Maria the Virgin Witch and Compulsory Sexuality

Trigger Warning for discussions of sexual violence.

2015 in anime started off right, with an unusually strong winter season. The winter season is usually the dumping-ground for bad light-novel adaptations and harem fanservice, and sure, there was plenty of that. But even before that got off the ground, there was strong hype for Yurikuma Arashi, the latest work by Utena and Penguindrum creator Kunihiko Ikuhara (and something I’m sure will get its own post), as well as new seasons for fan favorites like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Durarara!! and Tokyo Ghoul. (One of those supposedly didn’t live up to its hype, but that’s beside the point.) Even among the new stuff this season, there were a lot of strong choices. Unfortunately, all that hype meant some of the best of them were overshadowed for all but the most diehard anime-viewers.

Then again, looking at the way a lot of the Fandom Feminist Internet (and by that, I mainly mean Tumblr) has wildly misinterpreted Ikuhara’s anime that aren’t Utena, I’m kind of glad that they’re not watching Maria the Virgin Witch–another new show with similar criticisms of the patriarchy (but far less trippy symbolism). This show deals directly with female sexuality and society’s oppression of it in ways that aren’t necessarily relatable or comprehensible to the socially awkward, sex-starved nerds who tend to spend a lot of time obsessing over this online. (Speaking as such a nerd myself.) Maria’s protagonist is a victim of something that a lot of these women—and most white, privileged women in the West—don’t often deal with, but is much more common to other women’s experiences, and comes up a lot in anime for whatever reason. That topic is: compulsory sexuality.

maria the vw 2

I was first introduced to the concept of “compulsory sexuality” when I saw it come up a lot as a critique to white straight women’s conceptions of the virgin-whore dichotomy like Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth. Books like hers focus a lot on how much the patriarchy sucks for the women seen as virginal and pure, when they decide not to act that way. Yet, they tend to ignore what it’s like for women on the other end of the equation. When you’re seen as already having “destroyed” your innocence, through sexual or other “deviant” behavior, or you’re born into that category by virtue of being a racial or sexual minority, the purity myth looks very different. Instead of being expected to keep your legs shut at all times, now you aren’t allowed to close them ever. You have to be completely sexually available to men, and if you’re not there’s something wrong with you.

“You’re already a bad girl,” you’re told. “So why aren’t you a bad girl in the way that makes men happy? How dare you define it in your own terms?” It’s another way that society defines women purely in terms of who we are to men, and denies us any kind of sexual agency. Because it primarily affects marginalized categories of women, though, it doesn’t come up in Western media that much. But maybe it works differently in Japan, because it seems to come up over and over again in anime, from Revolutionary Girl Utena to new Lupin III series The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. Of these, Maria is probably the most direct about this topic.

maria the vw 3

Maria is, as the title implies, a witch. And a virgin, having focused all her time and energy on improving her magic. Her fellow witches, her owl sex-demons (yes, really), and…well, anyone who comes to know this about Maria, finds this juxtaposition highly unusual. As a woman who’s already on the outs with the church and its traditional ideas about female sexuality, why hasn’t she popped her cherry yet? Even though Maria is still a young teen, she’s constantly subject to pressure about why she doesn’t just lose her virginity yet. Supporters of the church see this as a way to either win her over to their side, or weaponize her sexuality against her. All this is set against the backdrop of the Hundred Years’ War: Maria is in France, which saw the bulk of the conflict’s death and destruction, and wishes to stop the fighting. Both the church and the warmongers themselves, as well as many local people who rely on both, are opposed to this. Maria is a girl ahead of her time, and her time had swift ways to deal punishment to those who stepped too far out of line that way. Especially women, and especially witches.

