Chicks On Anime
Yaoi

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, R. Sevakis, Nov 18th 2008

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist, and also writes reviews for ANN.
Robin is an illustrator, and also the creator of Anime News Nina.

This week on Chicks on Anime, we decided to tackle a broader subject, the always hot topic of "yaoi." Luckily, we had our very own self-professed fan to help us out with the conversation. Casey's not only a fan of yaoi and BL, she's also very well versed in its history, and it made for a fantastic conversation. And as usual, the conversation continues in our forums, so be sure to hop on over to Talkback to extend the dialogue. Next week, join us as we get another point of view when we talk to Tina Anderson, a GloBL writer.


Bamboo:So I was walking through the halls at New York Anime Fest, and I encountered this big hullaballoo where half of a crowd was screaming, “Yaoi!,” and the other half was screaming, “Yuri!,” and they were shouting at each other over and over again: “Yaoi!,” “Yuri!,” “Yaoi!,” “Yuri!.” What is the fuss with yaoi? I mean, Casey, you admitted to being a reader of yaoi.
Casey: Yeah. I really don't know what the fuss is. We talked about this in one of the earlier discussions, but I really think that a lot of it is the community. It's not so much the content of the yaoi, or the quality or anything like that. You start out and look at a picture and go, “Oh, it's pretty,” and whatever, but that only goes so far. I think for most people, it's about meeting other people who look at those pictures and go, “Oh, pretty,” and suddenly there is a community. You have friends with interests in common. You're hidden from that sense of persecution, which brings people together sometimes. Where you know that what you're doing is a little bit questionable and just a little bit forbidden, the kind of cheap thrill a teenager gets off on. It's not something that is generally dangerous, or maybe it's something that is a little bit dangerous and something their parents wouldn't approve of if they knew about it.
Robin: A little bit rebellious.
Bamboo:Of the content? Of the sexual content, or just the fact that they are fantasizing about…?
Casey: Well I think that we've made great strides as far as tolerance of gays and lesbians, but there is still the sense that romance between two men or even two women is somehow less acceptable than a romance between a man and a woman. I mean, I don't know about you, but I come from a very liberal state, but a lot of these people are from the Bible Belt. This is something that goes around the manga publishing field, but you'll often hear them laugh about how boys' love sells better in the Bible Belt than any other part of the country.
Bamboo:Seriously?
Robin: Really?
Casey: Yes, which suggests that part of the appeal is the forbidden kind of aura around it.
Bamboo:See I've always thought that a lot of yaoi fans have a weird, not entirely realistic view of homosexuality. At least in my experience, anyway, so it may be skewed. To give an example, I was at a convention and just walking down the street, and there were two guys holding hands who were obviously not part of the convention. But these fangirls start hooting and hollering, and egging them on to kiss. I feel that that is incredibly offensive.
Robin: I've seen something similar to that from people at a convention where they were crowding around them like zoo animals, and taking pictures. They wouldn't do that for some random girl and guy just holding hands or kissing each other in public. The fact that it's kind of fetishized does seems kind of offensive, that they're just kind of objectifying it, you know?
Bamboo:I wonder if that rebellion you talk about is part of it, especially if they don't really see it in the world around them if they do indeed come from conservative states. That almost leads to an extremely naïve view of yaoi.
Casey: I think there is no question that a lot of these people don't really understand the issues surrounding homosexuality, and the actual experience of gay men and lesbians in the community, and what it's like to be really homosexual, and the prejudice and the discrimination and the history. I mean, it's not that long ago that sodomy was illegal in some states. So, I have to say, yes, I did see a lot of bad behavior, but I did see a lot of bad behavior that doesn't come from yaoi fans. It's like I've seen everyone behave badly, and I don't think that sort of behavior is common to everyone. One of the things that has been an issue, at least in Japan, was that originally, there was the same sort of thing that you were describing. These young women and girls were fetishizing homosexual relationships and they had no understanding of the actual gay community. And over time, it's very interesting because in the old days, when you read boys' love comics and original stories, one of the things I used to see a lot was a character that said, “Oh my God, I'm not gay, I just love you!” And it's the idea that, “I'm not attracted to all men, I'm just attracted to one man.” While that is in its own little world, a little illogical, it's also, to many gay men, very offensive, because it is a violation of their sense of what being gay means. A lot of gay men in Japan hate boys' love and hate yaoi because it does seem to fetishize them.

I once speculated that in some ways, boys' love and yaoi is kind of like blackface in the sense that you have the one group of people who are putting on the trappings of another really under privileged group of people. It's done in a way that is exaggerated and not true to life, and not necessarily malicious because, and most people don't know this, but blackface was more common in the North. Many of the theaters were pro-abolition and they thought they were doing black face to humanize black people and show them in the conditions that they were living in. And now we look back on it and it looks so racist.

