Born to Make History, Supplemental: Victor Nikiforov Weeps for Toxic Masculinity
I swear this isn’t going to turn into a Yuri on Ice blog, and I promise I still am writing fiction, though I’m getting dangerously close to a volume of printable work on this show alone. Here’s the thing, though, episode ten really did change the whole game, and it’s going to keep changing things. At some point this weekend I’m going to rewatch the whole series given the new information that we have, but I just saw a Tumblr post that made my head spin. So here we are, one day later.
Spoilers again. Get out if you don’t want them.
Here’s the Tumblr post in question, and the gist was they were talking about how “that’s the reason why Victor was crying in episode two when Yuri won’t sleep with him.” I thought, “no way, that’s not true, he wasn’t crying, WTFH,” so I queued up Crunchyroll and looked for myself.
Yeah, so. Those sure do look like tears. It’s not super big here, but blowing it up on my screen, I can tell you. They’re tears, no question. While Yuri is grinning in bed, thinking about how his heart is pounding because of how happy he is, Victor is hugging his dog and crying himself to sleep in his room that doesn’t even have a couch.
There’s a danger in reading too much into motivations and reactions without the full season in place, which episode ten certainly drove home with a mallet. But there’s plenty we can glean from what we do know, especially from the revelation we just got on in our last installment, and it’s worth a peek as many of us go back through to rewatch episodes 1-10 knowing what we know about Victor Nikoforov. And as an author of gay romance novels, I submit to you this: with your neck still smarting from your whiplash, whatever your gender identity or orientation, as you do your next round of viewing, spare some time to consider how your new lens helps you better spot and deconstruct toxic masculinity.
Which one of you is the girl?
If you’ve ever been part of a same-sex couple, the odds are sadly high that you’ve heard this question, or a remix of it, but if you’re a male same-sex couple, you’ve definitely heard it phrased this way, and with a bit of derision, because the subtext is, which one of you isn’t the man? Except the problem here goes deeper than simple bigotry. We can be members of these couples, or queer individuals pining for partners (or even simply ideals in our minds) and we can, without meaning to, begin sorting by male and female stereotypes. Even if we manage to avoid sexism or even binary thinking, as human beings we yearn for things we often shouldn’t, and this includes attributes in potential partners. We seek someone to solve our problems, to become magicians, to dazzle us and perform superhuman acts which will rescue us from the dull, sorrowful spirals of our everyday lives.
We do this, especially, when we are young, and what we are truly reaching for is this superhuman within ourselves, but it’s easier and more comforting to seek it in another. After all, it seems so much more romantic, and infinitely less lonely, for a dashing, handsome someone to pull the hero from inside of us rather than for us to fish it out of ourselves.
But when you’re part of a same-sex male couple, in addition to the usual human baggage, you carry an additional odd trousseau, and if there’s any single answer to “why is everyone so fixated on gay romance over the other letters of the queer alphabet,” this piece of luggage is it. This one accoutrement is by turns anchor and parachute, burden and secret passport. Because our society is patriarchal, it’s so fixated on asking which one is the girl? it does mean yes, sometimes same-sex male couples get waylaid by this annoyance or sometimes outright hindered by it.
By the same token, however, almost no one outside their relationship and the friends in their circle asks which one is the man? And of course the answer in every instance is “both.”
Why do these two questions matter? The actual questions are ridiculous. At face value, they don’t matter at all. But our society is patriarchal, the questions mean everything. The gender norms of male and female are intense, subliminal, and pervasive. The more we call them out the more they seem to be buried further afield. Household tasks are gender coded. Names are gender coded. Cars, clothing, ways of sitting, answering phones, greetings–even when there are gender-neutral options, there are also gendered ones. Children hours old are gendered by color-coded hats in the hospital nursery. We’re only speaking of gender here, mind you, not orientation.
I’m doing the most cursory, clumsy intro to this concept here, and I apologize–please don’t mistake me for an articulate voice of gender criticism. But for the purposes of this quick blog post, as a glancing introduction, let’s look at the ways Victor and Yuri are both setting themselves up for trouble, both from the perspective of beautifully foolish youth but also from the prospect of toxic masculinity, which is why I argue this story of two male protagonists, and most gay romances are universally appealing despite gender or orientation.
We’re going into this analysis knowing what neither of them know: that Yuri got drunk at the banquet, seduced Victor with a dance and asked him to be his coach, then sealed the deal with the viral video, which from all we can tell so far is the straw that broke Victor’s back and drew him to Hasetsu. Victor doesn’t know Yuri doesn’t remember. He thinks Yuri remembers dancing with him and begging him to be his coach.
