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Pop Will Eat Itself


It is by now standard to say that Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a "deconstruction of the magical girl genre." TV Tropes describes the series as such, linking within the article to the "deconstruction" trope. And fans, commenters, and critics alike have picked up on the refrain as well--all within the first few episodes of the series, which will finally end its 12-episode run later this week.

I do love a good pop culture deconstruction. But in this case I have to wonder: What would it mean to say that Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a deconstruction of the magical girl (mahou shoujo) genre? And does this claim, in fact, make sense?

1. Pop Deconstruction 101

nenena has written a brief but excellent critique of a prominent interpretation of Madoka Magica, in which she writes:
[I]f anybody reading this is serious about defending the notion that this showhas some sort of Message about... I dunno, magic as false empowerment or whatever, then I think it's important to start asking questions like:

If Madoka Magica is meant to deconstruct the notion that magic can be empowering to little girls, who exactly is this message aimed at? (The answer: Adult men. Madoka Magica is absolutely not being promoted in any media outlets targeted towards girls or women. It's being promoted strictly to an adult male audience.)
It might at first blush seem as if Nenena's comments should point us off into a discussion of the politics of deconstruction, or somesuch (problematic) terrain. But look again: Nenena is in fact picking up on a common misuse of the term "deconstruction," in which it is used as a synonym for "critique." We could indeed read Madoka Magica as a critique of the idea that magic is empowering to little girls. (It's worth noting, however, that it does not provide us with a very strong or even consistent criticism of this idea...) We could read it, in fact, as very critical of a number of ideas. But--and this is important--in no sense would any of this make it a deconstruction of these ideas, and even less would this allow us to say something sweeping like "Madoka Magica is a deconstruction of the magical girl genre."

So what's the difference? Given the widespread misuse of the term "deconstruction," it's worth attempting to give a concise definition: "deconstruction" is a way of laying bare the fundamental premises of a text in a way that makes the text's own claims problematic. It requires taking a text's own claims seriously, reading closely, and showing the contradictions and/or disavowed claims at work in that text itself. At its closest to deconstruction, we might think of "critique" as the regulation of a text, setting appropriate boundaries for it or showing how it fails to deliver on certain of its promises. A "deconstruction," however, is (merely?) the demonstration that a text is already set against itself, the demonstration of the ways in which a text unravels itself.

Strictu sensu, then, we might not be able to call any narrative a "deconstruction." But--playing only slightly more loosely--it does make sense to speak of certain narratives (especially--perhaps exclusively?--within genre fiction) as "deconstructions," when these very narratives lay bare the internal contradictions and disavowed premises at work in other narratives of the same type. I have written at some length already about the 1986 "deconstruction" of the superhero genre, as found particularly in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. These are yet topics I mean to write about at more length in the future, but at the moment they can at least serve us as a clear example of genre-fiction-narrative-as-deconstruction-of-genre. As I wrote in my essay on Marvel's Civil War:
What is taken by so many as mere gritty, adult-oriented storytelling in the "deconstruction" period is . . . something far deeper: the exposing of the fascist fantasy at the center of the superhero genre itself. In its very structure, this genre opts for safety over freedom, allowing a passive humanityto be protected by an illegitimate, external power willing to wield earth-shattering violence and do Whatever It Takes to maintain the peace. This movement is a deconstruction not because it introduces the anti-hero, but precisely because it reveals that the so-called "superhero" was always the anti-hero to begin with.
The superhero "deconstruction" movement of the mid-80s was neither simply a critique of the practice of superheroes nor a dark/realistic/cynical "take" on superheroes. Instead, these stories exposed--simply by their not finding ways to disavow--the contradictions lurking in the heart of the superhero genre as such.

