Gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance (I’d Never Allow That to Happen)

A wild OKTAVIA attacked!
It used Sword Dance!

Magical girls have always been witches.

In the extradiegetic, historical sense, this is clearly true. The magical girl genre emerged as a direct result of the surprise popularity of Bewitched with a generation of Japanese schoolgirls. Samantha is the archetypal magical girl, conventionally attractive, traditionally feminine, with tremendous power tightly constrained within a limited sphere, and subject to the anxious masculinity that hedges her into that sphere. She can–and frequently does–assert herself, but ultimately she is trapped by the limitations of the norms of television in her time, bound to perform femininity with perfect makeup and hair, cute dresses, and a socially approved role as a wife and mother.

While there are manga examples predating her, the first animated magical girl was likewise a witch, in Magical Girl Sally. Much, much younger than Bewitched‘s Samantha, Sally of course does not take on a role as wife or mother, but instead performs a child’s femininity, being sweet and cute and, despite her power, fundamentally harmless.

So it went. By Sailor Moon, the norms of the genre were largely set. Magical girls, like witches, gain their power from otherworldly sources, whether granted by the ruler of the Mirror Kingdom, accidentally released from a mysterious book, or inborn as a result of their past lives in the royal courts of the Moon. Magical girls, like witches, have their familiars, sentient creatures taking on animal form. And of course, magical girls, like witches, wield tremendous and varied magical powers.

But curiously, those powers are always directed at enemies as otherworldly as the magical girl’s origins–indeed, often the enemies are tied intimately to those warnings. As a general rule, magical girls do not fight government corruption, corporate malfeasance, or even that mainstay of the masculine hero, street crime. Their power, in other words, not only comes from the fantastic, but can only be directed against the fantastic.

Which is the other sense in which all magical girls are witches. The figure of the witch is a symbol of the fear of female power; in a world where masculinity is identified with hegemony and dominance, femininity must be identified with powerlessness, submission, or restraint.The traditional expression of this idea in Japanese culture is the figure of the yamato nadeshiko, the feminine ideal for whom Hitomi is the closest match in Madoka. Possessed of tremendous social intelligence, the yamato nadeshiko rules utterly in the domestic sphere, having mastered many arts, but all are for the pleasure or support of her family, particularly a husband. Said husband, meanwhile, is the only one who is allowed to assert power outside of that sphere. Japanese folk and pop culture are rife with tales of the “bad” woman who wields power outside “her place,” from the wife who turns out to be a shapeshifting kitsune to the cannibalistic old mountain hag to the seductive snow-woman who sucks the life-giving warmth from her paramour.

Of course the good girl/bad girl dichotomy is hardly unique to Japanese culture. In Western folklore and pop culture it is represented (among a multitude of other representations) by the passive princess waiting to be rescued and the wicked witch who threatens her and the hero alike. To wield power is inherently to be the bad girl, the witch, a menace to the status quo.

The power of the magical girl is usually sanitized in two ways. First, as already mentioned, her power is not permitted to impact anything the viewer might recognize as part of reality, but is instead almost invariably focused on fantastical opponents. Second, she is made to constantly perform femininity (remember, the counterpart to hegemonic masculinity is performed femininity), with frilly or skimpy costumes, elaborate poses, and of course the nude dance of the transformation sequence all serving to remind any potentially intimidated male viewers that she is still subject to the male gaze and still submitting to the social norms of the “good girl.”

It is no accident that Sayaka’s transformation into a witch immediately follows her using her powers on a pair of misogynists. She has stepped outside the boundaries of the good girl and challenged the status quo, and therefore is a bad girl, a wicked witch.

