Transcendence and Subtlety in Queer Ships

Queer erasure and censorship in media isn’t a new problem. Although things have certainly changed in recent years, overt representation of queer women in cartoons (and anime to a lesser extent) is still pretty sparse. Where it does occur, it’s sometimes embedded in some type of spiritual or transcendent narrative in which the transcendence of one or both partners acts as an ambiguous confirmation of their relationship. At the same time, transcendent narratives present profound themes that tie to larger ideas in the show. Korrasami and Utena x Anthy are two examples of queer lady ships in which transcendence or connection with the spiritual exists in tension with the ambiguity of their relationships.

Korrasami: Nonphysicality and the Spirit World

An image shows Korra and Asami facing each other in the glow of a spirit portal while holding hands.

Over a year ago, I joined with the rest of the Internet gushing over the Legend of Korra series finale. Subsequent Tumblr posts from Mike and Bryan confirmed Korrasami, which fueled ongoing debates about Korrasami’s value as queer representation. Did Bryke do their best in the face of network censorship, or should the queer community reject Korrasami for being barely more than breadcrumbs (as portrayed just in the series itself)? Does good queer representation mean that there cannot be any ambiguity about the relationship by the time a series ends, especially in light of people who stress that they’re just “gal pals”?

There may not be a straight answer.

Puns aside, I do think we can glean some good meaning from what we see of Korrasami’s relationship in those last moments as they hold hands and enter the portal to the Spirit World. To start, we need to compare Korra and Asami’s relationship with the relationships they have with Mako.

Because overt heterosexuality is permissible (and assumed) in children’s animation, Korra and Asami’s respective relationships with Mako contain that physical element. Both Masami and Makorra happened fast. One minute, Asami runs into Mako with her moped and does a hair flip. The next minute, they’re dating. Though Makorra happens a little slower than that, it’s still canon by the end of season one. Compare that to the three seasons it took for Katara and Aang to get together. Physical attraction or infatuation likely cause these quick hookups. Neither Korra nor Asami has much time at all to get to know Mako before dating him (and being physical with kisses and such). Mako and Korra do know each other a little bit better before they officially start dating, but Korra spends most of Book 1 with “Mako blinders” on, so to speak. He’s cool and charming and great, but Korra doesn’t actually know if they’re compatible. Both of them rush into their relationship and it’s clear by Book 2 that that they have no clue how to be with or support each other. It’s the same with Mako and Asami. In Book 3, Korra and Asami place the issue squarely on Mako’s inability to understand his own feelings or what he wants.

But during this Makorra and Masami dance, Korra and Asami begin their friendship. Korra is the reluctant one. In her brash judgments, she decides that Asami is her competition for Mako and is nothing more than a prissy heiress. Asami, however, shows nothing but respect and kindness for Korra. So as their friendship really starts to grow in Book 3, both could very well be attracted to each other in the same way that they were attracted to Mako. However, their history with him may compel them to actively and intentionally deny physicality. They both remember what happened the last time they rushed their feelings for someone they liked and they don’t want another burnout. So, they choose nonphysicality and spirituality becomes entwined with it. Asami is the one who requests the vacation to the Spirit World, of all places, so whatever is starting between her and Korra is intimately connected with the spiritual.

Now, technically speaking, holding hands is a physical act, but when we think of “physical” in terms of romantic relationships, we typically mean more than hand-holding. The absence of kissing or the types of touch one would usually have only in the context of a romantic relationship is what makes Korrasami “nonphysical.” However, their relationship is still deeply affectionate and there are plenty of examples, especially throughout Books 3 and 4, of the care they extend to each other.

Abstaining from physicality has some precedence in the Avatarverse. During Aang’s training with Guru Pathik, he’s encouraged to let all earthly attachments go when opening his chakras, which include the physical needs of his body and emotional ties, particularly his love for Katara. There’s this notion that being free of all tethers to the world will lead to a greater connection with the divine. Aang is ultimately unable to renounce his attachment to Katara and that’s the end of that.

Korra and Asami do have an attachment to each other, yet they are easily able to enter a spiritual realm. Part of this is because the plot of Legend of Korra allows for this, but I think another way to look at it is as an affirmation that earthly relationships can be windows into spirituality if they’re built on foundations other than physical gratification. This doesn’t mean physicality is bad. It just means that it isn’t a lasting foundation and Korra and Asami have learned that through their relationships with Mako.

Yet doesn’t Korrasami’s ambiguity as shown in the series make it too easy to dismiss them as “just gal pals”? That’s the constant tension of transcendent queer relationships. Because their affections are not or cannot be explicitly shown, these relationships take on many metaphorical elements. When relationships are up for interpretation, fans tend to categorize them on one end of a binary or another. They’re either just friends or they’re dating.

