As part of our commitment as a media partner of Born to Make History: A Yuri on Ice Fan Gathering, Girls Got Game will be publishing transcripts of some of the panel discussions. These articles are designed to follow the flow of the PowerPoint Presentations that were used by the speakers. They will also contain additional notes and points of discussion.
Please note that this article contains major spoilers for the series.
Before anything else, let me frame this discussion. The critical framework that I used during my panel was gender studies, with a specific literary and cultural focus on Manga Studies, Fandom Studies, Reader Response Theory, and genre. The framework used for the comparative sections of the analysis is narratology.
The question that I wanted to offer discourse on was “Is Yuri!!! on Ice a Boy’s Love Anime?”
Related questions to this include, but are in no way limited to:
- Does Yuri!!! on Ice queerbait or queercode?
- If Yuri!!! on Ice isn’t BL, what is it?
- What is sports anime?
- What is Boy’s Love?
- Why is it important to talk about the genre of stories?
- What did Yuri!!! on Ice bring to the table for critical studies and for storytelling in general?
Yuri on Ice Made Me Feel Things.
Even after watching Yuri!!! On Ice twice, I still have so many feelings about this series.
I came into the fandom much later than most, so my feed was full of intense discussions on Yuri!!! on Ice’s place in anime. Some people loved the way the series portrayed figure skating, right down to actual figure skaters. Some people loved the gay ships and canon gay couple. Others were turned off by the series BECAUSE it’s “too gay”, or because they felt like it was queerbaiting them.
You see two boys on screen bickering; we see an OTP in the making.
Then you’ve got people like me: professional fujoshi, so pro that we’ve built significant parts of our professional lives around studying our fandom things. All fujoshi read All Things Gay extensively. So much so that it’s twisted our world view. You see two boys on screen bickering; we see an OTP in the making. Fujoshi are, by their very nature, readers whose perception of the world is a little more gender-fluid than everyone else.
With Yuri!!! on Ice, though, you have GOT to be dead inside to not pick up on the signs.
Because Yuri and Victor’s relationship and their struggle to make things work is front and center in the series, though, many viewers insist that Yuri!!! on Ice is a boy’s love series instead of the sports anime that it claims to be. Some people have even said that it’s yaoi.
No, it is not.
Like the slide says…
The genre confusion of Yuri!!! on Ice is a result of using terms like “boy’s love”, “yaoi” and “gay anime” interchangeably. In actuality, however, this is impossible to do. Boy’s Love and Yaoi don’t wholesale mean “any anime series or manga title that portrays gay romance”.
Let me repeat that for the record: Boy’s Love and Yaoi don’t wholesale mean “any anime series or manga title that portrays gay romance”. This presupposes that Boy’s Love is NOT directly equivalent to gay or homoerotic stories from, let’s say, Western countries. Understanding genre is important in and of itself. And it’s even MORE relevant for this anime series.
On Genre and the Nature of Storytelling
Let me take a step back to explain why I chose that particular screenshot for this panel.
The ending sequence in Episode 12 show Yuri and Victor performing a paired figure skating short program for a live audience. On top of this being super sweet and existing as narrative proof of their relationship, this is groundbreaking. Figure skating as an Olympic sport does not allow same-sex couples to participate in competitions. It remains stuck in the closet, in spite of a lot of historical progress for a global recognition of LGBTQ rights and representation. Furthermore, on top of the entirely queer world of Yuri!!! on Ice being A Thing, it’s an entirely queer world represented in an anime series.
Figure skating remains stuck in the closet, in spite of a lot of historical progress for a global recognition of LGBTQ rights and representation.
Gender is a tricky thing in Japan. Roles ARE changing and more areas of interrogation DO exist. But the discomfort (or downright unhappiness) with the cultural conventions they’ve developed regarding gender roles and sexuality have taken a toll on their populace. Heck, you can find articles about this issue as far back as 2013 and beyond.
Yet, here we are. Yuri!!! on Ice, an anime, has a canon gay couple in a sport notorious for its anti-LGBTQ stance. I don’t know how much more political you could possibly get.
All stories, as the slide above states, are inherently political.
Even when an author isn’t deliberately trying to make a statement (“I just want to write about gay figureskaters!”), the way she constructs her narrative is an inevitable product of what we scholars call her subject position. She was born in a particular social context and raised on and within particular social milieus. All of that is coded, one way or another, into her works.
In that same vein, the genres of stories often reflect political agendas or world views. For example, non-realistic modes of fiction have been used by many writers in the past to tackle real world issues through a more “harmless” lens, using creatures and worlds that do not exist to posit difficult questions on war, race, religion, and sexuality. Satire, across cultures, is used to interrogate social conventions and beliefs under the guise of humor.
