January 14, 2007

Yaoi 101


It might be helpful to start out describing what yaoi is not: it's not "gay" literature per se; that is, stories written by or for the gay community. It is not about gay culture, nor does it focus on the real-life concerns of recognizably "realistic" gay men in any meaningful manner.

Yaoi is a fantasy genre written largely by women for women--enough of them, in fact, to comprise a significant market presence in Japan. An acronym, it means Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi, or "No climax (lit., "no mountain"), no point, no meaning."

But here, in the translation from Japan to the west, a confusion of terms enters the picture that needs to be clarified.

In Japan yaoi refers more specifically the genre created in the doujinshi, or amateur, manga market. In this respect, it is the closer analog to slash. Slash is a fan fiction genre that pairs up same-sex leads, mostly from television series, and places them in sexual relationships. The granddaddy of all slash pairings is, of course, Kirk/Spock. Others include Mulder/Krycek and Xena/Gabrielle. Hence, "slash."

Like yaoi, slash is a PWP (Plot, what plot?) literary style, which, along with the obvious copyright issues, confines it to the realm of fan fiction. Copyright law in Japan allows explicitly derivative doujinshi ("parody") a much freer rein. As long as parody doujinshi maintain their "amateur" status (like NCAA athletes), the copyright holders treat it as free publicity, and publishers regularly scout out doujinshi for emerging talent worth taking pro (again, like the NCAA).

(For breezy, funny, and informative forays into the nuts and bolts of the doujinshi and otaku subcultures I recommend the anime series Comic Party, which focuses on the travails of a doujinshi manga artist; Animation Runner Kuromi, which documents the workings of a small animation studio; and the very funny Genshiken, which depicts the lives of those hapless but lovable geeks who voraciously consume manga and anime.)

However, even in Japan, there is no way to commercialize derivative yaoi/slash without compromising the lucrative cross-media licensing business that drives the billion-dollar manga/anime industry. In fact, manga periodicals are often published at a loss, in the same way that Hollywood television series, especially sit-coms, are sold to the networks at a loss, with the expectation of recouping the investment in syndication.

So the emergence of a commercial "yaoi" market in the U.S. isn't really about yaoi at all, but what in Japan is called shounen-ai ("boy's love") or "BL," featuring bishounen (beautiful boy, or B-Boy) characters. Because no matter what the context, in English, "boy's love" sounds like kiddie porn, So yaoi became the default hypernym for the entire genre. In this context, though, I use it only to refer to BL, which usually features adult (or at least teenage) protagonists.

On this side of the Pacific, porn (hentai) is often analyzed as a counterpart to female romance literature of the Harlequin variety, and visa-versa. The comparison is useful here as well. Yaoi is the yin to hentai's yang. If hentai asks, along with Henry Higgins, why a woman can't be more like a man (sexually), yaoi makes the obviously contrary proposition: Why can't guys be really into relationships like girls? (But still into sex like guys?)

Sex is certainly not absent from Harlequin romances, and western observers who overplay the explicitness of (heterosexual) "Ladies Comics" (explicit manga aimed at women 18+) miss the point that if you illustrated the typical Harlequin Blaze title, that's exactly what you would get. But the cliche is correct: sex in romance novels primarily serves as the confirmation of the relationship, not as a goal of the relationship.

The formulation can be summarized that simply: take one of the aforementioned Harlequin titles, swap out the female protagonist, and there you go: yaoi. (Adjust sex accordingly: from "idealistically chaste" to "horny like rabbits.") Or rather, take a yaoi title, swap in a female protagonist (and adjust personalities accordingly, subtracting the requisite S&M elements), and you'd end up with a fairly ordinary romance novel.

In his review of Brokeback Mountain, Steve Sailer describes the plot as a "gay fantasy," that "somewhere out there is an ultra-masculine cowboy who will fall head over heels in love with [you] and pine away for [you] his whole life." One of Sailer's gay readers later added, "It's a gay man's fantasy that he can turn a masculine man gay and have him pine at him forever (and be monogamous of course!)."

