Becoming Monstrous: Yurikuma Arashi and transmisogyny in the school system

By: Toni Sun Prickett March 15, 20240 Comments
Kureha looking at herself in the mirror

Content Warning: Discussion of queer/transphobia (including slurs), online and workplace harassment, grooming, systemic violence

Spoilers for Yurikuma Arashi, referenced spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica

“This is the nature of systems: the moment you reject them, you are forced to realize that they’re the very ground you’re standing on.”

–Ikuhara Kunihiko

Two bears are presented with a choice: will you be invisible, or will you eat humans? They look like teddy bears, and they are on trial. Two girl bears–two lesbian girls–Ginko and Lily, standing before three male judges deciding whether or not they should have the right to exist. In order to have their love approved, they declare: they will eat humans. They transform, taking on human form as they don hypersexualized bear girl outfits, and they enter the world of the school.

Yurikuma Arashi places this strange set-piece towards the middle of its first three episodes. It exemplifies the show’s style, told as it is in enigmatic parables. Ostensibly, Yurikuma is about a human girl named Kureha seeking answers about the deaths of her mother and girlfriend while getting into a love triangle involving the two bears who have infiltrated her school disguised as humans.

However, everything in Yurikuma Arashi is more symbol than literal representation, and I have often mulled over its meaning as I’ve navigated entering the teaching profession as a nonbinary Chinese person. Like the bears, I’ve often asked myself: what do I sacrifice to be allowed to exist within the school?

"Yuri Approved," stamped with a bear paw

I’ve previously likened the process justice-minded educators go through as being like that of becoming a witch in Madoka Magica: like a magical girl, you start from a position of believing yourself to be an agent of change, often within an explicitly feminized position; then you are assimilated into the very role that brutalized you, just as the magical girl would become a witch. 

I am interested in this essay in a different process of becoming a monster: the process of casting out, the ways that systems police themselves and cull the herd. I am interested in the process of becoming the kind of “predator” teacher that winds up on Libs of Tiktok. I am interested in what Jules Gill Peterson calls “trans feminization”–how, at a previous school I taught at, I as a nonbinary person went from being viewed largely as a cis man and made invisible to becoming a “tranny” and made a predatory target.

Yurikuma Arashi is about these very processes. The characters in this show over and over again negotiate their position within the systems of heteronormativity–positions symbolized by the status of invisible, excluded, and bear. These are not statuses one chooses, but one which are chosen for you. To resist invisibility as a queer person is to become monstrous, and to refuse to throw away trans women makes you an anathema: in refusing to assimilate into the very structures that would rather you not exist, you become their enemy.

A classroom full of students sitting in the dark, holding their glowing cell phones up. At the front of the room, a leading student is doing the same, screen facing forward

The Invisible Storm and The Policing of Femininity

As Alex has noted in their own wonderful article, the school in Yurikuma is obsessed with purity, both in femininity and adherence to social cues. To be impure in one’s adherence to rigid gender roles, or to miss the cues of the herd, is to be cast out in a violent Exclusion Ceremony led by the Invisible Storm, a group of students who vote through their phones on who to bully to death. To avoid being excluded, you must participate in the process of exclusion. You must become complicit.

To be invisible in Yurikuma is not to be straight. No, to be invisible means to completely lose your sense of self. This means completely conforming to the cultural norms of the space, following every social cue, as is repeated over and over again. In other words, any time somebody from the herd indicates even the slightest discomfort with your ways of being, with your identity, you must respond in deference, or be excluded.

You can have sex with women and be invisible, but you cannot be queer–you cannot disrupt the demands of purity, much less the systems of exclusion that police those demands. Having sex with women must be a phase, a cute experiment that has no bearing on true love.

two girls being spied on as they kiss. "Those girls are always looking for someone 'evil' to exclude."

Like the school Kureha attends, teaching is an explicitly feminized profession. This means two things: Firstly, that there is a very specific model of femininity that is valued in the teaching profession based on white cishet middle-class womanhood. This is the legacy of white women making up 73% of the teaching workforce–their values and ways of being have shaped every aspect of the profession. (For that matter, I have never had a principal who was not a white woman.) All other femininities are excluded through a set of disciplinary processes including ratings, parental complaints, and many others. What the public views as “male femininities”— those of trans women, nonbinary people, and femme gay men—are most devalued of all.

