Is Sailor Moon a feminist icon?
When one thinks of the “magical girl” trope in anime and manga, one of the most memorable and iconic characters that comes to mind is Usagi Tsukino, better known as “Sailor Moon”. While she is no doubt a landmark in anime and manga for a female audience, can she be be considered “feminist”? For this discussion, while there are other female characters, I will mainly be focusing on the titular character.
Before I begin my analysis, let’s analyze what “feminist” means. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, two main definitions are given:
- The theory of the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes.
- Organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.
Given these two definitions, for the purposes of this discussion, feminism will be defined as activity that promotes female empowerment and equality.
Now let us begin with the main protagonist, Usagi Tsukino. I will be using a combination of the original manga, the 1990’s anime, and Sailor Moon Crystal for this analysis.
When we are introduced to her, she states that she is a 14 year old student at Juban Public Middle School. One of the first things we learn about her is that she is a self-proclaimed klutz and crybaby. Very early on, we see that she has, indeed, not reached full maturity. We first get a real feel for her character when we see her panicking as she sleeps through her alarm and is late for class, much to the chagrin of her mother.
Along the way to school, she runs into a cat with bandages on her forehead. Usagi kindly removes the bandages, revealing a crescent moon symbol. This cat is later revealed to be Luna, a confidante and mentor to Usagi and the late Princess Serenity of the Moon Kingdom. Luna reveals that Usagi has special abilities that have been awakened, and that it is her destiny to locate the other Sailor Guardians and find the missing princess (who turns out to be, in fact, Usagi as a reincarnated Serenity).
Throughout the course of the first story arc of the series (known canonically as the “Black Moon” arc), it is slowly revealed that Princess Serenity was the crown princess of the Moon Kingdom, a now dead civilization that lays in ruins on the moon. The downfall of the Moon Kingdom was, at least partially, attributed to Serenity getting into a forbidden relationship with Prince Endymion of Earth. Serenity, Endymion, and the other Sailor Guardians were reincarnated as citizens of modern day Tokyo, whilst Luna and her partner, Artemis, are tasked with finding them in their current forms.
In the first edition of all three main incarnations of the story (manga, anime, and Crystal), when Usagi first transforms into Sailor Moon, she is not at all prepared for the responsibility that comes with such powers. She cowers before the monster unleashed by the Dark Kingdom in her effort to rescue her schoolmate, Naru. With some prodding from Luna and the mysterious Tuxedo Mask (the reincarnated Prince Endymion), she is eventually able to defeat the monster. While she was eventually able to defeat the monster and rescue her friend, arguably, she was motivated to do so by others, and not by her own agency. She expresses throughout the first installment that, while she loves the costume and powers that come with her new title, she finds facing monsters scary (as any 14 year old girl would).
However, by the second issue, we see her taking charge much more. While she is still very much a teenage girl, she has accepted the responsibility that comes with her alter ego. This is evident when she raids the Crystal Seminar classroom to rescue Ami Mizuno (who turns out to be Sailor Mercury). She states that she will not allow a girl’s passion for learning to be exploited. This is the first time we ever really see her defending women’s interests. Usagi passionately encourages and defends Ami’s love of learning, and takes the time to share both her interests (the Sailor V game at the arcade) as well as get to know Ami (offering to study with her). She cares about the dreams and wishes of her friends, evidenced here, and is thrilled to find an ally in Sailor Mercury.
Luna proclaims Ami as the chief strategist of the Sailor Guardians, but Usagi is still objectively the leader. This time, she didn’t need a man to save her (Tuxedo Mask is not seen in this battle at all). While she still had Luna to guide her, there was much more balance between the two. Usagi still needs help, but she’s not completely helpless this time. Luna is taking less of a parental/governess role and now acting as more of a mentor.
Fast forward to when we are introduced to Sailor Mars and Sailor Jupiter, and Usagi is vocally fighting for the underdogs. Rei Hino (Sailor Mars) and Makoto Kino (Sailor Jupiter) are shown being bullied and shunned: Rei for her psychic abilities and Makoto for her tough, tomboyish exterior, respectfully. Usagi isn’t having it, and she defends them. She sees that these two outcasts are special, and deserve friendship and love just like everyone else. Just because they don’t fit the typical mold of a teenage girl in this universe doesn’t mean that they don’t have worth. She gets to know them both, and as Mars and Jupiter join the team, it’s evident that both Usagi and Luna know that they play valuable roles.
By the time we are introduced to Sailor Venus, Usagi is star struck as she has finally encountered the mysterious Sailor V, who she has strived throughout her crimefighting career to emulate. Usagi initially believes that Sailor Venus is the missing Princess Serenity. At this point, she is taking command to fight for her princess. When it is revealed that Usagi was Serenity all along, Usagi embraces her identity as the Princess of the Moon Kingdom, fighting for those she loves, as well as the entire universe against the Dark Kingdom. Even when her true love, Endymion, is possessed by Queen Beryl and the Legendary Silver Crystal is stolen, she doesn’t give up fighting, finding strength from finding people to fight for. Her fight is far greater than herself, and she understands that. She bravely faces the looming specter of an old enemy so that Earth may have a future.
In the second arc (known canonically as the “Black Moon Arc”), we are introduced to Chibiusa, who also is called Usagi, and comes from the future. From the very beginning, there is a lot of conflict between the girl and Usagi, chiefly over Tuxedo Mask/Mamoru Chiba. She literally confronts Usagi at gunpoint, demanding the Legendary Silver Crystal. While Usagi is (reasonably) scared, she instead swallows her fear and asks where the girl came from. She could have run away like she would have earlier, but she has grown too much at this point, and genuinely wants to help the girl.
In later story arcs, we see her evolving and growing not only as a Sailor Guardian, but as a person. When we are first introduced to Usagi, she is, as she states herself, immature and clumsy. Like any teenage girl, she doesn’t have a clear idea of who she is or what she wants in life. Particularly in first story arc, she is frequently rescued by Tuxedo Mask, so one could argue that Sailor Moon isn’t a hero, but a damsel in distress.
However, by the fifth and final story arc, Sailor Moon takes charge, and faces off against Sailor Galaxia. By this point in the series, she does not depend on others to rescue her, and instead leads the Sailor Guardians in keeping the universe safe. She leads the others by helping them hone and perfect their respective abilities. In other words, she empowers them.
One does not need to necessarily “rescue themselves” in order to be a feminist icon, and that’s what makes Usagi so relatable, especially to women and girls. She may be a magical girl and a princess, but she is first and foremost just an ordinary girl coming into womanhood and going through all the challenges that come with it. She navigates (at times, clumsily) through friendships, school, and relationships. She goes through things that every girl goes through at some point in their lives.
By not only experiencing the trials of growing up, but overcoming them, she empowers girls to find their true potential, and that they don’t necessarily have to be perfect in order to matter. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and it’s what we do with those that determine how successful in life we will be. Sailor Moon really drives home the message that female empowerment matters and is, I believe, indeed a feminist icon.
What do you think? Leave a comment.