Queer Eye for the Yaoi Guy

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This weekend, I’m going to be a guest at ConFABulous, a GLBQIA+ relaxicon here in Minneapolis/St. Paul. As you can probably guess from their logo, they’re mostly a table-top/RPG gaming con.  But, they do have a few programming items and I’m on two of them.

One of them–and the reason this isn’t a review blog today– is about the trials and tribulations of reviewing yaoi/yuri as a queer reader.  I wanted to take a few minutes to collect some of my thoughts here before I go in front of a live audience to talk about this on Saturday evening.

The way I have it figured is that the number one problem with being a queer fan of yaoi and yuri is that it’s a Japanese publishing genre that, despite its ostensibly queer content, is not actually written for a queer audience.

That might be less true for yuri, but yaoi is, as Wikipedia reminds us, primarily written by women for women.  It’s generally understood that gay men are more likely to write (and read) bara, than yaoi.

It’s a similar phenomenon to that of m/m slash fiction (which is the other programming item that I’m running: a ‘midnight’ slash reading.) Though, I think that there’s a higher number of lesbians/bi-women/queer/trans folk who write m/m slash than there are who write yaoi–though who can say definitively? (Since I suspect it’s harder to come out in Japan.)

I am seeing some ‘our voices’ manga like My Brother’s Husband and The Bride was a Boy, but neither of these qualifies as yaoi.

Yaoi, in particular, tends to be a straight woman’s fantasy about what it’s like to be a gay man… and to have sex as a man.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. As I’m often saying here: fantasy is fantasy. You’re absolutely allowed yours.

But, if you go to yaoi (or yuri) expecting to have them accurately reflect or represent queer folks, it’s a problem.

First, there’s all the heteronormativity–the whole seme/uke thing.

Just in case you aren’t aware: if you asked a Japanese gay man if he’s a seme or a uke, you’d probably get a funny look. Seme/uke are much more understood to be the fujoshi words as opposed to the authentic terms.  The source I have, which admittedly is likely out of date (2008), is a great book called Japanese Street Slang by Peter Constantine in which he suggests that the term neko (yes, cat) is the bottom and that tops might describe themselves as tachiyaku (which comes from Kabuki, and is the actor who is ‘sword ready.’)  I’ve also read a manga that implied that maybe ‘wolf’ might be the colloquial opposite of ‘cat.’ ) (“Battle of the Wolves.”)

That’s not to say that you never see the ‘proper’ terms.  There a ton of neko/cat jokes in yaoi, some even make it into the titles, such as: Me and Cat First Love Intersection and Suteneko no Karute / Love Song of the Abandoned Cat”

Words probably don’t seem that important, but they lend a certain amount of realism, if you will, to the fantasy.  This is something you’ve probably heard me complain about here in Mangkast, if you’re a longtime reader.  That is, specifically, that there’s often an absence of queer culture in yaoi.

Again, this is NO surprise, given that this isn’t fiction FOR me/coming out of the Japanese queer community, but it’s the sort of thing that I’d love to see more of, if only because it’s the sort of thing that appeals to me (it’s slice-of-life and I LOVE slice-of-life.)

Also as a baby queer, I actually learned a lot about my own culture (and history) by reading gay comix.

Again, that’s not to say that I haven’t learned things about Japanese queer culture reading yaoi. For instance, I learned about how adult adoption has been a work around for gay marriage from After Morning Love.

There are also some mangaka who seem aware of the shortcomings of not being gay men.  Like this moment from Not Love but Delicious Foods (Make Me So Happy) by Fumi Yoshinaga (author of many soft yaoi, like What Did You Eat Yesterday?):

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So, there is that.

Plus, because some yaoi mangaka don’t bother to do any research, the ‘uke’ becomes the substitute for the ‘girl’ in the romance in all ways (so much crying!), but also including physiologically.  News flash: men’s anuses are NOT self-lubricating, despite what you may have read… and even some of my favorites make this ‘mistake.’

