BL Roundtable Sidebar: The Mirror of Male-Love Love

Posted by on June 10th, 2010 at 12:01 AM


Ogiue, the Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture’s fujoshi in residence, as she tries to distance herself from sexual fantasies of two other male members of the group, from the sixth volume of Genshiken, created by and ©2005 Kio Shimuku.


I sat down to read Boys’ Love Manga half-expecting to find myself repeating my first few attempts to read yaoi manga: stuck in an endless maze of funhouse mirrors, reflecting distorting image after distorting image of my own face back at me. Instead, I found something even stranger. The funhouse mirrors were there, all right, but it wasn’t my face being reflected. It was the faces of every BL fan on Earth. And holy shit, have they ever been distorted.

The authors of Boys’ Love Manga break down into two camps: The ones who want to learn more about the women who read romantic and erotic tales of men in love, and the ones who want to fold said women into their shallow, pre-conceived worldviews and box them away. Even where I found myself disinterested in what authors from the former camp had to say, I was nonetheless pleased to see them working, and hoped that they would continue to study such an endlessly fascinating subculture. As for the latter camp: Remember what I said in the last page about kicking people in the stomach?

Let’s start with the first group of writers, people like Hope Donovan, Paul Malone, Yamila Abraham, Dru Pagliassotti, Marni Stanley, Alexis Hall and Alan Williams. Their essays are all the reason you need to want to read Boys’ Love Manga. Not coincidentally, they also happen to be the writers who seek out what BL fans actually have to say about their obsessions, and more importantly, actually listen to them, and accept what they say in good faith. While I may quibble with an assertion here or a conclusion there — and while a number of these writers’ essays occasionally wind up bogged down in jargon or wrestle unnecessarily with theorists whose viewpoints would be laughed out of universities in a better world — it’s clear that they attempt to maintain open minds as they discuss the shonen ai/yaoi phenomenon, and much is to be gained from such efforts.

Boys’ Love Manga begins with three essays that examine specific fan cultures by region. Hope Donovan’s “Gift Versus Capitalist Economies” is an interesting take on the growth of BL fandom in North America, and it’s about as good a guidebook as you’re going to get. It’s not perfect, mind you. While she generally does a good job of discussing the way that the Internet has facilitated fujoshi culture, the too-brief discussion of the scanlation scene is a hopeless muddle. After stating, without citation, that “the explosion of the Internet into homes during the 1990s forever changed the distribution of anime,” she goes on to discuss the rise of scan groups. See if you can spot the contradiction in this paragraph:

American fans recognized the glut of BL in Japan versus its relative scarcity in the U.S. and helped each other to the surplus. In 2003, the first BL scanlation groups were forming. Scanlation groups did exist before 2003, of course. A scanlator who wished to remain anonymous at Nakama, a group founded in 2003, identified in an instant-messaging conversation at least five BL scanlation groups already in existence at that time.

So the first scan groups formed in 2003, where they joined all the groups that had formed before 2003? This book did have an editor, right?

Okay, it’s a cheap shot, but why did Donovan make such a dumb assertion? If I had to guess, I’d say that she was blinded by the way that BL stories spread through North America, hand-to-hand and through the mail, prior to the Web’s growth in popularity. Basically: Boys’-love anime reached fan circles before its manga equivalent because it was easier to dub and copy a videotape than it was to translate and publish a book. But the Internet made exactly the reverse true, for one simple reason: Bandwidth. In the early days of the Web, unless you were fortunate enough to sit on a T1 line, you most likely had a modem with speeds of no more than 56 kilobits per second — hardly enough to transmit large chunks of video across a phone line. It was, however, enough to transmit image files, such as the kind used in scanlations. Wouldn’t it make sense, therefore, that scanlation groups had at least a bit of an edge over the fansubbers during the early days of the Internet?

