Princess Principal isn’t Yuribait: Why You Need to Quit Saying Subtext

Princess Principal is, up to this point, one of the best anime of the season. It’s a show that understands its own absurdity and willingly engages with it, allowing it to pull off wacky episodes without seeming out-of-place. At the same time, it succeeds in its job of endearing the viewer to its characters, who are all sympathetic and likable. It’s set in a fantastically detailed world with a real sense of scale to it, something that’s often hard to find. And it does a great job at balancing some level of camp with a strong level of emotion, something that’s always worth appreciating when accomplished. When you combine these elements with its visuals and music you get a fairly unique tonal experience that you can’t really find in most other anime. In short, the show has a lot to like. One element that endears me to it is the presence of yuri, but unfortunately, that isn’t without its drawbacks.

Don’t get me wrong here; there’s nothing problematic about the yuri in Princess Principal. In fact, it’s so far been quite well done, and if it goes in a good direction I could easily see myself recommending this show to any yuri fan. There’s language that clearly hints at a relationship, an explicit confession of love by one character, and bountiful side material to back all this up. There should be no objection to the fact that this is a show with gay girls. I understand that people can interpret a work as they wish, but some things are just text, and this is a clear example.

And yet, in spite of all the massive evidence in favor of the yuri, people still call the show “subtext” and “yuribait”. And if this was just the case for Princess Principal, that would be fine. I could accept if people were interpreting a show I enjoyed in a way that seemed wrong to me. It happens all the time, and I try not to worry about it. But this is part of a broader, pervasive trend wherein queer relationships are forced to meet a higher threshold in order to be seen as valid, and it’s a trend that disgusts me.

This double standard between straight and queer couples is truly omnipresent. You see it in regards to Flip Flappers, in spite of the many confessions and explicit denial that Cocona’s love is platonic. You see it in regards to Love Live, where Riko held Chika’s hands, stared into her eyes, and declared her love. You see it in regards to Symphogear, in spite of the fact that Hibiki and Miku sleep in the same bed despite having another in the room. You even see it in regards to Nanoha and Fate, who sleep in the same bed, adopted a daughter, live in one house under one family name, and have been each other’s “important person” since 9-year-old Nanoha fell in love at first sight after seeing Fate’s beautiful eyes.

If you watch anime with lots of girl characters, you can not escape this idea that everything is subtext. People will argue until they’re blue in the face that “it’s just subtext” or “friends act that way too”. Unless you get a “koibito” or an “aishiteru”, people won’t accept verbal declarations of love from queer girls and women, and sometimes they won’t accept it even then. Most the time you’ll have to show a kiss or sex in order to really convince people that two girls are into each other.

And that’s simply not acceptable. The same burden of proof does not exist for straight couples, full stop. No one denies that Chitanda and Oreki are in love with each other, even though there’s less proof of that than for some of the couples I listed above. That’s not to say that they don’t have feelings for one another; they certainly do. But everyone can accept it because they aren’t of the same gender. For queer couples, on the other hand, heteronormativity makes it so that everyone is straight in the eyes of most viewers. Characters aren’t treated as blank slates who can be attracted to anyone; they are instead treated as straight until the proof against that is overbearing.

I can understand this perspective in a few limited contexts. I’ve talked before about how the yuri subtext in anime isn’t enough, so I can understand why people are hesitant to embrace relationships without seeing a few very explicit signs. But this is ultimately a flawed mindset to have, for a number of reasons. The first is that a relationship being subtext doesn’t mean it isn’t there. People use subtext to mean “hints” but it’s more accurately understood as implicit meaning. What’s important here is the term ‘meaning’. That meaning is still there, it’s just implicit rather than explicit. Therefore, a relationship built on subtext is still a relationship which exists within the work, even if it’s not an explicit one.

The other issue with this mindset is that it’s actively harmful. It’s a mindset which is caused by heteronormativity, whether consciously or not, and therefore it’s going to be biased towards writing off anything that’s not incredibly explicit. This leads back to the original problem wherein straight couples don’t have to deal with this issue. This mindset would never need to arise around straight couples due to the lack of heteronormativity, and so they aren’t subjected to this watchful eye. That would be all fine and dandy, but it limits the actual recognition of queer characters. It’s hard to say you relate to Cocona for her discovery of her queerness when a bunch of assholes come in and say that she isn’t queer and it’s just subtext. This mindset ruins the discourse and hurts the ability of queer fans to find themselves within a work, something which I think can be seen as unambiguously bad.

Shows like Princess Principal ultimately only suffer because of this double standard. The discourse surrounding these shows is poisoned by debates that shouldn’t be happening in the first place, and it’s a pretty obvious fact that discourse influences peoples’ opinions on a work. It also just makes it annoying to discuss these shows. I don’t want to spend my time proving that Cocona and Papika are in a relationship, or that Beato is in love with Princess, and yet I feel the need to do so.

