“Tell Me, What Are Your Thoughts on Yaoi?”

The following is an article I presented at the 28th Annual Meeting of the Southwest Texas Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) in Albuquerque, New Mexico in February 2007. It examines and analyzes the popularity of Yaoi (or Boy Love) comics/manga and in the tradition of fan-created slash fan texts. Enjoy!

Though they deal with similar subject matter in similar ways, Yaoi Manga – a Japanese import steadily gaining popularity in North America – and Slash fan fiction – a North American fan staple are two distinct types of cultural texts that are produced and consumed in two completely different socio-cultural contexts. However, I argue that, while they may go about it in different ways and within different cultural contexts, the similarities between the two are theoretically significant. In other words, our analysis of one will invariably aid in our analysis of the other.

At first glance, comparing Yaoi Manga, a collection of texts that are directly informed by Japanese history and culture, with Slash fan fiction – which is distinctly a North American fan writing genre – is like comparing a cow to a pair of long johns. Sure, they may both may deal with homoeroticism but that’s only a surface similarity. Upon closer examination, however, it appears that both Slash and Yaoi accomplish similar things in similar-but-still-different ways. In this paper, I will first analyse Slash fan fiction – what is it, what is its history and subcultural context, and its function for those who produce and consume it. I will then examine Yaoi Manga, its history and cultural context, and the function of Yaoi in Japanese society. Throughout my examination, I will call attention how these types of texts are similar but also to how they are different from one another.

Fan fiction1 is a fannish activity whereby fans appropriate characters and situations that are drawn “from film, television, comic books, or popular fiction” (Green, Jenkins, & Jenkins, 2006, p. 63), Slash fan fiction “is one of the most pervasive and distinctive genres of fan writing” where authors explore a non-platonic, romantic, and/or sexual relationship with two male characters from the source text (Green, Jenkins, & Jenkins, 2006, p. 62). It should be noted here that the primary focus of a Slash narrative is not on the characters’ sexual identities. Rather, the focus is on the emotional entanglement of the two male leads – specifically, that Slash “is about being in love” (Kustritz, 2003, p. 379). Slash stories first appeared in the late 1970s in the Star Trek fandom and they focused primarily on the romantic pairing of Kirk/Spock. At first these stories were compiled with a number of other fan texts – art, poetry, and non-fiction articles – in fanzines. It remained hidden, a “subculture within a subculture of Star Trek” until the internet make the fan activities such as these increasingly popular and prevalent (Kustritz, 2003, p. 372). While there were some other slash pairings during this time, it was not until the mid-1990s – when fan-writing found its way onto the internet – that slash pairings really began to develop “in almost every science fiction, fantasy, or police drama imaginable” (Kustritz, 2003, p. 372). This is due to the relative ease that individuals could privately and easily access individuals who shared their love of the source text. An increase in the number of fan activities and the number of fandoms – fan communities – to which a fan could belong, resulted in an increase in the number of participants within the fandom and the number of fan texts that were produced out of it.

Fans identify a number of “contradictions, inconsistencies, and ambiguities” within the original source text which they then elaborate on in their own fan writing. Kustritz (2003) argues that fan fiction in general and slash fiction particularly, “fill[s] in the motivations, emotions, and personal histories of the main male characters, or rescript[s] and replac[es] those elements of the character’s emotions and actions that were provided in the source product” (p. 374). In terms of the male characters, fans – whether they were interested in Slash texts or not – ended up resisting the “ideal masculine self” that the male characters within the text reproduce. These representations of hegemonic masculinity are fond in the “unfeeling, unmoving, masterful, and impenetrable” hero in an effort to reproduce it (Kustritz, 2003, p. 374). As a consequence, heroes were especially seen as shallow, one-dimensional embodiments of the ideal form of masculinity. To rectify this fan writers looked at the gaps and the contradictions within the original source text and supplemented it in order to make these characters “real people with personalities, faults, needs, illogical desires, and weaknesses” (Kustritz, 2003, p. 375).2 So, you must be asking yourself, well, if any fan can do this by writing fan fiction, why Slash? Generally speaking, the most intense relationships within these source narratives occurs between the male hero and his male companion or buddy. Women are incidental but it is the close friendship with the buddy that the hero depends on. Slash writers simply expand upon this idea by taking that close friendship and transforming it into a romantic and/or sexual one.

