Why I View ‘Sailor Moon’ as a (Mostly) Feminist Show

WARNING: APPROXIMATELY ONE MILLION SPOILERS AHEAD! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

sailor guardians teamI 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.

sailor venus
I mean really. Fifteen.

(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.)

However.

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.

usagi the klutzDespite 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.

usagi faith 2 smSailor 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.

sailor moon - trampling hearts rebukeWhile 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.

sailor power finaleIn 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.

sailor friendsAt 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.

On Reading Women & the Power of Community

This year, 2014, has been dubbed by many in the Twitterverse as the Year of Reading Women.

As an avid bookworm since childhood, I have pretty much always just read whatever grabbed me. In terms of my taste in books at any given time, the scope of what I might pick up is wide. But when I saw the #readwomen2014 hashtag show up on Twitter, it brought to my attention a trend that had been slowly materializing for several months: a lot of the books I’ve been gravitating towards have focused on women.

From fictional biographies of real women (like Memoirs of Cleopatra), to realistic stories about fictional women (like the Dear America books I recently read), to historical research about generations of women (like The History of the Wife or America’s Women), those are just the books I’ve found myself wanting to read.

sotomayor - beloved world coverThis week I finally read a book I’ve been wanting to read for a while, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World.

I wasn’t really sure what to think of it — I try to avoid reading books published by well-known politicians close to major changes in office, because I feel like many of them are just cheesy publicity-fodder to boost their name recognition — but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed and connected with Justice Sotomayor’s story.

First, I found her sense of measured practicality, compassion, and justice really refreshing, and very non-politicized. She mentions several times in the book that her purpose in writing is not to give people insight into her case history, but to tell about her journey to the Supreme Court to serve as an example for the children.

Secondly — and related to the first point, I think — I was really impacted by the clear and almost unspoken sense of community and strong relationship in this book. While Sotomayor doesn’t tout the support of her family in a cheesy way (“My family was always there for me…”), it’s clear that she feels a strong sense of interconnectedness with her fellow humans, both relatives and not. This feeling of common humanity bleeds through into the sections where she explains her vocation to public service. In fact, throughout the book, she illustrates how various people in her life — mentors and otherwise — affected her as a person and as a thinker and lawyer.

When a young person, even a gifted one, grows up without proximate living examples of what she may aspire to become – whether lawyer, scientist, artist, or leader in any realm – her goal remains abstract. Such models as appear in books or on the news, however inspiring or revered, are ultimately too remote to be real, let alone influential. But a role model in the flesh provides more than an inspiration; his or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have every reason to doubt, saying, “Yes, someone like me can do this.” (p. 178, emphasis added)

This idea of physical, embodied mentoring and modeling really struck me. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on the importance of relationships, and I think this is a big part of their richness and power. Through relationship, we see possibility embodied.

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 11, Spunky Girls & Self-Determination

In the eleventh week of Little House / Wounded Knee, Laura’s life is turned upside down and we meet another spunky (Ojibwa) heroine. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

By the Shores of Silver Lake

de smet sd mapIn this the fifth book in the Little House series, we follow the Ingalls as they leave their failing farm on Plum Creek and settle in what would become the final Ingalls home at De Smet, South Dakota.

This installment really started off with a shocker, as in the first two pages we learn that the entire family has been stricken with scarlet fever and, as a result of her illness, Laura’s  older sister Mary is now blind. BOOM! As the book progresses, we see how appropriate this sudden beginning is, though, because Mary’s blindness changes everything.

With Mary blind — and thus, in this relatively poor and isolated prairie family, rendered significantly less helpful to the family’s survival — Laura becomes the de facto eldest child. The shift is subtle, but even twelve-year-old Laura understands it very clearly. First, she must now be responsible to help Mary, as Pa says that “she must be eyes for Mary” (p.2). Second, when Pa leaves to begin a job elsewhere, Laura realizes that she now has primary responsibility for helping Ma take care of things: “Laura knew then that she was not a little girl anymore” (p.14). Mary’s illness and blindness force Laura to grow up all at once. It’s a lot for a little girl to bear, but in the midst of it I was struck by Laura’s “seeing out loud” for Mary on their very first train ride out to South Dakota:

