Theme Discussion: Puberty and Virginity in Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a beautiful, artistic, fast-paced thrill ride. However, when I rewatched it, I noticed some details that may be clues to the larger meaning of the show. Now, you have to realize that this is one person's speculation, and take it with a grain of salt as such.
But here are some things I noticed by carefully watching the first episode, which I believe begin to set the stage for later instances of symbolism that point to this overarching metaphor that permeates the entire show.
It begins with a dream from which Madoka wakes up; she then discusses boys while talking to her mother. Her mother is putting on make-up, symbolizing her adult sexuality. Madoka angsts a bit over the decision to wear or not wear red ribbons in her hair. She chooses the red ribbons, but her friend Sayaka teases her at school for it, and borderline molests her while another girl looks on passively. Their school appears mostly female. Her school is also full of glass windows and transparency; glass walls surround her classroom. This shows the girls as vulnerable, exposed to the world.
When she gets to school, the teacher is talking about men. Not science, or grammar, or history. She's talking about how her significant other made her mad by criticizing her cooking. To a girl on the verge of puberty, this is almost like a warning about what will come to her when she discovers boys. I believe this points to an overall tone of Madoka as an anti-male show, that the main message is that boys lead to ruination and suffering and that women are better off either remaining single or being lesbians, which is seen as a more pure and enduring love.
The act of becoming of a magical girl seems to symbolize the loss of virginity; girls enter into this thinking that they'll get what they want out of life by putting out, whatever it is, but the hope is futile. Madoka learns by seeing what happens when other girls make contracts with Kyubey that he is not all he seems to be.
I believe that Kyubey represents men. He lies, not by telling a direct lie, but by concealing the truth. The way a boy might manipulate a girl into "giving it up", concealing his sexual desire and pretending he values her as a person. He is presented as multiple individuals who have the same exact mind, symbolizing men and their imagined uniformity of high sex drives and their willingness to manipulate and use women. In episode 8, he says that he doesn't feel like his species is in the moral wrong because he asks permission and receives consent from girls whenever he makes a contract, but this consent is clearly ill-informed. Kyubey's full name comes from the word "Incubator". He has an egg on his back which opens up to swallow a witch's grief seed when a magical girl is done using it. He claims he uses this energy to prevent the heat death of the universe, but is that just a trick to prey on our species' emotional energy? We'll never know. But what I do know is that Kyubey seems to be himself a womb-like symbol, perhaps representing the way magical girlhood represents the development into womanhood. He even remarks about how unusual it is to him that in our species, middle-aged women are often still called "girls". This is one of many feminist tropes and themes used in this story. He represents the danger of clinging to childish innocence, as he often appears to Madoka amongst her stuffed animals.
Sayaka is an interestingly complicated character. She initially becomes a magical girl in order to heal her friend Kyousuke, who has a paralyzed hand and will never play the violin again. For a while she is enjoying being a magical girl, but some sexist comments she overhears on the train make her question whether the world is worth saving, and she falls into despair. This is also because of her love for Kyousuke being unrequited, Sayaka having been spurned in favor of a mutual friend, Hitomi. When Sayaka finally gives in to despair and becomes a witch, Kyoko tries to save her, even to the point of sacrificing her life, but her death turns out to have been in vain, and they both die.
Sayaka to me fits into this theory that the overarching metaphor of the show is about female puberty and specifically about the loss of virginity. She is like any young girl who thinks that "giving it up" will make the guy she wants like her. She does something that makes him feel good, but in the end, that is not enough to make him fall in love with her.
Her story arc is also about becoming aware of how men can talk about women in their lives in very nasty ways behind their backs, as with the train conversation she overhears. This is part of growing up for girls too, realizing that misogyny is sometimes very real and very heartbreaking. And, unlike with what happens with Madoka and Homura, a lesbian relationship is not enough to save Sayaka from this despair in time, probably because Kyoko is late in admitting her feelings for Sayaka. But as we see with Homura later in this article, lesbian relationships are often the "antidote" for the crushing despair caused by Kyubey (who, like I said, I think represents men, but also female adulthood and female adult sexuality, as a walking yonic symbol).
