Approaching the yuri genre; Japanese pop visual culture’s stories of women’s same-sex affection and desire with the motive of finding (and perhaps borrowing) visual tropes of physical intimacy – from skinship to sex adds one further point of view towards an already contested genre. Classifying stories and representational strategies according to imputed audience’s gaze seems to be the simplest way at first to try to winnow out obviously exploitative girl-on-girl-action porn that was custom-built for horny guys’ immediate needs and not much else. From there on, it gets complicated.
A wide range of readers, including straight guys can develop a taste for light romantic melodrama which yuri does very well, thus avoiding the need to sneak into bookstores at night to purchase Harlequin romances. Neither should we discount the appeal of watching the main character(s) progress through a shadow-of-lesbian (or even semi-realistic lesbian) bildungsroman, especially when we can cheer the character(s) on from a safe emotional distance. I have speculated on yuri as a site for such an expanded take on the iyasheki effect, even as this emotional distance risks trivialising real lesbian subjectivities.
WARNING: Adult themes and over-consideration of traditions of Japanese cartoon intimacy below the cut. Part 3 of a 4 part series on limitations within Japanese vernacular visual narratives depicting intimacy. Snark. Some spoilers.
Work-in-progress warning: This series is under construction and as the sections shake out, I may return to this and other sections and mess with stuff. Hit refresh if returning. I’ll remove this when it feels done and dusted.
These considerations aside, one must agree that for a heck of a lot of yuri, even in the lighter no-overt-sex variety (stubbornly still referred to as shoujo-ai in some western quarters) characters are not shy about physically showing affection. Often they are all over each other at the slightest excuse. This is a fanservice tradition and as susceptible to questions of how such relates to an exploitative gaze as any other variety of fanservice. However worrying too much about gazes might obscure the fact that yuri really depicts affectionate contact well. Since we have a shortage, it would be a shame to dismiss a complex and well-developed genre that offers a reliable supply. Many yuri girls and women cuddle. Over in straight couple land, it takes a paint roller loaded with magic gag manga glue to get two characters to stick to each other. (1)
Yuri does clingy well. Touchy-feely too. Women in Japan are considered to be socialized into greater emotional awareness and sensitivity, and are more prone to be tasked with nurturing duties; generalizations that have led to the convenient premise that all women, especially when in same-sex socials are more prone to and comfortable with physical closeness. Would not girl characters who are interested in other girl characters naturally act out their awareness and sensitivity with heightened levels of affective physicality?
Does my argument try too hard to fit random samples to a larger pattern? I just thought that it you have stories with two characters who like each other, no matter the gender and sexuality, a reader would expect a slow progression of physical closeness, perhaps up to and including simple, tender love-making. If the material aimed to be porn/ hentai it would jump directly to fetishism. Instead, the expected linear progression looked interrupted, even fragmentary in heterosexual character romances. Meanwhile, straight-gaze fantasy-of-queer stories appeared to pick up the slack, various genres hitting some notes more than others. Also, for manga (etc.) straight couples to be granted permission to do common mushy romantic behaviour, they too had to be placed “outside” of mundane Japanese society by nature of some quirk; behavior, socio-economic status, delinquency/ criminality or outlander birth/ nurture (see upcoming part 4) — a condition that of course is assumed to be the de facto state for fictional queer characters
Oh goodie! A mystery!
Part 1 advanced the idea that perhaps lazy authorship and plot conventions of over-reserved behavior led to a “cut-to-the-chase over-emphasis on “proving” a romance tale by culminating in hurried pro forma sex. Part 2 noted that BL aniparo doujinshi developed a tradition of burlesque restatement of hurried, mechanical heterosexual humping by having unlikely acting guy characters re-enact it, often with extra, theatrical rough bits. Meanwhile for the rest of BL, original, especially published narratives moved to favor emphasising the physicality of closeness that had faded from het narratives throughout the progression of a relationship.
Which brings me to the yuri genre. When a yuri couple finally engages in sex, perhaps because of an obvious absence (except for really dumbed down pr0n variants) they well might be shown taking more time to explore and enjoy each other as a way of demonstrating that they really, really like each other. Human beings have surface area and the readership wont mind the detour. Again this plays to fanservice but so does all smut. Noting this, we must acknowledge that a greater range of simple intimate play seems to come easier to yuri smut.
Something seems to chivvy the other varieties along too quickly.
Hunting for variety in depictions of physical affection is more than a reworking of the old chestnut “read yuri for resbian sex tips”. Far less emphasis is placed upon potential IRL application – few need hugging and hand-holding tips. The attraction is far simpler; the enjoyment of a fictional space and characters where mundane physical intimacy can and is done. The effect is curiously aspirational across a wide readership, as long as a minimum effort is made to keep the portrayal within the realms of good faith presentation.