On top of this, genres are excellent tools for marketing and transmitting social conventions.
I could talk forever about this, but what we’re really interested in is how Japan does it. Unlike many other cultures, Japan produces cartoons and comics for various demographics. The genres of anime and manga, then, are audience-specific. Genre doesn’t pertain to the setting and plot of the story: it’s about presenting characters “relatable” to the audience they have in mind, in a world the audience enjoys immersing itself in, with values and cultural norms that are deemed “acceptable” for the consumption of the aforementioned audience.
Now let’s talk about the two genres that are relevant to framing Yuri!!! on Ice.
Here’s a Crash Course on BL.
Boy’s Love manga emerged as a subgenre of shojo manga (girls’ comics) around 1970s. The first BL stories always centered around bishonen: androgynous beauties that were closer to older gender conventions for boys and men than they were to the times that they emerged in:
This beautiful boy is visually and psychically neither male nor female; his romantic and erotic interests are directed at other beautiful boys, but his tastes are not exclusively homosexual; he lives and loves outside the heteropatriarchal world inhabited by his readers. He seems a queer character indeed.
– James Welker, “Beautiful, Borrowed, and Bent: Boy’s Love as Girls’ Love in Shojo Manga”
The romance in the stories, as we already know, always took place between boys. Yaoi is actually the more sexually explicit off-shot of BL, and is pretty much the porn of the genre. Traditionally, BL stories – yaoi or otherwise – were tragic as all fuck.
As stated in the slide, BL is usually written by female mangaka, and is almost exclusively targeted towards a female audience. Many scholars have noted that the portrayals of gay relationships and gay characters in BL are, at best, inaccurate. And at their worst? Completely toxic. One of the reasons behind this, they say, is because BL manga is REALLY about exploring discomfort with traditional gender roles and experimenting with female sexuality.
BL is (mostly) fetishized male-on-male porn for straight women.
“[The boys in BL act as] …a disruptor of heterosexuality, a presence standing outside the conventions of patriarchy, a hole in the fabric of gender dualism”. …Indeed, the genre is widely considered to offer a liberatory sphere within which presumably heteronormative readers can experiment with romance and sexuality through identiﬁcation with the beautiful boy characters. Manga critic Fujimoto Yukari explains that this gender-bending identiﬁcation and experimentation was necessary because shoujo readers were not able to “positively accept their own sexuality as women”.
– James Welker
The specific example that I cited in the panel was how BL always insists that there is a top and a bottom in the gay relationships they portray. Gay demographics outside and even within Japan argue that sexual positioning is a lot more complicated than that. In fact, the insistence is extremely heteronormative. Ukes (bottoms) in BL almost always portray downright feminine qualities while their semes (tops) almost always portray downright masculine qualities. Even though the characters are both boys, they’re not so much gay as they are a heterosexual couple who biologically happen to be male.
On top of its representation and accuracy issues, it’s also problematic to assume that BL is “simply” gay fiction because many of the authors themselves do NOT support LGBTQ rights. They write “gay” stories and portray “gay” relationships, but they do it solely on their terms. They are, in a way, appropriating gay narratives without participating in gay agendas. At the end of it all, much of it stays at fantasy fulfillment for straight women with little regard or respect for homosexuals and homosexuality.
…And a Crash Course on Sports Anime.
Sports anime is the catch-all term for any anime or manga series that deals with a sports and sports competitions. Traditionally, the characters in a sports anime are athletes with a goal: to be the very best that they could possibly be, for whatever reason. The main characters are also usually at the top of their careers, or are at least described to be “geniuses” of the sport.
Most sports anime are shonen series – that is, written for adolescent boys between the ages of 10-15. The competitions that they portray are also restricted to a national level rather than an Olympic or similarly international scale. Many of the more popular sports anime series, in fact, deal with school competitions.
Romantic notions of rivalry and competition are often the highlights of a sports anime. Furthermore, one doesn’t often refer to a sports anime series for accuracy. However, there are some wonderful exceptions to this rule that pay close attention to the aspects of the sport and their respective competitive cultures.
Prince of Tennis is a prime example of the first, where you practically have super-powered tennis serving as a backdrop to romanticized rivalry between the players of different teams. Ookiku Furikabutte, on the other hand, went into the realities of high school baseball in Japan, framed within the context of high school competitions being perhaps the last chance for many of these kids to play baseball for a team before “real life” and real life duties kick in.
Finally, sports anime and manga aren’t exclusively produced by male authors. The aforementioned Ookiku is a shonen series, but it’s written by a woman – just like Yuri!!! on Ice.