With these concepts established, let’s play.
The secret same-sex passport
Remember when we were sweet summer children and we watched handsome, dashing Victor Nikiforov smile cooly as he left his coach and his career without a backward glance, except for this one, which was backlit and had a hair flip and great animation and was so sexy we didn’t notice Victor was the romantic hero bravely, crazily following his heart? Was he in love yet? Perhaps, perhaps not. I like to think he was chasing a feeling, a dream, a hope. Leaping into the darkness and hoping there was something to catch his fall, or something to build wings out of on the way, or at least a net. How much of it was romantic love of Yuri? How much of it was love of what he saw in Yuri as a skater? How much of it was tangled? How much of it was complicated with his own yearning for himself to be more, see more, do more?
Yurio tells us Victor felt he couldn’t surprise his audience anymore, and we’d heard from the news reports and from the press conferences hints he’d been thinking of retiring; this move wasn’t entirely a surprise. Victor has been searching for something. Yuri’s drunken dance fed into an urge in him that was well-primed.
Here is where, however, both from a sense of narrative and character the same-sex attraction is a secret passport. Imagine if Yuri had been a female skater who had become drunk and behaved as he had. You read that and had an immediate reaction–before you can start policing it, stop yourself and unpack it. Did you feel repulsed? Judgmental? Did you shame this female skater? Celebrate her? Stand up for her? A number of reactions are possible, but any member of our patriarchal society can comprehend how many people would reach for shame and shock.
Why is it charming if Yuri does it and not if suddenly it’s a woman doing it? Toxic masculinity.
But let’s say Yuri didn’t get drunk. Or let’s say it was drunk in a more polite way–we’ll humor the stupid patriarchy. Set it up however you like. Imagine Victor coming to coach a female skater four years his junior. Try to imagine the kind of mental setup you just experienced. Try to imagine the proposal. Try to imagine the free skate on her own. Try to imagine the weight gain, the eros of the pork cutlet bowl. Try to imagine skinny-dipping with Chris. Try to imagine any and all of it.
Now ask yourself why it’s so hard. And the answer is the fucking toxic masculinity.
Because Victor and Yuri are both men, they move in and out of both male and female roles as if they are turning shuttered windows, sometimes closing them all the way, sometimes leaving them half open. For the record, female-female pairs can do this too, they do this beautifully, and we need more of them. Because while you struggle to imagine one of these two men in Yuri on Ice as a woman and making the story work as smoothly (you can, it just wouldn’t hum like it does right now), it’s not hard at all to imagine them both women. The reach is simply easier because we’re fascinated by the patriarchy, because it dominates us. Men and women can do this too in heterosexual pairs, but they don’t, because they’re trained not to. We’re trained to be unable to see it. Romance novels have been teaching us how to unpack this stuff for decades; same-sex romances teach us how to do this with a turbo boost. All the assumptions of roles are jumbled and thrown into the air, and in the chaos the characters and therefore we are allowed to move into places we otherwise don’t feel we have a right to go to–even though we of course have every right in the world to claim them.
Will you please be my hero?
Victor flys off to Japan on a wild hair, and that’s wonderful, but it’s immediately intriguing even without knowing his motivations because we know Yuri’s, and though he’s standing still, his are much the same. He too wants to be transported, and he too is chasing a dream. Much like the egg in his beloved katsudon, it’s the entangling that makes for interesting textures and taste experiences. And for that we move onto our next examination: the battle for the role of the hero.
In my novels, with only a few exceptions I put this wrestling match right on the page, alternating between points of view of my main characters, so when one hero is idolizing the other and wishing he would sweep him off his feet and into the sunset, it’s not unheard of for the next scene to have the other hero wishing for his own version of the same, or revealing to the reader the intricate reasons why it is that he can’t do that. Straight romances do this all the time as well, and it’s called revealing vulnerability. When same-sex characters do this, however, particularly same-sex male characters, we’re usually also getting a window into our toxic masculinity issue, because we have the hero issue.
The reason episode ten knocked the wind out of us is because Kubo lured us in like starving alley cats and we took every bit of bait. I count myself as one of her happy victims. I wasn’t a Victor worshipper, and in fact I’ll cop to playing with a few thousand words of fanfic (I never write fanfic, but YOI is all about the impossible) because I felt Victor’s story was missing. I was right in that I had him seeing something more in Yuri, but even with my imaginings was I nowhere near correct. I still had him a little too aloof, too removed. I didn’t grant him enough emotion, enough softness, though in hindsight everything is there on the table.
