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!"
Drawn 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?"
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.
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.
Shortly 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.
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.
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.
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.
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