PUELLA MAGI MADOKA: When society fails a girl, she becomes a witch

Note: this is an old post from 2013 that I’m republishing. It predates the release of the third Madoka movie, The Rebellion Story, and doesn’t take that into account. I might revisit this at some point to incorporate the third movie, time permitting.

So there’ve been endless terabytes of pixels spilled over this show, about how it subverts the magical girl genre and whatnot, blah blah grimdark very popular with male nerds due to said grimdark/subversion, etc etc.

You know what, though? Those analysts are wrong. Puella Magi Madoka Magica stays absolutely true to the genre.

There’ve been analyses to the tune of the series being essentially misogynistic in its portrayal of teenage girls as ticking time-bombs who inevitably become psychopathic evil forces, and apparently the writers and producers might’ve said something to indicate sexist intentions (?)–I’ve never really delved into those and can’t find the relevant quotes. But let’s say the author is dead and go from there.

While Kyubey is an alien, it is coded more or less as male–and the structure with which it selects victims for contracts patriarchal: it and its fellow incubators (there are others, apparently, though dunno if the gazillion manga spin-offs are canon and maybe there’s a female incubator somewhere) choose only young girls to harvest energy and stave off universal entropy. The view of female emotions and passions as frightening and explosive closely mirrors that of our own society, where women are meant to be meek from birth to death. There’s limited to no support for teenage girls who undergo difficult experiences. Instead, their emotions are dismissed and trivialized as too sensitive, hysterical, ridiculous, and laughable. Women are barely real people, teenage girls even less so.

Given this, it’s apt to view the transformation of girls into witches as a response to that unbearable tension. Living in the patriarchy as teenage girls is traumatic, and some girls can and will lash out. Puella Magi literalizes this idea. The girl retreats into her internal safe space, the witch barrier, while lashing out at the world that has failed her; she is then destroyed by a magical girl, who has internalized patriarchal pressure and seeks to subdue other girls who are “acting out unacceptably.” The most powerful witch Walpurgis Night, according to an interview with Urobuchi:

It has the destructive power to bring about natural disasters powerful enough to blow away an entire town, but originally it was a single witch. It’s a witch that has grown from the combination of countless other witches. Walpurgis Night combines with other witches in the same way two powerful tornadoes are able to combine and become larger. It’s essentially a “conglomeration”-type witch. Because it’s so powerful, it rarely shows itself.

I’m tempted to make a joke about Walpurgis Night being an allegorical magical girls’ rights movement that drew those girls together to destroy both the world and hopefully the alien species that’s perpetuating the contract system. In one of the timelines, if Madoka hadn’t purified Homura’s soul gem at the last minute the two of them would have become the next pair of world-destroying witches. Homura explicitly tells Madoka, “How about we both become monsters and break this world until there’s no more evil, no more sadness, nothing at all?” Even in the “final” timeline where Madoka has removed the witches, Homura continues to view the world as tragic and evil as evidenced by the ghosts that she must fight–she recognizes that the world’s still an awful place and it’s still terrible to be teenage girls, but she’ll protect it out of love for Madoka, in her name and using her weapon.

Witchhood is typically associated with women: the third stage after maiden and mother. Madoka girls skip the motherhood part since they’re never allowed to reach adulthood before Kyubey’s contract destroys them, but they remain constrained by the remaining roles: the innocent maiden and the powerful crone/witch–and since female power is to be feared, the witches are of course “evil.” Kyubey keeps the transformation from magical girl to witch a secret, instructing the girls he recruits that the witches are irredeemable monsters rather than the product of PTSD. The narrative of course doesn’t offer possibilities for a reversal from witch to girl; as far as we know they are beyond being reasoned with, pure monstrous ids that destroy and consume–Madoka’s final witch form tries to annihilate earth itself, though like all other witches it has a specific vision:

Witch of salvation. Her nature is mercy. She absorbs any life on the planet into her newly created heaven–her barrier. The only way to defeat this witch is to make the world free of misfortune. If there’s no grief in this world, she will believe this world is already a heaven.

Madoka’s witch doesn’t destroy mindlessly; she wants to impose her inner utopia on an outside world that’s deeply hostile to women.

It’s of some interest that official sources choose to call the witches’ dimension “barriers”–whether or not this is intentional it does carry the connotations that they exist as the witches’ defenses, adding to the idea that they are the witches’ safe space. The witches don’t leave their barriers ever–they can’t even seem to stay too far from these barriers’ center: if they can find the exit, magical girls can escape with relative ease. Familiars operate in these barriers to enforce the witches’ sense of security and to reinforce their vision of utopia, whether it is tea parties or rose gardens symbolizing the witch’s/girl’s coping mechanism.

Several viewers consider adulthood in Puella presented as terrifying–but what’s really terrifying isn’t so much adulthood itself but the fact that, as teenage girls, reaching adulthood can be terrifying due to a lack of support and cultural denial of sympathy or empathy.

Of the main characters, the girls who fall into despair tend to have no support network and their problems result directly from men: Kyoko’s father was an unstable fanatic who murdered his entire family, Sayaka centers her life around a male crush who treats her like trash and her moment of breakdown is instigated by faceless men being assholes about the women they’re exploiting (“dumb slut,” “You just can’t treat women like rational human beings”). She specifically lashes out at misogynistic men who confirm that the world, containing scum, isn’t worth protecting–and she is narratively demonified: she becomes a witch.

Madoka, in contrast, has a loving family and more importantly a mother who’s close to and cares for her (possibly Madoka’s mother is the only adult in the series who has something useful to say, though like adults tend to be in media with child protagonists she is essentially ineffective)–she’s the only one throughout multiple timelines who remains the most idealistic to the bitter end. Homura, though without a support network, finds a home with the other magical girls and a raison d’etre in Madoka. These two are motivated by their bond for one another and they are the only two who successfully escape the cycle, Madoka by ultimately erasing it. How well that’ll turn out remains to be seen later this year when the third movie comes out, but it does stand that Madoka overthrows a system that specifically targets young girls and literally becomes an omnipotent deity who uses her cosmic powers to save all the girls that have been victimized by it past, present and future.

It’s a celebration of the heart of the magical girl genre: the intense, deep bond between girls that makes anything possible–even godlike powers that rewrite the universe.

Madoka’s ascent to godhood reminds me of Elaine Belloc’s; both girls become the ultimate omnipotent force and both alter timelines to find happiness for people closest to them–Madoka’s and Elaine’s mothers, Madoka’s and Elaine’s closest friends. Where they differ crucially is the source of their power: Yahweh directly hands over his to Elaine while Madoka’s comes from the weight of accumulated misery created by Homura’s constant alteration of timelines. Elaine’s power is inherited from a male source, Madoka’s from a female one, however inadvertent. Moreover, Elaine’s godhood is approved by men (Yahweh and Lucifer) whereas Kyubey neither expects nor approves Madoka turning into a cosmic concept that wrecks his species’ energy-harvesting scheme. So while Elaine has an arguably easier time of it narratively, she still works within a men-approved system. Madoka outright breaks it.

It’s still only an accidentally feminist show in the sense that I doubt any of the people involved with it set out with a specifically progressive goal (and there’s some amount of fanservice), but it lends itself surprisingly well to a feminist analysis–pretty obviously, so it’s not like you need a degree in gender studies to see it, though I’ve probably got one of those lying around somewhere.

By the way, official art includes things like this. You still see people screaming that Madoka and Homura are JUST REALLY GAL PALS. I know I tie my hand to my platonic friend’s with a red ribbon of fate all the time while blushing furiously. Don’t you?