The Problem With BL

Debates are never won by the loudest shouter; both sides have a valid point, if only you would stop and listen to each other for a moment.

Some arguments never die; they just lay dormant until an offhand remark or action reminds one person about that thing aunty Doreen said at cousin Anthony’s wedding five years ago and suddenly everyone’s taking sides and flipping tables and screaming at each other all over again.

‘Given’ premiered last week, to generally positive reception. Its first episode gave us lush visuals, creative use of lighting, and music references that show that the production team really know what they’re doing. Then someone posted a review which began with ‘If you can stand BL…’ and like a George Romero zombie, the BL debate lurched back on to the scene for yet another sequel.

The most annoying thing, though, is not that the argument about whether BL and its fans are valid or problematic just won’t end: it’s that both sides actually have a valid point to make, but everyone is too busy defending their side to stop and listen to the other.

The two opposing sides here can be summed up as ‘BL is a problematic genre because of its harmful and inaccurate portrayal of gay men’ versus ‘BL and its fans receive unfair criticism because the genre is aimed at women, and anything aimed at women is always unfairly criticised’. I’m leaving out the ‘BL is bad because it’s about gay people’ faction because, honestly, if that’s all you have to say on the matter, then you have bigger problems than which comics to read.

BL (or more specifically, yaoi and shounen ai) works are historically viewed as being by straight women, for straight women readers. We’re learning now that this isn’t always the case, and that some BL works are actually produced by queer men using female psuedonyms. However, as the genre stands within the collection of anime and manga made available to Western English-speaking fans, works are generally marketed at women and assumed to be written by women.

This, in and of itself, is not a problem. Stories about love, romance and relationships have been seen as exclusively ‘for women’ for decades, and making one type of love story for women readers is no more problematic than selling Mills&Boon bodice-rippers or Hallmark Christmas romance movies. The argument that things made for women draw undue criticism absolutely holds up, and is part of the bigger argument that anything not made for cis-het men is automatically worth less or is considered niche rather than mainstream. Male audiences are sold endless James Bond power fantasies, Fast & Furious action films, and Average Joe Gets The Girl stories, and woe betide anyone who tries to call them out for being anything other than harmless fun. The quality of these stories, the repetitiveness of the content, or the harm they might cause to anyone who’s not a cis-het man, are never given scrutiny without serious backlash from fans.

With anime, even mainstream shows get away with sexualising teenage girls – just look at Momo in ‘My Hero Academia’, a show created by a man in his 40s. Looking at the current season, the otherwise gritty fantasy drama ‘To The Abandoned Sacred Beasts’ has slipped in some blatant perv-pandering with Liza, and ‘Fire Force’ has an ending sequence which shows a young nun in a white dress pouring water over herself, turning the fabric clingy and see-through. Countless ecchi stories are still being released, putting girls and young women into unsettling situations for the entertainment of (presumably) straight male viewers. Yet I don’t see a single word of complaint there. Where was the call-out last season for ‘Ao-chan Can’t Study’, about an erotic-lit writer pushing his daughter into having sex? Where are the rants this season about the multiple ecchi stories running this season?

Some genres just seem to draw more criticism than others, regardless of the quality of individual shows, and those genres include romance (aimed at women) and anything with queer characters (seen as of no interest to cis-het men). ‘Yuri On Ice’ is a prime example: it was always marketed and tagged as a sports anime, with all the tropes associated with that genre. But because it had a same-sex relationship, countless anime fans either dismissed it or went on YouTube rampages calling it out and deriding it as ‘yaoi trash’. 

‘Given’, the show which seems to be the unwitting necromancer responsible for bringing the debate back once again, has been marketed as a story about music, but the m/m relationship is central; it’s foreshadowed in the very first episode. Hence the “if you can stand BL” response. With just one episode out at time of writing, some anime fans are making assumptions about it simply because of their associations with the BL tag, either because they dislike gay content or they dislike anything presumed to be aimed at women.

This is unreasonable, and this is where the pro-BL faction have a valid point. Not all BL works are the same, and recent releases have shown that things have come a long way since the days of ‘Gravitation’ and ‘Junjou Romantica’. Stories like ‘Escape Journey’, ‘I Hear The Sunspot’ and ‘That Blue Sky Feeling’ are much more positive and respectful depictions of relationships between young men. 