The second meaning of the profession being feminized is the stolen maternal capacities of the teacher, as teachers of color and queer teachers are often forced to embody a function within the state best described by Joy James as the captive maternal. In short, these people  are forced to contend with situations far beyond our control, dealing with crisis after crisis and expected through sheer will and maternal power to hold our community together. It is not just women who can be captive maternals, either, but anybody who is “feminized into caretaking and consumption.” 

The care work that captive maternals do is not work our society can do without. Without us, society under capitalism would fall apart completely. It is work that is done out of love for our communities in resistance to all the forces that would abandon them. As fellow educator and anime critic Danny put it on our “anime and abolition” podcast, it is work whose loving purpose is worthy of us. However true care work is utterly incompatible with the violent policing of femininity that comes with the profession of teaching. You cannot care for children when you are in constant fear of being excluded. You cannot care away the carceral state targeting the children you love. You cannot care for children with a gun to both your head and theirs.

Yuriika as a bear in a wedding dress. "You're so beautiful, Yuriika. You're special."

Becoming The Bride in the Box

What does this mean for me as a nonbinary person, who fits neither into male nor female roles? At first, I am illegible. I am slotted into whatever role feels convenient at the time in the mind of the student, parent, or administrator. Before I push back against the cisheteronomativity of the school system, I am largely viewed as a man. Even when I tell students that I am nonbinary, I go by “Teacher Sun,” and my pronouns are “they/them,” the vast majority of the time they have no idea what I mean. They go right back to “he/him”ing me and de facto I am treated as just a Weird Gay Man. I am invisibilized. 

This invisibility is extremely contingent, however. I must distance myself from trans women both politically and through gender presentation to remain invisible. And, of course, by distancing myself from trans women, I participate in their ostracization and exclusion. I become recruited into transmisogyny, recruited into the Invisible Storm, pretending to not see the violence playing out before me every day.

I first realized the contingency of my invisibility as I was walking home from school on my first day of work. I was walking to a seat in a subway station, and I tried to sit down next to a man on a bench. He got up, and began to yell at me, threatening me with beating me to a pulp because of the “bitch ass” way I walk. He called me a faggot, and only walked away when he saw the judgmental glare of a young mother nearby.

I brought this up to a much senior colleague in a significant position of influence in the school the next day. I mentioned that I would like to see if we could find some way that I could possibly have other people to walk to the subway with, as a safety measure. She shut down the conversation. Two hours later, I got an email where she explained that she was not comfortable being the vessel for my emotional dumping—accompanied by a list of therapists that I could see in lieu of getting her support.

Yuriika holding a girl's hand. "I won't tell you to do it right away, but eventually you need to accept reality."

This is the reaction I experienced over and over again when trying to explain the particular violence I was experiencing as a faggot—dismissal, followed by irritation that I would bring up the topic. After this, I noticed myself policing my gait, attempting to walk more like a man, shutting out my too-muchness, shutting out my femininity. I did not want to be clocked as a femme, and face the violence that came with that. I came to know that, by-and-large, my colleagues would not support me if I was ever harmed, as in their eyes whatever violence I was experiencing was all in my head. Two years later, I transferred schools.

In Yurikuma, the ideology of purity that the school follows is best encapsulated by Yuriika’s Bride in a Box. Yuriika, the school headmistress, is taught by her abusive adoptive parent as a child that the things that you value must be hidden away and trapped so they always remain the same. She is taught to be a “bride in a box,” a girl who is “unsullied” by both maturation and by queerness. And so, in the show’s most explicit critique of the Class S trope of burying its gays before they can be corrupted by adulthood and sexuality, she systematically kills and eats the lesbian girls at the school–often as soon as they begin exploring their sexuality, often in bed with them herself. She puts them in the box of herself, to keep safe and unsullied forever.

It is hard to not think of this when I think of what the school system would want me to be—as I spoke of in my Madoka article, to reproduce the systems that I have myself internalized. However, when I refuse to distance myself either politically or through my gender from a trans woman, I become another form of monster: I become trans-feminized.

Lulu and Gingko in a spotlight.

What Happened

It is time I dispensed with the prelude and told my story. Last year, an account was made to create a campaign of targeted harassment against me at a school. Pictures from my personal instagram were posted to it, along with captions that called me a tranny, called me a faggot, and told me to go die. Dozens of students followed it and word circulated throughout the school.

