Queer time and the quarter-life crisis in contemporary yuri

By: Alex Henderson September 15, 20230 Comments
Color splash page from Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon, showing protagonists Hinako and Asahi sitting together against a stylized yellow moon and a black backdrop

Content warning for discussion of queerphobia and heteronormativity

Minor spoilers for Catch These Hands! and Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon

Historically, the tropes and traditions of yuri have been anchored in the school setting, meaning that the recent uptick in titles starring adult characters has been exciting and worthy of note. There’s an increasingly varied platter of yuri with post-high school protagonists, from college stories like How Do We Relationship? and I Don’t Know Which is Love; to workplace romances like Still Sick and I Love You So Much I Hate You; and even into the realm of genre fiction with titles like Otherside Picnic and SHWD. All these series do the valuable work of demonstrating that while schoolgirl yuri is surely going to remain a beloved mainstay, yuri can also function effectively outside the walls of the school setting and outside the structure of adolescent romance. Series that focus on adult characters also open the door to a storytelling niche that’s still relatively underrepresented despite the rich narrative potential it offers: the post-adolescence queer coming-of-age story. Or, in other words, the gay quarter-life crisis.  

Narrative tradition would have it that a person “comes of age” in their teen years and then marches into adulthood fully formed. Character development that hinges on big, pivotal milestones like first love and first heartbreak are often central to the bildungsroman in its many forms across YA fiction and high school anime and everything in between. But those big coming-of-age moments can happen outside of your teens, too, especially if those traditional milestones of maturity were out of reach or not viable at the time. This is common for people across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum: someone who doesn’t discover their sexuality until later in life might not have their first romance until they’re well out of high school; someone who transitions as an adult may initially miss some quintessential teen experiences but instead have them when they’re much older; and of course some people may not hit those supposedly crucial goals of love, sex, and relationships at all.

Color page from the manga Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon. The top panel shows the protagonist, Hinako, getting dressed in her bedroom. The second panel is a closeup that shows her face, looking tired and sad. Speech bubbles read: Fashion magazines are my textbooks. I'm below average in every way. But if I dress up, wear makeup, and fall in love... I'm sure even I can be "normal".

Jack Halberstam called this alternate life trajectory queer time. In their book In a Queer Time and Place, Halberstam posits that heteronormativity lays out a very particular, very linear pathway for modern human life, marking out love, marriage, and children on a strict schedule. Conforming to this schedule is expected, and with that conformity comes success and happiness—the notion that if you’re ticking off those boxes at the right time in your life, you’re doing something fundamentally correct. And if you’re not following that linear pathway, well! You’re not a proper adult, are you?

The idea of “queer time” is about rejecting this timeline, with its inflexible ideology regarding what makes a successful, “normal” adulthood, and embracing other life narratives instead. This theory doesn’t just apply to queer people, though, especially in an era where the traditional goalposts of so-called successful adulthood keep moving. For example, what does it mean when one of the big signs that You’re An Adult Now is buying a house, but the housing market is inaccessible? With the traditional life narrative and its strict definitions of maturity in mind, it might seem like you’ll be stranded in adolescence forever. But moving past those strict definitions frees us up to discover and develop new meanings.

Two manga panels from Catch These Hands! Protagonist Takabe frowns off into the distance. Speech bubbles read: I'm a grown-ass woman stuck in her teenage delinquent stage. Isn't that embarrassing? I'm gonna turn over a new leaf, get a real job... and become a proper adult.

In the context of fiction, queer time can manifest as the character arc I mentioned above: the post-adolescence coming-of-age story. There’s a lot of narrative potential in this space where queer protagonists are having their big moments of self-discovery outside the confines of high school, with all the autonomy that adult life brings… but also with the heteronormative pressures of “normal adulthood” looming over them, making for a uniquely confusing and confronting mix. There are some English-language novels that I reckon do this well, but this intriguing storytelling space is also being explored in various yuri series that have been released over the past few years.

