The recent Japanese obsession with high school girls contains an element that cannot be dismissed as merely desire for young women […] the love for the combination of sailor clothing and young girls suggests a tendency towards polymorphous perversion, encompassing a preference for homosexuality and a clothing fetish in addition to pedophilia.
While ‘girl-power’ may aim to empower women of all ages via its championing of ‘a pleasure-centered form of empowerment tied to ideals found in third wave feminism’, (Newsom, 2004) many analyses of girl-power texts marketed towards children appear to focus on predominantly adult issues rather than consider the potential empowerment of young girls. For example, Tamaki Saitō’s analysis of the schoolgirl archetype within Sailor Moon (2011; 57, above) appears to more closely resemble the discussion of an explicitly pornographic text than of a Japanese anime and manga series aimed at children ‘ages seven and up’. (Cheu, 2005; 294)
When Saitō argues that the schoolgirl’s cultural popularity cannot be ‘dismissed as merely desire’, his argument clearly refers to adult (male) viewers as opposed Sailor Moon’s target audience. In this context, any consideration of the schoolgirl as a symbol of girlishness with which young viewers could relate is superseded by her status as a ‘pornographic trope’, (Allison, 2006; 133) her potential as a role model ignored in favour of her alleged representation of latent sexual deviancy. Although it may be important to question whether children’s texts such as Sailor Moon feature controversial content, academia’s narrow focus on adult issues within girl-power media has resulted in a failure to critically consider the intended audience’s relationships with these texts.
An example of this problem is the numerous assertions that girl-power texts limit female empowerment to patriarchal depictions of ‘traditional’ femininity due to their depictions of particular ‘body types’, ‘clothing styles’ (Newsom, 2004) and typically ‘feminine narcissistic pleasures’. (Hopkins, 2002; 7) While these concerns may represent genuine shortcomings in girl-power texts, child viewers are far more likely to be culturally pressured by pervasive depictions of ‘traditional’ femininity than the average gender-theory academic. Thus, if young girls cannot actively challenge the ubiquity of normative gender identity within their lives then girl-power’s ambition to ‘reclaim femininity for girls’, (Joanette, 2009; 11) can be seen to instead empower young girls through radical depictions of femininity and girlishness.
In this essay I aim to analyse Sailor Moon’s radical portrayal of critical aspects of ‘traditional’ femininity, considering how these depictions directly relate to young female viewers. Particular attention will be paid to both the text’s radical depiction of girlishness as well as its reconceptualisation of the defining aspects of shōjo culture: ‘romance, friendship and appearance’. (Allison, 2000; 259) [Shōjo manga is a ‘genre targeted at preteen and teenage girls’ that ‘encourages girls to fulfil their dreams and desires’ by utilising their ‘inner power’. Sailor Moon is typically recognised as one of the most prominent examples of the genre. (Beaty & Weiner, 2013; 72, 273)] For the purposes of my analysis I will be primarily focussing on the central premise of the series, citing examples from the Japanese version of the anime’s first season to provide context.
Sailor Moon was created by Naoko Takeuchi and was originally conceived as a feminine-interpretation of the Super Sentai shows of the period that featured male characters and action-centric content. (Beaty & Weiner, 2013; 273) [The Super Sentai genre was later reconceived by American networks and inspired the successful Power Rangers television series. For a comprehensive history and analysis of Sentai television shows, please see (Gill, 1998; 38-55).] Retaining the multi-coloured soldiers and monster-of-the-week narrative style, Takeuchi introduced elements of girl-power ideology through both the series’ fallible main character, Usagi Tsuniko, and overtly girlish protagonists, the Sailor Senshi heroes.
Both Sailor Moon itself and analysts have highlighted Usagi’s enthusiastic-yet-flawed nature, described by the character as ‘a little bit clumsy and a bit of a cry baby’ in the anime pilot (E001; 1.45-1.55) and by Anne Allison as a ‘14-year-old whose main talents lie in the areas of eating, shopping and sleeping’. (2000; 259) These characteristics position Usagi as a plausible character with similar interests and flaws to many young viewers watching Sailor Moon, allowing her inevitable transformation into the eponymous hero to represent a similar promise of empowerment for the viewer.