Maria’s being a witch is important, given the legacy of the trope in anime and in popular culture at large. “Witches” have long stood as warnings for girls who focus too much on themselves and not enough on domesticity or finding a husband: this is what you will turn into one day. Your power will corrupt you and make you evil, and you will be lonely with no husband or child to love. In anime specifically, the “magical girl” genre was inspired by the American show Bewitched, and many early magical girls were explicitly described as witches. Madoka Magica plays with this by having its innocent, sparkly magical girls corrupt into witches when consumed by the world’s despair (a theme more than a few people have interpreted as a feminist parable about female puberty). But perhaps the most important Anime Witch here is Anthy Himemiya from Utena.

anthy the witch

Utena is all about the patriarchy, and the way that it strictly prescribes roles for men and women, as “princes” or “princesses.” Everyone is either one of these things, or looks up to and wants to be like them. Anthy is the exception: the last woman who tried to usurp the prince role and failed, but less for masculine heroism (like Utena aspires to) and more to protect her brother. She wasn’t either role, but instead, a strange and uncomfortable merging of the two. For that blow against the system, refusal to follow its rules, she became a witch—and is constantly punished for it with the swords eating at her. She is the Other Woman, with no place even in the future her now patriarchy-corrupted brother promises Utena. Even before that finale, she had no agency in the world of Ohtori Academy, and it was all tied in with her compulsory sexuality. She was the spoils of whoever won the duels, and why shouldn’t she be? She was already ruined, so she didn’t get to say no. Anthy could only ever be cast aside in the perfect Ohtori world, ignored or turned into an object. So that’s how she was treated, and she was “evil” and “deviant” either way, and especially when she tried to find some small amount of agency in manipulation of others. (Hell, even the fandom buys into this.)

There are also shades of this type of female character in how Princess Tutu deals with its own “bad girl,” Rue. She is not a witch exactly, but a dark “magical girl” framed against a more “positive” one, as a way to critique these distinctions. Rue is actually very interested in a boy, but in a way deemed as too predatory, obsessive in the wrong ways. So Drosselmeyer casts her as the villain in his story, ignoring the pain in her life that’s made her the way she is. Once again, it’s because Rue doesn’t fit in the ideal world of Princess Tutu’s fairytale. Luckily, Tutu rejects Drosselmeyer’s divisions and reaches out to Rue, and they all find a happily ever after in a newer, more just world.

All of these characters inform Maria, and both our perception of her as audience members, and how she’s treated in our world. She, too, is punished for a strange combination of an accident of birth, and her choice to color outside the lines.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 7.36.20 AM

On the topic of witches, I should say it’s meaningful that this particular feminist critique is set during the Late Middle Ages. Though the Middle Ages in general are often associated with “witch hunts” and burning, it was really only at the very end of the period, moving into the Renaissance, when they became a widespread phenomenon. The publication of infamous witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum in the late 1400s, aided by the recent invention of the printing press, ignited the early modern “witch craze” or at least, spread it like wildfire. Maria is set right before the beginning of this hideous, misogynistic stain on European history, and I can’t help but think the historical placement is intentional. The women who were punished by it were those in similar positions to the witches of Maria’s world and the aforementioned anime worlds: those outside of society, or at least the traditional roles of maiden or wife. As the Reformation spread around Europe and more formerly-Catholic areas turned Protestant, similar ideas were used to attack and marginalize nuns, particularly ones who weren’t so eager to sacrifice even their limited education and authority for rushed, forced Protestant marriages. “Witch crazes” were ammo in both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and for those movements’ discontents.

Of course, the characters’ attitudes toward female sexuality aren’t just late-medieval with regard to witches, but women in general. The period’s great “thinkers” debated whether women were naturally “purer” than men or…get this…”more promiscuous.” And when we were the latter, female sexuality was seen as innately dangerous and predatory. There’s a reason that succubi show up way more in folklore and popular culture than incubi. They were the greater threat, since the people who believed in this stuff saw women as more erotically-driven. After all, women were believed to be less intelligent than men, and therefore more easily tempted by baser desires. It’s a view that shows up in female sexuality through the end of the 18th century, only really going away with the advent of Victorian sexual attitudes…but even that really only applied to privileged women. The “women are more sexual” ideal just went underground, applied only to women society had deemed “degenerate” in another way. In both cases, the “looser” sexuality of women was seen as more reason for men to control them.

maria the vw 1

Of course, one of the reasons why some women do fiercely guard their sexuality is the high personal cost if things go wrong. In the era before widespread contraception and safe, accessible abortions, casual sex was fraught with peril for independent, career-driven women. If you got pregnant, say goodbye to any other goals you might have: your job now was to take care of your baby. It also often meant swift marriage to its father, who legally owned you and controlled your entire life. Society still hasn’t fully moved past this—our society still isn’t comfortable with women who prioritize their careers over raising a family—but it was far worse in Maria’s time.