Though the demographics vary from fandom to fandom, numerous studies stipulate that Slash writers are disproportionally made up of “overeducated but underemployed” women, the majority of whom are heterosexual (Kustritz, 2003, p. 376). As these women negotiate meaning with the text – and within the confines of their particular fan community — they also negotiate with the dominant ideology that is reproduced in the original source text. In doing so they bring the source text in line with their own worldview and their own beliefs of what an ideal relationship is. Many theorists speculate that slash writing is a way that women can negotiate their place within a normative heterosexuality. Slash writers use their paired romantic couple in order to speculate about a relationship that is more equal than a heterosexual one is. In other words, fans negotiate meaning with the source text so that they are able to explore their own experiences, needs, and desires in a way specifically challenges problematic, and often normative, representations of gender and sexuality. For example, Green, Jenkins, and Jenkins (2006) argue that it’s not the mechanics of a Slash relationship – who puts what where – but how it “rethink[s] and rewrite[es] traditional masculinity” by providing a more equitable example (p. 71). It is this equality that is a place where women can explore their ideas of “the kind of love [they] want to have” and how that relates to their specific realities (McLelland, 2000a, p. 29).

Yaoi is a genre of Japanese Manga, fan art, and anime that is produced by and for the consumption of women. Yaoi is an acronym that comes from the phrase (yama nasi, ochinashi, imi nashi ) which can be translated to men “No climax, no point, no meaning”. However, an alternate phrase (yamete, oshiri ga itai) “Stop! My ass hurts!” may better characterize what Yaoi’s really all about (McLelland, 2000b, p. 227). Yaoi is a fantasy genre where “the romantic, emotional, and . . . sexual relationships of” two men are explored using a woman’s world view and through a female gaze (Johnson). Some fans have compared the genre to romance novels – they are both read by women, written and drawn by women, and marketed towards women.3 As one fan describes the genre, it “embodies the . . . female notion that m/m relationships are the stuff of high romance and beauty, and true love and angst and possible wonderful sex five times an hour” (Johnson).

Yaoi describes those texts within the wider genre of Girl’s Comics that are sexually explicit. Those texts that “refer[s] to sexually implicit or non-sexual romantic male-male relationships” are called Shonen-ai or Boys Love (BL). For the purposes of this paper, I have disregarded the distinction between explicit and non-explicit texts using Yaoi to represent both. I do this to contextualize Yaoi and Slash in North American texts – where he level of sexual explicitness and content can:

Yaoi describes those texts within the wider genre of Girl’s Comics that are sexually explicit. Those texts that “refer[s] to sexually implicit or non-sexual romantic male-male relationships” are called Shonen-ai or Boys Love (BL). For the purposes of this paper, I have disregarded the distinction between explicit and non-explicit texts using Yaoi to represent both. I do this to contextualize Yaoi and Slash in North American texts – where he level of sexual explicitness and content can:

rang[e] from ordinary romantic situations with mild adult content to subgenres containing extreme fetishism, including anthropomorphism, cosplay [costume play], non-consensual sex or “non-con”, monsters, incest, orgies, shotacon [or pederasty], and various other taboo depictions of male homosexuality. (Yaoi)

In other words, just as a Slash text’s narrative of sexiness varies over the entire genre, as can Yaoi’s – at least for the purposes of this paper.

The manga industry in Japan is massive. It accounts for 30-40% Japan’s print output (that’s about 470 million copies printed annually).4 Published as both magazines and trade paperbacks, various genres are marketed different demographic or market groups.5 Interestingly, manga readers are found over every demographic group in Japanese society,  including but not limited to: “school boys, university students, businessmen, female office workers, and housewives” (McLelland, 2000a, p. 14). Furthermore, the breadth of subject matter is enormous – all of the genres of writing you can think of are represented in manga and even some that aren’t. Furthermore, the size of the plots can “range from simple short story length through multi-volume graphic novelistic treatments spanning years of the characters’ lives” (Perper & Cornog, 2002, p. 20). After World War Two, manga’s popularity increased. However, at the time manga was only marketed to teenage males. However, in the 1960s, manga publishers turned their attention to the potential of a female audience and several titles were released. At first, these manga were written for women by men and “tended to follow the familiar tropes of heterosexual romantic love” but as these texts’ female readership grew up, they entered the manga market as writers and artists and sought to change what was being written for them (McLelland, 2000b, p. 275).6 In the 1970s Yaoi emerged as a specific genre.