(You can see this effect in the history of online pornography: While the porn industry was among the first to colonize the Web en masse, it traded primarily in photographs and very short, downloadable video clips at the outset, because those were the file formats likeliest to satisfy their customers’ need to Get Off Right Now. Even video streaming was comparatively unreliable — the primary standard of the time, RealVideo, simply couldn’t be trusted to continue streaming for more than a few minutes at a time without serious hiccups. It was only later, after broadband became more ubiquitous, that full-length video became easier to find online.)

Again, this is a relatively minor criticism — as I discovered when I undertook my own investigation of the scanlations scene, getting an accurate reading of its history is damned difficult, given the transience of digital storage and online gathering points. My point therefore is not to call Donovan out so much as to note that further scholarship on the subject is required.

Paul Malone and Yamila Abraham follow Donovan with examinations of the BL scenes in Germany and Indonesia, respectively, and again the results are interesting and more than worth your time. I don’t know enough about either nation to offer an informed judgement on how accurate are the pictures they paint, so I’ll refrain from further commentary… but I can’t resist pointing out that Abraham, like Antonia Levi before her, also asserts that homosexuality wasn’t an issue prior to the arrival of those naughty Westerners. Her evidence? Like I need to tell you:

A “warok” is a charismatic conductor of ceremonies who has one or several young male apprentices called “gemblaks.” Being a gemblak was considered a privilege since it conveys status as well as the boys’ families receiving a dowry. The duties include caring for the warok in his household as well as assisting him in ceremonies, which sometimes require the apprentice to dress as women, in costumes and masks. Sexual intimacy is usually assumed to be part of the arrangement, but not always. After about 17 years of age the boys give up their positions in the esteemed household and eventually go on to marriage — well trained in conjugal matters.

Even this is a partial quote of the actual essay by Richard Ammon. Note the bit that she leaves out:

Sexual intimacy is usually assumed to be part of the arrangement, but not always. After about 17 years of age the boys give up their positions in the esteemed household and eventually go on to marriage — well trained in conjugal matters. Traditional legend does not associate this custom with homosexuality; it is simply ancient tradition. [Emphasis in original text.]

Again, no evidence is offered that my boyfriend and I would’ve been welcomed in Indonesia with open arms, prior to the arrival of the Dutch. The tradition discussed by Abraham in her essay is pederastic, not “homosexual” — the same-sex version of the former is a subset of the latter in the broader sense, but the two are not synonyms for one another. I hate to keep harping on this, and I realize that the desire to idealize non-Western cultures and castigate homophobia in one’s own makes this sort of stratagem tempting, but seriously: Cut that shit out. It’s just fucking insulting, and it makes a mess of history as well. I expect this sort of garbage from groups like the Family Research Council; I hate having to expect it from you, too.


Boys’ Love Manga also contains a pair of essays devoted to the examination of fan culture through surveys and interviews. Dru Pagliassotti, “Better Than Romance?”, for example, centers around a 2005 survey that the author conducted among BL fans, which she then compares to an early-1980s survey of romance-novel readers conducted by Janice Radway, as well as a number of analytical essays by various authors. The results are valuable both for the data presented and for Pagliassotti’s subsequent commentary, which offers context as well as avenues for further scholarly investigation without imposing her assumptions unnecessarily upon the proceedings — which is not to say that Pagliassotti doesn’t offer opinions, but rather that they reflect and comment upon the views of her correspondents and sources, rather than simply imposing pre-existing conclusions on the subject and working backward.

Likewise, Alexis Hall’s “Gay or Gei?” remains open-minded and avoids drowning its subjects in pat theories as the author interviews a number of yaoi fans for their opinions on realism and fantasy in the boys’-love genre, and the result is a lively and informative essay. Hall’s conclusions are based upon common-sense interpretation and a willingness to accept complexity far above other, more hidebound texts in the collection.

