This page started as a response to the first academic essay published in this country on Sailor Moon, “Sailormoon: Manga and Anime Superheroine Meets Barbie: Global Entertainment Commodity Comes to the United States,” in The Journal of Popular Culture v.32:1, Summer 1998, by Mary Grigsby.
An Argument for Feminine Agency
The one point that particularly attracted my attention, and which kicks off this page, was the idea that the formula “Fill-In-The-Blank Power, make up!” is nothing more than a plug for consumerist/commodified femininity as espoused by Maybeline and Clairol. Now, by Season Three or Four, I suppose this reading has gained a bit more support–by that time the transformation sequences of the Outers and things like Venus’ attack sequence do highlight the appearance of lipstick. But during Season One, not only do the Inners not acquire any makeup at all during their transformations (barring some possible nail polish for Sailor Moon which is covered by the gloves in any case), the presence of noticeable lipstick and/or mascara is the signal that a formerly good character has been possessed by evil. A particularly good example of this is Mika, that little friend of Usagi’s brother, Shingo. So, while I agree that there are times when this story presents some distressing gender values, its not a simple or one-sided presentation.
I think the most outstanding example of this in Season One is actually the last lines of Episode 46; having once again lost her memory and once again hit Mamoru on the head while throwing away her horrible test and once again gotten off on the wrong foot with him, Usagi tells Naru that a man like that is most definitely not her type, that she has a dream of a future boyfriend/husband: someone who will always protect her. That was, of course, Tuxedo Kamen’s motivation that entire season, to protect Sailor Moon. And taken in isolation, it sounds like a horribly traditional helpless-female sentiment. But consider the all action that precedes it. Tuxedo Kamen always helps out, but it’s Sailor Moon who has to defeat all the monsters herself (or with the Inners’ help). And in the last crunch with Queen Beryl, it’s Sailor Moon who has to save him (before he kills her). Neither in Season One nor in any other so far does Tuxedo Kamen take part in the grand finale confrontation; he’s either dead (one) or wounded (four) or captured (five) or otherwise occupied (three) or only useful for moral support (two). This does not strike me as traditional in the least.
In some ways, I would say the dialogue and, to some extent, symbols in this show conflict with the action itself–the first supporting weak-woman stereotypes and the second denying it. Of course, there are times when it works the other way around. In the confrontation with Jadite (Episode 13), for instance, the dialogue is overtly consciousness-raising and pokes fun at chauvinistic attitudes as outdated (you notice, it’s always the bad guys who are explicitly chauvinistic that way?). But until Jadite makes the mistake of mocking them, Moon and Mercury and Mars certainly are dithering uselessly.
This kind of contradiction, which pops up in lots of other places too, seems deliberate to me. At least it matches very well with things that have to be deliberate, like the opposing power models we see. On the good side we have Serenity (both of them) representing good rulers who are fair, just, open-minded, compassionate and all that good stuff. On the other side, we have a whole succession of bad rulers both male and female who have, to put it mildly, really bad management technique: Metallia/Beryl, Dimando, Pharaoh 90/Mistress 9, Neherenia and Galaxia. The majority of these are women, as if to say that just having a woman rule is not a guarantee of good rule. (Of course, other possibilities include the implication that women in general are more powerful/likely to rule than men or that, since we have only a peripheral example of good male rule in King Endymion, men generally make worse rulers than women.) But this tendency toward complicated ‘messages’ seems to run through the whole show; it occurs too often for me to easily dismiss it as accident, though I might buy subconscious.
