Reclaiming the Witch Through Magical Girls

By: Nina Morales February 7, 20200 Comments
A promo image of a smiling young girl in a witch outfit

There comes a time in every girl’s life where she’s obsessed with one thing:

The occult.

Nearly 200,000 Tumblr users agree: there’s this odd sort of phenomenon where many adolescent girls start dabbling in witchcraft and all things mystical. I should know, I was one of them, and so were many of my friends.

Tarot cards, Ouija boards, Wicca, palm reading, a healthy obsession with cryptids, etc. The phase is so common there’s even a “Best Girl” trope around it: think Nozomi from Love Live! or Kyou from Clannad.


Three PreCure girls reaching toward a magic circle
Maho Girl Precure

Fairy Tale Follies

With all the bad press they get, why would any girl want to be a witch? The Witch as a fairy tale archetype is typically painted as the villain. Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and Swan Lake all feature gruesome and horrible witches who embody sins women are taught to avoid: gluttony, vanity, and envy.

Even more modern stories like Disney’s The Little Mermaid or Howl’s Moving Castle feature a witch as the main antagonist juxtaposing the young, pretty protagonist.

In most fairy tale cases, it’s girlhood that’s praised. A young girl’s innocence is the direct and polar opposite capable of defeating the Witch’s aged, evil womanhood. Madoka Magica breaks down the old concept of the Witch perfectly: 

On this planet, you call females who have yet to become adults “girls.” It makes sense then that since you’ll eventually become witches, you should be called “magical girls.”

Kyubey, Episode 8, Puella Magi Madoka Magica 2011

A Witch is what happens when a young girl ages into something no longer innocent or virtuous. When a girl doesn’t marry, doesn’t conform to patriarchal ideals, and is left old, haggard, and alone, she becomes a Witch.

Madoka huddled in bed with Kyubey silhouetted in the window
Puella Magi Madoka Magica

It doesn’t stop in fiction either. Even historically, the first people who would be accused of being a Witch were older, independent women. Women who lived on their own, women who forged their own paths. Look at the stories of Mary Webster, the Witches of Belvoir, or the Soulmother of Küssnacht.

These women were a threat to the status quo and thus became cautionary tales. The Witch is something to fear, something to be reviled. These are dangerous women who have taken power and used it for themselves. They have agency and free will and that makes them a threat.

However, the centuries-long smear campaign wasn’t enough to snuff out witches as a symbol of empowerment for many, rebelling against the thought that only the dependent and well behaved can be “good.”

Reclaiming the idea of “The Witch” as a positive symbol didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t solely a personal journey that began and ended with a rebellious preteen occult-obsessed phase. The cultural framing of the trope transformed over several decades with the help of the Magical Girl genre.

Sally the witch riding her broom
Sally the Witch

The Rise of Majokko

Magical Girls started as Majokko—or “Little Witches”—in the 1960s with Sally the Witch, who was inspired by the show Bewitched as cited by the original mangaka Mitsuteru Yokoyama.

Both shows are about witches who came from the Magical World and caused mischief for their mundane companions. The big difference between the two points of media is that, while Bewitched was designed to be watched by adults and their families, Sally was designed to appeal to eight-year-old girls.

When Japan imported Bewitched, it became a quick obsession for young girls. The budding anime industry and a studio named Toei—which wound up producing magical girl icons like Sailor Moon and Precure—took advantage of this and turned Yokoyama’s popular comic into an animated show.

Sally’s success gave life to the Majokko genre, which would eventually evolve into Magical Girls and start the string of events that turned Witches from villains to heroes.

Let’s think about the Fairy Tale description of a witch: they’re described as old, ugly, and just generally unappealing to look at. But Samantha of Bewitched and Sally were both cute. They were pretty, they were appealing, and as much as it pains me to say it, appearances are the first step in turning the tide.

two main characters from Tweeny Witches
Tweeny Witches

Not only were they pretty, they were relatable! Sally was an eight-year-old girl, not some garish hag. Little girls saw Sally and they saw themselves. She became something they could be. They began building that relationship with the archetype that was once hailed as villainous.

This slow cultural crawl began changing the idea of the Witch. She was less of a nightmare and more of a dream. And as time marched forward, we got further away from the older folktales that claimed a woman’s power would lead to ruin and closer to “hey, check out this rad girl doing magic, don’t you wanna be her?” A young girl’s first exposure to a Witch became someone to aspire to be, not a cautionary tale.

As a magical princess from a fairy-tale kingdom instead of a “normal” girl from the real world, Sally may not have much in common with the current idea of a Magical Girl, but she’s still an essential part of the genre’s roots. Himitsu no Akko-chan, a story about a girl who transformed using a magical mirror, was pushed to be animated thanks to Sally’s success.

This led to later titles, such as Cutie Honey in the ‘70s about a warrior woman who transformed into a battle-ready outfit with a pair of iconic gogo boots, and Magical Princess Minky Momo, who ends the series by being reincarnated as a human girl. Shake up all these pieces with a healthy helping of Super Sentai, and you have Sailor Moon and the modern magical girl template.

the opening of Maho Girl Precure
Maho Girl PreCure

From “Little Witch” to “Magical Girl”

The early days of Majokko were littered with witches and paranormal girls, like Majokko Megu-Chan, Esper Mami, and Chappy the Witch. Though details of their plots were all very different, the premise boiled down to “Girl Who Has Magic and Causes Mischief With It.” They all existed in this moral grey area where “Magic is fun, but don’t abuse it or you’re a troublemaker!” 

