Queer magical girls are the anime industry’s most lucrative little secret. Girls posed provocatively next to each other on the cover of a blu-ray will likely grab the attention of the type of people you’d expect: straight men. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, it’s a lucrative business, and studios have picked up on that. But while most genres queer-bait the viewer, magical girl shows regularly deliver on the queer content promised. Queer creators often turn to the arts, so anime is no exception. Here I’m going to dive into three magical girl series and give you my hot takes on their representation of lesbians, bisexuals, trans girls, and more!
Keep in mind: I’m looking at these shows and comics through a Western lens. That is how I consumed them. Local Japanese audiences will more than likely have a VERY different view of these shows based on little cultural differences. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get started!
Fighting Evil By Moonlight
1992 saw the first publication of Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon. Naoko Takeuchi’s lightning-in-a-bottle manga swept the world and revitalized the magical girl genre. The story’s anime adaptation later that same year gained an even wider audience, especially internationally. The current generation of creatives across comics, cartoons, and illustrations unanimously credit Sailor Moon with their original love of their medium, but what is especially notable is the impact of Sailor Moon on queer women.
The very first time I had ever seen (a) gay or lesbian couple on television.
Sailor Moon breaks barriers with lesbian leads Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune. Their relationship is explicitly romantic and one of the healthiest ones seen on the show. We don’t need to get into the controversy of the original English dub’s decision to change their relationship to familial. The internet has talked about that point to death. Notably, various other women throughout Sailor Moon find themselves attracted to Uranus, including Sailor Jupiter and the titular heroine Sailor Moon. The 1992 anime cuts a manga-original kiss between Moon and Uranus. Don’t fear, though, because the scene is featured in the reboot Sailor Moon Crystal. And I won’t lie, I screamed out loud when I saw it.
Winning Love By Daylight
Another feature that changed with the original dub is the complete absence of Sailor Moon: Sailor Stars, the fifth season of the anime. This season introduces the Sailor Starlights, a trio of sailor guardians who present themselves as men in their civvies, but “transform” into women in their Starlight Guardian identities. (This is an aspect only present in the anime. The manga shows the Starlights’ civilian identities as tomboyish, but definitively female.) One Starlight is even presented as a romantic rival to a tuxedo mask, harboring a deep crush on Sailor Moon.
Though many characters in Takeuchi’s magical girl masterpiece can be considered gender nonconforming, the transformation of the Starlights is a landmark for queer magical girls. These characters are at their strongest after they metaphorically and literally transition. Their outward femininity and presentation gives them strength. Likewise, even their male disguises are androgynous, rocking a look that any trans kid playing cis in front of their parents will recognize. For trans kids of the 90’s, the Starlights provided a heroic model that was unheard of in contemporary media.
Let’s Live Heroically
When Sailor Moon set the stage for queer magical girls, 1997 brought about Revolutionary Girl Utena, one of the most subversive takes on the genre to date. I would consider Utena to be the first real queer magical girl anime. As opposed to Sailor Moon, Utena puts its queer characters front and center. Our lead is one of the few bisexual protagonists in pop culture, and her story is one of the most clearly queer-coded in the medium. Revolutionary Girl Utena was originally published by Chiho Saito before its anime adaptation by Kumihiko Ikuhara. Ikuhara is one of the most visionary directors working in the industry today, and an alumnus of the Sailor Moon directorial team.
The story goes like this: Utena meets a prince in her youth who promises to marry her. Because of this, she decides to wear boys’ clothes and become her own prince. She arrives at a school where she thinks she can unravel her mysterious past and becomes entangled in a high school fight club. Students compete in a series of duels to determine who will have possession of Anthy Himemiya. Anthy is the Rose Bride. She is a trophy symbolizing the “One Who Will Revolutionize the World.”
Let’s Live With Style
Within the first episode, Utena saved Anthy from a physically abusive classmate and became symbolically engaged to her. The two remain engaged for most of the series, and the rare occasions when they part are the most dramatic moments of the series. Utena begins the relationship confused by Anthy’s odd personality and her unquestioning obedience. Anthy has been raised to be nothing more than a tool for the revolution of the world, the perfect bride. Through Utena, she learns to value her own individuality. Anthy ends the series by venturing out on her own to find the lost Utena. The film The Adolescence of Utena further cements their relationship. The two are in an explicitly sexual relationship and close the movie with a kiss.