Like I said in the beginning, people can read a show however they want, and if this were isolated it wouldn’t be a problem. But it’s reflective of a broader trend within anime fandom which is itself reflective of heteronormative society, and it’s a serious issue. This isn’t even something people consciously do: it’s simply how it is, but that’s a problem in itself. For all I know, Princess Principal will stop being a yuri anime from the next episode on, ditching all of the queer elements it’s had thus far. But that wouldn’t change the fact that the current discourse surrounding this show and many others is harmful, and there needs to be some change.

12 thoughts on “Princess Principal isn’t Yuribait: Why You Need to Quit Saying Subtext

  1. This is a great post. I agree that there isn’t a need for a physical relatoinship to be shown to accept that two characters are genuinely in love. While everyone is free to interpret events and characters as they choose, sometimes denial is just denial for the sake of it. There shouldn’t be one measure for one type of relationship and another for others. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great read. Definitely agree that (a) good grief do people misinterpret the term “subtext” and (b) prevalent heteronormativity creates a situation in which there’s a greater burden of proof required to establish a queer couple is in fact a queer couple. Always good things to keep front of mind.

    Part of me wonders what role cultural distance plays in all this, though. I’m curious if you’ve been following the undercurrent of drama within the Yuri On Ice fandom, specifically on Tumblr. There are some very reputable translators who have made the case, based on creator testimony, that the show is intended to explore a category of relationship we don’t really have an analogue for in America, rather than being a gay romance. As you’d likely expect, this has fans upset because they want their interpretation of the two male leads being a gay couple (a thing they view as textual rather than hinted at or subtextual) to be validated. And I totally get that reaction. You’ve got a marginalized community who are having their champion’s credentials called into question…you’ve got issues of authorial intent at play…lot going on. Apologies for the tangent; it seemed somewhat related.

    Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s definitely possible that there are some cultural differences here, though for some examples I’m fairly certain that it’s just the audience. Yuri on Ice seems like a specific case here, and while that idea of something between romance and friendship definitely exists, I think it’s something people have often written about moreso out of an inability to write more explicitly romantic stuff than out of an innate desire to do so. And while I think it’s important for us to respect that this is Japanese media made primarily for Japanese people, I think it’s also fair to expect that anime creators be aware of the fact that their shows travel worldwide nowadays, and that they are important to marginalized groups. Hell, queer people in Japan might feel similarly to me but we unfortunately rarely hear their voices over here. Definitely a lot of hard stuff going on though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “But this is part of a broader, pervasive trend wherein queer relationships are forced to meet a higher threshold in order to be seen as valid, and it’s a trend that disgusts me.”

    Yes, yes, yes, YES.
    Thank you for this post.

    I haven’t seen Princess Principal since I tend to avoid siring shows (and am in a slump anyway) but everything you say here about discussions of queer relationships in anime so so sadly true and also applicable to other media. It’s ridiculous that a glance or a touch or even being in the same room is enough to validate heterosexual couples but with gay, lesbian or otherwise queer people, you need everything spelled out clear enough for a newborn infant to understand.

    On a tangent, I’m tired of this ‘a character is straight until otherwise explicitly stated’ mentality. Why even.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yeah, it’s a really bad mindset. The straight unless is bad on its own, though the fact that it gets applied to real people as well is obviously even worse. Heteronormativity sure sucks, haha.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. “But this is part of a broader, pervasive trend wherein queer relationships are forced to meet a higher threshold in order to be seen as valid, and it’s a trend that disgusts me.”
    My thoughts exactly.
    Or to summarize: They gave PP the Korra ending

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bit late to the party but here’s my thoughts:

    “broader, pervasive trend wherein queer relationships are forced to meet a higher threshold in order to be seen as valid”

    Is that really so? Izetta or Princess Principal, it’s quite obvious that the queer relationship is 100% valid. I figured that the people who say it’s not super confirmed canon would have the same standard for ANY relationship.

    As for my problem, yes, we all know they are in a relationship but it’s disappointing that queer relationships are so rarely shown explicitly. If there was an anime like Izetta or Princess Principal but straight, it would probably be explicit. So why not have these queer relationships also be represented explicitly?

    Like

  6. IMHO)

    But Beatrice isn’t in love with the princess!
    She’s more in a worship territory, like servants in the past, who loved their master as, you know, master. Different from romantic love.

    Ange and Charlotte are undeniably in love, spy girl who commited suicide was in love with Dorothy.
    There are also some bits that make me think Dorothy and Beato are another pair.

    But not Beatrice and Princess. No sir!

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  7. Oh, I didn’t think Chitanda and Oreki were romantically interested in each other. Then again, I only got about 18 episodes into Hyouka before inexplicably putting it on hold.
    All of your points are great. I bet that a lot of people who criticize these shows just have a hard time describing why they feel inadequate, so they came up with awkward justifications that make it seem like they set the bar high for yuri.
    What I think we don’t see enough of are manga that make yuri romance seem like a natural thing, that you can be open about, and which your peers recognize and joke with you about. Aspects of that atmosphere are probably what people really want.

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