An example of the doubling imagery prevalent throughout Sailor Moon used to reflect Usagi’s dual identity. In this occurrence, Usagi’s everyday persona (left) is seen splitting from her fantastic alter ego, Sailor Moon (right). This doubling not only aims to show that both versions of Usagi are ‘true’ manifestations of her identity but that female identity is flexible and transformative; all girls wield this radical potential. This doubling also features prominently in the narrative through Usagi’s role as both a soldier and a princess, (E035, E044) positioning her as the ‘princess who rescues herself’. (Donovan, 2011)
Despite Usagi’s newfound confidence in her Senshi form, she is still a young girl prone to panic and fear. However, these characteristics are shown to empower Sailor Moon rather than contradict her heroic persona. For example, when Usagi breaks down in tears during her first encounter with a monster, her cries are amplified by her magic and defeat the monster, saving the day. (E001; 19.10-20.15) In this context being a girl does not prevent anyone from also being a hero, subverting the ‘damsel-in-distress’ trope and establishing femininity as a radical form of empowerment for Sailor Moon’s protagonists.
Sailor Moon’s friends and allies, the Senshi, also represent both ‘traditional’ femininity and radical empowerment through both their bonds of friendship and simultaneous violent actions against their foes. Not only is femininity portrayed as an integral part of being a Senshi (all the main characters are female) but during the characters’ transformation into their superhero identities the characters become adorned with high heels, nail polish, short skirts, jewellery and hair accessories. (E033; 9.50-10.55) Sailor Moon goes beyond merely reclaiming ‘girlieness as a source of power’; (Hopkins, 2002; 2) its depiction of adolescent female identity literally aims to ‘weaponize femininity.’ (Donovan, 2013)
The main characters of Sailor Moon’s first season, the [Inner] Sailor Senshi. From left to right (first appearance in brackets); Ami/Sailor Mercury, (E008) Rei/Sailor Mars, (E010) Usagi/Sailor Moon, (E001) Makoto/Sailor Jupiter, (E025) and Minako/Sailor Venus (E033). The characters’ Senshi uniforms are only worn in battle and magically appear on the characters’ bodies during a stylised transformation sequence that features in every single episode of the show. Find comprehensive collection of these transformation sequences here.
This ‘weaponization’ may appear shallow in its limited transformation of young women into overtly sexualised characters but its empowerment of Sailor Moon’s protagonists represents a destabilisation of gender identity. Victoria Newsom notes that the Senshi’s transformation is portrayed in such a way that allows them to ‘fight in a capacity associated with male heroes without necessarily “becoming” male.’ (2004) While the Sentai-esque actions of the Senshi may emulate explicitly masculine behaviour, their overtly feminine identities (signified by their beautiful outfits, long hair and curvaceous bodies) allow the characters to co-opt the masculine character traits of bravery and courage while still appealing to young girls.
This approach may seem unnecessary to an adult viewing Sailor Moon for the first time but consider that children’s media often identifies heroism and bravery as explicitly masculine attributes while also being saturated with depictions of idealised female bodies and ‘acceptable’ feminine behaviour. The Sailor Senshi may employ similar imagery to Barbie dolls and Disney princesses but they also represent confident characters that take charge, save the day and still resemble the ‘traditional’ girl figure promoted by mass media afterwards, allowing them to strike a balance between radical empowerment and cultural inclusion.
