“Sailor Moon is not a good show,” I said to my partner some weeks back. “I mean — I don’t know if it’s a good show. I haven’t seen it since I was sixteen. I have no idea if it holds up.”
“That’s fine,” she said.
“No, listen. It’s badly animated, and formulaic, and so melodramatic. We don’t have to watch it.”
“When have I ever been picky?” she said. She’d known for years that Sailor Uranus and Neptune’s alter egos were the first example of a gay couple I’d ever seen. But for whatever reason, we’d never dug into that corner of my adolescence until that night. Sailor Moon wasn’t part of her lexicon. It had never been a common point of reference.
“I’m just saying, we don’t have to watch it,” I said. I really wanted to watch it.
“I know,” she said.
“We can just watch a couple episodes. We can just skip to Uranus and Neptune.”
“But I don’t know who the other characters are. We’ve got to watch a bit of the first season, at least.”
A bit of the first season. As if we both didn’t know how these things go.
Between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, Sailor Moon was my jam. I never settled for the English dub, with its missing episodes and kissing cousins. I was a completionist, and in the pre-YouTube days of dial-up internet, that meant every penny I earned from extra chores and babysitting went toward bootlegged VHS copies of the subtitled version, purchased via money order through some sketchy GeoCities site. I never thought to question the legality of this. Sailor Moon was serious business.
I was so excited to be sharing that part of my past with my partner. Haruka and Michiru were an important touchstone, yes, but they hadn’t been the only draw for me. I had loved that world, and all the characters in it — especially my former heroine, Sailor Jupiter. After years of hearing me proclaim Jupiter “the best,” my partner would finally see why. She would get it.
Except that she didn’t. And neither did I.
I remembered Jupiter as the toughest of the bunch, the one who threw punches first and asked questions later. Out of combat, she retained her role of devoted guardian, standing up against bullies one moment, sharing her lunch the next. Her love for her friends was fierce, but it came through in her actions more than her words. She protected and nourished them, for she needed them, desperately, even though she could take care of herself. She was sweet and smart, courageous to a fault.
That’s how I remembered her. That’s not how she comes across in the first two seasons of the show. When she appears on the scene, all she can talk about is the handsome senpai who rejected her. I blinked when I saw it. I hadn’t remembered that at all. I grinned nervously at my partner. “It gets better,” I said. I was partially right. The show got better. Jupiter didn’t. When asked to describe her, my partner said, “Moping over ex, can cook, uh…is tall?”
My heart sank. I was baffled. Where was the Jupiter I remembered? Was she in the manga, which I had read between bootleg deliveries? Or worse, was she my own creation, the result of adolescent fanfiction calcifying into actual memory? Was my love for Sailor Jupiter nothing more than wishful thinking?
It wasn’t until we hit season three that I realized my mistake. It wasn’t Sailor Jupiter I had loved. It was her civilian identity, Makoto Kino. As soon as the episode title “Cold-Hearted Uranus? Makoto in Trouble” appeared on screen, a long-forgotten synapse fired. I leaned forward.
“What?” my partner asked.
“I think I watched this one a million times,” I said.
She smirked. “Oh, really.”
I shook my head, frowning at the screen. “Not like that. I…I’m not sure. I don’t remember.”
The episode begins with Makoto confessing to Usagi (Sailor Moon) that she works hard on her culinary skills because “boyish girls need to be good at something like cooking.” It’s painfully clear what she means. Tomboy Makoto doesn’t feel qualified for womanhood, which she equates with wifeliness. Usagi attempts to make her feel better by praising her looks and telling her she’s “feminine enough.”
They step off the curb, right into the path of a speeding motorcycle. Makoto throws herself onto Usagi, knocking her out of harm’s way. The driver pulls off her helmet in a panic, asking if they’re all right. It’s Haruka — gorgeous, androgynous Haruka, appearing in a wash of sparkles and watercolors.
And Makoto’s world just stops.
