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Babes in toyland; Xena versus Sailor Moon

Posted 01-12-99

Saturday Night (Canadian)
February 1997
By No. 1, Vol. 112. Page 83
Illustration and photo.

This is an essay on which is the better role model for young girls: Sialor Moon or Xena: Warrior Princess. XWP wins. In the article WHOOSH is mentioned along with the Encyclopedia Xenaica (no longer associated with WHOOSH), and the articles "Visual Metaphor in Xena: Warrior Princess" [by Carmen Carter] and "Xena: Warrior Princess: A Native American Perspective" [by Linda Knighton].


   "Sailor Moon" is all the rage, but a butt-kicking Amazon named Xena is a
better role model for your daughter

   As someone with the upper-body strength of an eleven-year-old boy; it's not
often I find myself feeling like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But just before
Christmas I ventured into the toy section of a major department store and
entered a crush of people who, like The Muscled One's character in the bad-idea
holiday movie Jingle All the Way, had no higher purpose on earth than securing
this years toy of choice.

   The object of our desire? A "Sailor Moon" action figure, spin-off merchandise
from the hugely popular animated children's series that targets girls between
six and eleven. If you don't know any children of that description, you may
never have heard of the show. If you do, you probably find yourself even now
humming its inane but catchy theme song - "Fighting evil by moonlight, winning
love by daylight, never shrinking from a real fight, she's the one called Sailor
Moon." Yes, she is, and the action figure comes in three sizes ranging in price
from ten to thirty dollars.  

   Based on a hit comic book, "Sailor Moon" is a Japanese cartoon fantasy that
has quickly become the most popular children's show in the world. Carried in
Canada on the CanWest Global Network, YTV, and several private stations, it has
a growing, passionately loyal audience, about sixty per cent female. (On some
cable services you can see it as many as four times a day, including, rather
incongruously, late at night.) The show centres on a group of five schoolgirls,
all of them Caucasian and well endowed with enormous eyes, slim legs, and manes
of flowing hair, who live in a dry that sports Japanese signs and cars but no
visible adult residents. The five are led by the blonde Serena, otherwise known
as Sailor Moon, who spearheads their daily battles against the evil Queen Beryl
and the wicked alien twins, Alan and Ann. Serena's pals Raye, Amy, Mina, and
Lita round out the Sailor Scouts, living their double lives as, respectively,
Sailors Mars, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter.

   According to its supporters, "Sailor Mood' is doing something unprecedented
in children's television: providing a strong role model for pre-teen girls: "The
issue of a girl being empowered is a wonderful theme you just don't see in
American animation," says Andy Heyward, president of DIC Entertainment, the
California-based company that adapted the show for North America. "There's very
little, if anything, out there starring a girl."

   And girls, it seems, are now ready to trade in Betty and Veronica, not to
mention those alternatively frumpy or perky girls on "Scooby Doo," for genuine
comic-book heroes. This isn't just Nancy Drew: it's Nancy Drew with supernatural
powers, deadly rays and freeze guns, and exploding balls the whole array of
superhero armament. As the DIC press release concludes, with true comic-book
hyperbole: "The combination of her cry 'MOON POWER' and the Hi-Tech powers from
her secret locket will make SAILOR MOON the female force of the 90s!" So that's
an action figure, not a doll you can buy at Eaton's - and with lots more to
come. Sales of "Sailor Moon" merchandise in Japan reached $ 1.5-billion (U.S.)
between 1993 and 1995, outstripping both Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mighty
Morphin Power Rangers. For Irwin Toys, Canada's biggest toy company, it was the
top-selling line this past Christmas.

   The show itself is long on energy but short on coherence, with no explanation
provided for its basic premise, no dues as to how Serena and her friends
acquired their various superhero powers - or their super-model bodies. In battle
each of the girls transforms from a school-uniformed four-teen-year-old into a
bizarre male fantasy of adolescent beauty. The knee-length pleated skirts of
their sailor suits shrink to micromini size, their Buster Browns mutate into
sexy boots or high heels. Their virginal Victorian-style blouses become
form-fitting sleeveless tunics that emphasize pubescent breasts and collarbones,
even as the Scouts arch their backs, preen, and knock their knees together in
poses borrowed directly from the Victoria's Secret catalogue. I am not making
any of this up.

   Which explains the appeal of "Sailor Moon" for a certain kind of man, I
suppose, possibly including the original producers. It also explains some of the
controversy the show has generated. In December, my local CBC affiliate ran a
news segment in which a professor of mass media at York University called it
sexist and inappropriate, citing in particular all the primping the Sailor
Scouts engage in before battle. George Irwin, president of Irwin Toys, defended
the show by saying, rather unfortunately, that it is "reflective of the type of
girls and what they do these days."

   Obviously, parents aren't concerned. Some of them undoubtedly are happy that
the show includes, at the end of each episode, a preachy "Sailor Says" segment
in which Sailor Moon articulates an uplifting moral: "If you get angry with
younger kids, talk to your parents or another adult about it," she chirps after
one adventure involving a difficult baby. "Be patient with your little brothers
and sisters - one day they might grow up to be a lot bigger than you!"

