While maybe the most famous of Godzilla’s foes-turned-friends, a lot of people really don’t like Mothra.
In my experience, many are quick to decry Mothra as one of the worst featured kaiju in the 28-film expanse that comprises the Toho Godzilla franchise. This is even though Mothra is the only kaiju to beat Godzilla in a fair fight (I don’t count Destroyah’s victory as clean—it was the radiation poisoning that was deteriorating Godzilla from the inside out that really beat him. Search your heart. You know it’s true).
Unlike the other kaiju, who are often reckless without reason or who are being manipulated by aliens, Mothra has a clear motive: to protect the Earth and the people on it. She’s not mindless. She’s calculated, smart, has a mind of her own, takes shit from literally nobody, and is incredibly strong. So why all the Mothra hate?
If Godzilla is the King of the Monsters, then Mothra stands as a kaiju worthy of the title Queen of the Monsters. She starred in her own self-titled film by Toho in 1961—three years prior to her appearance alongside Godzilla in Mothra vs Godzilla in 1964. She was already established before she helped Godzilla settle down as a do-gooder and develop a long-term strategy for his life—am I right ladies?
Gender in Godzilla films is a weird thing (well, gender is a weird thing for people too, but anyway). While other kaiju are defaulted to male, Mothra is very clearly identified and treated as a woman, in both the language used to describe her and her characterization in the films themselves. Whereas Godzilla stands as a symbol of the Japanese reaction to the Nuclear Age and the recovery from the nuclear bomb, Mothra represents a long-suffering earth spirit that accepts humanity’s idiocy and forgives it, time and time again, as women are often expected to. The ever-patient, ever-nurturing, ever-forgiving caretaker.
Mothra is more of a defender than an outright aggressor, typically only pulling out her brute force and deadly cunning when her worshippers on Infant Island are attacked or otherwise threatened. Her Shobijin, the tiny twins that act as Mothra’s voice in the films, are not just used to fulfill the role of the distress damsels—they get kidnapped like, a lot, like Princess Peach levels—but through their roles as translators between Mothra and the human race, also serve the reliable narrative of "woman as earth vessel", which is found in many films in many genres, most of which are woefully bereft of giant magical animals dismantling the military industrial complex.
Mothra is an avatar and agent of the Earth, just as Godzilla is believed to be a force of the Earth, bringing balance and harmony (through destruction) to the natural world; Mothra is meant merely to upkeep it.
Mothra is a formidable foe, one who proves herself worthy to go toe to toe (so to speak) with Godzilla as both his ally and enemy—Mothra can trap enemies with her web, chomp on foes’ tails, shoot bolts and beams from her antennae, and emits lightning from her wings. Not enough? Her wings can also create strong gale-force winds, she can shoot poisonous darts, and, as a last defense, she can exude a poisonous yellow powder from her wings. Mothra is bad-fucking-ass.
(See, girls get nerdy about this shit, too.)
Mothra exists in a franchise that doesn’t want her to be as strong and powerful as she really is. The labour Mothra performs is rarely regarded as valuable as the labour performed by her male counterparts. In Ghoridah, the Three-Headed Monster, Godzilla and Rodan steal the show, while Mothra has to act as the intermediary presence between the two (who refuse to cooperate with each other because of some unspecified feud in the past that neither will apologize for—yes, really.)
Oh, and while the boys are arguing over this perceived slight in honour? A GIANT THREE-HEADED DRAGON FROM SPACE IS THREATENING TO DESTROY THE EARTH.
When the boys won’t go along with her very wise plan of teaming up so they and the planet they live on don't all die, Mothra goes it alone. Ghidorah nearly kills her, and it’s not until her near-death that Godzilla and Rodan finally realize they need to step up to the plate and band together to take down Ghidorah.
If your plan to escape patriarchy involved eating a lot of radiation or surgically grafting frightening animal parts to yourself, just remember: even female-coded flying monsters are expected to sacrifice themselves so men can grow and become more fully realized and achieve self-actualization.
Three-Headed Monster is where Godzilla has what they call in wrestling a "heel-face turn", becoming the curmudgeonly defender we know and love (and fear). He just needed a woman to help him get there.
Mothra is treated as a lesser kaiju because her appearance and abilities are seen as less intimidating and less powerful. Even in lists that note Mothra as being among the top of Godzilla’s kaijus, her strength and fighting are blatantly under-reported. Some people even cite the pure fact that Godzilla loses to her as to why they dislike Mothra. Others state they dislike her simply because they don’t think kaijus should be good or ethical, but rather they should be antiheroes (despite the fact that Godzilla turned good in the early Showa films, too).
All of this should start to sound familiar. Criticized for her appearance? Check. Told she’s not as good? Check. Having misinformation used to back up these points? Check.
This is exactly how women get talked about in male-dominated professions. Exactly how.
It should come as no surprise, then, that despite this resentment or apathy often directed toward Mothra, Mothra is noted as being a favourite among many female fans of the Godzilla franchise. To many, Mothra resonates as a symbol of an empowered women in a system that seeks to otherwise constantly give greater advantages—and the benefit of the doubt—to her male counterparts.
In Godzilla: Final Wars, Mothra comes back from two instances that appear to be her certain death in her battle against Gigan, only to keep returning to the fray to finally defeat Gigan once and for awhile. Mothra is hardy, relentless, and a force to be reckoned with. Her constant returning from what appears to be certain defeat solidifies her status as the kaiju universe's Phoenix (corroborated by her Divine Moth classification), force that will not relent, no matter what you throw at her. The way women have to be in male-dominated workforces. We have to roll with the punches, and we have to be relentless, just to get a modicum of recognition (that pales in comparison to the amount of recognition our male colleagues receive, regardless of actual job performance).
Had Mothra just walked away in Three-Headed Monster and let Ghidorah destroy the world (that Mothra so often puts herself in danger to protect), then she’d be regarded as the worst villain in the Godzilla roster. She’d be taken down for letting Godzilla and Rodan get under her skin and letting her hurt feelings get in the way of the "bigger picture". Instead, Mothra does the work everyone else says is beneath them, and when her work and her plan win the day, it’s Godzilla who gets all the credit.
Mothra stands (figuratively) as a symbol of the way women need to perform better, smarter, and faster than our male-counterparts (literally) to even just be part of the conversation.
And how dare we sometimes actually be better than our male counterparts. That actually really pisses some men off.