I’ve seen a lot of posts on Tumblr lately trying to frame various series as “deconstruction”, usually based on the reductive TVTropes “understanding” of the term. A big one seems to be framing Revolutionary Girl Utena and Puella Magi Madoka Magica as somehow both being “deconstructions” of the shojo or “magical girl” genres. Utena can certainly be said to be playing around with and criticizing a lot of shojo conventions (among those of other genres) in a fairly metafictional way, but other than that, this doesn’t really work, as I explained in a pretty strongly-worded post there the other night.
In a follow-up, I expanded a little bit on what I thought deconstruction (in terms of the actual definition of the term, as Derrida and later post-structuralists framed it) in a work of fiction could actually look like:
Deconstruction isn’t at all necessarily about “criticizing” a genre. It doesn’t even necessarily have to do with “genre” in the first place. It’s about taking apart an idea by looking at the smaller ideas that go into it and how they build it through relation—and perhaps pointing out some logical inconsistencies and other flaws of it when it’s separated from that broader glue. The reason this is applied to “genre” so often is because the technique of deconstruction has a lot to say about how flimsy our conceptions of these “genres” really are—how much they’re built by association with what we’re told are works of the genre over time, and less the actual definition.
(For example, is there really anything about this music that suggests “the Old West” on its own? No—none of those instruments were actually played much in the late-19th-century western United States—but because it was from an iconic western, one whose soundtrack influenced countless westerns that came after it, we all associate it with that genre. It’s built through relations more than inherent meaning. This is the kind of stuff that fascinates me as a musicologist.)
All that being said, I think it’s pretty hard for a fictional work to be a “deconstruction” of a genre itself unless it’s somewhat actively “metafictional”. So, you could make an argument for something like Princess Tutu, or maaaayyyybbee aspects of Utena, as being deconstructive. But Madoka? Nope. Taking elements of a genre and making them darker is not really the same thing as taking them apart and showing why they don’t make sense on their own. And Madoka doesn’t really have anything to say about the construction of “magical girl”; it just does its own thing with its conventions, to suit its unrelated thematic purposes.*
When people get away from this idea that deconstructions have to be “dark” or “critical”, it actually opens up some other possibilities for what could qualify. I think you could make a good argument for something like Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun being deconstructive. It’s largely about people involved in creating shojo manga, and how ridiculous the genre’s conventions are when taken out of their fictional home and into the real world. It’s an affectionate look at all this, of course, but it’s much more “deconstructive” than a lot of the OMG DARK SUBVERSIVE stuff people try to shove into that label.
I ended up posting another clarification when this, predictably, got launched on out-of-context by the anti-Madoka crowd to confirm their weird idea that the show is anti-feminist and what-have-you. (Oh, Tumblr.) And more when, of course, I got someone else insisting that, “no, it is a deconstruction, and so is Attack on Titan because of my weird fan theory linking them, and language evolves and you’re a snob!” Lots of reminders of why I don’t usually write about this kind of stuff on Tumblr anymore. But anyway, I thought I’d use this as a chance to elaborate more here on why I don’t think Madoka Magica qualifies under the designation, and some other examples of where the Internet is mistaken about this term.
I would say that “deconstruction” is really about looking at how we assign meaning to things through relation, and taking apart those associations. “Deconstructing” a genre would be more about looking at how it’s constructed in fiction, what the tropes building it up are, than what its real-world corollary would be. So for example, because I’m sure there’s someone who argues this: OITNB isn’t a “deconstruction” because it’s not really engaging at all with the normal clichés of “women in prison” shows. It’s just a show about women, that’s set in prison, but the fiction genre is more than that–it comes with a certain set of expectations that OITNB doesn’t do anything with. It “averts” them, in the TVT terminology, not engaging at all. So it can’t be a deconstruction. It has its own story to tell, that isn’t about genre.
Madoka Magica is a little trickier, since it does have all the normal trappings of magical-girl shows. It takes things like their transformation trinket, the animal familiar and so on, and gives them the darkest possible interpretations. But is this really the same thing as “deconstructing” that genre? Does Madoka Magica really have anything to say about why those are the building blocks of “magical girl” stories, why those elements are compelling and popular? Does it do anything, then, to comment on and criticize these elements, the way that Revolutionary Girl Utena does with fairy-tale and shojo romance tropes, the way Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun even does with a lot of other shojo tropes? Mere presentation–even gritty, “edgy” presentation–isn’t the same thing as commentary, as Anita Sarkeesian reminded us in her most recent Tropes vs. Women video. (Strong trigger warning for graphic violence and sexual assault, and discussion of each, obviously.)
….Yeah, Madoka Magica doesn’t really have anything to say about the genre itself. It isn’t about those tropes and why they do or don’t work, or would or wouldn’t work in a more “realistic” setting. It simply dials them up to maximum darkness levels in service of another thematic purpose. (Well, several–the stuff about the resilience of the human spirit, the limits of utilitarianism, and how we make the best of oppressive systems that show up throughout Urobuchi’s body of work, as Bobduh explains really well here on his blog.) Themes that I really enjoy and get a lot out of, for the record–Madoka is one of my favorite anime. But there’s nothing “deconstructive”, nothing about taking apart meaning and the relations and associations that make it up. And that’s okay!
Honestly, a lot of what frustrates me about these discussions is that I think people on the Internet who frequent places like Tumblr and TV Tropes, have internalized this idea that certain modes of analysis or types of thematic writing are superior to others. Declaring something a “deconstruction” automatically makes it sophisticated, and they’re sophisticated for liking it and trying to “deconstruct” it themselves. Of course, like what Tumblr often does with “feminism”, this gets diluted into the vaguest possible meaning so it applies to as many things they like as possible. Either way, though, there’s really no reason that “taking apart language and meanings” is an inherently more “sophisticated” project than the other stuff these series are doing. Why does that make Madoka Magica a better show than what it actually has to say about utilitarianism? Even with series that could be considered to be doing some deconstruction: why is that element of Revolutionary Girl Utena more important than its feminism? Why is that element of Princess Tutu more important than what it has to say about agency and free will?
And I say this as someone who is really fascinated with deconstruction and how meaning is created through relations, especially with regard to genre.
That, to me, is why this discussion is more than just my academic “nerd rage” at seeing a term I learned about in school used incorrectly in the Internet. I think it’s important for us to take apart a lot of what we implicitly value as consumers of media and, especially, people who attempt to analyze it. Particularly, nerds really need to get over the idea that something being “dark” and “subversive” (see, we already have a word for what Tumblr thinks “deconstruction” means! Language doesn’t need to “evolve”, as is the response I keep getting) makes it better. And it’s important to take the media we look at on their own terms, rather than attempt to fit them into boxes based on vague suggestions. Yet, even before we figure out if we should put things in a particular box, we should figure out why the labels on those boxes are so important to us, where the value we assign to them came from in the first place.
You might even say we should deconstruct them.