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:
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?"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)
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.