My First Exposure to Gender Fluidity Came From ‘Sailor Moon’

It almost seems a bit funny to propose that a show like “Sailor Moon,” a Japanese anime originally made for young girls, is a progressive visual and social experience and greatly ahead of its time. And yet these are the words I somehow seem to blurt out to whenever I’ve talked about the show recently, often rendering listeners confused and disturbed.

As a child, it was a point of reference for different ideas I would never have been exposed to, and I often identified with specific parts of it that referred to gender in very powerful ways. But like everyone else at that age, I didn’t think too much about why that was.

Recently I started rewatching the show to due to the relaunch of the series new remake, Sailor Moon Crystal, and it became really obvious why I connected so well with the show. The idealism of it was so strong, and the imagery so striking and beautiful and emotional, but the diversity of its characters was what made it so incredible.

Sailor Moon was part of a sort of pseudo feminist anime movement that started around the 70s in Japan that is often referred to as a “magical girls” show, or Shoujou anime. Magical girl animes were often centered on the lives of younger girls, usually in middle school, who had…honestly way too much responsibility and power for their age. The power to destroy whole worlds in between classes — like, Serena and the sailor scouts had that ability, which is a bit #dramatic and #concerning.

Referred to by the name Usagi (which I believe translates to “small rabbit”) in the Japanese version, Serena is the protagonist of the series, who is ~spiritually awakened~ by a talking cat called Luna and imbued with all the memories of her past life as a princess of the moon and a magical womanist warrior in uniform. She is tasked with awakening other sailor scouts like Sailor Jupiter, a hard femme compatriot, and Sailor Venus, who is like Sailor Moon but with less personality (lol), and protect earth from evil forces. Shows like “Cardcaptors” and “Cardcaptor Sakura” followed similar narratives: the protagonist, Sakura, lives as a “normal girl” until being granted the power to transform and save Tokyo alongside a small, teddy bear-like guardian.

The premise of both “SM” and “Cardcaptors” are simple 90s fodder, and they aren’t perfect: the shows often veer toward a dangerous infantilization of the core characters, in that they are made to seem so girlish that they lack agency and sometimes come off as silly and incapable. Yet the themes of femininity as magical and powerful outside of a male hierarchy, the shifting gender expression of some of the sailor soldiers and the unapologetic “lesbian love” of Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus in season 3, seem miles ahead still of any kind of media that’s currently being made.

Both shows have inspired young LGBTQ people all over the world. And when the shows weren’t pushing forward dialogues of acceptance directly, they were doing it metaphorically. It doesn’t hurt to reflect back on what made these shows so heart-warming and inspiring, the politics behind them, and what they can teach us. I mean, if the English translation of both shows didn’t completely censor those amazing elements out.

Serena (or Usagi, depending on whether you can stand to watch the often traumatic voice-acting in the english dub) is an interesting character in that she completely counters the strong female characters of the now. She actually starts off being so inept in the role of Sailor Moon that it’s painful to even watch the show — it often feels totally frustrating.

But she then progresses in skill and emotional intelligence without sacrificing what could be recognized as her “femininity” — she doesn’t become stoic, emotionally shut off or needlessly ruthless and “masculine” to prove some kind of point. She maintains her belief in the bonds of friendship and earnesty despite the many different forces that try to destroy her and goes through some arguably pretty traumatic things. She still seems very much like a “normal” schoolgirl, going through typical struggles on the side. Serena isn’t intellectually sound like Hermione Granger, and she doesn’t have the steady head and leadership skills of Katniss Everdeen. None of these things are ingrained within her.

Similarly, Sakura starts off as being ill-fitted to her role as the card captor and of capturing the magical spirits, the clow cards, that have escaped into the world. As inspiring as those American comparisons are, there is something more touching about the more human and flawed Usagi and Sakura. The current dialogues and conversations about “strong women” that occur when critics talk about film often just create stereotypes that push women and gender diverse, or vulnerable trans people, into another restricting box, recreating the same molds over and over.

With Sailor Moon particularly, the cast of sailor scouts show that there are many ways to be a girl. They all have their weaknesses and strengths and learn how to inspire each other throughout the series despite these things. This isn’t new information, but these cliches still exist and become commonplace in the fantasy market of television, film and literature. What we should be aiming for is complex characters, realistic personalities, and often ones who seem just like every other character — fallible, relatable, maybe talented in some ways, but flawed in others.

