Anime magical girls and witches seem to fill a similar niche in their respective media. Both are centered around the inherent powers of women—whether they are feared or not because of it–and the idea of gathering power from what one wants is vital in the use of their powers. Though a witch may be more apt to use a love potion or other more unsavory methods in popular media, and magical girls typically want peace and love, the similarities aren’t difficult to see. Moreover, while these character types are stereotypically feminine, their real strength comes from how the magic they’re given only serves to build up the inner strength of the character in a way more easily understood by younger audiences. Sailor Moon doesn’t start caring about her loved ones extra hard because of her magic, it just helps her defend her friends and family in a way she wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Similarly, Marnie in Halloweentown doesn’t seek new challenges just because she found out she’s a witch, but being a witch offers her a whole new set of obstacles she’s excited to test her mettle against. In both cases, the girls are allowed to try and fail and embrace all the feelings that come with that.
Expanding on the overlap between witches and anime magical girls at some point really only makes sense; however, I will always be disappointed that the most prominent example of this to date is in Madoka. I watched the series a while ago, and while I liked some parts of it, the series as a whole never sat right with me. While, yes, part of it was because of the torture porn-y aspect of all of it, my main problem with it was how eager the series was to deny the safety of this power fantasy and how that tried to enforce a narrative where powerful women and girls are punished for wanting things.
Spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Rebellion under the cut.
If you need a refresher on the series, check out our short review here and our review of the Rebellion film here. But briefly, Puella Magi Madoka Magica follows the story of five young girls who made a contract with the mysterious, adorable Kyubey to become magical girls. Despite this initially being everything they hoped, eventually they all discover that being a magical girl is a cruel sort of business, and that if they don’t keep fighting, they will turn into their foes and will need to be slain by those they used to call friends and partners.
Each girl signs a contract with Kyubey because they want something. From this, they gain their magical girl powers. Yet rather than becoming the typical scions of protecting the populace, instead the girls are wrapped in a devious plot that immediately robs them of the power they would usually gain from the trope. If the girls in any way begin acting like a normal person (by which I mean give into negative emotions like fear, anger, and sadness) then in a moment they will be swallowed by their darkness and turned into their foes—an enemy called a “witch”. Of course, this transformation is inevitable: time and time again the girls are forced into situations that are dangerous and terrifying, and even without these situations, they’re at an age where even small events can feel monumental and a wrong word could send them into a spiral of despair. There is no refuge in being a magical girl in Madoka: they are young girls who should have the power to help make the world a safer place, but instead become powerless in the face of their desires to be happy and their own emotions. There is no refuge in being a witch; they are creatures with boundless power, but who are formed of negativity and live only to bring havoc and be destroyed.
Now, yes, in some ways this does subvert tropes, and while typically subverting tropes is a good thing, in this case I want you to consider if this is a trope that really needed subverting and if it was done to any great effect. In Madoka, a series written by men for an older, presumably male audience, young magical girls are depowered and constantly tortured for wanting to believe that they can make the world a better place and get the guy in the end, so to speak. Even Madoka, who through the constant time traveling of Homura, becomes the most powerful magical girl who ever lived, sacrifices and dehumanizes herself to put a stop to the magical girl cycle by becoming a god—a god who no one remembers. And Homura, who has been through so many timelines and becomes a super witch—naming herself a demon instead—can never, ever have her wish granted and must live on forever knowing that. While at the end of Rebellion it seems as though things fall back into a normal pattern, the damage has been done. Madoka has become a universe where magical girls wanting things only leads to more pain and suffering that can never entirely be undone, even by other magic.
While there is merit in a series which shows that magical powers aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, or that it’s hard for magical girls to keep that cheery face on at all times, Madoka is not that series. Whether or not a man could ever effectively write that series, the fact of the matter is that Shaft/Aniplex wrote this to stroke their own nihilistic egos and make money off dudes who want to buy cards and figures of cute young girls while watching these same characters cry and suffer on screen and pretending that Madoka is deep. By twisting and depriving two tropes of even stereotypically feminine strength and power, Madoka’s message ends up being less “be careful what you wish for” and more “if you’re a girl, never have desires for yourself.”