The show has a useful analogue to this, too: Maria will lose her magical powers when she loses her virginity, thanks to the meddling archangel Michael. This not only keeps her from getting together with the boy she wants (Joseph), but also makes her an easy mark for the church once they learn her secret. Raping Maria shuts her up, and leaves her powerless and no threat to them. Sexual violence has been weaponized against women who step out of line throughout the centuries, but especially in times when effective contraception and safe abortions were nonexistent. It’s a metaphor that hits a little too close-to-home for many women.

So like Penguindrum before it, I can easily see people dismissing Maria’s feminist credentials for that plot point. Sensitively portrayed though it may be, using sexual violence to advance the plot cuts too close for many, and it’s also poorly handled in just about every other show. But to me, that’s all the more reason Maria deserves kudos for getting it right. Maria is indeed a feminist anime, for the poignant and direct way it engages with the pitfalls of female sexuality in a deeply patriarchal culture. It’s a testament to how great this season of anime is that I can say that. We thought we were blessed just by getting a new Ikuhara show, and Yurikuma Arashi has hit it out of the park consistently with its portrayal of lesbian oppression in Japan. For once, though, there’s more than one feminist-minded, woman-centric anime to choose from among currently airing shows. Do yourself a favor and give them both a look.

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Twelve Days of Anime #8: Ikuhara’s Kitty-Cats In Love

For one of my earlier 12 Days posts, I talked about Sailor Moon, my issues with Crystal and why I think the franchise has diminishing returns in 2014. So as a fan of the franchise who’s spent a lot of time with it this year, I wanted to dedicate another post to something I really loved about it. Namely, one of the highlights of my re-watch of the original series this year, made possible by Viz’s re-licensing of the series and streaming all the episodes on Hulu.

rhett butler cat

The “Rainbow Crystals” arc, starring Zoisite as main villain and featuring the Senshi and Tuxedo Mask squaring off with him to find the mysterious Silver Crystal, is one of the highlights of the first season of Sailor Moon. Each of the “rainbow crystals” that, when combined, makes up the Silver Crystal, is hidden in a normal person who has obtained special powers from it. Each of these people gets their own backstory that resonates with the Senshi and their story (one is a love interest for Ami, one for Makoto—but they’re not all boyfriend material, I swear!) It was entirely anime-original, and it provided ample room for the talented creators on its staff to play around and show off their original voices, so it’s one of the places I go to when extolling the virtues of the Sailor Moon anime to newbies. And one of its best episodes was directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara, of Revolutionary Girl Utena and Penguindrum fame.

In this episode, “Loved and Chased: Luna’s Worst Day Ever,” the Crystal-bearer isn’t actually a person, but a huge fat cat named Rhett Butler. He’s in love with Luna, and rescues her when she’s chased by a horde of alley cats. It’s kind of fitting that this would be an Ikuhara-directed episode, since his original work likes to blur the lines between humans and animals/objects, and their roles (see: Nanami as a cow). I’m not sure if it was his creative choice to put a cat in a human role, but it definitely fits. A good chunk of the episode is the characters taking forever to realize this, as they chase after his owner, thinking she’s the Crystal bearer. When they figure out it’s her cat, she completely disappears from the story, Rhett Butler taking center stage.

