The Problem with the Dark Magical Girl Genre

By: Alex Henderson March 9, 201753 Comments

SPOILERS: Major spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Magical Girl Raising Project, Yuki Yuna is a Hero, Sailor Moon, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion

Magical Girl Raising Project finished airing a few months ago, drawing its Battle Royale-esque death game to a close with most of its young, frill-clad, magical girl cast dead.

It’s the expected outcome of anything that comes with that formula, but it’s an incredibly grim way to describe a magical girl show—shows that are, traditionally, at their hearts all about girls banding together to support each other and saving the world with the power of love and friendship. Murder and despair are normally nowhere near the magical girl archetype, but that’s changing in some recent and disturbing developments.

The core cast of Yuki Yuna in their magical girl costumes; they are floral, pastel, and cute, and the characters are looking at something offscreen in shock and awe
Yuki Yuna is a Hero

The (usual) Nature of Magical Girls

The magical girl genre is an iconic staple of anime by now, widely known and loved in the Western world for the success of Sailor Moon, which many anime fans have adored since it captured their hearts as children, butchered DiC dub and all; and prolific in Japanese media dating back to Sally the Witch which first aired in the 1960s.

A magical girl series is easy to recognise: there will typically be a team of girls, ranging anywhere from grade school age to teens, dressed in colourful, frilly outfits, aided by a cute otherworldly animal companion, and together they will fight magical threats to the safety of their ordinary world. There are often wands, florid attack names shouted with flair, and a feminine tint to all the battle gear—tiaras, makeup, flowers, and sometimes voluminous ball gowns will factor heavily into a magical girl’s armory. The magical girl is an explicitly feminine-coded superhero, using traditionally “girly” things in their battle of good against evil.

It’s not a flawless or unproblematic genre. The heavy feminine coding of everything, for example, has often been praised by Western fans and analysts since it lets girls know that they don’t have to adopt masculine traits to be powerful, which was an especially rare message when Sailor Moon and its core theme of girl power was first imported to the US in the ‘90s and early ‘00s.

But the counterargument, brought up by Japanese feminists like Kumiko Saito, is that the emphasis on girlhood and femininity actually enforces traditional gender roles, and if every magical girl gets her power from “girly” things it says that being “girly” is the only way to gain that power, which excludes girls who don’t fit that exact mould. The heroines are always young, too, and often leave some aspect of their power behind as they age.

Combine this with the trope that the more mature-coded female characters in these series–the ones with adult bodies, revealing outfits, and heavy makeup–are often the evil queens and villains, and this leaves older women out of the magical loop with no genre-specific magical warriors to see themselves in.

The point stands, though, that even if it has some inherent flaws, at its core the magical girl genre is a wholesome and good-spirited one. It exists to inspire and entertain young girls with the message that hope, truth and the power of friendship will triumph over any odds, and that girls can be the hero of their own stories without being relegated to sidekick or love interest. While girls may not have to fight literal monsters once they turn off the TV, it’s an important message to hold in your heart as you go into what can be a scary—and girl-hating—world.

Some people looked at this genre full of small girls full of hope, fighting for honesty and justice, and helping each other save the world, and said “That’s nice and all, but what if it was all a farce and they murdered each other with those magic powers instead?”

Magical Girl Raising Project

Rise of the “Dark Deconstruction” Genre

It wasn’t the first time, either. Where Magical Girl Raising Project asks, “What if the girls who dreamed of becoming magical girls got the chance to be, but at the price of getting roped into a Hunger Games-style death match?”, Yuki Yuna is a Hero asked in 2014, “What if the heroines had to give up use of their body parts in exchange for magical power?”.

Traditionally, there isn’t a price for magical girl powers—they are granted to the girls because of destiny or pure heart, and the price the heroines pay is that they must defeat evil, same as any compassionate superhero. And they always will defeat evil, because that, I reiterate, is what this genre is about: telling young girls that they have the power within them to overcome great obstacles, if only they believe in themselves and each other.

