March 29, 2007

Power, sex, and narrative voice in yaoi


My sister Kate offers the following analysis, which I find the most compelling yet.

I think [the appeal of yaoi] is about power.

First, I don't think the competition argument will work [that the reader perceives herself to be in competition with the protagonist], since many generations of romance critics have argued that a romance must have a female protagonist so women readers will have a representative in the story. I don't credit that argument with any substantial merit (although romance guidelines are absolute in this regard). My point is rather that this argument is just the flip side of the argument against a female protagonist.

I think part of the yaoi fascination is an age thing--hence the American Idol "scandal" over the long-haired teen, Sanjaya. Of course, Howard Stern is trying to keep the kid on, but I really can't believe Stern explains all the kid's votes. I don't really get it myself.

However, when I was a teen, I did find Mercutio more interesting than Romeo, and the villain of Duchess of Malfi more interesting than . . . well, there aren't any heros in The Duchess. But I found the villain most interesting (and still do). The Crucible was my favorite play. I preferred Luke Skywalker to Han Solo, Modred to Launcelot (still do), and I actually loved Faustus (the play), which didn't last since Christopher Marlow is pretty unintelligible.

I think yaoi utilizes that dark angsty persona so attractive to teenagers (male and female); more importantly, yaoi develops the problems that surround the dark, angsty persona, problems like "Should I sell my soul?" or "Should I satisfy ambition by betraying everybody?" or "Should I murder my uncle?" In other words, issues of power. And I think the attraction is that when all you've got is men, you don't have to worry about them breaking role and moving on and getting self-reflective and deciding all this power stuff is nonsense, thank you very much.

In fact, I still enjoy stuff like Nero Wolfe and Horatio Hornblower and Law & Order where the relationships are primarily between men and they discuss issues of power, primarily hierarchical power, and nobody feels apologetic about it.

Now, most people don't want a power-wielding-angsty persona around in real life (wouldn't Hamlet be a drag?), but we do like to surround ourselves culturally with old-fashioned chivalric and power-oriented ideas regarding honor and justice, etc. And one of the sad truths is that men still have a corner on that stuff (media-wise)--Buffy excepted. And I think women (like me) really, really dig this stuff and get tired of having to say things like, "Well, yes, but of course, it is too, too chauvinistic" or "Well, yes, but we all know that that sort of power is just wrong, and that's not how things should work at all." (Which is why the end of Buffy stank--it got apologetic.)

Which brings us back to yaoi, because once women are involved, those kind of explanatory, so-sorry statements become necessary, not because they really are necessary, but because the writers seem to think they are. But if it is just men then nobody has to excuse the blatant use of power. So teenage girls, who may feel rather powerless (since they have just seen their male counterparts gain weight, muscle and height that they don't have), may be drawn to material where real issues of power are played out without excuse or without the pretense that power isn't real, there and in your face.

Also, to be all feminine about it, I imagine there is the added plus of being able to read about power with relationships thrown in. I don't want to watch or read stuff that's the equivalent of a Risk game. Ahhhh, snore. But I love watching Nero and Archie work out their intensely bizarre relationship episode after episode.

What Kate calls the "competition argument" is an extension of the rather silly (when you think about it) notion, especially in Y/A literature, that in order for the reader to identify with the protagonist, the protagonist must be just like the reader. The success of anime and yaoi make it clear that these similarities are far more subjective and existential than objective and categorical.

There's no doubt that boys who watch My Hime are going to identify with Mai and not her little brother. And they identify with her because she's the one with the power (and the cool robot) at the center of the conflict.

Hmm, can you empower women and exploit them at the same time? My Hime sure does. But seriously, perhaps because Japanese society has managed to become post-modern while remaining in many respects unapologetically anti-feminist (coming in dead last whenever the U.N. measures such things among the developed countries), the realities of power don't get papered over with political correctness.

So even if the initial thought is no deeper than, "Girls are interesting (especially girls with big breasts)," the ends justify the means. Whatever the reason, Japanese mass media paradoxically produces far more believable female SF&F action heroines than Hollywood does.

