Subtext and Space Hugs

Madoka Magica space hug

I’m really bad at reading subtext, okay. If two characters have got the gay for each other, you have to tell me outright, otherwise I’m going to fall into the complacent mistiness of believing they really are Just Friends. I have no problem believing, for example, that someone would damn themselves to an eternity fighting in a time loop to save someone’s life out of platonic love. Friendship is magic, alright, and we need more narratives that show the power of non-romantic relationships. That being said, we also need more queer representation, and the two can often get tangled up in a weird sort of meta limbo.

On the one hand, I’d love to see a canon queer relationship on TV, on the other, I’d love to not have any fictional relationship in my face without proper build-up—it’s the old conundrum: people adore love stories but aren’t comfortable with couples, and thus writing them goes in all sorts of strange and dramatic directions. It’s better, then, to draw out the possibility of a romance for as long as possible, making the audience believe in the pairing and support it, so that when they do get their happily ever after it’s much more satisfying. There’s an art to teasing something like that out, but, unfortunately, it runs into and can cross over with a nasty little practice called queerbaiting, dangling the possibility of a non-traditional-heterosexual-straight-as-white-bread romance in front of the audience without there ever being a chance of it actually happening.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. There’s also an important distinction to make between authorial intent and audience interpretation—the audience is quite within their rights to take the relationship between two friends (or enemies, for that matter) and interpret it as something romantic or sexual, and do with it what they will in their own hearts, minds and internet dealings. That’s what fandom is about; taking the source material and playing with it like putty, stretching and squishing it to explore it from every angle, especially ones the writer didn’t or wouldn’t themselves. However, there’s a gulf between the audience reading into things their way and the writers deliberately putting something there to be read. Which they do not always do with the best intentions.

Sherlock and John, gazing

In this Communication Age, creative professionals can be much more in touch with their audience, through Twitter conversations or blogging or, shock and horror, carousing through fan blogs and sites to see what exactly tickles the pickle of the vocal majority. Naturally, people have picked up on the slash pairing Thing. In a perfect world, someone might say “Hmm. All these people are digging to find gay subtext in these shows… perhaps they’d like some legitimate queer representation in their media”. However, what we often get is “Hmm, they like attractive characters of the same sex gazing at each other” and endless, slightly tongue-in-cheek ship teases emerge between popular pairings. Now, the trouble is, we must not be too quick to damn this practice as a whole, because as previously mentioned, ship teasing is the business of TV writers. What leads this horse into iffy territory is when the ship being teased is simply being teased as a hook and line for audience intrigue (specifically, fan reactions) and there isn’t any chance of the characters actually getting together.

It’s really rather convenient—the longing, homoeroticism-soaked gazes please the fans who are into that, and those who aren’t don’t have the portrayal of an actual gay relationship to complain about. If any moral guardians come banging on the writers’ doors, they can simply wave them away saying there’s nothing actually going on there, because there isn’t. “If anyone cares,” says Sherlock’s John Watson. “I’m not actually gay.” Perish the thought, because that would be far too much for prime-time BBC to handle (which is a stupid argument, because Captain Jack Harkness exists), but the writing team are certainly having a good giggle about it. Well, that I can’t vouch for seeing as I’ve never been to one of the Sherlock writing rooms, but you have to admit, there’s an awful lot of “no homo” “yes homo” going on in their product.

Maybe it’s all going to come to a head and John’s sexuality will bloom to the surface to be explored and he, Sherlock and Mary will skip off into the sunset in a polyamorous crime-fighting marriage. But that does not seem overly likely—Sherlock simply isn’t that type of show, and to keep its sense of drama and place in the mystery genre, it couldn’t retract too much into the romantic identities of its characters. And also, I have a sneaking suspicion that Moffat and co. are cackling about the entire John/Sherlock business. Cancel the ‘sneaking’ actually—I mean for crying out loud, they had an entire segment devoted to mocking the ideas of a fangirl who thought Sherlock and Moriarty might have eloped in the first episode of season three.

