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flawed gems: Nanoha, LEGO, and girls

The spark for the post: this article on a 1981 LEGO ad aimed at girls in a not-condescending or gendered way, compared with their new gendered toys ("You can report on cake!")

The substance of the post: talking about an anime series that's slowly grown into one of my biggest fandom obsessions right now, despite its flaws. There should be a word for that, when you know something isn't great but you're really into it anyway.

(After years of occasional vague fanfic ideas for various fandoms, I've actually finally put fanfic ideas to keyboard for this fandom; no I'm not going to show them to anyone yet, it's like my first fiction ever, almost.)

The connection between the two is one of the things I like about it. The article talks about the new LEGO TV van toy, with a female figure reporting on cake and a male figure as camera operator. "Technical stuff is hard!" I thought about toys where the reporter and operator were both female, and then I thought about Nanoha because that's pretty much true there. It's not a series where everyone is female but it's pushing the line. Female roles:

other hero
hero's sidekick
highly technical support
bridge crew
military triumvir
dead emperor
good cook
terrible cook
adoptive mom
awesome mom
worst mom
girl with two moms
distant ranged attacks
stab you in the face attacks
punch you in the face attacks
full dress costume
skimpy costume
roller blader

There's a few duplicates in that, but I could name 19 distinct girls or women to fill out that list, skipping over the 'minions' entry which is at least another 13 people right there. And this still doesn't exhaust all the characters. Pretty impressive for fifty-two 22-minute episodes across three series (13,13,26). No, they aren't all fully developed with detailed backstories; I'd say a lot of them do have distinctive personality and voices, also impressive given that that's mostly personality variations on "kind and nice", except for the villain and a few of the minions. Yes, most of the minions are kind and nice too.

Needless to say the show doesn't so much pass the Bechdel Test as crush and shred it; there are far more than two named female characters and I'm not sure any two *ever* talk about a man, and certainly not romantically. Maybe about an adopted boy. The show might pass a Reverse Bechdel ("are there two named males who talk about something other than a female char") at a season level; it surely wouldn't on an episode level.

Other reasons I like the show: really likeable and (to me) interesting characters; WhiteAndGreyMorality or GoodVsGood conflicts; determinedly nice people and the powers of friendship and adoption, including dealing with a variety of artificial beings; an apparently nice *society*, like Starfleet-with-money nice, including humane prisons, criminal rehab, and flexible officials; that society being not fully developed but intriguing enough to catch my imagination, including the implications of those various artificial servants (AI issues in a magical context); heartbreaking moments; cool music; cool magical superpowers; powers and adventures continuing into adulthood; JumpedAtTheCall (more like mugged the Call and stole its stuff, really)...

Some people like the detailed fight scenes, more like something out of a mecha show than a typical magical girl show, but I'm meh on that. Some of the fights have cool moments but overall it's not my Thing. I'm *really* meh on the transformation scenes, whether focusing on the costume change or on the weapons, which get loving attention of their own. Just *change*, I don't need half a minute or more of clothes vanishing and appearing and unrealistic poses.

But I promised flaws. They range from annoying to personally aggravating. There's the slow pacing of the first half of the first series (though I dream of watching a room watch through the midpoint, so I could cackle at their facial expressions as shock hits.) There's wishing we had a few fewer characters and more development of the more important ones. There's wishing for more world or 'magic' details, though this is also fertile ground for imagination and fanfic. There's wishing the other planet didn't look just like a modern Western-influenced city. There's a couple big plot or backstory holes, that don't so much kill the story as leave me going "wait, what?" "What did she tell her mom?" "Literally, who *raised* this girl whom we meet as a barely 9 year old orphan living alone?" And then...

Anime has a reputation for fanservice, panty shots, or worse. My top anime series, the ones I'd say are great, are pretty clean on this. I've seen some series that are really bad, though not a lot of them (I walked out of Nogizaka Haruka because of how bad it was in this.) I suspect that in sheer quantity, Nanoha is fairly mild: women are usually well-dressed, pubescent boobs tend to be big but aren't ridiculously big (and TVTropes says they diversify to smaller sizes over time). But... it's got enough that I'd have trouble simply pushing it on friends, especially straight female friends. Not many panty shots, but if any is too many, then it's got too many. Spinning naked girls in the title sequence. Naked transformation scenes (but not for the rare magical boys). The fact that some of the naked girls are 9 or 10 years old. (They're not particularly sexualized, but still.) Roommate boob grabs, because uhh I guess sexual harassment is funny when done by a 15 year old genki girl? The suspicion that there's so many female characters because the male producers figured the male audience wanted to look at pretty girls, not icky males; tainted motives?

