About a gazillion years ago I said I was going to post something serious about Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magika and I never did. This is because I am lazy, and every time I try to think seriously about Madoka--especially Madoka and feminism--my thoughts get all confused and twisted up and I turn into a witch and destroy Tokyo, again.
So, uh, instead of writing something smart, I’m going to write something that is still pretty shallow and silly.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE WHOLE SERIES.
Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magika vs. Shoujo Kakumei Utena: FIGHT! (Utena spoilers blacked out)
Which series is more feminist? Well, obviously Utena--I'm not sure Madoka is feminist at all--but I'm going to compare them anyway, for my own thinking process:
1. Both Madoka and Utena were directed by men. Tie.
2. Both series pass the Bechdel test. With flying colours. Tie.
3. Madoka is drawn moe style, I think? Whereas Utena definitely has shoujo mojo. Utena wins.
4. It’s very easy to objectify the female characters in Madoka without guilt or realization of what you’re doing. In Utena...well, everyone gets objectified, and you feel uncomfortable about it, and even if you don’t understand it you can’t ignore it. Utena wins.
5. In Madoka, the patriarchy is represented by a cute animal thing from outer space whose goal is to stave off the heat death of the universe. Even if Kyuubei is male--he calls himself “boku”--it’s possible to argue that there’s nothing in Madoka about the patriarchy at all, aside from those two minor jerks on the train that Sayaka encounters, who are very minor characters.
In Utena, the patriarchy is represented by actual men. They are complex characters. Utena wins.
6. In Madoka, the main source of pain and literal death is the witches, who are from the girls’ own souls. In Utena, the underlying source of pain and figurative death is the swords, which represent...what, the judgements of society? Utena wins.
Overall winner: Utena! Duh.
Madoka wins on a different point.
Madoka is currently uber-popular and accessible. Utena is definitely not.
Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magika and the Male Gaze
I know Madoka represents the incursion of the male gaze into the magical girl genre, which used to be mainly female space and is now a place where a certain breed of pedo goes to get his jollies. I know that female space is a much rarer thing than male space, which is everywhere, and that we have to be cautious about sharing our space lest we lose it.
B-b-but I like how I can talk to my little bro about Madoka and the possibility of feminism within it. I can do this because he has actually watched the series and likes it. In fact, he’s the one who introduced it to me.
To expand on that last point: one day after I’d read a whole bunch of Madoka meta, I said to my brother, “Kyuubei codes as male. He uses ‘boku,’ right? He represents the patriarchy.” And then I blah blahed to him about the insidious indifference of the patriarchy in Madoka and how it represents the way men use women’s work and kept it hidden away for their own benefit. And my little brother actually listened and understood and was interested.
I’ll mention that my little brother has watched all of Fruits Basket, Magic Knight Rayearth, Ouran High School Host Club, and copious amounts of the Sailor Moon dub. And he watched this recent show called Mawaru Penguin Drum, which is apparently kind of like Utena and is by the same director. So it’s not like he’s unwilling to watch shoujo.
Utena, though...too much abstruse symbolism for him.
So this is why thinking about Madoka + feminism confuses me. On the one hand Madoka has tons of pandering to the pedos whose wallets seem to have such a hold over the anime industry nowadays. But Madoka also contains all this potential for real dialogue about feminism, or at least the admonition to “pay attention to girls!” But doesn’t it seem rather dangerous to have both pandering and secret traces of feminist rah rah in the same story? It’s like...Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” but more like “Confusing Witches Gone Feminist” or something.
But if there’s anything all the different waves of feminism have taught us, it’s that there’s more than one feminist movement, and that in-your-face preachiness is not the only way. No one likes preachy texts! And no one likes reading a text that isn’t speaking to them and the things they know, and Utena doesn’t speak to most people, unfortunately. But Madoka made it through to my little brother. Madoka gave us a common language, a common text.
Of course it’s problematic that it’s mainly men who made Madoka. Of course it’s problematic that Madoka criticizes the patriarchy while at the same time catering to it. In a way the makers of Madoka are having their cake and eating it too, because they can pacify feminists while not pissing off the male pigs out there. But who cares about the male pigs. They are just pigs! The ones I care about are the ones who can be reached, because they are the ones worth the effort. Those are my friends, my brothers, and the people I meet online who are willing to both talk and listen about something like Madoka.
So I say, let’s actually talk to those males about Madoka. It’s a text that appeals to both sexes and it’s about girls. It’s cool and it’s recent and new canon is going to come out. It dissects what it means to be a (magical) girl. And it has a...tentatively hopeful message.
So What Does Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magika Actually Say About (Magical) Girls?
That is a tough question. I’m going to just talk about the ending here, because I am getting tired and my brain hurts.
In the last episode, Madoka becomes the Magical Girl. She’s an idea, not a person anymore. Homura fears that Madoka will be alone and lonely, but Madoka insists that she is not alone: “You’re all with me forever.” Madoka is everywhere now, like a big fuzzy pink blanket. She also tells Homura that it’s too early to give up; having come this far with Madoka, she mustn’t give up, she mustn’t forget Madoka when she returns to the real world, and she has to believe, because Magical Girls are all about fulfilling hopes and dreams. Restoration of the magical girl trope, pink fuzzy unicorns dancing on rainbows now, right?
HOWEVER. Even though Magical Girls are no longer turning into witches, they are still doomed to a life of unacknowledged sacrifice and eventual death by despair:
It's the fate of all magical girls though.
I'm sure you understood that fact when you first got your powers.
We're supposed to bring hope.
But once it turns into despair, we have no choice but to disappear... forever.
Add to that the witchy wing-things that Homura sprouts after the (tentatively hopeful) end credits, and we have a whole lot of doubt regarding the positive role of magical girls in Madoka’s brave new world.
Some ways we can interpret the ending:
1. Magical girls are still witches inside? = Girls are still demonized/othered by society?
2. Magical still girls have to die or else they will turn into witches. = Girls’ hopes still have to be repressed before they cause problems.
2. Magical girls still have to keep their work a secret. = Girls’ work is still marginalized by society.
So...what we’re saying here is that even positive magical girls--ones who don’t turn into witches--are something we should question? The magic that we attribute to these girls comes at a cost? Sailor Moon gets to be pretty and sparkly but we demonize her and repress her?
I don’t know if that’s what the ending is saying. I think we’ll have to wait for the Madoka movies to finally come out in English before we can say.
And...that’s all I got.
[Edit] Check Kyuubei's male gaze! That little rascal.