Marceline and Princess Bublegum

Of course, there’s a difference again between planting sexual tension between two characters and not pursuing it because ha, oh those fangirls, and not shining a beacon on the gayness due to censors or plot irrelevance. Reportedly, the latter is what’s going on in Adventure Time of all places and Princess Bubblegum and Marceline are basically as dating as they can be without the network expressing it outright (because heaven forbid we have magical lesbians on our children’s TV). Does it fall into the irritating category of “It’s gay but we’re not gonna say it” narratives even if the original authors have the best intentions?

At what point does making something ‘subtext’ become an attempt to bury it, fending off potential accusers and planting those that do notice and speculate safely in the ‘fans reading too much into things’ box? Anybody who isn’t looking for it probably won’t pick up on the girlfriend element, leaving you with a deep friendship if you see it that way and a cute girl-girl relationship if you notice it’s there. Does everybody win, or lose?

Anyway, that’s exactly what happened with me and Madoka Magica—hence the title of this post. I was willing to accept that, when Madoka proclaims Homura was her very best friend through countless universes, they were just Very Best Friends. Even if this proclamation was made in the middle of a nude hug surrounded by cosmic rainbow glitter, which I recall someone saying is “the gayest heterosexual thing” they’d ever seen. Subtext is tricky with cute teenaged anime girls, okay? They hug and blush and sparkle and warp the universe for each other all the time, how am I meant to know if you’re giving me a heartwarming story about the power of friendship or a powerful tale of magical lesbians dying for each other? Or just fan service??

The Rebellion Story finale

The question was answered in The Rebellion Story movie with a pretty forthright declaration of love (and desire) from Homura… right as she turns into this universe’s version of the Devil incarnate. So, oops. That confirmation of queer representation aside, I’d really rather have kept the original ending and ambiguity of their relationship status (which, in Facebook terms, is definitely ‘It’s Complicated’ right now) and not had anyone become an evil satanic lesbian. Which is also a problem canon queer characters run into… sooner or later, clichés prevailing, they’re going to end up dead, evil, or heartbroken, or all one after another. In the current mainstream media climate, we kind of have to choose the lesser of two evils: deliberately ambiguous and teasing, or out of the closet and slammed into Hell?

Another thing to note with Rebellion Story is that it is a sequel movie to the series, and only confirms the romantic (at least on one side) nature of the relationship then… indicating that the original show was too afraid to press the Actual Queer Love Story button, for fear of the reaction and a possible bad, gay mark against their name. Now that they’re writing to a pre-established fanbase, they know what to lean on. Does that make it fan service, then? Is it still representation if it’s just to please the viewers? Was it really worth all that emotional build-up and teasing if you were just going to make their canon relationship a cosmically abusive one?! Is that in itself spitting in the fans’ faces for wanting it?

Sherlock and John (Dean and Castiel, Stiles and Derek etc.) will still be gazing at each other through a haze of testosterone and cute animated girls everywhere will be complimenting each other’s boobs and declaring their undying devotion, and I will still be sitting here sighing quietly, lying in wait for a legitimate—and healthy, please—queer pairing to come out of all the silliness. Not saying that they don’t exist (it always comes back to Cecil and Carlos as an example of teasing and build-up that managed to a) not be obnoxious and invasive to the story and b) actually lead to a relationship) but they’re certainly rare, and overshadowed by the more popular/mainstream or at least louder series that play the game of teasing and baiting. Unfortunately, I think for the most part we’re still going to see a lot of platonic naked space hugs for a good while.

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21 Comments

Filed under Things We Need to Stop Doing

21 responses to “Subtext and Space Hugs

  1. Anon

    Rebellion Story definitely is something of a subtle jab at the fanbase – most of the fanwork-esque scenes are either played as a joke or as something evil. And the reading of Homura = fanbase, which means that fans = devil. I think fanbases should be attacked this way, sometimes.

