Fight Like a Girl: Deconstruction of Shōjo in Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Coco Zhou / McGill University

Madoka poster

Poster Art for Puella Magi Madoka Magica

At the beginning of my very first column, I introduced Neon Genesis Evangelion and Ayanami Rei. It is revealed at one point in the story that Rei is a cyborg that has “died” before, and the Rei that appears during most of the series is actually a clone of the original. She muses: “I am myself. This object is me, the figure which forms me. This is the me that is visible, though it feels as if this is not me. A strange feeling. My body seems as if it is melting. I cannot see myself. I am aware of someone else.” [ ((“Neon Genesis Evangelion.” Wikiquote. Accessed June 4, 2015.))]

What Rei seems to be contemplating here is the very formation of the “I” – or “Rei” as she knows it. She refers to herself as “object” and remarks upon the presence of “someone else,” suggesting that she is aware of being an object to another person’s gaze. This moment of self-reflexivity is significant. In the conventional mahou shōjo story, the heroine happily accepts the magic granted to her. Rarely does she interrogate her identity as mahou shōjo.

The 2011 animated series, Puella Magi Madoka Magica (hereafter PMMM) presents a challenge to this paradigm. The series is notable precisely because it does not take the motif of becoming a Magical Girl for granted. It centres around the story of Kaname Madoka, a shy and naïve high school girl who spends the majority of the series exploring what it means to become a Magical Girl and deciding whether to be one. It is important to note that unlike stories in which the mahou shōjo willingly steps into her role, in PMMM the characters need to make a contract with an alien named Kyubey to exchange their souls for a wish, and oftentimes they are forced into becoming Magical Girls due to tragic circumstances. Becoming a mahou shōjo, then, is a burden and necessity rather than a source of empowerment.

Magical Girls have to defend society from evil, which takes the form of Witches in the universe of PMMM. Pitting the cute, innocent shōjo against the mature, witch-like woman is a trope that is recycled tirelessly not only by various forms of shōjo media but also by Western entertainment, such as the Disney princesses and their evil queen/fairy/stepmother counterparts. PMMM takes down this binary relation visually, linguistically, and thematically. Instead of the devious temptress with dark lipstick and purple eye shadow, Witches in PMMM do not even possess human form. They appear in abstract forms of collage, consisting of words, symbols and drawings, relying on cut-out animation styles to create surrealist imagery. [ ((Shen, Lien Fan. “The Dark, Twisted Magical Girls: Shōjo Heroines in Puella Magi Madoka Magica.” Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture (2014).))]

This aesthetic strategy starts to make sense when we learn the truth behind Witches. As Kyubey eloquently explains, after Madoka witnesses her friend Sayaka become a Witch, “in this country [Japan] you call women who have yet to become adults, shōjo. It makes sense then that since you’ll eventually become majo [literally, “magical women,” or Witches], you should be called mahou shōjo.” [ ((“Kyubey.” Puella Magi Wiki. Accessed June 4, 2015.)) ] In other words, the relationship between Magical Girls and Witches is betrayed by the linguistic construction of the two terms: shōjo inevitably become majo, and so Magical Girls, Witches.

witch pmmm

Collage-made witch in Puella Magi Madoka Magica

After Sayaka’s death, Madoka confronts Kyubey. In a chilling monologue, Kyubey explains that the alien race needs Magical Girls to destroy themselves by becoming Witches, stating that “the most effective source of energy” comes from this process. To this claim, Madoka helplessly responds, “are we disposable to you? Are we supposed to just die for you? That’s too cruel.” [ ((Puella Magi Wiki. Accessed June 4, 2015.)) ] What Kyubey has confessed to, which is essentially the exploitation of women’s bodies for the benefit of an elite group, may sound painfully familiar. In many ways, Kyubey is also the embodiment of the patriarchal system, taking control of the shōjo’s agency (her soul) upon granting her “power” and constantly trying to manipulate Madoka into becoming (mahou) shōjo, and therefore, an object of the male gaze.

