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Based off Chat Noir’s[1] costume design (a leather catsuit with a bell collar and a mop of blonde hair), my partner initially assumed this was a YA-marketed cartoon about a young lesbian couple. We were thus disappointed to discover that Chat Noir was a boy, and that the show (especially initially) was aimed at much younger audiences. Over the course of its first season, however, Miraculous Ladybug & Cat Noir went from pleasant to deeply enjoyable. Its world and plot complexity increased, its ensemble cast grew and developed and, most importantly, its core “love-square” romance blossomed. Even though it is sadly not centrally focused on teen lesbians (we’ll get to Rose and Juleka), Miraculous is still one of the best-made and most thoroughly enjoyable shows running, full-stop, no caveats. The fourth season of twenty-six episodes has just begun airing, the exact date varying by country.

Miraculous Ladybug is a monster-of-the-week narrative fronted by Marinette Dupain-Cheng and Adrien Agreste, fourteen-year-old Parisian classmates and superheroes. Marinette and Adrien were each given a Miraculous after proving themselves to the guardian of these magical devices with small acts of heroism. These complementary pieces of jewellery house the ladybug and black cat “kwami” spirits: the forces of good and bad luck, or creation and destruction. They enable their wielders to transform into masked superheroes, equipped with the tools they need to contain and purify the mysterious malevolent spirits that have begun to possess emotionally disturbed Parisians.

None of these characters are aware that Adrien’s own father, Gabriel, is the man behind these possessions. Gabriel and his wife Emilie were once Miraculous-wielders, and possibly superheroes in their own right—and then something went terribly wrong. Now Emilie’s in a glass coffin in the basement, Adrien thinks his mother’s dead, and Gabriel is terrorizing France as “Hawkmoth” (it ... sounds better in French), beating the living crap out of children in an attempt to steal their magic powers and somehow resuscitate his wife. (At times the show feels like a kidfic that’s gotten out of hand. The narrative focuses on the teenagers, but what were the Agrestes up to? How did they acquire their powers?)

Gabriel doesn’t know that Chat Noir is actually his son, and even Marinette and Adrien don’t know one another’s secret identities. For fairly sound plot reasons, none of the characters have complete information. Because Hawkmoth’s power involves partial mind-control, if Ladybug and Chat Noir share their real names with one another they risk exposing one another’s families to danger in the fairly-likely event that either of them is ever taken over by Hawkmoth themselves. It’s in no way a grim show, yet characters’ trust is only grudgingly earned. In grand YA tradition, the teen characters are seldom willing to cast aside their lateral loyalties based on hearsay or appeals to authority (and crises arise when these loyalties are put into question).

At some point early on in his life, Adrien Agreste’s incredibly overprotective (secret-supervillain and tragic quasi-widower) father decided it was safest for Adrien never to leave the Agreste Mansion. Adrien’s thus spent his life trapped in endless rounds of fencing lessons, Chinese tutoring sessions, and child-model gigs for his father’s fashion line. He’s polite, obedient, frustrated, clever, desperate for approval, intensely moral, and often sweetly clueless about people due to his lack of social experience. At fourteen he begs to enroll in a public junior high school, and accidentally becomes a mahō shōjo protagonist en route.

Adrien’s secret identity gives him a chance to unleash his pent-up energy and get out from under his controlling father’s thumb. Chat Noir can make shitty puns and get bruises: he can use his body actively rather than being trained, posed, photographed, desired, and displayed all over town. With his face hidden under a mask, Adrien can be appreciated for what he chooses to do rather than for his wealthy family or inherited good looks.

Marinette, the show’s central character, is a loyal, stubborn, obsessive, and sometimes neurotic working-class girl who dreams of being a fashion designer. More than dreaming, Marinette is constantly making. Her creative vision and ability to execute it are also fundamental to her work as superhero Ladybug. She’s woefully unable to properly talk to Adrien, the classmate she’s so hung up on that she’s already decided on names for both the children and the hamsters she hopes they’ll someday raise together. Marinette loves Adrien not for being a popular model, but for being a deeply good friend who shares her commitment to seeing the best in people. They’d be the perfect couple, if Marinette could ever complete a sentence in his presence and if Adrien wasn’t already in love with another girl.