The anxiety about what it means to be a “proper” adult—informed by a lifetime’s exposure to the narratives of heteronormativity—underlines the initial conflict in Shio Usui’s Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon. 24-year-old protagonist Hinako is determined to be “normal” and has engineered herself a perfect public image: she presents traditionally feminine, tries her best to be social and outgoing, and is (supposedly) on a quest to find a boyfriend. Aside from enjoying some of her experiments with fashion and makeup, this is a performance that generally leaves Hinako miserable. But a chance encounter with her seemingly aloof co-worker Asahi sets her on a different path. What if there’s not something “missing” from Hinako—what if she can be happy the way she is?

Manga panels from Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon, panning away from Asahi and Hinako to focus on the night sky. Speech bubbles read: What I mean is... my heart is a little like a doughnut. There's a hole in the middle. But it's not a bad thing. Without it, I wouldn't be me.

Hinako’s friendship (and budding slow-burn romance) with Asahi is a source of relief when the social pressure of heteronormativity is constantly breathing down Hinako’s neck. The overwhelming assumption is that Hinako will achieve some sort of ideal, happy, successful state when (not if, when) she falls in love with a man and gets married. The idea that she might be happy being single—that being single is anything other than a liminal, in-between state before the marriage endgame—is baffling to people. The idea that she might be happy with a woman, not a man… well, that doesn’t even bear thinking about.

Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon is a queer series in a few ways. First, obviously, it’s a story about two women (and two asexual women, at that!) falling in love. But there’s also a deeper, thematic queer layer to this story in how the narrative unpacks the idea of “normal” and shows the characters grappling with it before eventually finding happiness in alternatives—in other words, stepping off the track and embracing queer time. This occurs when Asahi and Hinako fall in love, but it’s also present in Asahi’s non-traditional family structure. Instead of the usual two-parents-and-biological-kids model, Asahi is the sole guardian of her teenage sister, and, abnormal as they are, this setup works just fine. The addition of Hinako, and Asahi’s old friend Fuuka, gives us that beloved trope and queer staple of the found family: misfits gathering out of mutual affection and community rather than forming the normative biological unit.

Color splash page from Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon. Hinako, Asahi, and the other main characters are all sitting together on the wooden porch of Asahi's house.

A small, sweet subplot also dismisses the idea that a person needs to be in a relationship or family unit to be happy, with one of Hinako’s former dates delightedly telling her how he’s embraced his love of solo hobbies and that she gave him the confidence to truly enjoy being single. Deviating from the path of “fall in love – get married before you get too old – have kids – become happy” is a risk, but the narrative rewards the characters for taking it. Hinako finds joy and self-actualization when she embraces her perceived “failure” to be a proper, ordinary adult, instead accepting that there is no such thing as a “normal” one-size-fits-all adulthood in the first place.

Though it skews much more towards comedy, murata’s Catch These Hands! also explores these themes. 22-year-old Takabe is a former delinquent who vows to sort her life out when she realizes that most of her old girl gang are getting married and having babies. While trying to rehabilitate her rough image, she runs into her old high school rival: the “Bloody Cardigan” Soramori. Soramori challenges Takabe to a fist fight just like in the good old days, and Takabe can’t resist—even when Soramori’s condition is that if she wins, Takabe has to date her.

Manga panels from Catch These Hands! showing Takabe yelling into her phone. Speech bubbles read: HUH? MARRIED? WHO'S GETTING MARRIED?

Takabe finds herself tossed (literally) into a strange and unconventional relationship. The two women stumble their way through the beats of a romance, frantically searching for appropriate date ideas to great confusion and comedic effect. Do they go to art galleries and pretend to understand the modern sculptures? Do they hang out in bars? Do they take an origami class together?? None of these things quite hit the mark, and it’s when they shrug off all pretenses and just act like themselves that they end up actually having fun.

As the pair start to develop mutual feelings for one another, the series’ central will-they-or-won’t-they hinges on this question of “normal” adulthood, and whether Takabe is going to stick with Soramori or try to get back on the straight and narrow (pun intended). Takabe says that she intends to get married and have children, but it’s unclear whether this is something she actually craves or if she just feels as though she needs to hit these milestones to stand alongside her peers. She’s competitive, after all, and resents her friends for “getting ahead” of her. 

