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The Invisible Red Thread: Menstruation in Sailor Moon

All ten guardian sit in causal clothes, colored with various shades of red

Editor’s Note1: This is Shojo Power’s first guest post EVAR! And the honor of this first post goes to the creator of missdream.org, Elly Winters.

Editor’s Note2: Since this is a post about menstruation, I want to take a moment to remember that not all women and girls menstruate. Some men have periods as well. Shojo Power! welcomes these perspectives and experiences.

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“Sailor Moon” chronicles the transformation of a clumsy 14 year old crybaby named Usagi into a soldier of love and justice. Along the way Sailor Moon meets four other girls her own age who also undergo the same journey to become sailor soldiers for their respective guardian planets; Sailor Mercury, Sailor Mars, Sailor Jupiter, and Sailor Venus. Later, Usagi meets other girls going through a similar transformation – Sailor Saturn, who is around 12 years old, Sailors Uranus and Neptune, who are thought to be between 17 and 18 years old, and Sailor Pluto, who is a university student in her late teens / early 20s. An array of teenaged girls, all of whom fall somewhere along the spectrum of when girls begin to become women…

While the series “Sailor Moon” focuses on the trials and tribulations of girls transforming into magical warriors of justice, another transformation is quietly happening in the lives of each of the characters. The lack of any mention of this physical transformation in a show dedicated to female empowerment and development is puzzling; how can a show like Sailor Moon, which focuses on a team of girls going through puberty, totally ignore the facts of menstruation?

Many feminists will be quick to point out that most of the Sailor Moon series is drawn and animated with the intention of satisfying the male gaze. And the truth is that most men do not find menstruation sexually titillating. Removing all discussion of the facts of female puberty from Sailor Moon makes the series more palatable for men who are into it for the pretty girls and panty shots, and for parents who may find discussion of menstruation with their young daughters uncomfortable.

But this is still somewhat of a contraction. The creator of Sailor Moon, Naoko Takeuchi, has been unusually public with her personal experiences in menstruation, miscarriage, and child birth. She has a history of being adamantly against changing aspects of the Sailor Moon meta-series to make it more palatable to a male audience. During an interview in the September 2013 issue of ROLa magazine, Naoko Takeuchi spoke extensively about how many of the older male editors in charge at Nakayoshi tried to have her change Sailor Moon so it would “fit in” with other stories in the same genre. In 1990s Japan, Naoko’s refusal to make her female characters stereotypes wasn’t just unheard of; it was revolutionary. Her insistence to create empowered, feminine and beautiful, but ultimately non-traditional characters opened a gateway for other artists to create more varied and in-depth female characters in their own series.

By her own admission, Naoko Takeuchi has a tendency to write herself into her own stories. In Sailor Moon, Usagi’s parents and younger brother share the same names as Naoko Takeuchi’s parents and younger brother. Usagi’s journey into adulthood parallels Naoko’s, and Usagi’s transformation into a magical girl is resonant of Naoko’s transformation into a professional manga author, despite her background as a daydreaming pharmacist and amateur artist.

Given Naoko Takeuchi’s refusal to have her characters conform to the whims of men, and her unusual frankness about her own body, why does Sailor Moon lack discussion of female puberty? We know that Usagi, the series protagonist, has a daughter – a fact that is introduced into the story line fairly early on. Yet no mention is made of Usagi’s experience with puberty, which is especially strange since Usagi is portrayed as accident prone and indiscrete. There is no mention of her pregnancy, and no mention of Usagi’s experience with child birth – all of which Naoko Takeuchi writes about openly and in great detail in her “Punch” series in Young You magazine.