    Homura’s transformation is interesting to me because even though she calls herself evil, she’s also rebelling against an oppressive system. Like how you’re kind of rebelling against gay representation in media.

    • Anon

      “lack of gay representation”, I should say.

      • It is interesting… I have my qualms about Rebellion Story existing in the first place, seeing as the series ENDED on such a finite and hopeful note and I knew any continuation would be, at least in a small way, a fan-pleasing cash cow. I was happy with some of it, and could have welcomed it into my life had it actually ended when the original writer (reportedly) wanted it to end–BEFORE Homura flies off and becomes evil. Even then, I could maybe accept the existence of a drawn-out continuation, if they hadn’t so blatantly turned one of the cutest, most selfless friendship(?)s/relationships I’ve seen recently into an abusive romance. So I’m not a happy camper in that regard.

      • Anon

        Well, I was one of those who thought that Madoka Magica’s ending wasn’t really THAT hopeful. The fact is that for all her hope, all Madoka did was to give magical girls a peaceful death and afterlife. There is still an oppressive system in place where teenage girls have to give their lives for wishes, humanity, and the universe. If you read Homura as having romantic feelings for Madoka, then the ending of the anime tells us that the only way she can reunite with Madoka is in death. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why that is problematic. Even the writer said in one interview that he wondered if such an ending would really be happy. It’s interesting to note that in both of Homura’s worlds things are, in a sense, better than in Madoka’s world.

        And the idea of Homura/Madoka’s relationship being “selfless” is an interesting one. Was Homura being selfless in the anime? Is she being selfish in Rebellion? The answer isn’t really clear cut. More than that, consider what Homura does in the anime: She resets reality in order to keep Madoka alive and stop her from becoming a magical girl. Which is…exactly what she does at the end of Rebellion. If Homura’s actions are abusive at the end of the Rebellion, then weren’t they always abusive? Those are some of the questions that Rebellion’s ending asks.

      • I thought the ending was a little hopeful–or at least, reconstructed the ‘power of love and hope’ message that it had been trashing, along with most tropes to do with happy sparkly magical girl shows, throughout the whole series. It’s still pretty depressing if you think about it in terms of Homura fighting eternally as the only one who remembers Madoka even existed, but she has some of her faith restored, and you know none of the other magical girls are going to end up being warped into creatures of despair with the universe laughing in the face of their past optimism.

        In one way, Rebellion’s is the best ending in terms of Kyubey and co. getting comeuppance. Still, I thought in some ways it contradicted the selflessness of Homura’s actions in the past. Everything she had done, she did for Madoka, and now she’s got her trapped so she can play out the same lifetime with her over and over until it’s perfect, taking away all of her agency and power. Which really rubs me the wrong way, especially if it IS meant to show how much she loves her. Come on. You don’t cosmically imprison someone if you love them.

        Of course, it does well at demonstrating how unhinged Homura has become, and gives her character arc a heavy (and probably justified by this point) plunge. But they’ve still turned her into an evil lesbian, and that I’m still annoyed with.

      • Anon

        Ah, but Homura is still doing things for Madoka. From Homura’s perspective, she is giving Madoka her life back while still preserving her wish. This isn’t just a consent issue; it’s also a life or death issue. Is “life” a prison? Because if you look at Homura’s actions as bringing Madoka back to life while keeping her from pointlessly sacrificing herself again…well that changes things, doesn’t it? Consider also how the other magical girl’s rejected Homura’s own descion to sacrifice herself when she became a witch.

        Note that Homura’s devil transformation can also be viewed as the logical extreme of Homura’s selflessness: She literally gives up morality and her friendship with Madoka in order to make a world where Madoka has no reason to sacrifice herself anymore. “Evil lesbian” is not exactly the correct interpretation, since the morality of Homura’s actions really depends on one’s ethical and moral viewpoint.