How do Magical Girls react to this injustice? In Sayaka’s case, her Witch form is a monstrous mermaid (in reference to “The Little Mermaid”), symbolizing her sadness about her crush’s obliviousness to her sacrifice. But Sayaka’s “transformation” is also triggered by the rage she feels upon realizing that she has been manipulated into becoming a Magical Girl, and that the same system that grants her magic also seeks her destruction. Presented in abstract visual forms to highlight this emotional state, the metaphor of “Witches are Magical Girls in despair” could be interpreted as a response of the shōjo to her subject position, in which she finally acknowledges the powerlessness of her identity and seeks to destabilize her own representation, disrupting her form and undoing her own shōjo-ness.

In the end, Madoka never becomes a Magical Girl. When she finally makes a deal with Kyubey, she changes the rules of the universe so that all past and future Magical Girls and Witches are erased, giving up her own physical form in the process. Her magical power, instead of being employed against her own kind, is used to completely overthrow the existing order and violate the principles of the universe. Madoka, who constantly cries and mourns, never develops into a courageous heroine, and has all the qualities to be an object of the male desire, in the end chooses to directly challenge Kyubey, the embodiment of the male gaze. PMMM enacts the constitution of the shōjo subject, challenges binary representations of Magical Girls and Witches, and reveals “magical power” as a symbol of subjugation and consumption.

Being shōjo presents various possibilities of power for both men and women. But as long as the shōjo exists within the patriarchal order, male subjectivity will define and disembody her, instructing her to seek empowerment in being powerless and accept her own subordination. When the shōjo commits to an act of unbecoming, it is an indication that she has seen herself reflectively as an object of consumption and has chosen to counter that with undoing the bounds of identity which discipline her. Rather than relying on passive resistance, it is surely more promising to insist upon a new kind of magic, knowing that the meaning of one always depends upon the meaning of other, that unravels the self to bring about a transformation no short of revolutionary.

Image Credits:

1. Poster art for PMMM.
2. Witch from PMMM.

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Magical Girl as a Shōjo Genre and the Male Gaze
Coco Zhou / McGill University

Sailor Moon

Sailor Moon

In my last column, I provided a brief overview of the extent to which the shōjo image has come to dominate all aspects of contemporary Japanese visual culture. I also suggested that this image is constructed to invite men to not only objectify her but also identify with/as her. I would like us to take a closer look now at the ways in which this dynamic is produced. When they look at these representations of girlhood, do girls and boys, men and women all see the same thing? How does a piece of shōjo media frame viewers to look at it a certain way, and what kind of gendered expectations and demands does it make on the viewer?

Although the shōjo character in anime and manga enables viewers of all genders to consume her as a commodity, she also embodies a kind of freedom from social constrictions by virtue of being non-reproductive. Focusing on this liberating aspect of being shōjo, by the late 1980s artists had begun to produce stories about shōjo subjects who are embedded in narratives around battle, adventure, and high technology.[ ((For instance, many of Miyazaki Hayao’s films adopt this very formula: Nausicaa (1984), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997), and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001) all centre around silly yet brave shōjo heroines on a mission. Shirō Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell (1989) and Takahashi Rumiko’s Ranma ½ are also part of this trend.)) ] These anime/manga are consumed by audiences across the gender spectrum and feature a variety of shōjo representations. Narratives about the shōjo in 1990s pop culture thus appear to adopt male (shōnen)-associated elements, such as action, violence, and responsibility toward society.[ ((Orbaugh, Sharalyn. “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture.” Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field (2003).)) ]

Just as these depictions of shōjo repudiate earlier ones that signified irresponsibility, weakness, and passivity, these new images of “female empowerment” also contradict the social realities of Japanese women.[ ((Saito, Kumiko. “Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society.” Journal of Asian Studies 73 (2014).))] Among all of the visual productions and practices that helped spread these shōjo images, I want to focus on a particular anime/manga genre, the Magical Girl (mahou shōjo), and argue that male viewership and subjectivity are deeply wedged into this genre that simultaneously targets a young female audience.

