Is Arcane Queerbait?

Arcane spoilers.

Animation has come in leaps and bounds in queer representation over the last decade. From Korra and Asami’s legendarily frustrating handhold in The Legend of Korra, through to the equally legendary catharsis of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power‘s (spoilers) lesbian-love-saves-the-universe kiss, with stops in Steven Universe and the Age of Wonderbeasts along the way. All of this representation came in children’s television, no less, with The Legend of Korra coming in at the oldest range of 12+. Therefore, when gay Twitter started blowing up about this new thing called Arcane, I was intrigued.

'Arcane' banner art featuring main characters including Vi, Caitlyn, Jinx, Silco, Jayce, Mel, and Victor, against a white background, and the words 'Arcane: League of Legends' in gold.

Arcane, if you don’t also subscribe to gay Twitter, is the latest Netflix animation, and at a UK rating of 15, fertile ground for Netflix. Specifically, it’s a chance for the streaming service to show it doesn’t just allow queer representation in shows when the show runner has written himself into a corner so that executives would be forced to approve the explicitly queer ending, as Noelle Stevenson did for She-Ra. Produced by Fortiche Production and Riot Games as adapted from Riot’s popular League of Legends franchise, with a whole host of LGBTQ+ characters ready to be picked for your streaming pleasure, Arcane had a strong start in life. Did it deliver?

In short, sort of. We got Jayce and Mel enjoying a spirograph-lightshow sex scene interspersed with his best friend, Victor, very nearly killing himself trying to reach their goals. Mel and Jayce’s relationship had been shown to grow over the time skip, therefore making it, if underwhelmingly hetero, well-written and brilliantly juxtaposed with Jayce’s relationship with Victor. I should point out here that I am one of those people who think Jayce and Victor were portrayed as more than just friends. At the very least, the long looks Victor gives Jayce – particularly when Jayce is being the shining paragon of masculinity – suggest something more than friendship. Jayce may think of Victor as a brother, but I think Victor has something else in mind – he’s merely more caught up by the development of Hextech to help the public – and to save himself. This, I would argue, is queer baiting, but I admit there may be a dose of wishful thinking on that one. It is also symptomatic of animation’s allergy to showing queer male relationships, but that’s a story for another time.

A very hetero gif of Mel kissing Jayce with a very calculated look on her face. Jayce is surprised and hesitant.

On the other side of the spectrum is Vi, a hot-headed brawler who after a time skip could and would send any sapphic viewer into a daydream. As I was watching her and Caitlyn run around a steampunk undercity, I was having a whale of a time. There was a bit of build up. There was ‘you’re hot, cupcake.’ And things stayed at that level of tepid simmer for…the rest of the show. In Arcane’s defence, the post-time skip episodes happen over what, three days? That’s a bit quick even for lesbians*, especially when one of them has just been released from prison and is frantically searching for her sister.

Vi from Arcane looking very angsty and queer in soft, cold lighting against a dark background.

It’s worth noting here that Arcane was in development for six years. Not development hell, it just took that long to make. This is largely a product of its gorgeously-wrought animation, but it mainly tells you just how deliberate every single aspect of this show is. Yes, Vi and Caitlyn are hinted at, rather than stated. Another way of describing that would be that their relationship is shown rather than told, aka one of screen’s golden rules – one which Arcane utilises to great effect throughout its nine episode season. Another way of saying it would be that Vi and Caitlyn (Violyn, if you prefer) are shown as much as possible, with what the creators were allowed by their executives. One of the writers even said she fought to keep the cupcake line in there. Yes, this is sad, and symptomatic of large-scale queerphobia which is still very much prevalent in such circles, but the creators (I think) knew this well enough in advance that they could work it into the story, a la Noelle Stevenson.

A gif of Caitlyn gently stroking Vi's cheek as they lie next to each other. Vi reaches out to grab Caitlyn's hand and hold it.

One of the writers, Amanda Overton, said in a recent interview with Yuri Mother that they had ‘full support to tell the story we wanted’, which would suggest this isn’t the case. You could say they’re giving it the slow burn treatment, which is prevalent in hetero on-screen relationships, but those relationships don’t have decades of ‘will they won’t they, no they won’t’ let-downs which queer on-screen relationships have. It makes some watchers hesitant to buy into Violyn, as they are used to having the rug snatched away from under their feet. Given the creator’s attitudes, however, I think we’re on solid ground here. Besides, not only does Season 1 still contain lots of deliciously gay scenes, it paves the way for even more, far less subtle scenes in Season 2.

Oh well. At least we’ll always have Ambessa Medarda’s twink, right?

*Vi is bi, change my mind.

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