Anyone so determined to call out all BL works for being problematic might want to (a) take a look at some of the more recent works to see how things have changed, and (b) look at other problematic genres and ask why they don’t get the same level of criticism. Perhaps start with yuri. It’s not that long ago that ‘Citrus’ was getting positive attention despite containing step-sibling incest, assault and dub-con, and the blatant sexualisation of teenage girls. Watch ‘Yuri Kuma Arashi’ and tell me that it’s only fujoshis who are the problem.

However, that’s not to say that BL is suddenly fixed and fujoshis are given a free pass.

BL, historically, has been full of inaccurate, harmful, and fetishistic portrayals of gay and bisexual men. 

Like a lot of queer animanga fans outside of Japan, my first introduction to the genre was ‘Gravitation’. On the recommendation of an ex, I got my hands on a (possibly bootlegged?) copy of the DVD box set, complete with dodgy subtitles, and mainlined the whole thing over a weekend. At first, I was simply enamoured with the novelty of an entire story about a same-sex couple, still a rarity back then (we’re talking around 2002, I think). 

For context, most of my experiences of seeing gay people on TV at that time involved gay men as lisping stereotypes, the butt of the joke, or watching stories about young men coming out. They never got to be anything more than the novelty of their gayness. ‘Queer As Folk’ gave us lots of cis-gay sex but had little to say about romance and was positively aghast at the possibility of gay men being domestic and making a life together. Lesbians were even scarcer – you had to be a fan of ‘Brookside’ if you wanted to see lesbians on UK television – and bisexual people were the threat to nice, healthy straight people’s relationships.

So suddenly here was a whole show about a relationship between two men. And searching further led me to more stories, about young men that I could relate to, having actual relationships instead of just coming out and then having the story end there. I read ‘FAKE’ and ‘Only The Ring Finger Knows’ and ‘Eerie Queerie’ and countless other stories, just grateful that I could buy stories about people like me.

It took me a while to realise that, actually, although the stories included men kissing and having sex, they weren’t actually close to what same-sex relationships were really like. I started to grow weary of the same plot being played out – one pushy, sometimes predatory, man coming on to another who insisted he was straight, but who gave in eventually because the kissing or sex started to feel good. That was it. No romance, no courtship, no affection. Sex was always penetrative, with the pushy one doing the penetrating. No seme ever said ‘I’m in love with you and want you to fuck me’. 

The relationship dynamic, too, was always the same. Always mirroring the butche/femme model of ‘typical’ heterosexual relationships. It was rare to see two gay men as equals, or to see two equally ‘femme’ men together. The implication, presumably, being that a female reader would relate to the initially unwilling, less masculine uke, the one being pursued, the one pressured into having sex, the one experiencing the pain of penetration. The one eventually won over by the dominant manly seme.

I knew that same-sex relationships weren’t like that, but I couldn’t find anything different in BL stories.

If I can compare the experience to something from western media, the closest example I can think of is last year’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Someone asked me, after I’d seen it, what I thought (as both a queer person and a fan of Freddie Mercury’s solo career). I answered, “sometimes you can just tell when a queer character was written by straight people”. 

The film portrayed Freddie’s bisexuality as the great tragedy of his life-story: he could have had the love of a good woman, if only some deviant man hadn’t dragged him down into that seedy underworld gay scene (and it is “down” into an “underworld”, as Freddie’s first visit to a gay club shows him literally walking down a flight of stairs to a basement-level room, while ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ plays out).

The gay experience, as seen by straight people, seems to be an inherently tragic one. There is always gay panic. There is always the shame of discovering one’s sexuality, and the strength required to come out. There is always prejudice to be faced, and there is always the obstacle of being unable to live entirely as comfortably and freely as straight people are able to.

This absolutely comes across in so many BL stories. Granted, things are different in Japan, where same-sex marriage is not legally recognised. Even the recent release ‘Escape Journey’ has the two leads talk about the fact that they feel unable to live as a couple and be seen as a family, the way different-sex couples can. 

But tragedy is not the be-all-and-end-all of our experience.

If you want to see an example of a gay love story by a gay writer, watch Simon Amstell’s ‘Benjamin’. It’s a fairly simple story, about a film-maker who falls in love but has to deal with his overwhelming anxiety and self-doubt which keep him from being able to relax and accept that he is loved in return. The fact that it’s a love story about two men is never an issue. There is no gay panic, no coming out, no prejudice. The story plays out with as much freedom and range as if Benjamin had fallen in love with a woman instead of a man. There are no discussions about the difficulties faced by queer people, and no obstacles to the relationship other than Benjamin’s personal demons. It is a beautiful film, and a prime example of how a love story about a gay man should be told.