The mahou shōjo story is most commonly identified by transformativity, a central trope of the genre. The typical protagonist is an ordinary girl who is suddenly granted special powers, which she activates after performing a series of ritualized gestures, often involving a catchphrase and a personalized costume. This ability to transform, though also shared by various types of shōnen media (that which targets boys), is unique to the mahou shōjo in the sense that it is ontological in nature: while shōnen comics may include combat scenes in which the hero uses high-tech body armour to turn himself into a robot warrior, the Magical Girl’s transformation seems to originate internally.[ ((Orbaugh, “Busty Battlin’ Babes,” 215.)) ]

Consider Sailor Moon (1991) and Cardcaptor Sakura (1996), the most commonly cited mahou shōjo productions in the past two decades. We could identify elements of shōnen in both of these works, not only in their emphasis on combat and protecting society from evil, but also in their elaborate transformation sequences, in which the heroines transform by donning special fighting outfits.

Sailor Moon’s various transformation sequences.

While this transformation is sexualized, what ultimately makes the Magical Girl shōjo is the fact that she refuses to activate her sexual potential despite all her power. Whereas the antagonists in both series are often power-hungry seductresses with thick makeup, Sailor Moon and Sakura are marked by youthfulness and cuteness, signified by their frilly skirts and school uniforms. Despite her resistance to womanhood, the mahou shōjo is tasked with domestic obligations. Sailor Moon’s later series focuses heavily on the family relationship between Sailor Moon, her future husband Tuxedo Mask, and their time-travelling daughter. Meanwhile, in Cardcaptor Sakura’s motherless household, Sakura fulfills the cleaning and cooking duties assigned to her. The Magical Girl image is thus constituted by her social and communal usefulness.

We are beginning to see how these paradoxical messages may be useful for reproducing patriarchal gender relations. On one hand, the mahou shōjo is supposed to prepare herself for conventional womanhood, and on the other hand, she is told to stay shōjo, since her “power” is not only associated with cuteness, femininity, passivity, but also stems from those concepts of powerlessness. Another way in which mahou shōjo productions usher young children into adopting gender norms is through their business structure. As Japan’s production system of animation depends financially on the sales of copyrighted goods, the Magical Girl genre’s backbone consists of exploiting viewer interest specific to young female children, the targeted consumers of its merchandise. The same transformation sequences are often repeated every episode, recycling fragmented shots (of a magical staff, for example) to effectively show details of the toy, thereby making it attractive to potential buyers.[ ((Saito, “Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis,” 154.)) ]

Cardcaptor Sakura's staff, which she uses to transform.

Cardcaptor Sakura’s staff

By carefully exploiting feminine ideals and consumer interest, mahou shōjo productions have thus become a site of contradictory and prescriptive ideas surrounding gender roles and identities. But how does the mahou shōjo traffic male subjectivity? For one, eroticization and objectification are inherent in the transformation sequences, as they not only portray commercial goods in fragmented shots but also spatially dissect the transforming female body. In addition to commodifying her, male viewers are also invited to identify with the mahou shōjo who, despite being secretly powerful, is carefree and disengaged from expectations of masculinity. Since her power is constituted by her shōjo identity, the mahou shōjo does not need outside forces in order to be powerful, which makes her an appealing object of consumption (and identification) for post-economic-collapse Japan.

At the same time, masculine ideals are reaffirmed by the glorification of violence—through action-driven plots and elaborate battle scenes—and by the relationships between Magical Girl characters, which simulate structures of male competition. Much like the way patriarchy creates solidarity among men at the expense of women, the world of mahou shōjo seems to exclude men so that Magical Girls could enjoy competing with each other as a way to build meaningful relationships. This type of rivalry also channels desire. [ ((Eve K. Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985).)) ] Subjected to the male gaze, battle scenes between Magical Girls are performed so that men could not only eroticize the relationships between the characters but also identify themselves in them. Should the practice of referring to these battle scenes as “fan service” be of any indication, male viewership is clearly taken into consideration in the production of mahou shōjo anime, if not prioritized.

