Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Boy Loves Boy

So a week or so ago I got a request (oh how I love requests :D) to talk about yaoi fangirls. Yaoi fangirls, for those of you who (like me) had heard the term but couldn't remember what it meant, or are unfamiliar with it, refers to "male-male romance narratives [generally in anime] aimed at a female audience" (Wikipedia's definition).

For those of you outside the anime fandom or in multiple fandoms, this should sound pretty familiar - this is incredibly similar to fanfiction's slash, so called because of how pairings are notated, with a slash (ex: John/Sherlock, Dean/Castiel, etc. Though with ship names, it makes things a little simpler now). However, there are two main differences between slash and yaoi. For one, yaoi focuses more on younger boys while slash tends to be about adult men. And secondly, yaoi is published and bought as manga while slash mainly exists only on free online distribution like fan sites. Which is interesting. Though it seems that yaoi stories are looked down upon and seen as "low culture" or less respected or valued cultural works, it is still sold for money, whereas here in the States, it seems like there's not much in the way of popular gay romance stories in the publishing world. I mean, they exist, they have a GLBT section in book stores, but I feel like published books about non-heterosexual romance are kind of lacking. Then again, maybe I just don't know where to look.

Anyway, the question remains as to why there's such an interest in male/male relationships in the fan world. Why is there a yaoi fandom? Why do we continually ship John with Sherlock? Why do we pair Lestrade and Mycroft together even thought they've never been onscreen together in the show, ever?

Because they're adorable, that's why.

Okay, but seriously, why? Thankfully, someone has some ideas. And his name is Henry Jenkins.

Henry Jenkins has sort of been my savior this year. He is a fan, studies fans, and pretty much pioneered the field of fan studies. Without him, I wouldn't have a very strong basis for speculation but, lo and behold, he has an absolutely marvelous book called Textual Poaching. I happen to love it very much.

In said book, Jenkins discusses slash, from the early days with the first male/male relationship shipped* by fans, that of Kirk and Spock from Star Trek, to more theory-based ideas as to why fans - predominantly white middle-class female Americans - are so interested in pairing two men who never have anything more than possible homosexual subtext in a show or film in a very romantic or sexual relationship.  

*FYI, if you are unfamiliar with fan jargon, "ship" is a short form of relationship and is used as a verb to denote someone structuring a pairing, as in, "I ship Johnlock." It also often ends with someone singing Dido's "White Flag," in which she sings, "I will go down with this ship." Once you become acquainted with this term, I assure you that you will never think of ships (the floaty ones on the ocean) in the same way again.


Here's one of Jenkins' very brilliant ideas:
"Slash fiction represents a reaction against the construction of male sexuality on television and in pornography; slash invites us to imagine something akin to the liberating transgression of gender hierarchy... a refusal of fixed-object choices in favor of a fluidity of erotic identification, a refusal of predetermined gender characteristics in favor of a play with androgynous possibility." (189)
I very much like this explanation. Beyond the titillation one might find in seeing two male characters together, Jenkins hones in on something else - the urge to move beyond what society represents as "the male." Because, as we've discussed before, hegemony is boring. Who wants to write about Kirk sleeping with another sexy female when he could be talking about his deep and intense feelings to Spock? Who wants to see the stereotypical male end up with the stereotypical female when clearly his bro understands him better than anyone else?

From the slash I've read, it does something that heterosexual romances often fail to do - create balance. Jenkins discusses this a bit, describing slash as an "alternative form of erotic fiction where 'mutuality, reciprocity, fairness, deep communication and affection, total body integrity for both partners, and equal capacity for choice-making and decision-making are merged with robust playful physical pleasure, intense sensation and brimming-over expressiveness'" (190). As slash is about "reconfiguring the male identity" to Jenkins, it allows for a different expression of male emotion and love that generally isn't seen in society (191). Instead of having the woman be the needy, loving one and the man being the strong, protective one, slash ignores traditional gender roles and flips things around. Also, from the slash I've read, portrayals of homosexuality also seem to avoid stereotypes of gay men. I haven't seen much in the way of "top and bottom" or "tough and femmy;" it seems like men in fanfics are presented much how real men probably are - a mix of masculine and feminine qualities and everything in between and in orbit around them. Which is pretty remarkable, considering Hollywood can't seem to manage to get away from stereotypes of gay men.