There are two further important points to note about "deconstruction" here. First, a deconstruction makes it so that we cannot simply keep telling the kinds of stories within a genre that we have been telling. A genre deconstruction is a watershed event, in the wake of which disavowal must necessarily be recognized as disavowal--that is to say, as a dishonest way to tell stories. And second, building off of this watershed idea, in the wake of a deconstruction one now re-reads previous stories in a new light. It is not that we come to call these previous stories "dishonest" in the sense of a moral judgment about their authors--but at the same time, we suddenly cannot help but see the things these previous stories denied. A deconstruction reveals a constitutive blind spot in a genre; and once revealed, we are no longer able to ignore it. As I wrote in the essay on Green Arrow:
The most immediate response to the crisis of deconstruction—the route which is even today still being attempted by the so-called “Reconstructionist School,” people like Darwin Cooke, Paul Dini, Alex Ross, etc.—is to ask, “Well, why can’t we just turn back the clock? Pretend the Modern Age never happened; present these characters the way they were back in the Silver Age, when Good and Evil still meant something…” . . . So what’s wrong with this approach? We can do far worse than the answer Smith’s “Quiver” gives us: it is soulless and irresponsible. . . . To simply dress up and play Silver Age, pretending the Modern deconstruction never happened, is to allow the soulless husk of one age to be the cheery, heroic face that simply covers over the demons of another age. Deconstruction showed us not that superheroes had changed, but that the superhero form was always inherently tied up with fascism. The desire for Silver Age heroes, then, is not the desire for non-problematic heroes, but the desire to be ignorant of those problems.
I bring up these last two points because, if it should turn out to be true that Madoka Magica is "a deconstruction of the magical girl genre," then not only will it prove impossible to keep telling the same kind of magical girl stories as before in the future--but we should also now find ourselves unable to re-watch the classics of the genre (Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, etc.) in the same way, either.

2. A Crash Course in Magical Girls

Whether or not Madoka Magica is a deconstruction of the magical girl genre is going to depend on whether or not it engages with the essence of that genre in such a way as to lay bare the disavowed contradictions and constitutive denials of that genre. So what is this "magical girl" genre, anyway? At its most basic and essential, of course, the "magical girl" genre is simply about a young girl (shoujo) who is granted magical powers of some sort (becomes mahou). This is a bit like saying that the superhero genre involes heroes with super-powers, though: true as it goes, but hardly enough to distinguish the capes-and-tights heroes of American comics from, say, the heroes of Greek myths! (Okay, I'll grant you that either way you're going to have Hercules on your list...) Likewise, when people say that Madoka is a response to (even a "deconstruction of") the "magical girl genre," they are referring to a narrower set of tropes and conventions that mark off the "magical girl" genre from other--similar--genres filled with young girls who have magical powers: teen witches, magical girlfriends, etc. The "magical girl genre proper" (TV Tropes actually calls it the "Magical Girl Warrior" sub-trope...) really begins with Sailor Moon, itself a crossing of three major influences: the "magical girl" predecessors (mostly teen witches, but also think Cutie Honey...); the "color-coded soldier team" genre (Naoko Takeuchi actually set out to create a female version of the Power Rangers); and, of course, the ever-waxing popularity of the Japanese schoolgirl (Takeuchi's editor wanted to publish a comic about girls in sailor suits; she said yes, and the rest is history). And so it seems to me that the first things we should note about the "magical girl genre" is that it is a genre defined in the wake of the staggering financial success of Sailor Moon--the comic and cartoon essentially define a genre, inasmuch as most additions to the genre have been more or less straightforward attempts to capitalize on Sailor Moon's success. And so we can find all of the "essential" aspects of the genre in the various parts of the Sailor Moon formula that have been picked up since then: the transformation sequence (along with the magical artifact that aids this transformation); the talking animal sidekick(s); the cooperative team of friends; etc. Read the section of the Wikipedia article marked "Common Themes and Features"--it simply reads like a description of Sailor Moon without the use of specific character names.

The second thing to note, however, is that the magical girl genre is--if you'll forgive the term--a modernist genre. And by this I mean that we should not imagine, even in Sailor Moon, some sort of original, pure genre essence, earnestly deploying tropes that will later be either uncritically copied or suddenly turned on their head. Instead, the magical girl genre, like several other anime genres (most notably the "giant robot/mecha" genre), is at least partly constituted by self-aware tropes, tropes deployed to question the very themes they seem to put forward. Most centrally, femininity and gender roles are simultaneously deployed and questioned through most magical girl cartoons. On the one hand, we have the frilly dresses, schoolgirl outfits, and lolita fashions that form the basis of the magical girl costume. And yet, on the other hand, the magical girl genre is constantly playing with--and challenging--gender and sex roles: from the gender-swapping of the Starlights in the final season of Sailor Moon and the ambiguously romantic relationship between Haruka and Michiru (Haruka, of course, being fairly butch--to the point of being attractive to heterosexual female characters--in her civilian identity, but feminine--lipstick and all--in her Sailor Uranus form); to the lesbian subtext to Nanoha and Fate's relationship (complete with adopted child) in the final season of Nanoha; the magical girl genre is constantly aware of itself as a genre about girls and what it means to be a girl. In this same vein, it's worth noting that Tuxedo Mask vascillates between the traditional role of heroic male, swooping in to save the damsel in distress, and the role of captured hostage/bait (he is captured, subdued, and/or brainwashed by the main villain in almost every season--until he's finally simply killed off in season 5). It is within this context, I think, that we should place the swapped gender roles of Madoka's parents: her father seems to be a stay-at-home dad, while her mother takes on the typical "salaryman" role, complete with long hours and mandatory after-hours office parties. In other words, Madoka Magica does not "deconstruct" the magical girl genre if/where it challenges gender roles--instead, by this very questioning it situates itself squarely within the genre.