Utena also features Juri Arisugawa, an upperclassman and student council member who also competes in the duels. Juri bears a lot of traits that have since become tropes. The tragic lesbian, the Childhood Friend, and the stoic Cool Girl. Sailor Uranus also fits the Cooler Than You Lesbian label. She is the noblest member of the council. Juri only competes against Utena when she sees her own fragility reflected back at her. In fact, Juri’s strong exterior is only a front to conceal her inner emotional anguish. She is the victim of a classic lesbian trap. She falls in love with a straight girl. The guilt of loving her closest friend weighs strongly on her. This friend, Shiori, turns out to be an emotionally manipulative monster and a member of Utena’s growing pantheon of villains.
The Saddest Of The Queer Magical Girls
Shirori’s manipulation and Juri’s arc in the back half of the series are some of the roughest parts of Revolutionary Girl Utena to watch, rivaled only by moments of brutal abuse and incest (this show is not for the faint of heart). The arc was so intense that when I finally got a picky lesbian to watch the show, she was unable to finish it and directly cited the Juri arc as the thing that did her in.
I think I would have enjoyed it more as a preteen…but even then the Juri arc would have crushed me
Revolutionary Girl Utena is a mature response to the magical girl media revitalized by Sailor Moon, but the definitive magical girl deconstruction wouldn’t come for over a decade.
I Won’t Lose Heart Again
2011’s smash hit Puella Magi Madoka Magica was written by Gen “The Butcher” Urobuchi and directed by Akiyuki Shinbo. The show had audiences on the edge of their seats with its blend of pop-candy magical girl imagery with dark psychological horror. The less said about this series before you watch it, the better. Madoka Magica has a lot to say not only about the magical girl genre, but about the perception of women in general.
Homura Akemi fits two of the tree anime lesbian credentials I set up earlier. She’s a tragic lesbian and a stoic Cool Girl. Being the cool one that the other girls in class look up to should really be a lesbian trope. Homura fits in a typically masculine role – she’s driven exclusively by her love for Madoka. Magical girl anime takes great pride in female friendships, more often than not bordering on romance. Urobuchi leans into this hard.
Madoka befriends Homura at a crucial point in her life when she felt small and weak. Due to witnessing Madoka’s death over and over via time travel shenanigans, Homura becomes a hardened stone-cold badass. Her only driving force at this point is love and the desire to find a timeline where Madoka lives. The real tragedy here is that the more Homura tries to prevent Madoka’s fate, the more inevitable her demise.
No Matter What Happens
Homura’s love is unique in the medium, as it is something pure and childlike. The two never so much as a kiss, but the relationship is still romantic. In the series proper, Homura only shows her emotions when grieving over Madoka’s loss. By the end, when Madoka rewrites the whole universe, she leaves Homura with a token of affection. A hair ribbon.
Rebellion bastardizes all the tender moments between the two. For the uninitiated, Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie Part III: Rebellion is a series continuation that follows a completely separate timeline. This version of Homura has continued hopping timelines to find one where she can get back to her love. This leads her to become a devil to match Madoka’s god. She follows her through time and space in an attempt to free her from her own wish.
The fact that this is presented as devilish and evil says a lot about how the writing room views Homura. She is unable to move on from her first love, and it perverts and twists her mind. Instead of giving her love power, like it originally did, it twists her into a villain. This isn’t an uncommon trope, as the predatory lesbian can be seen across all forms of media. It’s especially hard to watch in a story that did so well handling the despair and acceptance of its lead lesbian character.
Queer Magical Girls: Transform!
While Japan remains a fairly conservative society, LGBT rights are being discussed much more openly than in the past. Take the Japanese lesbian couple who plan to wed 26 times around the world. They’re not doing this to be quirky. It was in protest of the outlaw of same-sex marriage in their home country. We as a community need to recognize that media plays a big role in public opinion. It may not change how we act, but it can change the way we feel. Heartfelt, honest representation of queer issues in any context is a welcome force for good. Even if it comes from an animated high schooler with pink pigtails.
For your viewing pleasure, I’ve put together a quick list of my personal favorite media with queer magical girls.
CardCaptor Sakura by CLAMP. A classic series that first got me passionate about magical girls. Sakura includes CLAMP’s favorite boyfriends, Touga and Yuki, alongside Sakura’s best friend Tomoyo. Tomoyo is one of the few nonpredatory lesbians in the media, who is content to just be friends with her crush and value that relationship as it is.
Zodiac Starforce by Kevin Panetta and Paulina Ganucheau. An American comic published by Dark Horse. Zodiac Starforce features a group of girls who have already saved the day and struggle to regain their friendship to face a new threat.
Shugo Chara by Peach-Pit. While there is an in-universe reason for a certain character to dress as a girl before he’s revealed to be a boy, it’s pretty easy to draw the conclusion that he’s either meant to be trans or nonbinary. It’s played as subtext.