Move over truth, justice, and the American way—it’s time for love, friendship, and homosexuality
In America, when you hear the word “superhero,” you likely think of people dressed in tights and spandex fighting crime. I enjoy some of these characters, like Marvel Comics’ Kamala Khan and DC Comics’ Raven, but for me, the term is best expressed by a different kind of character—not masked, muscular vigilantes, but girls in over-the-top outfits fighting monsters.
The magical girl genre has a history that dates all the back to 1960’s. However, it didn’t truly take off until the the 90’s with the advent of Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Revolutionary Girl Utena. Featuring three very different heroines, all of these works had a lasting impact on comics and animation, both in their native Japan and in countries like the United States, where Sailor Moon in particular was one of the first imported Japanese children’s series to hit it big.
Sailor Moon is about a schoolgirl named Usagi Tsukino who becomes the titular hero, and who, like Western superheroes such as Spider-Man, must balance her life as a teen girl with her duty as a warrior of justice. Working together with her friends the Sailor Senshi—or “Scouts” in the translation—she protects the earth from evil forces preying on humanity. Usagi and her friends’ costumes are based on traditional Japanese student uniforms that resemble sailor suits, albeit with shorter than usual skirts and high heels. That might seem impractical, but look at how many Western superheros wear capes.
Like those heroes, the Sailor Senshi fight for justice—but there’s also a heavy emphasis on the power of love and friendship. Unlike many superheroes, they don’t work alone. And the love they’re fighting for, while often framed in a romantic, heterosexual sense, is also about a love between female friends—and later, lesbian love between two senshi.
Although the 90s English dub made these two characters, Uranus and Neptune, cousins, they are explicitly a couple in the Japanese anime and in the manga. Moreover, Sailor Uranus is described “both a man and and a woman, with the strength of both genders”, wearing masculine and feminine clothing in both the manga and the anime remake Sailor Moon Crystal.
Later on, the manga and the original Sailor Moon anime introduced the characters called the Sailor Starlights. While the manga depicts them as women who crossdress as a male singing group when in civilian form, the anime shows them changing from men to women when they transform into their Sailor Starlight forms.
With its combination of girl power and queer representation, Sailor Moon made a profound impact on comic books, animation, and fandom in Japan and abroad. In its country of origin, Sailor Moon’s influence can be seen in more recent magical girl anime such as the Pretty Cure franchise, Shugo Chara, and Madoka Magica. In America, Sailor Moon has influenced a plethora of magical girl works that are inclusive and representative of the generation who grew up watching and reading Sailor Moon.
One of my favorite magical of these works is Brianna Lawrence’s novel Magnifique Noir, featured in the header image of this piece. Combining prose with anime-influenced illustrations and comics, it tells the story of quirky college-aged Black girls who become part of the titular magical girl group. It features young women dealing with experiences like street harassment and family problems even as they also fight monsters, hang out, and date. Most importantly, the entire main cast of the novel embody a spectrum of queer identities and body types.
With newer magical girl influenced works like Magnifique Noir and the animated series Steven Universe, the magical girl genre has evolved beyond its initial female target audience to target almost everyone. Magical girls have been redefined to include magical boys as well as trans characters. Just recently, the anime series Hugtto Cure! gave us Cure Infini, the first male Precure in the Precure franchise.
In addition to expanding its target audience, the magical girl genre has been combined with different genres and media to attract even more fans. If you like magical girls and fantasy worlds, the comic book series and cartoon W.I.T.C.H. might be what you’re looking for. Fans of magical girls and giant robots can check out Magic Knight Rayearth. If the appeal of the genre continues to grow, there will probably be a magical girl-related series for almost every genre and medium.
While the genre isn’t always perfect, it shows that anyone can be magical, heroic, and a better version of themselves—not just through their own force of will, but through friendship, specifically between women. That emphasis likely has something to do with how many of these series are by women themselves, unlike the still mostly-male run superhero genre. Their themes, as well as the overtly feminine—yet usually not male-directed—character designs present a welcome alternative to the masculine, formulaic superhero stories that currently dominate Western popular culture.