And so I think there might be something to that. When I Google my name, I still see comments about how much people hated me for pointing that out. And one person posed an alternate explanation, which I also think is worth arguing, that yaoi is a lot like drag. When in actuality, what it is is one underprivileged minority assuming the trappings of another underprivileged minority. So a gay man, for example, who dresses up like Tina Turner or Barbara Streisand or something like that, and lip-synchs a song, that there is this sort of sense that gay men are underprivileged or privileged the same as straight women are. To do that kind of costuming allows you to explore the freedom of the issues that restrict you, because you aren't restricted in every way, only in some ways. And certain trappings allow you to escape those specifically. But then you don't want to become the man, as it were in the literal sense, because you understand that the white heterosexual male, you know, is the person or the category that you've been defined against, so you don't want to become that. You become some other minority.

Bamboo:But it's interesting when you look at it like that from a fandom perspective. Sometimes at anime conventions, you will see two women dressed up as men, who are then kissing each other. Everyone around them is chanting, “Yaoi!” And so in that case, it's almost a lot like dressing up to play that underrepresented minority. In a case like that, I'm a little confused, because once again, it seems like you are fetishizing the idea of yaoi, and not so much the human emotions underlying those relationships or the “minority” experience.
Casey: I think that a lot of it is when you see cosplayers and stuff like that. I'm not a cosplayer and I don't know that many cosplayers, but I do know that from what I've heard, that there is a lot of drama and maybe a lot of petty bickering that happens in the cosplay community. I think a lot of people who do that sort of thing are very attention-seeking. In that case, it's not about yaoi it's about…
Robin: Getting attention.
Casey: Right. They have their own neurosis, honestly. I think the most common kind of adolescent interpretation—adolescent not in a negative way, but just young and naïve— is that yaoi is actually about two characters that are neither male nor female that have transcended gender.
Bamboo:Do you think that is true for yuri pairings though?
Casey: No, I don't, because the audience is different. I think in the case of teenaged girls, the kind of narrative of becoming a woman—a lot of girls were tomboys when they were six or seven. They really didn't see a distinction between the boys and the girls. They were all as strong and as athletic, and as tall and pretty much the same shape as the boys, but then you hit puberty and those distinctions start to take hold. And you start to realize that just being born a woman has limited you in certain ways. And that like it or not, you get stereotypes.
Bamboo:What about the girls who grow up very girly? Would they therefore be less likely to enjoy yaoi?
Casey: I don't think that. I'm just giving you an example, and I do know that this is a common story of yaoi fans—they were not the ultra feminine girls growing up. But you know, I don't necessarily think of being an ultra feminine girl as a problem because it doesn't matter if you are ultra feminine or you're more of a tomboy. Those restrictions of your sex are still going to apply to you regardless of how see yourself. You really don't have a choice about it and this is a big issue in Japan, of course, which is very hierarchical. Very gender segregated, and what these women can't imagine is an equal relationship with a man as a woman.
Bamboo:Okay, a few columns back, you said that, in a way, yaoi pairings were almost appealing because a woman could project herself into the relationship because there are two equal partners in that relationship. But yet there is still the prevalence of “top” and “bottom.” You still have the subservient.
Robin: Yeah, that's what I was going to bring in. People have mentioned before about how there is equality because there are two men, but I never understood that. I mean, I'm not really into yaoi, so that there are some that aren't like this, but you mainly hear about the whole seme/uke thing. To me, that's almost kind of offensive that there always has to be an obvious bottom or feminine character. That's really just as offensive to women that there always has to be one who is dominated.
Casey: It's interesting because the seme/uke thing was partially adopted from Japanese interpretation of Western gay culture. So the idea of the top and the bottom is not Japanese. It's something that's Western and at a certain point in Japan's history… Well, let's back up a little bit. I don't like to say that people are born gay, because I'm really not sure. And I don't want say that it's a choice either. But there is certainly a cultural element, because it's like being black or being Asian. There is nothing biological about blackness or Asianness. It's just an artificial kind of separation of certain characteristics. So there are always men who slept with men. But they weren't necessarily called anything.
Robin: Right.
Casey: And so being called something is very Western in its origin. And that was, of course, imported into Japan like so many other western things. And I don't know the exact history of it, but I do know that seme/uke was something that was appropriated from gay culture and then detached from it. Because a lot of people, the few people who did know, knew gay culture in the 60s and 70s and 80s in Japan. There were much fewer than those who didn't. They were the ones who influenced the trajectory of the genre as it was forming. On the other hand, I have seen a lot of stories that are not the stereotypical manly man and super feminine guy. And I think over time, it went from the androgynous kind of distance ideal where I'm the voyeur who sees the perfect relationship. I can voyeuristically take pleasure in the fact of that relationship. I mean, not to project myself as one character with another, and that's the mistake that I think a lot of people make when they look at yaoi and don't know it. They think that the female reader is projecting herself as often abused and emotionally traumatized.
Robin: I'm watching the relationship.
Bamboo:But why can't she watch a heterosexual relationship?

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