The mahou shōjo thus generates and reconfirms gender norms and heteronormative relations, using the motif of magical transformation—masked as empowerment—to exploit its subjects and mediate feminine ideals. The visual conflation of a shōjo body with power also invites the male audience to both eroticize her and identify with her. Though this identification stems from anxieties about and resistance to traditional masculinity, it is ultimately enabled by patriarchal hegemony, the power structure against which the resistance is intended.

Image Credits:
1. Sailor Moon
2. Cardcaptor Sakura’s Staff

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Girl as Sign: Epistemology of the Shōjo
Coco Zhou / McGill University

Ayanami Rei

Ayanami Rei in Neon Genesis Evangelion

The 1995 anime Neon Genesis Evangelion (hereafter NGE) is probably the most heavily marketed and referenced production in the entire Japanese animation industry. The show documents the struggles of Ikari Shinji, who, despite being chosen to battle aliens, is a crybaby who constantly depends on his female colleagues to rescue him. This portrayal of masculinity is subversive in the context of the genre with which NGE is typically associated: shōnen (“young/adolescent boy”), a type of anime and manga (comic books) centered around male heroism.

Given NGE‘s cultural impact, Shinji’s story must have struck a chord with its intended audience: young men who are under immense pressure to achieve culturally-defined success. But there is another way in which NGE portrays this gendered anxiety. It is channeled through the character of Ayanami Rei, Shinji’s colleague. Despite not being the protagonist, Rei has become a character archetype in Japanese media in the wake of NGE‘s success, with many later works featuring female characters with her physical and emotional characteristics. If Shinji symbolizes a failure to perform idealized masculinity, or the anxiety about this failure, what does Rei’s cultural influence represent? There must be a name for that which codifies Rei – the projection of male anxiety through female subjectivity.

pop star in shōjo fashion

Pop star in shōjo fashion

The name is shōjo. Literally translated as “young/adolescent girl,” shōjo transcends genre and occupies a distinct space in Japanese visual culture. Characterized as “selfish, irresponsible, weak, and infantile,” the shōjo image has become pervasive to the point of defining the Japanese national character in the postmodern era, perhaps not coincidentally conflating with the colonial construction of Oriental passivity. But shōjo culture also functions in specific ways in Japanese contemporary society, enabling not only female identification but also, more significantly, male identification.

Originating in late nineteenth-century Japan, the modern concept of shōjo emerged in a period of rapid economic change as single-sex girls’ schools were established to fulfill a rising demand for labour. Books and magazines designated “for girls” became popular and helped to define an identity of shōjo during Japan’s modernization. [ (( Treat, John Whittier. “Yoshimoto Banana Writes Home: Shōjo Culture and the Nostalgic Subject.” Society of Japanese Studies 19, no. 2 (1993). )) ] By the late twentieth-century, the concept of shōjo has been rearticulated as both a phenomenon of Japanese consumer culture and a model of Japan, which to some critics meant a state of passivity, commodification, and narcissism. Others have defined 1980s shōjo culture more ambiguously; their attitudes toward the shōjo image appear ambivalent, and they also remark on the ambiguity of that image: it is whimsical, elastic, and in a state of “floating.” [ (( Orbaugh, Sharalyn. “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture.” Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003. 201-27. )) ]

