Against the World: Madoka Rebellion, saviorism, and abolitionist schooling

By: Anthony Sun Prickett September 25, 20200 Comments
Homura in her witch form

Content Warning: Discussion of queerphobia, racism, carceral violence/structural oppression, suicide, and sexual violence.

Spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Madoka: Rebellion.

“How about the two of us become monsters and destroy this terrible world until there’s no more grief, no more sadness, let’s just break, break, break it all to dust”

–Akemi Homura

“This is the hope that policy rolls like tear gas into the undercommons. Policy not only tries to impose this hope, but also enacts it.”

–Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, The Undercommons

“Abolition is not a pathway—it is the end of paths and the end of worlds, a roadblock barring passage to the destination-cum-mirage of late liberal democracy.”

–Savannah Shange, Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco

It gets better. Keep your head down and survive the here and now. Stay hopeful for a better future, and your hope will be rewarded. This is the narrative that is fed to queer children of color from the youngest age, in media, by family, and more than anyplace else, in schools. I have known the falseness of this promise my whole life, in every iteration of violence I or my friends have experienced from our time as children. This false promise is mediated by race: should you be East Asian, it may be fulfilled materially in the form of assimilation into some white power structures, but will certainly be spiritually broken in the suffering of assimilation and the constant threat of your proximity to whiteness being revoked.

Should you be Black, the promise is designed to enclose you in both material and spiritual suffering, in pillaging of wealth, the school-prison nexus, and experiences of gratuitous violence. The juxtaposition of these two experiences of suffering, where the Asian one is made to be the model of what to do right so as to deny the reality of antiblackness, is what produces the model minority. The only solution that will remedy these dual sufferings is abolition: the destruction of all systems that enclose and entrap Black people and all people of color in a cycle of cruelty and premature death, and the creation of a new world.

Madoka with a downcast, sad face

Watching Madoka Magica as I began my career as a teacher in New York City, I saw a mirror of these realities. In Madoka, which reimagines being a Sailor Moon-like magical girl as a trap that ensnares those who want justice in an endless, despairing battle, all designed to maintain order and prevent the chaos of entropy, I found a language to describe a system that was actively invested in the suffering of the oppressed.

At my job, I would witness children of color being abused and treated as problems rather than human beings, and I could feel myself being pulled into this system. Watching Madoka Magica, when the magical girls themselves would turn into the witches they fought, I could not help but think: is this my fate, to become an active participant in the brutalizing that I experienced? Could I ever, as an individual person, change a system designed to oppress those like me?

The Madoka series attempts an affirmative answer to this question. Homura spends countless lifetimes reliving the worst days of her life in an attempt to undo a system which marked out Madoka for death and despair. Madoka herself becomes a Jesus figure, sacrificing herself to wipe out the despairing ending all magical girls meet, so they would not turn into witches, but go to a pseudo-heaven. 

Homura with her arm outstretched, backlit by a huge moon

Rebellion, on the other hand, seems to call all of this into question: Won’t oppressive systems like the ones created by Kyubey, the villain of the original Madoka Magica show, just reproduce themselves in new forms unless they are fundamentally destroyed? In fact, is a world in which magical girls are still consigned to fight, suffer, and then die really justified as long as they go to heaven later? 

Homura’s final arc in Rebellion, where she becomes a demon overseeing a new world in which there seems to be no more battle, is often described as being a shocking reversal of the themes of the show, a deconstruction of the famously “deconstructionist” Madoka. It is described as an unexpected and cruel twist, cynical in its worldview and without any foreshadowing throughout the rest of the series. It is taken as a given that Homura has become evil; even the defenders of the movie say that Homura “had been corrupted for a very long time;” that she was “never a good person.” 

I want to use my journey as a queer Asian-American educator toward rejecting saviorism to look at Homura’s arc in Rebellion, and especially the infamous final twist. As somebody who has witnessed repeatedly the failure of would-be individual saviors to undo entire oppressive systems, I want to try to come to a deeper understanding than what is afforded by “Homura is evil now.” What happens when hope is institutionalized? How do oppressive ideologies shape the worlds we can imagine? And the question that has haunted me most: if in the moment we destroyed an oppressive world we were given the full power to create a new one before we had any time to heal, would we like what we make?

a girl kneeling before an abstract image of a godly Madoka

Christianity and Hope in Madoka and the Model Minority

In the model minority, the structure forced upon all East Asians by American racism, hope is a silencing force. The younger generation allegedly gets all the opportunities the older generation had to suffer for—and therefore must also suffer to maintain what their parents accrued through suffering in an endless cycle. Have hope: Keep your head down, assimilate, and don’t complain and you will be given the scraps of whiteness, we are told. Should you resist, whatever hope you have will be revoked, and you will be treated as an anathema: the yellow peril, the foreigner.