Or at least he thinks he is. Because Adrien, as Chat Noir, is in love with heroic, brilliant Ladybug, and makes regular and increasingly serious declarations along these lines. Adrien hasn’t even realised that Marinette has a serious thing for him because he’s fully preoccupied with the love of his life (and how she constantly sidesteps his efforts to woo her). This makes for great comedy and romantic tension, but what’s remarkable is how well-sustained the conceit is.

***

As you may know, France has a strong home-grown comics tradition. (The Anglosphere reputation of Francophone comics suffers due to the inadequate translation and distribution even of classic works such as Mœbius’s titles, or Les Cités Obscures.) The country hosts some of the comic and animation industry’s most important gatherings; an Angoulême Festival Grand Prix award can recognize and crown an influential career (2019’s winner was Rumiko Takahashi, the creator of Ranma ½, Inuyasha, etc.). France also consumes far, far more manga and anime than most Anglosphere countries. There have even been Japanese-French anime co-productions, like Ulysses 31 in the early 1980s.

Given this history of cross-pollination, it makes sense that Miraculous is a screamingly French localisation of the magical girl genre. Japanese firm Toei Animation’s recent HeartCatch PreCure magical girl film was set in Paris, making extensive use of the city’s built environment and cultural cachet. Toei was also involved in the development and production of Miraculous Ladybug, which was originally envisioned as a 2-D, hand-animated project for teen-to-adult audiences. To some extent Miraculous is written and read as a Western-style superhero show, but its genre heart is firmly with mahō shōjo. The importance of the school cast, the eventual gathering of other superheroes to form a colourful team, the transformation sequences, the end-of-episode collage shots and the animal companions—all the familiar, pleasurable tropes are brought into play.

Specifically, you can often feel the influence of genre mainstay Sailor Moon. Tokyo Tower, the signal landmark in Sailor Moon, was inspired by the Eiffel Tower; in Miraculous Ladybug, the original structure playfully invokes the refracted imagery that became central to SM and other anime (in Haikyu!!, a provincial sports team obsessed with going to the nationals thinks every pointy metal thing they see is the Tokyo Tower). Ladybug and Chat Noir’s magical companions Tikki and Plagg’s personalities bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Sailor Moon’s Luna and Artemis. The whole plot of Miraculous Ladybug so far is basically Sailor Saturn’s story. The villain’s power works very like the initial Sailor Moon Queen Beryl mechanic, wherein a person is made into a magically powerful parody of one aspect of their behaviour by a mastermind via an object that must be destroyed to free them and reverse what’s happened (this is also true of several subsequent Magical Girl texts). Chat Noir is both the Saturn and a rethought, more-effective Tuxedo Mask (i.e. he actually does anything, unlike epic time-waster/chin-possessor Darien). There’s a time travel element in both narratives. Marinette’s best friend Alya has the same hair as Serena’s best friend Molly (Americans will remember her inexplicable Brooklyn accent in the dub). Marinette is, like Serena, notably clumsy, and her very name suggests she’s a “girl sailor.” Ladybug episode “Animaestro” makes a direct visual joke (via one of the villain’s transformations) about the series it owes so much to.

Due to its complex production positioning, Miraculous is made in France, South Korea, Japan, Italy (as of series 2), and (as of season 3) Brazil. It’s initially written for all five languages, and simultaneously broadcast in all these countries and the US and the UK. As I understand it, the American-English dub and other languages’ dubs, such as Spanish, are done after the initial languages’ writing and recording process. I freely admit that I don’t fully grasp the procedures and financing involved, and may not be presenting these details precisely enough. But however you slice it, that’s a lot of production prerogatives to weigh and corporate masters to appease, and it leads to some less-than-ideal presentation choices: barring capstone season opening and closing episodes, the production staff seemingly has almost no control over what order the stories are shown in, very like the situation of 1980s BBC science fiction.

I watched the English version and so I can’t speak for the nuances of other iterations. This mind-boggling logistical and translation effort works fairly smoothly, at least on my end. Though much of the show’s considerable humour is carried by the physicality of the animation, its meta touches, its concept-level writing, and its voice-acting, the dialogue is also generally careful and funny where it wants to be. The main characters exchange a lot of puns (a lot of puns, thanks Adrien). While these are of questionable quality, it’s astounding that they exist at all. It’s astounding this show exists at all, and is good, rather than some fugue fever dream of competing moneymen and logistics. There’s even a musical Christmas special, somehow? (The singing is indifferent.)