But this episode interrogates and ultimately subverts that binary in multiple ways. The most striking comes during Kyouko’s fight with Oktavia, Sayaka’s witch form; we see blue and red swirls of blood forming stylized images of Sayaka and Kyoko, which then swirl together into a rose, highly reminiscent of the opening to Revolutionary Girl Utena. That series also had a princess, the Rose Bride, who turned out to be a witch, and who (side by side with a swordwielding tomboy that positioned herself as the protector and rejected the usual feminine role) ultimately passed from submissive “good girl” to powerful and treacherous “bad girl” before finally breaking free of the entire system. That this is to be taken as a universal seems likely, given that said blood then splashes down in a shot framed to look like it is flowing from between Kyouko’s legs.

In Western culture, the menstrual cycle has sometimes been posited as a particular punishment to women for their innate “badness,” because of course it is the nature of performed femininity that to insist on being true to oneself is “bad” and leads inevitably to the label of witch. Thus all women have a “bad” streak, which is to say a coherent self that seeks expression.

But if magical girls and witches are truly one and have always been one, then what are we to make of Sayaka’s transformation? Fortunately, the episode gives us the answer: it is the result of the system imposed by Kyubey. The magical girls’ entire world has been imposed on them by the one significant male character, who holds total hegemony over them. His argument is that they have consented to take part in his system, which is of course absurd since he deliberately concealed crucial information from them; there are distinct shades of rape culture at work here, in the sense of the hegemonic male employing complex and nonsensical standards for what comprises consent, manipulating these definitions to place the blame on the victim.

But remember, Kyubey is a signifier of the implied author, who is not truly Gen Urobuchi but a gestalt entity formed from the combined efforts of writer, director, character designer, animators, voice actors, composer, and so on, an entire industry of creators. He spent this episode tricking Kyouko into treating Sayaka as someone to be saved, when he knows that Sayaka cannot be saved–after all, if she’s been a witch all along, what is there to save her from? After successfully manipulating Kyouko into taking over the protector role–the same role which Sayaka was trying to fill–he tries to persuade Madoka to sacrifice herself similarly.

There is a term in anime fandom for a character (or, more accurately, a character trait) that invokes this protectiveness: moe. For an extended period in the late 2000s, an aesthetic rooted in that concept grew to dominate anime in general and magical girls in particular. According to this aesthetic, the value of a character lies in their ability to evoke this protectiveness in a presumed-male audience, and the features which evoke it are helplessness, “cuteness,” emotional vulnerability, and weakness, all coupled of course with a conventional and generic attractiveness. This is, of course, an extension of the same process that put Samantha under the thumb of her milquetoast husband and forces Sailor Moon to strip naked before she can access her powers; it renders the character harmless and therefore a “good girl,” non-threatening to the inherent anxiety innate to hegemonic masculinity.

Kyubey stands revealed as the representative of a system that robs women of their power and makes them perform for his benefit, while also placing them into a position where their suffering is seen as proof of their need to be protected, which robs them of their power still further. He is, in other words, serving as an avatar of gender roles themselves. However, he is simply an instance of a larger and vaster system, which extends far beyond him; Madoka itself is enmeshed in a larger culture, and while it can criticize ugly choices made in the name of economic viability, it cannot entirely escape them.

Nonetheless, the episode remains remarkably consistent. Sayaka’s attempt to save others, to be the protector, transforms her into a monster. Kyouko and Madoka’s attempt to save Sayaka gets them killed. Kyubey’s quest to save the universe perpetuates a destructive and miserable system. And as we will see in the next episode, Homura’s attempts to save Madoka are likewise doomed.

To seek to protect or save another, it seems, is inherently to rob them of power. But at the same time, the series has repeatedly vilified Kyubey for his lack of empathy, so it cannot be endorsing Objectivism. Is there, perhaps, a difference between helping and saving? Or, as Urobuchi wrote in the Fate/zero author’s notes, is it simply that we are helpless, and everything is doomed to become worse as all systems, universes, societies, and psyches alike, hurtle toward heat-death?

Next week: Reversing entropy.

21 thoughts on “Gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance (I’d Never Allow That to Happen)

  1. Good analysis as always. Two points stood out to me.

    “he deliberately concealed crucial information from them”

    He does conceal with Kyoko in this episode, but in general I would say he simply doesn't divulge pertinent information. He would be concealing if Madoka asked him “Do magical girls become witches?” and he lied. Instead, he cleverly manipulates his wording.