Both Magical Girl Raising Project and Yuki Yuna is a Hero largely ignore this broader, important thematic purpose and focus instead on turning the heroines against each other and the system that gave them their power against them, creating stories that are dark, violent, and all about the heroines’ despair when the genre ought to be the opposite.

Why is this a thing that keeps happening? Dark magical girl is almost becoming a genre in its own right, and I am not comfortable with it.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica is largely to blame for this trend. The 2011 anime famously presented itself as a regular, archetypal rendition of a cute and fun magical girl show, then had a character’s head bitten off in a shocking climactic moment in the third episode. From there the show spirals downwards and into darkness and despair, throwing its heroines into emotional turmoil and grave danger that challenges everything about what they believed a magical girl to be.

Madoka Magica has been highly praised as a dark masterpiece and been wildly popular with fans ever since it aired and dropped all these trope-subverting bombs on its audience. The way it twisted and deconstructed the icons of the magical girl genre—making the adorable animal companion evil, having the girls forced to fight each other instead of band together, having the monsters they fight be transformed “corrupted” ex-magical girls—is widely considered an ingenious take on the archetype.  

Not everyone shares this view, of course, but you can’t ignore Madoka’s popularity. Neither could the producers of the show, who made a sequel movie, Rebellion, that somehow managed to double back and shred the last bite-sized remnants of the theme of hope and love in the original series. It’s fairly easy to see that Magical Girl Raising Project is following in Madoka Magica’s dark and gritty footsteps, as is Yuki Yuna, which also drops its dark plot twist after several episodes of normal, happy and cute magical girl adventures.

Now, I also think Madoka Magica is a clever show. It has some excellent use of foreshadowing and some solid characterisation, and the cinematography and use of mixed-media make it visually fascinating. However, it’s not the darkness that makes it clever, and I think a lot of people have made this incorrect distinction.

When you peel it back from its neat screenwriting and aesthetically interesting presentation, the show is stomping on little girls’ dreams as a writing exercise. Even if it restores (albeit in the most bittersweet way possible) the message of love and hope at the end by having Madoka sacrifice herself to save her friends and all magical girls throughout history, Rebellion takes even more joy in tearing that apart by stripping away Madoka’s agency, undoing her noble efforts, and turning the girls against each other once again after spending the whole movie rebuilding the positive trope of them working together as a team.

Rebellion sets itself up for a hopeful ending, then  promptly pulls another dramatic, dark bait-and-switch akin to biting Mami’s head off.  The movie’s abrupt tonal shift and cliffhanger finale seem to serve no purpose beyond shock value and paving the way for a sequel, leading me to wonder if they veered so sharply from a positive ending to the adventure simply because positive is what a normal magical girl story would do.

Homura in her “devil” form at the end of Rebellion, in a slinky black dress with wings coming out of her back. She says “She was sacred as a god, so I couldn’t help but pull her from heaven and undermine her”
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion

The Business of Hope and Despair

Subverting expectations by turning a traditionally happy and hopeful set of tropes on its head like Madoka Magica does is kind of interesting, I suppose, but in the same way that rewriting the end of Disney princess movies so the princesses are having a horrible time is “interesting.”

Adding layers of darkness and fear is not revolutionary, either, since magical girl shows are perfectly capable of getting dark on their own. In fact, the darkness is a crucial part of the story: the darkness is there to be defeated. Even the relatively tame first season of Sailor Moon is riddled with death scenes, and hits hard in its infamous finale where all the Sailor Guardians get killed and Usagi is left alone to face evil incarnate.

A la Rebellion, the person she loves has also been turned evil and she’s forced to fight him. That is grim. The key, though, is that Usagi’s determination and the guiding love of her friends overcomes that grimness, and through their combined power they defeat that evil, cure the brainwashed Tuxedo Mask, and return safely to Earth to continue living out their lives.

Hurting your magical heroines and putting them through grief is nothing particularly new or insightful; the only thing stories like Rebellion seem to bring to the table is a lack of catharsis by crushing its heroines under this pressure rather than having them overcome it. And sure, that might be subversive, but as a member of the audience–whether I was expecting a “traditional” magical girl story or not–it felt a little like a kick to the face.