Another rarity; the simple, basic and enjoyable mainstay of teen make-out sessions; snogging likewise finds a comfortable home in yuri representation. Long passionate kisses. Tongue wrestling. Lip locking. Why the near absolute dog-didn’t-bark absence of heavy necking among other genders and sexualities in manga/anime etc couples? Do only girls who like girls get to passionately kiss in Japan? (2)
This effect can only be because almost all adult manga males have forgotten how to brush their teeth and floss properly. No kissu ever. Man-character-breath must be stipulated as exceptionally rank. Exceptions are rare, even historically rare (cf: Genji) A peck on the cheek is an ordeal. Also all sararymen smoke; it covers the smell of rotting gums, so add ashtray to the bouquet.
Kabi Nagata’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness/ “A Report on My Being So Lonely That I Went to a Lesbian Brothel” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Lesbian_Experience_With_Loneliness] might not be conventional yuri, yet its stark, painful autobiographical realism drives home its point. People crave affective contact. (3)
It is good to be reminded that human contact is possible and surprising that we are in such a state as to find it lacking, if not problematic in fictions, if not in real life. Even if one wishes that happy IRL ‘normie’ couples should avoid PDA’s one would have to be sour indeed to spit DIAF curses at cartoon “normie” couples.
Am I limited by my gaze; are girl:girl displays of physical affection universally tolerated? I could be over-generalising from my straight old guy perspective. Enough women are uncomfortable with displays of women’s same-sex affection as straight guys are uncomfortable with corresponding male displays. Perhaps more so, as the woman spectator also has to deal with the relentless objectification of women, including porny girl:girl objectification that swirls around her.
Are there unwanted personal space violators among women, who pester other women? Again I have no idea but this query highlights an unsaid fine point of distinction within the field of women’s fictional affective contact: Inappropriate, unwanted physical contact is somewhat less common or is contrasted against inappropriate contact form men within the tropes of the genre. This also may be a source of grim humor among women readers as well; mean girls are mean. Psycho villain girl is in many ways scarier (and perhaps more relatable to some of the audience) than psycho villain guys.
What complicates these issues is that yuri is more of a contested space than BL; its tropes and formalisms are less the product of a single readership’s preferences. Instead traditions from the Flower Stories of the 1920’s, stage traditions, high modernist Japanese literature, publishing company editors, pinku movie cliches, straight, lesbian and gay readers influences and tastes have and continue to shape the genre. Certainly, if one was a woman who likes other women you might consider reading yuri (though some of your sisters prefer BL to avoid lingering traces of objectification) but you could also send your brother to bookstore to pick up Yuri Hime for you. Verena Maser’s PhD dissertation (see Bibliography section), gives the reader a snapshot (via a series of surveys) of the Japanese fandom at the turn of the last decade. Okazu‘s Erica Friedman has collected resources that allow a deeper dive into the genre, at her site’s history page.[http://www.yuricon.com/essays/#Yuri_History ] I hope that one day soon she is able to cap her decades of enthusiasm, advocacy and scholarship with the completion of her (working project title) “Big Book o’Yuri” .[http://okazu.yuricon.com/2017/09/24/new-okazu-patron-only-content-on-patreon/]
In the meantime, I suspect that some of the visual and/or descriptive tropes of close affective physicality go clear back to the 1920’s, if not earlier – though the nationalist project of secondary education for the children of the new middle class undoubtedly set the stage. It’s a safe bet that there’s some Takarazuka in there somewhere too. Atavisms undoubtedly lurk among the “permissions” implicitly granted for these conventions but aspirational impulses as well. My over-arching simplification, again leads back to not merely to objectification but to “other-izing”. To take more than what dour convention permits, especially to do so publicly (or in a fictional public space) comes at a cost and Japanese socials are very good at imposing costs. Little wonder then that their members privately also shift their dreams and stifled desires onto those who have stepped out of line.
An oblique example, one outside of the formal yuri genre may yield more insight. Beyond the boundaries of an amorphous shoujo-ai lies the curious Cute Girls Doing Cute Things genre. Constructed as a voyeuristic opportunity for a (assumed) straight male-gaze audience, CGDCT stories can vary greatly from serious adventures to slice-of-life tales, to nearly plotless excuses for banter — all done by cute girls/ young women. Spicing these up with hints of same-sex affection, often by using affective tropes/ affectionate gestures and physical contact is quite common; to the point where, coupled with the lack of any overt recognition of f:f desire, it has become an annoyance to readers who seek the latter.
Consider Endro~!, [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endro!] at first glance a harmless and fluffy fantasy-adventure comedy. The world is a heaping pile of fantasy game-inspired clichés. The Hero and sidekicks all happen to be rather youngish-looking girl characters. The Hero is a good-natured pink-haired bubble head, her three friends right out of central casting. The Demon Lord, who after appearing as a towering big-bad and being sent back in time in a last boss battle with Hero & co., now teaches the slightly younger adventurers at the royal school in her true form; a snarky ram horned and bat-winged 10-year-old child.
Yes, Maou-sensei has a snaggle-tooth.
