BL Roundtable: Anthropologize Me One More Time, Baby by “Kinukitty”

Posted by on June 9th, 2010 at 12:05 AM

Part One: Further posts on the topic by Noah Berlatsky and Shaenon Garrity. This is first part of a three-part roundtable (with opening shots on Wednesday, a sidebar on Thursday, and conclusions on Friday).

OK, I’m just going to clear up this whole mystery of why women read and write yaoi fanfic. I should save the money shot for the end, but marketing has never been my strong point. Here’s an outline:

1) You fall in love with a character.
2) You read all the manga and/or see all the anime the character is in. (It works with books and movies and TV shows and even presidents, too, but that’s slash, which is, apparently, a whole other barrel of anthropological pickles.)
3) Damn it, you want more. You need more. You must have more.
4) You read and/or write fanfic so there will be more.
    a. But – what about the romance?!
        i. People like romance.
    b. But – what about the sex?
        i. People like the sex.
    c. But – the gay!
        i. See 4) b. i.

It goes like this. You know, I love these characters! There’s not a lot to see or read about them, though – woe. But wait – there’s an almost unlimited universe of stories about them on the Internet? Having sex?!!? Yes!!!! Maybe I’m a pervert, but this line of reasoning (well, maybe reasoning isn’t the right word) seems pretty straightforward (hah!).

I’m a longtime yaoi fan, and I’m also a fan and a writer of Weiss Kreuz yaoi fanfic – or manporn, as I call it. Weiss Kreuz is an anime from the ’80s that never got shown on TV in the West, but it really generated a huge amount of fanfic anyway, when Western girls found out about it. Which is slightly unexpected because Weiss Kreuz kind of sucks. I love it, but it sucks. The animation couldn’t be worse (I mean that literally; I actually don’t think it could be worse). The characterization is almost nonexistent, and the story lines are rife with plot holes so large you could back in a moving van. And I’m not going to bother to exactly explain the plot, such as it is, because no amount of explanation would really leave you with any clear understanding. Suffice to say the story centers on four attractive young men who are florists by day and assassins by night. Assassins who use, among them, a bow and arrows, a wire (shot across long distances with great accuracy), a sword and — my favorite (by which I mean the dumbest) — a sort of baseball glove that fixed knives spring out of, like Charlie Brown playing Wolverine. I think a lot of fangirls like Weiss Kreuz because it’s goofy but with a dark undercurrent, and the laxness of the characterization allows fic writers to take a lot of license in filling in the blanks. And, come on – florist assassins! Who work in a shop called “The House of Kittens.” That’s good stuff (by which I mean crack).

I was pretty darned excited to find out there was a chapter in this anthropological vivisection of my favorite genre that focused explicitly (see what I did there?) on my little corner of the psychosexual playground known as the World Wide Web. I remained excited for days. That’s how long it took me to get around to reading “Rewriting Gender and Sexuality in English-Language Yaoi Fan?ction,” by Tan Bee Kee. Not a very promising title, is it? I mean, you’d have to be nuts to see that title and expect to be entertained. I did not expect to be entertained. I expected to be annoyed by clumsy interpersonal theory and agitated unto madness by brutally ugly academic jargon. And on these points, I assure you I was not disappointed. But, I thought, surely my prize for slogging through this shit will be wisdom! Insight! Personal insight, even — the very best kind!

As it turns out, I was reminded of an observation by G.K. Chesterton. In a 1911 essay, he said (in his cheerful, racist turn-of-the-20-century British way) that he felt Japan had imitated many Western things — the worst Western things. “I feel as if I had looked in a mirror and seen a monkey,” he wrote. And, reading “Rewriting Gender and Sexuality in English-Language Yaoi Fan?ction,” I had a similar experience. I love yaoi. I love Weiss Kruez fanfiction. And, to be overly dramatic about it, this essay ground my longtime passion and obsession into dust and ashes. I looked in the mirror and saw a demographic slice, vaguely exotic, in a Dances with Manporn sort of way, and ready to be dispassionately observed.

I did not enjoy this essay, for so many reasons. Let’s pick one almost at random and jump right in. I have a lot of concerns with the feminist theory the writer employs to back up her assertions. Like this one: “Gender is not only an identification with one sex; it also entails that sexual desire be directed toward the other sex.” (That’s Gayle Rubin.) I have given myself a headache from the force of my eye-rolling. This is — I guess I’ll just go with “stupid,” for elegance and economy of words. Kee also paraphrases Sarah Gwenllian Jones, saying slash is “an ‘actualization’ of a ‘latent’ property of the text itself, meaning that queerness is already situated in the text itself … [Ika] Willis however suggests seeing fan readings as a reorientation.” That is some fancy dancing. An unwieldy wad of thinking, sort of like trying to stuff a porcupine into a cookie jar. Here’s my explanation: yaoi fanfic is an exercise in getting exactly the kind of porn you want. If we have to then go forth and dissect why, we should at least start from a sane and explicable premise.