Creating a magical girl world where despair always triumphs over hope undermines the entire point of magical girls—they are a power fantasy specifically for small girls, made explicitly to spread the message that hope will triumph over despair and that you should keep fighting for what you believe in. These dark shows effectively mock that important and optimistic message for the purpose of grown-up anime fans’ entertainment.

Chloe from Fate/Kalied Liner Prisma Ilya, a tan-skinned, white-haired girl holding two swords. Her magical girl costume leaves most of her chest, midriff and legs on show
Fate/Kaleid liner Prisma Ilya

Magical Girl Anime and Adults

Sometimes a magical girl show, or any show for children, will get popular with an older audience, and that’s fine—I think it’s a sign that a children’s show is well-made if it can appeal to a wider demographic than just kids. Even if, say, a Precure show gets watched and enjoyed by a bunch of thirty-something-year-olds, that’s just a thing that happened, and was not the intention of the creators. The show was primarily made for young girls and the adults jumped on the back of the bandwagon.

A show like Magical Girl Raising Project is made first and foremost with adults in mind–primarily adult anime fans, who know enough about the magical girl genre to understand the conventions being played with, and relish in their destruction– which creates an entirely different beast.

What’s most disturbing is that though the target demographic of these shows goes up in age, the characters of the shows don’t, which leaves us with a situation where young animated girls in frilly outfits are essentially being made to suffer onscreen for an adult (often male) audience.

The phrase “torture porn” has been thrown around in relation to Madoka Magica and Magical Girl Raising Project, and while it’s not a phrase I like, there’s something inherently skeezy about the idea of anime studios setting out to draw young girls in terrible pain for an eager, waiting adult audience. Not to mention that more fan service and sexualisation can sneak in if the show is aimed at an older demographic, which gets into even more unsettling territory, again, given that these are still shows about little girls.

As I mentioned earlier, Sailor Moon has been incredibly popular in the Western world since it arrived in the 1990s—you could even say Millennials are The Sailor Moon Generation, given that I know so many people, whether they’re anime fans or not, who were moved by that series when they watched it as children.

If it wasn’t Sailor Moon, there was also Cardcaptor Sakura and Tokyo Mew Mew, and a myriad of other, more obscure but equally sparkly and fun shows on offer for small girls addicted to the idea of magical princess superheroes. So many of these children—girls and boys—have grown up to write about how much these series influenced them, whether it was in their own creative work or just in that they made them see a brighter side of life and feel happier in their own skin. For example, many members of the LGBTQ+ community cite the romance between Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus as a pivotal moment in their youth, since it was one of the first times they’d seen themselves represented onscreen—and as magical universe-saving heroines too!

Magical girl shows are about inspiring and empowering girls, who then grow into inspired and empowered women who do the same for other people. To use Sailor Moon as a continued example, there’s even been a recent campaign to give out Sailor Moon brand condoms in an effort to encourage sexual health and safety in young women.

This has been met with mixed reception, but I think it’s a brilliant symbol of how at its heart the genre has always been about girls looking out for each other. Sailor Moon’s meaning has evolved to grow with her fanbase–where once she encouraged the children who looked up to her to believe in themselves, now she’s metaphorically protecting them and empowering them against more adult threats.

The core cast of Go! Princess Precure, in frilly gowns, smiling brightly at the camera
Go! Princess PreCure

The Future of the Genre

This generation of young girls has the juggernaut that is the Precure franchise, which pumps out a new magical girl show every year—a quintessential one, with all the colours and frills and power of hope you could possibly ask for. The remake Sailor Moon Crystal has also arrived to spread its magic to modern viewers, but these two seem to be some of the few bastions of the magical girl tradition being currently aired. The darker iterations of the genre are creeping in and growing in number–becoming the norm rather than an occasional edgy outlier.

The current market of twenty-to-thirty-somethings are the Sailor Moon generation—they ought to know how important it is for kids to have magical girl shows that are fun, happy, inspirational, and express these important messages about optimism and friendship that stay with you for the rest of your days.

