Fandom, “Deconstruction” and Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 7.19.25 AM

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.

sayaka and soul gem

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.

7 thoughts on “Fandom, “Deconstruction” and Puella Magi Madoka Magica

  1. I disagree. I mean, I see what you’re saying, but it seems pretty obvious to me that “Madoka” is commenting on the tropes in magical girl anime. It starts out with the standard treatment– it seems like this is going to be another anime about cute, sparkly magical girls fighting for love and justice… But then, it gets dark. And it’s not just dark for the sake of being dark; it’s pointing out that the fundamental ideas behind magical girl tropes are actually kind of sick– that maybe a being that sends pubescent girls out to fight monsters isn’t so benevolent, and that maybe those girls wouldn’t win their battles with the power of love and friendship. One of the Post-Structuralists’ biggest things was that a text undermines its own meaning… and that when you read between the lines, you can see the faults. Whenever I watch a magical girl series played straight, it always seems unrealistic to me that the characters can win just because they care about each other. That’s too easy, too unrealistic, even for a show about magic. The fact that they have to use such a device actually points out the flaws in the genre; that is, the author has to use a cheap trick for the characters to win, because the good guys don’t always prevail… especially when they’re teenage girls up against the darkest forces of the universe. And if a straight magical girl show makes us think that, it means that implication is already present in the texts. “Madoka” just points it out, shows us what we’ve thought would be a more realistic interpretation all along. If magical girl anime have to betray logic to make the idea seem good and appealing… that implies that there’s something wrong with those ideas. There, that’s what I was trying to say. Interestingly, it reconstructs the trope in the end, but in a more realistic way… the point wasn’t that love can defeat any enemy, but that people will continue to move forward through their suffering as long as they have hope.

    I agree that a work being a deconstruction doesn’t necessarily make it good, and that it’s not necessarily the most important thing about a work…

    But “Language doesn’t have to evolve?” Now, them’s fightin’ words! Eheh, seriously, though, a language that doesn’t evolve is dead. Because language is arbitrary; it derives its meaning from the people who speak it. Without someone to assign meaning to words, they’re just sounds, or squiggles. It’s not that we consciously change the meaning of words… Not usually, anyway. But we misunderstand what other people are trying to say, we make subconscious links between concepts… For example, the way people use “literally” as an emphatic. It’s no accident that such a large portion of the population started doing this. What’s happening here is that people make a sub-conscious link between something having physical existence/having actually happened and emphasis. The same thing happened to “really,” “truly,” and “very” (from the Latin “veritas” meaning “truth). A metaphor is stronger than a simile for the same reason. So, there is a logic to language, but that certainly doesn’t make it static. That was one of Derrida’s main points, actually– that it’s impossible for a word to have one “true” meaning, and that, because of that, the meaning of any text is unstable. No two people will define a word in exactly the same way, because we have different personalities, experiences, and world-views. Derrida himself said that the definition of “Deconstruction” was just as hard to pin down an it was for any other word.

    Eheh, that was kind of rambling, but it’s everything I wanted to say. I have no regrets!

  2. I think no one takes the “Tropes are Not Good” page seriously enough. It’s not like Dostoevsky needed to be subversive to make “The Brothers Karamazov” the heaviest book I’ve ever read. If anything, it upholds traditional Christian value systems in an incredibly potent way. His meaning is clear from the beginning. It’s how he goes about it that feels so incredibly heavy and worth exploring. It’s the depth he goes into other philosophies and how seriously he takes them that made the book feel revelatory, even for someone who isn’t a Christian.

    There’s just too much of a narrow framework for how to experience things using tumblr’s limited acceptable lenses of “social justice” and “deconstruction.” I may not leave the site like you did, but I’m seriously debating putting my critical thoughts somewhere else..

  3. You suggest that Princess Tutu has element of deconstruction, and so does Utena. However, Madoka is just a magical girl with maximum level of darkness. I agree with all three assessment.

    However, I want to ask a clarification question: what does tutu deconstruct and how, and similar with Utena? why would you seem a little bit hesitant to say that utena has deconstruction?

    Lastly, you seem to distinguish elements of deconstruction in Tutu from its theme of agency and free will, and elements of deconstruction in Utena from its theme of feminism. I am confused with this implication. It seems to me that what Tutu deconstructs (fairy tale tropes of prince/princess) is all about deconstructing the archetypal roles that characters are born to play, and for me that has intimate relation to the concept of agency and free will. So I want to ask why you seem to distinguish the matter of deconstruction with the theme of agency in Tutu? Put differently, can you talk about agency in Tutu without deconstruction?


    • I was hesitant to call Utena one because I think it’s more concerned with examining societal issues than anything in fiction. Princess Tutu is all about taking apart fiction, mainly fairy-tale genre tropes, which is usually what fandom is talking about with “deconstruction.” It’s about taking apart genre tropes and assumptions, and that’s more of Princess Tutu’s project. Utena does some examining of shojo and fairy-tale tropes, but I think it’s more concerned with the real world.

      But really, the bigger answer is I wrote this almost a year ago, and it’s hard to remember exactly where I was when I did with how I felt about that series.

      For more about my thoughts on Princess Tutu, I’d recommend checking out the paper I presented last year about its use of music and how that interacts with its themes about fate:

  4. Deconstruction is a super problematic term, as it exists both as a theoretical term referring specifically to Derrida’s work in Of Grammatology & Speech and Phenomena (I’m pretty sure he drops the term after that), and a more colloquial use. Deconstruction is troublesome, become Derrida’s point is that any text leads to its own deconstruction (as I understand it from reading Of Grammatology), and that there are only texts. No anime can truly be ‘deconstruction’ without being self-reflexive about its nature as anime (which probably makes FLCL the most ‘deconstructive’ show in that regard, although I really think that its aesthetic position is more like Andy Warhol to NGE’s Francis Bacon / Deleuze to NGE’s Lacan, but that’s a whole nother essay) and Madoka certainly fails that test; it maintains a transcendent relationship to other texts as opposed to operating within an immanent & material aesthetic that acknowledges its own shifting position. To push a trope to its limits, however, is in some sense a deconstructive practice, but is more tied (in my mind) to Barthes’ idea of myth as chains of semiosis in Myth Today (when he talks about a third-order semiotic system that creates a free play between the signifier of the sentence-unit and the signified in a second-order semiotic or myth). If you want a theoretical interlocutor for Utena, Judith Butler’s your girl, and for Madoka, I’d probably fuck w/ Julia Kristeva (maybe something on the abject, or a work out of Black Sun?) Hope this is useful!

    • I probably have not read as much Barthes as you have (I have read quite a bit of Judith Butler, though), but I’d disagree that Utena as a work is not aware of its medium. I’d have to revisit the series to pick out specific moments, but there are many parts that are all about performance and the blurred line between that and reality, that I think would fit within a deconstructive model as well as Butler’s ideas of gender as performance. After all, that isn’t the only kind of performance going on in that show.

      In general, I think it’s kind of odd to ascribe one particular critical lens as “the one” for Utena, a show that’s about 50 different things and I think could benefit from more academic criticism that isn’t just centered on its feminist and queer themes. But I appreciate the insight! I hadn’t heard of that last thinker, so I will check them out.

  5. Pingback: Non, Madoka Magica n’est pas une déconstruction. | YaHollo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s