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: Sexy Vampires

Since its inception, vampire fiction has incurred a great deal of criticism. Like any category of genre fiction, vampire fiction has been derided as not “real” literature and nothing more than sensational pulp. The genre has been characterized as immoral and rife with sexual eroticism, containing nothing of literary merit.

Although I myself have never been a huge fan of vampire fiction, I can appreciate it for its ability to communicate ideas about the society in which it was produced. In particular, we can use vampire fiction to read ideas about sexuality. Vampires in English and American literature have almost always carried some kind of sexual weight. As a subgenre of supernatural fiction, vampire fiction is also known for exploring what is and is not socially acceptable. However, not all iterations of vampire fiction push social boundaries, as we see with Stephanie Meyer’s popular Twilight series.

A foundational text in the vampire fiction genre is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897. Dracula explores many Victorian era social norms, including sexuality. In the Victorian era in the United States and England, sexuality (especially female sexuality) was something to be repressed and hidden behind closed doors. Female sexuality was so feared, in fact, that women in the Victorian Era who were perceived as sexually forward were diagnosed with hysteria, as if sexual desire in women was some kind of ailment. As such, a number of novels, including Dracula, explored this theme.

Dracula both defined traditional Victorian sexual norms and pressed on anxieties and fears with regard to alternative sexuality. Dracula defines “normal” Victorian sexuality with men taking the active role and protecting fragile, innocent women. Women were not expected to have knowledge of sex, nor were they supposed to take any actions with regard to meeting their own sexual desires. (In fact, women who had sexual desire outside of marriage were considered to be unwell.) We see these norms represented in several places in Dracula. First, the men of the novel take the active role to defend the women (Lucy and Mina) from Dracula, a social outcast and “other” figure. In the novel, the women who make sexual advances toward men are vampires who are also coded as “other” for this deviant sexual activity. We also know that these women’s behavior goes against societal norms because of the reaction of the man who receives their attention: Jonathan Harker is terrified. However, we can also see an exploration of nontraditional sexuality in the novel as well. When the vampire women attempt to seduce Harker, he is not only afraid but also filled with a “wicked, burning desire” at seeing such forward women. There are implications of oral sex—“the fair girl went on her knees, and bent over me”—yet another example of nontraditional sexuality. These anxieties about sexually knowledgeable and independent women may also be code for a fear of homosexuality. As Marjorie Howes writes, “Because the fundamental ambivalences motivating the novel revolve around…male homosexuality, Dracula uses the feminine to displace and mediate the anxiety-causing elements of masculine character.” Although Dracula does not necessarily condone alternative sexualities, it does use the genre of vampire fiction to explore them.

Another more modern vampire novel that deals with the theme of sexuality is the popular young adult romance series Twilight. Twilight’s vampires are young and attractive—unlike the pale, deathly Dracula—and attempt to coexist with humans rather than conquer them. The book itself is also categorized as a romance, which contains a number of other genre conventions, mainly concerning sexuality. This overlap, then, might breed a contemporary exploration of sexual norms, especially considering it was published in the early 2000s when the policing of sexuality was not as harsh as it was in Bram Stoker’s time. However, this is not the case.

Twilight, in contrast to Dracula, more strictly adheres to traditional norms of sexuality and gender. The main character Bella is extremely dependent on her vampire boyfriend Edward and is given very little personality outside of her feelings and relationship with him. As Melissa Ames writes, “Bella is consistently depicted as the damsel in distress forever in need of rescue by a male.” Ames continues that “sex is sinful and off-limits” in Twilight. Edward refuses Bella’s sexual advances until after they are married in the fourth book, and when they do have sex, Edward hurts her due to his hard, cold body. Even within the typically-acceptable confines of marriage, sex is dangerous.

So why might Twilight, a book series that for the most part conforms to traditional norms of gender and sexuality, be so popular in our modern age? Kristine Moruzi argues that, for one, “the ability of the gothic to provide a strong, postfeminist heroine is constrained by traditional romantic conventions.” Since the romance genre is predominantly interested in heterosexuality, little room is left for Bella or any other character in Twilight to explore an alternative. Another reason for the popularity of the series might be that, despite living in a more gender-neutral society, teen girls may have been drawn to Twilight because of its strict adherence to traditional sexuality. In the same way that Victorian readers may have been drawn to Dracula because of its exploration of nontraditional sexualities, readers of Twilight may have found the series appealing because it offered a portrayal of sexuality that was, to some degree or another, being discouraged.

