Yaoi 101: Girls Love "Boys' Love"

Cathy Camper


"It felt like a dream -- with a man who whispers foreign words -- a single night of fantasies: my world would never be the same." from Golden Cain, by You Asagiri

This may sound like a quote from a romance novel, except that in this Japanese manga, or comic, created by women for women, the lovers are pretty gay boys. Manga have hit America big time. If you're an adult, the word "manga" may not be in your vocabulary yet. But if you're a kid, manga are everywhere: on Saturday morning cartoons, in toy stores, and in magazines. Librarians see manga flying off the shelves, and even more telling, "how to draw manga" books are now way more popular than "how to draw superhero" books. Chances are, comics by the next generation will emulate the big eyes of Astroboy, not the bulging biceps of Superman.

Recently, Tokyopop, a manga publisher, negotiated a deal to publish manga in Universal Press Syndicate's daily newspapers. The newspapers hope the manga will draw younger, hipper readers. Tokyopop hopes to introduce manga to the mainstream. Shelf Awareness, an e-mail newsletter for booksellers, notes that US manga sales have risen from $10 million six years ago to $300 million today. And unlike readers of traditional comics, sixty percent of manga readers are female.

Why would women read romances about "gay" guys? Well, why do straight guys like images of lesbians? Generally, the thought is that two pretty people are better than one. But perhaps more telling, as with romance novels, in boys' love manga, women are the ones creating the male images. Ironically, a romance between two men can bypass misogyny and female stereotypes; removing the femme avatar can open up a freedom of sexual exploration and imagination for female artists that they don't find in heterosexual erotica. For example, rough play in het relationships is almost always abusive toward women, but with two guys, readers can pick and choose whom they want to identify with.

In Japan, there are manga for boys, girls, and adults. Everyone reads comics, and they're not considered a lesser art form. The "gay" love comics are just one genre among shojo, or girls' comics. Such comics have lots of names and genres. Shonen-ai or shounen-ai means "boy love." This genre emphasizes relationships and romance over sex. Bishonen or bishounen means "beautiful boy". Yaoi is the sexier stuff, an acronym for "yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi", or "no climax, no point, no meaning" -- a pretty good definition of pornography generally. There's also an old joke that yaoi is really an acronym for "yamete kudasai, oshiri ga itai yo", or, "Stop it, my butt hurts!". Generally, yaoi is smuttier than shonen-ai, but the Japanese names have shifted in meaning over time, as have their connotations in the West, so for this article, I'll use the generic term "boys' love".

In order to read any manga, Western readers need to adapt, and sexy manga's no exception. It's not just that the story lines are quirky. For one thing, manga should be read and published from right to left, as in Japan, to maintain the integrity of the artwork. Western readers may have trouble following Japanese names and nicknames, or even figuring out a character's gender. And when something is unclear, you can't always tell if it's culture clash or just a bad translation. Then again, phrases like "I'm gonna rape you now!" or "All of your orifices are mine!" are more found than lost in translation -- oddly, sometimes the misuse of English communicates more creatively than standard English would. Translations of manga don't always include the sound effects, but current publishers like Central Park Media do a nice job of it, maintaining them as part of the artwork.

Another manga technique that may take some getting used to for Western readers is the presence of “super-deformed characters. Often, right in the middle of a heavy emotional scene, the drawing style switches from super-realistic to goofy and silly. To Westerners, this makes no sense: why, after a hot sex scene, are the characters suddenly shown as wacky cartoons? But "super-deformed" drawings are a kind of ultra-personification of emotion. The manga Gravitation is a goldmine of super-deformity. When its rock-star hero Shuichi Shindou is happy, he becomes a butterball bouncing off the walls. But when he's moping over his boyfriend Eiri Yuki, he's often shown wearing a droopy-eared bunny suit.

