Part One: Further posts on the topic by Shaenon Garrity and “Kinukitty.” This is the first part of a three-part roundtable (with opening shots on Wednesday, a sidebar on Thursday, and conclusions on Friday).
Boysâ Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre; Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry and Dru Pagliassotti, eds.; McFarland; 280 pp., $39.95; ISBN: 9780786441952
This book really helped me come to terms with my past, my regrets, my desires. Speaking as a straight white cisgendered male, I occasionally regret my transgressive decision to drop out of grad school to explore the fluid, abject jouissance of the non-(i)voried and nontowered. But then I encounter a text like this, and in its quivering, jellylike prose I remember why, though riven by radical difference, still numerous numinous heterogenous communities speak with a single pleasurable speech-act when they utter: âacademics fucking suck.â
This book is written as if its contributorsâ brains threw up in their collective skulls. Seriously, people:
The inclusion of the local allows for an emendation to Pagliassottiâs already productive call for more research into yaoi reading practices, particularly as such permits the possibility of similarity as well as difference, for, as the rehearsal of yaoi and slashâs critical reception suggests, perceptions of appropriation and agency can be a matter of micro- politics, which are variableâbut not wholly independent ofâthe larger socio-political sphere Altman gestures toward.
Thornâs observation may point to an understanding of the genre as it results from a meta- narrative rupture for the postmodern generations of women who, in addition to facing continued sexual oppression coupled with changing gender roles, have had to face the reality of (homo)sexuality, particularly as it creates the possibility for their opposite sex desire accruing to a body that exhibits a same-sex desire.
My reading has always been affected by the social and cultural contexts in which I constructed my sexual identity and if, as it has been suggested, the marginalized individual, by necessity, has to create another story that they can read themselves into (Appiah 1994), it has been between the pages of ?ction that I have imagined, scripted, and played out my sissy-boy desires.
If youâre Julia Kristeva and have actual complicated ideas, you can be let off the hook when your writing is involuted and complicated. If, on the other hand, all you are saying is (in order): âPeople in different locations may have different reactions to yaoi,â âYaoi came about because womenâs gender roles are changing and homosexuality is more visible than it used to be,â and âIâm gay, and I fantasizeâ â well, it starts to look a little like youâre using the big words not to express big ideas, but to conceal the fact that you. are. stupid.
Though perhaps thatâs cruel. To be more charitable, maybe the problem is just that you canât write worth a damn. Which, admittedly, when raised to this level of incompetence, is kind of a gift. After all, here you have a young, vibrant, energetic, unexpected new genre, bursting with ideas, romance, sex and violence. And you take it and, through the mystical alchemy of cultural studies, you turn it into an interminable, turgid slog. It would almost be fascinating to watch if it werenât so godawful boring.
But why is it boring? What drives these academics and academic wannabes to write so badly about yaoi and boysâ love? What compulsions have caused them to quit their quaint ethnic dances, draw the bones from their multifarious noses, and sit at their keyboards festooned (no doubt) with images of girls dressed as boys dressed as ravening Lovecraftian penguin vaginas, so that they can type words like âfemale gazeâ âproblematize,â âqueering the quotidianâ and even, with an almost visible shiver of daring, âfuckâ? Is it a commonality of sexual desire? A shared history of being oppressed by the vast majority of people who are objectively less irritating than they are?
Alas, my survey results arenât yet in, so I donât know the answers to these questions. But I did, much to my sorrow, read the whole damn book, and so I am willing to hazard a guess. As near as I can tell, the authors here seem to be united and inspired by that wonderful fetish known as âanthropologyâ, or, in Japanese, âcondescension.â The pages here are hot and heavy (in, you know, a dull way) with the sweaty excitement of declaring large swathes of other, lesser human beings to beâ¦”transgressive!â Or, less oftenâ¦âmaybe homophobic just a littleâ! or âDionysianâ! (Try it yourself â itâs fun! And transgressive!)
Of course, most of these authors are pro-yaoi, pro-fangirl, and generally enthusiastic about the idea of queering everything in sight through some boy-boy lovinâ. They would absolutely deny that they were condescending in any way towards this unique demographic phenomena. Butâ¦well, letâs cut to the tape, shall we?