This was a direct response to my pedagogy. I had had enough of self-silencing, and had started teaching affirming content about trans women. I taught Redefining Realness in my writing class. During community circles, students asked me about voguing, so I demonstrated how to vogue and explained its history in LGBTQ liberation spaces. I spoke openly about my experiences as a nonbinary person. I led a staff training about how to teach with a trans-affirming pedagogy.

This began a coordinated harassment campaign. Parents began calling into the school, demanding to know why I was voguing in class or demanding to speak to the principal about the “inappropriate content that should be left to parents to explain being taught in our child’s class.” Worst of all, students began to taunt me about my gender identity, disrupting class with outlandish insults about my identity that made it impossible to teach.

a lily flower in a drawer

My administration did everything they could to support me. (They, too, were being harassed.) I, truth be told, was not the only transgender teacher in the school. But because of this harassment, I left the school. I could not bear another year of such an unpleasant environment.

What I experienced in that school was a quintessential example of what Jules Gill Peterson calls trans-feminization–where, because of my perceived “male femininity,” I was treated with transmisogyny that was designed to push me out of the public eye. The things that I value most, the expressions of this “male femininity” and my solidarity with trans women, were pathologized and reinterpreted into evidence of my being a groomer. (Voguing, after all, is the most trans femme art form that exists, rooted as it is in the art of Black trans women in the NYC ballroom scene). 

Whether one is exposed to transmisogyny when one is not a trans woman is deeply contingent on the space one is in and the contemporary history–and it just so happened that as I was coming out, trans educators were becoming more and more the subject of public discourse. The language of Libs of Tiktok, ascendant in our contemporary education landscape, is explicitly designed with one purpose: to destroy the lives of trans, and especially trans femme, educators and anybody who even remotely resembles them. 

I was caught in the Invisible Storm.

long shot of Kureha facing herself at the "Door to Friendship"

Silence, Invisibility

It is revealed towards the middle of the show that Sumika used to be a part of the Invisible Storm herself. This is such a shocking moment because it reveals the innocuousness of the system–that a character who we were previously led to believe is one of the kindest, most gentle characters in the show actively participated in the exclusion of other girls? Evil truly is banal, and the Invisible Storm, and all systems of conformity, have enormous power to police those within them. Sumika chooses not to exclude Kureha, rejecting the system, and instead is excluded herself.

This year, I chose to again become invisible. I did not stop calling myself “Teacher Sun,” but merely accepted my recurring role as the Weird Gay Teacher. I no longer make an active effort to teach trans-affirming pedagogies. I no longer correct the constant misgendering I experience. I merely want to survive. I feel enormous guilt about this decision. It has barely made my life easier—teaching is still difficult, even when you’re only dealing with homophobia and not transphobia. But I could not continue to make myself hypervisible. 

I’m not sure what I’ll do now, to be honest. But I know that what I am doing now is not sustainable. Every day I teach, I feel as if I am being put before the Severance Court, having to justify my existence in public life. Will I be invisible, or will I eat humans?

For so many years, I thought the only thing I could ever be was an educator, so much that I formed my whole identity around it. I want, more than anything, to live out the ending of Yurikuma, to destroy the self in the mirror—to completely reconceptualize myself in the process of liberation. This is what Kureha had to do: accept that she would become a bear, that she would be seen as a predator by all of her former “friends,” and that this would be an identity-shattering moment. Such was the burden of freedom.

Truly, I want to be able to be free of this identity I have taken on, with all of its burdens, all of its saviorism, and all of its weight. In the process of letting go of my identity as a teacher, perhaps I could begin to embrace a new one: exploring trans femininity without the restriction and constant surveillance of a teaching job. Who would I be, if I did not constantly have to appraise myself based on how the transmisogynist school system will see me?

However, there is no clear escape plan, no clear exit, no Door to Friendship that I can exit through. Such a dream is fundamentally individualist, after all. This is my frustration with the ending of Yurikuma Arashi. As Kureha and Ginko escape into their liminal zone beyond the Wall of Severance, the rest of us are stuck here in reality. Where will we go? What will we create? And how will we embrace how the world makes us monstrous when there are such devastating consequences?

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