This also troubles me: “Society conventionally defines only vaginal intercourse as ‘real,’ natural, and acceptable sex, but yaoi extends intimacy to cuddling, kissing, and oral/anal sex.” This is a bizarre statement of the sort that frequently gets Kee into trouble when she discusses porn. Because society does see cuddling, kissing and oral and anal sex as intimate. Quite intimate. Then Kee quotes Andrea Wood: “Therefore, in opposition to a one-sided visualization of pleasure that emphasizes the importance of the penetrating partner’s orgasm, a mainstay of heterosexual pornography, yaoi manga are more interested in illustrating both partner’s erotic fulfillment and gratification.” I don’t know. I’ve seen and read a certain amount of porn, and I don’t think everything but yaoi and slash is one-sided. The porn industry discovered women, in the capitalist sense, in the ’80s, and there is a lot of heterosexual porn out there that caters to us. Kee concludes, “Yaoi fans have roundly rejected the social scripts of conventional pornography as models by writing their own stories.” Later in the essay, Kee says, “[Yaoi fanfics] portray the tenderness between partners totally absent from pornography…” Kee’s idea of pornography seems to be limited to things like the Desperate Asswives movie on offer at a hotel I recently stayed at. There is a wealth of porn out there, people. The Internet, especially, has made more porn available to more people than anyone had ever dreamed might be possible. Some of it is visual (movies, images, comics) and some of it is literary (by which I mean it is written in words, not that it is necessarily The Tropic of Capricorn – and, frankly, thank God for that). Pretty much every shade of kink and intimacy are covered, all there for the browsing.

And speaking of that… Kee inserts some editorializing and limitations that really bother me. “PWPs [sex-heavy, plot-lite stories; PWP stands for “plot? what plot?”] often feature outrageous and experimental scenarios such as exhibitionism and use of household objects as sex toys … Disturbingly, rape and degradation are sometimes eroticized.” This, madam, is called kink. Porn exists to fulfill people’s kinks. If Kee finds the use of household objects as sex toys outrageous and experimental, that’s her own (and fairly benign) problem, I guess, and perhaps that sentence could be read as enthusiastic. The use of “disturbingly” for the rape and degradation fantasies is pretty unambiguous in its censure, though. And naïve. For Christ’s sake, don’t limit my sexual fantasies like that.

Similarly, I have a fairly major bone (as it were) to pick with the “Unsettling Ambivalences” section. The author felt like she had to tackle rape in yaoi, which is fair enough, but in the course of six paragraphs, she revealed a lot about herself in the guise of trying to explain me. She starts out with this: “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.” Whoa, Nellie. That’s a hell of an assumption to throw out there casually, as if it were a done deal. The women being either prudes or sluts thing is fairly long in the tooth, as far as cultural assumptions go. This idea hasn’t entirely died out, but it is no longer the norm the way it was 30 or 40  years ago. I don’t think women tend to be all that frightened of pregnancy and disease either. My big, huge, festering resentment with this sentence, though, lays with the last part, about how fantasizing about rape must be a result of ambivalence and resentment. The conclusion here is that if I, as a woman, fantasize about rape, it’s the result of some sort of pathology. I reject that fairly strenuously. Women like to fantasize about all kinds of things, including rape. This does not have to be explained in the context of women being victimized by men specifically or society in general. It’s a case of a cigar just being a cigar.

Or let’s look at this one: “Women are free from that baggage when they are looking at male-male fantasy scenarios. Such abuse would be far too real and frightening in a heterosexual context because females do live under the constant threat of male sexual violence and comprise the majority of rape victims. Furthermore, female victims of rape are commonly regarded as ‘tainted,’ while the uke who is raped by his lover is portrayed as imbued with innocence.” Hold on, I need to grab a diet Dr. Pepper before I tackle that one.