Sexuality in manga – for adults, adolescents, and young adults – does deal with sex and sexuality. This is due to the fact that Japan’s manga industry is informed by cultural, aesthetic, and religious principles that “unif[ies] sex with human life elegantly and enjoyably. . . . sexuality is often vividly depicted as emotionally deep and physically delightful for” both men and women (Perper & Cornog, 2002, p. 8).7 This is likely the reason why Yaoi manga is more of a mainstream success when compared to North American slash fan narratives. Slash remains underground, still a product of fans for fans only.8 Yaoi, on the other hand, is very much out in the open. Titles are sold openly in book stores and most Japanese – even if they don’t consume it themselves – know that the genre exists and what it deals with. Even doojinshi – which is the closest correlate to Slash fan fiction – has attained more mainstream success. Doojinshi are fan texts that draw their material from an original source product – which may or may not be manga fandom – and create their own texts from it. Doojinshi are produced and marketed to fans at komikettos – giant manga conventions that are a lot like science fiction and fantasy conventions in North America – and online. Furthermore, unlike Slash, official manga publishers tolerate doojinshi texts, seeing them as a supplement to the official source texts. Furthermore, many manga publishers recruit their manga-kas (manga authors and artists) have from the doojinshi and komiketto markets. Therefore, the attitude of manga companies towards these amateur artists gives this kind of “fan fiction” legitimacy, something would never happen in North America.9

Furthermore, like Slash, Yaoi figures male-male sexuality differently than, say, gay pornographic representations do. Authors “seldom dwell on the mechanics of penetration” instead they represent the sex act as pleasurable for those involved (McLelland, 2000b, p. 282). Furthermore, the authors tend to glaze over the more visceral realities of homosexual sex. In these narratives, the penis is not used just for penetration but to “bring together and unite two bodies, to make them one flesh during the act of love” (McLelland, 2000b, p. 282).

Perhaps one of the starkest differences between Slash and Yaoi texts is how the main characters are represented. Unlike slash, Yaoi’s representation of its male characters, known as Bihonen, are quite uniform. Bishonen means “beautiful boy” in Japanese but the aesthetic of this representation is uniquely Asian. These beautiful boys need to be understood within their cultural context – several male figures in Japanese popular culture are famous for their “gender bending and ambiguous sexuality” (McLelland, 2001). These characters are represented as an androgynous ideal: “tall slim, elfin figures with big eyes, long hair, high cheekbones, and pointed chins” (McLelland, 2000b, p. 277). They are, simply stated, “young men whose beauty and sexual appeal transcends the boundar[ies] of sex” and gender (Bishōnen).

Contrasting the bishonen with the representation of men in Slash fiction – men who represent the idealized hegemonic masculine form – one sees that “are much more like women are supposed to be: emotional, nurturing, and nice” (McLelland, 2000b, p. 286). In no way represent do they realistically represent gay men who, when encountering the Yaoi genre, have “tend[ed] to snicker” at it (Johnson). Nor does the Bishonen represent the heterosexual men – even those who reject the confines of hegemonic masculinity. Rather they “embod[y] all the most attractive figures of [the] female gender while being able to move through the world unencumbered by the burdens of [the] female sex” (McLelland, 2000b, p. 286). In other words, the beautiful vulnerability and idealized sensibility of these androgynies acts as a fantasy trope. They enable women to play with gender and sexuality, possibly providing an outlet for women readers to work out their own issues with normative ideals of their own heteronormative femininity and with their own uncertainty about the stereotype of the hegemonic male.

What is the why of Yaoi? Most certainly there the aforementioned exploration of gender relations non-traditional way. However, there has to be more to this that idealizations being an outlet for playing with gender, sexuality, fantasy, and desire. In a system that takes a man’s authority over women for granted, in fact, is naturalized, is also problematised by the genre of Yaoi manga. Think of it this way, within any sex scene, the male body is a symbol of “men’s power over women” because, for the most part, he penetrates her. However, when represent sex between men, this power relation is disrupted because just as a penis can penetrate a woman it can also penetrate a man. Yaoi, therefore,

remove[s] gender-related power differentials (by making both lovers the same sex), limit[s] age-related power differences (by representing characters of a similar age), and eliminating power differentials based on desirability (by representing both characters as Bishoonen, i.e. equally beautiful and, therefore, equally desirable). (McLellend, 2000b, p. 246).10