Then you get all the oddities of translating sex. Americans try to compartmentalize sex by age appropriateness, so manga published in the US are often ranked by a coding system similar to movie ratings. The fear is that what you read is what you do. In contrast, in Japan, manga aren't considered anything like reality, and what you read doesn't have much to do with how you act. It's impossible to read much manga without running into this blatant difference between East and West. For example, in a giant compilation of what appeared to be kids' comics, I found a tale starring Strawberry Shortcake-type moppets, who, uh, stuck hoses up their rear ends, inflating themselves so they flew into the sky, giving readers cute little panty crotch shots. The End. Huh? Maybe the story would have seemed less bizarre if I could have understood the text. Or take Passion, which features an explicit love affair between student Hikaru and his male teacher. Clearly Japanese comics follow a whole different code of ethics, based not on Puritan principles but on the idea that what can be daydreamed can also be drawn.

However, some things are forbidden: mainly, graphic depictions of genitals and pubic hair. Erections are sometimes replaced with other phallic objects, such as clip art of the Eiffel Tower or an eggplant. Most boys; love comics employ tasteful airbrushing or a crucially placed "cone of light," making it difficult to tell who's coming and going. Central Park Media's Be Beautiful line, however, is more explicit and sometimes kinky; titles like Target in the Finder pretty much bare all. Finally, almost all manga include "girly-girl" notes from the female creators to their fans, apologizing for mistakes and agonizing over deadlines, and then providing authors' astrological signs and blood types (which the Japanese believe indicate personality types, like astrological signs). All of this adds layers of meta-realities to already unusual tales.

Some of the first US fans for Japanese boys' love comics were also aficionados of "slash fiction", fan-written sex fantasies about pop stars. "Slash" refers to the linking of the participants: early characters included Kirk/Spock and Starsky/Hutch, but more recent examples include anyone from the X-Files to boy bands to Harry Potter. Slash fiction is an underground, and in many cases, female, usurpation of pop spectacle. Every shagging of Harry Potter is also a shagging of the mass media's claim to trademark and copyright exclusivity. These writings, no matter how bad, have a gleeful energy, with even the most protected franchised characters sprouting erections and mating indiscriminately. And there's also a kind of exhilarated relief in seeing them skewer American "look, don't touch" buddy flicks. C'mon, could all those pajama-wearing guys have spent years aboard the Starship Enterprise and never bonked each other, even out of boredom? Witty, sexy slash fiction breaks the stereotype that women prefer romance to smut and expands the genre of porn by including female storytelling, parody, and cultural critique.

In Japan, there's more crossover between fan-created fiction, or doujinshi, and mainstream media. Doujinshi versions of manga and anime (Japanese animation) characters, such as Digimon, Wolf's Rain, and Sailor Moon, dirty and clean, thrive and are eagerly traded at fan conventions and online. In one instance, Gravitation author Maki Murakami wrote her own x-rated doujinshi, in which everyone, including her original Gravitation plot, gets screwed.

Not all boys' love comics are sexy; many read like middle school romances. If you cover the drawings and read only the dialogue, you get teen angst: "Will he notice me?" "Does he like me?" "Why did he ignore me?" "Should I call him?" The slim, long-legged, flat-chested boy characters resemble adolescent girls. Some books, like Alone in My King's Harem, feature ultra-femme ukes, or bottoms, who sport such flowery dresses and huge manes of "My Little Pony" hair that you can tell they're boys only because they're referred to by masculine pronouns.

The object of the mooning and yearning is usually taller and older, while almost every uke declares at some point, "But we're GUYS!!" Despite all the sex, these characters often -- although not always -- insist they are not gay. Issues like AIDS or discrimination by straight friends are mentioned, but gay camaraderie and politics are shied away from. Boys' love manga are usually fairly closeted, even though stories about guys shagging each other seem, at first glance, obviously gay. But if boys' love manga are in fact erotica for women, things are far more complicated than that. In addition, the attitudes toward gay culture depicted in boys' love manga have many sources: the writer's ignorance, cultural differences, editorial decisions, translation flaws -- in Yellow, the characters use the words "fag" and "homo", but I don't think the intent was to be offensive. It's my understanding that Japan is generally more accepting than the US of gay culture; it's the break with family and tradition, and the outward depiction of any intimacy, straight or gay, that's seen as disruptive.

Boys' love comics never show anyone who would be classified in the US as a bear, perhaps because of the general Japanese repugnance for body hair. On a larger scale, though, what's missing from boys' love manga is the heavy baggage of adult sexuality: body hair, developed guts and genitals, periods and pregnancy and paying the bills. One can almost hear a collective adolescent groan, "Eeeww!" In these stories, adults are most often secondary characters: teachers or parents. Sometimes, gay clubs and older gay men are portrayed as perverted. In Kizuna, when protagonist Ran is invited to a gay club by an older professor, the professor then drugs him and attempts to molest him.

