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Queerwhatsitmaybes on Ice: Yuri on Ice, Boys’ Love & Gendercoding

Reading Time: 12 minutes.

As part of our commitment as a media partner of Born to Make History: A Yuri on Ice Fan Gathering, we are publishing transcripts of some of the panel discussions. These articles are designed to follow the flow of the presentations 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.


Introduction.

yuri on ice boys love

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.

yuri on ice boys love

 

Even after watching it twice, I still have so many feelings about this series.

I came into the fandom much later than most; so my feed was already 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.

yuri on ice boys love 3 - yuuri & victor 1
I MEAN, COME ON!!!! (see also BE STILL MY BEATING KOKORO!!!)

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…

yuri on ice boys love

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

yuri on ice boys love

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. Kubo Mitsurou 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.

yuri on ice boys love - IBO example
Quick aside for further emphasis. Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans is the latest installment in the MGS series. It has set itself apart for having an EXTREMELY different viewpoint on war and the battlefield from its predecessors – something that many viewers of today find disturbing for being so relatable or “real”.

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.

yuri on ice boys love

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 it 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. They just 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.

This is 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. And with little regard or respect for homosexuals and homosexuality.

 

…And a Crash Course on Sports Anime.yuri on ice boys love

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.

 

Now that we’re done:

yuri on ice boys love

The differences between Boy’s Love and sports anime as genres should be pretty clear by now.

Boy’s Love can use sports as a backdrop for the real purpose of its narrative: showing the internal, romantic world of the couple (or couples) that it wishes to focus on. We might even be able to say, in fact, that BL that uses sports series conventions are fetishizing the relationships between athletes.

In the same way that readers can have narrative kinks (like, let’s say, enjoying BDSM stories or preferring May-December couples in their fiction), fujoshi can enjoy reading the rivalry and competition between male athletes as homoerotic – and some of them will simply write them in a “gay” relationship.

On the other hand, sports anime can’t be defined as Boy’s Love.

While we are certainly welcome to read the relationships between the athletes as gay; they are, more often than not, canonically heterosexual. We’re just projecting our own queer visions of the world on them, for whatever purpose.

This isn’t to say, of course, that sports anime CAN’T have gay characters at all – else, Yuri!!! on Ice wouldn’t exist. However, the gay characters in a sports anime are present as part of the plot, or as representation – accurate or otherwise.

While we are certainly welcome to read the relationships between the athletes as gay, they are, more often than not, canonically heterosexual. We’re just projecting our own queer visions of the world on them, for whatever purpose.

I acknowledge that the face of Boy’s Love has changed a whole lot since its origin point. Beyond having more male mangaka on the scene, you’ve also got female mangaka that really DO want to write gay stories and aren’t writing out practical heterosexual porn with dicks. Some mangaka are even gay Japanese men, out to tell their own stories on their own terms.

 

Yuri on Ice isn’t just a sports anime, and is definitely NOT BL.

yuri on ice boys love

I don’t think I could ever overstate this. Stories are inherently political; genres reflect and amplify a story’s inherent agendas.

In the case of Yuri!!! on Ice, the insistence that the series is “simply” Boy’s Love masquerading as a sports anime is wholly inaccurate. The series contains an ASTOUNDING amount of detail on all aspects of figure skating: the way the sport works, how competitions play out right down to the point system; the performative aspects of figure skating that set it apart from many other Olympics competitions, and the politics of the sport itself.

yuri on ice boys love IG screen
The international figure skating community is actually EXTREMELY tight knit. Everyone knows everyone, everyone TWEETS everyone, everyone IGs everything about everyone. We saw a hell lot of this in YOI, didn’t we?

While I can’t speak with authority on all of the technical merits of the figure skating of Yuri!!! on Ice, I CAN laud it for its portrayal of figure skating culture.

Many of the characters don’t actually borrow from the archetypal conventions of characters in sports anime narratives.

In fact, some are caricatures (or tributes) to real people in the figure skating scene. Other characters might be Kubo’s quiet critique of the more damaging politics in competitive figure skating.

yuri on ice boys love screenshot - leo
Leo de la Iglesia is an interesting character in YOI with regard to representation. Most of the figure skaters who represent America in competitions are American or Asian-American. For Leo to be Latino and have an African-American coach is interesting, especially within the context of the racial tensions that exist in the States between the white communities and African-American + Latino communities.

We can also consider Yuri and Victor’s love story in this context.

It is easy for us to write off their dynamic – figure skater and coach falling in love – as a BL trope. But that would be ignoring the way their story plays out.

 

Victor and Yuri are “real” gay characters, not fantasy projections.