Another question that might arise is why, then, are there mostly male/male fanfics and fewer female/female or bisexual or etc? They do exist, though they seem to be rarer (although some stuff gets pretty kinky and crazy and clearly, and wonderfully sexual preference doesn't quite matter. Also, if you're dealing with the Torchwood character Jack Harkness, who's pansexual, then, well, he will sleep with anyone and can be shipped with the entire universe). This could be due to the fact that many of the fanfic writers are heterosexual women and thus find it more appealing to ship men, or that men seem to have less of a chance to reconfigure their identity in culture and fanfiction creates a space for this to occur. Or as Joan Martin puts it, quoted by Jenkins, "'Slash is a wonderfully subversive voice whispering or shouting around the edges and into the cracks of mainstream culture. It abounds in unconventional thinking. It's fraught with danger for the status quo, filled with temptingly perilous notions of self-determination and successful defiance of social norms'" (202).

Of course, this all seems to make sense, but Jenkins and I could be totally wrong. Maybe fans just write slash because... because of reasons. But I get the feeling that maybe there's a little something more to it, especially given how men are represented in society in terms of relationships and emotions. Whether this applies as well to yaoi or not, I sadly can't say as I'm not super well-acquainted with anime. But if this seems like a possible overlap, despite the cultural differences from the places of origin of slash and yaoi anime, let me know. Meanwhile, I'm going to have to dig up some yaoi to read...

Also, I was asked by the same anon who gave the request for this post why cat ears are so popular on characters in Japanese anime. I very honestly did not know, so I did some more searching (yay internet!) and found this very helpful blog post. In summary, it goes to an appeal to animal instincts, mythological creatures, and a bit of objectification with a hint of something representing innocence. Hopefully this provides a bit more insight into the popularity of this trope.

Speaking of tropes...

All citations from: Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins. Published 1992 by Routledge.


  1. If you ever want to 'dig up some yaoi' this is a good place to start http://www.thespectrum.net/manga_scans/yaoi/ (personally recommend Junjo Romantica, it's a favorite)

    1. Awesome! I'll totally start there; thank you so much!

    2. LOVE Junjou Romantica! Well done for recommending :P. In complete contrast to Junjou style, I also recommend FAKE - the characters in that are so not-stereotypically gay that I got a guy I knew who was slightly homophobic to read them and enjoy them (and root for the couple towards the end).
      (Also I'm going to post my own other reply tomorrow)

    3. Excellent! Looks like I'm going to spend my winter break reading lots of manga :D

  2. Hahahaha, I'm baaack! :) Thank you so much for the post about this, and it really helped clear things up. I guess it makes sense--I mean, it kinda breaks the traditional gender-roles and stuff. Hahaha, I love how you explained shipping and all--you always seem to make me laugh. Also, I really enjoy your writing style (I kinda want to be a writer). It's just, I don't know, natural, but not careless, and really engaging. :) Also, I loved your post on People's sexiest man--it was great, and very well stated. And your post with the fanfiction link! xD It really made me laugh--I mean, I write fanfictions of my own, so, yeah. Love your hedgehog socks, and thank you once again. (I feel like I'm ranting, so...) And now the cat ears seem to have more of a purpose. :) Reading your blog is always interesting. I always seem to learn something. Also, what is this I/O thing in psychology, and do you mind doing a post about fanboys sometime?
    Thanks again for everything! :) (Sorry if I was ranting a little bit--I tried to make it short!)

