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Magical Girls: Feminist, Feminine, and Fun

Most people (especially girls) born in or after the 1990s have probably heard of mahō shōjo or "Magical Girl", a subgenre of manga literature. It first appeared in Japan in 1962 in the manga series Himitsu no Akko-chan and subsequently hit television screens in 1966 with Sally the Witch by Mitsuteru Yokoyama. It became a worldwide phenomenon at the end of 1991, however, with Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, written and illustrated by Naoko Takeuchi, published by Kodansha. The original manga series was made into a TV anime series by Toei Animation, and it has since spawned a global Sailor Moon franchise that incorporates movies, musicals, simulcasts, video games, theme-park attractions, and merchandise.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, Toei Animation

Other examples of the genre are Sugar Sugar Rune, Magical Doremi and CardCaptor Sakura. Most of these mangas share some core characteristics. For example, all of them feature a young female protagonist who discovers that she has magical powers. She is joined by a group of female friends who help her to defeat the Big Evil that is threatening them. She usually has to balance these activities with her “normal” life, hiding her magical identity from her non-magical classmates. Most Magical Girls have a male love interest who is pretty but not especially useful or good at fighting. In fact, he usually needs to be saved by the Magical Girl. Generally, the genre prioritises justice and female friendship over darker themes like death or trauma. There are exceptions to this, however.

Puella Magic Madoka Magica (2011), an anime created by the Magica Quartet (Akiyuki Shinbo, Gen Urobuchi, Ume Aoki and Shaft Studios) depicts death as not just something that happens to minor characters - it directly affects the girls within the magical posse. This raises the stakes in that the Magical Girl must deal with the threat to her own life and the death of her friends. Furthermore, the choice the protagonist makes to become a Magical Girl is one that is rife with danger. The entire anime is suffused with the fear of the inevitable and of the great price the protagonist will have to pay for her magical power.

Sailor Moon is generally considered one of the best examples of the genre, as evidenced by the $14.3 billion it has generated in global sales. (Wikipedia, 2022) This figure includes sales from the original manga publications and their anime, as well as movie, video-game, theme-park, and musical spin-offs. However, a staggering $13 billion refers to merchandise alone. Apart from figurines and accessories, Toei Animation has partnered with a number of brands to release clothing and cosmetics. In 2020, Colourpop Cosmetics, a make-up brand based in the USA, launched eyeshadow palettes, lip color, glitters, and glosses inspired by the original manga. Such merchandise is aimed not only at the current young fans but also at the women who grew up reading and watching Sailor Moon in the 1990s and 2000s.

As previously mentioned, the mahō shōjo genre follows a relatively standard plot structure. In Sailor Moon, Usagi, the protagonist, is a normal middle-school girl. Like many of her peers, she is naïve, immature, a bit lazy, and a cry-baby. This all changes, however, when she meets a magical cat, Luna, who tells her that she is Sailor Moon, the Pretty Guardian. As Sailor Moon, she has to save the people of Earth from the Evil Queen Beryl, find the Lost Princess of the Moon, and retrieve the magical Silver Crystal. When she magically transforms into Sailor Moon, Usagi's hair lengthens, she changes outfit, and she magically acquires make-up and nail polish. Even her cry-baby personality becomes a strength, as her cries become ultrasonic and repel enemies. Through her adventures, she meets four girls who become friends and who battle intergalactic enemies alongside her. She also falls in love with a mysterious boy, Tuxedo Mask, who is also searching for the Silver Crystal. At the beginning of the story, Tuxedo Mask's role is mainly to spur Sailor Moon into becoming a real hero. As the series progresses, however, he displays a remarkable vulnerability to brainwashing, and he has to be repeatedly saved by Sailor Moon. He gets brainwashed by Queen Beryl, and he is rescued by Sailor Moon. Later, he gets brainwashed by the Black Moon Clan and has to be saved, yet again, by Sailor Moon.

