We Are No Birds: Punishing Patriarchy with Sailor Moon

In my third column on Wonder Woman, I wrote that “I was never really interested in superheroes as a kid,” mostly because the superhero genre contained, in my opinion, nothing but “a bunch of beefy men beating each other up.” I still hold true to the original intent of my statement, but I realize that I neglected to mention one superhero I did like as a kid: Sailor Moon.

Like many other so-called “nineties kids,” I fell in love with Sailor Moon when she made her US debut. For those who don’t know, Sailor Moon is a manga- turned-anime about a middle-school girl named Usagi who discovers she must take on the role of the “pretty guardian of love and justice” Sailor Moon. The Sailor Scouts (other girls taking up the mantle as other guardians) help in Sailor Moon’s quest to keep evil-doers from enslaving humanity. Each girl has her own set of powers and a planet that she represents (Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, etc.). Sailor Moon was a role model of mine growing up. I asked for Sailor Moon dolls and toys at every holiday and as rewards for good grades. I remember my feelings of betrayal and loss when the Cartoon Network announced its cancellation of the series. (Suffice it to say that I have my nostalgia glasses on for this piece. Who said I had to be objective, anyway?)

The biggest reason I admired Sailor Moon as a kid, I think, is because not only was she a good role model, but this status was something I could attain. All of the Sailor Scouts had likeable, recognizable personalities. The writer in me today acknowledges that they are a bit flat—Ami is the “smart one,” Makoto is the “athletic one,” etc.—but nevertheless, each girl possessed qualities and characteristics I could recognize in myself. Ami was successful in school but shy, Minako was sweet and caring toward others, and so on. None of them were perfect. Usagi often cried when things went wrong, she and Minako both got poor grades in school, and battles with an enemy were often clumsy and uncoordinated. These combinations of both positive and negative characteristics made the Sailor Scouts attainable to me. If I tried hard enough, I could be just like them: I could be strong and cool and defeat evil with a flick of my hair and a magic pen.

Another aspect of Sailor Moon I admired (and continue to admire as a grown-up feminist today) was how the show fully embraced femininity. The Sailor Scouts all wear schoolgirl uniforms in battle, but this outfit was used more to illustrate the power of femininity than to sexualize the main characters for the male gaze. While I admit their uniforms are a bit impractical—those long legs are certainly exposed to damage, not to mention the difficulty of running in high heels and heeled boots—they’re just another symbol of Sailor Moon’s main message: femininity is not only okay, it is powerful. Sailor Moon and her companions are able to defeat evil forces with attacks like “Moon Tiara Magic” and “Starlight Honeymoon Therapy Kiss” and with weapons like “Spiral Heart Rod” and “Cutie Moon Rod.” Although the Sailor Scouts have their occasional squabbles, they put them aside and work together. The girls are all very strong friends and support each other no matter what: while they do argue, they do not resort to cattiness or gossiping in the way that women (especially young women) are often depicted as doing in other shows. Additionally, the Sailor Scouts are not dependent on men to save them or to fix their problems. The show does have male characters (notably Tuxedo Mask, Sailor Moon’s love interest), and the girls often talk about boys and crushes, but when it comes down to it, they rely more on each other than on any man. While Tuxedo Mask does swoop in and save Sailor Moon at a critical point in battle in several of the early episodes, he leaves immediately afterward. (I like to joke with friends of mine who watch the show that Tuxedo Mask is basically useless, but he deserves a little credit.) As the series continues, Sailor Moon needs Tuxedo Mask less and less, growing into her responsibility and proving that she (literally) can fight her own battles. She is not ashamed of or seeks to repress her femininity but rather, she embraces it for its power.

Sailor Moon also examines sexuality and gender identity/presentation. Two Sailor Scouts that join the team later in the series, Sailor Uranus/Haruka and Sailor Neptune/Michiru, are involved in a lesbian relationship. The two are candid about their relationship and do not attempt to hide it from anyone. Haruka is also “dual gendered,” as Martha Cornog and Timothy Perper put it. She dresses in masculine clothes and flirts with the other Sailor Scouts, several of whom mistake her for a man and develop crushes on her. When Usagi asks Haruka if she is a boy or girl, Haruka replies, “Does it matter?” In the last arc of the series, a group called the Sailor Starlights join the team in their fight against evil. While the Starlights are presented as female, they dress as men when on Earth among civilians. The anime takes this one step further: when among civilians, the Starlights take on biologically male characteristics. Sailor Moon blurs the lines of both gender and sexuality, challenging the heteronormative cliches that populate media aimed at girls.

At its core, Sailor Moon is a feminist text. The manga was written by a woman for young women and teenage girls, but not in a way that caters to patriarchal expectations or stereotypes. Sailor Moon does not talk down to its audience by assuming they only care about boys and makeup. It treats them as conscious and intelligent, and that’s one reason the series has been so successful. As Kathryn Hemmann argues, “In a landscape of Disney princesses concerned primarily about the men in their lives, the Sailor Moon manga and anime series were a rare oasis of female characters not defined by their attachment to men or involvement in romance.” For me and many others, Sailor Moon remains the epitome of girl power.