The further one digs into Boys’ Love Manga, however, the more one stumbles across the sort of theorists and essayists who’ve come to symbolize the perceptions that many outside the academic world have of those within: Writers whose work drips with obtuse jargon in a misguided effort to make their pedestrian insights seem more complex… or worse, whose theories on identity and cultural status warp these complex issues in order to produce cheesy, two-dimensional good-vs.-evil dichotomies of exactly the sort that such authors themselves attribute exclusively to their chosen “bad guys,” oblivious to their own complicity in the very sort of readings of history and culture that they decry. Boys’ Love Manga, featuring as it does a subject situated squarely along faultlines of gender, sexual orientation and fantasy, is ideally suited to attract the sort of authors dedicated to promoting the idea that female=good and male=evil, or that gay=good and straight=evil. And indeed, it contains several odious examples of the half-witted form.

Tan Bee Kee’s “Rewriting Gender and Sexuality in English-Language Yaoi Fanfiction,” for example, careens between banality, herd-think and academic obscurantism in a desperate quest for relevance, a status that it proves uniquely unqualified to attain. Indeed, the essay races to embrace its status as self-parody in the opening paragraph:

Using close textual analysis of the presentation of gender and sexuality in English-language fanfiction written within the anime/manga series Weiss Kreuz (wk) fandom on the Internet as case study, I will show how fans write to express their own visions of romance/sexuality and subvert heteronormative media narratives. However, I will also show that yaoi fanfiction is not without its internal contradictions and limitations as a form of resistance against gender norms.

It’s as though the words were pulled from any of a thousand generic essays, then mildly rearranged for syntax with the subject inserted as an afterthought, isn’t it? Wait, it gets better! First, let’s take a moment and flatter our colleagues, shall we?

Fans are proud of their active engagement with media texts. Indeed, some of them seem to have read academic discourses on fandom and have appropriated such theories to justify fanfiction. According to Pagliassotti’s survey of fans over age 18, 78 percent of respondents reported some level of college education and possess academic cultural capital.

Why, it’s almost as though these girls know how to think for themselves — and by “think for themselves,” of course, I mean “think like Ms. Kee and the peers she’s clearly trying to impress.”

Society conventionally defines only vaginal intercourse as “real,” natural, and acceptable sex, but yaoi extends intimacy to cuddling, kissing, and oral/anal sex. Some may argue that the anus in yaoi is actually a coded vagina, but of course anal sex is not confined to homosexuals.

I was surprised to discover that “society” doesn’t consider blowjobs to be real sex. And you breeders do it up the butt from time to time? Really? Consider me gobsmacked.

Yaoi fanfiction can get very graphic. However, like slash, which Jung (2004) describes as “romantic pornography,” sex scenes usually fulfill narrative functions; they further the plot or are used as a tool for characterization and embedded in characters’ pasts, presents, and futures as provided by canon. This is in contrast to the denial of the emotional consequences of sex in most porn because in slash (and by extension yaoi) sex always has direct and dramatic emotional ramifications.

There is a genre of fanfiction called PWP (plot? What plot?) consisting of fanfics with very little plot and consisting mainly of explicit sex scenes. Unlike other fanfics, PWPs are obviously written to titillate and appear at surface level to be no different from regular pornography. However as Teep, a fan, explains, yaoi PWPs are different from regular pornography because female readers need to get to know and have some sort of emotional investment in the characters before they can enjoy the story. The normal work of exposition and characterization is already done by the original text (e.g. the anime) so it becomes possible to skip to the yummy parts, i.e. the sex scenes. In contrast, according to Catherine Driscoll, “Not only is characterization not the point of most pornography, it is even an obstacle to the efficiency of pornography.”

Furthermore as Alan Soble shows, in conventional pornography women are subjected to physical, psychological and linguistic violence, denial of female pleasure, and being reduced to crude body parts such as “cunt.” Women in conventional pornography have no intrinsic value except as receptacles of lust to provide sex on demand. Ukes in yaoi sex scenes are seldom dehumanized in such a fashion. The feminist anti-pornography movement claims that pornography encourages rape/violence against women, and many women have ambivalent feelings about conventional pornography.

