“Careful of what you say; children will listen.” Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods
Every society makes raising its children a priority. This means different things to different peoples, however. Each culture tells children what to be, both explicitly and subtly – parents tell their children to share, teachers order their charges to speak quietly and older siblings serve as role models for their little brothers and sisters. But there are many other places for kids to learn what to be, wherever they’re from.
Most media created for children serves as propaganda as well as entertainment, and one can work backwards from a culture’s children’s programming to find out how they want their young ones to act. Japan and the United States each have very different expectations of young girls, and by watching animated programs aimed at children, it’s possible to divine each culture’s ideal girl.
It’s hard to find Western programs that are equivalent to Japanese “magical girl” anime, in which young girls with supernatural powers fight super villains. In terms of American programs, the best matches in tween girl media are The Powerpuff Girls and, to a very limited extent, Dora the Explorer. The greatest obstacle in comparing The Powerpuff Girls to authentic magical girl anime is, well, The Powerpuff Girls is silly. However, the programs deal with similar themes and situations, so we can analyze their cultural messages well enough.
Toughness as an asset is difficult to tackle, but it seems important. The Powerpuff girls – Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup – are tough, no question: Never out of uniform, they don’t brook back sass from anyone.
When Bubbles realizes she is considered a much less powerful fighter than either of her sisters, instead of getting discouraged, she goes on a rampage, beating the tar out of litterbugs and jaywalkers. By contrast, magic girls get intimidated and cry. Ahiru of Princess Tutu is told repeatedly that she has no chance with her prince, Mythos, and she accepts this as fact; her friends bully her constantly, and she tends to do as they insist. Toughness in magic girl anime is more complicated than what you’d find in a Powerpuff girl. There’s less flash, less overt thuggery. Strength is different for a Japanese girl than it is for a young American; it is the strength to smile while your heart is breaking, to stand by the people you love no matter the circumstances – it is the strength that holds a family (or a team of superheroes) together.
While it isn’t technically a magic girl anime, Ai Yori Aoshi is one of the purest examples of this strength: Heroine Aoi has left her family to find the boy to whom she was promised as a child and look after him, never meaning to tell him of what she had given up. Likewise, when Sailor Moon loses a teammate during a fight, she begins to cry, and the villains mock her. This doesn’t stop her from defeating them, but it isn’t what American audiences expect from a hero. When Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup suffer a setback, they get mad. Then they get even.
In both cultures, tween girls inhabit a kind of sexual twilight; in either country, it’s horrifying when they do have sex. But Japan and the United States imagine (and shape) these girls’ desires differently; do they want a kiss, a baby or unrequited puppy love?
The Powerpuff girls seem to have absolutely no interest in boys and apparently don’t look forward to marrying or having children. Sexuality of any kind is equally absent from Dora the Explorer. In magic girl anime, sexual content varies from absent to entirely surreal. One of the strangest treatments is that of Princess Tutu; some characters (like heroine Ahiru) have girlish crushes, some (like Rue) seem to have a more mature interest in boys. And then there is ballet instructor Neko-sensei, who regularly threatens to marry girls who do not behave.
Two more complicated cases are those of Wedding Peach and Sailor Moon. In Wedding Peach, the three heroines – Angel Peach, Angel Daisy and Angel Lily – have a middle stage in their physical transformations: They turn into brides, complete with elaborate and unique wedding gowns. Sailor Moon provides the most interesting development of girlhood sexuality: Heroine Sailor Moon travels in time and meets her future daughter. At first, the two bicker like young sisters, but in time Sailor Moon comes, even as a teenager, to act as a mother to the girl who will be her daughter.
One of the harder differences to quantify is the relative importance each society places on independence and teamwork. Dora the explorer patiently accepts suggestions from her audience, but seems fundamentally to be an independent actor, striking out on her own for adventure week after week. The Powerpuff girls, although receptive to requests from their mayor for help, direct themselves and do as they please; their creator and caregiver, Professor Utonium, provides support without supplying discipline. When he does make demands of them, the episode generally reveals him to be in the wrong. In “Uh-Oh … Dynamo,” the professor insists that the girls use a machine he has invented to protect them.selves. The girls are indeed kept safe, but the machine all but destroys the city of Townsville.
By contrast, the heroine of magic girl anime is rewarded for recognizing that she cannot do much on her own, for acknowledging that she needs the support of others and has obligations to them as well. Sailor Moon increasingly depends on her teammates and her boyfriend as the series progresses and she matures. Ahiru, of Princess Tutu, is explicitly ordered by narrator Drosselmeyer to perform certain actions and told that if she steps out of line she will either be turned into a duck forever or turned to a speck of light and vanished, depending on the gravity of her offense. Ahiru does not break the rules; in keeping with the series’ balletic theme, she finds the rules and dances gracefully around them.
Role models in Japanese and American programming are vastly different. Magical girls of Japan teach their audiences not to use their powers for selfish ends; to work well with others and meet their obligations to friends and family; and to accept their weaknesses and learn from them. American magical girls put front and center the importance of kicking butt: They teach girls to push themselves, to be strong and confident, and to make a place for themselves in the world. It’s hard to see one position as superior to the other; perhaps it is most important to realize that each girl, as the heroine of her own life, must find her powers and use them wisely … whatever that means to her.
Copy editor and writer, Emily Dettmar co-authors a weekly review blog at community.livejournal.com/pleasedonot