Welcome to Anime Pride Month! I’m starting this series to open a discussion about the good and bad LGBT+ representation in anime. I realized, as I was writing this article actually, that there is way too much information to only do one article. So, like any of my anime article series, we’ll start with the more well known and move to the obscure.
I think it is safe to say that, when hearing LGBT+ representation in anime, the first thing any anime fan imagines is yaoi. Yaoi is…pervasive. As a subgenre, it is surprisingly influential and most fans have run across it one way or another. Reactions to it may vary, but there is no denying the affect its had. Consequently, there’s plenty to dissect and explore.
Before we continue with deeper analysis, though, I would like to clear something up. As a Western anime fan, there are certain terms, tropes, and stereotypes that you grow used to. However, many of these terms, tropes, etc, have completely different cultural connotations in Japan. As such, I want to clean up some common terms so we’re all on the same page!
- Yaoi is used rather differently here in America than in Japan. In America, it takes on the umbrella of any anime or manga with a romantic and/or sexual gay plot. In contrast, yaoi in Japan is much less broad. Most stories with a gay romantic plot fall under “Shounen-ai,” or “Boy’s Love (BL)” while the sexual plots usually stay with “Bara”. This is rather oversimplifying it, but like any genre, definitions are complex. Regardless, yaoi in Japan more directly relates to fan-made manga that pairs two, sometimes unrelated, male characters together.Historically, Yaoi was derived from an acronym of “Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi,” or “No peak (climax), no fall (punch line/denouement), no meaning”. This was originally an insult and dismissal of yaoi’s poor manga quality by Osamu Tezuka. For the purpose of this article, I will use yaoi to denote the American context and BL for the Japanese.
- Doujinshi, or doujin, refers to fan-created work. While this does not directly relate to our discussion, the doujin community is largely responsible for the creation of yaoi/BL!
- Fujoshi is a, usually derogatory, term aimed at fangirls of yaoi/BL. Fujoshi literally translates to “rotten girl.” While mostly derogatory, the term has been co-opted by some yaoi/BL fans. The male equivalent is “fudanshi”
Now, onto the show!
Girls Love Boy’s Love
I’m going to start with something hopefully unsurprising… The target audience for yaoi/BL has never been gay/bi/pan men. Currently, fujoshi make up the largest demographic buying yaoi in America and BL in Japan. It makes sense, then, that the publishing companies would want to cater to them. And by cater I mean pander. Because of this, a lot of the current tropes, characters, and plot-lines in yaoi/BL are those that appeal to a female fan-base.
To an outsider, a lot of the relationships in these manga can seem contrived, frustrating, pandering, or downright abusive. It is no secret to what sells in terms of romance and yaoi runs the gambit from Harlequin-romance-novel style smut to stories that make your heart melt, and everything in between. To top it off, the relationships often cater to a heteronormative viewpoint. Essentially, the stories try to make themselves accessible to their targeted demographic, meaning they show a same-sex relationship framed in a way that is appealing to straight women. For example, though both characters are men, there is usually one who is the clear “female” and one who is the clear “male” in the relationship. There is, though, an element of freedom for female fans that I would be remiss to not point out.
See, most media, like it or not, is targeted at the male gaze. Even in female-positive pieces, women still get objectified for the sake of the male gaze. It’s a difficult problem to shake. As such, many yaoi fans argue that, though not progressive in stories, it is progressive as it completely lacks the male gaze. By pandering to the female fans, BL creates a space for women to explore their sexuality without an overtly objectify influence. I understand that, but its not without its problems.
In terms of actually and accurately portraying a blossoming gay relationship, most yaoi/BL falls short. Homosexuality is still, for the most part, taboo in Japan. People who feel same-sex attraction are often silenced, ostracized, or exoticized. Yet, in the idea world of yaoi/BL, these real life problems don’t exist. Instead, they live in a fantasy world. Consequently, in a strange mix of innocence and fetishization, the stories in yaoi/BL have limited appeal.
The American Experience
Japan, as you may expect, has a glut of manga of every variety. Compared to that, the selection of any manga in America is downright barren. So, of course, the selection of yaoi in Japan is a lot better. Like I explained above, yaoi is but one of many male-male subgenres. Others, particularly “Bara”, aren’t targeted at fujoshi and have stories that, while equally smutty in most cases, have more authenticity and wider appeal.
So, why haven’t you heard of these genres? The answer is simple. They aren’t brought to America. Publishing companies see the mainstream BL to be far more profitable in America. They don’t see the point in bringing over manga that is not a guaranteed sell. At most, only one or two titles outside of BL have been officially published in America. Scanlations are always an option, but their quality, of course, varies.
Yaoi/BL is good at what it does. It is a fine fairy tale. For those, though, who want something more in terms of story, don’t despair! Recently, as Japan has started down the path of being more culturally accepting of homosexuality, more accurate stories have started to come through to an American audience. These are stories that depict actual relationships, with all the trials accompanying them! They aren’t even limited to yaoi either, as we’ve started to get mainstream stories with gay/bi/pan characters! Now, the only problem catching anime fans up with the times.