Okay, these girls seem to be writing porn, but it’s not really porn because it includes characterization — which stinky boy-porn never does — except that it sometimes doesn’t include characterization, but that’s okay because the works being parodied do, and besides, it doesn’t feature rape because only male-centric pornography does that. Hence: Not Porn!

Male rape permeates yaoi. Women commonly have ambivalent feelings about sexual desire so yaoi rape may be a case of taking responsibility off the uke’s hands by having sex forced upon him. Given the contradictory messages from society (women are caught between being “prudes” and “sluts”) and risks of sex such as pregnancy and diseases, it is not surprising that this ambivalence and resentment should show up in women’s sexual fantasies.

Notummm, not porn… Seriously, I could do this all day.


A relatively mild moment from Tori Maia’s brutally erotic Hoshi no Yakata, as scanlated by Game Over or Continue, and created by and ©1999 Tori Maia.


This is less an intelligent investigation of boys’-love storytelling than a Mad Lib of academic clichés. While one would be a fool to deny that romantic storytelling is often about more than just sexual arousal, one would be equally foolish to deny that sexual excitement is a factor at all. Furthermore, to offer moral judgement over such themes and storytelling strategies based solely upon which gender is being seduced by the text — which, once you strip away the lame justifications, is exactly what Kee does here — is indefensibly sexist, whether you want to admit it or not.

While Kee’s essay is an unintentionally hilarious example of the form, it isn’t by any means the only one, or even the most egregious. That title is reserved for Neal Akatsuka’s “Uttering the Absurd, Revaluing the Abject: Femininity and the Disavowal of Homosexuality in Transnational Boys’ Love Manga.” To condemn this essay, one only need quote its concluding paragraph:

Like the marketing of lesbian images analyzed by Danae Clark, gays in commodity culture are welcome as “consumer subjects but not as social subjects.” I am not saying that writers or readers of BL manga are unaware of, denying, or denigrating the existence of queer individuals in real life. What is troubling to me is not that writers or readers are homophobic, but that they could easily consume BL’s queerness without necessarily being anti-homophobic.

Ladies and gentlemen — but mostly ladies — I give you the Dream Police, now ready to monitor your fantasies to ensure that you don’t get off on those handsome young lads rogering each other without, you know, properly respecting them and shit. Why, you’d almost think that there was some sort of objectification going on, here! Like you just wanted to fantasize about their bodies or something, and not think about their Bitter Struggle For Equality at all!

What contemptible garbage. It’s tempting to go down the row, as author after author struggles to put the supposed “misogynist tendencies” and impolitic desires of these strange women back in the box and explain away their seemingly inexcplicible need to put their man-loving male protagonists through exactly the sort of paces one would only expect from a Girls Gone Wild cameraman, long ago consigned to the lowest depths of Hell for providing the Despicible Half of the Species with their filth and semen and their unforgivable Male Gaze. Relax — I’ll spare you further. Instead, I’ll take a moment and simply note that the opposite sex turns out not to be the opposite species after all. It’s almost as though we shared chromosomes, or something! I don’t mean to frighten the horses or anything, but — and this is just a notion that popped into my head a moment ago, mind you — it’s entirely possible that women might just be sexual animals, and may in fact even be in possession of fully formed libidos! With desires and a Will To Power and everything!

However will this affect the Bitter Struggle For Equality between genders, I wonder?