Another quiet contradiction I’ve noticed about the lack of mention of menstruation in Sailor Moon has to do with the format in which it was originally published. Sailor Moon was serialized in “Nakayoshi” magazine, which are a Japanese monthly phone book – roughly 500 pages long – featuring popular girl’s comics. Most of the “big name” girl’s comic series began in Nakayoshi, including Miracle Girls, Saint Tail, Magic Knight Rayearth, Card Captor Sakura, and many others. Along with the manga chapters, Nakayoshi magazine also contains lots of advertisements – for everything from school supplies, sticker sets, toy diaries, clothing, and more, aimed mainly at the elementary school set (ages 8-13 years old).

Most notably, Nakayoshi magazine almost invariably features an ad for sanitary napkins on its back cover. This ad usually includes an educational blurb explaining what a period is, why you shouldn’t be alarmed if you notice blood in your panties, and how to generally manage menstruation. Then it has an advertisement for a popular Japanese company that manufactures sanitary napkins – similar to what you’d find inside of boxes of “Always” or “Kotex” pads, which explains how to use the product. This advertisement always features a female cartoon character with whom the audience is meant to identify. So, we know that the girls who read Nakayoshi are familiar with the ad on the back of the volume; it’s almost a running feature. The intended audience for Sailor Moon is young girls experiencing the early stages of puberty. The discrepancy between the reality that the girls reading Sailor Moon are expecting to adjust to, and the “realities” of the girls in Sailor Moon are quite striking.

Two young girls are eating lunch. Images of pads appear at the bottom of the page.

Advertisement for Laurier Sanitary Napkins from the back cover of the December 1991 Issue of Nakayoshi Magazine.

Sailor Moon overall does a great job of empowering women; it gives us a variety of examples of womanhood, all of whom are worthy and admired in their own right. The show taught many girls that it is okay to want a traditional role; Usagi is the protagonist of the show, and although she is strong and competent, she chooses to become a mother and wife. Sailor Moon teaches us that it is okay to be a career woman; you can be like Sailor Mercury and become a doctor, and that is still beautiful and feminine and worthy of respect. You can choose to devote yourself to spirituality like Sailor Mars. You can be strong and tomboyish and still maintain a soft, nurturing side like Sailor Jupiter. You can be bubbly and whimsical like Sailor Venus, but still be a leader and someone to be taken seriously. You can be a female who functions outside gender norms – you can be a lesbian or a trans-woman and still be valued and admired by your peers. More than anything, Sailor Moon showcases women as complex human beings. Their purpose is not to be a side kick, subordinate or ornament to a man. Women are shown as full people in their own right, all of whom are deserving of respect and dignity, and that is why Sailor Moon as a series is vitally important as a source of positive female role models.

A page of the Sailor V manga, where Minako introduces herself and her friends invite her for drinks.

In Kodansha’s translation, the word “puberty” is used just once in chapter 8 of volume one of Sailor V.

As women and girls, I think it is important for us to take notice when media intended for our consumption whitewashes the facts of biology. In this area Sailor Moon falls short. If Sailor Moon had detailed the experiences of teenaged girls undergoing puberty, or the realities of pregnancy and childbirth as experienced by Usagi, I think that would have been of great value. It could have helped relieve some of the stigma surrounding the female body, which is especially prevalent even in series intended for women. Please share your thoughts on issues of female biology as reflected in Sailor Moon in the comments below – I am curious to hear your thoughts on this subject. Thank you for reading!

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Seth September 19, 2013, 9:29 pm

    I am actually wondering if this is supposed to be a joke article, if it is then i totally understand it’s humor If it’s not… well, i think it’s just taking things *way* too seriously. It’s irrelevant and even at some point bizarre to ask about menstruation on Sailor Moon, there is a whole story and a plot line based around the fights of a group of girls fulfilling their destiny as guardians of justice, filling it up with stories about their periods is pointless.