One of the most popular reasons given as to why women enjoy Slash and/or Yaoi has to do with desire and of the aesthetics of sex. For instance, “if heterosexual men enjoy the idea of two women getting it on, why should heterosexual women not enjoy the idea of two men bonking?” (McLelland, 2006). This attraction is aesthetically pleasing in a non-threatening way. While I definitely will not disagree that, yes, the idea of two men getting it on is all kinds of hot, Yaoi and Slash also say something about the nature of fantasy and desire. Both kinds of texts demonstrate and dichotomize the idealized same-sex relationships with “reality” – the everyday experiences of people living in a specific culture, at a specific time, and in a specific place. It is a discussion of how things are and an idea about how things should be. Playing with fantasy and desire, therefore, problematizes the status quo and – in conjunction with a number of different interrogations – may even serve to help formulate change.

But Yaoi and Slash may also support the status quo. Kind of like the consumption of romance novels and day-time trash TV, Yaoi and Slash form “an imaginary playground where I can flee the realities of everyday life” (McLelland, 2000b, p. 287). Slash and Yaoi are a safe place to interrogate, manipulate, and speculate about the sexist features of any patriarchal society in a way that enables women to “disrupt sexual and gender boundaries while at the same time being committed to normative gender performances in their daily lives” (McLelland, 2006). Furthermore, even though Slash and Yaoi are a place of fantasy that doesn’t necessarily mean that these women are unhappy with the status quo. Consequently, Yaoi and Slash are consumed solely for amusement and not as a means of subverting the status quo. As one Yaoi fan argues “not all of us actually want to live out our fantasies” (qtd. In McLelland, 2001).

Slash and Yaoi are “liberatory shphere[s] within which presumably heteronormative women readers can experiment with” desire, fantasy, ideals of gender and ideals of (romantic) sexuality.11 Furthermore, opposition, liberation, and change may come from such a place of play. However, it appears to me that this only occurs when combined with other instances where ideal norms of heteronormativity and gender dualism are disputed. In other words, it’s not the act of producing, consuming, and enjoying Slash or Yaoi that propels social change. Rather it is when this production, consumption, and enjoyment occurs in concert with an impetus to challenge norms of gender and sexuality in other ways that these texts may help to influence social change.

Notes:

[1] Fan fiction is, by no means, the only fannish activity. Other activities may include fan art, poetry, non-fiction articles on the source texts, and (perhaps the most important fan activity of them all) coming together with other, like-minded individuals and discussing, analyzing, and negotiating meaning with their favourite source text.

2 Kustritz (2003) argues that “Fan writing preys upon characters who reproduce traditional masculinity, traditional class and race hierarchies, and traditional relational scripts and reconfigures them into tales of communal societies, racial equality and sexual transgression” (p. 376).

3 Even if a man did write and draw Yaoi manga he would have to do it through the eyes of a woman.

4 In 1993, women’s manga represented only 8.8% of all commercially published manga. Which, given the size of Japan’s manga industry, translates into about 41 million titles published (McLelland, 2000a). To put this into perspective, one of the earliest ‘boy love’ monthly magazines is June, which was first published in 1978. In 1995, it was a 300-page bimonthly format with a circulation of between 80,000 and 100,000 issues – which is twice the readership of Japan’s best-selling gay magazine, Badi. (McLelland, 2001)

5 Perper and Cornog (2002) describe manga titles “are classified by [their] market niche: shojo manga for girls, shonen manga for boys, seinen manga for young adult men, seijin manga for adults (mostly erotica for men), and redi komi or redisu [which is] romantic/erotic manga drawn by women for adult women readers” (p. 4).

6 It was these women authors – writing for Boys Love manga for women – who challenged the censorship laws regarding to the representation of sex n manga. The enforcement of these laws has recently decreased, resulting in a boom in sexually explicit manga (McLelland 2006; Perper & Cornog, 2002, p. 7).

7 As a genre of storytelling, Boys Love “ha[s] a long tradition in Japan, usually focusing on the attraction between a priest or samurai love and his acolyte” (McLelland, 2006). However, these stories were initially produced by male authors who intended a male audience. It was only since the 1970s that women authors have produced Boys Love comics are were marketed to a solely female audience.

8 Almost all North American Slash narratives are produced by women who market their fan fiction and art in printed zines or over the internet

9 Usually, North American fans are just mocked as geeks and losers who are too attached to their source material. (Oh, and who are 30 year-old virgins still living in their parent’s basements.)