Critiques of this alleged sexualisation also argue that, while these depictions may coincidentally cater to the male gaze, their position within the text’s ‘utopian’ environment (Allison, 2000; 269) render them radical to young viewers. Kathryn Hemmann argues that the text ‘is an example of a homosocial female space in which women can talk about women and femininity without having to worry about what men are thinking’. (2011) This suggests that the Senshi’s embraced sexuality is reflective of a world in which feminine expression serves a purpose beyond patriarchal acceptance and is not accompanied by a loss of innocence or inherent shame. (Donovan, 2013) This ‘utopian’ conceptualisation of burgeoning female power and sexuality can also be understood to support Rebecca Hains’ theory that girl-power represents ‘a cultural response to the crisis of female adolescence’ (2004; 4) through its positive depiction of sexually aware young women existing outwith the traditionally male-dominated context of patriarchal media.
Usagi immediately following her first transformation, (E001) exclaiming in surprise of her physical (and magical) development. The text’s girl-power depiction of adolescence as a period of empowerment, confidence and sisterhood can be understood to offer a positive message to young girls entering puberty who may feel socially obliged to prioritise male interest over personal goals as they approach sexual maturity.
Fashion and appearance also function as key concepts within Sailor Moon beyond the Senshi’s costumes, featuring as both a central narrative element and a direct source of power for the characters. Not only does the Senshi’s transformational catchphrase (‘Moon Prism Power Make-up!’) (E001; 16.10-17.05) directly cite the radical potential of self-exploration through different clothes, hairstyles and other forms of identity-expression but the show’s characters also echo these possibilities. When Usagi falls into a depression following the abduction of her boyfriend, Minako attempts to lift her spirits by suggesting different hairstyles, explaining, ‘A girl’s mood can change a lot just by changing her hairstyle.’ (E036; 6.40-7.00)
These depictions of suggested and literal transformation show the child viewer of Sailor Moon that self-empowerment can be achieved by both considering alternatives and transcending the familiar. They also foreshadow concerns regarding puberty as Hoi Cheu argues ‘Transformer tales are successful […] because the fantasy eases the anxiety of the scarily changing body.’ (2005; 299) On both these levels, Sailor Moon reconceptualises puberty and cultural femininity as radical processes that empower the young female viewer who will soon undergo them.
However Sailor Moon also counters this seemingly biased promotion of girlishness by positioning the pressures of culturally imposed femininity as a danger to the Senshi. Numerous episodes see Sailor Moon’s recurring villains attempt to harvest life energy from young women in Tokyo through the allure of jewellery sales, (E001) weight-loss gyms, (E004) hair salons, (E036) bridal wear (E016) and opportunities for fame. (E017) In all these instances, innocent girls are put in danger by their desire to represent ‘traditional’ femininity and the Senshi must utilise their own (comparatively self-governed) femininity to counter the villains and save the day.
Still from the pilot episode (E001) in which a monster takes over a jewellery store in order to drain the life energy from young women who wish to become conventionally beautiful. (In the English dub of the episode Usagi originally visits the store looking for some rhinestone jewellery but the monster attempts to convince her to buy a highly reduced diamond ring, highlighting the danger of imposed normative femininity within the narrative.) In the end, however, it is up to Sailor Moon to save the women by using her magical tiara to destroy the monster. This action symbolises the victory of self-governed feminine identity over hegemonic gender identity.
The recurrent use of this plot structure suggests that ‘traditional’ femininity is neither inherently empowering nor disempowering in any context. Self-confidence allows the Senshi (and, by extension, the viewer) to perform femininity when it is conceptualised as a manifestation of their ‘inner power’ (Beaty & Weiner, 2013; 72) rather than a culturally imposed identity. Personal femininity becomes just another element of the utopian world that must be saved by Sailor Moon’s girl heroes as they fight the oppressive powers of gender normativity.