Shojo Beat

Shojo Beat magazine cover

The overall picture of shōjo-ness that thus emerges from these views is of a slightly troubled, dreamy, yet somehow seductive vulnerability, occupying a space of sexual inactivity and potential between childhood and adulthood. Because this tension is essentially what constitutes the shōjo subjectivity, scholars have argued that the shōjo is its own gender, “neither adult woman nor girl child, neither man nor woman.” [ (( Quoted in Orbaugh, 204.)) ] The non(re)productive space it represents could be seen as a potential site of resistance to the nuclear family as a function of industrial capitalism. The discourse of the shōjo, then, appears to be as rich and contradictory as the sign itself. The shōjo is passive, but also transformative; uncertain, but potentially liberatory. As a main form of girls’ entertainment, shōjo anime and manga have always been more than a reflection of societal concerns about young women’s sexualities. In marketing shōjo-ness to girls, producers of such entertainment encourage girls to consume images of themselves as commodities, identifying them as both consumers and the consumed. [ (( Prough, Jennifer S. “Material Gals: Girls’ Sexuality, Girls’ Culture, and Shōjo Manga.” Straight from the Heart: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shōjo Manga. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011. 110-34. )) ] In other words, shōjo media produces shōjo culture and young women’s desires rather than simply reflecting them. However, attempts to achieve shōjo-ness could also be argued to represent a desire to fulfill a constant lack—unreachable beauty, freedom from adult sexuality and family duty—which drives the consumption of shōjo-related fashion products, such as Hello Kitty goodies. [ (( Shen, Lien Fan. “The Dark, Twisted Magical Girls: Shōjo Heroines in Puella Magi Madoka Magica.” Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014. 177-88. )) ] Consuming these products is the easiest way for the female subject to embody shōjo and its non-reproductive, static yet promising qualities.

An important and popular stream of shōjo entertainment since the 1970s is the yaoi genre, which exclusively features male homosexual romance. This subgenre of anime and em>manga is predominantly produced by and circulated among women. Although the subjects of these comics are obviously not girls, it is possible to consider them as having shōjo qualities: many of the men are portrayed as beautiful and androgynous, and most importantly, they are young and non-reproductive. [ (( Nagaike, Kazumi. Fantasies of Cross-Dressing: Japanese Women Write Male-Male Erotica. Leiden, Neterlands: Brill Academic Publishing, 2012. )) ] Another aspect of shōjo-ness in yaoi is the communities of women that revolve around it and share these fantasies amongst each other. The creating and sharing of yaoi, more specifically, serves to enhance the shōjo community by staging a particular way for the shōjo to address one another and identify each other as shōjo, thus highlighting their shōjo characteristics and reaffirming their shōjo identities. [ (( Nagaike, 94. )) ]

description of image

Example of a yaio magazine

While a complex examination of yaoi is outside the scope of this discussion, I want to emphasize a few aspects about the phenomenon. One reason that women writers and artists may
have turned to the depiction of male homosexual relationships is the limitations around writing stories about sexually-active (and reproductive) women, such as pregnancy, which symbolizes a point in one’s life when one stops being shōjo. [ (( Orbaugh, 212. )) ] Focusing on young, non-reproductive men is a way to explore romantic and sexual relationships without having to engage with the realities of womanhood in Japan. In this sense, yaoi’s presence reflects the anxieties women have about their social situation. But another reason for its popularity may be its success in enabling women to project their own femininity onto the male characters. In the process of this projection, women not only come to identify with the characters but are also able to identify themselves. In other words, their shōjo status is validated through both objectifying the male characters and “entering” the body of the objectified.

If yaoi is a space for women to fantasize about the possibilities of being the Other (to their own “Other,” so to speak), does the same space exist for men? If shōjo is a screen for the projection of male anxieties about female adolescent sexuality, what are the mechanisms that allow men to take unto themselves the image of the shōjo and identify with it/her? A further examination is needed of the ways in which the cultural production of shōjo enables male identification. [ (( I’m aware that I have been talking predominantly in the gender binary. My intention is not to erase the experiences of those who see themselves in characters that aren’t necessarily of their own gender (assigned or otherwise). As it will hopefully become clear in my subsequent columns, I’m merely trying to demonstrate that this process of identification operates in a specific way in the context of shōjo media, as it is circumscribed within patriarchal hegemony. )) ] For now, we have established that shōjo is a phenomenon that has material implications on the ways in which subjects navigate the structures of patriarchy.

Image Credits:

1. Ayanami Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion
2. Pop star embodying shōjo fashion
3. Cover of Shōjo Beat magazine
4. Cover of a yaoi magazine

Please feel free to comment.