Here’s an idea, he says, missing PBS Idea Channel So Much Already, Miraculous is a superhero story of a different type because it is girly.
Don’t get at me on this one. We exist in a world with a culturally-accepted, defined and utilised gender binary, and all the Gender Is Fake, and Girly is Fake comments you can throw out there won’t change the fact that it’s part of how we do exist, and in that existing, there is definitely such a thing as girly stuff. And Miraculous Ladybug is very girly.
Girly is in this case a shorthand aesthetic for the things we already signpost as of or relating to girls. It’s in part an aesthetic, choices full of pinks, bright colours, pastels and broadly emotionally approachable signals. In a lot of media these are things that are also coded as being frivolous, or unimportant, or inherently comical. In Season 1 of Ladybug, Marinette is shown focusing on a fashion show, a school play, a babysitting job, and a literal popularity contest, which are all things I’m fairly sure Spider-Man has made fun of caring about.
They are serious though, and Marinette takes them seriously. Taking these things seriously involves looking – seriously – at why we don’t, about what about them makes them Not Serious. Why is babysitting silly? Why is fashion silly? What makes them somehow less worthy a subject for a teen superhero to care about than, say, a chemistry experiment or a baseball game?
Sexism, yes, but think about the specifics. Why shouldn’t these things matter? Why not? When you start to remember these things are competitions or challenges with their own stakes, and the story takes them seriously, they’re just as rich a vein of fodder for the story as anything else. Since they’re inherently low-stakes problems in universe, though, these aren’t spaces you can have things like Out of Control Lab Accidents that make people into monsters, or introduce gunshot-level threats. The problems in Miraculous have to be superhero-worthy while having roots in these very mundane activities we entrust to children, without the framing of being Eventually Important versions of Important Things that we normally code as for boys.
Know what definitely is a real thing that can feel worthy of a threat in those situations? Human emotions. Distress and sadness and anxiety and all these problems that we struggle with as adults, and maybe don’t even successfully handle. When you look at the problems that come up in the first season you have problems like being ignored by your parents when you were right, not being respected by your peers, being given conflicting information when you’re too young to understand it and being rejected and spurned by someone who you realise was much worse a person than you ever imagined. These emotional states are then, through the narrative tool of Hawkmoth (Papillon in the French, which makes me giggle), transformed into open, obvious metaphors for being stuck on that emotional problem.
There’s also how it informs the tension of the story’s protagonists: Adrien and Marinette are both characters who have Got It for each other, but this tension is not arbitary. Adrien is a good looking boy – both in universe, and also in his design. The story doesn’t present a Very Average looking boy as being handsome, and there are boys around him who are also less pretty, showing the story is actually making him exceptional. The boys are presented as needing to be visually interesting, and they are, rather than being more or less templates of one another.
When the time comes, however, that Marinette takes action – as Ladybug, mind you, since this is clearly part of her contention as a superhero – none of the negative traits we associate with Girly are a problem. Marinette is not shown being paralysed by emotions, or wrapped up in indecision. There is a confidence to her actions that typically would be coded as Not-Girly – but this is story that is so happily and wholly Girly it serves more to ask the question Why Would This Be Out of Type? Ladybug’s behaviour is unlike Marinette’s, but that’s because Marinette isn’t confident – not because she’s a girl.
Let’s take this one to a point of demonstration. In episode 6, the villain, Mr Pigeon, has a whistle that lets him control flocks of pigeons. Oh and spoilers I guess. Point is, in this episode, there’s a moment where three people lunge for it and their hands hit it in a stack – Cat Noir’s hand, then Mr Pigeon’s hand, then Marinette’s hand. And without thinking about it, without a moment of ‘ahah!’ or looking to the characters’ faces or whatever, bam, she just smashes downwards and breaks the object at the bottom of the stack.
Marinette’s problem-solving, the power of getting one Lucky solution in the right time and place, is really excellent as it shows her being thoughtful and confident, quick-thinking and decisive. The story will present her with Oven Mitts and say fix the problem, hero, and she will come up with the solution in some of the most wonderfully silly point-and-click adventure moments in media.
Miraculous is a girly superhero show. It’s about a girl, it’s about the things a girl cares about, and it wants to talk to girls in the storytelling tools of girls. And it’s absolutely great.