The character designs follow the CGDCT model, with costume fanservice pitched at those who prefer their girl heroes at bit too young. The story-lines are light-hearted, drawing inspiration from works like Konosuba and the four always win out in the end. So much so that by the second episode, the ex-Demon Lord declares to herself that the Demon Lord gig is pointless and that she would rather teach school, collect a decent pay cheque and avoid the entire last boss thing. She is also oblivious that the tall lady adventurer in bikini armor (a teaching colleague who recruited her for the school) wants to get her drunk and get to know her better.
That a CGDCT comedy throws in some yuri baiting is not uncommon. And at first there is not too much of it. The adventurers hang out together in their dorm rooms in classic CGDCT pyjama party fashion but they don’t cling on each other. As they go on adventures there is only token affective skinship. Then the Princess Rona shows up. The royalty of the realm is pledged by tradition to offer their daughters in marriage to the Hero-de-jour and the current Princess is set on the idea. If the Hero happens to be a bubble-headed pink-haired girl, no matter.
Gender is irrelevant and the law is hers to amend as she pleases.
Yulia Chardiet (nick; Yusha, lit. Hero) is unfazed but also not completely convinced, though she appreciates it when the Princess goes overboard and puts on a school fair to promote Yusha as the new hero. Giant Hero statue whatever; the food is free. Following on the Konosuba model, nothing much happens for a while after that. The Princess joins the classroom and even tries hanging out with the other members of Hero’s party, predictably making a mess of things.
Meanwhile, the yuri teasing has been waiting for another chance. After the Princess declares her intentions, our diminutive Maou-sensei falls ill with a nasty cold. Between the adventurers showing up, and demonstrating that they can responsibly pamper a sick child, Maou-sensei has memories of her lonely time as Demon Lord; of ending up cast back in time and hungry because no one would take a bat-winged, ram-horned 10-year old girl who claimed to be the Demon Lord seriously and of finally being picked up (literally) by Ms. Bikini Armor on the way to a fight with a dragon.
Ms. Bikini Armor likes to pick up cute young girls (and carry them under one arm). When Maou-sensei wakes up, her fever gone she finds that Ms. Bikini Armor has climbed into bed with her — undoubtedly because curing a bad cold requires heroic skinship, or something. Once again Bikini-chan stares at her with un-blinking eyes, ‘without turning away”. Maou-sensei finds this remarkable but not too unsettling.
Because Endro~! is a CGDCT comedy and not Yuri/ Shoujo-ai, the physical affectivity is out of whack, or rather caught between the conventions of multiple genres. Bikini-chan provides the most obvious example; she clearly has ideas about getting to know Maou-sensei better but the writers have to exercise caution with the lolicon gags (c.f. Dragon Maid). Memories of all 998 past reincarnations and an indeterminate time spent preparing for her last boss battle aside, Maou-sensei still looks extremely under-age. Therefore no princess-carry by Bikini-chan; Maou-chan gets the sack of turnips under-arm carry instead.
Similarly, when a feverish Maou-sensei finds Yusha & co. at her door and Yusha grabs her in a hug, the idiot Hero soon turns it into a wrestling hold while sensei desperately tries to “tap out”. It is as if the story-verse, upon stipulating that same-sex desire was accepted and no big deal now must make it conform to Japanese “normie” standards of physical affective behaviour. Ixnay onay ethay ouchingtay. The codes of uchi and soto and of honne and tatamae somehow wrap themselves around these behavior tropes as unspoken signifiers of which characters are “like” the readership and which are “exotic”.
This points to one aspect of the “fetishization” that the “normie” (ok; hetero-patriarchal if you want to get fancy) imagination imposes upon “the queer of our imaginations”. We use these shadows of minority sexualities and gender expressions, not only as placeholders and repositories for our deepest fears but also for our hopes, including such mundane ones as being able to cuddle a bit while out for an evening walk with bae.
This is not to say that the affectionate behavior we project upon cartoon queer folk is denied “straight” couples. Straight cuddles are possible, even in shoujo manga, despite the genre’s messy history of going for cheap thrills by romanticising dysfunctional, even abusive relationships.
What is interesting is how often a price is imposed for these small transgressions.
Next post, part 4: “Outsiders, Outlaws and Outlanders” (Which is taking too long ’cause I am stuck without any pithy Outlaw examples, beside that Yankee Girlfriend thing from a while back and anyways, it’s time for me to go to Japan (!!!!) so Ima distracted and got clumsy and bruised myself up in various inconvenient spots and will be cussing the ouchies as I drag 120 lbs of luggage through the streets of a small town some 30 hours from now… Anyway.. yup, I will finish this..)
(1) Exceptions to this will be examined in part 4.
(2) Am I overstating my argument? I did find one instance of pretty boy BL where the youguns did some good old-fashioned snogging. But one of them crossdresses. This just gets complicated.
(3) Note the famous, almost apocryphal tale of the autistic young woman who built herself a ” hug machine: “TEMPLE GRANDIN’S ‘HUG MACHINE’
(Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D. Center for the Study of Autism, Salem, Oregon) http://www.autism-help.org/points-grandin-hug-machine.htm