Line up of the team of magical girls from Madoka.

Reclaiming Femininity With Magical Girls

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Princess dresses and magic wands do not define girlhood but are familiar symbols many women grew up with. Magical girl anime has all of the aesthetics marketed to girls but shifts the focus and genre that these aspects typically appear in. Instead of the limitation to damsels and other “dainty” tropes, magical girls are action heroes. 

But these heroes can also be princesses, fairies, and other traditionally girly roles. This subgenre of anime reimagines the potential for classically female roles and aesthetics in stories. Magical girls are the heroes of their own stories that are targeted at girls and young women and use aesthetics that are commonly assigned to that audience.

The Hyper Cuteness Of Magical Girls

One of the most defining features of a magical girl is her appearance and accessories. These aspects are not trivialized, but instead reflect one of the more important themes of magical girls – the empowerment of femininity. The magical girl genre celebrates an abundance of cute and girly aesthetics. From princess dresses, toys, and even school uniforms, this genre brings a fantasy element into everyday realities for many girls.

Sailor Moon posing with a weapon with a spacey backdrop.
Sailor Moon. Naoko Takeuchi and Toei Animation.

There is a duality to the girlishness and cuteness of magical girls. One can argue that it reinforces the very same limitations that are targeted at girls. With magical items that resemble makeup and princess toys, magical girl anime doesn’t do much to break the trend in market items that are assigned to girls. However, what this subgenre does is reimagine the potential representation and association of these symbols for stories full of power and agency.

These items are key components of empowering a female hero and assisting her in taking initiative against foes. Many narratives with action women involve her abandoning girlhood when taking initiative, setting up the idea that hyper-femininity and strength cannot overlap. Magical girl anime completely subverts this with aesthetic alone.

The Magical Girl & The Struggle Of “The Gaze”

A concern for the argument of magical girls and feminism is their potential objectification. Cutie Honey and Kill La Kill, despite any in-world explanation, involve heavy sexualization of their protagonists. These are characters who exist for a sexualized gaze in their posing and their clothing. The anime specifically choose shots and situations that compromise their protagonists. By doing that, the anime is consciously creating situations that prioritize sexuality. And when a protagonist is reluctant to be exposed, the anime places the audience in a voyeuristic point of view.

A profile of Honey from Cutie Honey holding a rose. A full body image of Honey in her magical girl form is overlapping. She holds a sword and her outfit is being torn off.
Cutie Honey. Go Nagai and Toei Animation.

However, objectified magical girls are a minority. More often, they are designed to be potential power fantasies that incorporate more effeminate themes and motifs. Transformation sequences reject objectifying gazes and poses that imply the audience is leering. Instead, these anime portray a female form without canon sexualization. Revealing clothing and more sensual transformation sequences are present in some anime, but intention and portrayal are key. Generally, these series prioritize the agency of magical girls regardless of appearance, with fan-service series being in the minority.

Reclaiming Femininity & Girlhood In A Gendered World

It is important to note that enjoying and even celebrating social associations with femininity is not inherently anti-feminist. Part of the function of magical girl anime is to reimagine and empower female roles. Paired with the cute and “girly” aesthetics forever marketed to young women, magical girls do not need to discard their femininity to find strength. Magical girl anime embraces what the media has deemed feminine and puts it in a leading role the shapes the rest of the anime’s world. The genre does not require female protagonists to become traditionally masculine in order to tackle action.

Sally from the 1960s magical girl anime, Sally The Witch, flying on her broom in a starry sky.
Sally The Witch was arguably the first magical girl. Mitsuteru Yokoyama and Toei Animation.

Magical girl anime also presents the opportunity to explore what is outside the limited roles for female characters that stem all the way back to fairy tales. Utena from Revolutionary Girl Utena has long pink hair, but goes against gender norms in both clothing and storyline, taking on the role and uniform of a prince in this fairy-tale themed anime.

By contrast, Sailor Moon remains in a classic princess role (a role that commonly has less agency,) but the series gives her the same weight and stakes as princely Utena. Every magical girl expresses herself in a different way and embodies a new portrayal of classic and often outdated tropes for women. Not having one, single definition of femininity or strength is a significant part of a feminist view of magical girl anime.

A Different Kind Of Power Fantasy

There have been many movements to reclaim femininity. Embracing what is socially seen as feminine through a powerful perspective is a form of rebellion in itself. It says that these aesthetics do not have to be separate from agency and action. There are many ways that this idea takes the form that is adjacent to the mentality of the unapologetically cute magical girl world. The intention is the freedom to enjoy pink, cute, “girly” things without it being trivialized, sexualized, or feeling “assigned” to the things.

The main team of the anime, Tokyo Mew Mew.
Tokyo Mew Mew. Reiko Yoshida and Pierrot.

Another more extreme example is Harajuku fashion like gothic lolita. Lolita fashion is modest and hyper-feminine with a mission statement to reject the idealization of women. It is a movement for the wearer without regard to anyone else, and especially not to appear attractive to men. Lolita fashion can even be off-putting for some due to its abundance of cute aesthetics that are obviously and undeniably unconcerned with dressing for other people.

By comparison, many magical girls series seem to stem from a similar mentality. Magical girls are a form of such reclamation. Shoujo anime features societal assigned femininity as the centerpiece to stories. It creates a space for taking back and celebrating aesthetics assigned to girls in a way that does not trivialize them. Instead, their presence’s intention is for a primarily female audience to enjoy.

Magical Girls Are For Everyone

Perhaps the most significant thing about magical girls’ relationship with femininity and feminism is the diversity of expression. Magical girls challenge the limited “acceptable” expression of femininity (straight, sexualized, and trivialized).  Instead, this genre not only includes but often prominently celebrates LGBTQ+ characters.  Series like Utena and Sailor Moon feature lesbian and bisexual women and gender-nonconforming characters.

Queer romances are visible with fantasy and fairy tale aesthetics. This is important when noting that fairy tales and classic media often feature a limited depiction of romance and gender expression. Still today the media portrays a very stiff and heteronormative definition of femininity, especially in media targeted for a younger audience.

Utena and Anthy stand with rose petals falling behind them from Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Revolutionary Girl Utena. Be-Papas and J.C. Staff.

So the inclusion of queer characters in magical girl anime not only breaks down boundaries and stereotypes of what is “feminine” but actively rebels against outdated and harmful limitations of love and expression in fairytales. Femininity has no binary or boundaries, and certainly no subscription to patriarchic definitions and limitations. This is shown and celebrated in magical girl anime that instead extends its iconic hyper-feminine and fanciful style to all, and gives the same power, romance, and respect to queer characters without question. Magical girls, like feminism, is for everyone.

Are Magical Girls Feminist?

Magical girl anime covers a huge range of series and an even wider range of female leads. Magical girls are by definition hyper-feminine, with primarily female casts, and their aesthetics take from stereotypical “girly” attributes. There is no arguing that magical girl anime is girly. But it brings up the question of what “girly” means in the context of these stories. Magical girls don’t define what is “girly” to one general idea. Every magical girl is different. Each one stands for something different, presents in a different way, and deals with her own set of problems unique to her story and her place in the world. 

What magical girl anime all have in common is female agency and initiative. These young women are the protagonists of their own stories, stories that often deal with grand adventures and intense stakes. There are complexities in their gaze and representation of women. But overall, the core of magical girls is that heroism and masculinity are not interchangeable ideas. To be a hero is not to be society’s expectation of masculine, rather, there is all the same strength in what the world deems feminine. 

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