TV + Movies

Looking At Magical Girls Through A Sapphic Lens

For me, watching this episode of the twelve-part haunting and magical series Puella Magi Madoka Magica was an out-of-body experience.

Picture this: after being vanquished in a battle that decides the fate of the world, a young girl lies next to her dying best friend while it rains down on them. It’s a moment of exhaustion, of wanting to let go and finally rest. But she is relentless. “I promise I will save you!” she vows to her friend. “I’ll do whatever it takes to save you! I’ll come back again and again and again!” And now, picture this: she does it. She goes back in time, over and over in a loop, and fights against fate. She watches her friend die, in a hundred timelines to a hundred magical battles, and every time, she undoes it all. Every time she defies destiny, rewriting history – all in the name of saving the girl she has made a promise to.

What is that if not love?

For me, watching this episode of the twelve-part haunting and magical series Puella Magi Madoka Magica was an out-of-body experience. Homura’s undying devotion to keeping Madoka safe was every bit as important to me as Catra and Adora saving the world with their kiss in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, or Korra and Asami walking hand-in-hand towards their happy ending in The Legend of Korra.

Also read: Queer Cartoons and Where to Watch Them

Yet, while the two examples above were hailed as the stepping stone to queer representation in Western animated TV, Madoka Magica remains a coded, rather than explicitly spelt out, narrative of Sapphic love and is usually regarded as an afterthought when articles bring out their annual Pride Month lists of beloved anime couples. But Madoka Magica is important- not just to a young desi Sapphic like me – but to the thousands of Sapphic people who have found sororal acceptance and community in mahou shoujo anime- the subgenre of Japanese animation centred on young girls who transform into sparkling alter egos to channel their magical abilities. Be it the iconic 1990s anime like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, experimental subversions of the genre like Madoka, Princess Tutu and Revolutionary Girl Utena or even just the good old magical school charm of Little Witch Academia, mahou shoujo is firmly entrenched in Sapphic culture, and continues to be one of the queerest anime genres, full of colour, vivacity and femininity.

Also read: A Gaysi Guide to Queer Anime

But what makes magical girl anime so irresistible to Sapphics all over the world? The answer is actually far more complex than you would think. It is not just the pretty character designs (which, trust me, help a lot), but in the conventions of the genre itself. There is something so unequivocally liberating about young girls attaining self-fulfilment through beautifully animated magical sequences. Aside from their aesthetic value, these sequences also speak of change, growth and becoming the best version of yourself. Mind you, it’s not a 360̊ personality change: Haruka doesn’t let go of her teasing, flirtatious nature when she turns into Sailor Uranus, Homura remains sombre and collected even as she is ready to fight witches. Think of these transformations more along the lines of personal improvement, rather than a personality swap. To Sapphics, magical girl transformations is a lot like us becoming a truer version of ourselves after our own journeys of queer awakening. This is helped by the fact that so many magical girl alter egos are essentially secret – for a lot of us, our true selves are either closeted, or kept hidden, only to be exposed to our queer peers, or in online spaces. Thus, the figure of the magical girl becomes symbolic of our inner, unadulterated queer self. There’s also the fact that most of mahou shoujo focuses on female dynamics and found family – think the Sailor Scouts, the Mitakihara Magical Girls. How many Sapphics actually have an open and accepting home life, living their lives unbound by secrecy? I know I don’t. It’s so important to me that these girls can only be their true, amazing selves when in each other’s presence. Magical girl anime places women at the centre and emphasizes on finding community and acceptance in a circle of female friendships.

Also read: Sakhi – The Nature of Female Bonding

Mahou shoujo also empowers young Sapphics by its commitment to breaking down hetero-patriarchal institutions. Utena resists conventional norms of femininity to label herself as a “Prince”, reclaiming her own identity and enabling her to revolutionize the world through self-determination – “I’ll be the prince. I’ll beat you, World’s End! I’ll get the ring back and then I’ll save Himemiya!” One of the most powerful narratives in animation ever is Madoka resisting becoming a Magical Girl until the very end of the series, when she uses her power to change the lives of young girls through space and history, relieving them of their burdens and ultimately becoming a God-like figure herself. Parallel to this is Homura’s war with fate to save the girl she loves, culminating in a quasi-biblical Rebellion in the movie. All of my examples, incidentally, are powered by the magical girls’ love and devotion for their female comrades. These stories are extremely compelling because a queer reading shows one that liberation and Sapphic love will break down the unfair laws of the universe and reshape the world to make it a better, more forgiving place for girls.

Also read: Who’s Allowed to Kiss Anyway?

Finally, Madoka and Homura may not share a kiss and Haruka and Michiru’s status as a couple might not be “obvious” to straight audiences, but seen through a Sapphic lens, these are all absolutely queer love stories, and we need to stop assessing them by Western standards of what constitutes a “romance”. Not many young Sapphics have had active love lives or have had smooth sailing while navigating their identities. Subtext is good, it is important. A young girl living a secret life of female friendship, powerful transformation and acquiring agency is just as important as on-screen kisses and explicit proclamations. As a Sapphic, I will always treasure magical girl anime and the hope it brings to millions of queer hearts across the world with its promise of a life lived in freedom and love.

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Sritama, Alo among her friends, is a student of English Literature who loves looking for queer subtext in her favourite books and media. They run @papenathys on Tumblr and have been interviewed by Parachute Media about their work in representing desi culture.
Sritama Sen

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