Interview Date: 1/3/2020
Content Warning: Contains frank discussions of sexual relations. Reader discretion is advised.
In the world of anime and manga, the Boys’ Love genre is often considered a controversial, albeit very segmented niche. Started by trailblazing and accomplished female mangaka in the 1970s, Boys’ Love depicts male homoerotic relationships, in most cases between young adults. Unsurprisingly, the genre is mainly targeted toward women.
Since its inception, Boys’ Love has garnered attention outside of Japan, acquiring considerable fandom in Western countries, as well Asian nations like China and Thailand. On the other hand, though, it has come under fire from people across the political spectrum, from the conservative right-wing to identitarian left-wing. Furthermore, the genre is regularly antagonized by sectors of public opinion, as well as law enforcement agencies due to its supposed negative influence on young minds and alleged depictions of underage sex.
University of Leeds’ Professor Anna Madill, Ph.D., gave an interview with Anime Herald, as she has done extensive research on the subject. Madill is Chair of Qualitative Inquiry in the School of Psychology, University of Leeds, UK. She is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and of the Academy of Social Sciences. Anna’s projects include research funded by the British Academy on Boys’ Love manga.
Anime Herald: What is the relevance of the Boys’ Love genre to manga and also to Japanese society as a whole?
Manga and anime, in general, have a massive relevance to Japanese society as a whole and the originators of BL-style manga in the early 1970s are acknowledged to be gifted innovators and inspiring female role models. For example, Moto Hagio (e.g., The Heart of Thomas, 1973-75) is still one of the most renowned and loved mangaka today, and Keiko Takemiya (e.g., Song of the Wind and Trees, 1976-84) and Ryouko Yamagishi (e.g., Emperor of the Land of the Rising Sun, 1980-84) have been awarded a Shogakukan Manga Award and Kodansha Manga Award respectively.
Today BL is a very popular genre, but can be viewed as problematic due to its erotic content and appeal, in the main, to an adolescent and young adult female audience. Ardent fans – called ‘fujoshi’ – can also be stigmatized within manga and anime fandom for pairing-up male protagonists across a wide range of media and portraying them as romantically and/or sexually involved when this is not the case in the original narrative. ‘Fujoshi’ means ‘rotten girl’ and some BL fans do assume this title with pride as an indication that they are unsettling gender stereotypes and heteronormativity. However, many fans just enjoy BL media without wishing to engage in its subversive potential. Knowing that male-male romance is of interest to so many young female consumers, one of the largest impacts of BL is that flirtatious innuendos between male leads is deliberately used in some mainstream popular entertainment as a marketing strategy.
Anime Herald: What are the psychological aspects behind the Boys’ Love works?
There are many interesting psychological angles one might take towards understanding the appeal of BL. For example, I am particularly interested in BL as a female-oriented erotica, given that most sexually-explicit material is produced with a male audience in mind. Hence, one important psychological – but also cultural – aspect of BL is that it helps us understand more about women’s sexual fantasy, at least of the sub-group of women who like this particular media. The fact that the main characters in BL are ‘men’ also facilitates insight into how, mostly young, people are exploring diverse gender identities via characters which can have complex and indeterminate gender presentation allowing readers to interpret them in different ways. To me, the fact that BL supports young people to explore the meanings and value of different genders and sexualities, and to engage with sexual fantasy in a safe way – at least knowing that no actual people are possibly being exploited – should be viewed as beneficial psychologically. Moreover, from what I have seen of the fandom, there is usually great sensitivity to potential triggers, and warnings are provided about sexual content.
Anime Herald: What do they represent for readers that are engaging in the initial cycles of their sexual lives?
When asked, most BL fans say that they read BL for entertainment. However, this leaves open the question as to why they choose to spend at least some of their spare time engaging with BL per se. As an erotic genre, it is likely that some young people read it out of sexual curiosity and find it at least a little titillating. But there are many erotic and pornographic genres, so again BL must be offering something specific. Having interviewed many English-speaking fans, and read the research on BL, a special feature of BL is that young men and women may find it helpful in exploring the potential of their sexuality beyond the heterosexual and of a range of gender identifications and presentations.
The main couple in a BL story are portrayed in many different ways. Both can be traditionally masculine or feminine, they can appear to echo a heteronormative couple in their roles and behavior, switch role, or offer ambiguous gender and/or more unusual forms of sexual relating such as master and servant. Moreover, BL offers stories with 3-way relating, or more and other imaginative combinations and scenarios. BL also offers a whole spectrum of romance through to kink; slice of life, comedy, salaryman and Yakuza (gangster) stories. There is probably material for most interests and lots to explore for the curious. This means that readers can follow and develop their tastes, identify with various characters as they choose, and use ambiguities in the erotic undercurrents and presentation of the protagonists to decide the most satisfying interpretation of the material for themselves.