There are a lot of weird, surreal set pieces in here, another Ikuhara staple. The original Sailor Moon anime gets trippy on the visuals a lot of the time, but there’s a noticeable uptick in episodes with Ikuhara at the helm. Here’s an example:

trippy kitties

One of my favorite sequences is this episode is when Zoisite chases Luna and Rhett Butler through the sewers under Tokyo. After complaining repeatedly about how dirty he’s getting (Zoisite, you fop, I love you), he founds out the fuzzy things he’s pressing against are (really cute) sewer rats, and he shrieks as they surround him. It’s not just because I adore Zoisite that I love that scene. It’s the sort of silly physical comedy that Utena used so well with Nanami in the curry episode, so another great shape of things to come.

sewer rats zoisite

The trouble with tribbles…

I could go on talking about how it relates to some of Ikuhara’s later work, as that’s a lot of the fun of dissecting his early Sailor Moon episodes. (Ikuhara would go on to oversee the second half of Sailor Moon’s R season and the whole of the S season, where the comparisons become more palpable.) Yet this episode is such a wild ride on its own. The episodic nature of a lot of Sailor Moon’s “filler” arcs gave the creators room to flesh out characters by focusing on one each and putting her in a new situation. And “Luna’s Worst Day Ever” tells us a lot about its title character, how as sage of a mentor to Usagi as she is, she’s kind of defenseless and fearful on her own. How she’s stoic and poised but easily-flattered. It also has a lot of fun with Rei, who gets mad at the other Senshi for attacking the transformed Rhett Butler because of how they’re interrupting his and Luna’s “moment.” As brusque as she can be, Rei has a big heart deep down, one that BELIEVES IN KITTY-CAT LOVE.

Really, that’s the Ikuhara sensibility best personified by this and other of his early Sailor Moon episodes: Over-the-top theatrics and humor combined with strong character moments and symbolism. It’s what made his future works masterpieces, and what makes Sailor Moon so much fun.

rei how could you ruin

Twelve Days of Anime #4: The “Year of Sailor Moon” That Wasn’t

sailor moon viz poster

So, I think pretty much everyone knows at this point that I’m a huge Sailor Moon fan. I’ve seen most of the 1992 anime, and read the entire manga. I’ve even seen the live-action series, in fact. It’s a story I’d say I know pretty damn well, which meant I was pretty psyched when I found out about this year’s new anime and North American re-release of the old one. And I was pretty bummed when it all fell apart.

I could detail the problems with Sailor Moon Crystal endlessly—in fact, I already have—but I’m not sure if I need to at this point. As fun as it initially was just to have a new Sailor Moon anime to watch, it’s degraded to the point where it’s more of a slog than something I eagerly anticipate. It’s not even fun as a hatewatch unless you’re a diehard for the franchise. Which I am, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Crystal’s problems now go far beyond the poor animation and soulless delivery, because it’s progressed to actively disrespecting the source material. It’s making the story all about underdeveloped romances instead of the girls’ strong friendships and emotional journeys that earned it its fanbase. Its theme song may say “we don’t need the protection of men” but week after week, the girls fall apart when they don’t have it. In truth, I think a manga reboot might never have caught on as widely as I’d originally hoped, since the manga is far more standard shojo-fare than the more creative, quirky 1992 anime. Yet the Crystal anime waters down and cuts up the manga as well, leaving just a shallow husk. If this is really what Naoko Takeuchi wanted out of a Sailor Moon anime…then I can’t help but be glad she didn’t get her way the first time around, you know?

I am looking forward to the second season, though.

I am looking forward to the second season material, though.

The mistakes on the Viz re-release just compounded the despair, after the old series’ return became such a hope spot for those of us frustrated with Crystal. Even so, at least its Hulu streaming schedule allowed me to revisit one of my favorite childhood shows, and the show that first got me into anime. Sailor Moon’s filler arcs are a lot less fun and more trying as an adult, but I was still pleasantly surprised by how much fun its creators had within that premise. There was clearly a lot of love and talent put into that old series, that shines through even in its most lackluster episodes. And it has its strong characters and relationships between them that captivated me at age six and still do now. It kept me watching every week as new episodes were put out…for a while, anyway.