I don’t think this binary is particularly helpful in talking about Korrasami because I see both strong friendship and romantic love between them, which I’ve expounded on in other pieces on this blog. Moreover, their relationship suggests more of a spectrum than a binary. This quote sums it up nicely:

“Friendships include love and power, embodiment and spirituality. . . .Women experience these dynamics to various degrees in everyday friendship. . .sexuality, as most women see it, is an integrated part of everyday human interaction–whether touch, embrace, caress, or more intimacy. The prioritization of friendship based on women’s experiences offers a different starting point for sexual choices. Friendship becomes the bedrock of all love relationships. It is a good foundation” (Hunt, “Love Your Friends: Learning from the Ethics of Relationships,” Queer Christianities, 140).

Being friends doesn’t exclude the possibility of romantic relationship. Friendship is the substance on which relationships thrive. Korra and Asami spend Books 3 and 4 making that foundation solid. Their friendship shouldn’t be used to discount or eliminate romantic attraction because doing so results in lesbian and bisexual erasure. Instead, their friendship ought to be seen as the grounding of their relationship–whatever it may be when they disappear through the spirit portal. Who knows what the comics will bring to their relationship? If we get lots of scenes of their vacation in the spirit world, there could be more to say about how their relationship connects to the divine.

Utena x Anthy: Someday, Together

UtenaAnthyCase

Everything about Revolutionary Girl Utena is a metaphor and that includes Utena and Anthy’s relationship. So, it makes sense that their relationship has this ambiguous, transcendent element. Utena and Anthy’s ambiguity fits with what the rest of the show presents. In a way, defining the relationship as anything would almost take away from its compelling mystery.

In the past, I’ve framed Utena as a Christ figure and the events of the last couple of episodes in the series as a salvation narrative. Utena’s death/transcendence and Anthy’s possible immortality makes their relationship go beyond the physical world, which therefore places them in a space where logic and clear definitions can’t fully grasp what’s going on. And as someone who talks about “divine illogic,” that’s totally cool with me–profound, even. Utena now exists in some intangible world outside of Ohtori Academy and Anthy, having been given a way out of the same cycle through Utena’s “death,” follows her on that journey, hoping to reunite with her someday. It’s subtly romantic in the context of other moments they have throughout the series, but it’s also quite spiritual because of this sense of passing and breaking through a seemingly unbreakable cycle. It’s not as blissful and Korra and Asami walking into the spirit portal together, both clearly alive, but it still has that element of a relationship carrying over into another world.

For me, if queer relationships must be subtle or undefined, they should be so in connection to the divine because at least it serves some greater narrative purpose and contributes to interesting themes. Many may disagree, especially those who are not particularly religious. But should ambiguous and transcendent queer relationships be the new norm? Are they merely a convenient way to avoid explicit representation so that heteronormativity can remain comfortably unchallenged?

Steven Universe, among many things, is showing both overt queerness and a connection at least to the illogical. I’d expect this given its several homages to Revolutionary Girl Utena. There isn’t yet any sort of divine realm in Steven Universe (the diamond matriarchs could be the closest the show will get to divine figures), but there’s certainly a narrative of queer love and transcendence.

we_need_to_talk_pearl_and_rose

Rose Quartz and Pearl encompass several Revolutionary Girl Utena references. The most obvious is the connection between Rose and “the Rose Bride.” In this sense, Rose is more of an Anthy figure. She’s always depicted in a white gown and she’s the one Pearl is always fighting for. Pearl, then, is Utena because she fights with a sword and some of her fight scenes parallel those in Utena. On the other hand, Rose is most like Utena because she’s the one who dies/takes on another form in Steven. This makes Pearl Anthy, as she’s trying to live on in Rose’s legacy.

Either way, the show makes it very clear that Rose and Pearl had feelings for each other. Plus, Rose at least has this transcendent/illogical element to her nature. There’s still a lot we don’t know, but Rose and Pearl show that telling a transcendent story doesn’t necessarily mean that queerness must be so vague that it’s easy to dismiss.

Garnet is especially illogical. She’s a fusion of two different gems, which was unheard of before Ruby and Sapphire accidentally fused. Garnet is the result of a relationship filled with such a deep love that she’s not only stable and very powerful, but she also confounds other characters just by existing (especially Peridot). Additionally, there’s nothing hidden or censored about Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship.

Steven Universe is breaking many molds while maintaining its popularity. It just may set a precedent for future stories that explore themes of transcendence and queerness. They do not have to be so subtle that they leave room for dismissal, but we can still find things worth analyzing in those subtle stories.

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