Anime Herald: The Boys’ Love genre began with women writing about homoerotic relations between young male characters. What drives women to this sort of stories? Can it be compared to men writing lesbian fiction?
The fact that BL is, on the surface at least, about male-male sexuality, it provides an erotica for women that is free from pornographic images designed to appeal to heterosexual men. Although pornography for heterosexual men can be arousing for women too, the images and role of women in some of this material has been heavily criticized for being misogynist and it can make some female viewers feel extremely uncomfortable. BL side-steps this potential problem for women beautifully by focusing on the erotic male body. It is very interesting to consider the extent to which BL fulfills a similar function for women as lesbian erotica might for men.
What we know is that the audience for BL is predominantly women, while the audience for Yuri (girl-on-girl manga) is about 50% male, and Yuri is much less popular than BL overall, and there is very little research on the Yuri readership. While there will be some similarities for some people, the fact that, historically, compared to men, women have had much less access to erotica designed by and for them and that their engagement with sexual entertainment is much less socially acceptable, suggests the need for different interpretations of ‘lesbian erotica’ for men compared to ‘gay porn’ for women. I would speculate along the lines of the former being more easily viewed as patriarchal objectification of the female body, while the latter might be considered a subversive recuperation of non-misogynist erotica conducive to women’s sexual emancipation. It is a controversial topic worthy of serious study and debate which would reveal some very interesting things about what young men and women want from erotic materials today.
Anime Herald: In some ways, Western comic books, especially American superhero works, can be pointed to as counterparts to manga. With this in mind, how does the treatment of LGBTQIA+ communities differ between comic books and manga?
This is a huge question and probably a lifetime’s work to really get to grips with, but I can make a couple of observations. First, sequential art with erotic content is subject to many different regulations globally so the potential for explore LGBTQIA+ issues, including explicit sexuality, is impacted by local laws and conventions. In some ways, this has meant that manga has had particular freedom to develop these themes in its home country, although Japan has also been subject to pressure internationally to restrict some forms of erotic content, such as of young looking characters.
Second, there does seem to be something about sequential art – including comic books and graphic novels – that lends itself to queer story-telling and characters. So, even when superheroes are presented as stereotypically masculine, for example, their powers set them apart from others and often they have a traumatic backstory which shows them to have been vulnerable and to have been excluded or isolated in some way. In a broad sense, then, such characters have a lot of potential to explore what it is to be ‘queer’: to be different from the majority, and treated with suspicion, hostility and misunderstanding, while creating and belonging to a small group of companions who become one’s family. There is much more that can be said but my expertise is pretty much focused on BL so I will leave it there.
Anime Herald: Do race, ethnicity and nationality play a role in Boys’ Love?
One of the most striking and puzzling aspects of manga to the non-Japanese reader is the way in which stories appear to be populated by visually Caucasian characters. Features producing this effect include eye shape (full and round), eye colour (blue and green), hair colour (light brown, blonde, and red) and nose shape (long, thin, and pointed). Where relevant to the story, some protagonists are identified as Westerners or of mixed-race or ethnicity. However, in the vast majority, the context makes it evident that characters are to be understood to be indigenous Japanese. This is sometimes referred to as being ‘culturally odorless.’
Comments in the literature, and in my own conversations with Japanese readers, suggest that this ‘puzzle of race’ is relevant only outside Japan. Caucasians don’t actually look like manga characters and reading race – an already contentious category – in any realistic sense from manga images is to misunderstand stylistic conventions and codifications inherent in the art form. In terms of BL, ‘cultural odorlessness’ may, like gender and sexual ambiguity, add to the flexibility with which it can be interpreted according to the tastes and fantasies of the reader and contribute to it global popularity.
Anime Herald: In many books of this genre, characters are portrayed with animal or even animal-hybrid (lycanthropic) traits. What is the symbolism behind such imagery?
Depending on context, animal and humanoid-animal hybrid characters may or not be, or read as, symbolic. However, they do lend themselves to symbolic interpretation. An easy answer is that, in BL, such characters symbolize our sexual – animal – nature, but there are also more complex and layered symbolic meanings possible depending on the cultural background and knowledge of the reader.
One major cultural difference that will likely influence how readers view humanoid-animal hybrids, is the extent to which the human and the animal are considered to be distinct categories in their cultural heritage and the prohibitions associated with the distinction. Very generally, Anglophone/Christian cultures historically view the human and animal as distinct and have taboos, and often legal prohibitions, against sexual contact between the two. Other cultures, such as traditional Chinese culture, have a strong mythology of human-animal interchangeability, and contemporary legislation does not comment on sexual interaction with animals. These differences will likely influence readers, and my research with Yao Zhao suggests that Chinese BL fans are more comfortable with erotic human-animal stories than are Anglophone fans.