Thankfully, not all essayists appearing in Boys’ Love Manga are so shallow as to follow such dreadful and reductionist lines of thought as does Akatsuka. Take, for example, Marni Stanley, whose “101 Uses for Boys: Communing with the Reader in Yaoi and Slash,” serves as a useful corrective to exactly such idiocies. With a surgeon’s skill and a quilter’s patience, Stanley disentangles a veritable Gordian Knot of cheap Manichean theory, returning the focus squarely on female desire as a proactive force, unencumbered by the need to confront the Patriarchy with one’s labia. After quoting a number of such thinkers, Stanley takes her stand and plants the flag:

The common ground in these arguments is that they all cast in the negative the motivation for women to write about males in love/lust with each other. This approach argues that these works are motivated by “lack” or “restrictions” or “anxiety.” Such a negative understanding of the origins of the genre certainly makes it more difficult to see the playfulness and humor of many of these texts or to understand the role humor frequently plays in the author/reader relationship. In terms of their self-representation in addresses to the reader, the writers and artists of yaoi and slash do not appear to be obsessively trying to resolve sexual or gender-based anxieties; these portions of their texts are too playful for that.

Play, the kind of play that mocks dearly held mainstream truths, is a means of claiming ground, of transgressing the rules in ways that are empowering rather than compensatory. Both yaoi and slash tend to locate their stories in male-dominated worlds where women have often been trivialized and rendered incidental or reduced to acted-upon subjects. These authors have responded by interrupting and disrupting these worlds by playing with social and sexual conventions and by inviting the audience to join in the game. In this way, the authors provide points of access for women into these homosocial discourses and into the representations of sex and sexuality that have heretofore been dominated by men as both producers and consumers.

Stanley doesn’t deny the often difficult struggle for female equality, nor the centuries of unexamined assumptions that our species of Mildly Evolved Apes have carried with us as we’ve risen from our animal heritage and slowly learned to put more and more faith in our forebrains, questioning the simplistic primordial roles of our biological heritage and adjusting them to suit our status as an emerging species. She simply doesn’t see the past as inexorable destiny, is all, and she realizes that we shouldn’t live our lives as though it were. Indeed, while the personal can be political, it doesn’t have to be — especially if we’re willing to cut each other a goddamned break every once in a while. Life doesn’t have to be an endless defensive posture against the sins of our forebearers; our desires aren’t shameful simply because we used to sweep the consequences of our actions under the rug; indeed, we need to recognize the reality that desire isn’t shameful at all, so long as we respect each other in person.

We aren’t the same society that viewed women as property a century ago — Hell, we aren’t even the same society that looked aside uncomfortably as some dipshit Phoenix cop lamented the lack of gay-bashing in his hometown 20 years ago. In case you haven’t noticed, the struggle for gay rights is largely won. If you’d told me back in my early 20s that the turn of the century would find sodomy laws consigned to the dustheap of history, police harrassment considered a shameful and indefensible thing, gay characters celebrated in the nation’s culture and the forces of cultural reaction fighting a last-ditch action to keep gay marriage from being the law of the land five years from now rather than ten years from now, it’s entirely possible that I’d have broken out in tears and accused you of being a filthy liar. The great curve of civilization rises as we mature culturally, and we need to stop treating each other today as though this weren’t true.


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3 Responses to “BL Roundtable Sidebar: The Mirror of Male-Love Love”

  1. Dirk Deppey says:

    I should note that when this piece was posted, I hadn’t noticed that an important part of a quotation from Antonia Levi’s introduction (located at the top of page one) seemed to have mysteriously vanished during the editing process. I have no idea why this occurred, but as it was an important part of the resulting rebuttal, I have re-inserted the missing text.

  2. J. Ryo says:

    With all respect, I am from Indonesia and I’m interested in Yamila Abraham’s essay about yaoi in Indonesia. Perhaps it is asking too much but can I ask for its transcript since I cannot justify importing a not-so-good book for an essay that may or may not be worthwhile. Perhaps I can shed some light about the correctness of it.

    As far as I know though, while properties with pretty boys like Black Butler is very popular among teenager girls here, yaoi fandom is not visible even through any large forums. There are some artists that do BL stuff, but it seems that they are not connected though any specialized community. Also, perhaps knowing the conservative nature of our country, some of them actually released their BL-themed work in USA (OEL) and not here.

  3. IraeNicole says:

    Thats a nice piece of trans erasure you have regarding third gender cultures and two spirit peoples.