Thanks for waiting. I have more problems with those three sentences than I could shake a bake at. Seriously, I have so many problems with it I just went back and recounted because I couldn’t believe so much bullshit could possibly be packed into so little space. I’ve already addressed the idea that I have all kinds of baggage about sex as a result of being a woman. I am not weighted down with said baggage, and I am not driven into the arms of manporn by some sort of emotional inadequacy. As for the idea of rape being so terrifying that I couldn’t possibly read about it — I don’t know. I don’t even know what to say about that. Let’s chalk it up to hyperbole and move on – to the phrase where I live under the constant threat of male sexual violence. Technically, I suppose I do, but so do men. I’m not especially traumatized by it. Obviously, I might feel differently if I had been raped or sexually abused, as many women have been – I’m not minimizing the trauma of that; I’m just saying that not all women are driven by a fear of sexual violence. Many are not. And I’m flabbergasted, again, by the assertion that female victims of rape are commonly regarded as tainted. Does that happen? Yes, it does. Is it the cultural norm? I don’t think so. And the uke who is raped by his lover is imbued with innocence? That strikes me as a weird, twisted take on things — pretzel logic, I mean, more than deviant.

Kee doesn’t go astray at every corner. For instance, she nails it when she says, “…the sex is not meant to be realistic gay sex but idealized fantasies of what women would like lovemaking to be like.” She also points out that “yaoi is not meant to be realistic.” This is a crucial point. Yaoi is a fantasy world where everyone is queer. People miss the boat when they criticize yaoi fanfic writers for not understanding how homosexuality works, in society and in the bedroom (or wherever), and for making straight characters gay. And, as Kee says, “When writing yaoi fanfiction, fans adopt a variety of queer reading strategies that differ from fan to fan.” One of Kee’s “informants” does a good job with this: “Basically what BL [Boys Love, a term that is often used interchangeably with yaoi, although yaoi is actually a subset of BL] says is, ‘This isn’t about real gay men. I’m just using men in a sexual relationship as a fantasy that has nothing to do with reality.’” Another informant says, “…I don’t read yaoi for (coded) het sex and romance. I read it for gay sex and romance.” Here, at least, Kee has managed to communicate something essential about the broader yaoi community.

At the end of the essay, Kee also makes an important point about what yaoi fanfic means for the writers, saying: “For female fans, yaoi fanfiction offers them a creative outlet to engage with love/sexual issues and hone their writing skills … They learn from one another how to critically reorient media texts for their own benefit and generate fantexts that are even more complex, satisfying and richer than the original sources.” It takes a certain amount of work to fully imagine a fantasy scenario, flesh it out enough that it will have meaning for other readers and then write it all down, edit it and post it. (The degree to which writers fulfill all these categories differs, obviously, and for a number of reasons; but everyone who writes fanfiction is making an effort in this direction.)

In other words, writing is an integral part of the community — it isn’t just about appreciating manporn, but also about writing it. Writers want not just to fantasize, but also to write; this is obviously true because writing takes a lot more effort than fantasizing. To me, the yaoi fanfic community is interesting not because, wow, women thinking about men having sex! Transgressive! What could it possibly mean? It is interesting because of the symbosis among people who are driven to write down their fantasies and offer them to the community, and the community that reads those fantasies and comments on what they have read, urging writers to write more. (Or stop writing entirely; I’ve seen that, too — it isn’t all nurturing and positive.)

I have been writing yaoi fanfic about and inspired by Weiss Kreuz for years. There isn’t a lot of life left in the old bird, unfortunately — I refer to the WK fanfiction community, not to myself. The fandom is dying out — there aren’t a lot of people writing and reading Weiss Kreuz fanfiction any more. They’ve moved on to other manporn pursuits. It’s had a good run, though, and I have read some very fine writing there, and gotten to know some very fine people. I don’t write fanfic because I’m trying to find the perfect romance novel, as Kee argues. Or maybe I am. Not because romance novels limit women’s roles to that of trembling virgin and newlywed (seriously; Kee has apparently not seen a romance novel since 1978 and also never read Jane Austen) but because I want a romance novel with gay sex and, yes, some hot, schmoopy male/male true love action as well. To me, that doesn’t seem unusual enough to merit a big old anthropological discussion, though. It doesn’t feel especially transgressive, either. It all seems like a fairly obvious, if delightful, outcome of the Internet.

Tomorrow: “The Mirror of Male-Male Love” sidebar by Dirk Deppey.

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One Response to “BL Roundtable: Anthropologize Me One More Time, Baby by “Kinukitty””

  1. vommarlowe says:

    Not the household objects as sex-toys! I spit my coffee out on my laptop, so I may be briefly delayed in my deeply transgressive porn writing attempts.

    *dies quietly* Man, has this woman lived under a rock? Has she never seen pay-per-view or even read a Harlequin Blaze? Good grief.

    And the gender stuff… Wow. *shakes head* Better you reading this than me. Blech.