"what is art?"
well... i have no idea. people have been asking that question since time immemorial, and i'm neither brave nor stupid enough to come out here and declare that i'm the one who's finally figured it out. but what i do know is what art is to me. and that is... a language! i see art as a means of communication — a way of conveying thoughts and feelings that mere words couldn't begin to capture. and whenever i'm analyzing something critically, this is the mindset that i try to approach it with. sure, there's the possibility that once i'm done with a work, i'll have come to the conclusion that its message was ignorant or harmful after all... but going into things with an open mind, as well as the assumption that its creator(s) knew what they were doing, has served me really well so far! different stories are about different things, so while there might be some overlap in their messages depending on things like author, genre, etc., the likelihood that each one's going to introduce me to a new thing to think about is probably pretty high. after all, surely there aren't any themes that every single story is going to have an opinion on, right?
hmm. actually... there might be one.
"what stories are worth telling?"
this one sounds pretty heavy, huh? i've thought a lot about it (as you might've noticed), but if i had to guess, i'd say it's not a question that people ask very often. i definitely don't expect every artist and author out there to have an answer to it ready to go, much less bring to it up in all of their works. but even then, i'm sure they can all think of at least one story that fits the bill. they have to — because the very act of telling a story shows that you believe it should be told!
...now, i know what you're thinking: "well yeah, no shit. so what?" and... you're right; knowing that a single author thought a single story was worth it doesn't really tell us more than just the story by itself would have, making this way of thinking ill-suited for looking at things in isolation. but ah, art doesn't exist in a vacuum, does it? no, it exists in a multitude of overlapping and nested contexts at once... so let's expand our sample size, and see if we can learn anything by applying this lens to multiple works that share the same context at the same time!
- for example, what if we're looking through an author's oeuvre, and notice that the same handful of themes keeps popping up in almost all of their works? we could think about how these are the topics they're the most concerned about, and track the evolution of their thinking on these things by considering their writing chronologically.
- what about when works in a genre share some very specific narrative tropes and character archetypes? there's sure to be something in the history of that genre that can explain where those conventions came from, and having that information would allow us to examine these works with a more thorough lens.
- and when the most successful media properties in a culture are overwhelmingly about successful heroes of some kind, who are very often either cis, straight, white, male, or any combination of the above, if not all at once? uhhhhhhhhh
maybe you can see where i'm going with this.
"what stories are worth telling?"
it's a complicated question to ask, because any answer someone gives to it will also, invariably, reveal something about what stories they don't think are worth telling. if society has deemed the tales of abled cishet white male heroes who save the world the most worthy, then... what about everyone else? all the people who don't fit in that extremely narrow demographic, or who aren't successful and powerful — you know, normal people? i'd wager there's a lot more of them in the world than there are special boys. are their stories not worth telling?
of course, that's not to say that art about those kinds of people doesn't exist at all; romance, drama, and other genres that tend to feature more mundane characters remain in the cultural consciousness, despite the increasingly all-consuming popularity of superhero blockbusters. and just so it's clear, i definitely don't want gigantic corporations to start making movies and such about marginalized people, either! corporate art works by different rules than what i've been talking about here — if a corporation makes something, it's not because it thought that thing should exist for its own sake, but rather because it thought it'd make it money. and well, i've seen enough of the "representation" featured in the likes of disney movies or bioware games to know that this mindset is categorically incapable of telling stories that actually respect who they're about.
no, if mainstream culture has eschewed us, then i believe that instead of begging for scraps from it we'd be much better served by leaving it behind and making our own food. and that's what subcultures are about! ...which is a whole other topic that i could go into, but let me stay on track here. yes, subcultures do allow outcast and marginalized creators to tell our own stories, and that's great! but nothing's ever perfect, and the same applies here. after all, subcultures are communities of their own, and as such will have evolved their own ideas of which stories are worth telling — ideas that might not be very welcoming if you happen to be extra marginalized.
so, yuri. i'm a woman who likes women, and as you could probably tell from a couple paragraphs ago i've never felt especially welcomed by what few mainstream works with lesbian characters there are. the media that i've been able to find solace in, then, has been yuri — particularly yuri manga. and hey, you know what? most of the time, it's great! even looking through only the stuff that's been translated into english (which is but a small slice of the totality of yuri works!), i've already found so many authors whose writing is infinitely more respectful, true-to-life, and varied than anything i ever got from the mainstream!
yeah, it really is great... most of the time, as i said. the rest of the time? well...
this would be the point where i pose the question "what yuri stories are worth telling?", but as it turns out, i won't have to do it — because the big shots in the industry have already answered it! in a 2016 interview with akiba blog (translated by megax on sakuga blog), katsuyuki sasaki, editor at gangan joker magazine, said:
I think yuri manga loses its universality. What I mean by that here is “the question of if it’s easy for everyone to empathize with the characters”. While on the outside “a girl falling in love with another girl” may appear beautiful, there’s no experience with that for a lot of people, so it’s not easy for them to empathize with the characters when they see them. I think that’s a major hurdle that’s born for manga.
and from a 2019 interview with kodansha, we have the editor-in-chief of yuri hime, umezawa kanako:
As for future trends—though this could be said for manga and otaku genres in general—I would imagine that the distinction between the reader’s sex would gradually disappear. For example, the delineation made between media targeted at men and media targeted at women, even in yuri manga, would most likely fade.
now. i'm fully ready to accept the possibility that my reading of these quotes is overly pessimistic or cynical; maybe i ought to give these people a little more credit than i'm about to. but at the same time, maybe you'll forgive me for getting a little heated upon seeing the ones in charge of this genre speak about its future and growing popularity as if the very kinds of people depicted in these stories don't exist at all — or, worse yet, actually say that portrayals of real-life lesbianhood is detrimental to a work, limiting its potential audience!
when i think about this — when i think about how they're right, and how the most popular yuri works are the ones that don't deal with lesbian identity directly — i feel like i'm going crazy. to be honest, i was also planning on talking about how yuri almost never features any trans women, but man, forget that! if even lesbianism — which you'd expect to be the core of these gay girl stories — has to be scrubbed from the most popular works in the genre, then what chance do any other queer female identities even have?
i wish i could do something about this. i wish i could say that i know how to make the subculture about gay girls kissing center real gay women... but i don't. i'm just one person, after all, and prof lily is just one tiny vn collective. yuri stories that pretend people like me and the world that we live in don't exist will likely only become more popular as time goes on, and there's nothing i can do about it... but hey, you know what? that's ok. just like i once abandoned mainstream culture for subculture, maybe we can now carve out a new "sub-subculture" together. because if no one believes our stories are worthy of being told, that just means we'll have to tell them ourselves, right?