Building on this same idea, I am unconvinced that it is enough to "deconstruct" a genre simply by examining the psyche of teenagers tasked with saving the world. Neon Genesis Evangelion's much-touted "deconstructionist" description seems to rest largely on this approach, and at least some of the "deconstructionist" hype of Madoka Magica seems to stem from the same idea. It is true that most examples of both genres (Beast King GoLion; Sailor Moon; etc.) gloss over the psychological implications of the stressful situations into which they throw their heroes--and all too often, such stresses are simply written as metaphors for the transition into adulthood. But a pyschological examination of the characters in a series is not ipso-facto a deconstruction of the genre; in making yet another central trope self-aware, Evangelion, Gundam Wing, and Madoka Magica simply follow the path laid out by the genres themselves. All of this is simply a reflection of the modern status of the major anime genres; as Cavell wrote of movies, "the tradition is still available to current successful films [and cartoon shows]," but simultenously "serious works are in the process of questioning their relation to the tradition, [that is to say] that they are moving into the modernist predicament in which an art has lost its natural relation to its history" (72).

3. Puella Magi Madoka Magica as Magical Girl Deconstruction

The self-aware deployment of tropes, the deployment of tropes that seem to question themselves, is therefore not yet enough to constitute the deconstruction of a genre. To actually deconstruct the magical girl genre, a work would have to identify those things that cannot be acknowledged (let alone questioned) in the very construction of the genre. Modern genres can stand in the face of the interrogation of gender and sex roles; of the motivations of good guys and bad guys; and of the psychological states of main characters--and in fact, by doing so a show can simply fulfill a central purpose of modernist genre fiction. As we saw with superhero comics, deconstruction requires a further step--and the unflinching ability to identify the disavowed contradictions at the heart of a genre. Let me briefly rehearse, then, the ways in which we might read Madoka Magica as a deconstruction of the magical girl genre--and in doing so, we'll begin to lay out some of the themes at the heart of the genre itself.

First, the magical girl genre has tended to present us with a Manichean world, in which a group of villains in the service of Evil confront the magical girls who act on behalf of the forces of Good. We shall have occasion to return to this idea again below, but for now notice that, like all such metaphysically dualist morality plays, there is a tendancy toward absolutes: the villains are unrepentently Evil, while the heroines are pure good. This has above all given us the idea of a magical girl who is selflessly good, who acts on behalf of The Greater Good, who is willing to sacrifice herself for the sake of others. Madoka Magica rightly stands this idea on its head. The series opens with some magical girls who caution against being selfless, who seem to scoff at the idea of doing everything for the sake of others, but our main characters are cast in the likeness of the best magical girls and declare their solemn intentions to make selfless wishes, act for the safety of others, sacrifice themselves, etc. Mid-series, however, we get the moment of anagnorisis and peripeteia: Kubey turns out to be turning girls into witches for the sake of collecting energy to stave off the heat-death of the universe. Asking the main characters to become magical girls and sacrifice themselves for something so impersonal, however, prompts cynical dirision (and not just from the characters, but from the viewers as well): what kind of sick, unfeeling bastard would sacrifice young girls for such an abstract goal? Kubey, however, is--rightly--puzzled: one life, as compared to the entire universe, is a trivial thing. And anyway, if the girls really had the greater good as their goal, would they not happily sacrifice themselves?