The prominence of independent feminine identity over imposed homogeneity is also explored in the diversity of Sailor Moon’s main characters. Not only does each of the characters represent a different planet (Sailor Venus, Sailors Mars etc.) but each has their own distinct personality and interests that differentiate them from one another. (Donovan, 2011) Cheu argues, (2005; 300-301)
If Sailor Moon were the sole scout, she would be like Superman, projected as the one ideal of truth and power. However, when the girl fighters are presented as a group, multiplicity becomes possible. The presence of the Sailor Scouts opens up a variety of femininities
This diversity of female personalities can be understood to offer young viewers a variety of role models with which to identify in their active ‘imagining and rehearsing [of] new feminine “selves”.’ (Hopkins, 2002; 58) The ‘variety’ of female identities also reinforces the relationship between self-determined femininity and self-belief in Sailor Moon. Whether viewers identify with the ditzy Usagi, bookish Ami (E008) or tomboy Makoto, (E025) they are still able to participate in cultural femininity without abandoning hobbies or interests that may not align with ‘traditional’ femininity.
The collected Sailor Senshi, including the Outer Senshi (back row, left to right): Setsuna/Pluto, Hotaru/Saturn, Michiru/Sailor Neptune and Haruka/Sailor Uranus. Also joining the group of Senshi is Chibiusa/Sailor Chibi Moon, (bottom, centre) Usagi and Tuxedo Mask’s daughter from the 30th century who travels to the past to seek her parents’ help. This narrative further centralises feminine relationships over heterosexual romance as Usagi’s role with her daughter becomes key and further limits any potential uncertainty regarding her romantic relationship with Mamoru.
This diversity also extends to the personal relationships between Sailor Moon’s characters, from a prioritisation of female friendship over heterosexual romance to the positive inclusion of lesbian and transgender characters. [Sailor Moon’s lesbian characters, Haruka and Michiru, were introduced in (E090). The transgender Sailor Starlights first featured in (E173). Uranus and Neptune’s relationship was altered in the English dub to portray them as cousins, while the show’s final season was never translated into English.] While minor elements of romance feature within the show, (E025) (E029) none of the characters excluding Usagi develop long-term relationships. (Donovan, 2013) Sailor Moon rejects heteronormative courtship as the ultimate goal for young women and instead shows that female empowerment can arise from self-belief and sisterhood. Simply put, ‘Women are the most powerful agents in every facet of this story’. (Donovan, 2013)
Sailor Moon aims to empower young female viewers by portraying a number of critical aspects of ‘traditional’ femininity in radical ways, destabilising their typically restrictive effects and creating theoretical spaces in which the child viewer is able to develop a personally-determined sense of femininity. While girl-power texts openly acknowledge that childhood views of gender identity are saturated with patriarchal interpretations of femininity, texts such as Sailor Moon do not reject these depictions but instead convey how these elements can become radical in their own way.
By showing that girls who enjoy and participate in coded actions of femininity, from using make-up to wearing glamorous outfits, can also defend themselves, take action in their lives and save the day, Sailor Moon shows young viewers that gender does not restrict heroic potential. Equally, diverse female characters reflect that being female is not restricted to a single identity and that femininity can be practiced and enjoyed by all kinds of women, all of whom are capable of being the heroes of their own story.
Please find below the episodes of the Sailor Moon anime cited within this essay, listed by their corresponding episode number in relation to the entire Japanese run. (A substantial number of episodes were removed for the English dub order, including the entirety of the show’s final season, resulting in substantial differences between the versions.) Translated episode titles are reproduced as they are listed within Japanese Sailor Moon merchandise, cited by Wikipedia.
Following this, please find the secondary sources bibliography. This section also includes a list of texts for further reading that I was unable to access during the process of writing this essay but relate to the issues explored.
(E001) ‘Crybaby Usagi’s Magnificent Transformation’, Season 1, Episode 1 of Sailor Moon. Directed by Junichi Sato, written by Sukehiro Tomita and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 07.03.1992. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1mm2aaX. (Accessed on 16.02.14.)
(E002) ‘The House of Fortune is a Monster Mansion’, Season 1, Episode 2 of Sailor Moon. Directed by Junichi Sato, written by Sukehiro Tomita and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 14.03.1992. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1hG3xz9. (Accessed on 22.02.14.)
