. It was simple: my mom asked me to give him our new address and home phone number after a move, and I didn't. It didn't matter to me that my sister may have needed a dad, or that my father may have needed his daughters. I just didn't think I would be able to grow up as long as I felt like a divorced kid.

I didn't want to be a girl anymore, but I wasn't yet sure of what a woman was supposed to be. My mother was beautiful – too beautiful – for me to even imagine us as being part of the same species. Instead, my mind moved toward my favorite Sailor Moon character: Sailor Uranus. When she isn't fighting the bad guys, she dresses in men's clothing and dates a feminine woman. I wanted to be strong and handsome like her, and I identified with her inability to trust other people, especially men. She was all of that, and yet she was a girl. From a young age, I was drawn to the mysterious contradiction of her body, which seemed so impossible to achieve in my helpless childhood.

So – using kid logic again – I tried to abandon my gender entirely.

One day, after school, I stopped at Walgreens and spent a week's worth of lunch money on self-adhesive Ace bandages. The next morning, I got up early and launched a full-scale assault on my bare chest, beating its swollen ridges and mounds into a flat, pleasing surface. I sequestered my shoulder-length hair into a baseball cap and hardened my stare. As I walked out the front door, I could barely breathe, but I was too engrossed in my freedom to care.

When I got home from school, I rushed into my room and pulled off my shirt. My skin was slick from sweat, but the bandage was as tight as it was that morning. I grabbed the end of it and slowly began to pull. I paced the 7-foot length of my room like a stressed dog; my constricted lungs tried to take in what little air they could. For a moment, I considered leaving the bandage on, but I just didn't want to be a boy that badly. I sat on my bed and pulled, hard. The edges of my vision turned fuzzy and white, but I kept pulling, ripping, tearing off raw centimeters of blinding pain.

4.

Perhaps one of the most important differences between Sailor Moon and the Spice Girls is that there are no villains in the world of Spice. It makes sense: if the problem with being a girl is simply a matter of rebranding, the onus is on the girl to adjust her bad attitude. In their lively music videos, the Spice Girls kick and punch empty air.

French philosopher Luce Irigaray warns, if feminists "aim simply for a change in the distribution of power, leaving intact the power structure itself, then they are re-subjecting themselves, deliberately or not, to a phallocratic order." This idea is equivalent to, say, arguing for more representative hiring practices in prisons without critiquing the premise of the prison itself. Or abandoning one's gender and embracing another purely out of a sense of internalized misogyny.

5.

I realize now that being a girl (or identifying as one) is one of the hardest roles to inhabit in this world. A girl is supposed to be so many things — attractive, graceful, polite, quiet, valuable, valueless — but none of those traits guarantee that she'll be taken seriously as a thinking and feeling human being. On the other hand, the absence of those traits can often invite violence or, at the very least, judgment.

When we say that all girls are powerful, we often refrain from explaining just what kind of power we're talking about. The power that I want girls to have certainly includes the power to govern their own bodies, but also something else entirely.

6.

Sailor Moon isn't just fighting aliens, but a world of adults who want to destroy everything beautiful in girls. In order to save the people she loves, she fights and gets hurt and breaks down and even completely fails at times. And when she can manage it, she tries to save the monsters, too.

In my last letter to my father, written and destroyed a little more than a month ago, I asked, Will I ever be able to think about you without instantly wanting to disappear?

The author as a child holding her sister

The author as a child. 

This piece was originally published in Interrupt, a new participatory magazine. 

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Comments

12 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Spot On

I can't even begin to tell you how much I love this story. Sailor Uranus was my idol, and that show was my escape from the sexual and physical abuse dealt out by my father. He confused and frightened me by always making me act and dress in a hyper masculine way and enjoyed always berating women as weak and dirty. I would put the tapes in when he would leave the house and instantly I was with pwomen who were in charge, and they would always triumph over evil. In that world I was safe, I could trust people, and I could be strong . I didn't have to be afraid when Uranus, and Jupiter, and Pluto were around. Those shows and movies taught me I could find the strength to triumph over my own plight, and I'd find people happy to support me through it too.

