Shoujo, Manic Pixie Dream Girls And The Empowerment Of Women

Shoujo: the original Girl Power genre...

Shoujo Shōjo Empowerment

When Frozen was released there was widespread awe. A film that touted female independence, freedom, and a climax that saw the princess rescued by the selfless sacrifice of her sister. The dashing prince turned out to be the bad guy, nobody got married at the end, and the queen gained her crown and throne without a king in sight.

Revolutionary.

Except it wasn’t. Sure, it completely subverted their usual princess trope like it had never been done before. Except it had.

While the western world was churning out Manic Pixie Dream girls by the dozen, shoujo was bringing us female empowerment in anime form. Here’s how the shoujo genre has empowered generations.

Like movies with strong girls in the lead? Check out numbers 1, 2, 5, and 6 on our (ranked) list of Studio Ghibli movies.

What Is A Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Anyway?

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a common trope that crosses genres and pops up in just about everything. In a nutshell, these girls are supporting characters who seldom take the lead. Instead, they function as whirlwinds, blowing into the life of the actual protagonist (who is usually male, repressed, and stuck in some quandary or other) and lifting him out of himself.

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They’re usually young women, stunningly beautiful, highly energetic, and full of enthusiasm for life and love. A childlike glee and playful nature, coupled with eccentricities, quirks, and (more often than not) brightly colored, wild hair, and a complete lack of inhibitions.

Think Kirsten Dunst’s Claire Colburn in Elizabethtown, the quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Their function is to enrich the protagonist’s life. To show him the meaning of love and enable him to embrace a liberated existence. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists purely for the sake of the protagonist. She’s there to make him feel better, improve his life, save him.

The Magic Of Shōjo (Or Shoujo) Girls

Shōjo (or the anglicized Shoujo) is a Japanese word for ‘young girl’ or ‘young woman’ and is a genre of both manga and anime aimed at young females. While the genre often features high school romance and is frequently dismissed as nothing but googly-eyed nonsense for girls, it’s a lot deeper than that.

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The genre may be aimed at teen girls and young adult women, but it’s beloved by anime fans of all ages and genders.

Some of the best anime is shoujo, from Yona of the Dawn to Vampire Knight.

The crux of the shoujo genre is a young, female protagonist who uses her gifts to save themselves, their friends, the world, or all three. Those gifts can be natural, but they are frequently supernatural, magical, or involve the acquisition of power in some form. There is a greater emphasis placed on romance and emotions than other genres.

The Empowerment Of Shoujo

The shoujo genre introduced an entire generation of Millenials to a type of female character they desperately needed. These characters continue to inspire and empower those women, and now provide Gen Z and the up-and-coming Gen Alpha with an array of powerful characters to emulate.

The Rose of Versailles

Not only does The Rose of Versailles feature a cracking female protagonist in the form of Marie Antoinette, but the character of Oscar is also beautifully created. Born a woman in a patriarchal system, Oscar was raised like a man. A soldier, a fighter, a defender, not only is Oscar fully capable of protecting herself, she’s Marie Antoinette’s proverbial knight in shining armor.

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This could easily have become a tale about a woman fighting for her place in a man’s world. But it didn’t. Instead, it portrays a woman who steps into a role usually occupied by a man and simply owns it.

Dress as you will, do as you dream; gender is no longer a barrier to the life you want.

Sailor Moon

Fourteen-year-old Usagi Tsukino finds she can magically transform into Sailor Moon, a superhero with cool powers who defends the world from deadly monsters and evil villains. She teams up with a gang of Sailor Guardians, and together they vanquish foes, go on shopping sprees, agonize over their latest crushes, and wear cool makeup.

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Problems arise as Usagi transforms into her superhero alter-ego, which involves hollering “Moon Prism Power, Make Up!” while her clothes magically disappear and she is left hovering, limbs akimbo, naked and silhouetted against the light of the moon. In short order, she’s clad in a short-skirted sailor outfit, makeup, nail polish, and a bedazzled tiara that doubles as a deadly weapon.

You have to remember, it was the 90s.

Is this seemingly sexualized version of adolescent empowerment? Well, yes. While there’s a questionable focus on fashion, weight concerns, and boys, and we might not like to think these are the things young girls care about, they are.

Sailor Moon portrays female characters capable of juggling all the angst and nonsense of their teens while simultaneously saving the world and prioritizing values like friendship, loyalty, and building up those around you rather than tearing them down is vital.

It’s a far cry from the Manic Pixie Dream Girls of the era, who seemingly existed for the sole purpose of making men look and feel better.

Revolutionary Girl Utena

Another shoujo giving us an empowering view of what it means to be female is Revolutionary Girl Utena. A post-modern fairytale that completely subverts the Disney Princess, Utena picks up similar themes to The Rose of Versailles, in that it explores the role of females in society.

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The titular Utena is an independent, self-sufficient heroine who disregards the regular gender mores of her society and does precisely as she wishes. She does not fall into the trap of being the magical girl who saves the hero at the expense of herself. Nor does she wait demurely to be rescued, so that she might be sidelined as the trophy mate, seamlessly transitioning from shy virgin to sexual goddess to selfless mother, as is so often the case.

We see considerably more liberated and independent women in fiction these days, but shoujo paved the way for much of it, and pre-empted many of the current trends in the portrayal of female characters.

Looking for more 90s gems? Check out our top picks from the decade of Girl Power.

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Hazel Butler
Hazel Butler

During daylight hours, Hazel is a freelance copywriter and editor crafting copy and offering marketing training for businesses and entrepreneurs around the world. After dark, she morphs into an Urban Fantasy and Dark Fantasy author with a penchant for all things dark, twisted and geeky.