   But girls find "Sailor Moon" compelling for other reasons: the idea of a
secret life, for instance, or the prospect of fighting evil in close-knit
groups, talking in tough-guy cliches. ("You're sushi!" Sailor Moon snarls to an
enemy in one episode. I wonder if that was in the Japanese script.) They are
also drawn to the small differences between the five Scouts, identifying one or
another as a favourite. The doll boxes even offer little personality profiles to
encourage this - Serena's listed hobby is shopping, for example, and Lita's
cooking, but Raye is "into meditation" and "actively dislikes television." Evil
Queen Beryl, by the way, who has narrow eye slits in place of the girls'
insectoid globes, is listed as being "twenty-something," which I suppose is
morbidly old if you're ten.

   And while it's true that these gestures of individuation, as well as the
larger theme of female empowerment, sit uneasily with the soft-porn visuals of
the series, more disturbing is the basic arc of the narratives, which repeatedly
show the Scouts stumbling into alien battles they really can't handle. At the
decisive moment, just as they are about to be scorched by Beryl or Alan, a male
figure called Moonlight Knight appears, throws down what looks like a carnation,
and delivers a little sermon that bucks the girls up and turns the tide of
battle. For some reason I have yet to fathom, Moonlight Knight is dressed in
flowing desert robes and Lawrence of Arabia headgear. The Scouts look at him
with abject teenage love in their eyes; you can tell because their massive
pupils are suddenly replaced by throbbing red hearts.

   "Well done, Sailor Scouts," he tells the five after one narrowly averted
disaster. "Keep a melody in your heart and a lilt in your voice. So long." The
girls heave a collective sigh. "What a hunk-meister," Sailor Moon whispers,
blushing madly.

   There's a better answer out there to the lack of TV role models for girls,
though it might seem an unlikely one at first. "Xena: Warrior Princess," shown
on most of the same stations as "Sailor Moon," is a live-action fantasy show
centring on a strong female character whose belief in justice is matched only by
her ability to swing a sword, perform dexterous back flips, and land brutal
roundhouse kicks.

   A reformed mercenary, the beautiful Xena (Lucy Lawless) now uses her warrior
abilities for good rather than evil, slapping miscreants into shape and treating
cruel rulers to her gleeful brand of Amazonian butt-kicking. The series is like
a Marvel comic book brought to life, complete with wisecracking hero, adolescent
cleverness, and background of garbled lore. In one episode, the mythological
figure Sisyphus appears as an evil magician trying to get Xena to take over his
eternal rock-rolling fate - an incident missing from my edition of Bulfinch.

   On the other hand, who cares? "Xena" is good fun, and its cartoonish wit is
drawing a fast-growing, enthusiastic teenage and young-adult audience, male and
female, as well as the main target group of pre-teen girls. Its more loyal fans,
who call themselves "Xenites," watch the show in groups while consuming Xena's
favoured snack of nut bread. Inevitably, the show has spawned a number of sites
on the World Wide Web, including one called Whoosh!, after the cheesy sound
effect used in the series for everything from sword thrusts to Xena's back
flips. The site boasts a complete episode guide, an "Encyclopedia Xenaica," and
apparently serious articles on such subjects as "Visual Metaphor in Xena:
Warrior Princess,"and "Xena: Warrior Princess: A Native American Perspective."
I'm not making this up either.

   So maybe some grown-ups have way too much time on their hands. But for
younger fans, "Xena," along with the equally silly "Hercules: The Legendary
Journeys," from which it was spun off, is obviously striking some deep
mythopoeic chord.

   It also, in contrast to "Sailor Moon," makes the traditionally male superhero
genre cool for girls without hollowing out the strong message. Yes, the
blue-eyed, raven-haired Xena does cavort in revealing leather jerkins and
thigh-high boots: an outfit that got her anatomically correct action figure
included on an annual list of "warped Christmas playthings." And her moral
pronunciamentos aren't much more sophisticated than Sailor Moon's - "It takes a
lot more strength to resist violence than to surrender to it," she opines in one
episode. But they are at least based on hard-won experience. And Xena never has
to be rescued by a man; on the contrary, she does the rescuing herself.

   You might think "Xena" is just comic-book cheesecake, the way Lynda Carter's
Playboy-style "Wonder Woman" series was in the seventies. But don't
underestimate Xena's ability to inspire self-reliance in young female fans, even
a kind of new-style power feminism. In this age of explicit tele-visual
disclosure of bodily attributes, when "Baywatch" is the worldwide standard of
what's watchable, the warrior princess compellingly combines action with
appearance. In an episode that found her transported into the equally luscious
body of her archenemy, Callisto, Xena shut down one man's amorous approach by
saying, "It's not my body that makes me who I am - it's my deeds." Then she
punched him.

   If only Sailor Moon would do that to Moonlight Knight once in a while.

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