Why "Kiki’s Delivery Service" Is a Secret Feminist Classic

The multifaceted female characters! Janeane Garofalo! It totally passes the Bechdel Test!
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Publish date:
March 9, 2015
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movies, feminism, bechdel test, anime

Every so often you encounter something so sweet, fun, and generous of spirit that it catches you off-guard.

A few months ago, right before Christmas, the movie Kiki’s Delivery Service did that to me.

I couldn’t stop talking about it after I saw it. I’d go to parties held by other women and wax rhapsodic about this plucky little girl who starts her own business after leaving home. I’d say to my husband over and over again, man, I really liked that movie.

So here I am, delivering a message to the masses (though since the English dub is at least 16 years old, it’s kind of a belated message): go see Kiki’s Delivery Service, goddamnit, because it’s fun, heartwarming, and — most importantly — surprisingly feminist.

I’m sure the readers of xoJane won’t have much trouble with that statement, but if you’re not convinced, here’s my thinking.

First, though, a quick summary (including mild spoilers).

Kiki is a 13-year-old witch who leaves home for a year, as all witches must at that age. She flies on her broomstick over the countryside and settles on a city by the sea. Her first appearance over her new home causes quite a stir. However, after retrieving a toy left behind by the recently-departed customer of a bakery, Kiki earns her keep by helping to run the baker’s shop and starting a delivery service.

Her business opens with some success, but she encounters bumps along the way – she worries about money, nearly botches her first gig when she drops her cargo, and gets sick from delivering a package in the rain. She also meets a boy named Tombo who instantly becomes infatuated with her, although his interest lies as much in her ability to fly as in the fact that she’s new in town.

However, it’s not all smooth sailing. Kiki focuses so much on making a living that the fun of her work disappears and she loses the ability to fly. A crisis of confidence ensues. Ultimately, what gets Kiki back on her broom and off soaring is the fact that Tombo is in danger after he unsuccessfully tries to moor a dirigible (don’t ask); she rescues him while he’s dangling in midair.

So, now you know the plot, why should you love it? Well, for one thing, it features…

Realistic Female Friendships

A lot of my love for this movie stems from a 10-minute sequence near the end, right after Kiki first loses her ability to fly. Ursula, an artist who lives in the woods that Kiki met after trying to retrieve the package she dropped during her first delivery, comes to town and they run into each other. Ursula discerns Kiki’s distress right away and suggests that the two of them hang out together at her cabin for a while to get away from it all.

The next few minutes feature casual conversation cut with scenes of them riding a bus, hitchhiking down a road, and arriving at the cabin. Later on, two lovely conversations happen — the one I want to focus on is the second, which starts at 1:27:10:

Ursula: When I was your age, I’d already decided to become an artist. I loved to paint so much… I’d paint all day until I fell asleep right at my easel. And then one day, for some reason, I just couldn’t paint anymore. I tried and tried, but nothing I did seemed any good... They were copies of paintings I’d seen somewhere before, and not very good copies either. I just felt like I lost my ability.

Kiki: That sounds like me!

Ursula: It’s exactly the same. But then I found the answer. You see, I hadn’t figured out what or why I wanted to paint. I had to discover my own style. When you fly, you rely on what’s inside of you, don’t you?

Kiki: Uh-huh. We fly with our spirit.

Ursula: Trusting your spirit, yeah, yes! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. That same spirit is what makes me paint, and makes your friend bake. But we each need to find our own inspiration, Kiki. Sometimes it’s not easy.

Kiki: I guess I never gave much thought to why I wanted to do this. I got so caught up in all the training and stuff. Maybe I have to find my own inspiration. But am I ever going to find it? And is it worth all the trouble?

Ursula: Well, for example, there were quite a few times when I thought of painting something over that painting.

[Cut to a canvas of a woman and a horse flying through the night sky.]

Kiki: But it ended up being so great!

Ursula: So I guess it’s worth it.

I love these scenes because they capture the friendly, supportive dynamic between two women so well – the older one offering advice and providing a safe space, the younger one being unsure yet receptive. It also helps to have pitch-perfect casting: Ursula is voiced by Janeane Garofalo. Her presence provides another clue as to why this movie is awesome.

Kiki’s Delivery Service Respects Its Protagonist

Think about this: how many mainstream movies, never mind animated ones, can you name with such open conversations between two women about their career struggles? Moreover, how many of those movies would have one of the participants be Kiki’s age, and how many of those would take a teenage girl’s career — as well as her crisis of confidence — seriously?

I honestly can’t name any. When it comes to teenage girls in mainstream media, there are a few major stereotypes — the bitchy one, the awkward/nerdy one, the tomboy, etc. — that dominate. Although I know they’re out there, it’s hard for me to think of any typical Hollywood film that treats a girl of Kiki’s age with such honesty, respect, and generosity of spirit, and refuses to pigeonhole her.

That doesn’t mean Kiki gets off easy, though. She has faults; the most notable one is overconfidence. I find it hilarious that the one thing her mother mentions she’s really bad at – flying – is the one thing that Kiki herself thinks she’s good at, even though the movie consistently shows her not being very good at it. She’s so focused on being independent and showing off her flying skills that she crashes into trees, causes traffic accidents because she’s not looking where she’s going, and even gets blown off course by gusts of wind.

In short, she makes mistakes. But she isn’t unduly punished for them: they don’t affect anyone except her. Even when something bad happens to her, like getting sick from delivering an item in the pouring rain, it’s treated as a fact of life.

That “fact of life-ness” is what I love. Kiki’s Delivery Service feels like it takes place in a world that’s lived-in.

Kiki’s an awesome role model

As a freelancer, I totally get Kiki’s desire to start her own business. So imagine my delight when she does it and actually becomes successful! Even better, although she initially undervalues herself, others tell her not to – when Kiki offers to make a delivery for the baker, Osono, for free in recompense for Osono’s care during her recovery, she says no.

In fact, what Osono really says is this: “Impossible! Work is work.”

Considering Osono’s got a successful business of her own, she knows what she’s talking about. (And considering I’m still in the habit of discounting projects for certain reasons, I should really follow her advice.)

So, Kiki’s an example for budding entrepreneurs — but she’s also an example for people in her adopted city. I didn’t catch this until the second time I watched the film, but during the closing credits there’s a vignette of Kiki looking through a store window. Right in front of her, walking down the street, is a little girl dressed exactly like she is – in a black dress, with a red bow in her hair – carrying a tiny version of the broom that she rode on when she rescued Tombo. She’s got itty-bitty copycats! The whole thing made me squee when I saw it.

If I’m not careful, I could talk forever about why Kiki’s Delivery Service is great — the fact that it so completely passes the Bechdel Test, its jaunty music, its defiance of Western story tropes — but I won’t. If you’re looking for something fun and life-affirming, just go for it and watch it yourself.