It was definitely a softer damnation than the old fairy tale Witch and often played for laughs, but still wasn’t 100% in the clear. We were being shown these fun and powerful girls, but with a clear message that they should still “behave.”

The genre slowly started morphing from Majokko to Magical Girls from the ‘80s onward. But even after removing the concept of “little witch” from the genre, they couldn’t ditch the witchy motifs and themes. While they became less frequent crutches when explaining how Magical Girls got their Magical Powers, there are still plenty of shows that featured witch-adjacent characters as Magical Girls.

image from the ending song of Tokimeki Tonight
Tokimeki Tonight

In 1982 we got Tokimeki Tonight, about a girl named Ranze, the daughter of a werewolf and a vampire. She thinks she’s escaped her Addams Family-like fate of being spooky and kooky until one day her magical powers manifest. While her parents are overjoyed, she now has to figure out how to navigate her teenage life with these new powers.

Tokimeki Tonight still carries the echoes of the Majokko tales of old: you have a girl whose lineage is the source of her power and experiences hijinks because of it. The big difference is that Ranze is celebrated by her parents for having this power! They encourage her to use it; no one is trying to mute her except herself. It’s a step in the right direction.

Then, in 1996, we saw our first take of Magic User’s Club as an Original Video Animation, whose premise relied on the re-discovery of magic and a multi-gendered high school club devoted to studying it. They had brooms, wands, and the classic pointed hat. Their plot also closely mirrored Majokko in that it was more about daily hijinks and less about defeating a monster of the week (though they did have a Big Bad to defeat).

the three leads of Ojamajo Doremi
Ojamajo Doremi

Running from 1999 to 2004, Ojamajo Doremi bridges the gap from the ‘90s to the early 2000s in both visual style and the way witch tropes interact with the Magical Girl genre. We’re back in elementary school—like Sally—with a group of humans becoming witch’s apprentices. Like most modern Magical Girls, Ojamajo Doremi featured fun transformation sequences, a color-coded team, and tons of buyable merch that became the cornerstone of most Magical Girl series from the ‘80s onward.

Sugar Sugar Rune started airing in 2005 while the manga went on until 2007, and seems to be the best at mixing the old with the new. Witches Chocolate and Vanilla come to the human world to determine who will be queen of the Magic World, a premise very similar to Sally coming to the human world in order to eventually inherit the crown of the Magic World.

The series featured transformation sequences, product placements, and a Big Bad without using the monster-of-the-week formula many Magical Girl fans had come to expect from that era. Sugar Sugar Rune was the perfect blend of classic and modern: complete with the classic pointed hats, spooky familiars, and broom rides.

the transformation circle from Sugar Sugar Rune
Sugar Sugar Rune

A Witch by Any Other Name

But even ignoring the shows that feature actual witches, Magical Girls are inherently witch-like.

They cast spells, wield magical wands, and fling curses.

Iconic Magical Mascots like Sailor Moon’s Luna take on the role as the witch’s familiar. “Ribbon Strawberry Check” in Tokyo Mew Mew has the same power behind it as a wicked witch from a fairy tale cursing the first born. In the U.S./Japan co-production Jem, summoning a wardrobe change by saying “It’s showtime Synergy” seems right out of Harry Potter. The titular Cardcaptor Sakura summons a straight-up magic circle to seal the Clow Cards.

And don’t even get me started on all the occult toys and merchandise marketed through Magical Girl shows.

The Clow Cards flying out of their book
Cardcaptor Sakura

The Clow Cards from Cardcaptor Sakura very much resemble tarot cards. Precure marketed a Crystal Ball as a tie in toy for the 12th season. Lyrical Nanoha slaps their magical circles on everything from umbrellas to phone cases. Ask Dr. Rin! marketed a Feng Shui board with accurate text and crystals to literal middle school girls.

But one of my all-time favourites is the literal pentagram/pendulum book set from Riru Riru Fairilu.

All of these have the same feel as the pastel pink Ouija Board Hasbro tried to sell in the earlier part of the decade: mysticism inspiration in bubblegum packaging. Allowing children and adults alike to explore the occult without the potential of bumping heads with any actual otherwordly terrors… maybe.

The funny thing is that, with the exception of Precure, none of these shows featured overtly witchy themes—but they still found their way into the series. The commonality between Magical Girls and Witches isn’t subtle, it’s so overt the aforementioned Madoka Magica drew upon it within the show’s lore. If there were a venn diagram of Witches and Magical Girls, it would almost be a circle.

Usagi tearfully hugging Luna
Sailor Moon

Over time we may have lost the word Witch and iconic aesthetics for the most part, but they aren’t gone entirely: Mahou Tsukai Pretty Cure!, the 12th installment of Precure, featured witchy looks and lore; and one of the most popular anime from Studio Trigger in the past 5 years was a magical girl show called Little Witch Academia, which was only brought to life after an obscenely successful Kickstarter funded a second animated movie for it.

The reclamation of the Witch has been encouraged by the current cultural climate surrounding the idea with no means of slowing down. Even Madoka Magica seems to have reversed its stance on the whole “Witches are the bad guys” department in Magia Record,the mobile game soon to be an anime. Children and adults alike are are shown examples of girls proudly wielding the powers within themselves and the powers given to them. The Witch has gone from Villain to Hero in a flash of pink sparkles and bubbly transformation music.

In this day and age, who wouldn’t want to be a Witch?

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