Magical Girls as Metaphor: Why coded queer narratives still have value

By: Sara Khan July 22, 20200 Comments

These days, it’s taken for granted that the only good queer representation is ‘explicit’ — that is to say, that individual characters’ queerness is made undeniably clear. This usually manifests either as characters refering to their identity by name, or as the confirmation of a queer relationship through a kiss or sex scene (unfortunately, ‘I love you’ alone is still too vague for a compulsorily heterosexual world). But about 10 years ago, as a closeted gay kid grappling with who I might be and how I might fit into the world, explicit lesbian content was not only scarce and difficult to access, but repeated a lot of the same tropes–many of which were, frankly, not great.

From unhealthy power dynamics, such as student-teacher relationships; to biphobia, transphobia, body shaming and white beauty standards; to an over-saturation of tragic endings, “forbidden love” and coming-out narratives; I couldn’t really see myself in any of that. But as a young queer pre-teen, I did see myself and what I wanted to be in anime. Not often in yuri, surprisingly, but in magical girl anime and in idol anime. 

Explicit queer representation is certainly important, and powerful, and it’s come a long way since 2010. Nevertheless I find myself returning to these anime — and not Glee or The L Word — because there’s still something about queer-coded narratives that resonate with me, and I think it’s more than just nostalgia. Even now, with the vast increase of explicit queer womxn’s representation on television over the past decade, I still see myself in Sailor Moon and The iDOLM@STER more than I see myself in Orphan Black. To understand this requires thinking beyond representation; it requires thinking about structure.

Sailor Moon in her rainbow Super-S transformation pose


In the magical girl genre, this is a no-brainer. To some, minute-long transformation sequences every single episode may seem gratuitous and unnecessary, but to me they have always been compelling, and not only visually. The ditzy Tsukino Usagi who wins love by daylight, transforms in the moonlight into the radiant, powerful Sailor Moon. Importantly, though, she is still Usagi. The love and passion that define her, on their own, don’t fit quite right in the world she lives in. They won’t get her the grades she needs at school, or a great job in the future, but they are what make her such a powerful senshi. 

Usagi’s transformation isn’t beautiful to watch because she’s becoming someone new, but because she is becoming a fully realised version of herself. Now she can make a new and better world for everyone; one unlike the world she lives in, which measures people’s worth by academic success and productivity, and would have chewed up and spit out a girl like her.

Homura using magic on her eyes. subtitle: No one can accept the future

Idols undergo a transformation of their own, too — and I don’t just mean when they don their costumes and idol personas and perform on stage. In Love Live! School Idol Project, being an idol makes athletic, boyish Rin more comfortable with expressing her femininity; it turns lonely “weirdo” Nico into a Super Idol her siblings can look up to; it turns shy, indecisive Hanayo into someone who can voice her opinions and openly enjoy her interests. 

None of these girls change fundamentally — Rin is still boyish, Nico is still kind of a weirdo, and Hanayo is still shy — but they become more comfortable, honest, and truer versions of themselves. In fact, those traits that are quintessentially them make them the idols they are; as with Sailor Moon, what the world around them perceives as weakness becomes their strength. For queer kids growing into ourselves, I’m sure this is a story we know all too well. 

the sailor scouts all clustered around Usagi in a hug, laughing

Chosen Family

It feels only natural that chosen family should come next, because it’s the catalyst for these transformations to occur. For queer people to become the versions of ourselves we want to be in a world that pushes back as hard as this one does, we need love and support. We need family. Many of us choose our own families, because the ones we are born into may not give us what we need, or allow us the space to grow into ourselves. 

Chosen family is absolutely central to both magical girl and idol anime. In a lot of these shows, biological families are either entirely absent or heavily underdeveloped. We barely see Honoka, Nico, or Kotori’s mothers in Love Live!, and in Madoka Magica there’s a distinct lack of blood family for all of the major characters with the exception of Madoka herself. They usually aren’t developed characters, with nuanced relationships, or any involvement in these girls’ lives as idols or magical girls.

Instead, a huge part of the narrative drive comes through developing trust and understanding between peers. Sometimes biological siblings are included in this, but never parents. In magical girl anime, the protagonists’ identities as magical girls are kept secret from their guardians — with whom, it is implied, they cannot be their true selves. 

Two girls smiling at each other

When it comes to this theme, The iDOLM@STER still hits closest to home for me, particularly in its depiction of Kisaragi Chihaya’s relationship with her family. The details are unclear, but Chihaya’s biological family is broken to the point where she lives alone and has no contact with them. Watching her find love and support with her fellow idols — a family which helps her confront her trauma and begin to heal — was all 13-year-old me could have hoped for, and something I’m lucky enough to be able to say I’ve found now. 

Family is about giving support as much as receiving it, though. When Haruka is in crisis and cracks begin to form in the group, Chihaya is terrified she’ll lose her new family. Despite that terror, she’s willing to fight for it, and returns the love and support she’s been given when the others are in need. Notably, in times of crisis, even those who do have parents to turn to — like Haruka or Miki — turn to their idol unit instead. Ultimately, chosen family is more integral to their lives than biological family. 

text over a lone figure walking in a desert. text: Don't forget. Always, somewhere, someone is fighting for you. As lnog as you remember her, you are not alone.

