The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, Extra IV – Yaoi: The World’s Most Feminist Pornography?

Yaoi

There is  one particular genre of anime and manga which I would argue should be embraced in the West more than it currently is.

Now before we go on I realise that there will be some people out there who will be of the opinion that any form of pornography is sexist and should be censored. Others will argue that that if there’s a form of porn that is feminist it will be something else. Some might even argue that as a man, I can’t, shouldn’t or that I’m not qualified enough to talk about feminism at all. However, the point of this article is two-fold: to spark debate amongst people in anime, pornography and feminist circles; and to provide greater knowledge of yaoi in general to those who don’t know much about it. If you wish to argue with me about this subject, please get in touch, but for now I shall put forward my argument.

For starters, a quick explanation. “Yaoi”, which itself is part of a much large group of work known as “Boys’ Love” (BL), is the genre of male homoerotic or romantic fiction which is aimed at a female audience and is often created by female authors. There are yaoi manga, yaoi anime, yaoi novels, yaoi video games etc.

Yaoi is believed to date back to the late 1970s. At the time, male romantic stories in girl’s comics known as “shonen-ai” were starting to become popular (for a more recent example see the 1990s series Tokyo Babylon, No. 69). But later more sexualised stories began to emerge. The term “yaoi” is an acronym, standing for “Yami nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi”, which translates as “No peak, no fall, no meaning.” The phrase represents yaoi as is focused on the more sexual parts, rather than the harder-to-follow plots in shonen-ai. However, it is also claimed that the phrase comes from the “Godfather of Manga” Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, No. 1 and Princess Knight, No. 51) as an insult towards manga that were bad, and that yaoi artists appropriated in insult. There is also a joke amongst yaoi fans that “yaoi” actually stands for “Yamete, oshiri ga itai” – “Stop, my arse hurts!”

Yaoi does have a very devoted following. Women who are yaoi fans are known as “fujoshi” – “rotten women”. You also have some male fans too, known as “fudanshi” – “rotten men”. One was the fandom expresses itself is with one other use of the term “yaoi”. The word in Japanese sounds like the numbers eight (ya), zero (o) and one (i). Thus “yaoi” is also known as “801”. As a result, because the Japanese date like the Americans with the month at the front, August 1st is “Yaoi Day”, which is an entire day celebrating the genre. I’ve tried to make a UK yaoi day on 8th January, but sadly not much seems to have arisen from my attempts yet.

Most yaoi tends to follow a similar pattern. You tend to have the dominant or top partner, known as the “seme”, and the submissive or bottom partner known as the “uke”. Often both are portrayed as cute or beautiful looking guys or boys. Such characters are called “bishonen”. However yaoi differ from one work to the next, as do the people creating them. Some are more romantic than erotic. Some have BDSM themes. Even rape fantasies are depicted. In face, rape is depicted rather often in yaoi. The results of one study published in 2008 found that 50% of 391 people: “thought that rape, explicit sex, sad endings, physical torture, ordinariness, bed-hopping, cruel heroes and weak heroes were all acceptable in BL manga”, while only 12% said rape should never be in BL. It has been argued by some people that because the rape scenes are only between men that: “Women are free from the baggage” in comparison to a heterosexual rape where women commonly the victims.

With regards to my argument as to yaoi being feminist, my main point is thus. Much of the anti-sex feminist criticism concern pornography is about the sexual exploitation of women. They may have a point in some cases, and it is only right to make such that women and indeed everyone working pornography treats each other with respect.

But in the case of yaoi, I would state that it is a feminist form of pornography because it is women who are in control of it. Yaoi is made by women, yaoi is made for women, and yaoi has no women being sexually exploited because it is men having sex with men, who in turn are fictional and thus are not sexually exploited themselves they do not exist. Conversely, it has been argued that yaoi is not feminist because of the lack of women depicted.

The audience I believe is key. Most porn in the world is aimed by men. Very little is geared towards women. Some may argue that lesbian pornography, or “yuri” as the anime version is called, would be more feminist, but men will still end up consuming this lesbian porn, and I apologise for making an assumption, but my guess is that most lesbians would not like that idea of men watching them while they made love. “Yuri” also has another problem in anime at least, in that the plots are very limited. Most of the yuri available in the west for example is mainly set in schools and is about the sexual awakening of girls. It often tends to be more romantic than erotic also.

If yaoi has a problem, it is in the misunderstanding of it. This is not helped by Britain’s laws on censorship which are arguably sexist themselves. Recently new porn regulations banned female ejaculation in porn, while male ejaculation is fine. In December this resulted in a “porn protest” outside Parliament which included a mass “face-sitting” demonstration. There is also general censorship of cartoon pornography in the UK, but the whole thing is very subjective. Who is to say when something is pornographic or not, or when a character is below a certain age? Also, many normal anime end up having erotic fan-fiction created about them, even if characters under 18. I don’t think anyone has seen Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club (No. 17) just for the sport.

I personally hope that this article does stimulate debate about the merits of yaoi. I believe it to be a genre of merit for various reasons and it should be embraced as such.

Previous yaoi series covered in this column include Junjo Romantica (No. 5), Ai no Kusabi (No. 37), DRAMAtical Murder (No. 66) and this week’s article Love Stage!! (No. 87). For more about yaoi and BL in general, and for more on much of the source material used in this article, see the academic work “Boys’ Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre” edited by Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry and Dru Pagliassotti.

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