In 1977, when the United States was freshly reeling from Watergate and Vietnam, when it was not only fashionable to sneer but seemed downright mandatory to do so, rock critic Lester Bangs lost his friend Peter Laughner to a drug overdose. To Bangs, the drugs were not the real culprit; they were a symptom of what he saw as "the most intense worship of nihilism and deathtripping in all marketable forms" — a cultural scene that demanded disaffectation, cynicism, disgust, contrarian antiheroics. "It may be time," Bangs wrote, "in spite of all indications to the contrary from the exterior society, to begin thinking in terms of heroes again, of love instead of hate, of energy instead of violence, of strength instead of cruelty, of action instead of reaction."
Here and there, in the likes of everything from Sailor Moon to Steven Universe to Adventure Time, we are seeing a new kind of popular culture come into vogue. How that comes to be for any one fandom, is a process worth documenting, the better to learn how to make it happen again and again. Her Eternal Moonlight, a new study of Sailor Moon fandom — specifically, its female fandom — is an attempt to be part of that process.
Denizens of the Moon Kingdom
Her Eternal Moonlight isn't an attempt to analyze Sailor Moon as such, as there have been any number of works focused on that over the years. Rather, it's a study of the impact of Sailor Moon on its female fans in North America — an attempt to preserve, in the fan's own words, what it was about this show that made it into such a cultural focal point for the women who watched it and made it a part of their lives.
Authors Steven Savage and Bonnie Walling chose to tackle this material as a way to bring a kind of attention to something they felt had a lot of cultural familiarity in certain circles, but not the right kind of analysis. "Despite its massive popularity," they write, "Sailor Moon had become a sort of cultural wallpaper, a background noise you got used to. People were so used to it that it was just kind of there, taken for granted... [T]he Senshi just hadn’t generated as much analysis as we felt was warranted." Doubly so given how Sailor Moon left a major dent in mainstream American pop culture that wasn't always visible face-on.
For those who know Sailor Moon only in passing or not at all, the first part of Her Eternal Moonlight runs quickly through the show's basic premise (crybaby teen gains powers, gets friends, falls in love, saves world), its origins as a successful manga, and its roots in the magical-girl phenomenon that had already swept Japan. The real meat of the book, though, is in examining the reactions of a cadre of different female fans to the show — how they first bumped into it, how some at first ignored it but later circled back to it, how some were struck immediately by it. When the show mattered to people, it really mattered; those that noticed it not only paid attention to it but let it into their lives.
A particularly valuable aspect of this kind of fan archaeology is documenting all the oddball ways a cultural product like Sailor Moon came to people's attention. Not everyone saw it when it first debuted, and not everyone saw it on TV, either. One fan first encountered the series in its Italian incarnation, and then picked up on it once it came Stateside via Toonami. This led to a minor complaint on my part: the book is not always clear about the timeframes for its case studies — e.g., whether the people in question were first exposed to Sailor Moon when it originally appeared, or later on. If this sounds like a nitpick, it's only because such chronologies would have helped us better frame how a given fan's relationship to the show could be mapped against its presence in popular cultural generally.
Girls are doing it for themselves — who else will?
Reading the book's case studies of how Sailor Moon had touched its fans left me with the sense that they fit into roughly two categories. First was how it changed them on the inside — how encountering the show and its characters provided its audience with a way to re-evaluate themselves. Second was how it gave those fans a context to encounter each other, and to transform each others' lives as well.
Savage and Walling also take a chapter to talk about how Sailor Moon benefited from being a fandom that came to the attention of the West right around the time of the Internet's ascension. You couldn't have asked for a better way for a property that rarefied (at least, at first) to be preserved and transmitted between its fans. The same goes for the way the Internet promoted the transformative use of Sailor Moon by way of fanfiction.
The obvious conclusion is that a big part of Sailor Moon's enduring value comes from the way its female fans have made it their own. The less obvious conclusion, one Savage and Walling spend a fair amount of time marveling over, is how the opposite is also true: how at least as much of the show's value comes from the way it has made over its fans. Most of us are able to cite stories about how a given fictional character was a role model for someone (ourselves or someone else); the authors point towards women who felt that much freer to be themselves, without apology, after encountering "crybaby" Usagi, or the "bookworm" Ami.
This matters a lot more than it might look at first glance. One of the things Savage and Walling found their subjects citing again and again was how the show provided female audience members with a feeling of being represented — that for the longest time, they didn't feel like there was something that spoke directly and unashamedly to them as girls, let alone women. Then along came a show that did nothing but that — and a show that came from entirely outside the usual cultural circuit, to boot — and it wasn't hard to see how it lionized their attention. Where before, they had to strive to see themselves reflected in something aimed at them; now, they could scarcely help it, and that was a good thing.
The bending and the shaping
One of the dangers of writing about the sociology of fandom is how it leads to one of two writings styles — mindless gushing or cracker-dry academic jargon. The book avoids both of those extremes — it's chatty, but not mindlessly so, and it elects whenever possible to just talk directly about the transformations and empowerments rather than drawing larger or potentially more ponderous conclusions about it.
Within all that, though, lies one potentially valid criticism: Is there anyone in fandom over the age of majority who hasn't by now seen with their own eyes how positive and transformational fandom is? Isn't just putting this stuff on display too easy? I would argue three things: 1) no, there are a great many who haven't yet seen such things with their own eyes, and 2) that said, there are a great many who might only know about it in the sketchiest of ways. And 3), putting the details on the record matters, even if they seem like tiresomely familiar details to those of us who have lived with this scene for years or even decades on end.
If fandom's door is intended to stand open to all comers, by that token there will always be people walking in said door that know nothing of these things firsthand. What's more, there may not always be other people to take them by the hand and educate them. Female fans of all kinds have historically been on the losing end of such things, whether because fandoms were nominally gate-kept by men or because there wasn't a fandom that approached them as women first.
A book is not a substitute for being welcomed into fandom personally, but it can close the gap. Such gap-closing measures matter all the more if the New Popular Culture, if you want to call it that, is meant to value inclusion, life-affirmation, and personal transformation as explicit values rather than just implied ones. Showing how it happened, not just telling, makes a lot of difference. Hence, this book.