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Saturday Night Magazine

February 1997

Babes in toyland - Xena versus Sailor Moon

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.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Saturday Night Publishing

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