I’ve written a few posts on here about magical girls and how important they are, so it was with a bit of a shock that I realised, apart from my beloved W.I.T.C.H. comics, a few out-of-order chunks of Sailor Moon I caught on TV as a kid, and Puella Magic Madoka Magica, I hadn’t actually… watched that many. Of course, most of this is because my pre-and-early-teen self broke out in hives at even the implication that a show or book was girly (the dread scourge!!). Perhaps sitting down and periodically bingeing all 50 episodes of Go! Princess Precure with CP is a kind of retrospective remedy for that, but mostly, it’s just been ridiculous fun. And it’s made me think more about the genre, and balk a bit at Madoka (specifically, the movie continuations) and how they take great pride in being deliberately gritty deconstructions that kind of… kick the breath out of the entire point of magical girls.
Go! Princess Precure is 2015’s instalment in the Precure (or Pretty Cure, or PreCure, or Cute Girls Save the World With Perfume All Year Every Year and Sell Millions of Toys in the Process) series; the story of three (later four) young girls who gain the powers of the Princess Precure to battle an evil kingdom of despair. They transform with the power of Princess Perfume and Dress Up Keys, gaining frilly skirts and Big Hair, and for their final attacks they go into Elegant Mode and earn themselves enormous ballgowns. They exhibit the true traits of princesses: beauty, inner strength, kindness, delicacy, and above all hope and love and determination to follow their dreams. It’s ridiculous, adorable, and genuinely engaging and well-put-together (kids’ shows can be like that—who knew?). Also strangely relaxing, which I realised was only strange to me because, again, the magical girl show I’m most familiar with is bloody Madoka Magica, where the most openly determined and hopeful magical girl warrior gets her head bitten off three episodes in.
Which, of course, caused an uproar when it first aired, and I believe the studio had to formally apologise to the little girls who had been shocked by this, and reiterate that this was not a show that was going to be dealing in “kids’ stuff”—it was, evidently, a more grown-up, dark, arguably sensible reimagining of the magical girl show. Something that would play with, kick down, and examine the tropes of the genre, and ultimately drag it into the real world.
The genre does invite cynicism and critique of course—as well as empowering femineity and saying it’s okay to be girly in a world that’s constantly telling you that girls are dumb and weak, often they can also be aggressively feminine and, you could reasonably argue, instruct gender roles and say you can only be powerful if you conform to what’s considered girly (think: compulsory battle ballgowns). I think one of the things I enjoyed most about W.I.T.C.H, to use my personal childhood example, was that there was a range of personalities and styles and the main heroine was in fact quite relatably tomboyish, and it sort of created balance in the team, which is not something you see so much in Princess Precure since all three of the heroines have quite feminine interests and outlooks (and the fourth newcomer is literally a dainty princess).
Precure is also merchandise-driven, with the show and the toys designed simultaneously so you, yes you, can send your parents running to the store to buy an exact working replica of the perfumes and keys in the show. And just as you get sick of those, the next Precure series will start airing, with a whole new line of toys to buy—people have pointed out that it’s kind of obnoxiously capitalist.
And of course, there’s the big one: isn’t it kind of dumb to have these little girls saving the world with the power of hope and love all the time? Isn’t it kind of naïve and silly?
Let me tell you what my favourite part of each Princess Precure episode is: after the end credits, there’s a featured fan art segment, where two drawings sent in by viewers are shown on the screen with the princesses happily, proudly pointing to them. The artists range from the ages of four to twelve, and the art itself ranges from lovingly outlined and coloured prints to adoring crayon scribbles. It took this for me to remember: these are children’s shows, you jackasses. Yes, it’s blatantly a money sink, but I think it’s adorable that so many kids can experience the joy of collecting the toys so they can match their favourite characters (and no worse than any other cash-cow cartoon or movie franchise). There’s a whole generation practicing the dance from the ending theme in front of the TV and defeating imaginary monsters with their friends after school, light-up plastic wands and Dress Up Keys in hand. Young girls, having fun.
Yes, the issue of enforced femininity is one that ought to be dealt with and it would really be great to see more of a balance (the need for a spectrum, especially in kids’ shows, is also something I’ve written about before), and yes it’s a toy-selling media juggernaut that feeds on the wallets of parents and their daughters’ hopes and dreams. Hell, this is even possibly what Madoka was commenting on alongside the whole “cycle of hope and despair” thing (which I’ll get to in a minute): the magical girl system in that show literally feeds on the hopes and dreams of young girls, fuelling them on an unrealistic ideal and exploiting them for all its worth. A lot of people have complained in retrospect that this was dumb and sexist as a plot point, but I thought that was kind of the point: the world does exploit girls, and they’re more vulnerable to exploitation than possibly any other demographic. It made perfect sense to me that a cold and logical cosmic force would seek them out to suck up their souls; nearly everything else does.
Madoka makes a grand sweeping point that hope, ambition and good will are not enough to survive on in the real world, which is a dark and dreary, awful place, whether you’re seeing Kyuubey’s kind as literal or metaphorical. This is where it earned its place as a beloved, praised “gritty, original deconstruction”. People who tote it as that are further missing the point though, because Madoka Magica also (and this is why I am in a permanent state of rage over Rebellion Story, because it completely screwed this message over for shock value and sequel money) says no, damn you, love will conquer despair, light will win over darkness in the end.
Even in a gritty, shitty world written and orchestrated by edgelords, if you’re determined enough you can kick down the system. Madoka is an edge-fest but in the end it’s not really a deconstruction, or at least, it takes the genre apart but then it neatly puts it back together again, affirming the magical girl message that so many boring adults say is “dumb”: hope, love, and justice can win if you believe in them.
The more invested I got in the bubbly, harmless fun of Go! Princess Precure, the more I thought, frankly, screw Rebellion and any other series that tries to be clever and edgy by ripping the light and hope from magical girl stories and not giving it back (and especially screw Rebellion, because Madoka actually ended as a balanced narrative and Rebellion reverted it back into an edge-fest and undid everything that was legitimately clever about the series) because the majority of what you’re really doing is cackling evilly at little girls.
And lord knows young girls get enough flack for liking anything that they like, from things they’re “supposed to” like (dolls, makeup, boy bands) to things they’re “invading guys’ turf” to like (video games, comics, sci-fi, goddamn freaking Ghostbusters) without adults re-moulding their beloved, hopeful, sparkly and fun anime genre into violence-filled or sexualised deconstructions and parodies. It’s fuelled on the same silly idea that cynicism is more mature than optimism, and in some cases I think also it’s the same awful grabby nerd behaviour that gave us Michael Bay’s TMNT, and that doesn’t even bear thinking about.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, yes, the magical girl genre is inherently flawed and on a basic level rife with silliness, but that (the silliness, anyway) is because it’s for small girls to enjoy. It’s meant to be fun and light. I can see why grown-ups would roll their eyes and be filled with the desire to shout “YOU FOOLISH GIRL” (and write gritty fanfic) at Cure Flora every time her pink-ballgown-clad self proclaims that hope and dreams and princesses will always win, but frankly, I think the world needs more Cure Floras, to support our children—and remind our inner children—not to give up. That’s what magical girls are for, after all—so leave those kids alone.