Behind The Curtain: A Queer Revisiting of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Episode 2

If you missed where this started, episode 1 is over here! 

Some recap: This analysis covers all of PMMM’s original run, but will not touch on Rebellion. Spoilers apply for the whole series, and assumes you are at least familiar with the ending. 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.

In the analysis of the first episode, we laid some important groundwork; Madoka is surrounded by varying archetypes of femininity. Her mother is a modern businesswoman, corporate-minded and with a house-husband, but otherwise very feminine. Hitomi is an aspiring “traditional” lady (see the trope Yamato Nadeshiko, although Hitomi’s a little dramatic for it and sanding off the rough edges) and deliberately contrasted with Madoka’s mother. And separate from the two of them completely is Sayaka, a tomboy clearly uncomfortable with either proffered role, obviously queer, unable to resist “jokes” about marrying Madoka. Madoka sits somewhere in the center of this triangle, quietly observing and trying to build her own sense of identity as a woman from the influences around her.

Episode 2 opens on Madoka and Sayaka meeting Mami, and this is where some of the really fun subtext gets going. Mami is older than both of them, though not by a whole lot (I believe she’s fourteen, making her two years older) – but of course, in the nature of middle school girls, that makes her unbelievably adult and worldly to Sayaka and Madoka. This isn’t helped by the fact that she has her own apartment, and has magical girl powers.

Then we get into the explanation of magical girls vs. witches, and oof. This episode explains that witches are evil spirits that are born from curses, cause unexplained suicides and murders, and hide deep in hallucinatory labyrinths away from human eyes. In contrast, they are hunted by magical girls, who are warriors of justice who destroy them and purify their own soul gems with the “grief seeds” that witches crack from. In addition to all this, we actually see a witch’s effect on somebody suicidal – it leaves a mark on her neck called a Witch’s Kiss. And this would all be fairly normal fairytale metaphor except for the very, very clear queer subtext everywhere else.

SO. Let’s unpack that. In the wider context of the show and the “big twist” later on, we know that magical girls and witches are the same thing. Witches are all women; they’re the “fallen, broken” versions of magical girls, who are “pure and sweet”. And every single magical girl we’ve met thus far is immensely coded as queer. So it absolutely should not be discarded that a lot of what we’re hearing about witches is really just repackaged homophobia. Lesbophobia, actually, to be exact; while there’s a lot of crossover between discrimination between queer men and women, there are nuances here that make the gendering important. Witches are born from curses; most queer history and fiction carries some of the idea, challenged or otherwise, that our attraction and identity is a curse. Witches cause suicides and murders; that is, they ’cause’ the death of either themselves or other people, in honor killings or deaths out of desperation, the fear of being outed or the despair of unhappiness. The only witch-caused suicide attempt we’ve seen on screen as of this ep is of another woman! Isn’t that interesting. And witches create labyrinths of deception and guile; trans women in particular, and trans lesbians even more so, are accused of trickery and misdirection and lies, as a justification for abuse and murder. Even cis lesbians get this from men – the idea that being attractive and yet unavailable is a lie. Moreover, older queer people are constantly accused of misleading or deceiving young people into “thinking” they’re queer or infecting their minds with lies. If you’ve ever heard about the “queer agenda” or “trans cult”, that’s relevant here.

So our witches, or at least how they’re being talked about, is infested with homophobic and transphobic reasoning. But where does that leave Mami and Kyubey, and the inevitable truth that magical girls and witches are the same? Simple: the job of a magical girl is to fight witches, destroy them, and in turn never, never be like them. That’s the entire point of collecting Grief Seeds from defeated witches. Magical girls are the queer girls who “know better”, the “good, well-behaved” ones who get to be heroes instead of villains… at the cost of hurting their own people. Put in a context that underlines the metaphor: magical girls are asked to use the corpses of “unworthy” magical girls they’ve slaughtered to prove and ensure that they won’t be the next target of the hunt. Even with translation conventions at play, Mami’s use of the phrase ‘witch hunt’ seems intensely appropriate, and a little bit of research into the Japanese word for witch (majo, 魔女) shows that the mythology heavily borrows from Western sources. In other words, while Japanese mythology has some presence here, this is largely a Japanese take on a Western set of myths and folkloric imagery.

Returning to the Witch’s Kiss for a moment, there’s some more imagery here that’s worth looking at. The Witch’s Kiss isn’t on the suicidal woman’s lips; it’s on her neck. Considering witches as not just queer women but queer women who are unable or unwilling to play along with respectability politics – non-passing trans women, sex workers, openly kinky or overtly masculine women, etc. – this is a fascinatingly sexual piece of imagery. It’s intensely dark, too, because it changes the context of the Witches’ Kiss entirely. Do witches actually cause suicides? Or is the “real world” context of this that women tempted by witches have to choose between being outcast “witches” or death, or feel like they have to? Recall the older but still used term ‘fallen woman’ for sex workers and queer women. Adding onto this is a detail that comes up in other analysis, but isn’t dwelt on in connection with other things; Mami doesn’t have any friends. It’s made clear later in the series (if I remember correctly) that Mami was not entirely aware that all witches were magical girls; but there’s still something intensely sad about a queer-coded woman so eager for friends that she’s befriending younger girls, but only as long as she knows that they’ve been “approved” as magical girls. Is she afraid that even as a magical girl she’ll hurt or corrupt those she touches? (While I’m not getting into supplementary material since I haven’t read it directly, Mami and Kyouko were apparently friends prior to the show, which just strengthens this connection. But more on Kyouko later!) So Mami’s life is dedicated to smearing and killing witches to ensure that she’s safe and comfortable, even though she’s horribly lonely as a result – and whether or not she’s really aware that she’ll never be like “normal” people, the audience can see it. Whatever promise of normalcy she wished for or hoped for, she was never going to get it.

