“Queerbaiting,” or when writers hint at homosexuality as fan service, is a common topic in current discussions of representations of LGBT+ people in media. In a previous ComicsVerse article, we looked at queerbaiting in the popular 2016 anime, YURI!!! ON ICE. The show did give us a relationship between two men, figure skaters, Yuri Katsuki and Victor Nikiforov. However, YURI!!! ON ICE refuses to acknowledge that they are a couple. Their romance is never outright labeled for what it really is, leading some viewers to cry queerbait. Still, the popularity of this show and other similar anime clearly points towards a general obsession with homosexual men. This phenomenon is often found in the genre “Boy’s Love,” or BL.
In particular, this obsession reflects fujoshi subculture. Fujoshi refers to female fans within the otaku community in Japan. For those who haven’t heard the term “otaku” before, it is a label for people who are, in most cases, anime, manga, or video game nerds. The word fujoshi itself is a pun in Japanese. In one reading of the word with the characters, 婦女子, the word refers to a woman (joshi, 女子) bride (fu, 婦). However, the word used in the otaku community is 腐女子, where the character fu, 腐, means rotten. So, fujoshi roughly translates to “rotten woman.”
Fujoshi are usually associated with Boy’s Love manga and anime. Granted, fujoshi aren’t the only ones consuming BL. More generally, BL shows how female and media depictions of homosexual men are inseparably intertwined.
But, why does this relationship exist? Is it just queerbaiting? Or is it a radical expression of gender identity?
The Birth of Shojo Manga
The first shojo manga, or girl’s manga, is often said to be THE PRINCESS KNIGHT by Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka authored many famous works, such as ASTROBOY, and is now known as the “Father of Manga.” He borrowed many narrative techniques from film, giving his works a kind of cinematographic flow—a quality now standard in manga.
THE PRINCESS KNIGHT ran from 1953 to 1956 in Kodansha’s magazine, Shojo Club. It tells the story of Princess Sapphire of Silverland who was born with the heart of a boy and a girl. Her parents raised her as a boy to ensure an heir to their throne. As a result, Princess, or Prince, Sapphire practices swordsmanship and dresses like a boy in order to conceal her true identity. At the same time, she must defend the throne from her power-hungry relative, Duke Duralumin.
Gender-bending in THE PRINCESS KNIGHT and Takarazuka
THE PRINCESS KNIGHT reflects the influence of the Takarazuka Revue on shojo manga. The Takarazuka Revue is a musical theater company that started in Takarazuka, a city right outside of Osaka, in 1913. The Revue distinguished itself from other playhouses by sporting a cast entirely made up of women. Players divide into two groups, otokoyaku, or women who play men, and musumeyaku, or women who play women.
THE PRINCESS KNIGHT drew heavily from the common tropes seen in Takarazuka of gender-bending, masquerade, and fairytale European imagery. Tezuka, himself, grew up in Takarazuka and cites the Revue as a major influence on his works. In fact, he mentions in the afterword for the OSAMU TEZUKA COMPLETE MANGA WORKS that he intended for THE PRINCESS KNIGHT to play into the audience’s nostalgia for the Takarazuka Revue.
Works like THE PRINCESS KNIGHT and the influence of the Takarazuka Revue shed light on how shojo rethinks gender roles. They are reflections on the desire to redefine femininity and expression. It presents us with a world of idealized feminine masculinity. For the shojo reader or watcher, the ideal man is not necessarily the macho man, but the feminine handsome woman. It is the otokoyaku.
Woman Manga Writers and the Start of Boy’s Love
After THE PRINCESS KNIGHT, other manga writers began creating stories specifically for girls. However, during the 50s and 60s, the majority of manga writers were men. It wasn’t until the 70s that shojo manga written by women for women became more popular. Still, many women writers found it difficult to write about women in sexual situations. Some found that writing about sexuality from the perspective of homosexual men allowed for emotional separation from the situation. As a result, women adopted BL to write about sexuality without having to insert themselves into the situation.
Another name for BL, yaoi, reflects this relationship. Yaoi is actually an acronym for yamanashi, ochinashi, iminashi, and translates roughly to “no climax, no resolution, no meaning.” It is not meant to be anything more than a way to express sexuality.
It would, then, make sense that the relationships in BL often mimic the same gender relationships of heteronormative couples. Out of the two men, one is more passive and inexperienced, while the other is more aggressive and experienced. These roles are named uke or the passive “recipient,” and seme, the active “aggressor.”
This aspect of Boy’s Love reflects the gender-bending of Takarazuka. The uke, although drawn with male anatomy, represents femininity. BL naturally extends the ways that shojo manga and anime have questioned gender roles through non-cisgender characters, such as Prince(ss) Sapphire.
Is BL Exoticization?
