I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sick of super heroes. After 2002’s Spider Man it started getting mainstream enough to be cool, but thirteen years on and it is seriously getting stale. I’ve had my say about good and evil, heroes/villains, and the black and white spectrum that the super hero genre so very adamantly inhabits before. I’m bored of crusaders of “justice” beating their different coloured but otherwise twin-like opponent. I’ve had enough of characters existing solely for sassy dialogue. I’m sick of people crashing through office buildings.
“But Laurie,” You say, puppeteering the mouth of your Avengers action figure, making it look like it’s the one talking, “Aren’t you a filthy, dirty hypocrite? Look at you bad mouthing Super Hero media when you’re writing a Magical Girl book!”
‘What? No no, you’ve got it all wrong. No, Magical Girls are nothing like Super Heroes! Hey, don’t sneer! There are some genuine differences!’
For a moment, I think the figurine is pretty furious at me, but then I realise that they just all have that face. Because apparently anger makes you tough.
“Come on, give it up,” You say through your prized action figure. You’d have kept it in the box to preserve value, but then you wouldn’t have been able to pose them in scenes from the movies, “The only real difference is there’s no men. It’s Super Heroes but for little girls!”
‘Honestly! There’s fairly major differences!’ I say, realising I’m backing myself into Proto-Hipster Corner, where everyone secretly loves the mainstream but makes sure they’re into things ever so slightly different so they can pretend they don’t, ‘It’s about the attitude of the genre, and the cultural background! Please, let me explain!’
I smile, but it only digs me in deeper. Nobody smiles in Proto-Hipster Corner; smiling is for the weak. You only smile at those better than you, and if you’re in Proto-Hipster Corner, you should know you’re better than everyone.
‘Look, just give me a chance!’ I’m not sure whether to look at you or the figurine, so I end up looking like I have a nervous eye twitch as I switch between the two, ‘Just give me a thousand words, and if I can’t explain it by then, then I’ll admit I’m a filthy hypocrite!’
“And you’ll agree to watch an all-nighter Avengers marathon.” You add, “And the whole of Agents of SHIELD.”
‘That’s…’ I gulp, ‘That’s just cruel.’
“Well?” Your figurine stares me in the eye, hands on its hips. “What’ll it be?” I vaguely wonder why he has such incredible muscles if his powers do everything for him. Even the ones in power-suits. Wouldn’t they degrade instead due to under use? But I say nothing and nod.
‘Okay. I’ll agree to it.’
“Alright then…. ready….
Anything But Agents of SHIELD!
So, what’s the difference between Magical Girls and Super Heroes? On the surface it definitely appears like they’re the same thing, but from different cultures. And if you look back far enough, super heroes of one type of another have always been a part of stories. Just a cursory look over the (mis)adventures of the Greek, Roman, Norse, Hindu, Chinese and Japanese Gods are enough to see that people the world over enjoy a good story about over-powered people smashing stuff up and defeating evil. Are Super Hero teams the Pantheons of the twenty first century? I’ll save that question for another blog post, but it’s interesting that they’re all relatively similar on a core level.
But back to differences. And I’ll quickly point out that there will always be specific instances of media and fiction that subvert the norm, but since I can’t possibly read and watch everything ever, please understand I’m going to talk in relatively broad strokes. I acknowledge that the inherent flaw in generalisation is that there’s always exceptions. Another reason I hate black and white morality.
So before I waste any more word count, the differences are primarily in attitude and solutions. Since Magical Girls are inherently magical in nature, I will also be focussing on their Super Hero counterparts – those with unexplainable powers. Simply; no technologically based Supers.
Something very prevalent in Western Super Hero fiction is a major machismo streak. Men are big, muscular, powerful, and dominate through force. It’d be very easy to draw Might Makes Right comparisons, but often that’s overdone with villains in order to diminish any comparisons to the heroes themselves. The villains are the opposite; slight, quick, and often weak – using some kind of object to overcome their weakness and get to the hero’s level of power. Again, another machismo attitude – the bad guys are inherently weak, far from the classic masculine ideal.