Let me take a moment to explain Haruka Tenoh. Haruka Tenoh does not have time for your gender binary bullshit. She passes as a man, is often mistaken for a man, and doesn’t correct strangers when they use male pronouns. Haruka knows she’s a woman, and that’s good enough for her. There’s a wonderful moment in a previous episode when Minako (Sailor Venus) flips her lid after learning that the smoldering dude she’s spent the day stalking is not what she expected. Haruka just raises her eyebrows and smiles. “I never said I was a man,” she says. In other words — that’s your problem, not mine.
Back to Makoto, standing dazed in the middle of the street. Haruka ties her scarf around Makoto’s wounded hand, offering heartfelt apologies. Makoto manages to choke out a few syllables, and somehow refrains from swooning as Haruka zooms off with a wink and a cheeky blown kiss. Usagi swoops in like a hawk. “Mako-chan,” she says. “Even if she’s really attractive, Haruka is a woman.” Makoto bolts out of her reverie. “Of course! It’s nothing like that!”
They stare at each other. They laugh, loudly. Too loudly.
I think it’s very common for adolescent girls-who-like-girls (or who knows, maybe everybody) to go through the experience of meeting someone amazing and being unable to parse whether you want her or want to be her. Emerging hormones are confusing as hell, and the line between admiration and attraction can be a tricky one even when you’re not in the throes of puberty. The episode never confirms whether or not Makoto feels that way about Haruka, which works, because Makoto is fifteen. She doesn’t know, either.
After the motorcycle incident, there’s all sorts of nonsense with heart crystals and talismans and the Holy Grail, but none of that’s important. None of that is why fifteen-year-old me watched this episode so many times that twenty-eight-year-old me still knew exactly how each upcoming line of dialogue would sound, even though I don’t speak Japanese. All you need to know is that after a day of searching for excuses to meet Haruka again, Makoto wins the teenage jackpot: she spends the afternoon hanging out with her and Michiru. In their car. And it is the best.
A monster shows up, as expected. It’s after Makoto’s pure heart — or, to be more specific, “your pure heart that looks up to your ideal woman.” There’s a fight scene. The good guys win. Everybody goes back to civilian form (which has the same effect as Clark Kent throwing on a pair of glasses), not knowing they’ve all been fighting together. In a very sweet moment, Makoto binds Haruka’s injured hand with the scarf she’s been meaning to return. Makoto’s blushing, Haruka’s touched, Michiru’s smiling at both of them. And we get it. Makoto gets it. She understands the place Haruka has in her life, and crush or no crush, romance isn’t it. In two lines of internal monologue, she spells it out: “Haruka is wonderful after all. I hope I can be a wonderful woman like her someday.”
Epilogue. We see Makoto inside a clothing store. She’s wearing a dapper skirt-and-vest ensemble, complete with a jaunty scarf around her neck. She poses for the mirror, tossing her hair like Haruka does, blowing a cheeky kiss. Freeze image. Cut to credits.
If you had asked teenage me why I dug that episode so hard, I would have told you that Makoto was my favorite, and that I loved seeing her develop a friendship with Haruka and Michiru, who were awesome. I would not have had the ability to break it down further than that. But I have the benefit of hindsight now. I know the journey I had started on then. I know the things I would learn in the years to follow. As I watched that episode for the first time in twelve-or-more years, I could remember what I had felt back then. Comfort. Kinship.
In twenty-five minutes, Makoto goes from feeling inadequately feminine to seeing that there are infinite ways to be a woman. Haruka knows exactly who she is without needing anyone to confirm it for her. Seeing that in action changes everything for Makoto. And it might have for me, if I had listened more carefully.
Those same years that I was buying bootlegs, I wrestled with two conflicting facts: I liked girls, but I was supposed to like boys. There was no doubt in my mind that I was a woman, but I didn’t quite fit into the neat little box meant to go along with that. Some days, I wore a skirt. Some days, I wore boxers. Some days, I wore boxers under a skirt. I experimented with makeup, boys’ jeans, high heels, combat boots. A few years down the road, I would wear a late Victorian ballgown to prom, and a shirt, tie, and slacks for my senior portrait.
