Chicks On Anime
Seme Like it Hot

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, S. Pocock, Oct 13th 2009

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.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

This week, it's back to boys love, as we argue over why it's seemingly okay to have an uke male, but not an uke female. Is there a double standard, or just something we're resigned to agree to disagree over? Afterward, we'd like to hear your thoughts in the forums, so hop on over, and let us know your thoughts.


Bamboo: A few weeks back at New York Anime Fest, I was watching a group of fans rifle through a stack of yaoi doujinshi, and it reminded me of something you said a while back, Casey. You presented a theory about yaoi, saying that part of the subconscious appeal was to allow women to view a relationship without projecting themselves into it. Do you recall that?
Casey: First of all, it's not really a theory of "yaoi," per se. It's a theory of why boys love, both commercial and original stories, are popular in Japan. The "in Japan" part is important because whenever I bring it up, you always get the inevitable non-Japanese people going on and on about, “that's not how it is for me.” It's only about Japanese female BL readers—and even then, it wouldn't apply to everyone. So bear that in mind. It's generally agreed that girls, and for manga it's usually tween-teen girls, do not read BL while imagining themselves as one character or the other. Even though the uke is typically very feminine, she does not imagine herself as him. Likewise, even though the seme dominates the uke, often in violent ways, she's not imagining herself as him either. The context of reception is typically voyeuristic, where the girl observes from "above."

The reason why, then, that BL is so appealing is because it describes a relationship that is potentially better than anything the girl could experience in real life. Since Japan is a very patriarchal country where equality for women just, well, isn't, it's said that girls have trouble imagining a truly equal, romantic relationship that includes a woman. Thus, for these girls, the ideal romantic relationship is the one that does not include them.

Also, on a more practical level, a relationship that does not include them is a place of safety. Adult relationships can be big and scary, and BL presents them to her without strings attached —even by implication.

Bamboo: I don't understand. There's obviously a seme and an uke in most fictional BL relationships—how is that an equal romantic relationship? Isn't that just your standard relationship, except with two generally beautiful men? It seems to me that a viewer could see that relationship, then subconsciously project themselves onto the oppressed one—especially if they live in a patriarchal society.
Casey: But they are still men. Ironically, the more patriarchal the country, the less need there is for a man to "prove" his masculinity—since social place is his birthright. All he needs is a penis, to put it bluntly. He doesn't need to strut his manly stuff all over the place. That said, the assumption often is—even in the case of the so-called rape-fantasies so common to manga—that the uke chooses to be penetrated instead of penetrating. That, of course, is something a woman can't ordinarily do.
Sara: Wait, wait. But the stories are still being written by women, which is the thing I can't wrap my head around. Why would they fantasize about being free from patriarchal constraints, only to write up scenarios about possessive relationships that often feature forced sex?
Casey: Of course, it's ironic that even in the BL context, women cannot imagine a relationship that does not conform in many ways to stereotypical heterosexual relationships. Rape fantasies aren't really fantasies of rape, you know. They're not about being knocked out, dragged into an alley, and forced (often while incurring serious harm). Okay, some people do actually fantasize about rape, but it's rare. In BL, it's typically more of the sort of thing where some guy loves you so damn much that he won't take no for an answer.
Sara: But that is also rape, and much more common in life than back-alley rape.
Bamboo: Right. Most rape victims aren't raped by strangers in an alley. Most strangers are raped by people they know. Not unlike a yaoi scenario, in which you have a dashing authoritative figure, who suckers his blushing partner into having intercourse with him, under the pretense of, "You don't want it now, but by the time I'm done with you, you will like it." I also don't buy that the uke chooses to be penetrated. Why is it that a man can choose to be penetrated, but a woman can't?
Casey: To reproduce naturally, a woman must have intercourse. A man does not.
Sara: But this is assuming that sex is about reproduction, which it's not. Or else what homosexual couples do when they're intimate could not be described as sex.
Casey: Of course not. That is just the semiotics of heterosexual sex. Which, since it is the dominant form, becomes the referent for a genre like BL which is intended for heterosexual readers.
Bamboo: Also, you're assuming that men can't be raped. They, of course, can be raped. Whether it's anally, or even with them as the giver.
Casey: When did I say men couldn't be raped? Honestly, "rape fantasy" is usually a misnomer because the sex isn't truly non-consensual.
Bamboo: When you said that a woman needs to have intercourse to reproduce. It implies that men choose to offer their rears because it's not a natural reproductive course of action. But that also somewhat implies that it's not rape as long as he's offering an alternate hole, so to speak.
Sara: I totally agree on the point that hetero sex, as it's expected in traditional patriarchal societies, is less than ideal for women. It's not about their pleasure at all. But I have a hard time reconciling how BL is an outlet if it is a mirror of the exact same dynamic.
Casey: I said that men can "choose to offer their rears," as you put it. That doesn't mean those "rears" can't be taken...and incidentally, from a patriarchal perspective, that is a heinous crime, because it's treating a man like a woman.
Bamboo: So in yaoi rape fantasies, not only are you raping the uke, but you're degrading him by treating him like a woman. That seems like a double-slap in the face of female readers. I'm not saying that women shouldn't like yaoi. I'm just trying to poke holes in this theory of yours.
Casey: But it's not truly rape in BL. As I said, it's a misnomer. We're just going in circles.
Bamboo: I don't agree that BL rape is somehow not rape. However, we'll get back to that after we've had some time to clear the air. In the meantime, let's talk about yaoi tropes. In hetero romances, it seems to me that there are a limited number of relationship patterns. You have the childhood friend trope, whom the other suddenly realizes he or she has romantic feelings for, after one accidental hand graze, or some catalyst. You have the one where the two are "enemies," but realize they're falling for each other. You have the one where someone is always getting the short end of bad relationships, but then learns that what they've been looking for was "in front of them all along." So on, so forth. In your experience, Casey, are there yaoi tropes as well? Ones that are unique only to yaoi?
Casey: You've really got the wrong person here when it comes to cataloguing BL tropes. I readily admit I don't find it that interesting. But I will say that often they are the same sorts of stories that you would find in heterosexual romantic comedy. Sometimes BL is categorized by the age/life stage of the characters—such as the school story or the salaryman story. Middle aged salarymen have become increasingly popular as the audience for BL—as with all manga audiences in Japan—gets older.

