Fandom, “Deconstruction” and Puella Magi Madoka Magica

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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.

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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.

Re-posted From Tumblr: Thoughts on Fandom and Fanfic Culture (and Why I’m Growing Tired Of It)

Every once in a while, I think I’m going to re-post here some of the better posts I’ve made on my Tumblr. I’d like to make this my main place for media-analysis at this point (that I’m not getting paid to do for some other site, of course), but sometimes I write stuff that’s somewhat specific to Tumblr’s community and its issues, but which is still worth showcasing here. Here’s something I wrote a few weeks ago on fanfiction/fandom “culture” and my history of engagement with it. The original post is here.


So I was browsing Tumblr when I came across another post about how “fanfiction is important.” These are all over the place on this site, where people want to coordinate their fun fan activities with more serious discussion of social justice, to mobilize the socially-conscious shipper or whatever. This particular one was about why fanfiction is called “transformative works” (as in the name of the group that runs Archive Of Our Own). Mostly it was the same-ol’, same-ol’, but one line really struck me, and crystallized a lot of what frustrates about me about this discussion, and “fandom culture” in general:

“A transformative work doesn’t actually transform the original media it is based off of (because the original medium exists in a fixed state and cannot be literally changed by fans unless the canon creators allow it to be so)”

Actually, the original media exists in a fixed state regardless of what creators add to it later. You can choose to ignore parts of the “canon” as much as you can stuff the fans create. I can choose to watch the first and third seasons of Black Butler and ignore the second for being shippy, character-derailing, unnecessary garbage. I can enjoy the first season of Glee and ignore how crappy it got after that. People enjoy the original series of Star Wars films while ignoring the prequels, enjoy a lot of adaptations while ignoring the original works, and so on. Fiction is fiction; none of its real, and you’re always free to decide which ones you “accept” (whatever this means) or not.

But I found it interesting that this came up in a post attempting to argue that what the fans contributed was just as good as what the “official creators” contributed. It gets at something that’s long bothered me about “fandom culture” but which I couldn’t articulate until now: as much as fandom likes to pretend it’s “transformative”, it actually puts the creator and “canon” on a pedestal, far far more than most of the “mainstream media analysis” it’s criticizing does.

In every fandom I’ve been in, there’s always an implicit or explicit hierarchy between “canon” and “non-canon”, between “intended” and “not intended”, between “in-character” and “out-of-character” (or OOC). Now, of course, especially with that last one, deviation from the original’s characterization, worldbuilding, etc. is often unintentional, and reflective of poor writing or unfamiliarity with the material. But I think it’s interesting that the people who have the writing talent to take characters/worldbuilding/whatever in their own direction–and do just that in their fanworks–never own it!

When a fan of a “non-canon” ship gets in an argument with a “canon” one, and the latter uses that against them, the response is invariably “Nuh-uh! It totally hints at it! Look at when he stared at him and blushed that one time!” It’s never “Who cares? Sure, they aren’t DTF in the original, but the relationship they do have is interesting enough and I think it would be cool to explore if it were romantic.” Which surprises me, since that latter explanation is much closer to why I like a lot of the “non-canon” pairings I do. I read as much Roy/Ed as I do pretty much entirely due to what fanfic writers have made them out to be; I don’t see anything suggesting that they’re into each other in any version of Fullmetal Alchemist. (Really: my older posts suggesting otherwise were me trying to get myself to believe what everyone in the fandom was telling me.) It’s that “what if?” that keeps me coming back to fanfic. I don’t need something that the original work already gives me.

That’s actually a pretty cool thing. It’s a huge credit to the talented, creative fanfic writers I’ve had the pleasure to read stuff by that they’ve created such believable and dynamic relationships when there wasn’t anything to work with (at least, not in a romantic/sexual sense) in the original text. But rather than take that credit, they continue to pin everything on the original creator, and what they took out of their work–continue to defer to what TVTropes has defined as “Word of God” as though it actually does come from a god (but more on that in a bit). That attitude is so deeply embedded in fan culture–from people pressing actors at convention panels for their opinions on “non-canon” ships to, hell, the use of the word “canon” in the first place (another thing that comes from religion)–that of course it affects fanfiction.

But I think it hinders it, too, because here’s another thing: largely due to this attitude among fanfic writers, I don’t think fanfic is really all that “transformative” or (as I’m seeing increasingly mentioned in these pro-fanfiction posts) “Death of the Author”. And part of that is because the only ways they’ll let themselves defy the Author is in smaller ways that don’t truly create a new thing that can stand on even ground with the original. Let me explain.

