A few days ago, my colleague Fruzsina Eördögh quoted me in an article about Boys’ Love, that niche, distinctly feminine genre targeted at girls who like boys.
It’s just the latest time I’ve been asked about my thoughts on BL, by a list of people that includes friends, colleagues, former employers, and even prospective employers (I guess I’m in a particularly unusual line of business in this respect).
Lately, especially when I’m speaking to outsiders who don’t watch BL, or even anime, I tell them something simplified, a little bit like what I said to Fruzsina:
“Two guys together is a safe sexual environment, free from rape and women’s other worries about sex and violence.”
In my defense, this is only the first line of a long conversation Fruzsina and I had over Gchat trying to unpack what it is that makes BL so alluring to women, especially young women. But let me explain myself a little further.
A “safe space”… for women
When I say BL is “free from rape and women’s other worries about sex and violence,” I really mean the viewer. In a BL romance, there is no female avatar to worry about. When you take the woman out of the equation, the female viewer is free to not worry about danger for a change.
In a hetero romance show, there are a lot of disasters that could befall a female love interest. She could get killed off, in order to motivate the male hero. She could get raped to move the plot. She could be slut shamed for her sexual feelings.
Really, it’s that last part that makes BL such a safe space for young women. Men are “supposed” to have sexual feelings, and they’re never shamed for them in the media. So when women consume romances between two men, the feelings of guilt they’d otherwise have for enjoying it disappear.
Basically, there are several different reasons young women could be drawn to BL, and none of them say anything good about our society’s relationship with female sexuality. It’s nothing like the “two is better than one” explanation of why straight men like lesbian porn. For one thing, BL isn’t even supposed to be pornographic most of the time.
Why is rape a BL theme anyway?
The other problematic part of my quote is when I say BL takes place in a “safe sexual environment.”
If you’re a BL fan, you’ve probably got alarm bells going off. As fans know, rape and non-consent are hallmark cliches in BL classics like Gravitation, FAKE, even Junjou Romantica, the series Fruzsina used to illustrate the article!
But that’s the really difficult part. Since concern about getting raped is such a traumatic part of daily life for women, why are BL fans consuming so many series with non-consent themes?
First, it’s important to note that most BL is VERY tame. The most we ever see on screen is kissing. Implied sex, and implied rape, take place off screen and are referred to after the fact in order to drive the plot.
Perhaps in BL, the line between fantasy and reality is so strict that female viewers can let their guards down. BL is highly fictional. It’s not meant to portray a realistic gay relationship. (There IS another genre targeted at gay men, called bara or Men’s Love.) One common BL trope is to have a seme, a masculine aggressor, and an uke, a feminine submissive.
These character types look so different from actual humans that they give us hilarious memes like “yaoi hands,” a syndrome where the seme’s hand is bigger than the uke’s head. When creators resort to rape as a plot device (and I say “resort” since I think it’s uncreative), it perhaps seems as surreal as every other aspect of the relationship. Maybe. I don’t have a final answer for this, and apparently, neither does anyone else.
My sordid BL backstory
I got into BL the same way Fruzsina did—the same way a lot of teen girls do: real boys are scary. (I didn’t realize that I thought this way because of the media indoctrination I’d already received.) I certainly wasn’t ready to date them, and I didn’t even want to think about what it was like to be with them. BL let me explore my sexuality without worrying about either of those things.
I wrote terrible, childish fanfiction where my favorite anime characters had crushes on each other and occasionally got to first base. My middle school friend group obtained a copy of FAKE, one of the first BL titles released in the US (Fun fact: you can now watch it online). I pirated Gravitation, even though it took more than a week to download. (Sorry, anime industry! I own it legally now.)
And then, I just stopped liking it for a long time. In high school, I started dating boys who were, unsurprisingly, nothing like the boys in my BL shows or fanfiction. (If it isn’t clear by now, BL characters are young women in male bodies, mirrors of ourselves.) I didn’t need the safety of BL anymore once I was ready to learn what boys are really like.
Weirdly, I didn’t get back into BL until after I was married. Free! came out this summer and it was like BL junk food. It felt good to watch a show that was targeted right at me for a change. I ended up watching it with my husband and a mutual friend, who both got kind of hooked on the plot.
Going online to check out the state of BL fanfiction, I was floored by the sheer amount hat exists today compared to when I was a teen. There’s not just BL, but slash, a genre of fanfiction/fanart for pairing together same-sex couples from basically anything, from The Avengers to real life hockey teams. Slash is just as old as BL; it just wasn’t on my radar before. That means women who aren’t even into anime are taking part.
BL isn’t going away; it’s actually getting bigger. And until our culture starts telling a different story to young women about their sexuality and bodies, the appeal of BL is just going to grow.