Personal Agency

All this talk of transformation and chosen family leads neatly onto the subject of self-determination, which is not individualistic in nature, but takes both individual and collective shape. If the figures of both the magical girl and the idol allow a ‘normal’ girl to resist social constraints and social expectation, then we are necessarily concerned with her agency. How much freedom, power, and free will does a womxn have in a world built to silence her?

Idol anime is structured around the fierce drive of idols as individuals and within groups to overcome obstacles and chase their dreams. In magical girl anime, destiny operates as a metaphor for social expectation: the supposed eventuality of heterosexual womanhood in a patriarchal world. Magical girls are often in tension with destiny, but the take on this theme which made the biggest impression on me is still Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Behind the obvious question which haunts this powerful twelve episode series — “Should Madoka make a wish and become a magical girl?” — is the shadow of another, more sinister question: “What is the fate of a magical girl?” In Madoka Magica, it is decidedly grim: a magical girl is fated to become the very evil which she fights, the very wrong she wants to right. It’s a tragic fate, a trope in many explicitly queer, specifically lesbian narratives, as I mentioned earlier. But the main characters, each in their own ways, are having absolutely none of it. In the end, their drive to end the suffering of magical girls leads to one final answer: the very structure of the world must change. 

image of Demon Homura

Buffeted at every turn by the claim that the way the world works cannot be changed and that their struggle means nothing, their agency as magical girls re-shapes the very fabric of the universe and spits in the face of this tragic destiny. It might be Madoka’s decision, but the anime is very clear that it is the collective power, the collective strength, and the collective agency of all magical girls throughout history — including Homura’s drive to save Madoka, and Kyouko’s to save Sayaka — which culminate in a new, better world. It’s a story of womxn’s liberation, and it’s a story of queer liberation. 

This isn’t an entirely untroubled conclusion, unfortunately, considering the developments that ensue in Rebellion. Though the film goes from the queer-coded realm of the original anime to explicit queer representation, it also goes from the postive, affirming ending to something bordering on the “psycho lesbian” trope.

It feels almost as though we’re punished, as viewers, for receiving explicit confirmation of the queer-coded relationship we’d been rooting for all along; it feels like we are being told that our desire to see this, like Homura’s desire for Madoka, is selfish. We are thrown into a liminal space between postitive queer-coded narratives and negative explicit representation. It’s an uncomfortable space, which brings queer agency back into question. 

a girl clasping another's hand, both blushing. subtitle: rin-chan, you're cute

Same-Gender Relationships

Last but not least are same-gender relationships, which are more overtly queer than my previous subjects.Though explicit queer representation is deeply important and necessary, there is still value in subtext. Historically, it gave young queer viewers like myself a taste of seeing our experiences represented, and often pushed the boundaries and paved the way for explicit queer representation to come later. As such, I want make the case that the act of centering same-gender relationships is queer at the level of structure, as it helps to de-emphasize the assumed supremacy of cisheternormative romances, and opens the door to letting queer viewers see themselves on screen.

Audre Lorde once said that “the true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness whether or not she ever sleeps with women.” What I believe she meant by this is that to de-center men and to center women constitutes a lesbian consciousness. In that vein, then, the narrative drive of both magical girl and idol anime, built around women and relationships between women, exemplifies what one might refer to as a lesbian narrative structure. Indeed, men and boys are almost entirely absent in magical girl and idol anime; and where they are present, they are certainly not central. 

Where romantic subtext is concerned, romantically charged relationships between girls in these anime sometimes still speak more to me than explicitly romantic queer womxn’s relationships in media. As I mentioned earlier, tired tropes often lead these depictions to feel too detached from my reality. But the nuanced, unspoken connections between Haruka and Chihaya (iM@s), Eli and Nozomi (Love Live!), or Kyoko and Sayaka (Madoka Magica) feel real. There is nothing but genuine emotional connection: the way they look at each other, the little gestures of affection that only they share, the way they say “I love you” without ever actually saying it. 

Kyoko and Sayaka underwater, Kyoko tenderly grasping crying Sayaka's hands

Don’t get me wrong, that tension is still frustrating. A love confession might be nice to hear (though again, sometimes they are included and still get discounted), and a kiss might be nice to see — but as a teenager, this showed me what emotional connection looked like in a way Citrus or Strawberry Panic! never really did. Not to mention that negotiating romance as a young queer girl had none of that glamour; it’s all awkwardness, tension, seemingly inconsequential words and actions packed with layers of meaning, the fear of ruining friendships by being open about your attraction.

I placed this discussion of same-gender relationships at the very end of this piece because I wanted to de-centre romance in my argument about queer storytelling, just as I wanted to think beyond representation and focus on narrative structure. As I spend my bank holiday weekend watching The iDOLM@STER: Cinderella Girls and awaiting copies of the Sailor Moon manga in the post, I think about the joy this brings me now, and the hope it gave me as that closeted gay kid grappling with who I might be and how I might fit into the world.

To me, queerness is about all of these things: transformation, growth, family, love, solidarity, self-determination, collective strength, and building a better world. Taken to be true, it makes perfect sense that magical girl and idol anime felt queer to their very core ten years ago, and feel exactly the same to me now. 

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