Romance literature creates protagonists with the same magical powers, women whose feminine wiles will domesticate the rake, the pirate, the millionaire playboy, the rugged, lone Marlboro Man. Glenn Reynolds' fourteen-year-old niece perhaps summed it up the best: "[Brokeback Mountain] is a chick-flick with nothing but hot guys." Rebecca Copeland, professor of Japanese studies at Washington University, agrees, theorizing that

Japanese women are attracted to stories of male homosexuality because it's the only place in their society where they can see images of men in a loving, caring relationship where both partners are considered to be equals. It's the kind of relationship that Japanese women crave for themselves but rarely find within the confines of traditional Japanese society.

This still does not answer the question posed by Mark McLelland: "Why Are Japanese Girls' Comics full of Boys Bonking?" And rarely as true "equals," protagonists typically described as seme (aggressor) and uke (receiver). McLelland begins by arguing that the same thing works in reverse, pointing to the popularity of so-called "lesbian" sex in male porn, where, "women combine ultra-feminine bodies with implausibly guy-like appetites for casual sex" (even more true of hentai).

It all gets back to Henrietta Higgins wondering why a man can't be more like a woman. Well, the famous all-female Takarazuka theater troupe does it literally: all the male leads are (of course) played by women with cropped hair and (fairly forced) alto voices.

Watching a Takarazuka production, I'm reminded of a slick, professionally-produced junior high school drama club production, with the pubescent boys trying their best to look and sound like grown men--or rather, what they think grown men look and sound like. The unabashed, straight-faced sincerity of the effort constitutes much of the fun.

Aside from its sheer novelty, there is also a distinctively (hetero)sexually-unthreatening aura about a Takarazuka musical, knowing that the leading lady is in fact falling into the arms of . . . another woman. With a simple reversal of polarities, this is the same effect achieved by yaoi. Thus, no surprise that the willowy, porcelain-skinned Takarazuka "leading man" looks exactly like the typical manga or anime yaoi protagonist.

Compare this head-shot of Takarazuka actress Sumire Haruno to the completely unrelated yaoi cover art at the top of the page. (View the complete cast here.)

Just as hetero hentai features female characters with male sex drives, yaoi, too, is similarly founded upon extrapolations of idealized sexual (on one hand) or platonic (on the other) male relationships. Although slash is a "parody" genre, it points to a real truth about the "buddy picture" dynamic. From Star Trek to the Lethal Weapon movies, these are stories about strong, confident, unsentimental male relationships.

These borderline yaoi relationships show up in (often slashed) mainstream manga and anime aimed at pubescent boys such as Gundam Wing, Berserk, and Descendants of Darkness. The guys in these action series carry about big phallic weapons, and/or big Oedipal Complexes, and/or exhibit obvious alpha/beta (senpai/kouhai) pairings, and spend precious little time with, or exhibit much interest toward, members of the opposite sex

This may be also because much of the (male) target audience still thinks that girls have cooties, or is just plain scared to death of them. But there is no questioning the social safe harbor that boys seek and find with the neighborhood gang or best friend/buddy (as in Stand by Me).

As Norah Vincent observes in Self-Made Man, these are comfortable, nonjudgmental, inclusive relationships devoid of pretense, where "They took [you] at face value . . . [and] if you did your job or held up your end, and treated them with the passing respect they accorded you, you were all right." In contrast to the "amount of rejection and hauteur that heterosexual men put up with" dating women.

Norah Vincent came to these conclusions after spending a year disguising her sexual identity and inserting herself into various facets of male society. She literally fulfilled Henry Higgins' wish. Yaoi does in fiction what Norah Vincent did in real life. It inserts the reader into heart of a feminized gloss of the male "buddy" relationship, sans the social burdens and elaborate rituals and Victorian restraints that accompany heterosexual matchmaking.

UPDATES: here, here, and here.

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Comments:

# posted by Anonymous Sophia
This was a pretty funny and interesting post. :) I cracked up when you changed Henry Higgins to Henrietta Higgins. That was a good one. I never thought that much about it since shounen-ai just gives me the chills, but there's a lot more to it than meets the eye.
3/06/2007 4:06 PM