Class S has become something of a pejorative, for understandable reasons. Its intense focus on intimate relationships without any clear romance or pay-off is quite outdated, and while its influence on yuri is massive, the genre is only now stepping out of its shadow. For a long time, the fact that yuri stories followed a Class S template was a very bad thing. I’m just as happy as anyone that the situation has changed, allowing for more openly queer works in the genre. But I do have a problem with people who act as if Class S is not only outdated but a total negative in every way.
First of all, while Class S as such is in many ways heteronormative and outdated, that doesn’t mean its tropes and stories should be totally ignored. Most schoolgirl yuri is still influenced by the genre to a large degree even if it’s moved past it in many ways. The idea of the all-girls schools is alive and well, even if the trope of breaking up at graduation has faded. Fantastic works like Kase-san, Girl Friends, Kiss and White Lily, Hanjuku Joshi, and many more could not exist if it were not for Class S’s influence.
The other reason that Class S shouldn’t be totally thrown out is that, while it’s outdated, it has not always been a bad thing.
It’s pretty much inarguable that Class S is a pretty heteronormative genre. At its best, Class S ends with separation and fleeting feelings. At its worst, it gives the feelings greater strength but punishes them with death. Class S is in many ways another representation of the harmful “gay until graduation” trope, which allows women to express their sexuality only until that would come into conflict with society’s belief in heterosexual marriage.
But not everything can immediately be liberating. From our current standpoint, with the progress that has been made on queer issues in the previous decades, it’s easy to look at something like Class S and see it as harmful. However, from the perspective of those who engaged with, it was likely quite beneficial. Yes, it is heteronormative, and our moving beyond it is a good thing. But when Class S rose to prominence in the early 20th century it offered far more freedom to Japanese queer women than had existed up until that point.
Class S was a realm which allowed Japanese queer women and girls to explore their sexuality in a way that wasn’t banned or illegal. Yoshiya Nobuko, perhaps the most famous of Class S authors, was herself a queer woman. The fact that heteronormative society forced her into killing off almost all her couples is a bad thing, yes. But the fact she was even given the opportunity to write those couples in the first place is worth recognizing. Class S is historically important, not just to yuri, but to the study of how queer people can express themselves in heteronormative society.
The existence of Class S as a genre allowed Yoshiya to publish a book known as Yaneura no Nishojo. This is a book with a lesbian couple that stays together at the end. It was published in 1919. The fact that such a book was published during the Class S period says it all. As far as I can tell, the first lesbian book with a happy ending that was published in English was Diana: A Strange Autobiography, which came out in 1939. If Class S allowed a queer author to write something which wouldn’t happen in English literature for another 2 decades, then how can it possibly be worth abandoning entirely?
No, this genre was not perfect, and in many ways, it’s had a stifling influence on yuri for many years. But it shouldn’t be used as a pejorative. Modern works shouldn’t read like Class S stories, but for their time, Class S stories were important, useful, and worthy of praise. A genre which allowed queer women in a time as repressive as the early 20th century to explore themselves shouldn’t be entirely thrown out just because it’s outdated. It’s fully possible for us to look at the genre, understand its flaws, and still accept its many positive aspects. We don’t shame historical queer people for buying into the bogus psychology that was pushed on them and we shouldn’t shame a genre that did the best it could for the time in which it was made.
One thought on “Don’t Throw Class S Out Entirely”
Great points about Class S. Like you said here and on Twitter, Class S may be regressive by today’s standards, but it was also progressive by the standards set by the early 20th century while paving the way for modern yuri. Some things may be considered in terms of black and white, but Class S certainly wouldn’t qualify since such stories weren’t all bad. Yoshiya Nobuko did amazing work!
Be that as it may, it’s exciting to see more and more yuri works diverge from Class S much like how a child grows up and drifts away from their well-meaning parents who happen to be out-of-touch with the current times.
Thanks for the insightful article!
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