Tuxedo Mask Encouraging Sailor Moon to Fight

Fighting is obviously an important element of the Magical Girl genre, but, for most of its readers, the most memorable aspect is its focus on femininity. The transformation from "everyday form” to "magical form” incorporates changes to hair style, make-up, nail polish, shoes, and clothes. While the change of clothes is a common theme of the superhero genre (think of Batman, Superman, and Catwoman), the other transformative aspects may appear unnecessary or excessive. For example, nail polish does not help in fighting enemies, and yet Sailor Moon specifically highlights heroines getting new nail polish as part of their transformation. Russell (2015) suggests that most female fans will reclaim this presentation of femininity as one that does not pander to the male gaze. Rather, it incorporates elements of femininity that are attractive to women. Wonder Woman and Catwoman are in skintight bodysuits with minimal accessories. Sailor Moon has colorful bows, flowing skirts, and fun hairstyles. Clearly, this genre is unapologetically made for women, through the prism of the female rather than the male gaze, where there is no contradiction in the idea of a strong, independent woman being interested in what is often seen as features of frivolous femininity, such as make-up and pretty accessories. It moves away from defining women in relation to men, and towards defining women on their own terms.

Transformation into Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon

The incorporation of such “frivolous” features into mahō shōjo manga and anime sometimes lead to the stories being dismissed as childish and of little substance. Apart from featuring accessories as an important aspect of the heroine’s transformation, they also focus on more positive themes. As Drennen states "aside from seeing girls as the heroes, the shows’ main purpose is to entertain, focusing on themes like love and justice and straying away from things like death and emotional trauma." (p. 5)

At first glance, it is easy to see why the stories’ incorporation of make-up and pretty accessories is automatically associated with a kind of anti-feminist frivolity that makes them easily dismissible as neither serious nor substantial. But this ignores the fact that Magical Girl stories focus on female characters who are strong enough not to submit to either the male gaze or traditional rules that say that a woman can’t be truly feminist if she likes pretty accessories and nail varnish.

Sailor Moon as Neo Queen Serenity

When first released as an anime in Japan in 1995, Sailor Moon encountered a lot of obstacles. Naoko Takeuchi explains that she had to fight for her story about a squad of beautiful female characters battling evil:

Back then, I thought, “I’m going to show these old grandpas that beautiful girl characters can be good for business, and I’m not leaving my concept in the hands of old men.” So I had to work hard to develop a sense of beauty and elegance in my characters, no matter what their type was. Back then, the old man editors at Nakayoshi Magazine thought I was being stubborn, and they didn’t much care for the opinions of us lady authors, it was a difficult time. (Interview in ROLa Magazine, 2014)

Undoubtedly, there is a dichotomy felt by many women between their identity as feminist and as a "feminine woman". As observed by many sociological studies (Riley and Scharff (2012) and Hindi and Stacey (2001)) these two aspects of the female identity are at odds with each other for many women, especially those trying to establish themselves in male-dominated fields. Typically “feminine” activities like sewing or embroidery, or even interest in make-up and accessories, can be seen as silly or a sign of intellectual inferiority, marking women as less deserving of serious attention or career progression. Feminism has undoubtedly made enormous progress, but there is still, perhaps at some unconscious level, a lingering view of feminists as “bra-burners” who reject everything associated with pretty femininity as representative of constraints on the female body imposed by a patriarchical society.

It is in this context that mahō shōjo is so interesting. Yes, there is a profusion of bows and nail polish; yes, the girls are always perfectly turned out, even when fighting; and yes, it might be argued that the female characters should be able to fight alone, without needing a squad of female friends. But perhaps the truly interesting, liberating aspect of Magical Girls is that the young protagonists, midway between childhood and womanhood, don’t care about the traditional rules that dictate what is and isn’t feminist. They make their own rules, and they themselves choose what to enjoy - as strong, independent, perfectly and unapologetically accessorized girls.


  • Tate, J. (2017) "Magical Girl Martyrs: Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Purity, Beauty, and Passivity." Oregon Undergraduate Research Journal, Volume 11, Issue 1

  • Hinds, H., Jackie Stacey, (2001) “Imaging Feminism, Imaging Femininity: The Bra-Burner, Diana, and the Woman who Kills." Feminist Media Studies, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp.153–177.



Author Photo

Giulia Domiziana Toffoli

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