<3

You are so, so great. Uranus fangirl solidarity! <3

OMG Naoko Takeuchi

Interviews with the Sailormoon creator, Naoko Takeuchi, still frequently please and astound me. I occasionally plumb the internet, trying to find out more about her because she's really quite a mystery. She wrote a comic about a miscarriage she had, played out by bunnies. She's frequently quoted from a 1996 magazine interview as saying,

"In Japan, moreover, boys are quite weak and they search for a strong partner. They want to be dominated, and the senshi are ready to do it."

NT always said she felt surrounded by passive men and she liked men who looked for a strong woman in their lives. That was the reasons she wrote Tuxedo Mask as the frequent lover in distress. In the last series there are pivotal dramatic scenes on high school roofs where the sailor warriors declare they feel no need for men/relationships outside their positions of duty, protecting their friend and princess Sailromoon.

I also will never forget that part in the TV show where the senshi counsel Sailormoon that Tuxedo Mask is so close with their daughter because he is trying to take a more supportive role in their parenting structure so that she will be free to fight evil and rule as Neo Queen Serenity.

Wonderful article!

Loved this piece. I'm always thrilled to see feminist analyses of Sailor Moon. I always found Haruka/Sailor Uranus' approach to gender fascinating, particularly in the manga. She phases through feminine and masculine effortlessly - they are mere performances to her, and she will embody whatever "form" pleases her. The series also served as my childhood introduction to homosexual relationships, and I credit it with showing me how loving they could be. In regards to gender identity, the 5th season, Sailor Stars, introduces three alien characters named the Sailor Starlights. In their civilian forms, they are physically male, but when fighting as Sailor Soldiers, they become female again. (In the manga, they are biologically female at all times, and just cross-dress as males) In regards to a possible representation of transgender characters, do you have any particular opinions on them?

Also, if I may toot my own horn, last year I wrote a piece somewhat similar to this entitled "The Feminism of Sailor Moon." http://www.btchflcks.com/2012/07/feminism-of-sailor-moon.html

great article!

Hey Myrna, I love that piece! What an on-point character analysis.

I can't say much about the Starlights, since that season wasn't localized when I was a kid -- I'll have to check it out soon. I wonder, though, if they are less transgender and more drag characters, since they seem to be switching back and forth in a sort of performative fashion. They are stage performers, right? ;)

Re: The Starlights

Soleil - they're pop idols, actually, which is great. In the Manga they're masquerading as men and simply transform into thigh high leather boots and bikinis when they take on their sailor forms - but in the ANIME, they ARE male pop idols, who transform INTO WOMEN when they become Sailor Senshi. I always found it thrilling, because the traditionally powerful men can't fight evil until they transform into hyper-feminine women.

Also, have you checked out the Takarazuka Revue yet? I think it might be right up your alley.

-Fae

Hi! My opinion is... They do

Hi! My opinion is... They do seem to actually be designed as transgender (FTM), and living their lives as men anytime they are not fighting. Unfortunately, that's not fully original characters, but clearly supposed to be the Hindu Holy Trinity. They are God from India. (Who are men and need to be male for theological reasons). The comments about the author wanting men to get dominated, are indeed comments the author has made, and I think that seems to be the issue. So sadly I don't think the author was trying to be gender affirming or trans-friendly, but trying to disrespect religious figures. Which I think was taking things a bit far, so it's not just feminism but misandry and xenophobia. Which is probably where there were a few edits to the anime in their favor. I do wish I had a better opinion though.

Strong friendship bonds

I am glad too that people don't dismiss Sailor Moon completely off the bat as a wacky 90s anime.

Having issues with anxiety and depression, with symptoms that were (reflecting back on it) quite evident despite not even realizing internally why I felt to sad and lonely, the characters of Sailor Moon going through so many trials really spoke to me too. With Sailor Mercury/Ami-chan feeling depression with the pressure of being a top student while feeling alienated among her peers to Sailor Moon seeing her friends die and how much friendship counts overall made the show a cathartic ritual while watching it.