      • The phrase “evil lesbian” is perhaps one I’ve bandied about too harshly :T Basically, I agree with you and can see that Homura “cracking” is a logical extreme of everything she’s been through, and being unable to let go of Madoka is kind of her thing. I would have been alright with both of these things on their own (if a little grumpy about the “let’s turn her evil, it’s the only thing we can think of” action) but the way it was handled in this individual case had her turning into the “devil” at the same time she admits love for Madoka, which kind of has unfortunate implications.

        It all gets morally tricky (hell, maybe I should write a whole post on Rebellion Story) as you say, but from a meta perspective, the fact that they’ve turned their canon queer love story into one with this many consent and possessiveness and issues continues to bother me.

        On the other hand, we have Kyouko and Sayaka in a fun, nice relationship (?) to balance it out, so at least the ENTIRE message of the piece isn’t to equate queer girls with the devil.

  2. Regarding Rebellion, I felt it was more loyal to the series than most give it credit for. Interpersonal relationships, romantic or otherwise, don’t operate on a “my turn, your turn” basis, people quarrel about the balance they are comfortable with from time to time. By using the Incubators as her new grief seeds, it mostly just frees up Madoka to go to the movies. =P Sure, it’s a little bit selfish. But she did responsibly put her own alternative in place when she risked damaging the Cycle. As she says, she remembers all of it, and if we take word of god on this one, that’s eight years of time loops, plus however long it’s been since the end of the series. Yes, it’s selfish, She’s a 12 year old girl, for cryin’ out loud xD There’s the fallability in Homura to consider, she takes things on herself without consulting others, and that’s a persistent character flaw. Madoka, when they defeat her Homulily self, says “You will always be you and I will always care for you”. This whole “Homura is evil” thing seems to hinge on the premise that Madoka would disown Homura for wanting to be with her in a mortal capacity. If she awakened, would Madoka be pissed? Or would she accept it, re-negotiate that dynamic, if you will. But Homura’s fear prevents her from finding out (as of this moment).

    And it does incorporate one of the more important themes of the series, that conversation with Madoka’s mother. Sometimes the wrong thing is the right thing to do, much like the wrong thing (denying Homura her wish) was the right thing for Madoka to do at the end of the series. And the theme of Sayaka, whom I’m sure it was no small coincidence stood out in the film. Madoka once told Homura that Sayaka cared for others and wanted what was right. Homura responded those were not strengths, but weaknesses, and that’s certainly how those qualities have manifested in her. Her selflessness led to her trying to die a witch, her care for Madoka has caused her to write a new universe where she hopes Madoka will be happy.

    In short, I don’t feel that Rebellion is as black and white as everyone makes it out to be.

    More generally, another example I tend to think of is Kim Possible…where the subtext kept pushing the boundaries that you can visibly see the demarcation when they slammed the hammer down on the Kim/Shego flirting. But we all know how I have ranted about subtext xD

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  7. If you are still seeking a bona fide queer relationship in an anime show, Sakura Trick might interest you. I found it lighter on drama than Madoka Magica and it centers around the main pair of girls’ relationship. There is still some is-it-lesbian-or-not subtext for other pairs in the show but the main pair is unquestionably the romantic kind.

  8. With regards to fanservice, there’s not much gratuitous panty shots, upskirts, revealing clothing and the like. Probably a fortunate thing seeing as they are still high school girls. That said, characters’ busts are sometimes given focus with an emphasis on jiggling. It was most evident in this one episode set at a swimming pool where they’re all dressed in swimsuits. I didn’t find it bothersome however since it’s mostly played for cute, ‘innocent’ comedy of the coming-of-age kind. Think ‘size envy’ for teenagers and you get a good idea.

    As for moe overload, I must say the series DOES show the viewer a lot of the cute and adorable side of the characters. There’s also plenty of Imagine Spots where characters fantasize, mostly imaginings of another character’s private moments or a future prediction of whatever is happening at the moment, and they’re often drawn ‘chibi-fied’. Character animation is still done well and it has its own distinct look seperate from other shows, unlike say K-ON!/Haruhi which look like clones of each other down to the eyeballs.

