Confession: I never watched Sailor Moon. I was never interested in the magical girl genre. Magical girls were frilly, feminine, and their outfits were ridiculous. My older brother once told me that Sailor Moon was just Dragon Ball Z for girls, and growing up, given the option, I chose Dragon Ball Z.
But there was always W.I.T.C.H. on Disney channel when I was in middle school, and I watched that show because I was seeing girls like me be heroes on the screen and I wasn’t about to pass up that opportunity.
W.I.T.C.H. was originally a comic book. Published from April 2001 to October 2012, the comic series spanned 139 issues with 16 specials. I found the graphic novel Legends Revealed, which republishes two comics and sets them side by side, and I’m rethinking the magical girl genre as an incredible feminist medium. W.I.T.C.H.’s almost entirely female cast and racially diverse team of leading women is an immense step foward in both feminism and diversity.
Following the setup of the magical girl genre, Will, Irma, Taranee, Cornelia and Hay Lin (W.I.T.C.H.) are ordinary teenage girls. Only they’re not. They are the Guardians of the Veil, using their powers over the elements to stop the evil Prince Phobos from destroying the fantasy world Meridian.
The magical girl genre gets a lot of flack for producing Mary Sues, but the real issue is when authors struggle to write female characters. And when posed with the challenge to write a cast of female heroes, authors can fall into harmful and misogynistic stereotypes. The women become flat characters because in mainstream fantasy or hero stories there is only one woman on the team. If she is catty, manipulative, idealized or the love interest, it’s less noticeable when there’s only one of her. But when all the heroes are female, authors must look beyond the stereotypes of female characters to create varied, flawed and interesting women.
In W.I.T.C.H., creators Elisabetta Gnone, Alessandro Barbucci and Barbara Canepa, imagine a cast where the main heroes are female, and so is the supporting cast. The graphic novel, Legends Revealed is populated with women and each holds her own in the storyline. The teachers are women. Hay-Lin’s role models are her mother and grandmother. In the Chinese folktale Hay-Lin tells the team, the hero of the story is a woman. The gossiping girls at school are female, but they are not the only representation of women. In this way, the creators do not imply that all women are natural gossips just because a few female characters are gossiping. Instead the story focuses on the W.I.T.C.H. team supporting each other and overcoming the nastiness of rumors. This support, far more than any action scenes, are what I would call girl power.
The team doesn’t need to all be bold and brash and compete with the boys in order to show they are strong or capable. They don’t need to compete with the boys because each character is her own person and her strength does not come from performed masculinity. The magical girl genre embraces the idea that a magical girl can be feminine, masculine, or any variation thereof and still be a hero. The creators highlight their friendship as teenage girls and their bond as each other’s support network alongside scenes where they show off their fighting skills.
That is not to say there aren’t male characters, but they are not the heroes. More importantly, even when romance (unfortunately only heterosexual romance) exists as a subplot, it remains sub to the plot. When Will likes Matt, or Cornelia likes Taranee’s older brother while also struggling with her feelings for Caleb, the story does not shift to be about a man. This is women-centered writing and thought.
And W.I.T.C.H. takes a step further in feminism than the average magical girl story line by incorporating racial diversity into the cast. Hay Lin is Chinese and Taranee is bi-racial with an Asian mother and Black father. In Legends Revealed, the core of the first story is based on a Chinese legend Hay Lin creates into a school play. Thus, the characters act on their diverse backgrounds and their identity furthers the plot.
I hadn’t thought about the magical girl genre as anything but Mary Sues and stereotypes, but these thoughts were remnants of my own sexist thinking. Reading W.I.T.C.H. has reminded me that frilliness and the femininity associated with magical girl is another way to promote feminism. All sexes and genders need to be reminded that there’s more than one way to be female. And a leading cast of diverse female characters furthers varied representation of women and lets readers of all ages and genders know that there is also more than one way to be a hero.