Schools to the model minority are spaces of suffering for the sake of assimilation. So many days my classmates would share strategies to not fall asleep in class on four to five hours of sleep, or joke about wanting to be dead. Gallows humor helped us to get through the pain. But each time we thought to critique our circumstances and reject the false narrative of aspirational whiteness, our dissent would be stamped out. The school could not cope with our disruption to the white gaze, which can only imagine Asians as being uniquely suited to suffering as a stoic coolie or a thingified yellow woman.

I can still remember the day a classmate committed suicide. She was the second child to do so within the span of a few years. After that, the faculty convened every Wednesday morning for their mysterious “mental health” meeting. Nothing changed. Life just went on like nothing had happened. The day that we accepted these circumstances as the condition for our future proximity to whiteness was the day any radical desire for transformation was snuffed out.

Madoka descending from the sky toward Homura, who lays on a slab

Throughout Madoka Rebellion, dubious narratives of future freedom are used to justify oppressive systems. In fact, Madoka describes her motivations for creating the system as an act of silencing in the name of hope: “if people say that it is foolish to have hope,” she declares as she creates the new system, “I will tell them they are wrong.” Through Madoka’s system, called aptly the Law of Cycles, hope as a silencing force becomes institutionalized, and, because of this, only gains coherence through the suffering and premature death of magical girls.

In the opening monologue of Rebellion, Homura describes acutely the injustice of Madoka’s system: “we traded our souls for our powers and a destiny of battle. The only way to escape our despair is to vanish from this world….a world doomed to repeat its tragedies.” The only language Homura has to make sense of this pain is the language of Christian saviorism: Madoka takes on the pain of the world, and Madoka’s heaven becomes a version of a Christian heaven, the place where you go to rest after a lifetime of suffering. Madoka’s system does nothing to prevent that suffering–the rending of magical girls from their families, premature deaths, and watching your magical girl comrades die; it merely promises that afterwards they can know joy in Madoka’s heaven.

childish notebook sketches of Madoka's costume

Witches, Savior Teachers, and the Reproduction of Systematic Oppression

Growing up, I was inspired by the individual teachers who tried to create spaces where I would be valued outside of the model minority myth. Individual teachers seemed to see my worth as being more than my grades or performance of whiteness. I wanted to be like them. I hoped to create spaces where students would feel valued in their fullness. 

As I began my student teaching, however, I struggled with my inability to individually create much change. I was placed in a school where I taught thirty different classes once a week for 45 minutes, with a rotating schedule of about 600 mostly Asian students. The system was designed to dehumanize our interactions; to render my children nameless faces to be controlled.

Surrounded by constant shit-talking about the children from other teachers (often to the children’s faces) and pushed to use the abusive systems that were ever-present in the school, I harmed children in the same way I was harmed as a child. I began to question the virtue of the individual teachers who had so inspired me. Why had they done so little to protect me from a system that wanted me either spiritually or physically dead? Why were they unable to save me?

Close-up of Sayaka crying

Madoka Magica represents this process of falling into despair, of giving up your desire to transform oppression, through the process of a magical girl turning into a witch, which the audience first witnesses through Sayaka’s encounters with patriarchy. After being transformed into a magical girl, Sayaka uses the same language of victim-blaming often internalized by survivors of sexual assault with PTSD, describing her transformed body as impure, dissociating so she can no longer feel pain, and believing herself undesirable.

The imagery of Kyubey extracting her soul gem is reminiscent of sexual assault, and what finally pushes her into despair is witnessing two men talk gleefully about beating their girlfriends into submission. She no longer believes that patriarchy can be destroyed, nor that she can find healing; the only justice possible is the murder of the perpetrators and the cursing of the world that created them. She turns into a witch.

Greyscale image of Sayaka's body being covered with witch-scribbles

Despite the specificity of Sayaka’s experience, Madoka’s magical girls are not only a metaphor for suffering under patriarchy. They serve to illuminate how systemic oppression can exploit a group’s suffering and consign them to premature death. This makes them a particularly apt metaphor for racism, which abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as the “production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” manifest in every Chinese child’s suicide at my high school, every Black person murdered by the police, and every immigrant starved to death in ICE concentration camps. When Kyubey just creates a new system to exploit Madoka’s Law of Cycles, it is hard to not draw parallels to how Derrick Bell describes the permanence of racism: As long as it is in the best interests of white people to exploit people of color and expose us to death, we will remain unfree.

Homura as Oppressor; Homura as Evil?

So many of us watching Rebellion probably hoped for something different. We may have hoped that Homura would be able to work with other magical girls to create a world where people were neither consigned to suffering nor premature death, and everybody could be free. However, we all know that Homura fails in the project of abolishing systems of silencing and cruelty in the name of order, and instead becomes a new one.

Shot of Homura from below as she leans against a wall. subtitle: Do you consider stability and order more important than desire?

