Musings on Yaoi and Those Who Love It

I'm coocoo for yaoi puffs!

When people say, “You don’t live and breathe ‘x,’ so you can’t possibly understand it and thus can’t possibly criticize it,” I imagine that this argument somewhat applies to how I feel about yaoi. I know what it is, but I’ve never actually sat down and read a yaoi manga nor seen a yaoi anime (aside from Genshiken’s hilarious parody). So how can I really criticize yaoi, you know?

Genshiken owns.

Genshiken owns.

We know yaoi is basically gay love (do we?), but let’s turn to a self-proclaimed expert on the issue. Oops, according to Miss Simona, apparently ‘yaoi’ is a dated terminology:

Yaoi (やおい) is an older term that indicates the same genre, short for “Yama nashi, Ochi nashi, Imi nashi”, “No climax, no punch-line, no meaning”, which referred especially to original stories (mainly of romantic or sexual content) written or drawn in dojinshi (fanzines) using characters of existing commercial manga, anime, videogames, etc. (also known as paro-yaoi, from “parody”) just for the fun of seeing one’s favorite heroes indulge in naughty behavior :D Apparently the fujoshi decided that it was a bit too diminishing and they started calling it Boys Love, a term that was probably coined by the magazines.

It would seem that the fujoshi felt guilty about their exploitation of male characters so they opted to pretty up the term with ‘Boy Love,’ which itself should set off some alarms but doesn’t. I suppose some may accuse me of being unfair since there is a vastly superior (in size) doujinshi fandom all dedicated to the sexual exploitation of females, but two wrongs don’t make a right. Neither does  the  exploitation of loli mean it’s fair game to exploit shota in yaoi (I think I’ll stick with this terminology).

Fujoshi in the wild.

Fujoshi in the wild.

I dunno if Simona is Japanese because she might be. I dunno if she lives and breathes yaoi in Japan either. So while she’s an expert, nonetheless, she might not be the definitive voice on yaoi. And we should hear from some direct experts–experts of yaoi directly from Japan living and consuming yaoi, as interviewed by Jonathan Ross’s Japanorama.

First up is Sakura Yuda!

wtfiswrongwithyou

Yaoi is different from homosexuality because if you are gay, then that’s the way you are—that’s what you like. In yaoi, they don’t really have an interest in men. They’re interested in girls. But sometimes they fall in love with men. It’s by chance, it’s unexpected and that’s what’s different.

That sounds pretty gay to me. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense, but if you sleep with men, you’re gay. Okay okay, since they’re interested in girls too, you could also say they’re bisexual, but that still includes the gay with the straight. To me, this sort of deal just sounds like denial and by that, a really unconvincing denial. Reminds me of…

Law & Order: SVU, everybody! Yes, the show is that terrible. Anyhow, Yada continues:

I’m a woman so this love between men is something I don’t know about in real life. It’s done really beautifully, which is really strange, but we like to imagine it ‘cause we don’t know about it.

This here is problematic because yaoi, whether Yada agrees or not, is part of the “gay boom” of Japan’s 90s, which enlightened people’s understanding and acceptance of homosexuality. Unfortunately, yaoi isn’t doing homosexuality a very big favor:

Most of the criticism against the gay boom is concerned with the fact that in most cases it does not dipect lesbian and gay people realistically and representatively because it beautifies especially gay men and tends to stress particular gay and lesbian people who have an interesting lifestyle, interesting looks, or interesting things to say, while many gay and lesbian people lead lifestyles that can be characterized by solitude and boredom, not dissimilar to many heterosexuals. As Hirano Hiroaki wrote, the gay boom only provides space for fashionable and trendy gay men, while for the majority the situation remains that society does not have a place for them. — Wim Lunsing, “Gay Boom in Japan: Changing Views of Homosexuality”

 

Who the fuck licks elbows?

Who the fuck licks elbows?

Yada might deny that yaoi is homosexual in nature, but she can’t reasonably deny that yaoi portrays homosexual characters in the eyes of others. This is just an age old question of authorial intent vs reader interpretation, i.e. who gets the final say with regards to what a piece of literature ultimately means. To be quite frank, there’s no clear cut answer. While an author has a certain degree of closeness to his or her work that lends credence to the idea of him or her being an “authority,” sometimes an author is just plain wrong. Yaoi-lover Yada might claim that yaoi isn’t about homosexuality, but it sure looks like homosexuality to a lot of people and thus represents it too. And its representation is troubling.

Let’s move on to expert no. 2, Yumi Fukuhara!

Creepy shota lover.

This one is set at school. There are two boys and they’re unsure of their feelings. And one of the characters is wondering if the other one really does like him. Then suddenly they’re having sex. His expression is really cute. But then he doesn’t know if he’s being used.

Ugh.

I condemn the exploitation of loli so it’s only natural that I also condemn the exploitation of shota. Come on, lady, you gotta be pushing at least 30 right? What the hell are you doing writing about little schoolboys? Japan’s obsession with cuteness deserves another entry, but it’s just disturbing that serious sexual situations are played off as cute. Sex is a lot of fun. But uh, a schoolboy wondering whether or not “he’s being used” is kinda serious. It’s a little wrong to just hand wave it off as “Kya~, kawaii!!”