There are startlingly few awkward translation issues; “Miraculouses” is just weird, as is “m’lady,” which unfortunately makes Chat Noir sound like a men’s rights activist. Alya’s “hey girl”isms and unspecific slanginess is a little over-egged, like a 90s stereotype of how a Cool Black Girl talks. Because the Anglosphere dub is American English, even the Alya that UK audiences hear sounds African-American. This is particularly odd given that the UK has its own Afro-Caribbean immigrant population and culture, which has more historical overlap with the French Afro-Caribbean culture than either group has with African-Americans. I do have some reservations about the intercontinental interchangeability of Black experience and identity this sets up. However I have no reservations about Alya, one of the show’s best characters, who puts up with way too much bullshit (even from also-great Marinette).

I appreciate that translating the show into a seventh language (seriously, how?) is a major undertaking, and I assume some of Alya’s dialogue is shaped by the production team’s struggle to give audiences an impression of the marked, colloquial French that working-class Parisians speak. Even if the show’s translation wasn’t by and large as well-executed as it is, considering what a large-scale production apparently has to go through to secure funding and distribution in the current media environment, I’d be willing to forgive this project a lot.

There’s more to forgive, before the show finds its footing. Although even the first series is enjoyable, the initial stories are especially formulaic and didactic. They present justice as a return to normality, which is rather grating in a story-world where order (as represented by the jovially corrupt and incompetent Mayor Bourgeois and his deputy Officer Raincomprix) is often manifestly unjust.

In the first season episode “Gamer,” Collège Françoise Dupont (the school’s name is a reference to France’s first female superheroine) is supposed to send two students to compete in a video game tournament. Marinette, the best Ultimate Mecha Strike III player in her class, wants to go so that she can hang out with Adrien, the other winning contestant. However this means that both Adrien and Marinette have edged out their mutual friend Max, who deeply wanted to compete for its own sake. Hawkmoth takes advantage of Max’s distress to possess him, which makes Max violently furious about Marinette’s “illegitimate” success. This storyline has creepy ramifications after Gamergate, which was specifically concerned with policing the sexual “looseness” of female gamers. The story doesn’t say that Max is right, but it does suggest that Marinette should leave the competition so that Max can be happy—despite Marinette’s having won fairly, and representing the school’s best chance of a victory—because Marinette’s reasons for wanting to compete are too feminine and emotional. (In the end, the show strikes a kind of balance and avoids making Max’s poor sportsmanship Marinette’s job to manage: Adrien, the second-best player, withdraws so Marinette and Max can attend.)

Initially the two superheroes seem tasked with making people nicely, quietly accept the status quo. But as the show develops, it complicates its own logics. Marinette challenges Chloé for the role of class president, and is elected by their classmates because she listens to their reasonable grievances and attempts to find solutions to them. She asks energetic Alya to be her deputy in a way that respects Alya’s other commitments. When the expanded superhero team has to fight almost all their previous foes in one vast battle, the citizens of Paris (including Marinette’s adventurous grandmother) form impromptu street barricades that enable the superheroes to succeed. The show engages with the specific political imagery and traditions of a city with a rich history of solidarity and resistance. Heroism is repeatedly shown to be a choice about your relationship to others, meaningfully available to anyone who’s willing to do the work. In one emergency, Marinette’s mentor Master Fu gives a whole batch of her classmates superpowers, and there’s nothing cheap about it: you realise that from dim Kim to prissy Max, they’ve all proven themselves as good friends and talented, decent people.

The show also presents French cultural signification and belonging as very much the rightful property of Marinette (half Chinese), Alya (Martinique Creole), Nino Lahiffe (Moroccan), Lê Chiến Kim (Vietnamese), Alix Kubdel (Berber), Nathaniel Kurtzberg (Jewish), and Max Kanté (South African). Their Frenchness is as textually embedded and unquestioned as (white, posh) Chloé's and Adrien's, and many of them are at some point charged with protecting Paris. Most of the core characters are PoC, and their families and their additional cultural reference points are central to the narrative. In one episode Marinette has to welcome her great-uncle for a visit despite, to her chagrin, speaking almost no Chinese, and has to negotiate her emotions about and the logistics of this.

