Reflections on women in anime: Sailor Moon

I watch a lot of anime. This is probably the thing I consume the most of in video form, actually. I’m not a huge fan of domestic television, mostly because it goes on forever and never gets anywhere, or randomly gets somewhere too fast (I’m looking at you, Dollhouse) but anime tends to really jive for me. In recent years, however, I’ve come to a realization.

Anime is kind of sexist.

Now it’s not entirely fair to consume stories coming from another culture and subject them to the standards of your own. I am very well aware of this. However, I can only come at the stories from my own perspective, which is that of a white girl in the U.S. who has been watching anime since she was a child and loves it despite what can be very harmful messaging in regards to women. I think this perspective is valid because I am hardly the only American internalizing that messaging. I also think there are some things that we can probably weigh as demonstrably sexist regardless of cultural context.

I started watching anime when I was seven, as many children in my generation probably did, with Sailor Moon.

Sailor Moon is often held up as the supreme example of feminine power. Indeed, it’s remarkably transgressive when taken in the context of a lot of American shows revolving around the supernatural. Sailor Moon’s power rests in her beauty. One of her super powers is literally the ability to transform herself via makeup and styling, and her transformation from Usagi into Sailor Moon herself (and the powers associated) revolves around accessories – she gets heels, a short skirt, and a sweet tiara. As a child, I was enchanted. If I was more amazed by the superpowers than the makeup, well, the makeup wasn’t lost on me either. Sailor Moon taught me that you could be femme and also kick ass, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.

A few years ago, Sailor Moon was rebooted in Sailor Moon: Crystal. I watched it, of course, because I love the original but I have a hard time getting past the poor quality of the animation now. The graphics had indeed been leveled up, and some of the meandering nature of the story stripped down, until only the core plot remained. Perhaps because of this, I realized quickly that the plot of the first arc was incredibly problematic.

By the time I got to Black Moon and Chibi-Usa, about two or three arcs into the series, I had to turn it off.

I think the things that bothered me the most about the plot by that point were twofold. First, Sailor Moon is supposed to be about girl power, right? But at two separate points before I stopped watching Crystal, Tuxedo Mask had been possessed and was beating Sailor Moon on screen. This man, the love of two of her lives, being ensorcelled to hurt and kill her would have been upsetting enough once. The second time, it felt like an excuse to show partner abuse. Tack on the antagonistic and messed up relationship with her daughter, Chibi-Usa, and Sailor Moon’s own kidnapping, and it became very difficult for me to feel that the show was about girl power. When all of the challenges faced by female characters become excuses to destroy their agency and self-worth, it starts to feel like your show isn’t about women at all, or, at least, not in a positive way.

I recognize that this is a controversial opinion to take. I love this anime, and have since gone back to rewatch the retouched original. Eventually, I hope to watch it with my kids. But the reboot of Crystal touched on something I have been struggling with in regards to anime for a long time. Even anime that centers women often doesn’t tell the woman’s story (Fairy Tale). What makes that woman special can render her subhuman (DARLING in the FRANXX). And often no matter how powerful she is she is still less powerful than a man (Kaze no Stigma).

Anime is not a monolith, so it’s not fair to make large generalizations and expect the rule to always be proven. Instead, I think it’s worth looking at several anime individually and analyzing how well they do. I’ve attempted to do that at several points on this blog, and will continue to do so. When anime gets a story right, it gets it so right. I connect with it fundamentally. But a lot of these tropes don’t get questioned, and I can’t help but suspect that they really influence fandom’s interactions with women in life as well.


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