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  10. Nicamon

    I came here because of”Madoka Magica”but while reading the article I was waiting and hoping for a Swan Queen reference.Do you know”Once Upon a Time”?Well…at the beginning I wasn’t thinking at all that Emma&Regina could have been a potential couple(I used to ship Emma&Graham)but since someone put me a bug in the ear I can’t help but thinking that Swan Queen being Endgame would be PERFECT both for the plot and for queer representation because it would be the 1st time in which we have a world wide famous FAIRYTALE with 2 MAIN characters of the same sex in love.Plus…they already share a child,seriously..tell me this is not Perfection!BUT we still can’t tell if the Writers are actually going to satisfy our hopes,dreams and beliefes,if they’re just playing with us or what the hell is going on in the heads of those 2 Idiots!

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  12. Alex C.

    I’m not totally sure how I ended up here, but I think your thoughts here are interesting. You’ve probably written more on this topic, but this post is what I read, so it’s what I’m responding to.

    In any case, I’d like to raise the counterpoint that, frequently, clear romantic relationships can sometimes serve as a distraction from the other points of the work. In Madoka the show, the primary driving theme could be summed up as “Faust with magical girls.” That’s pretty reductive, but it’ll do for my point. If the show had done more with the possible lesbian connection between Madoka and Homura, I feel as though it would’ve lost some of the focus. One of the things about romance is that, when it happens, it usually draws the focus to itself and away from other aspects. Romance was not a crucial point in the show, and, were it present in the foreground, I really think that it would’ve been out of place and detracted from the whole of the show. To illustrate that point, the show works perfectly well if one interprets Homura just to have a deeply devoted friendship bond with Madoka, and it works just as well if one interprets Homura to have the gay for Madoka. Romance doesn’t need to be there, and the addition of it doesn’t add a whole lot, in my opinion. In this case, I think that it just would’ve been a bad move to make the romance more than subtext in the show. It would’ve cast Madoka’s sacrifice in a different light, because then it would’ve overemphasized the romantic element. Madoka’s sacrifice had elements of everything, and, at least in my opinion, translated into a better concept of Gretchen/the Eternal Feminine that saves all of the Fausts/magical girls than it would if Madoka and Homura had a romantic relationship.

    With Rebellion, I thought it was fine to make the romantic aspect explicit, because the direct focus of the movie was on Homura. If there were romantic feelings with respect to the relationship between Homura and Madoka, it was pretty one-sided. The movie allowed for a deeper study of Homura, so how Homura felt for Madoka comes to the fore.

    One reason that show-creators, especially in anime, use homoerotic subtext rather than have full-on gay romantic relationships is that it is a way to introduce romantic tension and suspense into the show without making it a focal point. With two people of the same sex, a relationship can be introduced just as a really good friendship, and no one will bat an eye. But if there are two opposite sex characters with a really close relationship, the audience usually immediately starts suspecting something romantic might be at work. This expectation is ripe for exploitation by shows that want possibly complicated romantic suspense, as it becomes much easier to tease expectations when the relationship between the two characters could easily be either a good friendship or romantic. It’s a line that is easily blurred with two same-sex characters.

    Well, that’s probably enough thoughts for this comment…

  13. Xia

    “Was it really worth all that emotional build-up and teasing if you were just going to make their canon relationship a cosmically abusive one?!”

    Commenting very late on this Olox (it’s-a-me-Zelinxia!) but found this again because it was linked on TVTropes Ship Bait page. But about that scene in Rebellion Story… definitely cosmically manipulative. And it’s for that sole reason I stop shipping homura/madoka.

    • Omg TV Tropes linked to ME… this is a legit Senpai Noticed You moment. How exciting, thanks for telling me!

      Also yeah, I thought I’d finished being salty about everything Rebellion Story messed up, but I remembered it the other night and have been slow-cooking with anger ever since. We coulda had it all.

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