Off the top of my head...there's also the toshishita seme story, where the seme is younger than the uke... Of course, this is an implied power tension, which theoretically, depending upon the storytelling skills of the mangaka, is supposed to make things more interesting. But yeah, most of the stories you'd find similar to heterosexual romance (or porn). Teacher/student stories are actually very popular, though they tend not to make it over to the Pacific. Hopefully we don' t need to talk about why. There is also a lot of incest. Brothers, stepbrothers, cousins, whatever.

Sara: I have a question, Casey. Now, going back to something that was said earlier, I personally hate the idea of a woman taking on the role of "offering herself" in terms of a sexual relationship. It's a throwback to times when women were treated as property and marriages were a means of securing land and possessions. I mean, it's supposed to be a mutually respectful relationship, and I feel like the man offers himself for sex just as much as a woman does.

In these terms, I got the impression a few minutes ago that men "choosing to offer themselves" is some kind of Holy Grail of equality, and that's why female readers are drawn to it. Isn't this a little self-defeating, if it's implied that this sort of relationship is only attainable in a BL fantasy world?

Casey: Well, I think that BL can be very self-defeating. Especially when taken together with genres popular with men in Japan, like moe. We've also discussed this before. Men can only feel an emotional attachment to a prepubescent girl—sexually mature women are too scary—and women write themselves out of the story altogether.

There is a pedagogical element to BL, too, you know. I've met women in Japan who say that they learned about sex as tweens/teens from BL. Ponder that for a moment.

Sara: Um, what. That's insane! And a failure of the fundamental sex education system.
Bamboo: I understand the appeal of moe, though, even though I'm not a male and can't attest to this. What you say about that makes perfect sense. You have a character who relies on you, and expects you to help her and protect her. And also, she's adorable, so it makes you want to squeeze her like a puppy. The male fantasy aspect of that rings true. But yaoi doesn't seem to be an equivalent escapist fantasy. Because even though you write yourself out of the story, the story is the same. The story hasn't changed. Only now, instead of being dominated by a male, you've just shortened the characters' hair and removed his breasts.
Casey: I didn't say that they were equivalent as texts. I was just speaking on a broader level to the dire state of gender relations in Japan.
Bamboo: What you said earlier about the tropes is interesting, though. With pornography, oftentimes what's so scintillating about various scenarios is that you enjoy watching something that is forbidden. The teacher/student relationship is forbidden, thus it's titillating. The incest relationship is very much forbidden, so some people are drawn to it. It's allowing yourself to let go, in spite of possibly being taken advantage of by a figure you may respect or trust.

