Welcome to Yaoi Research

January 1, 2012
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What is yaoi research, anyway? Technically, yaoi research is research about Japanese male/male romantic and/or erotic manga, colloquially known in the West as yaoi or boys’ love, and in Japan as ビーエル (BL). These genres are most commonly written by women for a primarily female audience. However, in this blog we will be extending the definition to embrace research on many aspects of male/male romance and erotica, including not only BL manga, anime, and other forms such as games, movies, and drama discs, but also fanfic (slash as well as BL), artwork, original stories and novels (male/male fiction), fan practices, and — to the extent that they are becoming more difficult to differentiate from the rest — gay comics and fiction. We’re interested in research that embraces the background, context, creation, and consumption of Japanese-derived m/m art and literature across historical periods, regions, and cultures.

Let’s take a moment to parse out the vocabulary we’re using. I’ll be simplifying some of these definitions, but you’ll find numerous works listed in our bibliography page that provide more nuanced definitions and approaches, if you’d like further information.

Boys’ love is a broad term used to encompass all varieties of male/male romantic and/or erotic manga and dōjinshi. Although the term “boy” may suggest under-aged protagonists, BL embraces a spectrum of ages, from the subgenres of shota (featuring prepubescent boys) to oyaji (featuring men usually in the 30- to 50 year-old age range). Most of it — and most of what you’ll find in English — features young men in their teens to 20s. BL manga is typically written by women for female readers, although we know from research that some men write and read BL. Gay manga in Japan is called bara and, confusingly, may be referred to as “men’s love,” or ML. It is typically written by men for men, although again we know that some women write and read bara.

Yaoi and BL tend to be used interchangeably in the U.S. Those with a taste for precision might prefer to apply the term yaoi (which is an acronym coined in 1979 from yama-nashi, ochi-nashi, imi-nashi [no climax, no point, no meaning]) to dōjinshi containing much sex and minimal plot that use pre-existing characters appearing in commercial works, and to use BL for more extended romantic stories featuring original characters. In the U.S., the abbreviation OEL, “original English language,” is often attached to homegrown BL to differentiate it from BL imported from countries such as Japan, Korea, or China. But such definitions can always shift.

Although BL manga are the best-known manifestations of the genre in the U.S., BL is properly a genre name, and BL anime, novels, movies, CDs and games also exist, and some have broken into the English-language market. For example, DMP’s Juné imprint translated a number of BL novels, including Ai No Kusabi (The Space Between) and Only the Ring Finger Knows; Right Stuf has licensed the BL anime series Antique Bakery, Gravitation, and Junjo Romantica; and JAST USA has licensed the BL games Absolute Obedience and Enzai: Falsely Accused.

Slash is a form of fan fiction that takes two or more characters from a commercial television show, movie, novel, or, in some cases, real life (e.g., rock and boy-band members, or political figures), and puts them into romantic and/or sexual situations with each other. Almost any popular TV show or movie you can name is likely to have slash associated with it; just try a Google search on the protagonists’ names and include the terms slash and fanfiction. Although slash was originally written in story form beginning in the 1960s, slash artwork and amateur music videos are also popular today. As literary forms, slash and yaoi, in the original sense of the terms, have many similarities; both were originally written by women for women, both use copyrighted characters, and both arose, apparently independently. Slash, however, can now refer to m/f, m/m, or f/f pairings, whereas yaoi is still used to refer to m/m pairings only. Of these three forms, this site blog will concentrate on m/m slash.

Slash is sometimes referred to as m/m fiction, but it’s useful from a scholarly viewpoint to differentiate between the two, so that slash is used to refer to fanfiction that uses somebody else’s characters, and male/male fiction is used to refer to original fiction featuring the author’s own characters.

Male/male fiction has been defined by Josh Lanyon as original fiction featuring emotional and romantic relationships between male characters. Although it’s often written by women, many of whom also wrote slash or have grown up reading yaoi, today it includes male writers such as Lanyon, who specified in Man Oh Man!: Writing M/M Fiction for Kinks & Cash, that m/m is “a more sentimental and romantic approach to love and sex than you might find in a gay romance novel — let alone gay porn. It is — forgive me — a more feminine approach” (p. 8). He notes that although gay male readers aren’t currently reading as much m/m fiction as are (often straight) female readers. Male/male fiction always features a romantic relationship, although it may also cross into many other genres — Lanyon writes m/m mysteries and thrillers, whereas others write m/m tall ship stories, m/m paranormal romances, m/m fantasy, and so forth.

M/m fiction began earlier than slash and yaoi, if we consider Mary Renault’s work; she touched on homosexuality in her first novel, Purposes of Love (1939), although her historical works The Charioteer (1953) and The Last of the Wine (1956) were more obviously m/m works. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Catch Trap (1979) was a later contemporary example of m/m fiction, arising around the same time as slash and yaoi. Today, it’s a rapidly growing publishing niche. I believe its rise in the late ‘00s can be traced first to the maturity of slash, which over the last half-century has allowed many authors to gain the practical writing experience that they’re now shifting into the commercial sector; second to the boom of yaoi in the early ‘00s, which alerted publishers to a hitherto unrecognized, or at least unacknowledged, potential market for m/m romance; and third to the rise of digital publishing, especially with the advent of the Kindle in 2007 and the iPad in 2010, which has permitted numerous small presses to tap into the m/m romance market.

I suggested in my chapter in Boys’ Love Manga (2010) that the term male/male romance should be used as an umbrella term embracing the subgenres of yaoi, BL, slash, gay fiction, etc., for ease of reference. My genre definition was, “Any narrative that contains as a central plot element the romantic relationship between two or more male characters and is marketed primarily to a female audience” (p. 78). My hypothesis, which I hope to develop further in my newest research, was that m/m romance positions the reader as female in terms of the (culturally biased) assumptions it makes about the reader’s desires, values, and expectations for a story about a romantic relationship, whereas gay romance positions the reader as male with regard to these assumptions. Is there really a difference between the two? We can probably all offer anecdotal evidence in response, but if you’ll wait to ask me in another year, I hope to be able to offer a response supported by rigorously gathered and analyzed data.

However, I suspect, like Lanyon, that as the m/m romance genre continues to boom over the next few years, it will eventually become impossible to differentiate between “male/male fiction” and “gay fiction.”

Yaoi Research is dedicated to the scholarly discussion of m/m romance in all its aspects. If you create, enjoy, and/or study m/m romance in any of its forms and would like to contribute well-informed descriptive or analytical writing to the site, please contact us. Commentaries, research notes, reviews, analyses, and opinions are welcome.

You don’t need to provide original research or complex scholarly analyses, just interesting ideas that may stimulate thought. Please don’t worry if your first language is not English. If you wish, we will help you copyedit your contribution.

Happy 2012, from Dru Pagliassotti & Mark McHarry.

Notes:

1. Lanyon, Josh, Man, Oh Man!: Writing M/M Fiction for Kinks & Cash (Albion, NY: MLR Press, LLC, 2008).

2. Pagliassotti, Dru, “Better than Romance? Japanese BL Manga and the Subgenre of Male/Male Romantic Fiction,” in Boys’ Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre, edited by Levi, Antonia; McHarry, Mark; and Pagliassotti, Dru, 59-83. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010.