There’s certainly an irony here. Of course, the genre of vampire fiction is much wider than the two books I’ve examined here, and they all have their own takes on sexuality. However, as Melissa Ames writes, “it is also clear that the vampire narratives have the potential to develop subversive storylines that can question these very notions [about sexuality].” While we’ve seen many different portrayals of the vampire—from the pale and terrifying to the “wicked” and sexy to the brooding and sparkly—the link between the vampire genre and sexuality is one that cannot be ignored.


Works Cited:
Ames, Melissa A., “Vamping up Sex: Audience, Age, & Portrayals of Sexuality in Vampire Narratives.” Faculty Research & Creative Activity, 12, 2010. http://thekeep.eiu.edu/eng_fac/12

Howes, Marjorie. “The Mediation of the Feminine: Bisexuality, Homoerotic Desire, and Self-Expression in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 30, no. 1, 1988, pp. 104–119. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40754849.

Moruzi, Kristine. “Postfeminist Fantasies: Sexuality and Femininity in Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ Series.” Genre, Reception, and Adaptation in the ‘Twilight’ Series, edited by Anne Morey, Ashgate Publishing, 2013, pp. 47-64.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Edited by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal, Norton Critical Editions, 1997.

The Gift of Desire

bdaycake-SmI remember my first kiss. The smell of his bad breath. The awkward way his tongue darted around my mouth and my urge to wipe his saliva off my face the first chance I got. I remember thinking how weird it was to let someone stick their tongue in my mouth. Wondering how long we were going to kiss. I remember feeling nothing.

There were other kisses, other tongues, other boys, all equally unpleasant, all equally boring.  I clung to the idea that I was immature.  I was too immature to like boys. When I matured, I clung to the idea that I was more interested in school. I clung even when my grades revealed otherwise.  I clung to the idea that I was fat, unattractive, a tomboy. Even then despite all those things, boys still wanted to dart their tongues into my mouth.

When there was nothing left to cling to, I surrendered.  I surrendered, but not in the way that people surrender to their passions. I surrendered more like a kidnapper surrenders when the house is surrounded by a S.W.A.T. team with semi-automatic rifles and despite promises of a sack of unmarked bills in the front seat of a vehicle parked at the end of the driveway, you know you are a dead man, you have to surrender.

Even upon my surrender to the slimy-tongued college boys at college, I felt nothing. I submitted to their awkward gropes and heavy breathing, all the time wondering why girls liked this so much. I worried that I would never want to have sex. My worries were eased by threats of unwanted pregnancy and the propagation of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. New vines to cling to.  I reasoned that only a fool would have sex in a climate wrought with such risk. I clung to the pamphlet from the student health center sighting that no form of birth control was 100% fool proof. In a sea of promiscuity, I stood alone, as perhaps the last remaining virgin in the entire New York State University system.

I kissed a girl for the first time when I was 23. I finally understood what everyone else was talking about. It wasn’t bad. It was even kind of good. I was so relieved that I had finally joined the human race. Kissing was good and I could kiss.  I could kiss without feeling bored, and even better, I did not feel the urge to wipe my face off, at least in the presence of the kisser. I stopped clinging and embraced my sexual awakening.  I fell in love with the first — in fact, the only — girl I’d kissed and then we sealed our relationship with a kiss in a commitment ceremony before our friends and family.

We had a huge reception after the ceremony complete with caterers, flower arrangements, music and a three-tiered cake that featured two brides on top. We had an open bar and a cocktail party, complete with an international cheeseboard festooned with toothpick paper flags from around the world. Nearly one hundred of our closest friends and family attended, and at the end of the day I was so tired that I fell asleep forgoing the traditional wedding consummation. I reasoned that it was such a long day and after all, we had been living together for almost 4 years, hadn’t we already consummated the relationship?

