Grell Sutcliff, the supposed Burnett butler who unveils his true sexual identity in a brilliant red rush of flamboyance, would probably be considered gay by most. That is, if not for his blood-soaked love affair with Ciel Phantomhive’s dear aunt, Madam Red. Never mind that Black Butler is set in the Victorian era, where the “gross indecency” of homosexuality was barely whispered of, and bisexuality was almost ignored entirely; psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing is considered the first to have recorded the term as an “attraction to both genders” in his 1986 work Psychopathia Sexualis. Grell’s carnal freedom and candour defy the presiding opinion of bisexuals that still exists today, even in queer communities. He is scandal made flesh and relishes in this fact, prioritising his pleasure over the judgements of others, striking out against an opposed society in a way that’s timelessly empowering. Even preconceptions of ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ are cast off, his “custom death scythe” chainsaw colour coordinated with figure-grazing garb and his statement scarlet coat, forever fixed in a flirtatious off-the-shoulder pose.
It’s telling that there’s no gender-appropriate slurs for such a man, certainly compared to the semantics lambasted against women – slut, whore, slapper et cetera. Yet even in defiance of the social more that would brand him a strumpet, there would still be pitfalls for him to navigate today. Popular opinion derides bisexuals as either greedy or being unable to pick a side and settle on a partner. Grell, in polite terms, would come across in the public eye as “having trouble committing”. Without a doubt, his most ardent lust is held for the Phantomive household’s demon butler Sebastian, but whenever another ferocious beauty of any gender comes along, he’s equally forward in expressing his attraction.
Assuming Grell would identify as ‘bi’ in the real, modern world, being the shadow-social butterfly he is, he would be met with distrust from the LGBTQ+ and straight societies whatever he chose. Even if he got tired of being told he was ‘just fucking people around’, or found someone he adored and wanted to commit to, he would be ‘gay after all’ if he wound up with a man or ‘fake after all’ if he found love with a woman. But in the context of Black Butler, the joy of its eroticism is that he’s free to be attracted to whomever he chooses. Despite the odd withering look from the uninitiated, he’s never condemned for his sexuality. And whenever he takes the stage, author Yana Toboso lets him perform front and centre, unrestrained.
It has to be remembered that not everyone’s bisexuality is the same, and it’s the whole spectrum of sexuality that comes under scrutiny by certain straight and LGBTQ folk alike. NANA, the beautiful story of two girls’ friendship as they seek out their dreams, gives a good sense of the specifically Japanese outlook on being queer. In Japanese culture, socio-political beliefs aren’t discussed with the same openness as in some parts of the western world, even though queer culture is loud and proud in certain corners of the country. While this results in fewer cases of hate crime – though they do still occur the same as in any country – relationships in general aren’t as publically visible as we might find comfortable in the west, with the broader needs of society prioritised above the personal. Indeed, homosexuality is often seen as shirking one’s responsibilities of raising a family, and contributing to the tradition of inheritance, while many hate crimes go undocumented because there is no legal definition of them in Japan.
From the New World, set in a future where sex and sexuality are past the point of comment, sees the teens free to love who they choose as we watch them grow up, their psychic abilities emblematic of their emotions, delicate and dangerous in the same breath. At least, this is the case up to a point, until it pings back into the traditional Japanese mindset of settling down and raising that still-obligatory family. So punk rocker Nana Osaki’s protective, loving and jealous feelings towards her friend, Nana “Hachi” Komatsu, are often referred as “weird” by herself, treated as something abnormal, a symptom of possessive selfishness. She feels she has to compete with men for her little Hachi’s affections, treating her as a pet with no positive reference point for her emotions.
Then again, it’s sweet that both Nanas’ love for each other is soulful rather than physical. They have a spiritual resonance that draws and then binds them together through times of serene happiness, and suffering in their loves. Author Ai Yazawa shows affection between women in a balanced, sensitive way; whether their love is platonic, romantic or otherwise is irrelevant, even when considering that ‘romantic friendship’ between girls is much more commonplace in Japan, though usually in middle or junior high school. But then relationships aren’t always clear cut in real life, no matter the gender.
