HOW YAOI HELPED ME AVOID A BAD ROMANCE

September 3, 2014

by Kawai Shen

Yaoi manga was one of my first forays into the world of comics beyond the newspaper funnies. Derived from the phrase, yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi (no climax, no point, no meaning), yaoi is a genre of Japanese comics that grew out of fan fiction in the 1970s. Authored by women for women, yaoi takes many of the stylistic tropes of shoujo manga (girl’s comics)—wispy, delicate linework, an emphasis on melodramatic facial expressions, doe-eyed male protagonists with perfectly cascading, jealousy inducing hair—and offers what are essentially female fantasies about gay male lovers that are about as faithful to reality as lesbian sex scenes in porn made for straight men. Today, yaoi caters to all manner of interests: from the typical (office romances, high school love, period dramas) to the hyper-niche (occult romances, crazy yakuza love, centaur fantasies) and will run you anywhere from wink-wink innuendo to hardcore, full-frontal smut.

I began reading manga in the mid-1990s. At the time it wasn’t being sold in mainstream bookstores, but persistent readers in Toronto could source yaoi through independent retailers in Chinatown. I myself discovered the genre through aestheticism.com, an online community devoted to yaoi, and by picking up copies of X:1999 while visiting Osaka, a serial that wasn’t yaoi per se, but featured both homosexual and homoerotic relationships between its male characters. Sure, my Japanese was poor, so most of the dialogue went over my head, but really, how much fluency do you need to understand a story about two handsome, shirtless men making googly eyes and pawing at each other?

It couldn’t have come at a better time. I was still a teenager, at the height of my intolerance for heteronormativity. All media made for women about straight romantic relationships—women’s magazines, classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, romantic comedies—struck me as patronizing, intellectually insulting and made me want to vomit. More often than not, the primary, if not only, accomplishment in these women’s lives was being attractive to a man.

from Carmen by Est-Em
from Carmen by Est-Em

Even more infuriating to me was how often these romance stories featured an emotionally unavailable bad boy lead. These handsome, charming men, ranging from impulsive, irascible ruffians to wealthy business scions oozing power, were all easily identified by their acts of emotional manipulation, whether this was portrayed as intentional or not. Well-timed hints and gestures of love, rather than actual love, were all that was necessary to string a woman along until by the redemptive power of her masochistic, sacrificial attentions or, less often, by the wit of a woman who could play the game as hard as he, these men would transform from red-flag waving jerks to fierce protectors, providers and lovers.

But my distaste for the bad boy was cemented in real life, during my final year of high school, when one insinuated himself in my circle of girlfriends and proceeded to take down every single one. He was older, charming as all hell and for all his misogyny (or perhaps because of it), he understood women like no boy I’d ever met. And because I didn’t fall for his attentions, I was the one left to deal with the mess he left behind and I wanted to castrate him for it.

So looking back, I find it interesting that the yaoi stories that I consumed often featured bad boys to the extreme: men who were emotionally manipulative and at times, even physically and fatally abusive. Men that made the Mr. Bigs and Mr. Greys of our time seem like patron saints of feminism.

The yaoi bad boy was not what initially attracted me to the genre. Primarily, I was interested in evading mainstream heteronormative stories. By suspending gendered double standards in a gay male environment, yaoi presented me with an erotic world that made more sense to me, where people didn’t think about their virginities or their bodies like precious little commodities or prizes to be won and where sexual intercourse was not a pseudo-financial transaction. Yaoi was a much needed alternative to a teenaged world where dominant discourse enforces the idea that sexual intercourse is something that must be taken from women, even when consent is given.

By taking gender out of the equation, yaoi couples also became like control groups that I used to test out my beliefs about relationships. I began to realize how I had been trained to devalue female-gendered traits such as feeling “weak” emotions and to see how women are punished for possessing male-gendered traits such as sexual aggressiveness. And there was something subversive about narratives featuring men who were just as vulnerable and needy, if not more, than the fictional female characters and the real life girls I was growing up with.

