I talk a lot about how “representation in fiction is important”—it’s kind of the backbone of most of my writing, from my blog posts to my PhD, where it factors into both the creative element and the theoretical part behind it. It didn’t start out as a project about LGBTQIA+ rep, necessarily, but through everything I’ve done it’s leaned more and more in that direction, as a result of me following tangents I’m interested in and passionate about.
Early last year, my supervisor asked me why exactly this area was so important to me, trying to get to the heart of the matter. I think she asked me this for her benefit and mine—after all, you want to understand what makes your own project tick, and have a grip on exactly what your priorities are and why they are your priorities. The answer I ended up coming up with was a personal one that sort of surprised even me: I sidestepped the traditional “everyone deserves to see themselves represented in the media they consume” and instead said something like “queer rep is important to me because I think, had I seen more of it, my life might have gone quite differently.”
Oof! Wow! That’s baring my soul a little, hey? Let’s shrink back behind the comfortable shield of media analysis for a bit, and talk about Bloom Into You.
The series’ first episode opens with its protagonist, high schooler Yuu, musing about romance. She’s listened to hundreds of love songs and read stacks of shoujo manga, popular media filling her with a certain set of expectations of What Exactly Love Is. Yuu knows her stuff, guys. She’s put the evidence together from a wide pool, and she knows what love will look and feel like—the only thing left to do is wait for that feeling to happen to her. So when a classmate asks her out, and she doesn’t feel like she’s floating off the earth, she is gutted. Every piece of media she’s ever been exposed to told her love is a particular experience, and when she doesn’t have that experience, she feels like she’s done something fundamentally wrong.
With her sparkly, blossom-filled love confession scene gone off-script, Yuu comes to the conclusion that she simply can’t fall in love. With this in her heart, she feels deeply alienated from the world around her and from her peers. Her friends gush about boys they have crushes on or what their “type” is, and Yuu hovers awkwardly on the edge of the conversation. She listens to those mushy love songs she loved so much before, and feels like they’re speaking a different language. On the flipside, however, she’s elated when she meets Touko, a girl who’s reportedly turned down every romantic confession she’s ever received. With her, Yuu feels a little less alone in the world, and is able to admit aloud to her complicated relationship with love. At this, Touko gives her a reassuring pat on the head and says: “It’s rough when you think that you have to love someone, huh?”
I’ll be honest with you, dear reader: there were so many parts of this episode that spoke to me, but that sweet, sympathetic little line from Touko absolutely hit me in the gut. Of course, Touko soon spoils this supportive moment somewhat by blurting “I think I’m falling in love with you!” at the very end of the episode, thus kicking off the weird and complicated relationship between the two girls and their own messy feelings that drives the series. But hey, it’s important to remember that Bloom Into You is not a love story so much as a story about love, and, principally, about the different crooked shapes that love can take—shapes you don’t often see in those sparkly fictional stories where Yuu has gotten all her information about romance from.
And that’s what’s at the heart of the matter here, encapsulated so brilliantly in that series premiere: Bloom Into You is a story about how fiction and popular media set up Very Particular Expectations about what love is, about how it ought to go, and how it impacts the self. And if you don’t see yourself reflected in any of those Very Particular Expectations—if you don’t experience romantic attraction, if you feel that attraction to the “wrong” people, if you don’t feel that Very Particular earth-shattering self-actualisation from dating someone—you have no real other choice but to wonder if you’re a glitch in the system.
There’s been a lot of discussion about how it is very easy to read Yuu as aro-ace, a reading that I agree is very strong, despite how it might seem to contradict Yuu’s place as the protagonist in a romance. But the thread around Yuu’s declaration that she “can’t fall in love” works just as well, I think, for an aromantic and/or asexual narrative and for a lesbian narrative (and, indeed, sexuality is a complicated spectrum and there’s no reason Yuu can’t be a bit of both). I’m biromantic and asexual, which is kind of like wearing two layers of invisibility gear, but also means I can see where Yuu’s coming from twice over. Either way you slice it, this assumption of Yuu’s comes from her alienation by the media, which has always painted True Romance a Very Particular way.
If every piece of media you’ve ever interacted with tells you that Girls Fall In Love with Boys, and you don’t fall in love with boys, well, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that maybe you don’t fall in love at all. If different experiences of love—be they different sexualities, different power dynamics, or hell, even different types of romantic storyline—aren’t presented to you for consideration, and aren’t presented as normal and viable, they might not ever cross your mind.