    I’m not saying that it’s a taboo subject and that no one should talk about that, there was just no room for it, how was it supposed to come? “Eudial, we are going to defeat you fast, because i’m on my period and i want to get it over with… Mars Snake Fire!, oh Mako-chan do you happen to have a maxi pad with you? i totally forgot mines at the temple, oh there comes Sailor Moon, i hope she does!”. It would be the same as asking for scenes where they are in the toilet, or discussing physiological needs, or why there is not an act completely devoted to Shingo having an erection for the first time? or what about Mamoru experiencing an awkward boner during a fight?. Artemis is a cat and there are plenty of times where you see all of his body from all angles, but you never see his genitalia or anus, because in the end it’s an anime/manga series where it’s not requiered to talk about those issues or show them in a graphic manner.

    Naoko talked about her pregnancy and her miscarriage because she is a real life person who felt the need to share aspects of her life, on comics especially made to talk about her personal life. And i don’t recall her to be “unusually public” about her periods, as if she wrote about them on all liner notes or just casually dropped them on interviews “Sailor Moon is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary and i’m so happy because it matches the start of my period, by the way… do you wanna know what kind of underwear i’m wearing so it doesn’t stain?, or how about asking me about if i like pads or tampons uhm?”.

    And just by the way, there is no talk about Usagi’s pregnancy or child birth in the series because it’s something that happened in the future, so it would be irrelevant to throw in such details on the story, and i don’t know about you but i’d rather have the story develop about the misteries of the new enemy and Crystal Tokyo, rather than know if Usagi had a desperate crave for tacos at 3 am, or if she was having cramps, or perhaps you’d wish to have a whole act devoted to know about Neo Queen Serenity’s urinary frequency and if she experiences any leaking after giving birth.

    Trying to patch the issue with Naoko going against standars set by older males in charge is kinda lame, it was about going against all odds, and creating something different with strong female characters, feminism is not about discussing your period out of the blue or shoving the issue down people’s throats, i’m a male and i don’t expect male characters from other series to talk about their erections or tell me if they have grown any pubic hair.

    Either way the article was a fun read.

    • Anne Lee Anne Lee September 19, 2013, 11:45 pm

      Thank you for elaborating on your perspective. I really dislike the phrase “taking things too seriously” because I find it very condescending–I mean, if you want to disagree, that’s fine, but I prefer that people say “I disagree and here’s why…” It’s much more respectful.

      • Seth September 20, 2013, 9:33 pm

        Sorry, it wasn’t my intention to be rude i apologize if it came out that way, and I hope to read another one of your articles very soon, lotsa love 🙂

  • JunketsuNoNarcism September 20, 2013, 6:10 am

    A couple of things –

    Haruka and Michiru weren’t 17 or 18 when they appeared, they were 16. They’re in the same age range as the other girls, but they were born before the start of the school year (April) so they’re one year ahead of the others. (Michiru is only one month older than Rei.) (I realize that’s nit-picking.)

    “Naoko Takeuchi spoke extensively about how many of the older male editors in charge at Nakayoshi tried to have her change Sailor Moon so it would “fit in” with other stories in the same genre. In 1990s Japan, Naoko’s refusal to make her female characters stereotypes wasn’t just unheard of; it was revolutionary. ”

    I think that’s taking it a bit far. I’d say the characters in Sailor Moon are pretty “stereotypical” for the “shoujo” genre, especially in the sense that all of them could have been lead characters in their own “shoujo” series. (None of them are the “best friend” type – none of them are short, overweight, physically awkward, unattractive, etc. – they’re all “main character” types.)

    The genre Takeuchi was talking about was Sentai. (For some reason “sentai” was literally translated as “fighting squadron” rather than using the Japanese word itself, which is a bit confusing because it means something very specific that’s different from its literal translation.) The people at Nakayoshi couldn’t understand doing a “sentai” series where the characters didn’t conform to the usual Sentai character personalities that people had become used to. Even though Gatchaman isn’t technically a “sentai”, it’s very close to one, and since it was animated, it makes sense that they would compare the Sailor Moon concept with it. Takeuchi’s characters are more subtle.

    What she did that WAS “revolutionary” was popularize the all-girl “sentai” series, which, as everybody knows, was quickly copied by a gazillion imitators and remains a very popular genre today.

