Behind the Curtain: A Queer Revisiting of Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Episode 1

Puella Magi Madoka Magica is, for varying and complex reasons, a controversial anime. Much like the Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 adaptation and Neon Genesis Evangelion, it is often recommended and panned in the same breath as a ‘deconstruction’ that doesn’t quite fulfill its promises, a “grimdark” take on more cheerful anime, or why “anime-first” properties are supposedly better or worse than manga-first properties. This isn’t helped by both what it shares with other controversial anime – themes of suicide and despair, queer subtext that barely qualifies for the ‘sub’ addendum, and a certain amount of unexpected violence – and what it doesn’t. That is, PMMM is a shojo (young girls’) anime and as such, attracts criticism that shonen just Does Not.

My personal relationship with PMMM is just as complicated as the rest. It spoke to me for reasons I still can’t fully put together, but at the same time, I can see its flaws so glaringly that sometimes I wonder why. So – this is me rewatching one of my favourite animes, with a proactively queer/trans lens!

Some important notes before going in: I am not watching, nor do I plan to watch Rebellion. This analysis begins and ends with the main show as presented; I firmly believe it’s a solid story arc on its own. So every column of this will have spoilers – but not for Rebellion.

Also, PMMM and this analysis deal with – to some degree or another – suicide, poverty, mental illness, psychosis, internalized homophobia, queerphobia, respectability politics and lateral violence within the queer community.

Episode 1 – “I First Met Her In A Dream…Or Something”

Oh boy, the first episode already has a lot to work with. Watching this episode with a queer lens, I’m already suddenly and quickly noticing how Madoka’s family has switched gender roles but is otherwise Very, Very Normal. Madoka’s mother is the breadmaker of the house and her father is a dutiful stay-at-home at dad – but otherwise, the nuclear family is just the same. Madoka doesn’t even have any grandparents around, which is actually kind of unusual for anime, isn’t it?

So here we are, with our potentially-queer protagonist, in a family that is – well, kind of peak white liberal feminism. (NB: PMMM is a Japanese show but I am inevitably going to be reading from a Western perspective.) Women have power! To engage in capitalism, make their husbands do all the work and wear cool pantsuits. Even the mother’s advice to Madoka is tinged with a certain amount of old-fashionedness even though she’s doing things like telling Madoka not to be afraid to stand out.

This just gets all the more striking when we get to Madoka’s friends. Hitomi is the model of ideal, traditional femininity – she has tea ceremony classes, gets suitors all the time, is always demure and put-together and even admonishes Sayaka and Madoka for goofing off too much. And Sayaka… Sayaka, honey. Within anime, she isn’t an unusual archetype – there are a good number of “female pervert” characters – but she’s bolder than many of them, jokingly-but-clearly stating that she wants to marry Madoka and that she’d be jealous of any man who stole her away. Sayaka, in short, is not so much in a closet as she is in a glass box. She is in the unenviable position of everybody around her knowing she’s a lesbian, and having to prove otherwise, unlike Madoka who mostly just keeps her mouth shut.

So, immediately, we have two models of femininity – one ‘traditional’ and one ‘progressive’, and both determinedly heterosexual. And Madoka and Sayaka playing boob-grab tickle games in the middle. (Poor beans. That’s not subtle.)

Enter, of course, Homura Akemi. Obviously, the blushing and stuttering that Madoka does is “supposed” to be because Homura is the girl from her dream – but realistically, within the anime, it plays out as immediate attraction. It’s not just about physical looks, either. I never put this together before, but Homura correcting the spelling of her name – with such confidence – is where Madoka seems to REALLY get antsy. Having a female character calmly and expressly exert the power to fix even a small thing shouldn’t be new to Madoka – she has a businesswoman for a mother – but names are of particular importance to the trans community. Oh, to have the courage to simply correct somebody!

On the way to the Nurse’s Office, Homura delivers her speech, so carefully rehearsed to prevent Madoka from becoming a magical girl. What does she say? “Do you treasure the life you currently live? Your family, your friends? Stay as you are and don’t change.”

It’s unintentionally cruel of Homura in a number of ways. Because what she’s saying to Madoka, put in the context of the most clearly queer character being said to the closeted/questioning one: Don’t come out. Don’t get involved with fighting to change things. Living happily and blindly is better than the cruelty you will have to face.

Cruel or not, it’s well-intentioned. How could Homura say anything else, knowing what she knows? But it’s also not the full story – because Madoka has to witness the violence that happens to her peers (Sayaka, Mami, Kyouko) anyway, and is targeted by witches regardless. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether she “gets” involved, or comes out of the closet, or is proud of her identity. It’s already true, and she’s already involved.

This can be read in any number of ways, obviously. I’m biased towards a trans reading because I identify as trans, but also because transformation and being a “truer, better” version of yourself versus for others show up a lot. However, a lot of that applies to sapphic identity as well! The collisions of queerness and misogyny leave very similar traces, and ultimately, despite what some people like to say, the communities have a lot in common even before they overlap. Is Sayaka a butch lesbian or a closeted trans man? In the context of PMMM it doesn’t matter – it’s the disconnect from the womanhood that Hitomi and Madoka’s mother offer that marks her as Different and Dangerous.

After that, and some more scenes reaffirming Sayaka as the Closeted Queer Kid and Hitomi as the Perfect Traditional Woman-In-Training, we get to Kyuubey’s entrance and Homura getting a faceful of fire extinguisher from Sayaka. This scene to first-time viewers very clearly sets up Homura as a villain; on rewatch, the DARVO jumps out. DARVO stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender – a common practice of abusers in which they deny the initial assault ever took place, attack (often subtlety or passive-aggressively) the accuser, and reverse their roles. “I was the one REALLY being abused”, etc. Mami and Kyuubey do an excellent and terrifying job of making out like Homura is the scary one and protecting Kyuubey’s reputation and image of a Cute, Cuddly Creature that can do no wrong. Down to Mami subtly and passive-aggressively making sure Homura gets the message that she gets one extra chance and Kyuubey making the deliberate choice to call out to Madoka helplessly even when shooting him will not kill him, they use their relative power to change the narrative. The relative power, in this case, has a lot to do with respectability politics, which I’m going to be returning to as I watch the rest of the anime! For this scene, though, the most relevant part is that Mami and Kyuubey can ‘play the parts’ of victim better than Homura – the tough-as-nails, coping through blank effect, trauma survivor – can. Homura cannot, at this point in her story, allow herself to look pathetic or weak; Kyubey can and will, and at Homura’s expense.

Finally, the witch; while I’ll talk more about the witches next episode, it is definitely worth paying attention to that the same dynamics are set up here as with Madoka and Sayaka saving Kyubey. They are endangered by something that appears, at first blush, to be scary and violent – Mami appears in the nick of time, the hero who can protect them from the Big Scary Thing and look good.

That’s episode one! I’ll be getting back to this when I can, so expect these to show up consistently for a while.

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