There are no âcriticalâ tools a teacher can provide without somehow deducting from the âfeminine,â âuncriticalâ or âsubversiveâ that is yaoi. (p. 224)
Thatâs Alan Williams, who claims to be a staunch foe of anthropologizing his subjects. And because he does not want to anthropologize his subjects, he has decided instead to cheerily equate the âfeminineâ with the âuncritical,â because, you know, women â theyâre like those subversive, Dionysian dark peoples, overthrowing rational thought with their inability to think logically.
Ann Snitow, in her analysis of mass market romances, delineates their dark aspects. She shows that the heroine is not allowed by social mores to acknowledge sexual desire honestly and has to do âa lot of social lying to save face, pretending to be unaffected by the heroâs presence while her body melts or shiversâ because she has to save her virginity for marriage. Distance between the sexes is glori?ed and the sexual inexperience of the heroine adds to the excitement. (p.128)
Thatâs Tan Bee Kee, arguing that women enjoy yaoi because it avoids the stereotypical roles of paperback romances. To prove her point, Kee references an essay about romance by Ann Snitow â who was writing in 1979. Of course, the romance heroines of 2010 are not sexually inexperienced, nor are they (as Snitow says they were several decades ago) necessarily obsessed with marriage. Also, contemporary romances have lots and lots of sex. Thus, to cheer on/explain the appeal of yaoi, Kee has nonchalantly mischaracterized the huge number of women who read romance novels by suggesting that they (a) are confusedly disconnected from their desires and (b) cling to a sexual ethos that was on its way out when their mothers were young. Thanks Tan Bee Kee! Your ahistorical generalizing has empowered us all!
While violence and anti-gay discrimination are certainly present in the lives of many gay men, it is troubling that this association goes so far to victimize gayness that any representation that does not fall within the con?nes of these negative factors are viewed as âunrealisticâ or âidealisticâ as TJ says. In other words, this response suggests that ârealâ gayness is reached through experience of victimization. (p. 217)
Thatâs Alexis Hall, tut-tutting at fangirls who think that yaoi is unrealistic merely because nobody in yaoi-land ever seems to notice for a second that being homosexual bears a stigma. Hall explains patiently to the silly fangirls that gay identity in Japan is not like gay identity in the West and that theyâre being so darn ethnocentric when they suggest that a realistic depiction of Japanese gay life would occasionally mention discrimination. Besides, itâs not like any queer theorists have actually suggested that discrimination and loss are central parts of gay identity and experience. And also, just FYI, suggesting that yaoi is not realistic because the penises therein are invisible demonstrates a horribly ethnocentric and ignorant view, because, in fact, in Japan, all penises are invisible. And all assholes are mystically lubed. Itâs a law. Or maybe a side-effect of Hiroshima or repeated Godzilla attacks or something. I know because I took a class once. Nyah!
But while itâs entertaining to pull out and sneer at individual bits of arrogant idiocy, the real problem here isnât just in the particulars. Itâs systematic. Specifically, itâs amazing how little boysâ love fiction there is in this collection of essays purportedly about boysâ love fiction. A certain amount of this is excusable. For example, the bookâs first three chapters â which discuss the economics and distribution of yaoi in Germany, Indonesia, and U.S. fan circles â are interesting and mostly inoffensive. But as the page count remorselessly mounts, one gets more than a little tired of the writersâ predictable fascinations with fan investment, communities, general themes, cosplaying and the all important question of âwhyâ â with everything, in short, except the main thing, which is the stories themselves.
The one aspect of boysâ love these essayists donât seem to want to talk about, in short, is art. What are particular artists doing in particular works in the boysâ love genre? How does one slash writer in particular â not slash writers in general â approach issues of sexual violence, or love, or gender confusion? Itâs true that these questions are occasionally addressed. But the texts are always approached as illustrations of some âlargerâ point, never as worthy of investigation in their own right.
To take one for instance: Mark McHarry starts his essay âBoys in Love in Boysâ Love: Discourses West/East and the Abject in Subject Formation” by discussing Keiko Takemiyaâs groundbreaking BL series Song of Wind and Trees. McHarry argues that Song of Wind and Trees demonstrates the development of a gay identity through an experience of abjection. To prove his thesis, he engages with an actual text as closely as anyone in the anthology. And yet, even so…well, here he is talking about Gilbert, Takemiya’s main character.