A friend who’s French and Cambodian-Chinese, and very involved in Paris’s comics scene, observed that her city’s Asian population is heavily Chinese and Vietnamese (in part due to France’s colonial history in Southeast Asia). She said she was relieved Marinette wasn’t a “half-French, half-Japanese idealised waifu” fetish object, a personified representation of a union of the two countries’ animation traditions or an Orientalised fusion of two sexy “prestige” cultures. Against France’s rising fascism, anti-Semitism, and racism, Ladybug’s gestures to centrally position a variety of racially diverse characters as French carry weight. This is a salient engagement with a contested question.

LGBT issues are also a source of severe tension in contemporary France. The strain of conservative religiosity that fuels the country’s strong fascist movement and undergirded the success of centrist campaigns in the last presidential election gives a texture to France’s anxiety about queerness that UK discourse doesn’t offer a direct analogue for (bless vaguely-Anglican apathy). Ladybug’s LGBT representation is somewhat more circumspect than its racial diversity, limited to extensive paratextual commentary[2], strong visual evidence that goes uncommented on in the show itself, and an adult lesbian couple in the 2020 “Miraculous New York” special.

I was initially confused when someone on twitter said Marinette’s friends Rose and Juleka were a canon queer couple. After all, very early on Rose had a celebrity crush on a boy. But I was pretty thoroughly swayed by actual screenshots of interactions I’d not noticed:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even for the French, these are not straight interactions. No one does that interlaced-fingers shoulder hold with their best buddy. I’m not sure exactly what level of the huge international production apparatus has a hang-up about directly referencing queerness in episodes of the show proper, but while that’s somewhat annoying, I have to give the creative team far more credit than I would anyone employing the J.K. Rowling’s Belated Announcement model. This relationship is textually present: I can see them holding hands.

In contrast to this realism, the villains in Ladybug are—thank Christ—always supernatural and campily cartoonish. You never get brutalised or abusive spouses transforming into emotionally-powered supervillain versions of themselves. From a Watsonian perspective that makes little sense, and yet I absolutely understand the Doylist choice not to deal with anything of the kind. Ladybug couldn’t take that content on and remain at all child-friendly. I don’t know if Ladybug would be a better show for trying to grapple with more than it can responsibly integrate into its project (even Miraculous New York’s depiction, without comment, of hyper-militarized American police felt somewhat jarring in this regard). Perhaps this reticence gives Ladybug more room to maneuver than grimly “realist” superhero franchises. I find X-Men’s filmic “the Holocaust, but with mutants” and “Bay of Pigs, but what if really, it was mutants?!” crap insulting and crass. Iron Man’s comic-canon attempt to grapple with Subprime Mortgage Man reveals the absolute impossibility of a billionaire philanthropist having jiggly jack shit to say to real-world problems that arise from the vicious and growing inequalities endemic to late capitalism. Maybe the superhero narrative can’t say anything meaningful about the world on that level that Watchmen didn’t hit. And maybe that’s okay? The format can do other things, rather than, per the Avengers movies, endlessly circling the US military-industrial complex, obsessed with it but ultimately unable to make any salient critical statement about it.

There’s more than one form of growth and commentary available to the programme, after all. In series three, Alya and her boyfriend Nino, now established superheroes in their own right, have a conversation about the possessions they’ve now each endured twice. The couple discusses memory, guilt, and blame in a way the programme couldn’t have supported early on. I’ve not seen other magical girl shows really grapple with the stock trope of possession as a psychological experience with material effects. Miraculous is itself inconsistent on this point. Marinette’s relationship with her father doesn’t suffer for his briefly having become a monster who’d hurt her friends to protect her. Similarly the city doesn’t seem to hold people accountable, personally or legally, for what they do while possessed.

Yet in a way, this acceptance reminds me of early episodes’ insistent returns to the status quo that caused the various problems that gave rise to possession in the first place. If nothing you did under the influence really counted, then no one is allowed to feel lastingly resentful, frightened of, or justifiably angry with you. Sure, the effects get reversed. It wasn’t “really” your father, your best friend, or your teacher that tried to kill you. Yet you still experienced these things, and you now know for certain that these urges somehow stem from the psyches of people you know.