The Internet has expanded what began as a marginal market, and multivolume titles such as Banana Fish, Fake, and Gravitation are carried by many public libraries. And publishers take note: there may be an audience beyond comic book fans and science fiction geeks for boys' love material. Some statistics: in 2001, Nielsen ratings surveys found that 52 percent of the viewers of the gay-themed TV series Queer as Folk were women. James Schamus, producer of the film Brokeback Mountain told the Dallas Morning News, Our marketing is paying a lot of attention to women. It's a movie that reaches out and taps your empathy, so we want empathetic people to see the movie -- e.g., women. It's also a great romance. The female audience has responded immediately and passionately to the romance of it, regardless of the gender of the protagonists. Or how about this quote from the Village Voice review of Greg Araki's film Mysterious Skin, a queer, artistic take on pedophilia: Araki says Mysterious Skin is tapping into an unexpected demographic. "It seems to bring out a maternal instinct in older women, who I thought would be freaked out. At the Toronto screening, the median age was like 55."

Maternal feelings may also be part of the appeal of boys' love manga -- especially of less graphic titles such as Banana Fish -- to both younger and older women. The story lines evoke a desire to comfort, nurture, and unite the characters through caring love. Banana Fish's hero and seme, or top character, Ash, has been brutally brought up by mafia thugs, making him a tough and wary teen. Readers long to break through his cold facade and nurture his psychological and physical wounds. Ash's indifferent, callous nature tortures his uke, Eiji, and readers identify with Eiji's need to share his feelings and to be recognized for his emotions and his ability to love.

Gay male filmmakers and boys' love manga publishers insist that their audiences are separate. The writers of Queer as Folk did not write for a straight female crowd (in their statements, you can detect an almost Jonathan Frazen-like fear of a feminine, Oprah-watching audience); while yaoi publishers say that their conventions and book signings are attended almost exclusively by women. There is crossover, but it's happening outside the purview of marketers. After all, the beautiful boy genre existed even before it was named; works like S.E. Hinton's novel The Outsiders, Morrisey's depressive-rock songs and Todd Haynes' film Velvet Goldmine grabbed both gay guys and straight girls by the heartstrings. Not all gay men want slam-bam porn; some guys are as attracted to nurturing as women supposedly are. And not all women want wine and roses; some would like a few more buns and wieners at the picnic. Comics, porn, science fiction, and gay writing have all been separate markets. It may take a while for fans and fictions to find each other. Varying formats, such as DVDs, novelizations, radio plays, role-playing Internet games, and cell phones may help. If media moguls take the risk and get it right, they will be well-rewarded by attractive demographics: women are more avid readers than men, and gay men are enthusiastic consumers.

Tokyopop, at least, is not ignoring this possibility. Tokyopop's editor Lillian Diaz-Przybyl mentioned that her new line of boys' love manga, BLU, features theme colors of blues and violets rather than the usual "pinks and purples associated with young girls' manga". The tales are racy and explicit. Shinobu Kokoro features stories about young ninjas and their masters. Love Mode, popular in Japan, is an eleven-volume series centered on the clients and workers of Blue Boy, a male escort service. In volume one, the young Izumi questions his sexual orientation when he's mistaken for a male escort and is showered with attention by the older Takamiya. Tokyopop is also avidly seeking new, American writers through its website.

As genres and cultures mix, female artists who are able and willing to break away from formulaic writing will make the boys' love genre their own. When they're not crowded out or cowed by male writers or editors, female yaoi writers are changing the face of erotica addressing a female audience with portrayals of a more fluid sexuality, more female-attractive males and sexual scenarios, and elements of nurturing and caring -- all within a context of hot sex.

Cathy Camper is a writer, artist, and librarian. She recently published a science book for kids, Bugs Before Time, Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives. Her articles have appeared in places like Wired, Utne Reader, Cricket, Cicada, Giant Robot and Mizna. She's an aquarian; blood type O. Check out her website, www.cathycamper.com.

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