The sexual content of BL often plays with risqué sexual forms, so human-animal hybrids may be a way of providing titillating content, whatever the reader’s background. As an erotic genre with a predominantly female audience, it is also possible that cute animal and hybrid characters are designed to trigger the affection we have for family pets, like cats and dogs, the pleasure we experience stroking and cuddling them, and the love we feel we receive back from them. This raises also the more controversial possibility that our relationship with family pets can involve some erotic feelings that, for most people, are not acted upon and hardly registered – if at all – and that BL taps into this in interesting ways.
Anime Herald: In the past, some members of the LGBTQIA+ community cast disdain upon Boys’ Love stories, treating them as a mere vehicle for heterosexual female masturbation fantasies, and, populated by one-dimensional characters. At the same time, though, while same-sex marriage isn’t legal in Japan, the country is seeing a little bit more openness to the LGBTQIA+ community. Has Boys’ Love evolved with the times?
There continues to be some debate about the possible ‘fetishisation’ of gay men by straight women in BL, with the implication that this sexual objectification is damaging and disrespectful to LGBTQIA+ people. There is also criticism about the unrealistic portrayal of LGBTQIA+ people and lack of engagement with diversity rights issues in BL materials and fandom. I think that most BL producers and fans take these critiques very seriously and that BL has developed many strands, often portraying LGBTQIA+ people in less stereotypical ways, incorporating a very diverse range of romantic and sexual relationships, and sometimes including reference to the challenges that LGBTQIA+ people meet in every-day life.
My research on Anglophone fandom shows that, while straight women are the biggest single group of BL fans, the fandom as a whole is very diverse in terms of gender identity and sexual orientation. Hence, in Anglophone regions at least, BL fandom is itself more LGBTQIA+ than critics might have assumed. In my opinion, there is also a place for ‘one-dimensional’ erotic material that appeals to women – of all sexual orientations – given how poorly served women have been in terms of ‘women-friendly’ erotica historically, and a benefit of sequential art is the comfort of knowing that no real people are involved, and possible hurt, in its production.
Moreover, the gay men I have interviewed about BL, or spoken to informally, have tended to be positive about it and intrigued, rather than offended, by women’s interest. However, like most of the fandom, I understand how the material could be considered problematic from a LGBTQIA+ perspective and welcome the open dialogue that has been on-going.
Anime Herald: Do you feel that the genre has helped grow the overall acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community?
It depends on the context but, in general, yes. The reason for my answer is that sexually-inflected male-male relationships are increasingly highlighted in mainstream popular media, sometimes with ‘a wink and a nod’ to fangirls who look for, and write fanfiction which makes explicit, sexually-charged male friendships. For example, in TV series Sherlock, many characters just assume that Holmes and Watson are lovers, much to Dr Watson’s consternation.
Other popular series, such as Gotham, play with same-sex, sexual innuendos also – for example between Penguin and Jim – as well as including explicitly gay, lesbian, and bi characters and relationships that are accepted as unremarkable within the narrative. Even in China, where public media must not portray queer sexuality, there is a ‘gay boom’ in which intense friendships between men is highly popular in the music scene, TV shows, and mainstream drama series, some of which are adapted BL novels. Even if public acceptance of real LGBTQIA+ people may not be that strong, it seems a positive step that LGBTQIA+ themes are increasingly visible in some very popular mainstream media, probably influenced at least in some cases by BL.
Anime Herald: Why do you think that Boys’ Love, which is heavily persecuted by right-wing conservative groups, draws similar ire from a number of left-wing identitarian sectors? For example, we see backlash within parts of the feminist and LGBTQIA+ movements.
Some feminists take a strong anti-pornography stance given the history of the exploitation of women in this material. An objection to BL, from this position, might include its inclusion of pornography tropes such as rape and dubious consent – but also (seeming) underage sex – which are unacceptable in the real world and as messages about sexual behaviour. Left-wing identitarian sectors and LGBTQIA+ movements, as I touched on before, may view BL as employing objectifying and unrealistic images of people of diverse genders and sexualities as mere titillation and without engaging with the challenges and complexities of their lives. While these are serious and pertinent critiques of BL, I would balance this against the diversity of the BL fandom, increasing diversity and sophistication of some of the material, and argument that there is a place for sexual material which is clearly fantasy and which caters to a taste other than that of heterosexual men.