Episodes 1 to 9 may have led us to believe that Victor wasn’t interested in a relationship with Yuri. There’s enough textual evidence to interpret his actions as him trying to find something new and exciting for himself by coaching another figure skater.

Episode 10, however, reveals that in a drunken moment, Yuri and Victor had an amazing time together at a party. Yuri even begged Victor to become his coach!

yuri on ice boys love - camera roll
Two particularly affectionate and drug male figure skaters horsing around, or a future couple in the making? I say it’s the latter.

If we’re to believe that Mitsuru Kubo was vying for “accuracy”, the gender coding of this pair starts to make sense.

Yuri never truly goes through the “dark night of the soul” that BL characters usually go through (“am I gay? / I like him, is that weird?”). He simply realizes, for himself, that the love he has for Victor is “different”.

His understanding of that difference grows as they continue their journey together. It’s also telling that he never comes off as feminine, right down to his performances on the ice.

While he never openly declares his sexuality, Victor’s actions and the way he carries himself speak volumes. Furthermore, BOTH of them are extremely discreet. It’s almost as if they are aware of this “different love” that they possess for each other. The world at large may not view their relationship with kindness.

 

Conclusion.

The power of the representation in Yuri!!! on Ice is one of the greatest things about the series.

It’s a love letter to figure skating. It’s also a fictional presentation of a world that many people hope for: an LGBTQ-friendly one, where same-sex romance on and around the ice rink can exist without prejudice. Therefore, we have to view it as a sports anime that went the distance.

Writing it off as queerbaiting ignores everything that it did. Writing it off as Boy’s Love ignores the strength of the world it constructed, and prevents us from seeing Yuri and Victor for who they are.


The presenter of this panel discussion welcome discourse in the comments! Tell Pam what you think.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article cited Oofuri as an anime about middle school baseball. This has since been corrected.

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Pammu
Female, bisexual, not in Narnia about anything. Games, writes, DMs, watches shit, reads shit, loves cats. Answers to Kae, Pamela, Pam, Pam-Pam, Pammy, Pammeth. Pamera, and Pammu. Also part of the admin team of What's a Geek, over at http://www.whatsageek.com!

7 Comments

  1. tbaudinette tbaudinette April 12, 2017

    Excellent piece of writing. I have shared it on my academic blog if that is okay (although I should mention that I personally do not believe it is appropriate to label these characters as “gay” so much as possessing potential same-sex attraction… since neither of them ever identify as such explicitly)

    • Pamela Punzalan Pamela Punzalan Post author | April 12, 2017

      Thank you for your feedback! That is actually what a lot of us find REALLY interesting about the series with regard to whether we can label them gay or not. There is ample textual proof for either reading, especially if you take the cultural context of Japan and the country’s views on LGBTQ, most especially homosexual men.

  2. Jens Lyon Jens Lyon April 12, 2017

    I entered the world of Yuri!! On Ice as a longtime figure skating fan and as the author of a figure skating novel. I’m also an American over forty who doesn’t have much of a background in anime/manga, so your article feeds my brain in a new way.

    “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.” I absolutely agree with this. If anyone has any doubt, consider that current World figure skating champion Evgenia Medvedeva has spoken publicly about how much she loves the series and regularly tweets about it. This is a teenager from a country where it’s against the law to distribute “homosexual propaganda”! Whether Yuri!!! On Ice’s creators intended it or not, their stories do have a political impact.

    • Pamela Punzalan Pamela Punzalan Post author | April 12, 2017

      Thank you so much for taking time to read my piece! I honestly wish that more fans would write about the more political aspect of the series and what it does for figureskating and LGBTQ issues. Am also glad that my article’s providing new viewpoints. May I know the title of your novel?

      • Jens Lyon Jens Lyon April 12, 2017

        My novel is titled Red Flags. It is a coming-of-age story about a Soviet figure skating champion. The paperback is available at Amazon and it’s also available in all the major ebook platforms (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Tolino). And yes, the story addresses LGBTQ issues. (Well, not much on the “T” front, except for one brief scene where the main character and her Soviet teammates are watching talk shows in an American hotel room.)

        • TheDovetailor TheDovetailor April 18, 2017

          Sorry for the massive delay in my response, got whisked off for the Holy Week long vacation down here. That sounds really, really interesting. I’ll make sure to tell my friends about this book!

  3. Liz Holt Liz Holt September 27, 2018

    I read into the world around Yuri and Victor as one that doesn’t define relationships as gay/straight and completely void of homophobia. That in Yuri on Ice people just fall in love be it a man or a woman because they are drawn to each other. It was really refreshing and the relationship between victor/Yuri characters could easily be written with heterosexual or Lesibian characters and it wouldn’t have changed the story or its effectiveness. This is where I felt it was different and refreshing

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