Anime is one of the few mediums where you can really say that there’s something for everyone. Or at least, that’s the idea. Recent anime has scarcely provided anything interesting, but at least this season has something slightly different: Sakura Trick.
Representation of anyone other than straight people is rare in media, and anime is no exception. So, of course I was immediately interested when I caught wind of this series because the endgame couple is made cannon from the very start. There’s no question that Haruka and Yuu are together, which means that for once, cannon is doing work that fans often have to do in order to feel that more people like them are in the stories they love. Simply relating to characters is one thing, but being able to share any part of your identity with a character is something else. Ask any person of color what it means to see (or not see) people who look like them in movies, books, TV shows, anime, etc. and they may give you tons of examples of whitewashing, exotification, and stereotypes. The same goes for women, disabled people, and LGBT+ people (Hourou Musuko is the one anime out of every anime I’ve watched ever that has actually done a very good job of portraying transgender people. That’s one anime out of everything I’ve watched).
When we look at stories, there are two questions we have to ask ourselves: who is this story about and who is this story for? I think how we answer these questions can help us determine if a historically oppressed group of people is being treated as fully human by the creator(s) of the story.
Who is yuri anime about?
On the surface, the answer to this question is obvious: yuri is about girls who fall in love with each other. Most, if not all, of the characters are female. If dudes make an appearance, they’re older brothers, fathers, random family members that appear to make the series last a little longer, etc. In that sense, yuri rejects the tendency of just about every other kind of story ever to focus on men in some capacity. All of this seems great for more diverse representation, but the analysis can’t end with this question.
Who is yuri anime for?
This is where things get more complicated. Yuri series like Sakura Trick and Strawberry Panic are saturated in femininity to the point where they’re almost parodies of high school anime in general. Because these series don’t even have a dude there for romance, one would logically think that dudes would pass over them since these stories are not about them.
But usually, these stories are still for them, especially the anime. Every unnecessary boob and thigh shot in Sakura Trick is a reminder of the irony that a lot of media that represents gay women isn’t actually for gay women. I don’t find it appealing when the camera focuses on body parts detached from the rest of the person. In general, I don’t like this trend of dividing people, especially women, into tantalizing parts. When yuri “doubles the fun,” so to speak, it becomes more obvious. There’s this prevailing idea that two women in a relationship together exist to please or entertain a straight dude and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I once had a conversation where someone offhandedly remarked how Orange is the New Black is clearly trying to get their male audience by showing the sex scenes between Piper and Alex, and I just stared at them blankly for a second before we moved on to a different topic. It’s like people forget that some gay women can and do enjoy that content, or that gay women exist for themselves and not for the male gaze.
Because of this, yuri often makes me feel divided. The surface level representation is nice, but the way it translates to the screen makes me question whether or not a given series exists for the people it’s about or if it exists for people who want to fetishize gay women. For this reason, I’ve found that manga and light novels can be less promblematic, but even that depends on how the story is told.
Yuri and Unrealistic Expectations
Furthermore, most yuri recycles the shoujo manga idea of romance just falling into your lap. Strawberry Panic takes that to an extreme and presents a fantasy in which literally everyone is at least a little bit gay. This is a nice escapist fantasy since it’s never that easy to find anyone in real life, especially if you’re gay. Even outside of anime, a lot of stories about gay people present this false notion that romance/relationships happen easily (not to mention that a lot of those relationships are destructive. I’m looking at you, L Word). However, for anyone just coming to terms with their sexuality, it could set them up for a lot of disappointment when they find that romance still isn’t easy even though they now understand themselves much better.
Media representation still paints a pretty bleak/unrealistic/incomplete picture. On the one hand, things are progressively getting better, but on the other hand, I’d personally like to see more shows like Orphan Black where two of the main characters are gay, but their romantic relationships are neither dramatized nor erased nor the central focus of who they are as characters. I’ll have a glowing blog post to write if Krista/Historia x Ymir becomes 100% undeniably cannon because it would be in this same vein.
Whether or not yuri anime is decent representation is up to the individual who is being represented. Sakura Trick is a relief to many since it’s so light-hearted. In that sense, it’s a step forward because pretty much every other anime about women in love is very dramatic and usually tragic. At the same time, I think Sakura Trick falls into the same trap that just about every other recent anime has fallen into: the characters don’t act like real people. They’re rarely more that cookie cutter versions of the same tropes. Literally the only difference between Sakura Trick and any other anime about girls going through high school is that the implied yuri in all of those other series is overt in Sakura Trick. It’s fluffy candy, which is all fine and good as long as people recognize that and keep pushing for better, more comprehensive representation.