“The sunshine comes slanting in the south windows, in wide stripes over the red velvet seats and the people. Corners of sunshine fall on the floor, and keep reaching out and going back. … Now I will see the people,” Laura went on murmuring. “In front of us is a head with a bald spot on top and side whiskers. He is reading a newspaper. He doesn’t look out the windows at all. Farther ahead are two young men with their hats on. They are holding a big white map and looking at it and talking about it. I guess they’re going to look for a homestead too. Their hands are rough and calloused so they’re good workers. And farther ahead there’s a women with bright yellow hair and, oh, Mary! the brightest red velvet hat with pink roses –” (p.23-24)

Laura’s descriptions really are lovely and vivid, and I wonder if “seeing out loud” for Mary is what helped her to develop a writer’s view of the world.

Finally, and more significantly, as a result of Mary’s blindness Laura discovers that she will be saddled with fulfilling Ma’s dreams of having another teacher in the family:

“Another thing, Laura,” said Pa. “You know Ma was a teacher, and her mother before her. Ma’s heart is set on one of you girls teaching school, and I guess it will have to be you. So you see you must have your schooling.”
Laura’s heart jerked, and then she seemed to feel it falling, far, far down. She did not say anything. She knew that Pa and Ma, and Mary too, had thought that Mary would be a teacher. Now Mary couldn’t teach, and — “Oh, I won’t! I won’t!” Laura thought. “I don’t want to! I can’t!” Then she said to herself, “You must.”
She could not disappoint Ma. She must do as Pa said. So she had to be a school teacher when she grew up. Besides, there was nothing else she could do to earn money. (p.127)

This whole development made me SO ANGRY!! First of all, I detest and protest that Laura’s entire profession should be decided for her because her Ma wants a teacher in the family — ESPECIALLY when we consider how much Laura has hated school and being cooped up indoors. This level of vicarious control — not to mention direct contradiction of Laura’s personality and natural outdoorsiness — makes me grind my teeth. This is NOT how children should be raised! Secondly, it’s an extra kick to my frustration with these circumstances to hear Laura say, almost forlornly, “Besides, there was nothing else she could do to earn money.” Laura, the energetic child who wants to “fly like the birds” with her Pa and explore the outdoors, the girl who is clever and resourceful and brave, has NO OTHER OPTIONS to earn money. Because she’s a girl. The feeling we get from this passage is one of instant restriction. Laura goes from having access to the entire wide open prairie to having the entire course of her young life narrowed and chosen for her. It’s like she goes from Freebird to corset in 2.3 seconds. I feel so sad and frustrated reading this.

In addition to the official beginnings of Laura’s forced grown-up-ification, we also see the return of some pretty strong anti-Indian racism, especially from Ma. Author-Laura throws in a few “yelling like Indians” narration bits, but then she gives a couple pretty damning quotes to Ma:

“I’ve always heard you can’t trust a half-breed,” Ma said. Ma did not like Indians; she did not even like half-Indians.
“We’d all have been scalped down on the Verdigris River, if it hadn’t been for a full-blood,” said Pa.
“We wouldn’t have been in any danger of scalping if it hadn’t been for those howling savages,” said Ma, “with fresh skunk skins around their middles.” And she made a sound that came from remembering how those skunk skins smelled. (p.82)

Gee, Ma, tell us how you really feel! For me, I can glean two main nuggets from this exchange: (1) Some settlers reeeeeally hated Indians (like Ma); and some “only” stereotyped and stole land from them (like Pa). Also, note that Author-Laura lets Ma have the last word, thus “winning” the argument. (2) Between this unusually negative portrayal of Ma and the situation with the teaching, I’m getting a strong vibe that Laura didn’t have a very good relationship with her Ma. (In fact, after Pa passed away, Laura never saw her Ma again and didn’t attend her funeral.) And I, as a reader, am starting to really dislike Ma as a character.

Silver Lake continues the trend of the series focusing more and more on Laura personally and less and less on wider trends about migration and settlement. I really feel for Laura having to be scrunched into the narrow roles she’s expected to fill as she grows up.