It makes sense that he has a solid exterior that looks like a stereotypical hero. Competence porn, polished, suave, all kinds of good armor to keep people from hurting him. He’s a performer. He’s performing. Plus I think he loves a lot of it too. I don’t see it as an act. He simply doesn’t plug into it the way the other competitors do. Part of the reason he’s done so well is he never let the insanity of the sport get to him. Yakov clearly protected him too, took good care of him. But all the same, something was obviously eating at him, and it had clawed out a large enough hole that all it took was a few swift punches from Yuri and Victor went under, seeking a hero of his own.
This is who Victor was after, clearly. I think he understood this guy wasn’t going to pop out of the hot spring and wink at him, that there would be some work involved, but this guy combined with
took him over the top of his I don’t know if I can do this anymore, and it was enough to send him to Japan in hopes of a miracle.
We spent ten episodes having Yuri’s idolization and slow humanizing of Victor hammered into us, so it seems silly to rehash that, but put those two together. Yuri yearns for his idol to be on the ice with him and…something. He never really says what. He just yearns. Hopes that when he’s on the same ice with him something magical happens. Victor flies to a foreign country based on the spark of two encounters on the hopes that something magical happens. This is literally magical thinking, and it’s the basis for many human decisions (most of them terrible) and a whole lot of fiction. We are mostly fools running around hoping for miracles. If we’re unlucky, they happen.
Which brings us to the last point I have.
Actually, no, let me be your hero.
The flip side to the two heroes issue is that while both characters can be pining for the other to take the lead role, they can also be dueling over it. Once again, this dynamic can be present and should be present in any gendered pairing, but it’s an easy reach in a same-sex male couple, and our culture buzzes for it because we’re a patriarchal culture. It’s here in this active phase, in fact, of dueling heroes, where the gay hero really shines as a literary construct in patriarchal culture, particularly Western culture, because he’s undoing toxicity (men must be straight) while using cultural advantages he can use more easily because he’s male.
Now, I’m going to pause and acknowledge that no, it’s not okay to only have this cultural conversation with fictional gay men for a hundred thousand reasons. It’s easier, which is why I think it happens most often, and I think a lot of us don’t want to look deeper. Speaking for myself, it’s not a lack of will, it’s a complicated reason why I have a shelf full of gay romances I’ve authored and one lesbian romance in my WIP folder which I am sweating over. My own queerness has been complicated, late-acknowledged within myself and still something I’m exploring and not as part of my career, thanks. So when I read lesbian romance, I have intense feelings; writing is a whole other playing field, and whenever I write girls in love it feels confessional even when it isn’t. And that’s just one explanation of one orientation, and it’s the only easy one, and that’s really not all of it or easy. The bottom line is, yeah, gay romance is an easy reach for me, but it’s not because I’m lazy. I can reach for the gay romance lens easily. Thanks, patriarchy. I am working on the others, because I believe to begin with, it’s good for me to do so. But it takes time.
I just had to stop the discussion and get that out there, because I didn’t want it to sound like I was saying, breezily, like it was no big deal, gay romance is the easy reach to take down the patriarchy so let’s just do that. Anyway. As we were.
In Yuri on Ice, however, we do have two heroes, they are both male, and the thing is as much as they both want to be rescued, they also both want to rescue, themselves as much as they do each other. And honestly this is a dynamic where gay romance has an advantage because the patriarchy isn’t holding it down. Well, it is–it says, “You’re gay, you’re not real men,” and as soon as you give that the finger and jump over it, you’re sailing in clean airspace and can do what you want. Two women will still be fighting gender discrimination, and Jesus wept, straight people, we don’t have time for the laundry list of shit you’re digging through. Gay men, though, once they get past the initial slurs are in the clear, and this is what draws a lot of readers of all orientations, because who doesn’t want that kind of release? Gay romance, played right, can sail right past the patriarchy and into the place we all dream to be.
And part of that dream space is the freedom to claim our own heroism while at the same time still wishing to be saved. In episode two Victor wakes from a nap in a borrowed robe, which slips off the shoulder geisha-style as he pouts and begs for food. He eats, then bosses a demure Yuri around, telling him he can’t eat katsudon anymore if he wants his coaching. Then turns Southern belle and asks for his bags to be carried to his room. Then all but lays Yuri out on the floor in a seduction scene before being hurt at his rejection. Rescue me. Let me rescue you. Rescue me. Let me rescue you.
Yuri is equally back-and-forth. He comes to the skating rink breathless and demure, ready to beg to be allowed to skate–please rescue me–only to all but smirk at Yurio as he realizes the younger skater has underestimated him. No thanks, bitch, I can rescue myself. Then he realizes how much more talented Yurio is and freaks out, running away to the rink–please rescue me–only to accept the challenge when he’s assigned Eros despite believing he could never behave so erotically.
