SPOILERS: Detailed discussion of the Girl Friends manga.
As a queer woman, I find that a lot of queer literature isn’t really made with my perspective in mind. Often times, it feels like most of the queer female media is made for men’s enjoyment and depicts unrealistic or frivolous relationships between women. When I found the manga Girl Friends, I was not only excited to see a yuri that seemed made for me; I also felt as though I related to the girls on a very intimate level because of the authenticity presented in their relationship.
Girl Friends follows the development of the protagonists Mariko and Akiko during their time in high school. Spoilers: these women are very queer and end up developing a romantically attraction to one another. This is not unusual for queer literature. What is unusual, however, is how it happens. Rather than starting off with sweaty hands and awkward romantic interactions, Mariko and Akiko start off purely as platonic friends and slowly grow into a romantic relationship. During all this, there’s also only one male character: Mariko’s boyfriend.
In a lot of queer media I’ve seen that was clearly meant more for men, male characters like Mariko’s boyfriend are often put in the spotlight. An example of this is Monster Musume, where the girls have no genuine attraction to each other and everything is purely platonic, yet there are sexualized scenes between the women and the story is centered around the main male character, Kimihito Kurusu. In anime like this, the man is important in the female relationship or the relationship is entirely made to cater to the man.
But not Girl Friends. Mariko’s boyfriend is more of an obstacle and treated as such. Eventually, he’s no longer in the picture the more the girls realize their feelings for each other. This is like a lot of high school relationships, hetero-performing or not. In fact, the other fantastic thing about Girl Friends is that it normalizes queer women. Akko and Mariko go through the same things many high school girls do: alcohol, friend troubles, dieting, and so on.
Normalizing queer women in our society is very important because if you’re not queer, it can be difficult to see things from the other side. In my everyday life, I see a lot of straight women get confused about what it means to be a queer woman and what their everyday lives look like. From personal experience, it feels like the assumption is that everything I go through will revolve around my being queer. What Girl Friends provides is a lens both worlds can understand; sure, Akko and Mariko are struggling with their sexuality, but a lot of teenagers do and they still go through the same growing pains.
Acceptance and support from members of society is the next step that can really help bridge a gap of misunderstanding between straight women and their queer peers, as well as solidarity between queer individuals. It’s also one thing Girl Friends touches on when Mariko and Akko start coming out more with their relationship and sexual identity.
Satoko, otherwise known as “Sugi-san,” is the girls’ friend, main support system, and the best example of a queer community ally in this manga. She herself is a party-going extrovert with a lot of advice to offer, but she also acts as sort of an older guardian when it comes to the girls. (There’s also a question of whether she herself is queer in relation to her friend, but she’s often with men and it’s never confirmed.) She can tell right away that the girls have romantic feelings towards each other and helps create a safe-space for them to feel accepted as individuals and as a couple.
We see this time and time again where Akko goes to Sugi for advice on her feelings. While she’s concerned for the obvious reason that not everyone will accept their relationship, Sugi gives her loving advice. Even if she herself is not confirmed to be queer, she’s giving something a lot of queer women need: understanding and acceptance. In the real world, in areas where it’s safe to be out, queer women have support groups like this.
What’s important to remember in this manga as well is that there aren’t other queer women around. Sugi’s queer sexuality may not be canon, but she certainly gives the girls solidarity when they need it, such as providing them a safe space to be together. Sometimes it’s among other queer women, but sometimes it’s not. Sugi reminds me a lot of a close friend I have who is straight; it’s not so much in personality as it is the way she cares selflessly for her friends and wants to see the best for them.
Of course, not all spaces are safe and the real world reminds us of that every day. Mariko and Akko eventually become more public with their relationship, which brings with it the actual issues and unwarranted attention the queer community in general faces. There’s a moment where the girls are kissing and a group walking by makes homophobic comments. Girl Friends doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of real queer women in society.
A lot of anime and manga might depict a fetishized version of this, and that might be warped into a perception of false acceptance. A good example of this can be seen in any bath scene in which girls fall into casual “platonic” groping scenes for the viewer’s titillation. Other examples outside of this might include Bleach’s Chizuru Honsho, who’s attracted to women and always groping them. Girl Friends rejects the delusion behind fetishized scenes of false acceptance by depicting realistic same-sex relations and how they’re perceived by the community.
Alongside that, there is the entire issue of coming out and what it would mean for them as individuals. Akko and Mariko are fortunate to have found each other, but that doesn’t always mean it’s safe to be together. They have to come to a decision on whether or not they should come out and be together publicly. The question is whether it’s safe for them to do so; what sort of criticism will they face from their peers? What kind of danger might they be in? What sort of label will they be wearing from here on out? This isn’t uncommon for real queer women. Even growing up in a safe household, I personally didn’t know what the reaction would be to my coming out. There’s never a clear answer, and that’s the scariest part.
There are many different shapes and forms of attraction, and what I love the most about Girl Friends is that its depiction is so specific. We don’t just watch two girls love each other, we watch them grow into love. It starts out with such distinct platonic emotions and eventually they come to the crossroads of identifying as queer and wanting more out of a relationship. What I hope people can gain from Girl Friends is a little of what I did: a realistic portrayal of what it’s like being a queer woman. If you’re queer, perhaps you’ll find solace in a depiction you can relate to.
And if you’re not queer, perhaps you’ll gain a window to help you see what your peers may have to deal with regularly. At the end of the manga, the girls promise to continue loving each other. To them, love is something that people can experience regardless of if they’re queer or straight. This idea of real normalization is important to the queer community. This manga taught me that I’m not different when it comes to how I feel.
Stories like Girl Friends give everyone an opportunity to learn something. There’s an opportunity to feel normal in a society that begs to differ because, for once, a piece of media spoke up and helped define your own experiences, like it did for me. Or you learned about an experience you yourself will never fully come to understand, like some of my allied friends did.
When I read Girl Friends, I found a lot of myself in the writing. I found a manga that talked about a topic I’d only read about online or in the hushed whispers of school hallways. For a girl who hadn’t been out for very long and was still discovering a lot about herself at the time, that meant everything. It even taught me a lot.
And even now, a few years later, I find that my identity and the community I built for myself, both queer and not, has been impacted by what I read when I was just coming out. There’s a lot of growth needed in media that accurately portrays queer women, which is exactly why we should push for this kind of representation in the entertainment we consume.