Once upon a time, Disney made a magical girl series, and once upon a time a ten-year-old girl got sucked into it with the force of a black hole—a magical, colourful black hole filled with messages about friendship and girl power and positivity. So a pretty fun and influential black hole, all in all.
My magical girl story began truly by accident in a train station, where my parents picked the most fun looking magazines to keep their daughters entertained on the long ride home to a holiday house. Purely by chance, and probably because I’d finished with mine and my sister and I decided to swap, I opened the residing Disney Girl despite its abject glitter and girliness (yech. More on that in a moment) and stumbled across the comic they were serializing, a magical girl story called W.I.T.C.H—it dumped me right in the middle of a story arc, of course, so I had little to no idea what was going on, but I was enthralled. Enough to spend the rest of the trip on an inspiration buzz, and to make sure to buy the next issue when it came out.
Thus the adventure began. I think everyone has a story like this, whether it’s discovering a newfound power in their school uniform because the dub of Sailor Moon was airing on kids’ TV, or recognising their wanderlust and animal love fantastically portrayed in Pokémon, giving them a world to escape into and crazy pets to imagine (I grew up in the era when 4Kids roamed the earth, and Western stations decided anime was cool and bought a bunch to aim, sometimes with mixed results and bizarre escapades with censorship, at children). The magical girl genre is especially interesting to note with this though—so many people praise it for giving them a first look at powerful girl characters, making them feel better about otherwise looked-down-upon femininity and introducing them to pop culture feminism before they even knew that was A Thing and could never predict they’d be blogging about it in ten years’ time. Or, these shows just captured their hearts because they were fun, and had characters they related to and liked to watch save the day over and again, and that’s an equally important thing to get right.
What exactly grabbed me about W.I.T.C.H? The story of five friends and their elemental powers, funky outfits and destiny to save the world (ah, that old chestnut) became intertwined with my life for a good few years. I was even more blissed out when I discovered novel adaptations of the comics, though I only collected the first seven because my pocket money simply couldn’t keep up and it became apparent that it was going to be one of those series that goes on forever (could have wrapped it up in twelve volumes by closing a portal per arc, but nooo, that would be too efficient). Thinking about it now, I don’t actually know how W.I.T.C.H. ends, and though it’s just a Google search away I can’t bring myself to look. Would that be killing the magic for me, severing the connection that’s stayed alive in the back of my mind all these years?
Maybe I liked it so much because, as I waded into the awkward swell of pre-adolescence, I found a series I liked that primarily focussed on girls. It wasn’t as if I’d been actively avoiding them—or maybe it was. Disney Girl was all glitter and pastels and celebrity gossip and disgustingly girly things I made an effort, subconscious or otherwise, to edge away from, probably with that awful stigma in mind that excessively girly = bad, or vapid, or less awesome. That being said, I often latched onto the heroines of the shows I did like (Digimon is the unrivalled ruler of my earlier youth, and Sora was my undisputed favourite), so maybe stumbling upon W.I.T.C.H., in a genre that was all about girls being awesome (and not vapid or bad) caught my attention at an age where the fact I was a girl was becoming more and more important. If I was going to embrace my budding teenaged girl-ness, it may as well involve magic powers.
Because like I talked about before, the best thing about the magical girl genre is that it’s about magical girls, kicking the teeth in of the notion that girliness is trivial and weak, quite literally using makeup and tiaras as weapons in Sailor Moon’s case as well as having underlying messages about fighting against discrimination and being true to yourself, but also, just showing you a group of girls kicking ass as a team. I think that really was something I enjoyed about W.I.T.C.H.—often things involving young women and high schools have some sort of catfight war at play between one group of girls and another, but W.I.T.C.H. features no such conflict. There’s plenty of tension within the group, of course, and I could sure as hell recognise myself and my friend situation in that, but they were always, in the end, too busy taking out monsters and rolling their eyes at the (male) school bullies to get into genuine girl-against-girl bitchiness.
It’s also really important to show that girls and boys can work together and tell the generation watching that you really don’t have to be afraid of cooties, but it’s also great to have these positive, power-of-friendship, ladies-helping-ladies narratives and cast structures. There are romance plotlines, no doubt (even between said ladies, because this genre opens the door for that a lot, not that Disney would have picked it up) but they take a backseat to the dynamics of the magical girl team. And it resonated, because most of the drama and joy in my life came from platonic relationships, so it was nice to see that represented in fiction. Your teenaged years don’t have to be scary if you’ve got a group that you trust, that was the message I got out of these kinds of shows.
It’s interesting looking back, of course, now being older than these high school student characters that I looked up to so much. A lot of magical girl shows are about teenagers, but are not necessarily aimed at them, making the characters almost inspirational big sister figures for the younger viewers. I probably would have thought W.I.T.C.H. and definitely Disney Girl were passé by the time I was fourteen, the same age as the main characters, but as a kid four or five years younger than them, the series gave me something to look up to. Magical girls, I think, have been the cool, fun, feminist, badass big sisters to a lot of us, with better dress sense and resilience and armed with the message for us that we can do it!
Now, the magical girl genre is also a mess of clichés and ridiculousness (but what isn’t, really) that is often pulled apart or side-eyed in parodies or darker, more mature incarnations of the archetype. This is also fine, and creates a lot of interesting food-for-thought, but I kind of have to wonder if emphasis on the gritty side of a playful, inspirational genre is the product of the Sailor Moon generation grown up and looking for something to satisfy both their love for the magical girl and their need for something to suit their new grown-up self. Which is also fine, but only as long as we keep producing fluffy, light, positive adventures for the younger generation as well. Because we wouldn’t have our Utenas and Madokas if we hadn’t grown up with Usagis and Sakuras, and it’s kind of doing a disservice to the genre and everything great it’s doing for kids if we ditch the positivity of the original product and go straight to the mind-bending and dark.
I love a deconstruction as much as the next person, and hell, give me drama and complexity and make new and interesting takes on a familiar genre. But that only works if the genre is familiar, and gritty or ‘grown up’ deconstructions are only interesting if the thing they’re ageing up and taking apart still exists in its own glory elsewhere. Let the magical girl genre grow, by all means, but it’s so, so important that it retains its roots in motivational adventure stories aimed at young people. We need a bit of fun and heroines saving the day with the power of love against impossible odds, you know? I don’t care how boring or clichéd it might come across, the genre is a beacon of positivity to so many young people, and we don’t really have any right to snuff it out.
Sailor Moon is getting remade, but otherwise I wonder what the coming generation’s magical girl heroine is going to be. And I really, really hope that they have at least one—the genre is so pivotal to so many people, making a mark on kids at a young age and giving them all sorts of good messages. Like, there’s nothing wrong with being a girl! Girls can be powerful too! Friendship is a beautiful and powerful force! Yes, we can wear these frilly, cute outfits and kick butt, and so can you (I did, at one point, cosplay Will from W.I.T.C.H., before I knew what cosplay was. See? The start of my nerdery)!
I want young girls (and boys, even!) everywhere to have magical girl stories like ours, discovering love and creativity and inspirational figures in fictional characters that get all these messages across. I want them to be able to, like I am now, look back fondly on the heroines of their youth or the tumultuous time between childhood and teen-dom. Because let’s face it, we all need a bit of mental rescuing in that phase of life, and we all deserve to have heroes we can recognise ourselves in and aspire to be to do it with us.