At the root of most toxic masculinity is this need to dominate.
This need for domination stems from an unrealistic standard that has been set up. Here’s the thing: when men fail to reach this unreachable standard, they feel the need to overcompensate. The starting point of this masculinity has a mythical beginning—it’s as if men, in some iteration of the world, were once at the top of their manhood. When really, no one was ever there.
The failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy, based on what is perceived as lacking. This entire need to overcompensate—either via talking over women in meetings, or discounting their feelings; or choosing to belittle their rationalities because it is female. This is unhealthy, precisely because its only reward is pleasure for the men buying into the illusory rewards of an absolute masculinity.
So instead of this perfect manhood, they do the next best/worst thing. Let me at least show the symptoms. This is the obsession of toxic masculinity: Simulating but never becoming The Man.
Fortunately, we are blessed to have a negation of that toxic masculinity in YOI.
One of my favorite things about YOI has been its self-aware and unconventional take on the competitive aspect of sports anime. I remember telling a friend: what’s weird about YOI is that we never get that character or rival whose main goal is to just crush everyone else in his path. The closest we have is the rage-filled Yuri Plisetsky, who, for all intents and purposes, hides under that boiling facade a more tender type of love.
Even as I’m impressed with how he reconciles the search for agape with his grandfather who he deeply loves, it is the agape for fellow competitors, peers, and dare I say it—friends—in Viktor and Yuuri, that really negates any possible toxicity. When Plisetsky challenges Katsuki, there is machismo. But there is also respect and admiration. This is difficult to balance in sports where only two polar absolutes exist: winning is winning; losing is losing. In the fantasies of hegemonic masculinity, there is room only for winning.
Most sports are built around this notion of domination. Much like technical knowledge, there is always the predication of an ultimate; of a wielder of the title of best.
Connell, surprisingly, would see this as normalized in structures of conquest that permeated Western cultures; the notion of politics, and even the chivalry of knighthood. This one-uppance, this always-applicable framework of domination, is what makes sports so watchable.
Some would say that it is the realization of previously unknowable limits of the body, that limit is always seen as a physical limit; that which is unfortunately shaped in the body of a male.
Think of it this way: a function of motherhood, an activity uniquely tied to womanhood, does not bear the same association with any type of dominance. It sounds weird to say, for example, that “mothers dominate their offspring”. If you have sports that do not feature “winners”—that is considered, ultimately, boring. The spectacle of the highly performing male body is the core of all sport.
That is why “losing” has become taboo in cultures dominated by males—winners get the spoils.
The losers are labelled as weak, soft, non-masculine, and undeserving. The most offensive jargon in sports fandoms usually revolve around the questioning of one’s masculinity. Winning is equated with being the most dominant version of yourself, with the sheer power by which you can force someone to submit to your power.
There is plenty of distraught to be had in a world that normalizes these things. But here’s my thing: it is also plenty hopeful to see a world completely devoid of all of these derogatory modes of relation, aka the world of YOI. This modification of sports shifts YOI into a renewed and re-masculinized vision of competition.
When I watch sports: winning makes me feel good, but it doesn’t overwhelm me the same way unbridled emotion does.
The moments when I cry are the moments when the obsession with domination slowly recedes into the background. And the capacity of community becomes a cue for rediscovering about how human we are in our strengths and our weaknesses. I don’t cry when my team wins, nor when my team loses. When my favorite player walks up to the best player of the other team, and they exchange handshakes and hugs, all while sitting on the polar opposites of legacy and elimination, I think: how beautiful. How utterly beautiful.
When Isabella Yang starts the chants for JJ, and you have the almost-comic hysterical crying-singing of the crowd to “The Theme of King JJ”; this is it. This is what I came here to see.
When sports taps into this celebratory communal act of giving, understanding—things are strange. It is almost, pardon my term, gay. And when I say that, I mean complete eros, complete understanding.
I’ve never really thought of it that way. When I exchanged hugs and high-fives with my friends back when I watched my first championship game, it was as if, for a moment, we truly understood how each other felt at that time. Purely, completely. For a moment, the athlete, whose build was something I could never come close to, felt completely familiar; nostalgic, even. “I know exactly how you feel.”
In these small pockets of love, all differences fade into the background.
This masculine vision, for a brief moment, appears wonderful. And for the first time, positively powerful. The love between Viktor and Yuuri becomes a love that is possible for all of us.
I find I am always longing for that vision. And it is a vision that YOI makes real for me.
What does it mean to be a very straight gay man?
The phrase “a / very / straight / gay / man” is a space of contradiction. What is the space being proposed by YOI, with its gay identities in decisively male bodies? Even in mentioning that, I find myself in a space of doubt.
There are masculinities to these gay identities, in the same way that there are gay interruptions in their decisively male bodies. In a way, Yuuri and Victo—they’re so gay they’re practically straight. They’re so straight that they’re gay. It is this unknowable, untouchable space that draws me to YOI so much.
I am unfortunately a very straight male. The fear is that, given the inescapable toxicities of masculinity, the only logical thing left to do is to annihilate onself. To say: we don’t need any more men, the world should do away with men. And some days I am content with that crucifixion. But this spiral into YOI has been nothing short of surprising for me.
In the course of writing this essay, I find myself discovering new things, not only about the series, but also about myself.
It is an endless empathy—I ask myself: what if I were JJ, what if I were Christophe, what if I were Isabella Yang, what if I were Phichit, what if I were Minako-sensei, what if I were Yakov, etc.
In the YOI world, who ever I place myself in, I find I am always emanating a positive masculinity. The hunger for dominance instead becomes a hunger to love, in complete understanding, and in complete eros. Short of actually saying it, ever since I watched Yuri!!! on Ice, much like Yuuri himself on watching Victor, my life has been mired in an unending chain of surprises.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is this: YOI has given me hope that an unfortunately straight male person like me can actually aspire for something; instead of just living in that fear of self-annihilation. That there are very straight gay and manly ways of living, way above and beyond my cloud of hegemonic masculinity.
This whole essay has really been an entire distraction to simply say: YOI has changed my life. If you are an unfortunately straight male, or if you have friends who are unfortunately straight males, let them watch YOI. It will save lives. That sounds funny, but I do live by it.