We move on finally to Chiharu Nakjima.

yaoifan2

Male and female roles are usually too explicit. There’s no equality with the man, and I really hate that.

I think that’s an insightful statement even if it’s still slightly flawed (more on the flawed part in a second). At the end of the day, is yaoi really about gay love? Yes, I know I just ranted against Yada’s claim that yaoi doesn’t feature homosexuality–it does. Yaoi features homosexual sex. But this sex really stands for something else and I think Nakajima clued us in: yaoi is really just about heterosexual power dynamics hiding behind the veneer of homosexual aesthetics. And before you cry foul, think about the seme/uke dynamic. Hell, don’t take it from me–let’s ask Miss Simona again:

Seme (攻) “aggressor”; from the verb “semeru”, “to attack”, indicates the man on top.

Uke (受) “target”; from the verb “ukeru”, “to receive”, indicates the passive guy.

I think Nakajima’s statement is somewhat flawed, because she implies that the power relationships in yaoi are equal. Perhaps moreso than what you’d typically see in a shounen sex fantasy, but the seme/uke dynamic doesn’t sound very equal to me.

Yowie, it's...

Yowie, it's...

Nakajima continues:

But the main thing isn’t really sex, you know? It’s all about the feelings. Sex is a feature sometimes, but it is not the focus of the story.

 

It's not about sex! It's about feelings... very titillating feelings.

It's not about sex! It's about feelings... very titillating feelings.

Really? Is this really true? A lot of people I’ve talked to have given me the impression that most of yaoi include sex or imply it. While I am not denying that feelings can be and are the focus of yaoi, it just sounds like she’s trying too hard to push sex out of the picture. It is about sex and, at times, really explicit sex. I don’t excuse yuri nor all those not-quite-rape doujins in the hetero fandom (you know, the ones where the girl didn’t want it at first but actually she really did once she’s had… the cock). I can’t really excuse yaoi either–it seems like a subculture very much in denial.

lolanime

I can't wait for Anime Expo!

But what do I know–I don’t read, eat and breathe the stuff.

6 thoughts on “Musings on Yaoi and Those Who Love It

  1. konpeito

    Yaoi isn’t about gay men because it’s it’s fantasy made by and for women.

    When you’re growing up as a little girl, and you wonder why little girls can’t be heroes in the TV shows and why the female character is always someone’s girlfriend or wife or mother, and why even the coolest female characters wind up as…someone’s girlfriend, and cooling off and settling down and being subsumed by the man she’s now attached to….

    You really get sick of female characters. You don’t relate. Heck, you relate better to the male characters.

    So suddenly, you start to take great interest in the idea of two of the male friends from a JUMP series having some weird sexual experience, or romance, or something that makes the two feel awkward and maybe even a little power play mixed in with the intimacy. We, as females, relate to that. So we use a male character to relate to instead of a female one, because the female one comes with so much baggage (unfortunately) that it makes the romance insipid mush.

    Seeing two empowered human beings, who aren’t hampered by expectations of women in society (i.e. they don’t have to pretend to be weak and stupid), have intimate relations is fucking awesome. It’s more about what women want than anything, and that in the real world can be so hard to get because of its sexist expectations of male/female relationships.

    And on the topic of creepy fujoshi. At least they smell a lot better than the male otas.

    Reply
  2. konpeito

    Hm, after reading more on yaoi and its criticisms, I’d like to agree here that the seme/uke dynamic is kind of fucked up. I appreciate sadomasochism in my manga, but I prefer it between two “seme”-like guys – seeing a “feminine” guy, often boy, as someone’s doormat or slave isn’t my cup of tea either. There’s no fun in that, it’s like kicking puppies. To me yaoi IS about equal relationships, and I guess that’s why a lot of it isn’t to my taste. I don’t think a lot of Japanese can really imagine that sort of relationship, they’re so used to accepting established power structures.

    Reply
    1. The Fin

      You see that’s the problem with viewing yaoi as some kind of rejection of heteronormative gender roles, those same roles are almost always reproduced as seme and uke. You’re absolutely right about the lack of strong female characters but I don’t think yaoi is empowering for anyone, it’s just stereotypical hetero relationship recast so that both people have penises. I’m sure there are exceptions out there but in general when people talk about ‘yaoi’ they’re imagining a big tough guy and a submissive waifish one, not a relationship between equals.

      Reply
  3. Lemon Wedges

    True, most yaoi is shit. Anime in general is shit. That doesn’t mean finding good stuff isn’t worth the search.

    Reply
  4. endless

    This was a brilliant post.

    I could never understand why most fujoshi could never except Yaoi as Gay.
    Having many debates about the topic with many fujoshi myself, they all seem to come to this similar description of what Yaoi is–“Two strait men being tossed into an uncomfortable situation that sparks a fling/love.” From that description it sounds like: “Two men + love = Yaoi.” while we commonly know that “Two men + love = gay,” thus “Yaoi = Gay.”

    I have no problem if you like to read stories about Yaoi, but why so much denial about the contents of the book once asked about it? I read Yuri, and I have no problem admitting its lesbian love, why cant this subculture do the same?

    Reply

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