I imagine teenage me, wearing baggy pants and lacy shirts, unsure if I wanted to flaunt my boobs or hide them forever, refusing to admit that guys just weren’t my thing.
I imagine that same girl watching Makoto, with her tomboy swagger and her pink rose earrings, blushing furiously in the backseat of a car belonging to the most glamorous couple ever, feeling awkward and shy and unsure of herself, wishing with all her heart that she could be just like them — not in looks or behavior, necessarily, but in confidence.
I imagine me as I am now, sitting with Makoto at her kitchen table, in an alternate universe where Crystal Tokyo never happened, where she put her transformation stick away in a drawer and went on to have an ordinary life. She’s about my age, probably a little older. She’s got a boyfriend, or a girlfriend, maybe. She pushes a cup of tea and a slice of cake across the table. She asks me what’s wrong.
I say, “I worry that I’m not what a woman is supposed to be. I don’t know if I’m doing it right.”
She cocks her head. “Still?”
She reaches into her pocket, and pulls out her phone. She finds a photo. It’s Haruka and Michiru, at their wedding. Suit and tie, dress and lace. Both of them beautiful. Both of them everything you could ever want to be.
“Your problem,” she says, pointing at the happy couple, “your problem has always been that you see them as either/or. They’re not. They’re opposite ends of a spectrum. You and me, we’re in the middle.” She glances at herself, then at me. She laughs. “I mean, look at us.”
And I look, at our long hair tied back in a practical way, at our mouths that roar, our cheeks that blush, our hands that love to knead bread and play rough. Of course Makoto had appealed to me as a teenager. Of course she had made sense to me. She was me with superpowers and a cosmic destiny. All grown up, she and I no longer needed to try on clothes or pose in front of mirrors. We’d found our balance. We knew who we were. The difference was, I was still judging myself over what I saw. She’d broken that habit many years before, in the back of a yellow sports car.
Makoto looks at the photo and smiles. “They’d be the first to tell you that being masculine doesn’t make you less of a woman, and being feminine doesn’t make you less powerful. And whether you’re gay or a woman or both or neither’s got nothing to do with it. You are who you are.” She looks up at me, and the smile turns sad. “Why don’t you know that? We told you so. You watched us. You loved us.”
I forgot about Makoto, and Haruka, too, right at the time when I needed them most. I moved on from Sailor Moon just as the boxes became unavoidable. Fifteen, sixteen, you’re sometimes still a kid. You’re free to play. Seventeen, eighteen, you’re trying to be an adult, and that comes with rules. I’d been told what a woman was, and what a lesbian was, but neither definition worked for me. And for years — a decade, almost — that gnawed at me. Half an hour of anime hadn’t been enough to break through the things the real world made me swallow. I had not understood the lesson right in front of me, the one I had watched again and again without knowing why.
I wish I’d remembered Makoto. I wish I’d remembered her at seventeen, when some classmate I didn’t even know shouted “dyke!” at me as I walked down the hall. I wish I’d remembered her at twenty, when a college acquaintance — herself gay — looked at the fancy party attire I’d felt so pretty in just seconds before, and said, “I didn’t know you were a dress lesbian.” I wish I’d remembered her at twenty0four, when I came out to my father, at the point when he yelled, “you’re a normal, attractive woman!,” hitting the syllables hard, as if I didn’t understand, as if I had ever in my life questioned that fact. I wish, instead of falling into self-hating silence, feeling like I was some sort of mistake that didn’t fit anywhere, I’d remembered Makoto, forever dancing at a crossroads, and Haruka, who gave her the courage to be okay with that. I wish I’d said what Makoto’s ideal woman had said, with raised eyebrows and an unflappable smile.
I never said I wasn’t.
Becky Chambers writes essays, science fiction, and stuff about video games. She is a weekly contributor to The Mary Sue, and is down to live in space one day. Say hello on Twitter.