Or, why Yuri!!! on Ice hops off the relationship escalator, disrupts homonormativity, and I CLOSE MY EYES AND TELL MYSELF THAT MY DREAMS WILL COME TRUE
Mild spoilers throughout, major spoiler at end.
Avoiding Tropes and the Relationship Escalator
I get so tired of “gay” (bi folks exist!) romance stories because the narratives are so tropey and limited. In Japanese mainstream anime and dramas (read: not BL, not manga), there’s a lot of queer angst directed at a partner who doesn’t reciprocate (Last Friends, IS: Otoko demo onna demo nai sei), and a lot of queer-baiting. (I tend to avoid these shows because I don’t need that, but you can read about recent examples here, even though the author also forgets bisexuals and bi characters exist).
In “Western” media, the plots seem to be more along the lines of 1. an out gay person (because they’re always monosexual) meets a person who identifies as straight and then they fall in love, live happily ever after, and no one mentions the pesky “B” word. 2. Queer folks have a torrid romance and then one of them dies, typically in a hate crime, possibly with sexual violence. 3. A mean bisexual goes back to their different-gender partner and breaks the heart of the sad gay, who has to carry on all by themself.
To return for a minute to the “happy ending” plot, it’s just another version of the relationship escalator, but with coming out: meeting, first kiss, dating, coming out and resulting homophobia, commitment ceremony/marriage, kids(?), bickering old married couple. There are many, many ways to be queer and happy, but in media, if queer couples get a happy ending at all, it’s usually through the relationship-escalator model, where the queer couple looks and acts “just like a straight couple.” The message of that model is that unless you’re “just like straight people” and your relationship is a (relatively) socially approved one, you’ll be sad and alone forever (or dead).
Being “just like straight couples”–fetishizing wedding culture, adhering to butch/femme standards, and propagating capitalism– isn’t the path to queer liberation. Rather, queer relationship models have the potential to break down cisheteronormative gender norms. Yuuri and Viktor’s uniquely unconventional relationship isn’t like anything I’ve seen before, and I can’t emphasize how important that is.
Neither. No one is “the man” and no one is “the woman” in same-gender relationships (or, I would argue, in different-gender relationships where all members are queer). Both Viktor and Yuuri–as well as most of the other skaters–utilize feminine, masculine, and androgynous elements in their routines, costumes, and style.
Other than JJ making a comment about “ladies first” to Yuri “Yurio” Plisetsky, the youngest skater, there’s no femme-shaming. The other skaters might laugh at Georgi’s being way too emotional about being dumped by his ex-girlfriend and working his pain into his routine or about how Seung-Gil’s facial expression is completely dead while he’s trying to skate a sexy routine, but there’s no machismo, no snark, and no bullying.
Yuuri has trouble accessing his sexuality for his “Eros” routine, so, after telling Viktor and Yurio that katsudon is eros to him, he tries to make up a story about a playboy who comes to town and seduces the most beautiful woman, then casts her aside. However, the night before his first performance of “On Love: Eros,” he asks his ballet teacher (Minako-sensei) to teach him how to move in more feminine ways, changing the story so that the most beautiful woman seduces the playboy, then casts him aside.
Yuuri notes that skating the routine from the perspective of the beautiful woman being “closer to how [he] feel[s],” is not played as a joke. Yuuri’s femininity isn’t something to be mocked. Additionally, his relationship with Victor and general gender expression isn’t “feminized”–neither of them is exactly butch or femme but rather acknowledges gender slippage, a point that made my little genderqueer heart sing. Also, Viktor doesn’t fall into the tropes of having to protect Yuuri or being predatory (he keeps trying to tell Yuuri how he feels but has a sense of boundaries).
Changing the narrative to seducing the playboy mirrors his relationship with Viktor throughout the series. Yuuri constantly worries he’s not good enough (at skating) for Viktor, and that Viktor will leave him. What actually happens is that the narrative follows Yuuri’s routine: he (the beautiful woman) seduces Viktor (the playboy) with his skating, asks him to be his coach till he retires (proposes), then tells him he’s going to retire after this season (casting aside the playboy). Unlike the story of “Eros,” they actually talk about their feelings and their relationship. Actually seeing a real conversation, especially between men, about what they want from their unusual relationship, was a delight.
Everyone is Fine with This
I kept waiting for the queerphobic hammer to drop, because that’s always part of the narrative, but it didn’t. Even when Phichit notices Yuuri and Viktor’s pair rings, he gasps, and you’re waiting for someone to say something awful, and instead he says, “Everyone! My good friend just got married!” Yuuri and Viktor hold up their rings and the whole restaurant applauds. The only thing that sours the evening is when Viktor says that he and Yuuri will get married when Yuuri wins gold at the Grand Prix Finale — in front of all the other competitors, including JJ, who has just showed up (and has made the same promise to his fiancee.) This interaction is so positive, and it just made me so damn happy.
— ji@7/1約束✨と宗介クラスタ🏊⛸ (@soukatsu_) December 7, 2016
The real gift of YOI is showing a different kind of queer romance between two men with somewhat androgynous gender expressions. As a genderqueer bisexual person in a somewhat unconventional (by cishetero standards, anyway) relationship, I rarely see characters like me in anime or on TV. This show was truly born to make history, and I can’t wait for season 2.
“When I open up, he meets me where I am.”