Of course, another whole-show theme that crops up around gender issues is (my favorite) the humor–awareness of one’s own ridiculousness. Mamoru, for instance, is irrepressibly chivalrous; he just can’t seem to help himself. And, frequently, the objects of his chivalry are ironic to say the least. Consider Season Two (Episode 50) when some swaggering jock is coming on to Ann and Mamoru tells him to back off. Of course, the most obvious humor in this scene is when the jock, as he swaggers off, turns back to make the sticking-out-your-tongue face at Mamoru and then runs away around the corner. But consider, also, who Mamoru has just acted to protect; Ann is one of the (temporary) villains, after all, and perfectly capable of defending herself. Another example of this set up is in Episode 98, when Mamoru steps forward to defend Haruka against two men whose clocks she could clean very handily–as she proves shortly after. In a sort of reverse image of this, when Usagi (or any of the other girls) is being foolish about her romanticism (drooling, clinging, or, as Luna puts it in Episode 173, “totally kicking your heels”), Mamoru is always there to be embarrassed and highlight how silly she’s making herself look. I have to doubt whether little girls would really want to behave similarly after watching a few of those scenes. And then, of course, there’s always Episode 184 and the roach scene. Seiya, having shown up at Usagi’s house to be her bodyguard for the night, hears all the girls screaming in the kitchen and arrives to see them terrorized by a roach. In appropriately manly fashion, he offers to squash it. The last frame we get of this is the roach flying straight at him. Then the scene cuts to Chibi-chibi watching television. She’s watching some kind of melodrama in which a man is stabbing a woman in what appears to be a jealous passion. The dialogue is interspersed with further screams and crashes from the kitchen. The juxtaposition tickled me to no end. The possible implications I saw include that the man on TV is making as much of a stupid fuss over petty nothings as the girls in the kitchen over the roach; or that the TV man’s bluster was just as much a front as Seiya’s ‘heroic’ roach killing (which ends in everyone covered in food scraps just in time for Yaten and Taiki to arrive); or that the fear/helplessness of the woman on the TV is just as nonsensical as the girls’ fear of a little bug. Simply delicious. Of course, this is the same episode in which Luna lectures Usagi, warning her to be wary of Seiya, and tells her that “man is like a wild animal that lives on instinct.” Her interpretation, of course, is proven totally off base and Usagi winds up cutting Seiya off several times under the misapprehension that he intends to seduce her when, in fact, all he wants to do is tell her about his/her other identity (see the Lights specific page for more on the gender issues for those three). So Our Directors aren’t making fun of feminine stereotypes alone; masculine ones come in for the same treatment.
One of the places where traditional gender dynamics seem most self-consciously taken advantage of, though, are the gay couples. One of my respondents (thanks to Melissa!) suggested that I insert some theoretical background here to explain my own attitudes. Basically, I’m a proponent of the idea that gender itself is an arbitrary construction and that playing with the possibilities is a good thing. This includes deliberate display of terribly stereotypical types. As long as it’s a purposeful choice (which is usually to say ironic, too), such display serves to further destabilize a) gender itself and b) prejudice regarding gender divisions (actually, I consider a and b more or less the same thing). My favorite critics on this subject are Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Kate Bornstein and Judith Butler. I recommend beginners start with the Bornstein. The anthology, Sisters, Sexperts, Queers, edited by Arlene Stein, is also very good. So, with that in mind, consider both Zoisite/Kunzite and Michiru/Haruka. In both cases, the feminine and masculine attributes are highlighted with a heavy hand (deliberate display of stereotypes). Zoisite, of course, is the perfect limp-wristed gay boy; the only thing he’s missing is a lisp, and the verging-on-queen high pitched catch in his voice substitutes nicely. I bet the seiyuu (Keiichi Nanba, also did Umino, and Alan in Episode 42) had a lot of fun with that character. Kunzite, on the other hand, is hyper masculinized; never mind the long hair, we’re talking about a character who runs around with his tunic unbuttoned and his pectoral muscles showing–yet another classic mode, all he’s missing is a muscle shirt. Note, too, that Kunzite is the one of the four generals with the lowest voice, just to make the contrast with Zoisite as strong as possible. He’s also, just as with Haruka, the stoic who tries not to show emotions. The contrast of Haruka and Michiru, while not played so burlesque-ly, is equally extreme, I think. Haruka is the fighter, the physically directed one, the one who restrains her emotional involvement, the protective one, in short the perfect butch. Michiru, on the other hand, is the classic high femme. She’s beautiful, she’s artistically talented, she’s gracious and has exquisite manners, she even does things with her hair (the only character to do so in the whole show). She’s never the one driving the car.
But, as far as I can tell, these characters were arranged in such a fashion more or less for the fun of it. Certainly it wasn’t for lack of imagination, or a belief that any non-mainstream sexuality had to fall into these categories; I mean, just look at the Amazon Trio. There’s a liminal bunch of characters, if ever I saw (liminal: at a border). They’re (theoretically) all male, but take a look at the body outlines. Hawk Eye has what look remarkably like breasts under that little chest toga, and even Tigers Eye, while having nice broad shoulders, also has some noticeable hips. Fish Eye, of course, is the most ambiguous; he looks feminine but is also far too aggressive to fit the typical parameters of femme. If we take the dream-mirror-searches as metaphors for rape (which I would, and thinly disguised at that) Fish Eye is also the one who takes on the ‘penetrative’ role with, of all people, Mamoru who is never coded as anything but masculine (Episode 148). Polymorphous perversity proliferates in all directions. The only reasons I can think of for coding both the ‘straight’ gay couples as such opposing contrasts is the drive in this show for balances, or possibly just to assure the audience that yes, in fact, these really are couples and not just buddies since this fact is never stated outright (thanks to Ken for that latter idea).
Or it could just be because it’s Japanese, and roles are a cornerstone of Japanese sexuality. If that’s the case, though, I find it all the more interesting that the heterosexual couples are as flexible and ambiguous as they are.
And now, back to the main discussion
Posted: Aug 22, 08