I know this sounds so silly writing this about a piece of animation but it did strike a cord with me. My favorite season is the third (Sailor Moon S) in which Sailor Saturn /Hotaru-chan despises herself figuratively and literally for being a monster but Sailor Chibi-Moon/Chibi-usa loves her as a dear friend no matter what form evil or good, weak or strong. Dealing with feelings of worthlessness, seeing this theme of strong friendship helped me realize that good friends will always be there, no matter how worthless I feel. The ending of that season makes me cry every time.

Never feel silly about that!

Clearly, from what you've written, these stories that we are told when we're young mean so much. I'm glad you could experience these kinds of stories. Let them buoy you always.

The formative power of cartoons

I've noticed a certain defensive quality of both the post itself, as well as the comments, relating to Sailor Moon being simply a child's cartoon. While I'm no expert in Japanese animation, I do watch it avidly even as an adult, because anime (same as manga) is not only for children, despite some bias existing on the matter even in Japan. There are animations catered to children of all ages, as we like to say! I, for one, would not let my child watch a good deal of animes (Ninja Scroll comes immediately to mind, Neon Genesis Evanghelion is quite the runner's up), simply because they have such an adult theme.

That being said, I do believe that Sailor Moon was more catered to tweens and early teens, with its strong subject of power, friendship, love, sacrifice, accepting responsibility and navigating through a world of adult pitfalls and failings. While there aren't a lot of adults in the anime (Haruka/Sailor Uranus, Michiru/Sailor Neptune and Setsuna/Sailor Pluto being some of the only adult-ish characters, if we discount Usagi's parents and Hotaru's dad), the story is decidedly laden with themes which can be very educational for a child in his/her formative years.

I believe the reason why Sailor Moon was such a breakthrough in the magical girl genre was not really due to its slick animation or its innovative subject, because it had neither of these, but due to the fact that it treats its audience to a plethora of subjects without judgement, some of which are very strongly steeped in taboo even today. It does a good job depicting human diversity and difference, and always strives for acceptance and tolerance. In a world still struggling with these concepts, Sailor Moon still is a breath of fresh air for girls, teens and young women everywhere, because it encourages empowerment and acceptance of femininity at the same time. If I ever have children of either gender, I would encourage them to watch this cartoon because of its educational value firstly, along with other cartoons which depict these things (again, Gargoyles comes to mind).

Aside from that, I applaud you on having the courage to speak up about your childhood and about the pain you have endured. I do hope you are well on your way to healing, that you are comfortable in your choices and that you have found strength in trial.

It's obviously a tremendous

It's obviously a tremendous and personal decision to cut your father out of your life. I have no idea what happened, so I couldn't possibly judge you as being wrong for doing it. Only you know what was going on and what you needed to do. I say this because I want to be clear that my criticism is about the essay itself and not about your reality.

I don't think the essay makes it clear what caused you to cut off contact. When I read part 3, I really felt like I'd missed something. As I read the previous parts, I gathered an image of a sad man who didn't quite know what to do with himself after his family broke apart. A man who loved his daughter very much but was awkward in his attempts to let her know. I felt hurt on his behalf when you insulted his gifts, because he seemed to be honestly trying. I thought that his styling your hair was a sweet attempt to connect with you, even if you didn't agree with the femininity of it. Overall, he seemed harmless and pitiable.

I'm not saying this is who he was. But that is how I interpreted him from your words. I never understood what he did that hurt you so deeply, so his part in the essay and your final sentence just confused me. I think maybe the reasons that you cut him off are so deeply ingrained in you that you feel they are coming across more than they are. I thought your escape into Sailor Moon was really well-written and relatable, so I just wish I'd gotten as clear a picture of the problems with your father, which would tie the whole piece together.

I agree wholeheartedly! The

I agree wholeheartedly!

The nature of the relationship is meant to be pretty muddled -- the point of that thread isn't that I'm a good person for doing what I did.