The Birchbark House

birchbark houseAs I wrote about last week, this book (and its sequels) is a last-minute addition to my lineup, but I’m SO GLAD I found it. The Birchbark House follows Omakayas, a young Anishinabe (Ojibwa) girl who lives on an island in Lake Superior with her family and community. Simply put, this book is beautiful. Reading it felt refreshing and rich and intimate. Not to mention, I loved getting an alternate perspective on white settlement, but in the same genre as LHotP. Louise Erdrich is a genius. Go read this book right now.

omakayas lake superior islands

Now, if you are bound and determined that you are not going to read this book (or you’re the kind of person who loves spoilers), here are some things I loved about this book:

1) It’s based on real events in the lives of the author’s ancestors. The fact that Erdrich uncovered this while researching her family and decided to write about it makes the whole book feel so much richer and more real to me. So that’s pretty cool. Also, Erdrich makes a point of including as many Ojibwa words as possible, which I liked and which I thought brought an extra layer of thoughtfulness and heritage to the novel.

2) The story is intimate and relational. After reading Dee Brown’s historical writing and Author Laura’s somewhat didactic, reporter-style writing, this book was a surprising and refreshing look into Omakayas’s feelings and relationships as she grows up. From the Most Heartbreaking Opening Line Ever (“The only person left alive on the island was a baby girl.”) to Omakayas’s real and (mostly) loving relationships with her adoptive family members and her home, I loved how connected I felt to this book and the characters, especially Omakayas and Grandma/Nokomis. In LHotP, I feel like Laura feels sort of real, and everyone else is sort of real only in relation to her. But in this book, I felt like the whole community was actually real.

3) I like the parenting/family model presented here WAYYYYYYYY more than Ma’s! First of all, I loved the strong communal emphasis in Omakayas’s family. Not only does her Grandma live with them, but they are also very close with the rest of the community. It felt much more supportive and less transactional than Pa’s feelings about good neighbors being valuable but not wanting to “owe” anybody. Second, there’s a really beautiful scene where Grandma/Nokomis, a medicine woman, simply asks Omakayas questions about the plants and animals talking to her:

‘Listen to them,’ was all Nokomis said, touching Omakayas’s face. She spoke so earnestly, with such emotion in her voice, that Omakayas was always to remember that moment, the bend in the path where they stood with the medicines, her grandmother’s kind face and the words she spoke (p.104).

This is such an honoring, empowering way to treat children — guiding them and supporting them, but not overriding them. I was really taken by it — especially just having gotten mad at how Ma was forcing Laura to teach!

4) I love the solemnity with which Omakayas is taught to interact with the natural world. There are too many examples to share them all here, but one that stood out was a scene where Omakayas meets and plays with some bear cubs in the woods and then is surprised by the mama bear. This is how she responds:

Nokomis,’ she said to the bear, calling her grandmother. ‘I didn’t mean any harm. I was only playing with your children. Gaween onjidah. Please forgive me. … I fed them some berries. I wanted to bring them home, to adopt them, have them live with me at my house as my little brothers. But now that you’re here, Grandmother, I will leave quietly. These scissors in my hands are not for killing, just for sewing. They are nothing compared to your teeth and claws'” (p.31, emphasis added).

From this passage and others, it is abundantly clear that (a) Omakayas treats other creatures — especially bears — as respected equals, and (b) someone has strongly modeled for her the importance of this, because she reverts to it even when she’s afraid. Overall, I was struck by how respectful this feels.

I really strongly recommend that anyone looking for a Little-House-esque book (or just a great children’s book) check this out. So good.

Also, there are several ways that this book is actually really similar to Little House. First, Omakayas is a strong female character — spunky and very human, much like Laura. She even has a perfect older sister, too (named Angeline). Second, like Laura in Silver Lake, Omakayas is forced to grow up quickly when a serious illness strikes her community, and a significant portion of the latter half of the book deals with her grief at the loss of loved ones. Third, there is, in a way, a similar dichotomy between the outdoorsy life and the “civilized” town life — but in this book “civilization” — represented by the literacy and Christianity taught at a white church in town — isn’t portrayed as inherently better or worthy of substantial sacrifice. Some people in Omakayas’s community decide to attend church and learn to read “chimookoman tracks” (white people writing), but that choice is left up to individuals. Nokomis sums it up: “Take their ways if you need them… but don’t forget your own. You are Anishinabe. Your mother and your grandmother are wolf clan people. Don’t forget” (p.110). The dichotomy is similar, but unlike Laura Omakayas is given a choice about her own destiny. Of course, it remains to be seen how long she’ll have the freedom to make that choice, since the threat of white settlement pushing the Anishinabe further west is murmured about in this book already. (Guess we’ll have to wait till book 2!)

