What Makes Magical Girls So Popular?

by Gabriella Ekens,

Sailor Moon just got remade, Madoka Magica was the biggest anime hit of the past five years, and US-made cartoons are getting more mahou shoujo-tastic by the day. I think it's fair to call magical girls, young women who magically transform into flamboyant superheroines, the hottest thing since sliced bread (in your mouth on the way to school). But what's really made magical girls into the biggest thing ever? Are they just cool, or is there some deeper reason? Here are three reasons that magical girls appeal to women from all walks of fandom.

MAGICAL GIRLS ARE EMPOWERING

While the earliest magical girl show people seem to talk about is Sailor Moon, the genre has its origins in the beginnings of anime as a whole. Besides Astro Boy, one of Osamu Tezuka's most famous works is Princess Knight, a manga about a cross-dressing princess who fights to keep her kingdom safe. While not a magical girl per se (her knight form is just a disguise and not a magical transformation), Princess Knight established the genre's basics: a girl gains the ability to change her appearance in order to do things that she normally can't.

Sailor Moon's major innovation came from making magical girls into superheroes. Prior to that, magical girl shows post-Princess Knight downplayed the fighting and functioned more like sitcoms. Their magical powers resembled the antics of Steve Urkel in Family Matters – an excuse for crazy stuff to exacerbates the episode's social conflict. While they were often still princesses, magical girls dealt with schoolyard problems more often than actual threats. They'd use their powers to go out with boys or live double lives as pop stars. That's right, Hannah Montana happened decades ago in Japan. (Although the sitcom relationship is even more convoluted – magical girls were inspired by a Japanese dub of Bewitched.) That's how the genre existed for decades, with shows like Himitsu no Akko-chan, Sally the Witch, and Creamy Mami. Even then, there's a lot of variation within shows. From the start, the magical girl genre was filled with tension over how active, empowered, and independent their heroines should be.

Coming out of this history, Sailor Moon combined magical girls and another Japanese genre, tokusatsu. As a genre of live-action TV aimed at young boys, tokusatsu shows will often star teams of color-coded heroes on a quest to save the world. Even if you've never heard of this genre, you've probably seen one – Power Rangers is an altered version of Super Sentai, one of the most popular kinds of tokusatsu. With that in mind, the recipe for Sailor Moon goes like this: one part Creamy Mami plus one part Super Sentai equals one of the most popular anime franchises of all time.

It turns out that girls are just as interested in saving the world as boys. Armed with miniskirts and using mundane objects as weapons, Sailor Moon told girls that they could still be feminine as warriors, leaders, and heroes. It was an instant hit, and now it's pretty rare to get magical girl anime that don't follow the team format. While Sailor Moon still contains shades of the genre's original fixations with training adolescent girls to become wives and mothers, its magical girls are also active and independent leaders in their communities. While the present Usagi is a ditzy klutz, we get glimpses of her future self as Neo-Queen Serenity, the beautiful and capable leader of the Moon Kingdom.

Later magical girl shows would downplay the romance angle even more, making it all about the team dynamic and their heroic duty.

MAGICAL GIRLS ARE CUSTOMIZABLE

If you're like me, then one of your favorite things about magical girls is just getting to see the next costume. Sometimes I'll click through the wikis for shows I haven't seen just to check out every combination of color, weapon, and decoupage.

Like Power Rangers, part of the magical girl appeal comes from how easily you can imagine yourself as one. I bet that most people reading this have already decided what their color (purple), weapon (trident), and theme (pirate) would be if Kyubey appeared on their doorstep tomorrow. These shows are designed to be compatible with fan culture, so making original characters is as easy as filling out a spreadsheet. Once again, this began with Sailor Moon's borrowing of elements from tokusatsu. Just like each of the Power Rangers wears the same spandex suit but in a different color, the Sailor Senshi's outfits all follow a formula (sailor fuku, miniskirt, and tiara) that allows for variations according to each wearer's personality. The stern Sailor Mars wears slip-on heels, tech geek Mercury has special goggles, and gentle tomboy Jupiter gets to keep her rosebud earrings. Of course, these relate to their combat roles, from range, to support, to frontline melee. Later magical girl shows would go even further with this, emphasizing how the girls' individual attributes make up a team.

My absolute favorite show in this regard is Madoka Magica. Madoka shirks a Sailor Moon-style team uniform to have magical girls who are mostly recognizable to each other because they're all wearing monochrome costumes. With her twin blades, uneven skirt, and cape, Sayaka looks like a swashbuckler. Mami's constrained but elegant military getup hints at the explosive power of her muskets. And Homura's sleek school uniform is just brimming with secrets (and pipe bombs). They're as different as can be, but all recognizable as magical girl outfits through each costume's trademark weapons and soul gems. Madoka's witches are also crazy inventive visual feasts that each represent a specific magical girl's personality, problems, and capabilities. In a twisted way, the most fun part of original character-making can be exploring your own flaws!

Each girl's outfit might also reflect their talents in combat. And unlike Sailor Moon's stock footage cut-ins of Senshi attacking, modern outfits can actually play into the fight choreography. Magical girls aren't just in low-budget kid's shows any more, allowing animators to go wild with the possibilities.

The sad thing is that because of the nature of Madoka's story (suffering), we don't see a lot of the girls fighting as a team. That's rectified by later shows like Yuki Yuna Is a Hero. As a response to Madoka, Yuki Yuna almost works like one long fight scene of the four (eventually five) girls working together. This type of storytelling makes it easy to imagine you and your friends doing this together. Actually, a friend got me to watch Yuki Yuna to help her think up scenarios for roleplaying. That gets to the third reason why people love magical girls…

MAGICAL GIRLS ARE ABOUT FRIENDSHIP

Magical girls have turned into a genre that's all about friendship between girls. As soon as they switched over to a team format, shows started to focus on group dynamics just as much (if not more) than romance. While Usagi's relationship with the hunky but useless Tuxedo Mask is still a big part of Sailor Moon, most of what I remember from watching the show as a kid were her interactions with her fellow Senshi. With their playful bickering, the Senshi acted like a real group of school-aged girlfriends. While they may have fought sometimes (especially Usagi and Rei), their dedication to one another only grew. Eventually they'd become role models for my own female friendships. Always find friends who'll sacrifice their lives to help you defeat the Negaverse. (Just make sure to bring them back with your magic powers later on.)

Even then, Usagi's romantic relationship with Mamoru was still a huge deal. Later magical girl shows would proceed to downplay romance entirely. This is especially true of the Pretty Cure series, Sailor Moon's successor in terms of mainstream popularity with little girls. Now spanning thirteen seasons and ten teams of girls, love interests have been unimportant or nonexistent. The most significant one, from Yes! Pretty Cure 5, is this yellow creampuff-looking thing that occasionally turns into the guy behind it. Which raises the question, if a Pikachu transformed into a hot guy, would you date it?

Magical girl shows for an adult audience, like Madoka and Yuki Yuna, often don't feature male love interests at all. Instead, there's the implication of a deep partnership (or even more) between the girls themselves. This harkens back to Sailors Uranus and Neptune, the lesbian couple from Sailor Moon that served as many a young girl's romantic awakening. Whether intentional or not, the genre's intensely emotional relationships between girls have made it popular with ladies who like other ladies.

Overall, magical girl shows are huge because they're a uniquely empowering and fandom-friendly genre for young ladies. And as women become more prominent in fan culture, we're only going to get more stuff like this. So why do you love magical girls? Share with us in the comments!


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