With so many BL stories, what we’ve been sold, over and over, is predatory gay or bisexual men who force their feelings on to men who had previously identified as straight, often culminating in assault and rape, which is meant to be read as erotic. We get the constant reminder that same-sex relationships between adult men are to be kept secret. We only get to see men together when they are having (or about to have) sex, and the sex is always anal with the pushy seme doing the penetration and the reluctant uke complaining that it hurts until suddenly it feels good and he gives in.

It happens in ‘Gravitation’, in ‘Junjou Romantica’, in ‘Jazz’,  in ‘FAKE’, in so many stories. It still happens in recent releases – see my review of ‘Candy Colour Paradox’, or look at ‘Dakaichi’ from a few months ago.

These stories do not represent the gay experience, and the fact that so many people still enjoy reading them is, frankly, worrying. 

‘Kiss Him, Not Me’ is a frankly awful anime, but it does occasionally make valid points about BL and its fans. When Serinuma finds herself the victim of a near-assault by one of the boys she’d previously been shipping with another boy, she questions: “why is it hot when it happens in manga, but not in real life?” 

You can argue ‘it’s only fiction and fiction isn’t reality’ all you want, but when fiction constantly gives us the same inaccurate portrayals of same-sex relationships, those portrayals will affect people’s perceptions. It’s why we push so hard for positive representations of all marginalised groups. Making stories about gay people isn’t enough, not if those stories only show gay people as predatory or ashamed. Just as it’s not enough to put a sexy, provocatively dressed woman in an action movie and call it positive representation, it’s not enough to read BL and call yourself a supporter of gay people.

Likewise, enjoying m/m stories because you find gay sex hot is not the same as supporting LGBTQIA people. Seeing m/m relationships as entertainment is the same attitude that leads to gay and bi women being expected to perform their relationships for the entertainment of straight men (and having experienced this firsthand, I would never wish it on anyone). You can’t read BL or slash fic and refer to it as “sin” or “filth” while saying that you support gay rights. Gay and bi men do not exist for your entertainment, any more than gay and bi women exist for the entertainment of straight men.

I don’t write this with the intention of saying ‘straight women shouldn’t read BL’. If you read a range of romance stories and are capable of identifying which ones are positive and which ones contain harmful depictions, and you genuinely support and champion the rights and freedoms of actual LGBTQIA people, then keep on reading. 

But if you’re a straight woman reading BL and dismissing straight romance stories, or seeking out yaoi and shounen-ai simply because you think it’s ‘hot’, I would encourage you to question why this is. There is a difference between selecting stories because you champion positive representation of LGBTQIA people, and selecting stories because you find gay sex ‘hot’. Ultimately, your media consumption is your choice, not mine or anyone else’s, but I think it is important to question your choices and question how you respond to other people’s reactions to your choices.

Calling all criticism of BL ‘misogynistic’ is about as helpful as dismissing all BL as ‘trash’. If you’re firmly on one side of this argument, I encourage you to stop for just a moment and consider why the other side feels the way they do (can you tell I’m really feeling my age right now?). And please, whatever you do, don’t bring someone else’s age or gender into the argument – I’ve seen more than one “get out of fandom, old woman” post today and I am not putting up with that kind of ageism or misogyny at all.

Women are tired of having everything they like being dismissed, criticised without consideration, or viewed as worth less than things that men like.

LGBTQIA people are tired of having their stories told on their behalf by cis-het people and seeing inaccurate, harmful representations of themselves being touted as entertainment.

I, as an elder fan, am tired of all of you shouting over each other instead of listening and trying to understand.

Really. Whichever side of this debate you’re on, you will not get anyone to change their mind by insulting them. Debates are not won by the loudest screamer. If you would like anti-BL folk to know that the genre is changing for the better, offer examples – acknowledge that older stories are often problematic, but show that more queer writers are becoming able to tell their own stories in positive ways.

Likewise, if you would like BL fans to understand why so many BL stories are considered harmful or toxic, be prepared to give examples and offer alternative queer-friendly stories instead.