But, then again, it really does have those pretty girls filling a wide variety of competent roles, and mostly decently dressed and non-sexualized. Most of the time they're wearing clothes that ordinary women would choose to wear to school or the office, or at least accept wearing (pantyhose and dainty shoes might not be first choice, but it's not Star Trek miniskirts.) The problem is in that 'mostly'; it's clean enough to want to recommend but not clean enough to unabashedly do so -- not like Twelve Kingdoms or Full Metal Alchemist or Mushi-shi.

(On officewear: One of the hilarious things about StrikerS for me was that 19 yo Nanoha wears her hightop blue and white sneakers all the time, even with her military skirt-and-hose officewear or her mini-skirted combat outfit. I view it as her personal "fuck you" to anyone else's fashion sense.)

(Why is she wearing a mini-skirt in combat? She flies, uses ranged blasts and binds, and has near Supergirl-level force field defenses; she could be paraplegic without it affecting her fighting style, and the clothing is cosmetic to the actual defenses.)

(I'm not sure there are any high heels in the series. Yes, I went looking at one point. Might have missed some, but it's no Buffy or Homura-chan here. And while there's lots of skirts of all lengths, there's also some pants or shorts.)

Particularly aggravating is that in some ways I'd love to show it for my friends' kids. It's got 9 year old girls who kick ass and a huge variety of competent women. Sounds great for girls who already like the anime they've seen, right? But... those problematic bits, aaargh. I'd probably show it to my hypothetical daughters, my parents were pretty European in this sort of thing (they might have objected because it's a cartoon for kids, not because it shows occasional boobs), but, not my kids.

(There's also bits which aren't flaws but might be problematic-for-kids, particularly some child abuse [non-sexual] scenes. It's a legitimate plot point and not Game of Thrones graphic, but still, maybe borderline for the 8 yo. Not to mention the 5 yo, though she can't read yet so a subtitled show is off limits anyway. Again, I grew up with "Fanny and Alexander" and its whipping scene, but I'm not the one who has to deal with any nightmares here.)

I don't have any problem with *liking* the show, it's okay to like things that are problematic, I just wish I could share the love more, but there's good reasons why most of the people I know might not be into it. The really frustrating thing is that the turn-offs are so unnecessary. They don't affect the story either way, and I'm skeptical that there's enough of them to be titillating to those who'd be titillated by that sort of thing.


Oh hey, maybe I should say something like what it's about. It starts out looking like a standard magical girl show: girl in Tokyo runs across an animal mentor who teaches her magic which she uses to catch loose Jewel Seeds before they wreck her city. It sounds, and for that matter looks, a lot like Card Captor Sakura.

[girl on our left is Sakura, girl on our right is Nanoha. You may notice some similarities.]

Except there's a blink-and-you-miss-it mention of programs, and the viewers now the animal mentor is actually a boy. Or had a boy form, anyway. That's unusual.

Even more unusually, "transformed boy living with a girl" isn't played up for the sitcom laughs it might be. Yuuno gets a couple embarrassed moments but that's it; even when Nanoha finds out, she quickly recovers and is fine with him still living in her room. They *are* 9, after all.

It may be the only magical girl show where our heroine runs from the cops because of all the property damage she's just been party to.

It's also fun watching her progress from "can't use magic" to "can't fly" to "flies like a chicken" to "okay, that was cool". Particularly stage three; I'm not used to seeing heroes progress methodically through stages of sucking less.

The opening alone spoils us for there being two magical girls, one dark (clothing, not skin; no skin color diversity points here, except for the very brown Zafira but he's not human at all), and they're fighting a lot, and I'm told that's unusual; the show is even the trope codifier for Dark Magical Girl. (Also for many other tropes.) It certainly isn't the Sakura mode, nor I think the Sailor Moon mode.

Still, like I said, the pacing at first isn't great, but then Everything Changes, and I don't want to talk about that because I hope to get to watch someone as the change hits. Kind of like "you should watch Madoka no I can't tell you why just watch it through episode 3, okay?"

There's also summary movie versions of the first two series. I've seen people recommend watching the first movie and then the second series, A's, as pretty much all fans agree the second series is the high point of the series: solid pacing, best characters, fewest problematic elements. A's was actually my entry point, which might be why I'm so attached; I think of the franchise as "this really cool thing, plus that other stuff I can mine for ideas."

Man, I feel like I rambled. I hope someone got osmething interesting out of this.

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Damien Sullivan

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