Magical girls, queerness and the power of femininity

This year Dreamwork’s Animation Television studio released the fifth and final season of Noelle Stevenson’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, a re-boot of the 1985 She-Ra: Princess of Power; a He-Man companion series and glorified toy commercial.

The show has enjoyed critical success and a cult following among adults for its diverse character design and cast, emotionally rich story, and tasteful handling of complex themes such as parental abuse and colonialism. However, She-Ra’s finale truly cemented itself in the pop-culture canon through the depiction of two main female characters, Adora and Catra, sharing an onscreen kiss after five seasons of struggle and tension.

Satisfying queer female representation is often a rare sight in the mainstream, and even more so within children and youth media, but it is worth noting this isn’t the first instance of LGBTIQ representation within the ‘Magical Girl’ genre.

Though the concept of young girls with magical powers is hardly a culturally isolated phenomenon, the Magical Girl genre in its current form was created and popularised by Japanese manga and anime – the phrase itself is a translation of the Japanese mahō shōjo, a direct reference to the identities and abilities of the main characters. As Kumiko Saito has documented, early iterations of Magical Girl shows began to spring up in pop-culture as early as the 60s, while the form and aesthetic solidified in the 80s and 90s  with pioneering titles such as Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena.

The genre has been replicated in western media on multiple occasions, for instance when Winx Club and W.I.T.C.H. became a staple to children’s television in the early 2000s.

She-Ra’s queer representation is not revolutionary in the context of Magical Girl shows, either. Queerness is inherently a part of the genre, which has always allowed for both the explicit and implicit exploration of LGBTIQ themes, and uplifting femininity in all its forms. It is the perfect space to explore the interplay of queerness and femininity; the often large, mostly female or feminine-coded casts dealing with concepts that resonate both with the broader feminine and LGBTIQ experience give creators plenty to work with. Additionally, its child-friendly position is crucial in the construction and representation of WLW identities in a non-sexualised space.

A true staple of the Magical Girl makeup is the cast size, often based on the five-piece band dynamic, with additional orbiting characters. Think the inner and outer Senshi of Sailor Moon and the shifting focus and rotational forward positionality in She-ra. By the nature of the genre and its intended audience, characters skew towards either being women or feminine-presenting individuals. The large cast allows the show to create and explore a spectrum of feminine identities and their interactions with one another. By having a literal rainbow of individuals to inhabit the many nuances of both this aesthetic and social category, the shows are able to build a stronger narrative where femininity and the queerness within it become integral. We witness the varying intimate moments that cultivate within feminine socialisation – from platonic to romantic, and the inherently uncharacterizable space in between. Ineffable love that rings true to those familiar with feminine relationships and their almost parasitically intoxicating nature.

Canonical examples of these queer feminine identities can be seen throughout the genre’s heavy hitters. Sailor Moon’s Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, Tomoyo and Sakura from Card Captor Sakura, Utena and Anthy of Revolutionary Girl Utena; all instances varying in romantic degrees of reciprocation and success.

She-ra itself has seven canonically queer characters, with a myriad of others whose identities may be read as falling into the LGBTIQ sphere through their subtext. Speculation around these non-heteronormative characters takes up immense space within fan discussion and is often encouraged by showrunner Noelle Stevenson granting canonical legitimacy to these interpretations. These relationships push past tokenism. Whether romantic or not, they are centred within the narrative, acting as foundational motivation for the protagonists, and are often the ultimate source of personal power.

The thematic advantage of the genre concerning feminine queer stories does not stop at the construction of relationships. Ideas of displacement, isolation, trauma, and a break in the connection between the individual and their ‘true’ identity have fuelled the genre’s key conflicts. She-ra has particularly been praised for its handling of storylines regarding intergenerational abuse and its long-term effects on one’s life, personality, and ability (or inability) to connect with others. There is catharsis to seeing characters overcome these struggles through their support networks, forgiveness, and of course magic, which within the broader consciousness has been heavily associated with the divine feminine. The suggestion is that these (non-magical) traits grant strength and uniquely equip our protagonists to overcome the traumas associated with both the feminine and queer experience despite their perception as being ‘weak’ skills.

There is great value in the Magical Girl genre and its relationship to queerness within a medium designed for youth consumption. So often queerness is framed exclusively as an ‘adult’ experience, still somehow connected with notions of sexual deviancy and thus ‘inappropriate’ for children. Evidence can be found in the transposition of these shows to the US market, where distributors censored queer content. This led to Uranus and Neptune going from girlfriends to cousins (with the unwitting consequence of introducing incestual undertones), as well as the cutting of whole episodes, arcs and sub-plots within Card Captor Sakura in an attempt to glaze over the gay.

Seeing WLW within the desexualised space of children’s television is radical in its own right, particularly in the absence of marketing stunts and self-aggrandising. But we cannot deny that young people deserve access to narratives that offer both representation and exploration pitched at their level. Queerness doesn’t exist exclusively in hazes of smoke and 18+ spaces. It exists in the innocence of playground crushes, the desire to hold hands and the innate fear of rejection all of us experienced in our young lives.

There is currently a trend within western animation studios whereby queerness in both characters and plot is inching evermore to the centre of children’s narratives. But as creators continue to experiment and expand the cultural canon, appropriate homage must be paid to the often-belittled Magical Girl genre – a medium that effortlessly makes space for queerness both within its themes and aesthetic in a naturally humble way that perhaps only ‘feminine’ stories could accomplish.

Izabella Antoniou

Izabella Antoniou is a Sydney based fiction writer, essayist, and a founding member of the Elpis Network policy group. Her work has been previously published in The Guardian, ARNA, Yemaya Journal of Gender and Sexuality and Connections Anthology.

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