When fanfic does attempt to actually create something new and dispense with authorial intent, the thing is I never see them doing anything to truly challenge the original narrative, or to actually transform it in any substantive way. Usually, it just fills in stuff that wasn’t explored in the original narrative (and usually for a reason), or it goes on about the characters’ relationships. At best, it might be “transformative” in the sense of making some white characters into people of color, of making straight cis characters queer–of diversifying the cast. And while that’s certainly a good thing, it doesn’t really engage with the work’s actual message about those issues, with its gender/queer/racial/etc. politics, from what I’ve seen. The themes are generally considered the most important part of a fictional work, and make up the cornerstone of both academics’ and professional critics’ media analyses, but they’re completely absent from “transformative” fanfiction.

For all Death Note fanfic writers may like to pretend that shipping L and Light together is “progressive”, I never see anyone challenging the really toxic attitudes about women coiled around that show like a snake. For all the criticism that Firefly gets for having a Chinese-inspired setting but no Chinese characters, I’ve never seen a fanfic writer attempt to “explore the world” more by telling us about those characters (even though fanfic in particular would be ideal for this project). There’s so much analysis back and forth about what Evangelion means and whether that’s good or bad, but you’d never know that from the fanfic that’s just fluffy romances between Shinji and Kaworu/Asuka/whomever. Fanfic is “exploratory”, but I’ve never seen any of it dig down into the real meat of the show–just skim the surface, and branch that out into other possible surfaces.

Okay, I have, but it wasn’t the stuff that gets published for free on fanfiction.net and AO3. It’s the “literary” fanfic that you see get published in bookstores: Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, John Gardner’s Grendel, etc. And there’s a reason that that stuff is taken more seriously by critics and scholars, as much as fanfic writers like to pretend otherwise. (Note that the stuff that gets published that fits more of what you find on fanfic sites–your Pride and Prejudice sequels, for instance–doesn’t get those serious literary discussions around it.)

The crux of it is that fanfiction–and a lot of fandom culture around it–deals with their favorite fiction as parallel universes, as their own worlds they want to step into and play around in. But those “literary” derivative-works–and most of the literary criticism that “fandom” culture disdains as snobbish–deals with fiction as a text, as a message. And it’s that engagement with fiction-as-text that allows for Death of the Author as a concept, that puts the readers on even keels with the writers, because it recognizes authors as imperfect human beings. Treating their creations as separate worlds, though, by definition raises authors to the level of godlike beings.

And that’s why I think, as much as fanfic likes to phrase itself as being about “Death of the Author”, “fandom” ultimately is more worshipful and mindful of creators than even the stuffiest critics are. Even critics who fundamentally reject Death of the Author don’t put creators on such pedestals, and you really can’t if you want to be as analytical and “transformative” as a lot of fandom culture claims to be.

But that’s all fine if fanfic is primarily about escapism, about letting yourself go into these inviting fictional worlds the authors have created for you. That’s what it is for me–a separate endeavor from the analysis I do in my reviews and my academic work. I still love reading and writing fanfic, I still love roleplaying. But I don’t take it seriously (or at least, no more than I do all my writing), because that kind of engagement with fiction just isn’t as interesting to me.

Ouran Post Club #1–Haruhi Fujioka: A Love Letter

So, first of all, news: I’ve started writing for Anime News Network! I got a position there this summer writing episodic reviews, then of Black Butler: Book of Circus, and now continuing into the fall season. You can read episode-by-episode reviews from me on Rage of Bahamut: GenesisShirobako and Your Lie in April each week over there. I’m really enjoying it–but all that does mean, however, that I don’t feel much investment in continuing my round-ups of each anime season on this blog.

Instead, I’m just going to write about and analyze whatever strikes my fancy, and I’m starting with what might be an odd choice, but should hopefully make more and more sense as I go on. Ouran High School Host Club chewed up my heart and spit it out when I first watched it this past summer, as well as making me laugh really freaking hard. It fully earned its spot as one of my all-time favorite anime, and as one of my obsessions for the next several months. But of course, I’ve seen plenty of “good anime comedies with heart” before: Azumanga Daioh, the better episodes of Hetalia, and so on. (Or this summer’s surprise hit, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, although that’s more the sort of exemplar title that deserves its own series of posts.) And I enjoyed them, but never on this level. What makes Ouran so special?

