One of the most successful internationally syndicated television series ever, as well as one of the world's most beloved children's shows, Sailor Moon dominated Cartoon Network's schedule in the mid-'90s. The series follows the story of Usagi, a teen girl who, with the help of a talking cat named Luna, realizes that she's actually a Sailor Soldier, and must fight for peace and justice while also going to school and attempting to live a normal life.
Besides featuring great portrayals of female friendship, Sailor Moon is also known for introducing one of the first and most prominent queer couples to appear in Japanese media at the time. This came in the form of Sailor Neptune, a sensitive artist, and Sailor Uranus, a race-car driver and athlete. When fans inquired about the legitimacy of the relationship with creator Naoko Takeuchi, she stated that she definitely wrote the pair as a couple.
Although not the only LGBTQIA couple to appear on Sailor Moon, Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus, otherwise known as Michiru and Haruka, are the best known. The pair weren't introduced to the series until Season 3, known as Sailor Moon S, but they were immediate fan favorites. After making their debut in the 92nd episode of the series, they quickly became one of the more popular, yet controversial, parts of the show for the remainder of its run.
When DIC bought the rights to air Sailor Moon in America, the English dubs provided made significant changes to the series, some of which were to make things less confusing for kids who wouldn't understand certain cultural references, but many of which were to make the show a lot less outrageously queer than it is in the subtitled version. One of the more awkward tonal shifts was the idea to explain the close relationship between Neptune and Uranus by claiming that they were cousins rather than lovers, in order to avoid offending American audiences. This is weird for many reasons, most importantly because the characters spent a lot of time staring into each other's eyes and flirting with one another.
Sailor Moon S was a lot darker than the rest of the series had been up to that point. The campy sense of humor and fun that defined the first two seasons was still present, but gradually diminished as the episodes started to more prominently feature escalating emotional drama, a heightening sense of dread, threats to the Earth itself—and, of course, Uranus and Neptune showing up to either help or hinder the other Sailor Scouts, depending on their level of interest. While they ultimately became unquestionable protagonists, their allegiance was initially murky and seemed to be only to each other. Later, it was revealed that they were attempting to collect talismans in hopes that they would be able to prevent the apocalypse, which, over time, became the central plot of the season for all of the Sailor Scouts.
While Uranus exhibits many non-binary traits, Takeuchi refers to her as definitively female. Neptune doesn't seem so sure, referring to Haruka as “both male and female,” and seems to delight in Haruka's ambiguous gender as much as Haruka herself does. Neptune herself is very feminine, introducing herself in battle as “Sailor Neptune, here to fight with elegance.” However, when a male character flirts with Michiru in one scene, Haruka notes that she couldn't believe there would be a guy clueless enough to try. For her part, Haruka flirts with just about every female character on the show at one point or another, while Michiru only seems to flirt with anyone to make Haruka jealous. Even Usagi harbors an intense crush on Haruka, something that is encouraged by Haruka herself.
In the origin story of Uranus as told in Episode 106, otherwise known as "The Bond of Destiny: Uranus's Distant Past," we learn of how Michiru and Haruka met. While the other Sailor Scouts had to be awakened by outside forces, Sailor Neptune was the only one to awaken herself through the power of her own dreams, and she watches Uranus from afar for some time. Later, she awakens Haruka, at first enigmatically flirting with her, then losing her patience and snapping that being a guardian wasn't exactly what she wanted either, since it was ruining her chance to become a famous artist or violinist. At the end of the episode, Michiru teases Haruka that a lot of girls have crushes on her and wishes she would take them for a ride in her car, then later admits that she may have wanted that, too. Haruka quips, “I'm not letting you go home tonight!” as they drive off into the sunset. That's how the episode ends! The entire episode is the most intense analogy for a first queer crush I've ever seen, with Uranus at first denying her status as a guardian (or, perhaps, her attraction to Neptune), then later embracing it, therefore also taking on a loosely defined partnership with her.
Sailor Moon is relevant to queer audiences for a lot of reasons. As someone who grew up on the English dub versions, some of its influence is good, but some of it isn't great. When you grow up queer, you notice certain things that the people around you do to explain your queerness. While most of the explanations are intended to put people at ease, they more often than not serve a double purpose of making you yourself feel less comfortable in your own skin. Many queer people make jokes about the phrase “gal pals,” or the insistence that live-in partners are “roommates.” The tendency of others to use air quotes when describing queer relationships is a constant in the lives of most LGBTQIA people.
The strange assertion that Neptune and Uranus are cousins in the English dub of Sailor Moon is one of those weird explainers frequently made for gay people that I noticed growing up. I was watching the show when I was around 9 years old, already well into my acceptance that there was something unusual about me and learning to find the language required to describe it to others. Sailor Moon did provide a window into that, but it also really confused me.
That being said, the show would never have aired in America when it did if it'd had an openly queer couple. Although Neptune and Uranus never officially state that they are lovers, even in the subtitled versions of the show, it's beyond obvious and would take a great deal of denial to refuse. They hold hands, they stare into each other's eyes, they get jealous of one another, and they make inside jokes about being alone together or even being in bed together. Even with the English overdubs, they are undeniably involved in a way that most cousins hopefully aren't.
It's so, so much weirder for Neptune and Uranus to be perceived as cousins than it is for them to be gay, especially given the nature of their portrayal on screen. Despite the characters themselves being high school freshmen, the voice actors for Neptune and Uranus are said to have been instructed to play the characters like a married couple, and that element is there from the very beginning. Coincidentally, Sailor Moon was airing around the same time as Xena: Warrior Princess, a series that was produced by an out lesbian in which an obviously queer relationship went through six seasons without any sort of confirmation until the very last episode in 2001. It was a different time, but not so different and not so long ago.
What I most remember Sailor Moon for are the friendships, the strangely dark tone, and, of course, my love for Neptune and Uranus, as well as their obvious love for each other. Sometimes dubiously queer portrayals are the only ones you get, and I'm glad that in the otherwise overwhelmingly straight landscape of mid-'90s television I at least had this bizarre, funny, depressing, yet uplifting show to latch onto.