(E004) ‘Usagi Will Teach You How to Lose Weight!’, Season 1, Episode 4 of Sailor Moon. Directed by Junichi Sato, written by Sukehiro Tomita and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 28.03.1992. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1pa72i5. (Accessed on 22.02.14.)
(E008) ‘Is the Genius Girl a Monster? Brainwashing School of Terror’, Season 1, Episode 8 of Sailor Moon. Directed by Junichi Sato, written by Sukehiro Tomita and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 02.05.1992. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1bxXjia. (Accessed on 22.02.14.)
(E010) ‘Cursed Buses! Fire Warrior Mars Appears’, Season 1, Episode 10 of Sailor Moon. Directed by Junichi Sato, written by Sukehiro Tomita and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 16.05.1992. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1nXiaf1. (Accessed on 22.02.14.)
(E016) ‘Dreams of a White Dress! Usagi Becomes a Bride’, Season 1, Episode 16 of Sailor Moon. Directed by Junichi Sato, written by Sukehiro Tomita and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 27.06.1992. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1fJdKnC. (Accessed on 22.02.14.)
(E017) ‘Is Usagi a Model? The Focus of the Monster Camera’, Season 1, Episode 17 of Sailor Moon. Directed by Junichi Sato, written by Sukehiro Tomita and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 04.07.1992. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/Oom4TM. (Accessed on 22.02.14.)
(E025) ‘Jupiter, the Brawny Girl in Love’, Season 1, Episode 25 of Sailor Moon. Directed by Junichi Sato, written by Sukehiro Tomita and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 05.09.1992. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1jYlQ2H. (Accessed on 22.02.14.)
(E029) ‘Total Chaos! The Messy Square Relationship’, Season 1, Episode 29 of Sailor Moon. Directed by Junichi Sato, written by Sukehiro Tomita and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 24.10.1992. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1hjLaLP. (Accessed on 22.02.14.)
(E033) ‘The Last Sailor Warrior, Sailor Venus Appears’, Season 1, Episode 33 of Sailor Moon. Directed by Junichi Sato, written by Sukehiro Tomita and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 21.11.1992. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/Oomz0d. (Accessed on 17.02.14.)
(E035) ‘Memories Return! Usagi and Mamoru’s Past’, Season 1, Episode 35 of Sailor Moon. Directed by Junichi Sato, written by Sukehiro Tomita and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 05.12.1992. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/OomDgn. (Accessed on 17.02.14.)
(E036) ‘Usagi is Confused! Is Tuxedo Mask Evil?’, Season 1, Episode 36 of Sailor Moon. Directed by Junichi Sato, written by Sukehiro Tomita and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 12.12.1992. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1bdzEDh. (Accessed on 17.02.14.)
(E044) ‘Usagi’s Awakening! A Message from the Distant Past’, Season 1, Episode 44 of Sailor Moon. Directed by Junichi Sato, written by Sukehiro Tomita and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 13.02.1993. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1jp9lui. (Accessed on 22.02.14.)
(E090) ‘Premonition of World’s End? The Appearance of Mysterious New Warriors!’, Season 3, Episode 1 of Sailor Moon [Sailor Moon S]. Directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara, written by Yoji Enokido and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 19.03.1994. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1hG4RSB. (Accessed on 22.02.14.)
(E173) ‘Meetings and Farewells! The Stars of Destiny Turnover’, Season 5, Episode 7 of Sailor Moon [Sailor Stars]. Directed by Takuya Igarashi, written by Ryota Yamaguchi and produced by Toei Animation. First broadcast in Japan on 11.05.1996. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1la3ImU. (Accessed on 22.02.14.)
Secondary Sources Cited
Allison, Anne (2006) ‘Fierce Flesh: Sexy Schoolgirls in the Action Fantasy of Sailor Moon’ in Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination by Anne Allison, 2006, Pages 128-162. (California: University of California Press.)