Works Cited:
Cornog, Martha and Timothy Perper. “Non-Western Sexuality Comes to the U.S.: A Crash Course in Manga and Anime for Sexologists.” Contemporary Sexuality, vol. 39, no. 3, March 2005, pp. 1-6.

Hemmann, Kathryn. “Short Skirts and Superpowers: The Evolution of the Beautiful Fighting Girl.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, no. 47, 2014, pp. 45-72. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/578913

We Are No Birds: Being and Doing Feminism

What does it mean to be a feminist? It’s a question you’ve likely heard before, perhaps several times. Perhaps you’ve even asked it yourself. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” A feminist, then, would be someone who believes in this theory. Simple enough, right?

And yet, feminism is not (and has never been) quite that simple.

The word “feminist” brings to mind a whole host of images. Depending on your background and your own personal beliefs, you may think of a feminist as an unshaven, overweight woman waving a protest sign in your face, or women wearing pink hats at the Women’s March on Washington, or a “man-hating lesbian,” or historical figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Virginia Woolf, or celebrity activists like Beyoncé and Emma Watson. Feminist has always been a loaded term, a term that even many advocates for women’s rights shy away from.

The conflict here stems from a discrepancy between being a feminist and doing feminism. Being a feminist is anyone who supports the aforementioned definition of feminism given by Merriam-Webster’s. Subscribing to this belief system is all one needs to be a feminist. Doing feminism, as the name implies, is about action. To do feminism refers to the actions you take on a regular basis to promote and move toward equality for all people, regardless of gender identification. For example, what do you say to others in order to promote the feminist cause? What issues do you protest with regard to gender equality? Who and what do you read? Do you approach discussions with others about oppression from a feminist standpoint? Do you consume your media consciously, expressing criticism of discriminatory attitudes and premises? How each of us answers these questions determines what our personal picture of feminism looks like.

During the 1960s, radical and liberal feminists clashed over how best to achieve their goals of equality. Radical feminists called for a total upheaval of the current sociopolitical structure to eradicate the patriarchy while liberal feminists worked within the already-existing confines of patriarchy to pass legislation like the Equal Rights Amendment. Radical feminists thought that liberal feminists were too lenient on patriarchy while liberal feminists thought radical feminists were too severe on patriarchy. One issue that these two groups clashed over was childcare. While liberal feminists often argued that childcare needed to be more affordable for working mothers, radical feminists argued that patriarchy unfairly burdened women (and not men) with having to choose between child-rearing and a professional career. (There was a short-lived campaign for housewives to be paid for taking care of the domestic sphere, but it was unfortunately unsuccessful.) Although, at the end of the day, the two camps still believed in equal rights for men and women, how they chose to do feminism was what made them different and oftentimes caused conflict.

We can still see these kinds of conflicts in twenty-first century feminism. The increasing visibility of people who identify as transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming have brought to light the kind of oppression they face because of their gender identities. Not only do individuals who identify as transgender and nonbinary face discrimination in spaces like public bathrooms, but they also face oppression in the workplace, with “near universal” harassment and double the national unemployment rate, according to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey. However, not everyone believes that transgender and nonbinary people should be included in their version of feminism. This brings to mind a similar debate from the 1960s regarding who should and should not be included in the feminist movement. Some lesbians argued that straight women, by having romantic and sexual relationships with men, were simply perpetuating the patriarchy. One could not be in a truly equal relationship with a man because men were always part of the patriarchy and would always seek to dominate women.

To give another modern-day example, many feminists have taken to the Internet as a form of protest and expression. The Internet has proved a valuable tool for many to spread awareness of feminist issues through more easily-digestible forms (like videos, blog posts, and even Tweets). On the flip side, there are those that argue that this isn’t “really” feminism: simply sharing videos and blog posts on one’s social networking sites does not constitute activism. Is “Internet activism” just one way of doing feminism, or does it fail to do enough for the cause?

In my opinion, this policing of what is and is not feminism and who is and isn’t a feminist can really slow progress. In the fight for equality, excluding others who have been discriminated against runs counter to the feminist message of equality for all. Feminism is about dismantling existing patriarchal power structures so that everyone has equal opportunities and can live their lives freely without fear of being repressed or silenced. Regardless of how each of us choose to do feminism, we should seek to include as many in our fight as possible.

The title of this column (“We Are No Birds”) is taken from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, a classic work of literature and one of my personal favorite books. Rochester, the main love interest, has committed a crime that the morally upright protagonist, Jane, doesn’t think she can forgive. When Rochester jokes that Jane is like a bird tearing out its feathers by trying to get away from him, Jane exclaims: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” I’ve adapted the quote and made it plural in the hopes that it will speak to a multitude of issues. Similarly, I am hoping this column can speak to many experiences in being and doing feminism, whatever they may look like. However we identify, whoever we are, we are not birds.


Sources (in order by mention):



Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Edited by Richard J. Dunn, W. W. Norton and Company, 1987