Even to people who weren’t fans of magical girls as a child, the genre’s impact on popular culture around the world is undeniable. It makes sense that the current generation of creators are making magical girl stories with new twists on them since, whether they consider themselves magical girl fans or not, the archetypes are so embedded in the collective imagination that they naturally seep through.

My question is, why do creators leap to making these familiar archetypes violent and twisted as their way of making them appeal to an adult audience? It’s sad that grown-ups seem to feel the need  to undermine the very messages that we loved so much as children, by effectively mocking them and making these gory adult versions that take apart everything the original magical girls stood for.

As I said before, this isn’t even new territory that these supposedly innovative reimaginings are covering. Magical girl series already deal with plenty of “dark” themes and events: Go! Princess Precure quite effectively addresses a character’s PTSD and guilt after she was kidnapped and brainwashed, Princess Tutu has its heroes literally resisting their fate to become characters in a tragedy, and as I mentioned above the main cast of Sailor Moon has all died on at least one occasion. Darkness and despair are temporary obstacles, though, low moments to overcome with the power of hope, love and determination, not elements tied into the worldbuilding and the magical girls themselves.

Magical girls are light in the darkness, telling young girls that they too can shine if only they hope and believe. It might sound cheesy to a mature ear, but again, the message isn’t meant for a mature ear. It’s meant to uplift young girls and give them heroines to see themselves in when a lot of other media denies them that, and when the world at large is still a generally sexist place that looks down on them simply because they’re girls. Well, magical girl heroines are powerful because they’re girls! So girls, it may look bleak sometimes, but don’t give up!

That said, there’s no real reason we can’t have magical girl shows for both children and an older audience–I would simply question why every adult-aimed magical girl show defaults to being grim, violent, and taking great delight in making pre-teen anime girls suffer for otaku entertainment.

There are plenty of ways to play with the conventions of the genre that don’t involve murder and despair. A show could have magical heroines who aren’t children, breaking the trope of mature women always being the villains as well as making the characters relatable to an older audience (which is exactly the idea that Western comic series Mahou Josei Chimaka plays with); or it could toy with or challenge the idea of femininity equaling power.

There are plenty of ways to be clever and subversive with the tried-and-true genre, if you want to be. A “deconstruction” need not always mean something that’s tragic, dark, and horrifying.

Sailor Mars and Sailor Mercury from Sailor Moon, angrily facing the camera. Mars says “Anime nurtures children’s dreams!”
Sailor Moon

The Staying Power of the Pretty Guardian

I liked Madoka Magica as a creation, but I hate this apparent precedent it’s set for the genre—a precedent which completely misses the point and heart of the genre in the first place, and has led to sadistic knock-offs like Yuki Yuna and now Magical Girl Raising Project which beat up their female characters for fun rather than trying to inspire anyone. It’s not clever, it’s schadenfreude.

The mere fact that adult-aimed magical girl shows exist shows that there’s a staying power in the genre and what it represents–whether people think they’re silly or not, the ideals of hope, justice and friendship delivered by a heroine in a frilly skirt have imprinted on multiple generations of fans and creators, and adults everywhere are still thinking about the tropes and characters they were exposed to in childhood.

That the magical girl is such a recognisable staple of popular culture both in Japan and around the world–recognisable enough that series like Magical Girl Raising Project can exist–shows that something about the archetype speaks to people. I think that’s something incredible, and I think that’s something we don’t want to undermine. If they feel the need to do so, there are plenty of ways that adult or teenaged audiences can rework this influential genre that celebrate rather than stomp on the powerful heart of the magical girl.

The edgy and murderous magical girl show is becoming a cliche in its own right, and not a positive one either. And if magical girls themselves have taught me anything, it’s that sometimes what the world needs is positivity, so I hope this gritty phase that the industry is putting the genre through passes, and the magical girl–whether for children or grown-ups, who each need a dose of hope in their own way–makes an about-face back to her optimistic roots very soon.

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