Kate continues:

One of the interesting changes in romance novels over the past fifty years is the addition of the male perspective. Now it is very nearly de jure, according to my experts, to add a chapter or occasional paragraphs detailing the male perspective. It could be argued that this gives the reader insight into male thinking except I don't think the reader cares much. Rather, I think the male perspective serves as a balancing mechanism for the reader.

For example, seeing things from the male perspective prevents romances from being blatantly chauvinistic. If the male seduces the female (a la Pamela), it feels a trifle exploitative (although Pamela is a great book). But if the male seduces the female, and the reader knows that he really, really loves her and really, really cares and really, really finds her enchanting and really, really didn't mean to scare her, the reader becomes complicit in the seduction--that is, the reader approves of the seduction.

It isn't a conspiracy or anything; novel writing is, well, novel writing, not real life. People do not necessarily approve of domineering men seducing innocent women in real life. But romance novels drag relationships out of the day-to-day business of having to actually ask people what they think into the fantasy world of everybody kind of knowing without anybody actually having to ask.

Some writer I read somewhere once mentioned that Victorians loved mystery stories (Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins) because they got into all that Anne Perry stripping-away-the-rooftop stuff and peering into people's private lives. I think perspective in novels does the same thing. It lets us peek without having to ask. So, readers are all secret voyeurs. But we already knew that.

In yaoi, power relationships are defined right in the terminology: seme (from the verb meaning "to aggress") and uke (from the verb meaning "to receive"). They are, as you might expect, highly analogous to "male" and "female," but in their most traditional readings, pushing the power relationship to the same extremes (implicit domination and explicit S&M themes) that so infuriate old-school feminists about the "faux Regency" Harlequin genre.

Though Steven Pinker might point out that what these genres represent is, if anything, a civilizing reaction to our true natures rather than a reinforcement of them:

Even if the meek could inherit the earth, natural selection could not favor the genes for meekness quickly enough. In any case, human nature has not changed so much as to have lost its taste for violence [and power] . . . if we are to judge by the popularity of murder mysteries, Shakespearean dramas, Mel Gibson movies, video games, and hockey.

What has changed, Pinker argues, bringing about a remarkable diminution in violence and the abuse of power in modern civilization, is a growing unwillingness to act on these fantasies combined with the ability (and license) to virtualize them at a safe distance from the real world. Go Nagai, a pioneering manga-ka in the hentai genre gets right to the point about his latest work:

I'd like this comic to serve as a brake for all those university professors struggling to keep control over themselves so they can read it and be satisfied instead of taking matters into their own hands.

In other words, while we may not want to celebrate it too openly, it just may be our embrace of the low brow--murder mysteries, Shakespearean dramas (Shakespeare was a lot lower brow than he's given credit for), Mel Gibson movies, video games, and hockey--that is keeping civilization itself from tumbling over the edge.

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Comments:

# posted by Blogger C. L. Hanson
Regarding Pinker's point, I saw a fascinating related point from Greta Christina about the popularity of Male-Dom/Female-Sub porn. Here's the main relevant quote:

But -- again, speaking only for myself now -- in a more immediate day-to-day sense, the reality that I want a fantasy escape from isn't sexism.

It's the fight against sexism.

It's the constant vigilance against the stupid sexist indoctrination that's been sunk into my head since I was an infant. It's the constant struggle to be assertive when I've been taught to be compliant, to speak up when I've been taught to be a good listener, to argue when I've been taught to be agreeable... all without turning into an asshole. It's the constant half-second arguments I have in my head every time a guy says or does something sexist -- is this particular battle worth fighting? Do I respond, or let it go?

It gets exhausting. Not just for women, but for men as well, who're contending with the flip side of gender indoctrination and changing roles and expectations. And I think a big part of the appeal of the male-dom female-sub fantasy is that it offers a break from the fight. It offers an opportunity -- whether in a role-play scene in real life or a masturbation fantasy in your head -- to take a vacation from the battle, to briefly
wallow in the familiar roles, in a safe place that's separate from your everyday life.

And like most vacation spots, for most people it isn't the place where you'd really want to live. Sure, there are people who do 24/7 male-dom female-sub relationships, just like there are people who sell their houses and move to Tahiti. But for most people, part of the pleasure of a good vacation is how happy you are to come home from it, the fresh perspective it gives you on everything you love about your everyday life.
6/12/2008 3:19 AM