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Arcane embraces queer aesthetics, but settles for a maybeship

There was room to commit to the existence of LGBTQ+ characters

An eagle eye shot of Arcane’s Caitlyn and Vi laying on the ground next to each other Image: Netflix

Since Arcane, Riot Games’ first foray into television, debuted in November, it has received adoration and praise across the board from critics, particularly in its handling of yet another video game adaptation. Missing from much of the criticism is any nuanced consideration of the show’s queer narratives. Many fans of League of Legends enjoyed seeing Caitlyn and Vi interacting, and were similarly excited about the potential for romance between the two. But the show, foregrounded by the AAA game space, offers more of the status quo.

Arcane establishes a world that confusingly borrows queer aesthetics and dabbles in queer coding, while never fully committing to the existence of LGBTQIA+ characters. Piltover is the gilded city full of magic Victoriana upper crust. Zaun, the seamy underbelly, is full of Mad-Max-meets-Paris-Fashion-Week types, pointing to how the show uses gender nonconforming “otherness” to define that space. Giving Vi an updated appearance that skews well into butch territory feels like a part of this, with her undercut and tattooed muscles. However, the upper classes of Piltover are not entirely free from a more subtle version of this, like Councillor Salo, who exemplifies queer coding with his sassiness and penchant for wine.

An image of Piltover’s skyline, as the sun rises, in Arcane Image: Netflix

In contrast to this, the show seems to relegate any overt gay behavior to spaces that look like bawdy houses. Set around different brothels in the Lanes, the first and fifth episodes are the only times we see people engaging in intimate queer behavior — the latter being mostly behind closed doors, hinted at as Caitlyn and Vi wander through the hallway. The first episode also contained a transphobic sight gag that gave some viewers pause. It’s a common trope to portray queerness as being risqué, seedy, or aberrant, and Arcane dropping that into the background around the main characters feels regressive.

Arcane is largely being praised for its depiction of Vi and Caitlyn. In this version of Runeterra, their stories are only just colliding. Vi is a scrappy orphan of Zaun who has been held in prison for years, and Caitlyn is the child of high society in Piltover, and a newly minted peacekeeper. The two meet when Caitlyn releases Vi from Stillwater Hold, to help her look deeper into who in Zaun might have stolen Hextech gems. The two characters have long been paired together in-game and by fans, but the MOBA places them somewhere in the flirty buddy cop category rather than having a serious romantic inclination. Arcane fleshes them out in a way that League of Legends never could, but the effort is confusing.

Caitlyn and Vi are assumed to be queer in some way, even if that fact is couched in vagueness that shrouds what they are to each other. Vi calls the willowy sharpshooter “cupcake” and points out that she’s hot, to get her to try and glean info from brothel clientele. Caitlyn looks at ease sitting next to a beautiful female patron. But there’s never a discussion from either of them that actually illuminates their choice.

A close up of Caitlyn looking down the sites of her gun, facing the viewer Image: Netflix

A writer for Arcane, who noted their experience as a queer woman, explained in a Reddit comment that the lack of terms like “gay” in the aforementioned scenes was informed by an absence of stigmatization for sexuality or presentation in Runeterra. But the assertion that the world is free of homophobia is undercut by the fact that the show spends very little time developing that idea. The script backs away from scaffolding anything that would make Vi and Caitlyn’s relationship less ambiguous. Vi does ask Caitlyn who she prefers when they are in the brothel, but Caitlyn does not answer concretely.

Most of our hopes for Caitlyn and Vi rest on how the two grow closer together over the course of the show, despite the pressure to distrust. Caitlyn strokes Vi’s cheek while they lie on the bed; Vi walks away from her angstily after a huge fight about their different worlds. These moments are definitely good relationship drama, but there’s a strange tension that demands more explicitness in a way the show never fulfills. Arcane had a full-on sex scene between Jayce and Mel after much less time spent interacting. Would it have been so hard to have Caitlyn chase after Vi and kiss her in the rain?

The women’s maybeship would have passed as serious homoerotic tension several years ago, roughly around the time when development on the show started. However, animated shows have eclipsed this by now, especially with the advent of streaming. By contrast, major gaming studios still do not know how to grapple with the dynamics of even the most basic homosociality, much less crafting queer characters that go beyond the expectations of a straight audience.

Riot didn’t unveil its first official LGBTQIA+ League of Legends champions until 2021. A few characters in its games have these concepts in their backstories or have been “confirmed” after the fact, but it’s been very easy for the company to avoid the topic directly when so many of its games don’t meaningfully engage in a narrative. Ruined King: A League of Legends Story is one of the first titles from Riot that goes in depth beyond snippets of lore on cards or in character barks.

On top of that, the two showrunners and head writers for Arcane, Christian Linke and Alex Yee, were veteran creatives from inside the studio, rather than screenwriters brought on to help flesh the world out. Speaking with the Washington Post, the two cited a lack of television adaptations of video games at the time they started work on Arcane, which meant they looked to things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones for inspiration. Neither of these things, nor Netflix, is particularly known for pushing the envelope with regard to LGBTQIA+ issues.

A close up of Vi, with her fists raced, poised for a fight Image: Netflix

It feels cynical to come down on Riot’s first foray into television, but it also feels like everyone else is not being cynical enough. Arcane took baby steps into canonizing a potential relationship between two beloved characters; it doesn’t deserve a parade just yet. Queer people of all stripes have been living on crumbs for so long that this show feels like a feast, to borrow a phrase. It can feel validating to have any acknowledgment, but that acknowledgment always comes at a price, especially in this era of media.

What savvy media companies generally have angled toward, in the last few years, is taking a queer audience’s collective thirst for recognition, and then using that audience to generate that recognition from scraps. We’ve moved from a place where fans transformed something for themselves to one where companies do the bare minimum, then advertise it back to us using our language. It means that inclusion is a marketing tool to capture a broader audience, instead of a necessary starting point. It means getting the safest reflection, a fraction of a facet, instead of a vibrant, authentic portrayal. When fans of Arcane say Caitlyn and Vi are “gay without saying it” in a positive light, it means we all fucked up.

If a show or a game can keep any LGBTQIA+ representation ambiguous enough for queer people to put the clues together, while not alienating its more conservative audience, then all we’re left with is Schrödinger’s canon — one that only reveals itself upon a viewer’s perception. It can be ignored if so desired.

It’s too early to know how the next season of Arcane will pan out, but it’s never too early to start demanding better. Riot is a very large, profitable company, and it shouldn’t be scared to piss off its audience by daring to show two women kiss, much less making Runeterra more queer. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad for metrics, ratings, or critical appeal; we should want more, and it’s the least Riot can do.