This is where things get complicated, though. Some would see the fact that Madoka Magica blurs the distinction between good guys and bad guys to be the moment of "deconstruction." But this sort of self-aware questioning is not only not enough to deconstruct the genre, but is in fact found to a greater or lesser extent in the more classic examples of the genre; Sailor Moon, for example, regularly presents us with moments of conversion (the Ayakashi sisters), sympathetic villains (Ail and An and the Makaiju Tree), and less-than-totally-motivated (or not exactly selfless) heroes (The Starlights). And what is the final season of Sailor Moon, after all, but a cautionary tale about how pure intentions can occasionally lead heroes to become villains? But while Sailor Moon rightly questions the "end justifies the means" approach to fighting evil, it never once questions the moral ideals of "selfless love" and "selfish fear." What Madoka Magica does that is different, however, is to challenge love as a foundation for selfless moral goodness: offered the chance to sacrifice themselves for the good of the universe as a whole, the girls' motives of "protecting humanity" and "protecting those you love" must suddenly strike us as forms of moral bigotry. In other words, is not putting those we love--or even the human race--above all others a form of moral bias, and ultimately a form of selfishness?

At the very least, Madoka Magica seems to me to thoroughly problematize the utilitarian basis of so much "common sense" magical girl morality. The magical girl motives of love and spreading happiness are turned inside out, here, and it would seem that in this respect the series does at least begin the deconstruction of the magical girl genre.

4. Puella Magi Madoka Magica as Reiteration of the Genre Status Quo

And yet, as much as it starts us on the path of a possible deconstruction, Madoka Magica does not take us very far down this path--and ultimately fails to deconstruct the most central aspects of the magical girl genre. To begin with, if Madoka Magica does rightly cast into doubt the utilitarian basis of most magical girl morality, it does not yet suggest that it is impossible for magical girls to be moral--the show only (quite rightly) seems to reject utilitarianism as the frame of reference for thinking about such moral questions. But furthermore, if magical girl shows so often present us with Manichean moral universes, Madoka Magica does not "deconstruct" this theme so much as it simply does away with it: we are instead given the morally-neutral universe of modern physics. This very choice--physics and the scientific world-view--in fact directly prevents any deeper "deconstruction" of the Manichaeism of the magical girl genre; by its very definition, magical girl stories take place in magical worlds. To oppose such metaphysical worldviews with the objection, "Ah, but physics doesn't work that way" is to miss the point: magic is, above all, a way of breaking the natural laws of the universe. Faced with the cynicism of Madoka Magica, we can simply return to the more hopeful world of Sailor Moon and say, "In this world, at least, there are forces of Light and forces of Darkness..."

More seriously still, there is a deeper metaphyiscal principle at work in the magical girl genre: a hierarchy of essence and the politics of destiny. Magical girls are special--better than others--because they are born that way. What sets the magical girl apart from her schoolmates is not some set of skills or knowledge that she has had to work to acquire, but instead is the destiny of one born superior, one "chosen." In Sailor Moon, this theme is given its most straightforward presentation: the girls are the reincarnations of princesses. Indeed, not only is Sailor Moon the reincarnation of the Moon Princess, she is also destined to become the queen of the world. The show never pauses to question the Divine Right of Kings, but instead simply assumes it as a given. Other examples of the genre may not be so obvious in their monarchic pretensions, but the essential point is still the same: Nanoha is not only one of the few humans who can use magic, she is also naturally an incredibly strong mage, constantly amazing others with her potential. Fate (an apt choice of name) was likewise test-tube designed to be a powerful mage--the language of biology is taken up instead of magic, but the nature-over-nurture story of destiny remains the same. And of course in Pretty Cure (in all of its seasons a fairly unremarkable, uncritical recycling of the main tropes of the genre) the girls are regularly chosen by fairies to become Pretty Cures--and often, as in the case of Cure Blossom and Cure Marine, there is some sort of "sign" marking them out as the destined cures (their dreams of the previous Pretty Cure, Cure Moonlight). On the verge of a more democratic break with this theme (at least any girl seems capable in principle of making a contract with Kubey...), Madoka Magica yet derives its central, driving premise from a reversion to the classic form: Madoka herself is, for some reason, a naturally powerful potential witch--Kubey himself is surprised by her power.