Anyone experiencing strong emotion is vulnerable to possession. The narrative and/or Hawkmoth (depending on whether you’re feeling Doylist or Watsonian today) seems to have a real preference for the spikes of jealousy, shame, and frustrated entitlement native to adolescence, which are a normal part of growing up. Sure, that’s because Hawkmoth is a jerk who takes advantage of children. But ultimately, the structure of Ladybug suggests that anger is “unhealthy,” and those feelings are illegitimate or dangerous to yourself and others. In this universe, immediate emotional suppression is better than experiencing your feelings and processing them ambivalently. On the one hand, yes, acceptance is one of the end products of emotional maturity (though not the only possible desirable end-state). Marinette and even class mean girl Chloé Bourgeois grow as people when they resist the urge to give into Hawkmoth’s manipulation of their disappointment and anger. But if everyone absolutely has to get along, and if bourgeoise social flow and the avoidance of conflict are prized above everything, then Chloé Literally Bourgeois is allowed to bully and hurt people forever (and maybe grow up a little, if she feels like it—her maturity itself an indulgent manifestation of her privilege). Her victims have to continually show themselves to be better people by patching up their wounds and moving on.

I think these are narrative growing pains. The show’s experiencing something of a mission creep, à la Doctor Who (which was initially funded as children’s edutainment). Now that it’s secured funding and netted regular audiences, Ladybug is pushing back towards its original project and demographic aims (i.e. the teen-to-adult pitched Franimé that the team couldn’t get anyone to fund). This doesn’t mean it’s no longer enjoyable for young children, just that young children are no longer necessarily who the show’s being exclusively written for. Seasons two and three skew way more Buffy than Dora the Explorer (they straight-up steal the premise of the Buffy episode “Tabula Rasa,” where the protagonists lose their memories, realise they have superpowers, and think they’re a couple; it’s great). The actual conflicts of the stories have shifted to difficult social situations, considered decisions, growth, complication, moral weighing, and the SFnal potentialities of the ways magic works in this universe. The ensemble cast has become more richly developed, and the characters more intricately connected to one another (even sodding Chloé!). Yet the episodes remain thoroughly involved with adolescent subjects and themes. Miraculous Ladybug is engaging for adults without being an active deconstruction of mahō shōjo like Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the Neon Genesis Evangelion of magical girl animes. I like Madoka, but I don’t want everything to be that.

The show’s Frenchness is itself political. Miraculous Ladybug insists on a kind of regional distinctness, part stereotype and part slice-of-life. This is striking, but if you think about it, isn't it weird that it's at all remarkable? The Western Anglosphere's media diet mostly lacks depictions of daily life anywhere else (even Europe), and the Anglosphere's output also dominates global media flows beyond its amorphous borders. Surely a healthy global media environment is one that partakes of a variety of cultures without localising all the Otherness out of them? Surely it’s good to know more about how people live and think, right now, in other countries, than dated background information and a scattering of headlines?

If you like school stories, anime (particularly magical girl stuff), superheroes, good children’s entertainment, or romcoms, I highly recommend letting yourself be slowly sucked in by this show. You’ll be annoyed by the repetitive action-scene catch phrases, but I give you a week before you’re screaming into the nearest pet because Marinette tried to cover her ass by saying she had a crush on Chat Noir, who her parents then invited to Sunday lunch, who was too polite to say no, and now her dad is trying to get Chat Noir to one day inherit the family bakery while 50% of the people at the table die inside. Sure, the politics and mechanics are pretty solid. It’s good to not feel outright shanked by your fun media, I can recommend it! But the true delicious chocolate centre of the Miraculous Ladybug experience is the absolute social agony of this awful family meal, which is hilariously bad even though you know that in a few years, exactly these people will have exactly this family meal together, minus Adrien’s ridiculous cat ears and domino mask.

 

[1] The dub nominally changes the original Chat Noir to Cat Noir, but it's not a terribly audible distinction in English; the fandom tends to preserve his fully-French nomme de guerre rather than choosing to Anglicise the spelling of one of the words.

[2] For example, through commentaries like this one on Marc Anciel, a minor character: “[show creator] Thomas Astruc revealed on Twitter that [Marc Anciel] was based on a personal friend of his named Hope Morphin, who is genderfluid and bisexual. [...] Morphin themself revealed that [...] Marc is androgynous. Feri González confirmed this, and also later confirmed on Twitter that Marc identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community and has ‘fondness' for Nathaniel."



Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
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