A PhD Candidate in English at a school in America’s South pitched a class on anime’s “Magical Girl” genre. It was approved. They ended up teaching two sections of an introductory English course with a magical girl theme.
Yes, you read this right: there’s a Magical Girl Anime genre themed uni course. Here’s what was included.
The creator of the course, known as intothepainting on reddit, said they knew that the genre itself would be pretty accessible, and laid out he basic objectives:
- Understand the basic tropes and methodologies of the magical girl genre.
- Use the genre to introduce basic tenets of feminism to the course. One of the big themes of this course ended up being the representation of women in media, so this was an important touchstone.
- Question whether niche interests like anime can elaborate on theoretical questions of aesthetics versus politics in a meaningful way (for those who may be familiar, the Frankfurt school philosophers were instrumental in this point). In other words, can a text talk about social issues without sacrificing the qualities that make it “art?”
- Connect the magical girl genre to larger questions of political importance.
- Teach students how to write (this is, after all, an introductory level English course).
Roughly the first 60 per cent of the course consisted of studying:
- Little Witch Academia
- Sailor Moon: “A Moon Star is Born!”
- Cardcaptor Sakura: “Sakura and the Blacked Out School Arts Festival”
- Revolutionary Girl Utena: “Nanami’s Egg”
- Bakemonogatari: “Tsubasa Cat, Part 2”
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica, in its entirety.
- The Powerpuff Girls: “Equal Fights”
- Steven Universe: “An Indirect Kiss”
This was followed by:
- Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona: This is a graphic novel about a Pakistani teenager who gains the superpowers and decides to continue the work of longtime Marvel superheroine Captain Marvel.
- The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, by Maxine Hong Kingston: This is a novel about a woman who tries to make sense of her Chinese identity and family history by rewriting Chinese fables and folklore.
- Split, by Cathy Linh Che: This is a collection of poems about recovering from sexual assault and her family’s shared history of trauma from the Vietnam War.
- Dear Esther, by The Chinese Room. This is an indie video game/walking simulator.
“So, how did the course go, overall?” intothepainting asks, “Generally speaking, fairly well.” Here’s how it was conducted:
For the first portion of the course, I would assign readings that we would discuss (usually related to either feminism or aesthetic theory; if anyone is curious about those readings, let me know), and we would then try to apply the ideas of those readings to the episodes that we watched in class together.
I began with Little Witch Academia, in part because I think the story is cute and nearly perfectly done, but also because a lot about that world will seem familiar to fans of the Harry Potter series, which is unsurprisingly far more popular than anime, as a whole.
From there, I wanted to spend some time addressing what feminism is and isn’t, and for this week, I used the American cartoons The Powerpuff Girls, and Steven Universe. These shows worked well because they were more familiar in theme and presentation to the average viewer than the shows that would follow.
It was important that students weren’t too disoriented by the content of the viewing aids, because it’s around this point that the reading I assigned began to get a little more difficult. It also doesn’t hurt that both shows are very much indebted to the magical girl genre (in an interview with Rebecca Sugar, the creator of Steven Universe, for instance, there’s a penguin figurine from the show Mawaru Penguindrum sitting behind her. It’s obvious that she’s a big fan!).
By the time we had gotten to Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Revolutionary Girl Utena, we placed more emphasis on the readings than shows themselves. This was in part because the shows have very simple plotlines and did not require much discussion, and in part because we read the most difficult pieces during this stretch of the course.
Students watched Madoka on their own time, as homework (3 episodes per class meeting) while we discussed the episodes and politics of the show during class time. This show ended up being the first main text of the course since we spent more than a week on it, and as a result, I feel like I ended up grading 45 papers on this show.
After that, we transitioned to the miscellaneous texts, which are all in some way about immigrant women and how they understand their place in their country. I began with the graphic novel, since there isn’t much thematic difference between a magical girl who fights evil, and a superheroine who does the same. I concluded with the game Dear Esther because I thought it’d be a curious way to end the semester (everyone is always really burnt out near finals, and I’d never taught a video game before).
Reflecting on the course, there are a handful of modifications I’d make if I were given the opportunity to do this again. My biggest worry, that students would refuse to engage with texts that they found too weird or culturally unfamiliar, ended up being pretty untrue. Across both classes, I had students put in good work on both assignments as well as discussions.
Perhaps one of my biggest hopes in teaching the course was to demonstrate that any piece of media, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has the ability to portray social issues. By connecting magical girls and immigrant narratives, I hoped to show students the ways that thinking critically about anything, even anime, has the capacity to make their media consumption more valuable.
intothepainting concludes the post with questions for the readers: “What approach would you take to teaching a course on the magical girl genre? On teaching anime in general? Do you think there’s a value to the exposure of this particular medium in a mainstream setting such as the classroom?”