Allison, Anne (2000) ‘Japanese Superheroes for Global Girls’ in Japan Pop: Inside the World of Japanese Popular Culture, edited by Timothy J. Craig, 2000, Pages 259-279. (New York: M. E. Sharpe.)
Beaty & Weiner, Bart H. & Stephen (eds.) (2013) Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Manga, edited by Bart H. Beaty and Stephen Weiner. (Ipswich & Hackensack: Salem Press.)
Cheu, Hoi F. (2005) ‘Imported Girl Fighters: Ripeness and Leakage in Sailor Moon’ in Seven Going on Seventeen: Tween Studies in the Culture of Girlhood, edited by Claudia Mitchell and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh, 2005, Pages 294-310. (New York: Peter Lang.)
Donovan, Caitlin (2011) ‘Gushing about the Sailor Moon rerelease and feminism’, published on Adventures of Comic Book Girl, 22.03.11. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1fxujWI. (Accessed on 02.04.14.)
Donovan, Caitlin (2013) ‘“In my high heels, I will punish you”: The Cultural Importance of Gender Representation in Sailor Moon’, published on Adventures of Comic Book Girl, 01.05.13. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/LBKzvc. (Accessed on 02.04.14.)
Flood, Alison (2014) ‘’Sexualised’ Powerpuff Girls comic judged a boob by TV network’ on The Guardian, 24.01.14. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1fqEp8p. (Accessed on 16.02.14.)
Gill, Tom (1998) ‘Transformational Magic: Some Japanese super-heroes and monsters’ in in The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture: Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Global Cultures, edited by D. P. Martinez, 1998, Pages 33-55. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)
Hains, Rebecca (2004) ‘The Problematics of Reclaiming the Girlish: The Powerpuff Girls and Girl Power’ in FEMSPEC, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2004, Pages 1-39.
Hemmann, Kathryn (2011) ‘Sailor Moon and Femininity’, published on Contemporary Japanese Literature on 29.12.11. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1bhjg2o. (Accessed on 01.02.14.)
Hopkins, Susan (2002) Girl Heroes: The New Force in Popular Culture. (Annandale: Pluto Press.)
Joanette, Quenby (2009) ‘The Heroine’s Reclamation of the Girlish and the Portrayal of Girl-Power in Sailor Moon’. Thesis for M.A. degree. Department of English, Lakehead University, Canada. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1kLvy8S. (Accessed on 16.02.14.)
Newsom, Victoria (2004) ‘Young Females as Super Heroes: Superheroines in the Animated Sailor Moon’ in FemSpec, Vol. 5 No. 2, 2004, Pages 57-81. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/LB9HSN. (Accessed on 01.02.14)
Pahle, Rebecca (2014) ‘Cartoon Network pulls sexualised Powerpuff Girls variant cover’ on The Mary Sue, 24.01.14. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1bBhlIJ. (Accessed on 16.02.14.)
Saitō, Tamaki (2011) Beautiful Fighting Girl [reprint hardback edition]. Translated by J. Keith Vincent and Hiroki Azuma. (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.)
Browning, Sheila Rose (2004) ‘Pretty Little Girl Warriors: A Study of Images of Femininity in Japanese Sailor Moon Comics’. Thesis for M.A. degree. Faculty of the Graduate School, University of Missouri-Columbia.
Driscoll, Catherine (2002) Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture & Cultural Theory. (New York: Columbia University Press.)
Ellis, Bill (2009) ‘Folklore and Gender Inversion in Cardcaptor Sakura’ in The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki, edited by Mark I. West. (Lanham: Scarecrow Press.)
Navok & Rudranath, Jay & Sushil K. (2005) Warriors of Legend: Reflections of Japan in Sailor Moon. (Charleston: Booksurge Publishing.)
Reeder, Spencer L. (2012) ‘Sailor Moon: Legs, Breasts and Feminism’. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/1ikKdV6. [Google account required.] (Accessed on 23.02.14.)