BL takes a variety of forms, spanning from original media to fanfiction of non-BL works. Sometimes non-BL media targeted at fujoshi hints at BL relationships. For example, a popular pairing in DURARARA!! is Izaya Orihara and Shizuo Heiwajima. In the OVA episode 25, “World at Peace,” a TV crew looks for the number one couple in Ikebukuro. Erika Karisawa jokes that the number one pairing is Izaya and Shizuo. This joke clearly nods to fujoshi fans who pair the two characters. However, you can look at this joke as an example of queerbaiting. DURARARA!! does not give the audience an actual homosexual couple. It laughs at the possibility of this relationship.
Boy’s Love walks a fine line between the representation of minority groups and their exoticization. On one hand, BL allows for homosexuality to be visible within media. On the other hand, it depicts unrealistic and unrepresentative homosexual relationships. Sexuality within the world of Boy’s Love is inseparable from heteronormative gender roles. Its audience is straight women, not gay men.
Not only is it unrepresentative, but it can also be used as a joke or as queerbaiting. In the example of DURARARA!!, we are not meant to take a homosexual relationship between the two characters seriously. The reference to Izaya and Shizuo as gay just gives fujoshi the opportunity to fangirl. Here and in other anime and manga, homosexuality appears as a tool to appeal to a fujoshi audience. It is an inaccurate representation of actual homosexual relationships.
Unrealistic representations of homosexuality in media also shape the ways in which viewers think about LGBT+ people. Rather than exploring diverse forms of love and relationships, BL ends up just being fan service for straight women. They think about gay men only through the lenses of their own sexual and romantic fantasies. As a result, this “representation” of homosexuality isn’t really representation at all. This fact is especially harmful due to the lack of healthy representation of homosexual men in Japanese media. BL is possibly the only way some people engage with the LBGT+ community. In turn, it makes it even harder for people who identify as LGBT+ to come out and express their own sexuality. To many, their sexuality is only a fantasy.
Is It Revolution?
However, thinking about the historical and cultural significance of BL as a way to empower women’s sexuality, the line between exoticization and revolution becomes even more complicated. Is it okay to use homosexuality as a way to think about femininity and heterosexual women’s sexuality? Of course, historically and culturally, women have had their own sexuality overpowered, stripped, and discarded. You can interpret the expressed sexuality through BL as a revolutionary act.
Boy’s Love is frequently found in dojinshi or amateur, self-published comics. In dojin, writers will often take characters from their favorite shows and pair them together. So, even in the cases where the romance between characters is unrealized, fans can take it upon themselves to create comics imagining their relationships. They allow fans to take gender and sexuality expression into their own hands. They can create their own realities for the characters.
Revolution in KISS HIM, NOT ME
The power of BL to revolutionize is the ultimate message of KISS HIM, NOT ME. The 2016 manga turned anime tells the story of a BL obsessed high school fujoshi, Kae Serinuma. Overweight Kae becomes a beautiful otome, or maiden, after starving herself when her favorite anime character, Shion, dies. Once she becomes beautiful, attractive boys at her high school are suddenly heads over heels in love with her.
She now finds herself within an otome game or a game where the protagonist gets to choose who to date out of a pool of attractive boys. Yet, Kae remains uninterested in this heteronormative fantasy. Instead, Kae only wants to see the other boys together in romantic situations. BL is the way that Kae is able to escape the constraints of gendered expectations of love.
Through Boy’s Love, just like in THE PRINCESS KNIGHT or in Takarazuka musicals, women can experiment with gender expression. They can imagine a feminine woman who is also not a woman. They can explore the intricacies of sexuality. How do we love? When do we love? In what ways do we love? And how does this interact with our bodies?
Why Should We Care About BL?
These questions don’t have clear-cut answers, but they are necessary to think about. What is “good” representation? How can we represent minority groups more conscientiously?
I am not trying to give you the answer. I don’t know it myself. But, I do know that BL exists and its popularity isn’t dying anytime soon. Still, I also know that Boy’s Love isn’t realistic. It is the woman’s sexual and romantic fantasy. But, it is also a sexual revolution. And yet, we still talk about the women who consume this media as fujoshi, as rotten women. Even when women can define their own sexuality, they are still defective and imperfect. They are still unwanted. They are still dehumanized and stripped of their sexuality.
We definitely have a lot of work to do in changing minority representation in media. But, if we think deeply about the exoticization and revolution of BL, we can start to think more critically about representation. In the end, perhaps, BL can be a way to confront these challenges. BL is a start in the right direction toward more LGBT+ representation in media. With the popularity of anime like YURI!!! ON ICE, people may be ready for more anime about LGBT+ people themselves, not just as fan service.
Want to learn more about the subjects I’ve discussed? Here’s a list:
- Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan—Jennifer Robertson
- Princess Knight—Tezuka in English
- “Yaoi Novels and Shojo Manga (Girl’s Comics)”—Yoko Nagakubo from Girl Power!: Girl’s Comics from Japan
Featured Image courtesy of Crunchyroll.