Mami is a girl who has already become a magical girl by the start of the show. While Homura tries very hard to (albeit in vague terms) warn Sayaka and Madoka from getting involved at all with Kyubey, Mami wants Sayaka and Madoka to become magical girls in order to help her fight witches. This makes her an adversary of Homura in the early episodes. Mami always believes what she's doing is for the greater good, and unlike Kyoko who has an angry and bitter temperament, or Homura's melancholy resignation, she is one of the few characters who retains genuine optimism despite being a magical girl.
However, she dies, and this optimism literally comes back to bite her.
Thus, she represents a more "developed" older girl who claims that losing one's virginity isn't as bad as people think, and that it can be pleasurable. But later, as with being a magical girl, she "gave it up" too readily, and under false pretenses. She didn't have all the information necessary to know the full consequence of what she was getting into. Not only that, but what she was attempting to lead the less experienced girls into.
Everything about Mami seems sensual and hedonistic. Her dress bears a medieval-style waist-cincher, the precursor to the Victorian corset, except in the Victorian era such a thing would have been an undergarment, but in pre-Victorian times it was worn outside the dress. Mami lives in a comfortable apartment, wears the "princess twintails" style associated with rich girls in anime, and is associated with cake. Couple that with her dying by decapitation and you can see who she is based on; none other than Marie Antoinette! And like Marie Antoinette, her excessive, voluptuous lifestyle and tendency to disregard the gravity of the situation causes her downfall and grisly death.
Basically a foil for Mami, Kyoko is also already a magical girl when the series begins. But, unlike Mami who does things for the greater good, Kyoko believes that the only way to not screw things up as a magical girl is to be selfish. Of all the main characters, Kyoko has the most harsh and abrasive personality, but her tough exterior hides a lot of pain from her childhood. Constantly eating food that is most likely stolen, Kyoko represents a pleasure-seeking unlike that of Mami, a more modern consumerist hedonism to contrast with her elegant and traditional ladylike ways.
Kyoko originally made her wish to help her father, who was a struggling heretical preacher. Her wish was for everyone to listen to him. While she fought witches, she saw him as her partner in defending goodness with his preaching. But she became a knight in sour armor after he found out about her little after school hobby and freaked out, killing Kyoko's family and himself.
Now, doesn't that sound kind of like the overprotective dad finding out about his daughter being no longer a virgin, especially the exact kind of reaction you would expect from a preacher? In the anime, he thought her magic was witchcraft. Equally taboo is pre-marital diddly. Kyoko is always seen eating junk food, almost freely admits that she steals as a way of life, and has abandoned morality to think only of herself, at least until she falls for Sayaka. To me, this sounds like a classic example of a good girl gone bad, the preacher's daughter turned to sin, exemplified in her bold outfit design.
You can think of her as having freed her mind, but the show also reveals her self-interest as hallow and ultimately unfulfilling. Only until she meets Sayaka does she begin to realize this. That makes Kyoko like a girl who has sex with boys just to piss off her conservative family, only to find that doing that is not emotionally rewarding as she had hoped.
As a time traveler, Homura is perhaps the most interesting character in the show. She is precognitive of everything that is going to happen, which we find out in later episodes is due to the fact that Homura has time-traveled to relive the same span of time over and over again in order to try and save Madoka from a powerful witch called Walpurgis Night.
Each time she goes back, she makes some kind of mistake. However, she doesn't lose sight of the goal, getting Madoka to never become a magical girl and being strong enough to save her from Walpurgis Night. Originally, Homura was a poor student and weak in gym class, having recently recovered from sickness. She trained hard and hoped to be a magical girl so she could be like Madoka, a friend she grew to idolize.