The importance of both of these magical girl shows highlight the importance of friendship between girls too, even if it’s based on things like video games, fashion and their interest in boys. There’s a sense of romantic friendship here — connections which are deeply involved, passionate and committed. “Cardcaptor Sakura” is especially touching as it shows the teamwork of Tomoyo and Sakura, two best friends.

When Sakura doubts herself, Tomoyo supports her endlessly, even creating costumes for her in addition to her emotional support and recording all of her battles on video. There is so much trust in their relationship, and so much belief and support. In Sailor Moon, the roles are written as such to show precisely where they fail and succeed, both in their personalities and in battle. So while Ami, or Sailor Mercury, is studious, those traits often isolate her socially and her battle techniques are more technical rather than powerful. But the abilities and strategies of the other sailor scouts make up for it.

It shows that selfishness won’t get us anywhere, and that strong connections between girls create powerful movements and give us perspective on our faults. The scouts warn each other of danger and give second opinions on boy crushes and even school work. That isn’t to say there isn’t conflict, though, with Sailor Mars constantly butting heads with Sailor Moon, but the resulting conversations after the conflict lead them to deeply admire and respect each other. They learn to communicate and bond even if there is initial suspicion.

The way we perceive certain characters, their grey areas and their fluidity, is one of the most inspiring parts of the Sailor Moon series. While the words “transgender” or “gender fluidity” are never used in the series, the most engaging elements of characters like the sailor stars transcend traditional concepts of gender and performance.

Like when the more boyish Sailor Uranus shows up, it’s totally cool that Sailor V and Moon mistake her for a guy. And although it’s a bit of a shock, they don’t have an out of proportion existential crisis because of that. They even flirt on and off through the series. It’s kind of great — they still considered their attraction to her to be understandable and doesn’t operate in binaries, by which I mean black and white understandings of attraction.

Even the creator Naoko Takeuchi refers to her as “the female best friend and the fairy tale prince in one.” In the last series, “the sailor stars” are three new scouts who show up to add their abilities to the conflict the sailor scouts experience. The sailor stars are unique in that they have “male” forms up until they transform, where they become “women” and their bodies and outfits change. The power of the stars is that even when they change, they remain the same people at their core: an incredible message to send to young people questioning their gender identity.

The meaning of their transformation is never made very too obvious — but the way it is presented, in an uncontroversial way, is interesting. It’s another situation where sailor moon shows some kind of understanding of gender fluidity and trans-ness, even if it doesn’t explicitly name it as such. Indeed, some of the dialogues from the characters metaphorically allude to the dangers trans people can face if they don’t reveal their identity. Luna also mentions that the Starlights must have had a good reason to hide their identities. Although, “hide” isn’t the best way to describe the trans community’s needs, having control over trans people’s medical and personal information is incredibly important, and may be relatable to viewers.

Upon its release though, the main centre of debate regarding Sailor Moon was around its representation of lesbian and queer female characters. It’s not made totally clear what their relationship is in the beginning — but Sailor Neptune and Uranus seem to have a bond that can’t be extinguished, being pretty much inseparable through the series, and their kinship is undeniably romantic in some sense.

Previously, “lgbt/queer media” had often written characters with lgbt qualities to equate them with deviancy, or a kind of grossness that demonizes something which isn’t conventional, but Haruka and Neptune were some of the most powerful and righteous characters of the series, and their love was more passionate and true than any of the other fleeting romances in Sailor Moon.

Although totally different, there have also been romantic readings to Tomoyo and Sakura’s relationship in “Cardcaptors.” In a post by Hannah Collins for btchflcks, she states, “As Sakura pines over her older brother’s best friend (who unbeknownst to her, is also his love interest) Sakura’s best friend Tomoyo pines over her.” In fact, there’s a scene later on in the series that prove Tomoyo centres her whole life around Sakura’s existence. The way this is plotted out is totally pure, though, and appears in a very different context to how the same relationships do in Sailor Moon.

Sailor Moon was very indicative of its time — but it also pushed the way forward for animation and media in a way that is often understated. We can learn a lot from the way Sailor Moon explores femininity, how it represents diverse characters, and how it imbued positive messages into a children’s show.

To this day it stands as an amazing series that can be appreciated in retrospect, because we still have to catch up on so many of the ideas, emotions, and images that are explored within it.

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