    1. Wow, thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it :D I/O psych is Industrial/Organizational psychology and it focuses on how people function in the work place and how, basically, to make them better workers. I'm not a fan of it for many reasons, but mainly because I dislike how elements of it view workers and how it seems to have a very noticeable bias towards certain jobs over others. I could go on, but it'd end up blog-post length (on that note, don't worry about ranting; I'm very fond of ranting!). I might do a post on I/O now, actually...And yes, I will absolutely do a post on fanboys! I know they've come up now and then on some of my older posts but I never actually talk exclusively about them. So a post devoted to fanboys is most certainly overdue. Also, thank you for your kind words about my writing. My main goal is to try to be thought-provoking and I'm grateful you think it's working!

  3. This is definitely me commenting "tomorrow". Everything I want to say I said in a message to someone recently, so I'm just going to copy that part of my email here. Warning, it's a bit ramble-y.

    "Re: women and slashfic. I think there's a combination of reasons. The two main ones I've seen other people put forward are "I'm attracted to men. Why read about one when I can read about two?" (This probably applies more to pure porn than anything else). Second often-quoted reason: "It's a way of exploring a relationship where the two characters start off on equal footing. One isn't socially higher than the other, as is the case in male/female relationships. There's not "the man is expected to act like a and the woman like b", there's just two people and you can really focus on their personalities, not if they adhere to their own stereotypes". I definitely think there's an element of this involved. But I also think there's another reason. A few weeks ago I was at the Sherlock panel at the Critereon theatre "The Game is On" and towards the end a discussion started about women in television. Louise Brealey (who plays Molly - I don't know how much of a Sherlock fan you are) mentioned that she's aware that now she's in her thirties there's far fewer roles available to her, especially once she's cast as a mother, whereas Martin Freeman said male actors don't have the same worry - if they're cast as a father there's no reason they still won't get to be the lead role of something or the action hero or the romantic hero etc... whereas for women there's young roles or mothers, and that's essentially it. Because Sue Vertue (the producer) was there, they asked why she thought that was - were there less roles for women because producers think people won't want to watch them in lead roles? Louise Brealey added that she's come across 5 year old girls who'll read stories about boys or girls, but 5 year old boys who've already been socialised to only read stories about boys etc. Vertue said she didn't think that was the case (although Steven Moffat added afterwards that whilst she might not think that, there probably are producers who do think that) and it's more to do with a lack of female writers and that people tend to write what they know. Let's leave aside the fact that there's probably not necessarily less female writers because less women want to write and that there is still inherent sexism in the creative industries, I think there's also a problem in this "writing what you know".

    I obviously know how to be a woman. I know what I do in certain situations, and I know how other women might act. But I don't know how to write realistic women quite so much (I'm not saying that I know how to write realistic men though). No matter how much you try to make characters realistic, you are sort of drawing on your knowledge of other fictional characters. 9 times out of 10, female characters are written terribly. Even "strong female characters" aren't realistic half the time. So when I "try to write what I know", I find women difficult. I don't /know/ well written female characters. Or not many of them anyway. Article about female character's roles if you're interested: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/13/women-in-the-media-female_n_2121979.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003 "

    In his reply, my friend recommended I read this: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18423.The_Left_Hand_of_Darkness

    1. I'm certainly going to check out the article about female character's roles and the book your friend recommended. Thank you so much for this response; it's absolutely fantastic. You touch upon something that I've been thinking about a lot in one of my classes this semester but haven't gotten around to writing about on here yet: female authorship. Authorship has a lot of male connotations to it and has greatly affected how women approach writing. Part of why I find fanfiction so interesting is that it's mostly written by women. I need a post for this, so I'll just leave this idea hanging for now...

      I 100% agree with you about how hard it is to write realistic women. Nearly every story I've ever written has had a female protagonist and it's only here recently that I've gotten better at it, by basically admitting that I simply can't do it very well and having my characters dwell over this. In both a semi-novel and a fanfic I'm writing now, I'm really struggling to balance a plot line that's progressing to romance along with trying to keep my female lead strong and level-headed. It's really might be impossible and makes me kind of sad. (Doesn't help she's falling for a villain in the fanfic.) But I can certainly see how working with male-male relationships would allow access to something that can't be had with female characters - mainly because there's a lot more better-written male characters out there than there are female. I'm so glad you brought this up; it wouldn't have occurred to me otherwise!