2014 being the “year of Sailor Moon” meant that before I started writing for ANN, when I was writing for feminist/queer pop-culture media, that was basically all they would let me cover for a while. I was the “anime person” and that was the anime-of-interest for that crowd. It was hard out here for a Moonie this year, and the constant strivings and disappointments made me more than a little burned-out. I think it finally culminated when the disappointing reviews of the Viz release started coming in last month. I was in the middle of the R season’s dire Doom Tree arc, and just so fed up with stressing over that show that I had to put my re-watch on hold. I love the franchise, but even I can only take so much—especially when, at the end of the day, it’s a kids’ show that probably doesn’t deserve its mantle of That One Really Feminist/Queer Anime to casual anime fans.

Yeah, I said it. Sailor Moon is fun, empowering for little girls, and can be quite inventive in the hands of directors and writers like Kunihiko Ikuhara, Junichi Sato, Yoji Enokido and others. And yet… maybe it’s the burnout talking, but it endlessly frustrates me that this seems to be the only girl-targeted anime that the larger feminist and queer Internet wants to talk about at all. Non-anime fans know about plenty of boy-targeted shows—Pokemon, Dragonball, Naruto, maybe even Fullmetal Alchemist or Death Note—but seem to think Sailor Moon is the only girls’ show of note. It deserves that discussion about how it’s feminist and empowering and just quality girl-centered entertainment, but it always comes with the implicit assumption that it’s exceptional among anime in that regard. Even though every single one of those guys I mentioned who were involved with Sailor Moon have given us more interesting shojo series since then.

Including this one.

Including this one.

Sailor Moon’s dealings with gender are barely the tip of the feminism iceberg. Yeah, the 1992 anime creators certainly snuck in some social commentary on consumerism and restrictive fashion trends in-between the battles. Yeah, it has a wide variety of female characters, some of them even queer and gender non-conforming. But at the end of the day, Sailor Moon’s “feminist” message is mostly just that girls can be badass and do the rescuing of their love interests, not just be rescued. That’s it. There’s a lot more to feminism than that, and a lot more that media can say about it. Far from anime purely reflecting an antiquated patriarchal value system, Japan has produced quite a lot of cartoons that delve deep into the issues with restrictive gender roles, from Revolutionary Girl Utena to the works of Sayo Yamamato. There’s also anime’s (and especially the josei genre’s) tradition of strong coming-of-age stories about women that reflect gendered problems, like Paradise Kiss.

Those other works are far more challenging, and worthy of more attention and analysis, than is the so-called “weaponized femininity” of Sailor Moon and other magical-girl shows. Telling little girls they’re powerful is great, but it shouldn’t stop there. And Sailor Moon does pretty much stop there: it doesn’t do much to interrogate gender roles other than suggesting they’re too based in consumerism that can be taken advantage of, and shouldn’t be compulsory. Girls should be allowed to choose how boyish or girlish they want to be. But when Usagi confronts Jadeite over him using jewelry or fitness centers to dupe girls, it’s usually with a message that the underlying thing is good, and him using it is bad. That’s a far cry from Revolutionary Girl Utena’s doctrine that we’re all incubated from birth in this system, that both masculinity and femininity are toxic, and only through burning it all down–“smashing the egg’s shell”–can we break free:

Not that I expect a show for little girls to advocate for radical feminism and “world revolution.” But maybe that’s why us grown adults shouldn’t put those little girls’ shows on a pedestal. It is kind of amazing to me that so many American pop-culture writers think this is really the furthest that anime goes when it comes to feminism (and is just one example among many of the reductive ways that Americans essentialize and oversimplify non-Western cultures and their approaches to progressive issues).

I really love Sailor Moon, and I know it played a big part in my own feminist and queer awakening. I just wish that the feminist conversation on anime didn’t so often stop there. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that the year of Sailor Moon was a bust. Maybe Sailor Moon just doesn’t work as well in 2014 as it did in 1992. Maybe it’ll give feminists who are casual anime fans the boost to move on, and explore the larger world of anime about women, for women.