How to Get Away With Writing Lesbians

(Note: This piece was originally published on the VRV Blog in two parts; How a Japanese Lesbian Author Got Queer Content Past the Censors 100 Years Ago and The Struggle to Get Queer Content in Cartoons. However, as it appears the blog is now down, I’m cross-posting it here.)

Part I – In 1920’s Japan

In Japan, there’s a subgenre of yuri called Class S. It’s often described as “romantic friendship,” but perhaps “pseudo-platonic lesbians until graduation” would be more accurate. The focus is on close emotional relationships between schoolgirls—and it is very nearly always schoolgirls—that borrow the imagery of romance, such as hand-holding, writing love letters, exchanging gifts, maybe even as much as a chaste kiss, but never more than that. One-sided lesbian pining with the acknowledgement that one’s feelings will never be returned by the heterosexual object of one’s affections can also fall into this category—Tomoyo from Cardcaptor Sakura is an archetypal example. There is nearly always the implication that these lesbian feelings are just a phase, and the girls involved will grow up to be straight and marry men. 

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You may think this sounds an awful lot like queerbaiting, the practice of deliberately including queer subtext—and only subtext—to court that audience without the risk of alienating viewers who might be put off by actual same-sex romance. And in contemporary works, you’d probably be right—the recent Ghibli film When Marnie Was There is a particularly egregious example of this. But if you go back to the origins of the genre, things are a lot more complicated.

Class S was codified by Yoshiya Nobuko, a prolific writer during the Showa and Taisho periods, with her serially published Flower Tales—running from 1916 to 1924—being especially popular and influential. These short stories almost never end happily for the girls involved—if they’re not pining from afar, their relationships inevitably end in tragedy. Naturally, schoolgirls ate this up, and Class S relationships gained a certain amount of popularity in real life before a combination of government censorship and a transition to co-ed schools led to the genre’s decline. Yoshiya’s writing shifted from schoolgirl crushes to heterosexual relationships, with any feelings between women becoming more akin to sisterhood.

What makes this interesting is that Yoshiya Nobuko was a feminist and a very open lesbian, who cheerfully flaunted the gender norms of the time and had a decades-long relationship with another woman—not exactly the type one would expect to propagate the concept of same-sex love as a meaningless phase.

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That’s because she really wasn’t—she was writing lesbian relationships in the only way they could get published at the time. During the rapid modernization of the 1920’s, there was immense societal and government pressure for girls to stay pure and virginal until marriage so that they could become “Good Wives, Wise Mothers.” Relationships between girls were seen as an acceptable way to practice affection for married life, harmless compared to heterosexual involvement that could result in pregnancy, but they were acceptable only so long as they didn’t get in the way of the final goal—marriage and motherhood. Depicting a committed lesbian relationship between adults, such as the one Yoshiya herself had, would be bordering on treason.

This is, perhaps, the reason that so many of her stories end unhappily—because her only other option would be for her girls to enter the sphere of heterosexuality, which was often depicted quite literally as a fate worse than death. And considering how widely read her work was, there’s no doubt that even these heavily compromised depictions opened some girls’ eyes to their own sexuality. After all, if there’s one thing us queer folks are good at, it’s reclaiming flawed works. Even within the constraints of the time, Yoshiya supported herself and her partner by writing lesbian fiction—it’s hard to call that anything but subversive.

Of course, the Class S subgenre has become something quite different since then. Decades after its decline, it was brought back into the spotlight in 1998 by the hugely popular light novel series Maria-sama ga Miteiru (Maria Watches Over Us). MariMite, like its generic predecessors, is set in a Catholic girl’s school and depicts emotionally close, asexual “romantic friendships” between upperclassmen and their underclassmen sœurs as a codified tradition of the school—and by extension, one expected to end with graduation. The main difference between MariMite and Flower Tales is context, but the importance of context cannot be underestimated—when Marimite was published, homosexuality had been decriminalized in most countries, the global LGBT and feminist movements were in full swing, and there had recently been several landmark cases ruling against discrimination based on sexuality in Japan. What was subversive and boundary-pushing in 1920 is merely regressive in 1998. To blindly copy tropes without considering their significance is to completely miss the point.

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For an example of a creator who carries on Yoshiya’s intent, one need look no further than anime director Ikuhara Kunihiko. Despite managing to fit a frankly astonishing level of dark and disturbing content into a prime-time TV slot for his 1997 anime Revolutionary Girl Utena, one thing he wasn’t able to depict was the two female leads kissing, leading to misguided insistence from fans that “they’re just friends!” that continues to this day. This is despite the naked motorcycle makeout session that closes out the 1999 follow-up film Adolescence of Utena, permitted by Ikuhara’s freedom from the censorial oversight that comes from working in TV. His most recent series, 2015’s Yuri Kuma Arashi (Yuri Bear Storm), can be read, in part, as an interrogation of Class S tropes: the protagonist and her “best friend” appear to have a chaste romantic friendship—until we see them lounging naked in bed together in a clearly post-coital manner. The series ends with the possible deaths of the main lesbian couple—but they’re happy together in the world they find themselves in, finally free from those who would persecute them, and their love inspires other girls to seek out love with each other. Like Flower Tales, their ending may not be perfect, but it is rebellious and inspiring and optimistic even in its tragedy. And this time, we get to see them kiss.

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Censorship, whether overt or not, has always been a high hurdle for queer representation. This is no less the case in the US than in Japan, with kids cartoons as the battleground du jour. 