Manga panels from Catch These Hands! showing Soramori staring, confused, at the plaque of a modern art piece, then looking nervously around the room. Speech bubbles read: That's even more confusing! W-wow... does everyone else understand the artwork?

Of course, the notion that she’s “losing” by not settling down with a man and having biological babies is steeped in heteronormative values, which she’s clearly internalized even as a counter-cultural delinquent. Soramori, meanwhile, says she likes Takabe just the way she is. Their relationship is a space where both of them are safe to be “abnormal” and thus “immature”: queer, not traditionally feminine, and free to admit that neither of them has any clue what they’re doing with their lives.

While tonally different, both Catch These Hands! and Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon have their characters ask: if they don’t fit into the traditional social narrative of heterosexual life, love, and success, what are they supposed to do? Have they failed in some fundamental way? Are they truly even adults if they can’t hit these milestones of “adulting,” or are they just lost, weird kids? These questions and anxieties underpin the comedy and drama of both series and paint a poignant picture of post-adolescent strife in a modern world where these characters just can’t fit in even if they try.

Manga panels from Catch These Hands! showing Soramori and Takabe talking together on a park bench in winter. Speech bubbles read: I don’t want you to leave your rebel days behind. Maybe you feel anxious… seeing all your friends get married and have kids… but I think you shine the brightest just as you are. I haven’t forgotten what you told me. That you like people who take pride in the way they live.

These conversations are particularly relevant and subversive in a Japanese context, as these are young women grappling with specific historical and cultural expectations around being a good wife and a good mother (not to mention prevalent social and media tropes like the “Christmas cake” woman). But their struggles can also resonate with queer readerships across the world. The protagonists of both series wrestle with the expectations placed upon them by society and the joy they feel when they deviate from that strict formula, something they’ve only had the opportunity to discover in their adulthoods. They’re doing all this alongside the added highs and lows of working, living independently, and trying to plan their futures in a shifting world. All while desperately trying to at least look like they know what they’re doing in front of their parents and peers and the different stifling expectations those relationships represent.

These are queer women in their 20s going through the harrowing ups and downs of a coming-of-age story: the messy business of reckoning with your sexuality, figuring out your place in the world, and in the end claiming autonomy and self-actualization. And—because as rough as these stories may get, these are still romantic comedies—they also get the girl and live happily ever after. Or, at least, walk hand-in-hand toward the fuzzy horizon of adult life a little more certain of their place in it, and with someone to share in their confusion. What does it mean to be a normal adult, a successful adult, a happy adult? There is not just one answer, in the same way there’s not just one ideal life narrative.

Closeup panel from Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon showing Hinako smiling, surrounded by sparkling bubbles. Speech bubble reads: But I think that I like... the way I am now.

Both Catch These Hands! and Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon depict emotional experiences that I feel will resonate with a lot of people (they certainly resonated with me!). These are just two examples that tackle these themes—series like After Hours, Even Though We’re Adults, and She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat also include storylines about reckoning with, and finding happiness outside of, heteronormative expectations of the life timeline, either as the main focus or woven gently in the background. It’s rewarding to see more and more yuri that specifically addresses the quandaries of queer adulthood, standing alongside the school-set titles to represent a spectrum of sapphic experience.

Of course, it would be fantastic to see series with protagonists even older than their 20s and 30s added to this catalog. These would open the door for a whole new set of unique narrative material, and provide a whole new audience with stories that resonate personally with their experience within the framework of yuri romance. Queer time means that self-discovery and movie-worthy milestones can (and should!) happen at any age, unfettered by the expectation of “settling down” in time to the strict notion of a biological clock or an acceptable schedule of love and marriage. But while I have my fingers crossed that the world of yuri diversifies even further, for the moment I hold series like Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon close to my queer, befuddled, disastrous 20-something-year-old heart.

These works embrace the messiness of the quarter-life crisis, the joy of queer time, and the unique potential of stories about women figuring themselves out and discovering their identity when they’re “supposed to” have already done that in high school. Whether it leads to biting social commentary, bittersweet emotional scenes, or relatable comedy, there’s ample potential in this narrative space and it’s exciting to see more and more yuri creators playing in it. 

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