    In episode 2 when asked about witches he says “If magical girls are born from wishes, then witches are born from curses.” That statement is undeniable true, it's just not the full truth. But the girls never ask about the details of the contract, so Kyubey feels guiltless (if he can even feel guilt at all).

    “To seek to protect or save another, it seems, is inherently to rob them of power.”

    I think the series definitely portrays this with Madoka and Homura's. I've seen a lot of people talk about the power dynamics in their relationship with. Neither one of them can seem to be happy unless their in power. Homura said “instead of her protecting me, I want to be strong enough to protect her.” Madoka protected Homura at first, but now Madoka is not a magical girl and feels useless, being protected by Homura.

    Then Madoka finds something worth giving up her soul, and later existence for, protecting Homura as well as all magical girls throughout time. Madoka is the one protecting Homura yet again and is now so beyond her that they can never be together. The feelings of failure bottle up inside Homura and build until they burst in Rebellion when Homura finally becomes stronger than Madoka and creates her gilded cage of a world that ensures Madoka's happiness and safety. I feel like any psychologist would have a field day examining their relationship.

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  2. Thanks!

    On Kyubey: My argument would be that he isn't lying (the only outright untruth he tells in the entire series is that he has no emotions, and I think the writers think that's true, so it's not really his fault), but he *is* deliberately concealing information. Which parts of the contract he neglects to tell the girls is no accident; he has learned (by trial and error over millennia, if nothing else) that telling the magical girls about certain things causes them to not want to contract, so he doesn't tell them those things. That counts as deliberately concealing information and lying by omission as far as I'm concerned.

    On Madoka and Homura: Yep! There's a reason I ended this chapter the way I did. I plan to talk about this same issue in regards to Madoka and Homura's relationship in at least the Ep 10, Ep 12, and Rebellion chapters.

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  3. Interestingly, Sailor V – the predecessor and prequel to Sailor Moon – becomes famous in large part due to her using her powers to catch bank robbers. (In between the usual monster slaying, much to her [male] familiar's chagrin.) The police are torn between considering her an ally or an unwelcome vigilante, and at the end of her manga she even considers accepting an offer to become a part-time police officer. Though by the time of the Sailor Moon anime, the vigilantism aspect has almost entirely dropped off; it's mentioned once early on as the reason for Sailor V's notoriety, but the closest the show gets to actually showing mundane heroics is when an impostor Sailor Moon stops a robbery.

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  4. Thank you, Frobar. I've said it before but I really enjoy these.

    I found it interesting that even though magical girls are witches, in Rebellion, Sayaka and Oktavia still seem to be presented as two separate entities. Specifically, Oktavia seems to work like a summon (or “stand” in JoJo terms) that Sayaka can control. Perhaps this indicates synthesis hasn't been achieved.

    The last paragraph reminds me of that Vonnegut quote that Lawrence Krauss used in his “Life, the Universe, and Nothing” presentation: “Things are going to get unimaginably worse, and they are never, ever going to get better again!”

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  5. This doesn't surprise me. Manga is a much broader field than anime, and much more varied. The transition from manga-only franchise to a franchise with an anime thus frequently involves making the former more palatable to general (i.e., anxious-male-dominated) audiences.

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  6. Thank you, I'm glad you're enjoying them!

    The fact that Sayaka and Oktavia still appear as separate beings is significant, yes. I won't say more because I'm still working out precisely what I'm going to say on Rebellion and how (it is likely shaping up to be multiple articles).

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  7. As great as these are, you're starting to repeat yourself a bit when you talk about the archetypal femininity endemic to the magical-girl genre.

    Will you be making a book of these as well?

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  8. Well, there's a scene in Rebellion which suggests Sayaka can actually turn into Oktavia, so maybe it's more along the lines of the witch is just a part of the magical girl (like the Persona series).

    There is something deeply symbolic about the tormented monster becoming a protective guardian.