Well…there are a lot of reasons, but a lot of them boil down to its protagonist: Haruhi Fujioka.

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Shojo anime–especially of the “reverse harem” variety where Ouran sits quite comfortably–revels in romantic wish-fulfillment. That usually means, however, a fairly weak female protagonist to soak up all the boys’ attentions. I don’t mean “weak” just in the sense of actual power, though she usually is that, too. But I mean weak as character. She has to be a vague fantasy for girls reading to slot themselves into, so they can easily imagine themselves in the story. Think Twilight here, since Bella Swan is a perfect example of this sort of character. Or think the dreaded fanfiction term “Mary Sue”–which has been rightly criticized for its sexism and how the Internet is eager to apply it to any female character aimed primarily at female audiences, but the characters themselves (the ones who actually fit the criteria) are rarely all that progressive, either.

Criticism of the “Mary Sue” concept points out that there are plenty of these for male readers, too, and that’s certainly true. And it’s especially true in genre fiction, like comic books and anime are. Heck, anime today is filled with male wish-fulfillment protagonists, from Kirito in Sword Art Online to Inaho in Aldnoah Zero: non-descript dudes where the point is their non-descriptness, that they get to be “badass” and the (male) viewer can imagine himself in their “badass” place, too. It says a whole lot, though, that that’s the fantasy that boys supposedly want, and that the equivalent for girls is to be waited on and protected by boys. (And again, this is hardly purely due to “Japanese gender roles”–YA in the West is full of this thing, too. Patriarchy can work surprisingly similarly across cultures.) And the personality traits go with this too, when the characters have any–the guys being powerful, the girls being meek icons of traditional femininity.

Enter Haruhi.

The one on the right...errr...

The one on the right…errr…

Haruhi is different from the get-go: she’s introduced looking like a boy (and being mistaken as one by the Host Club), and a rather awkward, dowdy one at that. She’s covered up in a baggy sweater and big glasses. It’s in this…“disguise” that she’s recruited for the Host Club, as the boys (and especially the clueless Tamaki) mistake her for one of their own. She’s surprisingly comfortable with this, as Haruhi has never been one to care much for either looks or gender roles. She says outright that gender is irrelevant to her conception of people and her own identity, so she doesn’t care if the student body thinks she’s male. She cut her hair short because she got gum in it and, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter to her: it was “just hair.”

This is pretty revolutionary on its own, especially for shojo, but there’s even more to her refreshing personality than that. Most shojo heroines are meek and sweet, going along merrily with the antics of the pretty boys around them. Haruhi’s reactions are… to laugh. Or roll her eyes. Or make sarcastic comments. As in, the way most people would to the over-the-top antics of one Tamaki Suoh:

It makes her that much more relatable and real to audiences watching–especially to female audiences, who are used to being represented in these by bland, cutesy ciphers. Haruhi’s still plenty cute, of course–and still totally has her pick of the boys in the host club, who all love her to bits–but her personality packs a punch, both in uniqueness and emotional resonance. She’s the kind of girl you actually want to root for here for who she is, not just what she represents.

It’s easy to see Ouran, then, as the sort of work that people think appeals to its female audience for the boys, when the girls are actually more key to the series’ success. Shojo reverse harems are full of pretty boys organized into “types” for girls to fawn over (though, of course, Ouran’s are better-written than most). When it comes to the characters, though, Haruhi is what makes the series unique. Not many shojo heroines are actually interesting people you’d want to be like beyond just in terms of getting you boys. Not many react to the ridiculousness of their situation with emotional honesty. And when ones adds in Haruhi’s rejection of traditional gender roles and side-eye toward societal expectations in general, she’s really more like the anti-shojo heroine–much more like the caustic female characters you’d find in more guy-oriented manga, but minus the fanservice, and with more emotional depth to allow other female readers to relate to her. It’s no wonder that she’s the series’ most popular character.

