Mahou Shoujo & You
My mother doesn’t believe in television. She doesn’t believe in bumper stickers either, but if she did, I’m sure she’d have one that said kill-your-television. She wanted her children to be readers as she never was, growing up in the 1960s as a latch-key kid, watching hours of television before her parents arrived home. We never had TV in our house as a child. When my parents divorced, my dad got cable, and I got a crash course in mid-90s pop culture education.
My sister and I watched a lot of the Nickelodeon fare — shows aimed at teenagers in the mid-90s that we look back on now with disgust. We were too young to understand what was going on those shows. The fart jokes were funny and it wasn’t the “auto racing” our dad was obsessed with. We’d watch Nick until the channel switched to Nick at Nite, and then, sometimes, we’d watch some of the old shows they played too. I grew up watching a lot of the same television my mother did as a child: Scooby Doo, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie. But it was the crime shows that I gravitated toward, the ones that aired later at night, the stories that would seed my later love of crime dramas.
As a child, I never slept well. I’d go to sleep, lying not on my bed, but on the floor beneath it. I was afraid of the dark. I liked small spaces. I was a child of divorce. I wanted to be tucked away into a small place where I could feel safe and could control my environment. It was around this age — eight or nine — that I started to tell myself stories to help me fall asleep. I lay in the dark, looking up at the springs of the mattress above me. It was hot in the small space; I sweaty with the lack of air conditioner and mind racing. I’d imagine myself a detective, solving crimes, kissing the girl at the end in dramatic old Hollywood style. I’d drift off thinking about right and wrong, how good guys always win, the stories at my lips the awakenings of a queer child just discovering the hero’s journey and the ideas of right and wrong that would come to later define my life as a writer.
The heat of the summer sat heavy in that apartment. The windows beside the bed were always open to catch the breeze; but Pawtucket wasn’t a safe place. This was the early 90s just outside of Providence, Rhode Island after all; the mob was everywhere. My dad had a rule: close the windows when you were sleeping. The air grew stuffy, my stories tired. I slept fitfully, plagued by dreams that would later lead to a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. I would rise early, alone to worship before my new-found television god for a few hours. I sat there, soaking in stimuli before we were shipped off to an electricity-free island in Maine. I found Sailor Moon playing with some Saturday morning cartoons, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sailor Moon is a Japanese cartoon based on a comic by Naoko Takeuchi. The comics debuted in late 1991 and the anime in 1992. Riding the wave of early 90s feminist furor along with shows like Xena: Warrior Princess, and later Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and fully embracing the “girl power” wave of the Spice Girls, it was brought to America. It tells the story of a girl, Tsukino Usagi, who, with the aid of a talking cat named Luna, assumes the secret identity of Sailor Moon to fight against the forces of the Dark Kingdom, who are harvesting humans for their life force. She gains enemies and allies, her identity becomes more nuanced. She grows into the character who eventually goes on to save the entire universe from sure destruction at the hands of its corrupted guardian. It is a hero’s journey, full of love and death and setbacks. It is a human story. It is my story.
I stood in the middle of that island in Maine, loudly proclaiming to my sister that I’d had a dream about Sailor Moon that I wanted to tell her about. This was a lie; I had not had a dream. I didn’t know how to say that I’d taken that 22 minutes of cartoon that I’d found while everyone was sleeping and conceived an entire universe of understanding in my head. I couldn’t say that the world in my head made me feel safe.
We kicked up dirt, two kids alone on an island with very little to do. I told a story, and then another, and another. Storytellers have told their tales for ages. I am no different. In that moment I was every storyteller to ever pick up the threads of a journey — a story well-worn and true — as natural to the human experience as breathing.
A hero has a thousand faces, but his story is worn and well-loved. As humans, we take comfort in the familiar, and reject the strange. A hero’s journey goes back so far into our learned consciousness that there is scarcely a time before the memory of that journey. The narrative of the epic, the journey of the hero has he leaves home and returns victorious and changed, is etched into the very fiber of our humanity. It is formative to our evolution as people, the archetypes through which we base the fabric of society upon. Culture existed from the moment when man started to talk to his fellow man. With language came culture, and these narratives have existed for as long as humans have communicated with each other through the spoken world. They make us feel as though we are not alone.
Finding companionship in a hero, taking lessons from her journey, and believing her aspirational are the building blocks of cultural understanding. These tropes, repeated over and over, continue to engrain the cultural love of the hero into the subconscious of society. We’re drawn in, we all have our favorites. We internalize these stories, mull them over, and transform them into something greater in her minds; our formative media.
The Sailor Moon that exists in my head is not the seen on stage or screen or on the pages of Takeuchi’s brilliantly drawn comic. It isn’t the girls from the live action; it isn’t the 2014 remake or the 1992 anime. It is something else entirely: a creation of an early childhood fascination with Greek and Roman mythology, developed by an almost obsessive love of astronomy, informed by a love of the hero who wears the mask, and rooted in feminist beliefs instilled in me through my granny and grandma. It grew from that first episode into a rickety framework of belief and understanding of the universe, extrapolated to the point where it is no longer recognizable from the canon in places.
Our heroes wear multiple faces. They’re sewn into our belief of the truth of the universe. They are folklore and myth, the building blocks of understanding. We retreat into fictional worlds when we don’t want to deal with our problems. We let the heroes of these tales make the mistakes we’re too afraid to make. We use them as a crutch, to care for ourselves, and to find escape from a rapidly changing world around us. The hero of the story may wear a thousand faces, but her story never changes. Not really.
Growing up into a divorce, and then into a second divorce and the subsequent string of boyfriends, I came to crave stability. Sailor Moon offered me a place to retreat into thoughts about the culture of Venus or the wastelands of Mars. It gave me interpersonal relationships to examine; it allowed me to explore queerness in an accepting environment. Sailor Moon kept me safe. Not from the creatures of the Dark Kingdom, but from the demons of a childhood interrupted by the minefield of adult relationships.