And if you still can’t come to an understanding, then at the very least, stop shouting at and insulting each other. Or I’m going to knock all your heads together and send you to bed without supper. You’re giving me a headache.

Apologies if you were expecting the Wednesday Weekly Reads Round-Up and got 2k+ words of ranting instead. Weekly Reads should be up tomorrow instead, now that I have exorcised this particular mental demon.

Remember, as well, that you can find me on Twitter if you want to chat about this or any other post here (or if you want more up-to-date shouting into the void about whatever anime I’m watching). I’m still open to sharing fan works by other Fans Of A Certain Age (25+) – use the Contact page to send me links to your work.

5 Comments

  1. Greetings, 25+ BL fan here! You’re right. There a lots of problematic story-telling in BL and I’ve written several posts about the subject myself. Honestly, if you want not so problematic I think Hitorijime my Hero is really good! And it’s realistically problematic because it sells? People like me keep buying them but also in my defense as a person who is queer and hasn’t had the best of relationships (straight or non-straight) I’m not crazy for vanilla, soft fluffy romances and I am also mature enough to know that a character in a manga is hella problematic and realize that I shouldn’t aim for that. I read Twittering Birds Never Fly because I relate to a broken man who tries to run from pain not because I think he’s a hero or a good person. Additionally, I do think a lot of it is framing and consequences. I’m fine with problematic things when it’s framed as HEY, THIS IS BAD rather than HEY, THIS IS ROMANTIC.

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    1. The last couple of days have really seen this old argument blow up again, huh?
      I think reading BL as a queer person is a different experience than reading it as a straight person – we have a need to find stories that reflect our own experiences, and BL provides an element of that for some of us. I think it also puts us in a better position to spot the problematic elements because we have the experience necessary to say “that’s not how it works”. Straight people have access to countless stories that portray any and every aspect of straight relationships, yet we have so little in comparison that we’ll cling to stuff even when we know it’s not the best, because it’s all we have.
      I have seen Hitorijime My Hero, and while it’s not my favourite (and still has its problems, such as the teacher/student relationship and the Bastard Boyfriend trope), it does offer a more honest portrayal of a young man in his first relationship. I am a fan of Love Stage, for the way it takes a lot of problematic BL tropes and actually explores how they might affect a relationship, such as Izumi’s reaction to Ryoma forcing himself on him, or Izumi being honest about their first time not being good for him.

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  2. What a coincidence. My post today was also about BL/ yaoi. I liked your well-thought-out post, and though I disagree with the thinking behind some of it, I can wrap my head around your perspective at least. It’s kind of fun to do that. Like you said, we should all be able to have a conversation and not yell at each other like little kids. xD

    I would like to give my opinion if you don’t mind. “You can argue ‘it’s only fiction and fiction isn’t reality’ all you want, but when fiction constantly gives us the same inaccurate portrayals of same-sex relationships, those portrayals will affect people’s perceptions.”

    I guess my response would be, what does it matter if some other people come to incorrect conclusions about gay men because of an anime? I won’t do that, and I don’t think anyone with sense would. If some do, it’s not the job of an entertainment industry to change just for those confused individuals. That being said, I’m certainly not against progressive change in the yaoi and shounen ai genres. More shows like Yuri on Ice would be awesome. It’s just that I don’t feel the need to be an activist concerned with an entertainment industry. If I’m going to advocate, which I try do do, especially for transgender women, then I stick to advocating about reality and real situations. That’s just what I think.

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    1. I agree that it’s not the responsibility of media to educate people about the realities of gay relationships. I guess I’d be less mad about inaccurate representation if there were other alternatives, i.e. more shows like Yuri On Ice, where gay people can just exist the same way straight people do, or stories like Love Stage, which say ‘this is what would actually happen if those tropes played out within a relationship’. It just feels overwhelming sometimes when the only representations of yourself you can find are negative ones. Like getting stuck with a bad passport photograph, knowing it doesn’t look like you, but that’s what so many people are going to associate with you. Or when any representation at all has some people shouting about how they don’t want to see it.

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      1. Those feelings are very understandable. Your reply helped me picture things from your point of view. I think things will change slowly in the industry, and while I’m not doing anything to change it myself, I’d welcome the change. This is shoujo ai and not BL, but I absolutely loved Bloom Into You because it was more realistic than most yuri and not tasteless like Citrus.

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