In this sense, Ouran is a lot like the appeal that, say, Jane Austen’s novels have on women, and Haruhi like many of her wittier, more spirited protagonists. I was actually inspired to write this by an article at The A.V. Club about the history of Pride and Prejudice adaptations. It explains that when P&P adaptations go wrong, it’s in assuming the book’s appeal is purely due to female wish-fulfillment, of getting courted by sexy guys. That’s certainly not nothing, but most women who really love and understand Austen’s work don’t actually want to live in that world. (That’s where it and Ouran differ–I would love to live in the Host Club’s world. I’d be first in line at Music Room 3.) And more importantly, her female characters tend to be more of a draw than the boys. Plenty of books from Austen’s era have brooding hunks, but most of them don’t have a Lizzy Bennet. Women read Pride and Prejudice for her as much as, if not more than, for Darcy. And likewise: we watch and read Ouran for Haruhi as much as, if not more than, our favorite boy(s) in her reverse harem.

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All this makes Haruhi as a character, and Ouran as a larger work, seem like a feminist revelation, but there’s plenty to criticize about her and Ouran on those grounds, too. She seems a little too calculated to be the type of “clever” girl that boys will naturally like. She gets their jokes, she’s sarcastic, and not big on dressing or acting traditionally “girly”… and yet, she’s nurturing and caring, still fulfilling the role of support and caretaker that are the real crux of those feminine standards that Haruhi eschews. The idea brings up the ideal of the “just one of the guys” Cool Girl, who is able to get the boys in that way that their girlfriends who love shoes and shopping don’t, but is still conventionally feminine enough to be attractive, not off-putting to and challenging those standards in the way that a woman who is truly butch or mannish is. This could be my personal anxieties talking: As someone whose social-awkwardness goes beyond just not caring about certain social standards, but often not being able to read them in the first place, it was that aspect that made Haruhi a little harder to relate to for me. Depending on what kind of girl you are, Haruhi is either like you or she’s someone you should be. But what does that new standard mean? Is it progressive?

Perhaps not, if you’re looking at Haruhi in isolation. She’s progressive for the shojo genre, but ultimately just a new standard for women to live up to that defines us in what boys think of us. But the thing is, you can’t just look at her in isolation. The story is not just her own, and the way she rubs up against those male characters–and who they are–is necessary in examining Ouran’s gender politics, intentional or otherwise. (And considering the sort of people working on Ouran–such as Yoji Enokido, one of the major writers of Revolutionary Girl Utena–I have trouble completely sweeping this under the rug as “just a joke.” Ouran does have something to say about gender, and class, and gets in a lot of social commentary about those topics in-between the hijinks. Comedy, in fact, is probably one of the best genres for truly cutting and subversive social commentary, and always has been–but, more about that in the next post.)

The most important thing here, is that Haruhi isn’t the only character in the series who is defined, in part, by her unusual amounts of empathy and knack for reading people. This is also Tamaki’s greatest strength as a person and as a character. After seeing, throughout the series, how Haruhi is able to reach the boys of the Host Club (and often, the girls they try to help, too) in a way that no one else could, we’re shown, in two flashback episodes–one focusing on the Hitachiin twins, and another focusing on Kyoya–how Tamaki himself earned their trust and friendship by seeing through the masks they put on for the world, diagnosing their problems and offering solutions. Tamaki is the glue holding together the close-knit club for this reason, and Haruhi also penetrates their defenses due to her sharing this trait. Otherwise, Haruhi and Tamaki are quite different people, but this commonality is important to their relationship and their places in the Host Club (and also, what draws them together romantically).

This also reveals that Ouran doesn’t define this particular trait along gender lines, showing this as a positive in both men and women, and as a standard for everyone. Both Haruhi and Tamaki have masculine and feminine traits, and both can be positive and negative. And Ouran‘s gender politics go further, in impressing this message on all the characters. Kyoya has always valued emotional restraint and careful planning, but Tamaki encourages him to enjoy the more frivolous things in life–and nudges him toward the emotional honesty that allows Kyoya to admit how much he’s always wanted those things. He teaches Kyoya that masculine ambition is important but not in lieu of other pursuits. Mitsukuni, or “Honey-senpai”, had to hide his childish, girlish traits, like love for cake and all things kawaii, behind the façade of following in his family’s footsteps as martial-arts master, and it’s Tamaki and the host club that help him come to who he truly is.

Ouran’s gender-bending protagonist isn’t just a breath of fresh, more relatable air for shojo readers, and she isn’t a gimmick hiding more traditional and regressive gender attitudes that are typical of the genre. Haruhi is, in many ways, reflective of the show’s overall flippant, subversive attitude toward gender and gender roles. It’s why, at the end of the day, I have to say that she’s one of my all-time favorite female protagonists in anime, and a big plus for women’s representation in shojo.

Up next (probably): Ouran’s class- and genre-consciousness.