In truth, by the time we committed ourselves to one another for eternity, I had pretty much lost interest in all things sexual. I was at best ambivalent.  All around me were images in movies and on television promoting the virtues of sex.  The talk shows promoted condom use for senior citizens.  The evening news warned of the dangers of sex. The morning news educated its viewers of its health benefits. 

Dr .Ruth, Dr Drew, Dr. Oz all showed us how to have better sex.  I determined that I had a low hormone level that resulted in a low sex drive. What hormone—and what level—I didn’t know. 

Nearly every character on my soap opera was having sex with the other characters.  At times characters would discover that they were blood relatives from some clandestine affair from years past. Nearly every pregnancy on the show was the result of a momentary lapse in judgment.  None of the husbands were the fathers of their wives children. Sex was the culprit. 

Teen pregnancy was on the rise and there were after-school specials to prove it. I often wondered what made teenager girls take such a risk of becoming pregnant.  How was the power of sex so alluring as to make intelligent people risk everything for a moment of pleasure? It never occurred to me that it was more than a moment.  It never occurred to me that pleasure was more than a gentle breeze on a humid day.

My partner and I split up after 17 years together. I left the relationship sure that whomever I might ultimately date or marry, they— like me—would regard sex as a relatively low priority.  

My feelings about sex being what they were, it wasn’t easy to find a girlfriend. I might have some luck with a nun who left the order or a quadriplegic in one of those puff and go wheel chairs, but I really didn’t want to change my partner’s diapers. I really didn’t want my partner to wear diapers. I thought about those people I had seen on 20/20 who were adult virgins but as they had yet to have sex, who knew how they would feel once that actually had it. It was a chance I wasn’t willing to take.  As I considered the possibilities, I soon realized that I wouldn’t want to date anyone who hadn’t had sex, wasn’t able to have sex, or had it and liked it. That left me with active working nuns and eunuchs. I wasn’t even sure about eunuchs. 

Then forgetting that I might actually have to have sex, I found a girl and I fell in love.  Mine was a kind of preteen love, from the neck up. I was so in love with this new girl that I actually forgot that I didn’t care much for sex. I was so in love with her that I forgot everything I had ever thought about sex.  Soon I was wondering why every teenage girl didn’t end up pregnant. After just a few weeks together, I was willing to forsake my first born for a night together.  I discovered that no hobby, no book, no reality show on television could hold my attention like sex. I imagined myself as a teenage boy with a perennial hard on.  The mere sight of my new love left me in a nearly disturbing state of arousal.  

My appetite was seemingly insatiable. As a result, I developed a biting lower back pain that worsened with each pelvic thrust. My blood sugars plummeted after each romantic interlude and small conspicuous bruises appeared on my upper arms. With each new symptom, I was pressed to reveal my newly-found sex life to each specialist who all concurred that sex was the cause of my newly-acquired ailments. I examined my gums in the bathroom mirror and noticed my teeth tinged pink with blood after brushing.  I reluctantly made an appointment with my dentist and after disclosing the exploits of my newly found libido, was told that sex, even really good sex was not the cause of gingivitis. Yes, I could continue to have sex, but I needed to start flossing better.  

The world around me suddenly made sense. I understood every human impulse. I understood the power of desire. I told her my birthday was coming soon. She told me I was going to get birthday sex. I didn’t even know what it was. She started to lay out a series of rules about birthday sex. First and foremost, we would abstain from sex for five days preceding my birthday.  As this was my first birthday sex, I abided by whatever rules she dictated. On my second day of my abstinence, she told me I couldn’t eat my favorite cheese. It was her gift and I didn’t want to ruin it so I didn’t eat the cheese. On my third day of abstinence, she confessed that she had no idea what birthday sex was and was worried that I might be disappointed. I assured her I would not. By the fourth day of abstinence, I was ready to rip her clothes off but no she said, it’s not your birthday yet. That was when I realized that I had already received the gift. The gift was in the wanting. It was the gift of desire. 

I remember our first kiss. The sweet smell of her breath. The ease at which our lips came together and how natural it felt. I remember thinking I want this to last forever. I remember feeling excited and wonderful.


Robyn Segal is an artist, writer, and mother. Her short stories and essays can be found here. She lives in North Haven Connecticut with her 4 children and wife.