Now, the thing is, he doesn’t actually do any rescuing of Victor for a long time, I don’t think. I need to do my rewatch to be sure, but I think the reason he gets kissed in seven is because that flip and that free skate rescue is the first time Victor really sees the guy he fucking threw his life into the sea for. That Yuri really sees him, period, as a man, as a partner, as someone he should possibly be rescuing too. Before then Yuri’s been so consumed by anxiety he’s too focused on saving himself to ever reach for anyone else. And he still has some growth to do there. That was the whiplash of episode ten, realizing while we were so worried for Yuri we’d neglected Victor.
We marked Victor as the hero. As the man. As the masculine, the leader, the strong, the one we didn’t have to fear for, because he was the one Yuri had to fear, the one who could break his heart. The tears were literally there in episode two for us to see, along with everything else we’ll notice as we obsessively comb through this like the geeks we are. Nevermind that with one episode in his point of view and one minute’s footage of flashback we can piece together the lens of his story and turn Yuri into enough of a threat that a reader worried to me with the same ferocity we had in episode one that it would instead be Yuri breaking Victor’s heart.
Toxic masculinity is a prison for all genders
There’s nothing at all wrong with masculinity–it’s wonderful. But when it’s a the weaponized masculinity of the patriarchy, when it’s the toxic sludge keeping us from our own evolution and self-discovery, it’s a prison.
In every single episode of Yuri on Ice, the characters–male and female, lead and secondary–wrestle with masculinity, sometimes overtly like Yuri seeking Minako’s help in having more feminine movements, sometimes more sublty, such as Minako’s penchant for drink (a more masculine role by patriarchal assignment, and though Yuri’s mother chides her very subtly for it once, it’s a minor scold and more for her health, it seems, than her gender role). Victor is the sexy playboy but Yuri is the one who dances Eros, who blows kisses to his coach, who lures him to Japan with a drunken smile and a viral video.
There’s also something fantastic about this anime being a cult hit in the US, a country not known for being culturally aware of anyone but itself and which feminizes Asian cultures, now having so many Americans digest this Asian hero as the emotionally unavailable playboy who has almost cruelly lured the beautiful Russian prince(ss) to his castle and must learn to believe in true love before the last page of the book. Especially after following him through the story in what our hindbrain has, let’s face it, considered the “girl role.” I’m going to cop to this myself. I felt really evolved here, feeling like I was on home turf and understanding the nuance of the scene, knowing it wasn’t that simple and yadda-yadda-yadda, and I’m going to bow my head and admit I let toxic masculinity in. I didn’t feminize Yuri so much as I refused to feminize Victor enough.
I’ve been furrowing my brow at Yuri for awhile, not quite sure why he’s not acknowledging his feelings for Victor. Up until eight I really thought he was demi. I still think he is, honestly, but eight had me confused. Not so much about whether or not he might be demisexual, but that there was a flicker that I was missing that I couldn’t put my finger on.
It was the tie-grab. This Yuri is a different Yuri. This isn’t our shy, retiring Yuri. He’s claimed his man, and he’s drawing him back. Now, Yuri has layers, because this is the same guy who can’t free skate without Victor present. And here’s where it gets messy, and sticky, because is Yuri paralyzed because of toxic masculinity, or because it’s simply who he is and he is free as a complex human to be both insecure and dominant at the same time?
The answer of course is that he’s both.
We all are. We must be both, male and female, binary and non binary, trans and cis–whoever and however we are as human beings, we need to be able to exist on the gender spectrum (or beside it, or despite it, or against it, or what have you) in whatever way suits us. It is there to serve us, not us it.
I don’t think Victor lay weeping that night because he was upset about gender roles. I think he was upset because he realized he’d just done something insane and it hadn’t quite gone as smoothly as he’d planned. It’s we who get to navel-gaze and muse about masculinity and gender and all that academic crap because it’s what we do with literature, or what I do anyway, with the good, smart stuff.
Victor, poor baby, wanted something more impossible. I think he reached for a shooting star and discovered that stars are made of gas and that they are very hot and burn your hand. But he kept his hand there anyway, and I’m hoping and believing with all my heart that within two more episodes he and Yuri too will discover not only did they have stars within them all along, but that while they were finding those internal, individual bright lights, they had coupled their orbits with a neighboring heavenly body, and that so long as they’re able, the two of them can dance through the heavens together.
And pray to the gods above and in the anime houses of Japan we are allowed to watch.