WARNING: APPROXIMATELY ONE MILLION SPOILERS AHEAD! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
I never watched Sailor Moon when I was growing up. I really didn’t even hear about it until I was older and got into nerd culture through some manga-loving high school friends of mine. My knowledge was pretty peripheral, but enough that when I heard the original TV series was going to be slowly re-released on Hulu I decided to give it a try.
I’ll be honest — at first I was a little flabbergasted. I thought Usagi (the main protagonist, aka Sailor Moon) was childish and annoying and not very heroic. I couldn’t see why on earth this was supposed to be some girl-power hero show.
And, honestly, even as I kept watching, there are a bunch of reasons to view Sailor Moon as not very feminist and reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes. For example, many of the worries and problems the girls are portrayed as caring about seem rather petty and gendered, like boys, becoming a ballerina, having a crush on a famous fashion designer, entering a beauty contest, etc. And there’s the fact that sometimes it seems like the only consistent male protagonist (Tuxedo Mask) is the one who actually defeats the monsters, arriving just in the nick of time to rescue Sailor Moon and co. Plus, all the Sailor Guardians (and all the girls in general) have pretty much the same idealized body type.
(And don’t even get me started on the sexualization of the title sequences and the sailor transformation sequences for these girls who are supposed to be fifteen.)
Despite these (very real and legitimate) flaws, ultimately after watching much of the show’s run I still read this series as empowering to women. Here are three reasons why:
1. Sailor Moon is the real hero.
Despite the fact that Tuxedo Mask does show up to help quite often, at the end of the day the only one who can save the day is Sailor Moon.
This is significant not only because she’s female, but especially because out of all the Sailor Guardians, Usagi (Sailor Moon’s real life “alter ego”) is the one who is consistently portrayed as the biggest simpleton: bad grades, immature, a huge klutz, irrational, infatuated with romance, and having a love for food that sometimes even distracts her from the important business of defeating villains.
Sailor Moon is the one who always keeps the faith in the face of evil even when it seems stupid or irrational to do so. And her simple faith, which is sometimes written off by others as the foolish naivete of a young girl, is actually the very thing that gives her the ability to save the whole world — including the teammates who are more “put together” than her and the boyfriend she seems so infatuated with.
2. It doesn’t belittle girls, it validates them.
While the antics especially of Usagi are sometimes the source of the show’s comic relief, it’s significant that in each episode, the onus of the blame is put on the villains.
Whenever the Sailors or Tuxedo Mask confront the villains, they always make it clear that the villains are wrong for taking advantage of the hopes and dreams of young girls. In other words, the problem is not that young girls have silly dreams or are so naïve that they have allowed someone to take advantage of them. The problem is that the villains have taken advantage of or exploited something pure and innocent and good. This directly combats the rape culture narrative of “she asked for it” or “she should know better” or “how could she be so naive”, which blames the victim for what others have done to her. In Sailor Moon episodes, not only is it not the girls’ fault, but they are praised for having “beautiful dreams” while the villains are directly rebuked and then “punished” for infringing upon those dreams.
3. Girls are friends and it’s GREAT!
Often when girls appear in movies or shows, they’re set against each other as catty rivals for popularity (Mean Girls) or the affection of a man or boy (every movie ever; ask the Bechdel test). While that does happen sometimes in Sailor Moon, rivalry is never the PRIMARY function of the girls’ relationships.
Small squabbles about boys or hurtful words are usually resolved by the end of the episode, and even more long-standing issues (like the frequent antagonism between Usagi and Rei) are put aside in the face of defeating real evildoers.
In fact, one of the most moving moments of the series so far for me was the season finale where (I REPEAT, SPOILERS GALORE!) all the other Sailor Guardians have died, but when Sailor Moon’s power alone is not enough to defeat the villain she calls on the love and friendship of her team and their ghostly hands support her from beyond the grave. (I may have cried.)
THIS is the kind of big-picture love and support that we want to teach our girls — that when you’re carrying more than you can bear alone, your loved ones (including other girls and women!) will help you.
4. It’s about girls/women.
At the end of the day, even just the fact that a popular show has a recurring case of 6 (8 if you count cats) and only one is a man is a huge deal. Seeing five different girls navigate the transition into adulthood in their different ways is HUGE, and something we don’t often see as the main focus of a long-running show.
I really appreciate that the writers actually let us see the characters doing normal life things like fighting with each other, resolving their conflicts, struggling in school, wrestling with and pursuing their vocational dreams, and working through their feelings about romance. …all while doing their best to protect Tokyo and the planet. Whether you’re a studious nerd girl, a strong giant girl, a fiery career girl, an effusively social girl, or an emotional screw-up girl — or even, thanks to Sailors Neptune and Uranus, a mysteriously feminine girl or a standoffish masculine/trans/lesbian girl — you will find yourself in this show.
And that, to me, is what makes this show feminist: feminism is about empowering women, and this show depicts all kinds of women who are all worthy of life and respect and empowered to pursue their beautiful dreams, no matter how silly or naive the world might think them.