It is against this background of the metaphysics of destiny and the divine right of kings that we should read one of the recurring tropes of magical girl series: the tendancy for the main character to be clumsy, academically unremarkable, and not exceptionally talented at anything. (There are exceptions, of course: Sakura is quite the athlete, even though she reverts to clutz when presented with winter sports...) Why make the central characters of these shows so all-around mediocre? Because this is exactly the point: a magical girl need not apply and develop herself to "earn" her distinction. Instead, people love her for her inner essence--and she is fit to lead by virtue of being pre-selected by destiny. Magical girls exist in a universe in which some people are simply born better than others--and this disinction in essence equates quite naturally with a social hierarchy. It is not a coincidence that magical girls so often occupy social positions protecting the status quo on behalf of forces of law and order--as either representatives of a once-and-future kingdom (Sailor Moon), as super-cops (and, later, a paramilitary strike force) in an interdemensional state (Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha), or as knights in Her Majesty's service (Magic Knight Rayearth). The metaphysics of destiny presents us with a world in which there is a natural order to things; to uphold The Good is to serve the natural order, an order which is beyond rational interrogation or democratic challenge. And as the fate-appointed servants of the natural order, our heroes are the benefactors of a natural superiority by right of which they are fit to rule. In defending the status quo, they thus defend their own justified superiority as well. Here, at last, is the real basis for a deconstruction of the "selfless" morality of magical girls--but Madoka Magica is unable to challenge the genre on this level, and in fact capitulates to it by its very premise.

The corollary to this politics of destiny, of course, is the other major pillar of the magical girl genre: "Love saves the day." It's the central theme of every magical girl story: the power of friendship and love can ultimately overcome every obstacle. This power is able to "cure" those who are possessed by darkness, and the power of love and friendship is used by magical girls both to vanquish their enemies and also to convert enemies into friends. At stake here are two pieces, both of which it seems to me are fundamental to the magical girl genre. First, there is the idealist theme of the priority of mind over body, of consciousness over world, of theory over practice. And second, there is the moral claim that pain and suffering only exist because we do not love each other enough, and that by learning to be friends we can overcome all of our differences, etc. These two aspects are linked by the metaphysics at the heart of the magical girl world, of course: given a natural hierarchy and the unquestionable nature of the forces of law and order, we must chalk conflict up to individual failings--magical girls must remain safely on the terrain of morality, and never stray into politics. And magic, of course, is the priority of individual will over reality--and hence the idealist trope of just hierarchies and the moral individualism are natural bedfellows. As we have already seen, Madoka Magica is unable to turn these tropes against themselves: buying into the central conceits of the genre, it must take refuge in morally-neutral physics as a way of dodging the question.

A deconstruction of the magical girl genre, then, would not be the critique of the empowerment of girls, as Nenena worries. But nor would it be the critical self-awareness of the major tropes of the genre--gender roles, the aims of love and happiness, etc. Instead, any deconstruction of the magical girl genre will have to deal head-on with the politics at stake in the genre: the privileging of consciousness over labor; the attribution of strife to the moral failings of "bad people"; the fixed, hierarchical universe in which some are simply destined to rule through their superior essences; the authority of tradition and the status quo. In short, the magical girl genre rests on a premodern metaphysical worldview--it is nostalgic for an authoritative Natural Order To Things. In raising the spectre of modern physics, Madoka Magica essentially restates the problem (the modern problems of nihilism, democracy, and the scientific world view) as a way of avoiding the problem! That the show is not ultimately a deconstruction of the genre is clear in the way that we can simply return to Sailor Moon; as one reviewer writes:
But you know, the little girl inside me screams: “Mommy! Mommy! I want Sailor Moon back!”

Where is the pure belief in love and justice? Where have all the Sailor Soliders gone?

I mean, the zeigeist indicates bitterness, distrust and misplaced loyalties, as well as deceit and lies. But man, even the purest of the pure genres has now fallen under this negativity and distrust. It does make a great show, but it makes an old guy from the 80s and 90s sad.
In the face of the perceived cynicism of Madoka Magica, we are tempted to retreat to the optimism of Sailor Moon. But even if, as we have seen, Ray is wrong to assume that Sailor Moon is a representative of some "purest of pure genres," Madoka Magica cannot help but encourage this illusion. Rather than deconstructing the genre--which would force us to go back and re-watch Sailor Moon with the new awareness of the disavowed contradictions at the heart of every magical girl story--Madoka Magica simply offers us a gritty spin on the genre, making the other representatives look all the more pure and clean by comparison.

Sorry, it's a fairly long, ranting affair, isn't it? Turns out I have a lot to say about Magical Girls--and, in the process, I'm revealing my dark, secret interest in them...Anyway, this may at some point get cleaned up and turned into something more substantial. In the meantime, at least it's now out of my head! If you make it through the whole thing, please do feel free to chip in your $0.02, as I'd love to hear from some other fans of the genre.

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