I tend to take a miss on a lot of the crying…. I don’t find it attractive in anyone.

The self-lubricating? You never know when you’re going to hit that and most of the time I just roll my eyes and go with it.

The lack of protected sex is another issue, but, again, I tend to chalk that up to the fact that this is a FANTASY, so as long as you’re not a young gay man looking for a sex guide in yaoi, it’s fine.

That’s leads me to another complaint you’ll hear from me a lot. Hardly any characters in yaoi who were previously straight ever have to do any research into gay sex. Maybe it’s much more natural for men, but as a lesbian, I can tell you, it takes some figuring out the first time. Maybe I’m just generally a nerd? I had to read books.

You’ll notice I’m not talking much about yuri. Part of that is that, as a lesbian, I’m still trying to find hot yuri.  Most of the yuri that I’ve stumbled across also reads like a straight woman’s fantasy about lesbianism, since it’s heavy on the romance without a lot of sexy times. (Sometimes you hit insider lesbian things in yuri, though. I was pleased by the mention of lesbian fingernails in The Feelings We All Must Endure.)  And then there was the depressing ones like The Wife to Be.

I know that the genre of yaoi is considered problematic by a lot of its detractors. You’ll hear a lot of people complain that yaoi tends to romanticize rape. This is very true. I won’t deny it.  However, I will maintain that rape is, in this context, a fantasy FOR SOME PEOPLE. I tend to enjoy a certain amount of ‘dub’ to ‘non-con.’ (For those unfamiliar, that’s fan-speak for dubious consent to non-consensual.) However, that being said, you will never read a review by me of Killing Stalking because, even without having read it, I sense that that one crosses a line for me.  Straight-up abuse is not hot for me.

This romanticizing of rape, however, is simply problematic in general in my point of view, rather than specific to being a queer reader–except that it could potentially fuel negative and harmful stereotypes about my lifestyle. I actually met someone once who told me the reason he didn’t like gay men was because he was convinced he’d be forcibly seduced by them. I had to tell him: sorry, but you’re probably not as irresistible as you think you are. Also, gay men tend to be attracted to GAY men (this is why we have gaydar, folks!), just as I tend to find lesbians hot, not every woman everywhere. You didn’t play softball in high school (or rugby in college)? You’re probably NOT the girl for me.

Real talk here for a moment, but my friend should know that gay men and trans women are much more in danger of being killed if they come out to/seduce to the wrong person.

Which brings me to the last thing I want to say on this issue. There’s hardly any attempt to address real life discrimination in yaoi.  Again, normally, this doesn’t bother me, because, as I said from the start, this is a fantasy.  It’s also often just a smutty hook-up.  But, I have to laugh at how rarely discrimination or bigotry will show up in yaoi. Sometimes the hero will worry about their love interest finding them “disgusting,” and I remember reading one salaryman story where it was implied that someone lost their job for being gay (not that I can find it now.) But, that’s often the extent of it.

I don’t need bigotry in my fantasy, so, I’m not complaining?

But, it’s one of the things I notice as a queer reader. The romances (particularly where one guy has been straight up until this point in his life) are… unrealistically easy.  Oddly, one of the few mangaka who I’ve seen deal with this is Yoshinaga. Her heroes in “What Did You Eat, Yesterday?” sometimes deal with the fact that Shiro isn’t out at work or that another character in one of her shorts isn’t out to his parents and is being pressurized to find a wife and settle down. But, mostly in yaoi, people fall in love and live together and no one blinks.

Not even in the yakuza.

I’m not sure, in fact, if I’ve ever seen a coming out scene that goes badly. (Oh, though I do remember in the one where the guy ends up adopting, the love interest is kicked out of his family’s home. I think that’s actually why he’s working as a hustler… which is weirdly realistic.)

Anyway, I guess that’s fine. The pain free coming out is a fantasy I whole-heartedly support.

 

 

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