(Yes, I know that I completely mangled the Blur lyrics for Girls & Boys--which was remixed by the Pet Shop Boys--but consider it artistic license. Thanks Steve.)
On this Smart Bitches Day I find myself considering the phenomenon that is Yaoi, and its popularity among my manga buyers. Yaoi, for those of you who don’t know, is the term given to Japanese style boy’s love comics where a romantic, and often forbidden, relationship takes place between two male protagonists who are exceptionally pretty. Their romantic entanglements and pitfalls play out like any other romance although they tend to be of a more sexual nature than the softer boy’s love mangas known as Shounen-ai. These books, which range in price from $9.99 to $15.99, have an enduring popularity in their home countries (Japan, Korea and China) among professional women in their twenties, and are gaining popularity here, although it has been hindered by an aspect of the mis-shelving process that we’ve been discussing.
When the first Yaoi comics became available in America, they was sold through adult video and comic stores and marketed towards gay men. This was in total disregard of the Yaoi fan bases in the originating countries which were overwhelmingly female. It wasn’t until the books became available (or were requested) in the more mainstream bookstores that people realized that it was women, not men, who desired to read these stories of forbidden love. It is only now, decades later, that Yaoi can be found in a regular manga section, and possibly only due to the rise in popularity of manga itself among teenagers and younger adults.
Why Yaoi appeals more to a female readership has never been fully explained to me, nor do I think that I have the psychological background and interview pool to really understand. It would make for an excellent grad school paper. What I have heard is that boy’s love comics tap into different parts of female psyche, letting women enjoy a sexualized story with no guilt (hey, it’s two boys, not a boy and girl) while allowing them to indulge the fantasy of a threesome in their minds. I heard the same argument used to explain why the television show Queer as Folk had such a large female following. I really don’t know if I buy into this at all. It’s too simplistic and seems to be a feminization of the explanation of why men fantasize about two women together. It also completely disregards any focus on the building of an emotionally stable relationship.
What I do know is that Yaoi appeals to women buyers and almost solely to women buyers. In the time that we’ve carried both Yaoi and Shounen-ai, which account for a huge chunk of my manga sales, I’ve only sold to one man who was in his mid-twenties and rather embarrassed by the entire incident. My female customers know no such embarrassment. They are rabid for the newest volumes, hunting the shelves to see if we’ve gotten anything new in and come prepared with lists of titles that may or may not be available. They often spend big money for printed copies of mangas that they’ve already read or translated from an online source so that they have a finished version for their library. When one Yaoi reader bumps into another while in my section, there is a guaranteed explosion of talking—an immediate friendship formed—as they discuss the series they either enjoyed or didn’t, and what they feel we should carry next. These women, though young, are more self-assured about their reading choices than most romance readers out there, and completely willing to let you know why you too should join the reading frenzy.
As Yaoi’s popularity continues to grow and become more accepted in the United States, it will be interesting to see how this affects other venues of entertainment. Will we see more boys’ love TV shows on the air to fill the void of Queer as Folk and more movies in the vein of Brokeback Mountain or will this interest be mis-shelved once again, mis-marketed and ignored by people who don’t realize they are missing their target audience?
I know that Yaoi would have escaped me if I hadn’t had two coworkers well-versed in the world of manga, and that Yaoi’s popularity continues to be ignored by other stores. What has made my business a destination for Yaoi readers in my town, guaranteeing return customers and big sales, is not even available on the shelves of stores with larger inventories.
With the growing popularity of Yaoi and the greater availability of Erotica in general as the new, hot thing, it makes me wonder how many other niche markets are being ignored by mainstream stores. What are they? Are they just being mis-marketed or mis-shelved or are they just not available at all? What do you think will be the hottest new trend to hit the shelves?
Because, you know, in some publishing company somewhere there is a person asking themselves the very same question.