Even women in the super hero genre seem more masculine than most I’ve ever met; unemotional, unempathic, and guided by sexual tension more than anything else. This is nothing new, and nothing specific to the Super Hero genre. In fact, you could say that action genres as a whole often have these traits. But this is where it differs from Magical Girls.
Magical Girl stories are much less often aimed at a male audience. The western machismo streak doesn’t present itself as often in Asian media either, and while obviously Asian society has just as many patriarchal issues on a societal level, a show aimed entirely with the basis of empowering young women immediately loses all the machismo that western super heroics has embedded within it. Magical Girl stories are far more about emotion – many even have them as the source of their power, or the catalyst of their climactic final move.
The girls in question are also young teens, and since most aren’t aimed at guys, are portrayed as cute, rather than sexy or characteristically powerful. They’re often naive and rarely assertive. The stories focus on these young girls coming to terms with their powers as they struggle to preserve the things important to them, and the bad guys are less seen as something to defeat, but as something to protect against. This is a crucial difference, and leads us to the second section.
The majority of western super heroics leads to the heroes hunting down and defeating the bad guy – the climactic tension is from the battle and overcoming of a foe. Magical Girl foes are fought off, but the climactic tension is from making sure no harm comes to those they care about, or the life-style they’re trying to protect. I believe this stems from two factors:
First, Western Superheroics tend to be militaristic in their attitude towards problem solving. Someone is doing a bad thing, so you must find them, go in full force, and stop them. Finding them is rarely hard, and defeating them just involves punching them hard enough that they can be taken to jail, banished, or killed (though naturally not by the hero, but by the villain’s own hubris, kids!). The heroes already have the power to accomplish this, it’s just a matter of working out who or where they are.
Magical Girl protagonists do not, most of the time, have the power to defeat the bad guys long term. They can just about manage to fend off their attacks and stop them succeeding, but outright defeating them is far beyond their capabilities. This is something they earn as they develop, gradually gaining more power as they learn to use it. Only once they’ve managed to gain enough experience, allies to help them, or just whittled away the enemy forces to the point of managability are they able to take their foe on and end it, once and for all.
Second, the much more feminine focus of protection comes from the characters themselves, and their interest is very much that of any mid-teen girl – on their family and friends. While often they’ll have a crush or some other kind of male romantic interest, it’s less socially normal for women to be forward about it, and thus keep trying to present themselves as they would normally so their crush won’t think them weird. Anyone who remembers their teens will know that appearing like a weirdo in front of your crush was a worst nightmare, so maintaining that appearance of normality despite their magical powers and need to fight becomes important.
This is something I feel is crucial: Their desire to return to normality. Their powers are a tool, and ultimately hinder them living the life they want to live, but in order to live safely they need to use them, and overcoming the villain is important. Still, their desires are very personal. It isn’t about saving the city, or the world, though those things are a great bonus. They want to save their own life, the life they had with their family and friends, where they can go back to how it was before they had to fight every few days.
It’s something that strikes me as very different to the attitude in more recent Super Hero fiction, where ‘refusing the call’ is all but five seconds worth of ‘Nah, not for me… Oh wait actually!’ before they jump into their first battle and stride out victorious.
As Different, Yet Similar, As Men And Women
So Magical Girl fiction is far more oriented to characters and emotions than western super heroism seems to be, while the latter is more focussed on actions and consequences. Perhaps they could learn from each other, incorporating more elements from different styles and potentially improving both forms of storytelling in the process?
Or maybe it’s better if we keep them separate…
When first conceiving of Schism I very much wanted to create a setting that cut out the need for an antagonist at all, stopping the heroines from being able to blame a singular entity for their situation, or being able to directly find a way to defeat it. Much of their struggle comes from themselves, and their difficulty in dealing with their new-found powers, or the experiences they have inside the hellish Schisms themselves.
I’m aware that some of the story tenants I’ve outlined above extend far outside of either of these genres, and are simply encompassed by them instead, but bare in mind this is a blog post, not an essay.
So what do you think?
Are Magical Girl stories different enough that I get to be spared endless Avengers posturing and muscle flexing, or am I doomed to endure their sassy banter and chiseled jaws?