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  9. Something you didn't mention is that this the episode where Kyubey reveals his goal is to reduce entropy.

    Notably, he tells Madoka that this will benefit humanity. The very next episode we find that Kyubey does not care about humanity except as it pertains to fulfilling his “quota”.

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  10. I don't either, but I don't know what could be said on it, not that I would complain, but lets be real here. Kyuubei's entropy has multiple connections between what is happening, but the main key purpose this part is showing is to establish his utilitarian nature, and how he fulfills and yet denies the typical magical girl familiar role. Something thats been over here before as far as i can recall.

    Kyuubei is trying to save the universe, a good thing. the whole nature of that scene is to show how bacon/necktie kyuubei is to hmanity, since despite having what some would consider a noble goal, that doesn't mean his relationship with the girls as a magical familiar has to be clandestine, and begs the question of what kind of alien, engineered to be cute, comes from the sky to grant power to a girl and have her fight against eldritch abominations? its basically a narrow selection of putting too much trust in strangers.

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  11. The “good for humanity” thing seems to me to be Kyubey's last-ditch attempt to get Madoka to contract; “It's for the good of the whole human race! How could you say no to that?”

    Given that, as we see, the moment Madoka witches out he goes on the space bunny-cat equivalent of two weeks holiday, I'd say that that was just him being his usual manipulative self.

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  12. Urgh, I am? Was it something I said in a previous The Very Soil article specifically, or another Madoka article? Because I'm kind of treating The Very Soil as an independent thing, which means it will inevitably retread some of the ideas from (for example) Latin Latin Madoka More Latin.

    As for the book, there's two issues. First, The Very Soil is about 10K words so far and I'm 3/4 of the way through the series. Being extremely generous, I might hit 15,000 words. Even if I expand the articles a bit while revising the book and add some bonus content (say, a couple of the manga spinoffs), I would still be struggling to hit 30,000 words, less than half the length of MLPo-Mo vol. 1–which was a pretty slim book itself!

    The other problem is that if I make it a book I need to hire an editor, and while I'm sure my usual editor would be happy for the work… well, the MLPo-Mo vol. 2 Kickstarter *barely* squeaked through at the last minute. The Very Soil actually gets more traffic than My Little Po-Mo, but I'm still not at all certain that a Kickstarter would succeed.

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  13. Well, this is what I mean about it being clear that Kyubey understands human emotion. He knows that *Madoka* cares about people, so he uses that to try to persuade her. He never says that *he* is motivated by wanting to save humanity, he's just using it to push her.

    Also: “bacon/necktie”? Huh?

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  14. Um…Some of the responses seem to think I'm criticizing this scene. I'm not. I'm just pointing out Kyubey's duplicity – which I find some people overlook when discussing Kyubey. (For example, I read of someone who said they thought Kyubey was acting out of character in Rebellion.)

    I've always thought that Kyubey understands emotion in the intellectual sense. He just doesn't understand why humans allow themselves to act emotionally – in other words, he doesn't understand why we don't think like he does.

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  15. Oh, I completely agree, Kyubey is incredibly duplicitous and a highly skilled deceiver. He just never lies. It's actually a very effective technique.

    In college, just to prove I could, I spent an otherwise boring evening convincing a new coworker (who was herself a very devout Christian) that I was similarly religious, entirely without ever saying a single thing that wasn't factually true.

    (Yes, I am aware this was a rather mean thing to do. I was quite a bit meaner then than I am now.)

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  16. Bacon/necktie is a trope that refers to groups of people or aliens that may have entirely alien value systems that humans can't relate to, basically kyuubei.

    Kyuubei certainly pushes humanity in his discourse, but I still think he has the ultimate (positive) goal of preventing entropy completely or in some limited manner. Saving the universe from chaos? reminds me of a certain group of fuku clad sailors. anyway the point i was making is that one of kyuubei's roles is to play the deconstruction of the familiar, someone who grants the girls powers for an ostensibly positive goal. That is certainly delivered in much the same way as kyuubei's advice. one isn't really able to say that he isn't trying to save the universe. but that never meant that he had anyone but his own interests at heart.