    • Anne Lee Anne Lee September 21, 2013, 1:43 am

      It sounds like you agree with Elly. 🙂

  • Anne Lee Anne Lee September 22, 2013, 8:51 pm

    Thank you so much for this Elly! I remember years ago there was this website that was dedicated to the tropes in the magical girl genre. (I can’t find it now, I think Geocities ate it). It talked about how transformation pens were analogous to the mangaka’s own pen which was able to empower the mangaka in a real way. It also talked about how “transforming” was a metaphor for puberty–I had never thought of this before and it totally blew my mind! I wonder if Naoko felt that she didn’t have to include periods etc with her characters since it was assumed? LOL Although I dunno, whenever I’m feeling horrible because of my period, I let everyone know–no matter my age! LOL

    Anyway, the only time I think she mentions any bodily function is in Minako and Rei’s Exam Battle where Rei explains she never farts (but Minako totally does! LOL)

    Again, thank you for this! 🙂 🙂

  • Cookie October 6, 2013, 5:16 am

    First of all, I disagree with the notion of Sailor Moon (either manga or anime) being created for the male gaze. While in North America, the anime was extremely with a male audience, in Japan, it seems to have largely had a female audience and has been marketed as such. The drawing style can rather be argued as an attempt from the (male) editors to push the ideal of femininity and what the ‘perfect’ body looks like on to the young female audience.
    I would imagine that the lack of discussion of menstruation in Sailor Moon could be because of two reasons
    1) It could stem from a societal-uncomfortableness of discussing such a “private” matter, especially publicly in a children’s comic
    2) Talking about menstruating could be seen as talking about female sexuality and that would make the male editors even MORE uncomfortable, especially with it being in a children’s comic
    3) I don’t know what talking about it in the story would do to serve the narrative. It would seem, to me anyways, to be weird and awkward for it to come up. What would the point be in using it???
    4) As a woman reader… I don’t wanna read about that~ I don’t need my characters to be *that* relatable. Menstruating is not fun to go through! When I read, I want to be able to escape reality and that is something I like leaving behind for a bit, especially when I am menstruating at the time.

    • Anne Lee Anne Lee October 6, 2013, 4:45 pm

      Thank you for your input!

      1) I wonder why we are uncomfortable with discussing menstruation in public. I mean, all the dudes I know love zombie movies, but talking about periods? Gross! I think this is very ironic. It’s like society can’t deal with women as being human. Dudes can talk about their farts, poops and masturbation and it’s funny. But periods, gross! So weird, I think!

      2) I’m not sure why talking about periods would be uncomfortable. Clearly there are pad ads in the same magazine, so they think that’s ok.

      3) If the manga’s aim is to show the lives of young girls, having your period is one of those things. *shrug* Like, when I was young, my mom bought some pads and put them on the kitchen table. My brother promptly freaked out, saying it was “disgusting.” (I then opened up the package and started throwing them at him cuz he was being dumb LOL). But the truth of the matter was, for years, every month, I had been sitting at that table, using those pads and he didn’t freak out at all cuz I dunno, he didn’t make the connection. Was he going to tell me that I was disgusting? Geez, I was the one having her period every month! As much as it is “disgusting”, it’s something I’ve had to deal every month for 19 years, more than half my life. To me, it’s not so much “disgusting” as a boring part of life.

      4) I see what you’re saying. In my case, I got my period really young and it really sucks having horrible cramps when you’re in 5th grade. My grandmother also got her period really young and it was really nice to have someone who really knew what you were going though. I think even a comment like, “I feel awful, I’m having cramps” would be kinda cool.

      • Cookie October 8, 2013, 6:32 am

        The only time I’ve seen menstruation used in a manga was in the opening pages of After School Nightmare, but it was just the once and it was (maybe??) used to represent the main character’s body’s gender. Menstruation was used in a similar way in ‘Shrinks Pan’.

        • Anne Lee Anne Lee October 10, 2013, 1:46 am

          Interesting!

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