This is one of the challenging realities of abolitionism: could we ever create a new world without first undoing all the internalized harm that the old world did to us? Rebellion makes this question plain, as Homura attempts to create an entirely new world before she has had any time to heal or disentangle her identity from the ideologies that brutalized her for years. She becomes a mirror image of Madoka’s Law of Cycles rather than an abolition of it. Along with this mirroring comes a stark self-assessment: If Madoka’s heavenly reward in death for suffering throughout one’s life was fundamentally good, then the desire to abolish it must be fundamentally evil. 

On some level Homura knows she is not evil–she posits that her new system is based on love, after all. But she cannot imagine herself as being capable of any kind of love that is not possessive and cruel after she has internalized her isolation, which was her only coping mechanism during her time trapped in the time loop. She knew the world would end if she ever gave up on saving Madoka and was forced to follow the credo: “I will never rely on anybody again.” 

Homura in her witch form

This is why my conscience cannot abide people who call Homura evil: whatever ways she was taught to love were from the constant threat of Madoka being ripped away, of Madoka being turned into a monster, of Madoka being killed, and thus the entire world destroyed. Yes, the system Homura creates is wrong. Can we not, however, resist the ways of seeing Homura that she has herself internalized? Can we not see her desire to destroy a system that turns children into child soldiers as being a space of possibility, that, under different circumstances, could have created a better world? Can we not imagine Homura as an abolitionist?

Homura and the Rejection of Saviorism

Just a couple months ago, I was in a conversation with one of my white mentors and a fellow teacher. Our mentor was trying to share her model of “progressive” education with us, and my fellow teacher, who teaches mostly working-class Black students, tried to explain that in the circumstances of her students and their parents during the COVID-19 quarantine, the plan would be impossible. My mentor’s advice shocked me: Call Child Protective Services on any parent who could not accommodate her plans. Leverage the antiblack carceral state in the name of progressivism. 

Homura nuzzling Madoka's cheek

That moment felt like, and was, a betrayal. I could barely contain my rage and hurt. I was told by somebody who I trusted to rend families apart, to destroy Black children’s lives, all in the name of progressive education. 

I felt all over again the ways I believed myself evil for wanting abolition during my first student teaching placement. I remembered all the times I thought that I could never be a good teacher, that other people would be a better savior than me; when I would be so overcome by depression and self-hatred I would sit in the corner of my classroom and be unable to move, because I didn’t believe anything I did could do anything but hurt people.

Coming to an understanding that I am not evil because I reject saviorism, because I reject the narrative that individuals can undo the harm of entire systems, has been what has allowed me to heal. Without the community that has embraced me, I would be exactly where Homura is: lost, in pain, and unable to come to terms with my own saviorism.

Madoka appearing above an indigenous magical girl lying beneath a tree

I still cry, even now, as I watch the original Madoka series finale. The beauty with which Shinbo and Urobuchi render what hope can mean for those so hurt by oppression–the deep desire that comes from being denied so much in our lives, which can coexist with and perhaps is even fueled by cursing the world that is–often renders me speechless. 

However, I reject the saviorism represented by Madoka. I know from my life that abolition is possible only with collective effort. I have seen the power in collective work to abolish oppressive systems, what can we imagine when we don’t wall ourselves off from those who also seek justice. 

I’m not sure what this means for Rebellion. I still struggle to place myself within all the discourse which surrounds it, where everybody wants to either proclaim its brilliance or their hatred of it from the rooftops. Sometimes I feel the writer believes Homura when she describes herself as evil; I remember how Gen Urobuchi originally wanted the ending to be Homura going with Madoka to heaven, the ending that many fans have described themselves as wanting. To not want that, to resist this heavenly ending, feels like an affront: shouldn’t I want Homura to be happy? Shouldn’t I want hope to win the day?

Homura tearfully embracing Madoka

In moments where I feel guilt over my love of Rebellion’s ending, I replay in my mind the moment that Homura decided to destroy Madoka’s system; where Homura tells Madoka of all of her grief and sorrow at Madoka’s system, and yet an amnesiac Madoka is uncomprehending of what could possibly lead herself to create a system that tear her friendships and family apart. Knowing that it is then that Homura decides she has to stop Madoka, this moment where she realizes the love she holds for Madoka but cannot let go of her saviorism, is what reawakens my love for Rebellion’s ending. Much as Sayaka asks Homura midway through the movie, is the desire to create a world where Madoka and herself might live out their lives not consigned to premature death really so terrible?

Rebellion’s ending feels honest to me. In Homura’s rejection of magical thinking, in her refusal to silence her grief over her and Madoka’s lost lives in this world, I see the seeds of what could have turned into abolitionism. I imagine what could have been, and let it guide my own practice here in this world. Homura may have not succeeded in abolitionism, but maybe we, just possibly, could, together.

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