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  17. I agree; Kyubey is trying to save the universe purely out of self-interest, and doesn't care what happens to anyone else. Ultimately, it's irrelevant what he's trying to accomplish; all that matters are the actions he takes to get there. He's an excellent example that Intent Isn't Magic.

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  18. I don’t think the incubator is in any better situation than the magic girls.
    Given that the sole purpose of the incubator is to save/prolong the universe from its inevitable heat death, ie. the state of maximal entropy, Kyubey needs the additional energy created by the metamorphoses of magic girls (ordinary girls -> magic girls -> witches) to reduce entropy.
    Let’s examine the process. All magic girls are bore from wishes. What is a wish? Wish is the desire for the less likely state to occur. Particular to the magic girls, most of their wishes are to rebuild something that is broken or fallen apart (otherwise it’s not worth the price). What is entropy? Entropy is the measure of degree of disorder, or in other words, how much things have fallen apart. Therefore, by the very wishes that create magic girls, the entropy is reduced. Brilliant!
    However, there is no free lunch. Let’s consider the next phase of the metamorphosis: the descending from a magic girl to a witch. During the process, some energy may be created. However, witches are propelled by their negative emotions to destroy, to torn things a part and to increase entropy. As we are told, however many people are saved by a magic girl, the same number of people will be cursed by the witch she turns into. In other words, however much entropy is reduced by a magic girl, the same amount of entropy will be added by the witch. Therefore, in order to negate added by prior generations of magic girls/witches, the incubator has to enlist new generations of, arguably more powerful, magic girls. The cycle perpetuates. It seems that while the incubator is trapping the magic girls through his guile, he is also trapping himself through this kind of Ponzi scheme.
    So far, the scheme is working pretty well. The proof is Kyubey’s comment on the advancement of human civilization. As he mentioned, without the incubator, the humans would still live in caves. The more advanced the civilization is, the more orderly things are, and hence the lower the entropy is. However, it seems that through the process, more and more powerful magic girls/witches are created. And there seems to be a paradox inherent in the plan: a magic girl will turn into witch, but a witch will not turn back into a magic girl. In other words, the reduction of entropy is temporary but the increasing of entropy is permanent (since the agent to reduce the entropy, the magic girl, will eventually turn into and stay as an agent to increase the entropy). No Ponzi scheme has good ending.
    This is a fundamental sense of futility. Not only the magic girls’ efforts are futile, but also the incubator’s. It’s just that the incubator doesn’t have any human feelings and therefore he will not feel any depression. I would argue the sense of futility is even more so for the incubator, because none of us human cares about the universe’s heat death: time scale of the life of a human being, the life of a civilization, or even the life of the planet we are dependent upon is negligible compared to the time it takes for the universe to reach the heat death.

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  19. I mostly view it as more evidence of laziness on the part of the Incubators. We know that fossil fuels can't solve our energy needs in the long term, but right now they are relatively cheap and have extensive existing infrastructure, so we keep relying on them. I'd bet the Incubators know that any finite quantity of energy collected from the magical girls system (no matter how enormous) cannot be a permanent solution to entropy. But the magical girls system requires so little effort from them that it's attractive for now. It wouldn't surprise me if they are secretly waiting to see if some other civilization will solve the entropy problem.

    We can't even begin to imagine what the limits of physics might be. As we push the envelope further, the set of things we know we don't understand is growing faster than the set of things we think we do understand. Something like creating new universes might turn out to be easy for a sufficiently advanced civilization. For humans, it's probably all pointless — I really doubt our species will survive even a million years — but if we are still around in the distant future our technology would be truly incredible. But that sort of thinking would apply to any other civilizations in the universe that are sufficiently similar to ours. So really, if even one daring, creative civilization can avoid self-destruction long enough, they will end up discovering a real solution, and then the Incubators can just reap the benefits of their work.

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