Part II – In 2010’s America

There’s a heartening trend of lesbian representation in contemporary American kids’ cartoons. The most recent and obvious example is the Adventure Time finale, when Princess Bubblegum and Marceline’s series-long subtext finally made its way into canon. But the long arc of the medium has been pointing in that direction for a while now, between Legend of Korra ending by pushing the main girls as a couple as hard as they could get away with (Dec. 2014) and Steven Universe’s escalation from eye kisses (March 2015) to full-on lesbian weddings (July 2018). 

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Unfortunately, creators are still fighting a very active battle against studio censorship. Absurd as it may seem, the idea that queer content is somehow inherently inappropriate for children is still alive and well, part and parcel with the notion that queerness itself is sexual and predatory. And while cartoons for adults such as Archer and The Venture Bros can get away with overtly queer characters—albeit rather stereotypical ones—kids’ cartoons have much higher hurdles to clear. A notorious example of this is the “Love God” episode of Gravity Falls, in which the original plan to have a couple of cute old ladies get together was struck down by the hand of Disney. 

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Between the fact that a lot of people working in the field are queer—or at least earnestly invested in the idea of genuine queer representation—and the ever-looming threat of censorship, it’s easy to get caught in that strange gray area discussed above, where everything looks a little like queerbaiting. The best example of this currently on air is OK K.O. Let’s Be Heroes!, the least heterosexual show to never establish any of its characters as explicitly queer. 

From my homosexual perspective, there is not a single straight character in OK K.O. I find it hard to see how anyone could watch Lord Boxman’s desperate eagerness to impress fellow villain Professor Venomous, or Enid’s danger zone date with time traveler Red Action, or Nick Army and Joff the Shaolin Monk doing just about anything, and read it as anything other than very, very queer. Enid and Red Action have even been confirmed by the creators as bi and gay respectively.

And yet, there’s a certain frustrating insistence on referring to these potential couples as friends. It’s not just the terminology that stings—in a vacuum, it wouldn’t matter, as it’s not as though saying “friend” instead of “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” changes anything about the way these characters interact with each other. What’s irritating is knowing that people will use this language to deny that there’s anything romantic between these characters, contributing to the erasure of queerness. 

On Enid’s page on the OK K.O. fan wiki, male coworker Radicles is listed as a former love interest—but neither Red Action nor Enid’s “best friend” Elodie are, despite her having relationships with them that would be read as unambiguously romantic were they heterosexual, even in the absence of creator confirmation. The message is clear, even if unintended: same-sex love is really just friendship. 

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Even so, looking at the show itself and the creators’ comments it seems clear enough that the people behind OK K.O. are acting in good faith. The show often pushes the emphasis on friendship to the point of absurdity, where it seems more like “friends” is just another term for couples in this universe, as though to wink at a potentially disappointed audience and say “we know, we think it’s ridiculous too.” There’s even a scene where protagonist K.O. completely fails to realize that his mom has a boyfriend until he sees them kiss, an obvious nod to how onscreen kissing is taken as the point of confirmation for queer couples. That’s hardly enough, of course, but it’s worth keeping in mind that even if Steven Universe and Adventure Time managed to overtly and unambiguously depict similar couples, both of those shows were more popular than OK K.O, meaning they were likely allowed more leeway in terms of what they could or couldn’t portray. 

Like Yoshiya Nobuko, contemporary creators of children’s media have decided that even flawed, compromised representation is better than no representation at all, and that the importance of laying that groundwork to normalize queerness—even subtextual queerness—outweighs the risks of it being used as a method of erasure. Looking at the ways in which this bargain has paid off over the years, it’s hard not to agree with that assessment, as frustrating as it can be in the short term.

This need for plausible deniability is likely part of the reason why it’s lesbian representation that’s been making the most headway, as opposed to gay men. The fact that female friendship is perceived as having a relatively high level of physical and emotional intimacy is a double-edged sword, both making it easier to include liminally queer elements that will be recognized by a queer audience, and enabling those who would be inclined to deny the existence of queer romances to write any sort of intimacy off as mere friendship. By comparison, nearly any sort of emotional or physical intimacy between men tends to be read as gay, a result of toxic masculinity ruling that men must never show vulnerability, least of all to each other. This results in less gray area, and by extension, greater difficulty getting anything on air. The only example in recent memory is Voltron: Legendary Defender’s attempt in its seventh season, which blew up in their face when the announcement that Shiro was gay and had a fiancé back on Earth only made it into the show proper as a couple of ambiguous scenes and a reunion with a tombstone. 

Fans were furious, and it sparked a huge debate about the “bury your gays” trope and trend of announcing characters as queer ahead of time to build hype. It’s understandable why fans felt like they’d been had. But again, it’s important to keep creator intent in mind in cases like this. Voltron’s creators had been fighting to portray Shiro as queer since season two, and even if his fiancé didn’t make it, they’ve established a basis for him to enter another, more explicitly established gay relationship in the future—especially now that it’s been made so clear to executives that it’s something the fans want.

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(Note: this piece was written and published before Season 8 of Voltron came out, and it seems as though the most they did was showing Shiro’s gay wedding to a previously unintroduced character. Which is still something, I guess, but hardly what people were waiting for.)

Being queer and wanting to see yourself reflected in the media you love is hard. It’s even harder for queer kids, who might not even know why they feel so ignored by works targeted towards them and have nowhere else to turn for representation even if they do. It’s hard to be patient, when we’ve waited so long and been offered so little. But OK K.O. is still airing, and so is Voltron—and there’s every reason to believe that they’ll manage to give fans the representation they want us to have. Steven Universe and Adventure Time didn’t start with lesbians—it took time. Sometimes, all one can do is keep supporting earnest creators, keep holding up the representation we do tear from the hands of thousands of years of deeply-ingrained homophobia, and remember that history is on our side.

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