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Finding feminist heroes in after-school TV anime shows of the early 2000s

New Zealand was spoiled for choice of after school anime shows in the early 2000s. Lucy Zee remembers the female heroes who shaped her childhood.

Cartoons rule my life. You name it and I’ve probably watched it, seen the comic, bought the merch and read the fan fiction crossover.

My love of cartoons and anime stemmed from watching TV after school. We didn’t have Sky TV so I relied on the offerings from TV2 and TV3. Dragon Ball Z, Yugi-Oh, Digimon – we were spoiled for culture as kids in the early 2000s and I watched every bit of it. When we got the internet, I watched even more. Binge culture didn’t begin with Netflix, it began with Kazaa media desktop burned onto Chinese VCDs and swapped around with my cousins. Have you ever seen an episode of DBZ: Fusion Reborn that was originally in Japanese, subbed to English, dubbed in Cantonese then dubbed into Mandarin, then with that translation subbed back into English? That is how much I love cartoons.

Recently I did an interview and was asked who my feminist role models were growing up. I instantly thought of three anime characters, but because I didn’t want to sound like a nine year old girl I think I said Celine Dion. I wish I had said the names that were in my mind. Television raised me, and I should’ve shown it the respect it deserves – and lucky me, I get to do it right here on the Spinoff. So here are some of my feminist hero role models from anime TV shows that aired after school in New Zealand.

Bulma – Dragon Ball Z

If your #MCM doesn’t love Dragon Ball, he’s no #MCM at all.

Possibly one of the most well known animes outside of Pokemon, Dragon Ball was a multi-saga series about a race of extraterrestrials called ‘Saiyans’ who strived to be the strongest beings in the universe. The action packed, predominantly male-led show includes very few women, but the women who are in the series are portrayed as intelligent, independent people who contribute greatly to saving the world alongside the male fighters.

One of the main people in this series is a character called Bulma. She’s a scientist and inventor – basically the smartest human being in the world – and for the most part is the voice of reason among a bunch of testosterone-fuelled male fighters who are actually a bit afraid of her.

Rarely in children’s cartoons do you get to follow a linear narrative so one of the best things about Bulma’s story arc is that we we get to see her in all the stages of her life – from a temperamental 16 year old prodigy, to dating men and inventing a time machine in her 20s, to eventually being a mother of two in her 40s. Seeing your favourite character grow before your eyes is awesome; you get to see how their decisions affected their future. It wasn’t a simple “And they lived happily ever after” ending, instead we got to see how she raised her kid, how she patiently handled her asshole husband and unflinchingly verbally kicked the universe’s strongest man. And in 2017 she’s still going strong.

A childhood friend of mine loved Bulma as much as I did. We fell out of touch but after a long hard Facebook stalk I discovered that she now works as a magnetics engineer in Texas for a whiteware company. I don’t know what that is but it sounds smart and I’m adding her on Facebook in case she builds a time machine like her hero Bulma did.

Petra Fina Dagmar – Flint the Time Detective

Anime has a tendency to be a lot more bizarre than Western shows, and Flint The Time Detective is definitely up there. It follows Flint, a young cave-boy from the prehistoric era, who travels with two pre-teens through time and space to retrieve cute little creatures. His dad was a hammer.

The antagonist in this convoluted show was a red leather clad, dominatrix-looking woman named Petra Fina Dagmar. Her backstory was that she was a princess with an archaic upbringing who rejected the notion of a planned marriage and became a time traveller instead. Independent, vain, and bossy, Petra became someone I didn’t necessarily aspire to be growing up, but have come to be nonetheless.

A good villain needs emotional layers, a motivation and lots of charisma. These characters need to exist to teach their young earnest audience the difference between right and wrong. but also know that there is a reason why people make harder choices, a villain teaches compassion in young minds.

Sakura and Madison – Cardcaptors

Cardcaptors, during its era, was one of the most beautifully drawn cartoons to be made and had the catchiest theme tune of all time. The main character Sakura stumbles upon an ancient book and accidentally releases magical Clow Cards into the world while discovering her own magical powers. She also meets a cute plush toy-looking creature, Kero, who tells her it’s her job now to return the cards back to the book. Madison is Sakura’s best friend, costume maker, videographer and keeper of her biggest secret. Sakura and Madison would go out at night to capture new cards – Sakura always dressed in a new costume Madison had sewn just for her – and Madison would record the adventures on her handicam.

The dream duo were absolute friendship goals: both incredibly supportive and kind to each other, zero jealousy, and an unbreakable trust between the two. It was a much needed example of friendship when you’re 14 years old and navigating the social politics of high school. It didn’t matter if you weren’t in the cool group, you always had your best friend.

Out of the two, Madison was my favourite. The closest I got to being Madison was two years ago when I sewed a Jabba the Hutt costume the night before a work Christmas party and then, at the party, did a snapchat video with the CEO.

Jessie – Pokemon

Misty might be most Pokemon fans’ #wcw but I prefer Jessie from Team Rocket. Villains seem to be far more interesting, funnier, and more complex than the sidekick goody two shoes girl who’s in the main trio of heroes.

Jessie’s backstory was that she was abandoned by her mother, grew up as an orphan with no money and, through sheer determination, put herself through nursing school. She goes through many different careers – model, weather girl, and ninja – before she joins Team Rocket.

It’s not until she’s forced to team up with two male idiots that her life begins to go awry. Some might say that Team Rocket are a joke, failing every single attempt at sabotage, but what I see is a woman who doesn’t give up. Everyone goes through some kind of adversity in their life. Not everyone has the privilege of waking up late and still getting a badass electric Pokemon for their journey to become a Pokemon Master. Some people actually have to work harder.

You might laugh at Jessie for being terrible at her job and never being able to catch Pikachu, but she’s only 25 and has owned over 20 real Pokemon. How many real Pokemon do you own?

When you’re kid, you don’t actively go out looking for role models or look to understand why a person has come to be because usually a nine year old’s brain isn’t that deep. But you like stuff cos it’s cool or because you can relate to it. Role models don’t need to be real, they just need to be there for you every day after school, in the warm static glow of your TV.


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