As a female teenager of the 90’s I was well indoctrinated in the notion of girl power and looking for strong female role models in media. This isn’t a bad thing as even now there’s a definite imbalance in the various types of roles and the frequency of them available for males and females in stories. But one thing I found to be a problem then and now is how male characters are treated so often in these kinds of shows.
Though, the standout performer from the nineties was definitely Buffy. Great show with great characters, both male and female. Everyone had their strengths and weaknesses and the plot exploited and promoted these as required. Sure, the show ultimately revolved around the female heroine, but the overall balance between the characters and genders was actually relatively well maintained.
Yesteday, I posted a review of the original Sailor Moon anime and while reviewing it, I realised I kind of brushed straight past Tuxedo Mask and Darien. At the same time as I was drafting that post I watched an episode of Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card and part of me realised that of the two shows that both hit the screen during the 90’s, Syaoran really did beat Tuxedo Mask in terms of being a character rather than a plot device.
Now, it might be unfair to look at a magical girl anime and judge it based on its construction and treatment of male characters, particularly as the attention and focus is undoubtedly on the magical girls themselves. And in that regards, Cardcaptor Sakura is an anomaly in the first place, given it doesn’t have a group of magical girls but rather has one cardcapturing heroine who doesn’t even get a transformation sequence because her costumes are sewn by her best friend. But still, I really do want to look at some of my issues with Tuxedo Mask and some of the reasons why Syaoran is a much better character.
Let’s start with Tuxedo Mask. He comes off as this cool mysterious guy at first who shows up to save our heroine when she’s inexperienced and afraid. The metaphorical knight in shining armour, although lacking the armour because who doesn’t want to fight in a tuxedo. His weapon of choice is a rose though if we actually look at the first season there are perhaps four times in the entire season run when those roses hit anything (Zoisite’s face, a couple of ice crystals, Beryl’s chest). Mostly they hit the ground between Sailor Moon and whoever she’s currently fighting. He then gives a pep-talk. Not joking. He’s usually standing up high (a window ledge, a lamp-post, whatever) and literally talks down to Sailor Moon and the villain and gives a speech about how she can do it and then he either stands and watches or just kind of whisks himself away.
And then he repeats this. Over and over again. While one could argue that his interference in the fight is what gives Sailor Moon her opening to attack, one could also argue that if she’s capable of turning the enemy into moon-dust after his pep-talk, she probably was before hand. And if the heroine still needs a speech to get going sixteen episodes in there’s probably an issue with the heroine of the story.
This is kind of damning in itself in terms of his character because it really does paint him as a plot device. A standard act to be deployed during each and every battle. His only motive given early on is to find the Moon Princess but what is he planning to do after that? He wants his memories back but that’s about all he’s after. His story has no real bite or purpose outside of himself. But it gets worse.
Tuxedo Mask is ultimately captured by the enemy, becoming the damsel in distress to be rescued. Then he’s brain washed and becomes the enemy that has to be saved. However, even as an enemy, he kind of sucks. There’s a strong argument that deep down he still loved Sailor Moon which is why he could never let Malachite’s plans succeed, but ultimately he spends more time saving Sailor Moon and threatening to fight her in the next episode then actually fighting her. It is all a bit pathetic.
So season one Tuxedo Mask is a bust. Then we progress through the seasons. Pretty much in each and every season there’s some reason why Tuxedo Mask can’t be present or useful during the final battle before season 5 literally just disappears him during the first episode only to be rescued right at the end of the season. His character is so incredibly disposable and actually becomes a hindrance to the writers as they need to think of reasons why he wouldn’t be fighting side by side with Sailor Moon. They painted him as this amazing guy who could fight shoulder to shoulder with the Moon Princess but then they wanted an anime about an amazing female soldier who defeats her enemies without the guy involved. It’s a little contrary.
Even if we look at Darien, Tuxedo Mask’s alter-ego, we see a character who has connections only with Rei and Serena. Serena he teases until their identities are revealed and Rei just kind of hangs around him. In later seasons, Darien interacts with almost no-one outside of Serena or Rini (Chibi-Usa). He’s kept to the side of the plot, has limited development, and has very little impact on the rest of the cast.
Syaoran, on the other hand, isn’t held back by any of these issues (of course he has a few of his own). To start with, he is introduced into Cardcaptor as a rival rather than a mysterious guy who might support the heroine. This gives him his own goals and motives from the beginning and also a reason to interact with the heroine. Sometimes the two clash, okay, they clash a lot, but given they are both inherently good people even when bickering they aren’t actually out for blood.
From a power point of view, Syaoran was always incredibly useful. Whether it was tracking down cards or using elemental magic, he was in the fights from the moment he appeared. And while Sakura ultimately gets an edge over him to become the one who gets to keep the Clow Cards, Syaoran is in it to win and works incredibly hard. He has an existence outside of Sakura making him a much stronger and more interesting character than Tuxedo Mask could ever hope to be.
Furthermore, where Sakura is learning about magic and the cards from the ground up in a crash course that has been forced upon her, Syaoran has been studying and preparing for this most of his life. While there are certainly things he doesn’t know, he is still a kid, he brings a wealth of knowledge and know-how to the story that is desperately needed.
He also integrates with the entire cast and is the linking character for others. Mei-rin’s existence makes no sense in the anime outside of her connection to Syaoran. And yet, even though she was an anime original character, she brought so much into the story. Sakura’s school friends get on with Syaoran, her brother teases him, and he and Kero have a fairly rocky relationship. He stands as a character in his own right outside of his connection to the heroine.
Having a male character who is competent and strong doesn’t take away from Sakura. She’s still able to become the heroine of the story. She’s determined, hard-working, a little naive, and ultimately she is the one the cards end up with. But the writers knew they didn’t have to compromise on the male character to make the female shine.
Because that is a worrying trend. For some reason stories where the female is the strong lead seem to attract weak and cowardly male characters who seem just a little bit pathetic (that’s a broad generalisation and I know we can find examples of decent male characters in some of these stories, but there is a trend). What is concerning about this is it insults both the male and female characters and the viewers. It implies that the female can’t be strong in a world where males are competent. And it also just make the male characters look kind of sad.
While Sailor Moon Crystal breathed a little more character into Tuxedo Mask, it can’t paint over the glaring flaws in his narrative. Meanwhile, Syaoran just goes from strength to strength in Clear Card, his only real flaw being that he keeps trying to act alone rather than talking to Sakura – which is kind of a standard flaw for anime characters in general.
Cardcaptor Sakura didn’t take the path of sacrificing a male character for the sake of making a female lead look stronger. It gave us a world way back in the 90’s where the girl could win the day, and the guy, and the guy didn’t actually have to be anything less than what he was.
I’d love to know your thoughts on these two characters, or any other male characters in magical girl anime, so please leave me a comment.