Boy Properties or Girl Properties? How Sailor Moon and Pokemon changed the toy, game and animation properties forever.
Boy Properties or Girl Properties?
By Theodore Jefferson
One of the points I focus on when discussing Sailor Moon is the indispensibility of female protagonists in anime. As far back as Speed Racer, Japanese storytellers have steadfastly insisted that girls and women be front and center in the adventures they animate. Hayao Miyazaki fashioned an entire career with female heroes. For this reason, Sailor Moon was inevitable.
In America, by contrast, the animation, game and toy markets have traditionally been the province of boys. My “children’s television trifecta” of cartoons, breakfast cereal and toy commercials was designed by marketing executives to sell products based on cheaply-produced animated episodes broadcast either on weekday afternoons or Saturday mornings. Those products were usually action figures, race cars or some kind of plastic or metal playset or construction toy. Girls made do with Barbie and the occasional “other doll.” The Disney Princess Concept was still decades away.
By the time the generation raised on Saturday morning cartoons had taken charge of the entertainment industry, everything was different. They were the ones who pointed and shouted “there’s a GIRL in that race car!” when they were watching Speed Racer. They were inspired enough by the idea that by the 21st century, girls were being included in everything from tyrannical deathmatches to imaginary robot wars.
But there is more to it than just an inclusive shift from “no girls allowed” to the opposite. Anime in general, and shows like Sailor Moon and Pokemon in particular, were all able to create a world where a show for boys and a show for girls became the same show. In June of 2000, the ratings among boys ages 9-14 for the third season of Sailor Moon on Cartoon Network were higher than those for girls. Now while some might quasi-cynically assert this is because the Sailor Senshi wore attractive outfits, the historical ratings data tells a different story. Boys didn’t watch Sailor Moon for the short skirts. They watched it because it wasn’t just for girls.
When Satoshi Tajiri created Pokemon, he had an idea that was as brilliant as it was simple. His vision was based on his love of insect collecting, which is likely for a variety of reasons to be more appealing to boys than girls. But when Pokemon became a pet collecting game with adorable little teddy-bear-like creatures as the companions, a merchandising juggernaut was created that is still racking up cosmically high revenues almost 20 years later.
What do these two merchandising icons have in common? Simple. They are not targeted at either boys or girls. In fact, they are equally appealing to both. Sailor Moon is equal parts romance and heroism. Pokemon is equal parts combat and collecting cute teddy bears. The results speak for themselves. Between 1992 and 2003, Sailor Moon and Pokemon combined for over $30 billion in worldwide revenues.
These two shows turned marketing from a world of cartoons, breakfast cereal and toy commercials to a world of the Internet, video games and anime. In the process, they proved it is no longer necessary to decide if a toy or game is just for boys or girls. It can be both and still work.
Here’s how they did it.
What the producers of Sailor Moon and Pokemon recognized very early in their development is that appeal is not an either/or proposition when it comes to audiences for fantasy and action television. As far back as the 1970s, boys and girls were equally likely to watch The Bionic Woman as they were to watch The Six Million Dollar Man. The reason is that in the context of fantasy and action, it doesn’t make any difference who is on an adventure.
When it came time to write a story like Sailor Moon, which is equal parts romance and heroism, the producers asked a very simple question. Will romance appeal to boys and will heroism appeal to girls? Of course they will! The idea that boys don’t appreciate romance makes for very rudimentary storytelling. The idea that girls don’t recognize the appeal of heroism denies human nature. Boys or girls may not experience the two story types in the same way, but the idea that they will reject them outright is not supported by the facts or history. Sailor Moon is proof.
If it is possible for romance and heroism to appeal equally to both boys and girls, then entirely new kinds of storytelling become possible. One of the great strengths of Sailor Moon is its ability to present heroic imagery in female terms. Much of western civilization is built in female heroic imagery, but to hear television executives you would think that girls would run from the room if someone raised their voice in a television show.
The same goes for Pokemon. The idea of taking a fat little dinosaur that can be collected and turning it into a battling beast through power-ups is golden. The idea creates an instant appeal for boys and girls coming from the same product. That’s why Pokemon is worth 11 figures. Girls want to collect every last one of those cute little pets and their brothers want to match them against each other after the key to powering them up is found.
This combination of markets is what has driven everything in animation, toys and games for the last twenty years. Japanese television producers found a way to combine animated television and collectible universally appealing merchandise with video games. While these things were possible in the 1970s and 1980s, the nuanced understanding of the marketing wasn’t there yet.
In Part Two of this series, we’ll take a look at the history behind heroic imagery in Sailor Moon and Pokemon and how it affected the design of both the show and its products.
Theodore Jefferson is the author of The Incredible Untold Story of Sailor Moon, the definitive history of the world-famous animated television series in the United States and other English-speaking territories. Mr. Jefferson is a founding member of the Lexicon Hollow Authors Guild and also writes for Moon Game.
© 2015 Theodore Jefferson