Gilbert has suffered a great loss. Takemiya makes its cost clear, for example, as when a younger Gilbert submits to a manâs rape of him. Gilbertâs strangulated âoui, ouiâ is written in Western characters, clarion amid the Japanese, a signal of the weight of the act (vol. 1, 266). The most urgent representations of human desire and loss are in terms of sex and death. Takemiyaâs depiction of Gilbertâs so-called promiscuity is a masterful way of showing the extent of his calamity. Emphasizing the undoing of his corporeality via drawings of his body is a perfect visual expression of the undoing of his mental state. (p.178)
OK. Except…what loss has Gilbert suffered exactly? And how do drawings of his body show the âundoing of his corporealityâ? Why couldnât these drawings, for example, emphasize his corporeality instead? And, good lord, are we really supposed to be impressed by the knee-jerk invocation of “sex and death”? These seem like fairly basic questions, but McHarry doesn’t answer them. Instead he wanders off, eventually ending in quack anthropology and sociology so that he can earnestly retail lame clichÃ©s like this:
Stories are a key to understanding ourselves, whether they are used in psychoanalysis, in popular ?ction or in other discursive forms. Drawn images, with their immediacy, illusion of completeness, and ambiguity have the power to stimulate the imaginationâto imagine new outcomesâin a way that the printed word alone cannot. (p.184)
â¦ which of course is why Nancy inspired a revolution and âThe Communist Manifestoâ didnât.
McHarry goes on to argue that child porn laws shouldnât be used to censor boysâ love books â and OK, fine, Iâm basically in agreement with that. But itâs telling that in order to justify the worth of yaoi, he turns instinctively to (ahem) half-assed theories about the âpowerâ of images, rather than to particular aesthetic achievements. Surely, explaining with greater clarity why he believes Song of Wind and Trees is beautiful or insightful would be more useful in defending boysâ love as a genre than generalized grandiose assertions such as âBoysâ love participants claim power to represent a type of child, the male adolescent, and in so doing create entertainment that obstructs (queers) the ability of the state to organize sexual identities.â Because such assertions make it appear that you can only justify art in terms of practical political efficacy â and if thatâs the measure, then you need to stop writing about art altogether, get your sorry writing implement out of the university, and run for office on the âChild Pornâ ticket. Good luck with that.
This book, then, treats boysâ love as a sociological and cultural phenomena rather than as literature. Most everyone in the collection babbles on about the wonders of diversity, but they seem unable to process the relatively simple fact that, say, Won Soo-yeon’s Let Dai and Fumi Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery (to name the two BL series with which I can claim more than passing familiarity) are really, really different from each other. Their creators have different ideas about men, about women, about homosexuality, about love â about most everything, really. Itâs almost as if they were written by two different people rather than, you know, by some sort of communal anthropological Jungian hive-mind. (There is one essay in which the author, M.M. Blair, notes that different manga portray women characters differently, and concludes that manga readers react differently to those characters depending on how they are portrayed. This is treated, rather endearingly, as a revelation.)
The way to show that you respect someone is not by saying over and over, âI respect you.â Itâs by treating others as if you actually care what they think. Each work of BL, or yaoi, or slash, is created by a particular person who put into it what she had of craft, of genius and of love. Obviously, the works are created in the context of a community and a genre, and itâs fine to talk about that. But to talk about that exclusively, as if it’s always desires and conventions which shape the individual work and never the other way around â it gratuitously denies BL writers the agency and respect that comes with the label âartist.â
So to all these gender-theory steeped writers trying so hard to show that theyâve overturned patriarchy, heteronormativity, and even the c-word of capitalism itself, I say to you: the next time you read a BL manga or slash fiction story? If you really want to be subversive, instead of trying to figure out what that story says about yaoi readers and the yaoi community, and gender and homosexuality and what have you â could you start by figuring out whether you like it? Not whether you like yaoi in general, but whether you like that particular story. And you know what? Even if you think that that story is the worst thing youâve ever read, youâll still be showing the author, the community and yourself more respect than youâve shown anyone or anything in this condescending, embarrassing, abominable dog-turd of a book â which, in the interest of treating you all as colleagues and peers, I make free to say I loathed.
Songs of Wind and Trees image nicked from Web; copyright its respective copyright holders.
Tomorrow: “The Mirror of Male-Male Love” sidebar by Dirk Deppey.