In this sense, NANA crosses over into yuri territory, in which lesbianism only began to be referenced, if indirectly, in the nineties, skirting around the sapphic and overtly romantic attraction between girls up until the Sailor Moon generation; the benefit and approval of queer readers notwithstanding. Earlier yuri favoured the ambiguity of a deep friendship, retaining the purity of its lily flower symbol. The ‘Class S’ friendship (the adjustable S standing for sister, shojo, sex, schön, or escape) allows girls to explore same-sex romance, but it’s often framed as something they will grow out of come graduation. So the sisterhood of S-love stands as a foil for two girls’ adoration and admiration of one another, with NANA balanced between the two. Nana and Hachi’s closeness is unconditional as though through blood ties, yet beyond them in a way neither can express or understand.
Cardcaptor Sakura claims those emotions and displays them as what they are, without them being considered strange. All of the series’ main cast is queer in some respect, and in contrast to From the New World’s far-off dystopia, as though denying acceptance in our lifetime for LGBTQ people, queerness is never commented on as unusual. Though the manga proffers the excuse that characters are just “attracted to the magic” of others, reflecting the idea that same-sex love in young people is something fleeting that will fade as they mature, Sakura herself is confirmed bisexual by her creators. And, most crucially, these characters are unique in their queerness, ultimately defying the prescriptive “attraction to the magic”.
Part of the issue with the collective view on queerness is that, as a whole, we’re still coming round to the idea that attraction is multi-faceted, not just a small set of conveniently clickable options. There are still those who think that there’s gay and straight, with bi in the middle made up of equal quantities of both. Hachi is mostly depicted as romantically and physically attracted to men, but she’s obviously curious about Nana. When Hachi jumps into the bath with her, there’s an unspoken pull towards exploring the sexual, a mimicry of Nana and lover Ren’s complete comfort in each other’s company, sheltered under the cover of sisterly love. The closest Hachi comes to admitting her feelings to herself is the touching twist on that girl-crush truism; “If you had been a man, Nana, we could’ve lived a perfect love.” But it’s as good as a confession, framed by the memorial portraits she creates in her narration of Nana the stray cat, the star, and the shadow.
Freud’s Sexuality and the Psychology of Love echoes the attitude of the Class-S friendship in the chapter entitled ‘Female Sexuality’ which, despite commenting that bisexuality comes naturally to all humans, proposes that it’s a characteristic most present in women – “[bisexuality] manifests itself more plainly in the female than the male.” But this notion that bisexuality is inherently feminine neglects male bisexuality and paints it merely as a tendency towards the ‘sensitive’ feminine behaviours. Evangelion’s Shinji Ikari is often bemoaned as one of the weakest shonen leads, with popular opinion painting him a “pussy” who should “man up” and get on with it.
As it happens, he’s also bisexual, the fifth child Kaworu Nagisa professing his love to Shinji as he blushes bright red in response. This could be viewed as a sign of his weakness: his submission in the face of his situation, a need for comfort from any source. Or, it could be perceived as having the strength to accept his fraught emotion, channelling depression into an expressive strength shared with Sailor Moon’s lesbian couple Uranus and Neptune. It takes courage to struggle with the despair of being a teen, figuring out your self, your identity, and we are naturally resilient towards those hardships. Yet Shinji passes beyond resilience, feeling his suffering and his love in all their depths, but still finding the strength to fight.
While Shinji may be ridiculed in the otaku community and denied full emotional expression by a toxic, homophobic sect of the fandom, he, like Grell, is never once condescended to by his creators or in the context of Evangelion. It may be denial of sexuality in Japan, to a degree, which allows so many characters to be gay while not being reproached for it, as those who would rather not see homosexuality can look straight through it as ‘close friendship’ or bromance. But another queer community, the transgender community, is subjected to having their identity mocked in countless body-swap narratives. This theme is drenched in male characters who are cursed to appear as a girl for comedic effect, while certain stories in manga and anime fight for the accurate and sensitive representation of trans people. But that’s another blog altogether.