However, Mami is only one of the characters that backs this theory up, and one of the most prominent characters in this is actually Sayaka. Despite her tomboyish exterior, Sayaka has no poker face, at all – and it’s not a good thing, not in this environment. I mentioned at the beginning how she can’t resist jokes about marrying Madoka, and that backfires on here, where Hitomi jumps to conclusions about how Madoka and Sayaka are clearly having an illicit romance. “You’ve been staring so intently into each other’s eyes… But you can’t, you’re both girls, it’s a love that can never be!” She runs off, and while Sayaka plays it off with a nervous laugh, Madoka’s more than a little bothered, and they actually have to put work into smoothing Hitomi’s ruffled feathers. This makes it clear why Sayaka isn’t out; as funny as Hitomi is being here, it’s not exactly the most welcoming. Either she’s deliberately joking or being overdramatic, or she genuinely believes it’s the kind of love that can never be, and whether or not she thinks that’s tragic or terrible or romantic, it’s not exactly what young queer girls need to hear from their best friend. Not to mention that she makes it all about her and how isolated she feels.

The respectability politics come back into play with the conversation between Mami, Kyubey, Sayaka and Madoka in class. Mami mentions that it’s actually more common for magical girls to contend against one another; Grief Seeds are a limited and important resource, and the in-fighting goes beyond just the witches and also includes each other. This foreshadows that even their enemy are the same people – and when you consider that their “resource” to stay Clean is their own, this takes on a particularly chilling relevance. I can’t help but compare this to queer exclusionist arguments that worry about “limited resources” being sucked up by asexual, aromantic, trans and non-binary lesbians/queer women, without considering what those people can provide for a community.

The scene afterwards has Homura actively kept away from Madoka, too. Often you’ll see exclusionists, trans-exclusionary radical feminists, and even religious sects take this step – even talking to a “heretic” or a “fallen woman” is enough to taint your views, and so they enforce that having friends who are Not Of Your Group is bad, keep them as far from you as possible, and it’s to make sure that you don’t realize that the arguments… make sense. This shows up in a number of places, and why the urge that both Sayaka and Mami have here to keep Homura away from Madoka at all costs is… worrying. Sayaka’s clearly learned it just from watching Mami and Kyubey, but she hasn’t thought to question what actually makes Homura dangerous. The answer is: nothing. Homura hasn’t hurt or attacked Madoka. Homura has specifically and repeatedly focused her attentions on Kyubey. But because Kyubey has played the role of cute and helpless victim to the hilt, the protective urge has done the work for him and placed Homura in the role of villain very tidily. Notably, Madoka is very quiet about this; she isn’t buying into the “Homura Is Evil” narrative nearly as quickly as Sayaka, and keeping to herself while she unpacks what she’s being told. She gets a bit of a bad rap from critics of PMMM – she isn’t passive, so much as she’s being cautious. 

Finally, we get to the wish – or rather, the initial discussion of them. What would you wish for? The episode pauses and gets unusually (so far) somber when Sayaka isn’t sure what would be important enough for her to risk her life for it. In fact, she does; she just isn’t sure she can say it. Her inner identity, what she wants, is conflicting with a very different desire – the one to be normal. It’s not a surprise, really, that Sayaka is so much faster to buy into everything Mami and Kyubey say. Both Sayaka and Madoka are queer, but one of them is much more obviously so than the other. Madoka can blend in, hide her feelings, and play the girly girl – Sayaka is trying, constantly, and can’t quite make it work. Plus, we know what Madoka’s home life is like, but we never see Sayaka’s. There’s a lot of things unsaid about why Sayaka might be so much more desperate for protection, no matter how slim or secret. She also doesn’t question the idea that she has to earn the wish, or suffer for it; disability politics come in here as well, even if sideways. Being a witch, in the long run, is a punishment for wanting something, or reaching too far – and the theme of being “punished” with insanity or disability is a potent, if ableist, one. But if it isn’t questioned or counteracted early on, it’s accepted, especially if it’s effaced with a beautiful lie on top. You aren’t a witch; you’re a soldier against evil. And when you’re hurt by it later on, well, clearly it’s because you had it coming.

The infamous Episode 3 is next, but I think the concept of “the show is cute and fluffy until episode 3” has already been put away at least for this rewatch. It carries its dread right from the first few minutes, and honestly, watching it with this lens is giving me so much more than I expected. Depressing, but in a way that feels very, very cathartic.

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