Interestingly, it’s not that Yuu doesn’t know queerness is A Thing. She knows that lesbian books exist, at least, as shown when Touko accidentally buys a steamy sapphic romance at Yuu’s family bookstore (Yuu recognises it and Touko doesn’t, leading to much embarrassment on the latter’s part). But of course, knowing it’s A Thing doesn’t immediately translate to considering it could be A Thing for you. Especially if—and I think this is the telling detail here—it’s presented as A Thing only in selective, fringe media rather than pop culture. That book is a heavy novel from a serious bookstore, after all, whereas Yuu mostly interacts with (and gets her idea of love from) girly comics and pop music. If it’s not normalised in the mainstream, it remains a non-mainstream, non-normative concept—something for other people, obviously, and not something that could ever apply to me, who is normal.
As many people do, I wandered through adolescence and early adulthood blithely presuming I was straight, simply because, well, I hadn’t really been presented with any other options. I was assigned female at birth and thus I liked boys, and would one day fall in love with a boy, sleep with that boy (because that’s what you do when you love someone), then, all going well, marry that boy and have 2.5 children. That was the narrative, conveyed in movies, TV shows, novels, magazines, and music, the overarching narrative of assumed heterosexuality that permeated every interaction I had with society at large, whether that was implicit and silent or more explicit, like the many times my friends told me “you have to like someone!” during those terrifying interrogation sessions that somehow always took place at sleepovers.
Touko’s gentle “It’s rough when you feel like you have to love someone, huh?” hit me like a brick. Because, though the terms might sound deceptively simple, yes! So many people go through their teens—and their life—assuming that they have to love someone, and that they have to love someone A Very Particular Way, because that is what they’ve been told over and over again. When I did eventually like someone, I assumed that romantic attraction and sexual attraction were one and the same, and that sex was something required for a healthy relationship, just something that you do, simply because no one told me otherwise. How different could things have gone, for me, if something like Let’s Talk About Love or Tash Hearts Tolstoy had come out ten years earlier and I’d read it when I was in high school? If I’d been told asexuality was a thing that existed, and I’d been given the space to wonder if maybe I might be ace? As it was, I figured it out several years deep in a sexual relationship, making it a realisation that came with a lot of heavy and messy emotions.
I don’t want to be overdramatic and say I’m so invested in seeing, and studying, queer representation in fiction because I’m mourning an alternate youth of mine. But… well, I just wonder sometimes. What if I’d seen Rosa Diaz come out as bisexual on TV when I was younger? What if all these brilliant YA novels about a whole spectrum of queer characters had been available when I was in their target demographic? What if there had been more Love, Simons and The Miseducation of Cameron Posts on at the movies when my high school friends and I had been hanging around the cinema? Or, hey, what if Bloom Into You had been one of the anime series we’d watched?
Mostly, it makes me happy to see how far media representation has come in even just a decade or so, and gives me hope for the way it’s going—and, needless to say, makes me hopeful for everyone who will grow up potentially seeing themselves in the fiction around them, exposed to a wide range of perspectives and identities and given the chance to figure out where they fit in all that, rather than presuming anything about themselves and feeling weird and broken when A Set of Very Particular Expectations doesn’t quite sit right.
For all the ups and downs I’ve felt about Bloom Into You, it feels a very important piece of media—not just for its queer representation, but for what it says about queer representation within the text itself. And this isn’t even to dive into Yuu and Touko’s increasingly complicated feelings for one another that develop throughout the series, or the storyline about Sayaka’s middle school relationship that directly confronts tropes and social ideas like “just a phase”, or the even more aro-ace-coded character who views the relationships around him through the frame of “stories” that he’s fascinated by but has no desire to participate in.
There’s a lot going on in this series, and it has a lot to say about how love is often more complicated than fiction can lead us to assume. It’s messy, it’s confusing, it’s beautiful, it’s bizarre, and it can mean looking deep into your own soul and going “wait, what?”; all of which Bloom Into You captures with its various character arcs, Yuu’s at the heart of them all. In the end, she realises that she absolutely doesn’t fit into those Very Particular Expectations that her beloved media set out for her, but that’s okay. In fact, that’s more than okay, and she can defy those expectations and be happy. And that’s the message that I want my work to get across, too: as a message to my readership, but a message to my younger self as well.