BL Roundtable: Do we really need to spill this much ink over the question of whether girls like porn?

Posted by on June 9th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

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

It’s fun when people get all intellectual about porn.  I’m impressed by the level of research and familiarity with the subject matter in most of these papers—with a few exceptions, like Mark McHarry’s “Boys in Love in Boys’ Love,” which seems to think that yaoi is mostly shota—but at the same time there’s a running sense of the academic protesting too much.  Do we really need to spill this much ink over the question of whether girls like porn?

Maybe we do.  The more American analyses I read of the Boys’ Love phenomenon, the more evidence my inner (and outer) irritable feminist finds of our culture’s ingrained squick toward the whole girlporn thing.  It’s not just general discomfort with female sexuality, although that’s part of it; it’s an even deeper discomfort with the male body as object rather than subject, especially when it’s women doing the objectifying.  Even before reading Boys’ Love, I was more than familiar with all the convoluted arguments explaining how the characters in BL aren’t “really” men, not even fantasy men.  Because they look like women.  Because they act like women.  Because the seme/uke relationship is a coded heterosexual relationship, therefore BL is a coded heterosexual fantasy.  Because the seme and uke are both kinda girly, therefore BL is a coded lesbian fantasy.  Or a transsexual fantasy.  Or an asexual fantasy.  Or anything other than girls ogling boys.

Are the guys in BL really “feminine,” anyway, in either appearance or behavior?  They’re definitely not macho, musclebound types, not by a long shot—if you’re looking for that, check out some baru manga—but “not a manly man’s man” doesn’t mean “woman” anywhere but in the minds of some men.  I wish I could find an old interview I conducted with Donna Barr for PULP magazine, in which I asked her why women liked comics about “feminine” men.  She responded that the traits coded as “feminine” in such characters—youthfulness, a slim figure, great hair and skin—are simply attractive traits.  Donna Barr, like most women who stay in the comics industry for any length of time, is as crazy as a starved wolverine, but she was right about this.  The men in BL are beautiful in a passive, decorative way, but why should that type of beauty be only “feminine”?

Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy all this academic theorizing about what’s going on in the minds of BL fans, how they’re “using” the works (in ways that don’t involve the vigorous use of the right hand) and creating identities and communities and so on.  It’s interesting to discuss how people interact with art and pop culture.  But when an academic survey of BL fans finds that the vast majority of respondents, when asked why they enjoy Boys’ Love, answer that they like seeing hot guys making out, shouldn’t we take them at their word?

Right.  Rant over.  The first section of Boys’ Love, comprising papers on BL as an industry, is, unsurprisingly, the driest, although Yamila Abraham’s discussion of BL publishing in Indonesia provides and engaging glimpse of how girlporn survives and flourishes, like ragweed, even in a fairly conservative Muslim culture.  It’s unfortunate that the very first paper in the book is Hope Donovan’s “Gift Versus Capitalist Economics,” which is a great piece but doesn’t really have all that much to do with BL; it’s more about the odd economic politics of manga and anime fandom in general.  (I love Donovan’s characterization of scanlation sites as “cargo cults” that “don’t even want the cargo to arrive,” the cargo being legally translated manga.)

In part two, “Genre and Readership,” we get to the fun stuff.  Dru Pagliassotti’s survey of American BL readers is enlightening, providing a snapshot of fans who identify as feminist, don’t care for the standard seme/uke stereotypes, and like BL heroes who transcend gender roles and “occupy a middle ground where they can simply behave like ‘people.’”  Marni Stanley’s sunny depiction of BL fandom as a “toy box” where women play together in creative, supportive communities contrasts amusingly with the next paper, in which M.M. Blair analyzes the undercurrent of misogyny in BL fandom.

Mark Isola’s “Yaoi and Slash Fiction,” on the other hand, starts out with an interesting subject—the debate in the Japanese magazine Choisir over whether yaoi is derogatory to real-life gay men—but goes off the rails straining to connect a single diss from the Choisir debate, “take a look at yourself in the mirror,” to both Lacanian fragmentation and the sacred mirror of Shinto tradition.  Bitch, please.  Then Tan Bee Kee out-otakus the whole gang with a giant paper on Weiss Kreuz slash fanfic that namechecks PWP, WAFF, hurt/comfort, and mpreg.  Excuse me, stewardess, I speak jive.

By part three, “Boys’ Love and Perceptions of the Queer,” we’ve moved from hard-headed business analysis to the airy realm of academic discourse where sentences consist almost entirely of words like “othering.”  Which is fine, I’ve got an English degree from a college for people who don’t expect to need jobs when they graduate, I can talk the talk.  Still, I remain unconvinced by Neal Akatsuka’s theory that BL provides readers with the opportunity to  “reclaim” their femininity by identifying with the uke, and I’m merely annoyed by his insistence on inventing, then constantly using, typographically unfortunate new vocabulary words.

Meanwhile, Alexis Hall goes to Yaoi-Con and brings back some useful observations on ethnocentricism.  Alan Williams’ “Raping Apollo” starts from a potentially interesting premise—the appeal of yaoi to gay men and lesbians—but keeps digressing and digressing without ever making a point.  Uli Meyer’s “Hidden in Straight Sight” is similarly fragmented but at least throws up plenty of entertainingly questionable points, from characterizing yaoi fans as fag hags to claiming that reading BL is a transsexual act (here we go again, either the guys aren’t really guys or the girls ogling them aren’t really girls) to pointing out the European influence on BL and the Japanese idea of queerness.  There’s three or four papers crammed in there, but at least they’re interesting papers.

It’s inevitable that a collection of essays on such a narrow subject will repeat some of the same points ad nauseum.  Plenty of writers namecheck The Heart of Thomas, The Song of the Wind and Trees, and the Twenty-Four Year Group, although, disappointingly, only a Meyer and McHarry go into any detail about early BL and the origins of the genre.  Many writers discuss both Japanese BL/yaoi and American slash fiction, often interchangably.  Maybe it’s culturally myopic to conflate them, but I think it’s good to recognize the surprising similarity between the two phenomenon, both of which came out of nerdy fan communities at around the same time.  Several writers compare BL to American romance fiction, another fertile ground for comparison.

From Mister Mistress Vol. 1

Some of the essays disappoint me, some bore me, but it’s fun to watch this subject get dissected and debated at an academic level.  Really, though, it all comes down to loving the ho yay.  I mean, come on.

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

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2 Responses to “BL Roundtable: Do we really need to spill this much ink over the question of whether girls like porn?”

  1. JRBrown says:

    “Mark McHarry’s “Boys in Love in Boys’ Love,” which seems to think that yaoi is mostly shota”

    I’m not seeing where he implies this. He does suggest that a majority of BL involves under-18 characters, which is probably true, but that is not equivalent to saying it’s shota.

  2. JRBrown says:

    I’m reading the articles out of order, and I just finished Uli Meyer’s “Hidden in Straight Sight”; I agree that it’s all over the place, but it’s really nice to see an academic paper that does more than mention the possibility that readers can and do identify with the seme. Almost all academic (and, for that matter, amateur) analysis of yaoi proceeds immediately and unproblematically with the assumption that readers identify exclusively with the uke and build all their gender/role analysis on that perspective. Too bad he doesn’t spend more time on that aspect; there’s a complete lack of analysis in the field of how the mechanics of yaoi work from the uke-as-object perspective.