10 However, this is where some theorists say that things get problematic. Though the aim of Yaoi is to depict romantic and sexual relationships that are equal, the structure of Japanese society and language makes strict equality difficult. For instance, “The elder partner is referred to as seme (from semeru, to attack) whereas the younger partner is labelled use (from ukeru, to receive). [Giving the audience] the idea that sex is necessarily something that the dominant partner “does” to the submissive partner.” (McLelland, 2000b, p. 4). However, you find the same problem in Slash fan fiction – it is generally, though rather simplistically, implied that the penetrator is more powerful than the person who is being penetrated. Furthermore, equating penetrator with power very much oversimplifies the power dynamics in any relationship.

11 Which may, in tern, affect her own subjectivity.

References:

(n.d.) Bishōnen. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bish%C5%8Dnen

Green, S., Jenkins, C., & Jenkins, J. (2006). “Normal female interest in men bonking”: Selections from The Terra Nostra Underground and Strange Bedfellows. In H. Jenkins (Ed.), Fans, bloggers, and gamers: Media consumers in a digital age (pp. 61-88). New York, NY: New York University Press.

Johnson, J. (n.d.) What is Yaoi? History. Retrieved from: http://www.angelfire.com/va3/ky411/history.html

Kustritz, A. (2003, September). Slashing the romance narrative. The Journal of American Culture, 26(3), 371-384.

McLelland, M. (2000a, January). Male homosexuality and popular culture in modern Japan. Intersections: Gender, History, and Culture in the Asian Context. Retrieved from: http://wwwsshe.murdoch.edu.au/intersections/issue3/mclelland2.html

McClelland, M. (2000b, July). No climax, no point, no meaning? Japanese women’s Boy-Love sites on the Internet. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 24(3), 274-291.

McLelland, M. (2001, October). Local meanings in global space: a case study of women’s “Boy Love” web sites in Japanese and English. Mots Pluriels (19). Retrieved from: http://www.arts.uwa.edu.au/MotsPluriels/MP1901mcl.html

McClelland, M. (2006, December). Why are Japanese girls’ comics full of boys bonking? Retrieved from: http://intensities.org/Essays/McLelland.pdf

Perper, T. & Cornog, M. (2002, March). Eroticism for the masses: Japanese manga comics and their assimilation into the U.S. Sexuality and Culture, 6(1), 3-126.

(n.d.) Yaoi. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaoi

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Bacon-Smith, C. (1991). Enterprising women: Television fandom and the creation of popular myth. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bowring, M. A. (2004, July). Resistance is not futile: Liberating Captain Janeway from the masculine-feminine dualism of leadership. Gender, Work, and Organization, 11(4), 381–405.

Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual poachers: Television fans and participatory culture. London, UK: Routeledge.

Kelly, W. W. (Ed.) (2006). Fanning the flames: Fans and consumer culture in contemporary Japan. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

McLelland, M. (2000, March). The love between “Beautiful Boys” in Japanese women’s comics. The Journal of Gender Studies, 9(1), 13-6.

McLelland, M. (1999, December). Gay men as women’s ideal partners in Japanese popular culture: Are gay men really a girl’s best friends? The U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal English Supplement, 17, 77-110.

McLelland, M. (2001). Loincloths, ladyboys, and Lolita’s little brother: Women’s culture and the consumption of “Gay” pornography in Japan. In K. Atkinson & J. Finnerty (Eds.) Queer in the Twenty-First Century: The Body, Queer, and Politic (pp. 97-118). Brisbane, Australia: GLWA, Inc.

Penley, C. (1992). Feminism, psychoanalysis, and the study of popular culture. In L. Grossbery, C. Nelson, and P. Treichler (Eds.), Cultural Studies. New York, NY: Routeledge.

Penley, C. (1997). NASA/Trek: Popular science and sex in America. New York,

(n.d.) Shōnen-ai. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sh%C5%8Dnen

(n.d.) Slash fiction. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slash_fiction

Welker, J. (2006, Spring). Beautiful, borrowed, and bent: “Boys’ Love” as girls’ love in Shôjo Manga. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 31(3), 841–870.

Woledge, E. (2005, August). Decoding desire: From Kirk and Spock to K/S1. Social Semiotics, 15(2), 235-250.

Shelley Smarz is a comic book scholar and business woman. She’s currently reading every Greg Rucka book she can get her grubby little hands on. Her current Starbucks obsession is a mango blended passion tea (FYI (for a grande): fill to first line with mango juice, to second line with passion tea, throw in a little less than a full grande scoop of ice, and blend).

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