Yet if I am to be honest, I did find these bad boy yaoi stories deeply romantic and emotionally satisfying. Yaoi’s lack of female romantic interests did not preclude the existence of patriarchal power dynamics and I cannot deny that this was also a part of my interest. In fact, many of the patriarchal norms that I outwardly rejected were still deeply embedded in the yaoi narratives that I consumed and enjoyed.

You could say my enjoyment was driven by more than a small degree of vengefulness. Finally, instead of seeing a naive girl being used (or worse, an intelligent one being reduced to an idiot) by her romantic interest, I could read about yasashi pretty boys getting played. For once, it wasn’t a girl eating shit in the name of love. For once, I could read about men being oppressed by patriarchal power too. So when yaoi replicated patriarchal power dynamics, I could indulge in them, but from a distance, because I didn’t have to identify with any of the characters in the way I would have identified with a female character.

But more importantly, yaoi gave me the vantage point I needed to explore my attraction to the bad boy narrative without actually having to be played and demeaned by a bad boy. It was through the extremity of cruelty and violence in yaoi that I found a fantasy world that more accurately reflected the violence I was witnessing in the lives of the girls and women I knew. While I felt mainstream women’s media was training me to eroticize my own subjugation, yaoi’s doily-edged, sakura-scattered pages were showing me something else: that much of what women conceive of as romance is founded upon coercion, oppression, and sexual objectification. That the cost of elevating a woman’s value through patriarchal privilege, the cost of accepting and fetishizing the scraps of power that a woman can gain by playing by the rules of a patriarchal game, is the erasure of herself, sometimes to the point of death.

Perhaps it is no accident that it was around the same time that I discovered yaoi that I also spent a great deal of time analyzing my own assumptions about gender, romance, love, sex, relationships, and power. Now I see that much of my interest in yaoi came from my need for tools to help me tease apart contradictions between my beliefs, my desires, my thoughts. And as I prised apart my unconscious narratives about relationships and sexuality and power exchanges, my interest in yaoi waned until it became non-existent.

I suppose you could say that it’s a shame I don’t enjoy this kind of thing anymore. People are always so afraid of examining and “overanalyzing” their desires because they suspect this will kill their ability to get off. They have so little faith in the power of the erotic drive. The way I see it, yaoi bad boys were fun when I was a teen, but they’re child’s play to me now. And today, I much prefer the play of adults.

A short yaoi reading list from Kawai, with assistance from translator Jocelyne Allen and Chris Butcher at The Beguiling:

Classics

  • Finder series and Crimson Spell both by Ayano Yamane
  • The Tyrant Falls in Love by Hinako Takanaga
  • Kizuna by Kazuma Kodaka
  • Close the Last Door by Yugi Yamada
  • Embracing Love by Youka Nitta
  • Nights and No Touching At All by Kou Yoneda
Contemporary
  • Carmen by Est Em
  • The Bed of My Dear King, Lost Letters and The Match Seller by Sakae Kusama
  • Blue Morning by Shoko Hidaka
  • Man of Tango by Tetsuzoh Okadayah
  • Perfect Training by Yuiji Aniya

 

Recommended

Join the Discussion

Be the First to Comment!

Notify of
400
wpDiscuz

The Latest

My Gender is Saturn Return

The debut of a hand-drawn conversation series between comic artists Cee Lavery and JB Brager - on femme as armour, anxiety, and finding yourself lost but not alone at 29.

Our Sunday Links

  Thanks to the amazing work being done by the activists leading this incredible and ongoing movement,  Ontario has new labour law coming that will make things a bit fairer for workers, including at $15 minimum wage and stronger equal...

Call for Submissions: Weather

GUTS is looking for submissions to our upcoming issue! Send us your pitch by December 3rd, 2017.

The Poetry of Trish Salah

Lyric Sexology Vol. 1 asks readers to consider both Tila Tequila and Tiresius, blending mythological figures with contemporary queer experiences. In his review, Alasdair Rees responds accordingly, thinking about mythos, embodiment, and their shifts in meaning.

Our Sunday Links

A weekly round up of links from GUTS

Our Sunday Links

A weekly round up of links from GUTS

Our Sunday Links

A weekly roundup of links from GUTS

Our Sunday Links

A weekly roundup of links from GUTS