(The “where are they now” for the Anishinabe/Ojibwa will come at the conclusion of the series.)

Conclusion

I’m not sure how much of the differences here can be chalked up to the authors’ different writing styles versus actual differences between white culture and Anishinabe culture… although I know those overlap some, too… but there are definitely some marked differences. Most notable for me are the treatment of children (as mentioned above) and the tone of each author. Author-Laura’s writing is significantly more factual and didactic (lots of little “lessons” built in) and less emotional, while Erdrich’s writing gives us a very personal look inside Omakayas’s thoughts and feelings and personal growth.  I look forward to seeing how these different themes and the spunky characters of Laura and Omakayas progress throughout the books.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 15 & 16 and The Long Winter (LH #6).

Books of the Year: 2013 in Review

As some of you *may* know, I am a *bit* of a bookworm. Just a smidge. =)

One of the ways I challenge myself to keep reading (even though now I’m a busy bookworm) is to participate in the yearly book challenge on Goodreads.com. In 2013, my goal was to read 52 books, or about one a week. I exceeded my goal (56 total, woo!) and today I just set my new goal for 2014. But before I get too far into my new book adventures, I wanted to take a look back at some of the books I read in 2013. So without further ado, here are some of my book highlights from 2013.

The Mighty & The Almighty5. The Mighty and the Almighty by Madeleine Albright

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for a while (bought it while I was teaching and just never had time to start it), but this year I finally took the time to dive in, and I was pleasantly surprised at  how much I loved the experience. Not only is Madeleine Albright a seasoned and sensible veteran of politics and world affairs, but she also has a thoughtful and nuanced way of looking at the ways that religion enters into the mix. I found this to be an extremely thought-provoking (and quotable!) read, and I’d highly recommend it to everyone, but especially folks who are interested in the intersection between politics and religion.

Ender's Shadow4. Ender’s Shadow (and its sequels) by Orson Scott Card

Although I’d read both Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow before, I had never read the rest of the Shadow series. Not only did they sink their delightful, action-packed hooks into my brain and propel me straight through, but I found myself contemplating geopolitics in a whole new way afterwards. (Without giving too much away, the sequels show what happens on Earth after the Battle School students return home, and it is messy, let me tell you!) HIGHLY recommended for anyone who loves a good sci-fi.

3. One Church Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You by Richard Twiss

Richard Twiss passed away this year suddenly. This is a devastating loss  not only for his family and friends, but also for the Church family around the world, as we have lost a man of strong faith, a faithful advocate for First Nations peoples, and a lover and devotee of biblical reconciliation. This most recent work of his sets forth the case for why Native Christianity is a vital and missing piece of the Body of Christ. If you have ever wondered whether Native beliefs can be compatible with Christianity, or whether Natives can be Christians without being “whitewashed”, then read this book.

2. America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins

The reason I loved this book is that it uses loads of primary source documents (like journals from real women during each era) to vividly depict what life was like for women throughout American history. Gail Collins does a good job of looking at women from as many different arenas — social, racial, and otherwise — as possible. For anyone who loves reading about everyday life in other times and places, or for anyone wondering how women have lived and survived in America, this one’s for you!

1. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary

Okay, this book exploded my brain. The subtitle sums up the premise of the book — the history of the world through Islamic eyes — but it’s so much more than just the “Islamic side of the story.” I felt like I literally got a glimpse of how the Eastern/Islamic historical-cultural mindset has evolved and grown from its geographical roots (aka the Ummah/”Islam-dom” as opposed to “Christendom”) and how the development of Islam in various regions has influenced world history and vice versa. If you have a pulse, go read this book right now. It will change how you view the world and history. Seriously.

Well, that’s my top five reads from 2013. I have quite a list for 2014 — some of which are already sitting on my bookshelf! — but I’m always looking for suggestions. Anything that strikes you as a Rebekah-read? Or do you want to share a great book you read this year? Let me know in the comments!