But writing yourself out of the story no longer has the element of forbiddeness. Obviously, someone could say, "I enjoy seeing two hot men make out, because having two dollars is better than having one dollar." I mean, straight men love lesbian porn because it's two hot chicks having sex. But that's visual aesthetics only, and no longer some deeper psychological or sociological reason.

You did say earlier that the theory applied only to Japanese women. Maybe in the US, it's more about "look, two hot guys making out!" versus a psychological reason. I'm not Japanese, so I don't know if that could be it.

Casey: Well, the narrative structure is different between lesbian porn for men and BL for girls. The lesbian porn intended for men, what was that two-volume manga series put out by Media Blasters?, which showed chapter after chapter of best friends having sex while waiting for the right guy to come along. BL is about “True Love.” In the world of romantic fantasy, once you find your True Love, you don't need anyone else. The woman is literally being written out of the love story.
Sara: Right, but in a way I feel like a lot of BL readers are reluctant to admit the titillating appeal of two guys making out/having sex and refuse to draw a parallel to porn at all.
Bamboo: Actually, you're very much right about that, Casey, and I didn't think about that. Lesbian porn assumes that men are invited, while gay porn excludes women entirely.
Casey: Incidentally, some yuri, which is also popular with guys, a la Yuri-hime is like that also. Perhaps that's why boarding school stories are so popular in that genre—the world is completely closed off from men, as are the female characters relationships with each other. To give another example, Maria-sama ga Miteru.
Bamboo: But even with stories like Maria-sama ga Miteru, you have women who play the "man." She wears pants, she does sports, and all the girls adore her. Often times, they'll have a school play where that woman dresses like a man, and becomes a prince. Yet that seems more... tender and romantic than BL, I think. I think BL has an air of initial reluctance.
Casey: I see that as a failure of imagination more than anything else, honestly.
Sara: Well, there's the parallel in BL, too. The shorter guy who cries a lot, needs emotional support, and what not.
Casey: Well, on a practical level, you have to remember that BL is work for hire. Mangaka have to crank 'em out. The failure of imagination is as much a function of the exigencies of the labor that goes into manga creation as it is the popularity of the old reliables.
Bamboo: It'd be interesting to see a statistical cross-section of the Japanese fanbase to see what other genres yaoi readers most readily read. Would it be shoujo, with the gallant men? Or shonen romances, with the stronger women?
Sara: Failure of imagination is a good way to put it, actually. I've only ever read FAKE, but it was almost exactly like any other romantic comedy. Just with two guys in a hilariously imagined New York instead of a guy and a girl.

Does shonen romance feature strong women, though? I mean, I guess you could define "strong" as "hitting someone with a shoe when they walk in on you naked," but still...

Bamboo: I guess I should redefine that as Akamatsu romances. Not to be confused with the shonen romances where women fall over themselves having cooking contests to impress men. But Casey, something is still eating away at me, and I'm sorry I won't let this poor horse lie. But how is a rape fantasy not rape? If that were the case, then women would enjoy hetero rape anime just as much. Just because there is an uke male doesn't mean it's not rape. That comparison is falling apart for me. Is it just denial? Is it females saying, "Misogyny is bad, but it's okay watching a guy dominate another guy!"
Casey: Rape fantasy in romance novels and the like always implies that the one being “raped” actually wants it or enjoys it. Of course we know in real life that doesn't happen, but in the context of the story, it's just, "Ah, but you protesteth too much!" Something like that. Also, BL does not generally trade in the sorts of degrading images that ecchi manga can.
Bamboo: Well, to be fair, BL and yaoi are not the same. But just the same, I seem to never hear cries of "This anime is so misandrist!. It's always “This is so misogynistic!”
Casey: Remember that insulting the powerful is not the same as insulting the powerless.
Sara: I still find that logic dubious, but the romance novel comparison works. Whatever turns you on, I guess.

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