Sailor Moon: Queerness in the Queerless ’90s

And so we begin regular updates! I know I’m excited, so let’s get right to it!
For my first column, I wanted to talk about one of the shows that got me (and many people) into anime in the first place: Sailor Moon, and how it impacted on my queerness as well as many people of my generation. In looking for references for this column, I stumbled across this interesting article regarding queerness and attitudes to sexuality and gender in anime.
If you were coming of age in mid-’90s Argentina, and you sensed you were, let’s say, ‘different’ from your peers with regards to your sexual identity, there weren’t a lot of readily available images for you to begin to understand yourself more. Media images influence us: they contribute to defining how we see ourselves, and may sometimes even help contribute to our development by giving us positive role models. This is particularly important if one is part of a minority, one which doesn’t get a lot of airtime or attention. And as we know, queerness is something that gets silenced in many societies.
In Argentina, there weren’t really many role models at all if you were a coming-of-age young queer. Indeed, queerness was relegated to homosexuality and cross-dressing as a source of comedy, the best exponent of which was Antonio Gasalla. A TV presenter with his own sketch show, the late Gasalla was as intelligent and witty as he was problematic. For all his groundbreaking, anti-establishment comedy, Gasalla still played up to certain stereotypes of camp which were deemed acceptable by mainstream Argentinian society. So we can file him under ‘mixed blessing’ at best. Apart from him, there wasn’t much else on TV or film, you had the stereotypical ‘tragic gay’ here and there in arthouse films and that was it. Argentinian society really didn’t have room for much more (for added context: sexual ‘minorities’ were denied the vote in the city of Buenos Aires until the year 1990).
The year 1995 marked the beginning of the ’second wave’ of anime in Argentina. The first wave had been very light, consisting of Astro Boy, Mazinger Z and other old time classics, as well as Robotech, being aired. The second wave provided more authentic, less altered content. The spearheads of anime were three shows in particular: Sailor Moon, Saint Seiya, and Dragon Ball.
They all stood out in their own ways, but as far as different ways of doing an adventure show, Sailor Moon was quite groundbreaking for many of us, accustomed to getting our animation/comic fix from American derivates. First of all, it was a show about a group of girls. While they may have their loves and relationships (and on further analysis many of these were troubled in the way they were presented), each of them was their own person, with their own lives, and no male ally or villain ever really stole the spotlight. The first season of the show already featured a queer romance, that between villains Zoycite and Kunzyte, yet the dub for that season, the only one based on the U.S. one (though without blatant censorship for the most part), portrayed Zoycite as a woman. Many, myself included, took little notice, after all his facial features matched those of the women in the show, and few people were used to anime portrayals of feminine men.
Still, a while later Sailor Moon S came along, one of the heights of plotting and drama for the series. And there you had it: Haruka and Michiru. Haruka was a woman, identified as such, but used a low voice when in ‘civilian’ guise, and dressed as a man. At first sight, most of the main characters were attracted to her. Oh, but Haruka was going out with the very feminine Michiru. They rarely did more than hold hands, but the normality with which their relationship was presented was a clincher for those of us in the audience. After that, whenever queer characters showed up, they were treated with the same normality in the narrative: Fish-Eye’s trans sensitivities were not played for laughs, it was just another feature of the character. Later on, we get the more protagonic Sailor Star Lights who, for the unitiated, were men in their civilian identity but transformed into women when changing into Sailor Scouts. Once more, the characters seemed at home with either gender, which was quite unique at a time when all other trans people on Argentinian TV were part of cop dramas, usually involved in sordid tales of prostitution.
In hindsight, the relationship is not without problematics, of course. Haruka and Michiru suscribe to the butch-femme binary to the letter, a common misinterpretation of identity in homosexual relationships (that is to say, the idea that that is ‘the way’ in which they occur). Also, they are both tragic characters, their destiny is considered by both of them to be doomed, which may put them in the category of the ‘tragic gay couple’, one that is not seldom found in shoujo manga. Furthermore, I remember clearly back then, in the budding fandom that sprung up around the aforementioned anime shows, many people started to spread the misconception that, somehow, Japan was an advanced society in which being gay or trans was perfectly acceptable and a-okay. In the pre-internet world, with only anime to gauge it, it may have indeed seemed to be the case.
In opposition to this, I link to the aforementioned article, as well as this interesting essay entitled Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Japan. Both look into queerness in manga, particularly shoujo (manga ‘for girls’), a classification Sailor Moon and most of its companions in the ‘magical girl’ genre fall within. While the second article focuses on male homosexuality, it points out how, for a lot of Japanese gay men, homosexual imagery in shoujo manga isn’t a plus, but rather it is a burden due to stereotyping. I can imagine Japanese lesbians may feel the same way about the very idealised relationship between Haruka and Michiru. However, it is interesting how for a large part of it, the main concern is that sexual activity, or the indication of it, remain behind closed doors. This social taboo against public sexual conduct appears to be more of a concern in Japanese society rather than which sexuality it is that is practiced.
Back to the main topic, I’d say the issue here is one of perception, visibility versus stereotyping. When we first encounter queerness in the West, often visibility is enough to start with. If this happens through anime, since the stereotypes emanate from the ignorance (or desires) of another culture, we are often unaware of their actual problematics. We have to remember that Sailor Moon, and its iconisation by queer anime fans happens in the context of that barren land known as the pre-Internet world. Before MySpace, before MMOs, before big-name shows like Queer as Folk or The L Word (with all their problems), back when the web was neither massive nor well-known, and our access to different portrayals of sexual identity were exceedingly limited.
As such, with its problems (and it has many), I’m not ready to dismiss Sailor Moon. Its portrayal of female characters at the center of the narrative was extremely important in how I came to perceive superhero stories (which is what Sailor Moon is at its core), for one. And its normalisation of queer characters was important as part of the self-acceptance process. For indeed, stories make us reflect on ourselves, if they are compelling and well-written, even if they can be infantile and feature men wearing tights fighting crime, or girls in Sailor outfits fighting aliens. It’s the beauty of fiction that we can allow such indulgences for the stories, and characters, that lie beneath.