But when magical girl Madoka in that timeline was killed by Walpurgis, Homura wishes to be able to protect her, and her wish gives her time travel powers, sending her back in time to try to rewrite the past. Over time, Homura learns how to become a more powerful and more confident magical girl by fighting alongside Madoka and Mami. Her solemn quest to fight for Madoka across multiple timelines, to get stronger each time so that one timeline will come where she will be able to save Madoka from both being a magical girl and from Walpurgis Night is ultimately what drives the plot.
Homura is interesting because she purely wanted to be a magical girl only for Madoka's sake, unlike some others, who wanted to be magical girls for the greater good, because of their strong desire for their wishes, or for the sake of power as an end unto itself. Her unselfish devotion borders on madness. Even though in the time travel, Madoka does not remember Homura, since she is traveling back each time to before Madoka met her, Homura endures this endless suffering all for the sake of saving her.
What this mirrors when it comes to pubescent budding sexuality is the cause of the frustrated lesbian crush. When a girl develops a crush on her best friend, she can sometimes feel betrayed or saddened by that friend growing up and developing feelings for boys instead of returning feelings for her. Homura seems to have this problem taken to a whole new level with Madoka.
Madoka is not as interesting of a character as many of the others because, though she is technically the protagonist, she seems like a "Holy Grail" person put on a pedestal by Homura, and basically stumbles into and reacts to situations rather than working hard to be an active participant in her own life.
However, you have to realize that Homura's' actions are playing a major role in why this all takes place the way it does. In the timeline the show is primarily set in, Homura has set things up in the hope that Madoka will never have to be a magical girl. That means that she has become the helpless girl Homura was at the beginning of her own story, because being protected by someone else makes you weaker since you never have to learn how to fight for yourself.
However, keeping her from her destiny of becoming a magical girl seems to increase the power she may potentially wield when she eventually does, increasing Kyubey's desire to trick her into becoming a magical girl, and thus she ends up locked in a chess game over Madoka. Only through endless-seeming time travels does Homura finally figure out how to best Kyubey, but this basically entails rewriting reality to her own liking.
So, Madoka fitting into this theory? Madoka is a straight up damsel in distress. Homura has a mad obsession with saving her, becoming stronger in order to do so. Homura endures watching her friends die over and over, and watching her own words and actions fail before her eyes many times. But because she never gives up hope, she doesn't feed into Kyubey's energy recycling scheme. Madoka is a kind of pure, optimistic essence that gives Homura the strength to continue. If I'm reading this right, this may mean the author sees lesbian romance as more pure than heterosexual love, and that Homura/Madoka is the pairing that means saving Madoka from the inevitable heartache that comes from having relationships with boys.
While the casual viewer might not read between the lines much, there are a lot of sexual undertones in the world of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. The age at which the girls are chosen and the fact that only girls are chosen by Kyubey (I mean, come on, boys have feelings too) seems to be significant, as does the prevalence of egg, seed, and other yonic symbols throughout the show. When paying attention to the details, it seems as though the show's message definitely has to do with female puberty and the loss of one's virginity.
In an early episode, Mami ends up fighting and saving a prostitute from committing suicide, and in the very first episode and at other times throughout the show, Madoka's English teacher goes on misandric tirades rather than actually teaching. She seems to be experiencing the cultural phenomenon especially prevalent in Japan that tells women there is something wrong with them if they're not married by 25 or 30 or so. Kyubey claims he does nothing wrong, but the "consent" he receives from girls is often given under emotional pressure, and/or by the girls being misled by being not fully informed of all the possible consequences of this decision.
Some may argue that boys do this to girls to get them to "put out" when it comes to especially young, naive, inexperienced girls being tricked into thinking it will be good for them to give up their virginity. In the Madoka universe, it also seems like the antidote to the despair and heartache men impose on women is becoming lesbians. This may sound crazy, but it definitely has its real-world counterpart, political lesbianism, which you can read about here.