Monday, July 03, 2006

SB Day: Girls Who Like Boys Who Do Boys…

(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.


SteveInLA13 said...

Hmmm...don't know about yaoi, but I think the song you mangled was done by Blur, not the PSB?

Helpfully yours, Steve

Bookseller Chick said...

Yep, you're right Steve. It was done by Blur who then had it remixed by the PSB (to completely confuse me, I'm sure). Thanks for the heads up.

M-Y said...

I think there's a market for male-focused romance, though we can't let the guys know that's what they are getting. I have one story online, which I was sure I had written for my mostly female audience. When I was writing it, I was thinking, "I want to write the best damn erotic romance for women 20-40 that I possibly can." I have been floored ever since with wonderful comments from guy after guy complimenting the thing. It isn't infrequent for them to say, "I don't usually read romance stuff, but..." I don't have any idea how to tap it, but I think guys want to fall in love just as much as women. This isn't a revelation, but I don't think any publisher is targeting this market currently. Maybe the huge growth in erotic romance will help in this transition.

Anonymous said...

Reading your post I was reminded of this article about slash fanfiction. It sort of goes into why mostly women find guy/guy romance engrossing.

Bernita said...

Don't have a clue.
Wonder sometimes if it's curiousity/clue hunting about how men think of romance and sex.

December Quinn said...

Man/man sex is cosnidered by many to be the Next Big Thing in erotic romance, although usually it will involve a woman too. There's a werewolf series just started (can't recall the name, unfortunately) involving four people (male and female), all of whom "get together" with each other. Apparently the males penetrating males was so popular the book is in its 4th printing after only a few months.

lady t said...

Thanks for the info on Yaoi,BSC. I think I might know why it(and other mano-a-mano romances)have such a strong female following:

a)The plotlines are,for the most part,soap operas which women enjoy due to soaps being character driven material. My younger sister ,who hates chick flicks and mocks me for reading paranormal romances,watches K-dramas(Korean soap operas)on a daily basis so even the toughest gals are not immune.

b)For some people,it's their only avenue to knowing what gay men are like.(in a limited way but it's closest some gals may be able to get)

c) There's still some taboo attached to it,which always adds spice to any genre.

d)Also,you get to drool over such very pretty men with no other women to get in your way(which is one of the reasons I like the film version of Interview With The Vampire-saw that movie so many times.even Tom Cruise started to look good to me!):-D


SKapusniak said...

Possibly TMI incoming:

I'm, at very rough approximation[1], a het-guy and I've always found the 'threesome' explanation for why female/female themed porn/erotica/romance does it for me -- and it definately does -- extremely alien to my personal experience. In fact my usual reaction to it is something along the lines of 'Euuugh! Why are you trying to shove guys into it?'

So I'm not surprised you find the equivalent argument for why women would like yaoi unconvincing.

For me as a het-male, desiring a woman is a perfectly reasonable and understandable desire -- desire for guys on the other hand, I actually have to *concentrate* and *work at* to understand.

Since I have no difficulty at all empathizing with female lead characters per se, one who is attracted to women makes perfect sense to me. In fact it's a bit easier to follow along with her than one who likes guys. *Two* women who desire women (namely each other) so I can be either or both in the story, well that's just sprinkles on the top of the hot fudge sundae.

There's absolutely no reason for me to insert myself into this sort of fantasy as a guy, because I've already put myself into the story as one (or both) of the girls. A guy, even if he's technically me, suddenly barging into it is a reciepe for instant braindump all over the floor.

So to stupidly analogize from my male experience, to general female experience, in precisely the kind of way that's very misleading... :)

...If a heterosexual woman is pretty comfortable with empathizing with male heroes then, because desiring guys is familiar to her, and desiring women less familiar -- that's the heterosexual bit -- then a scenario where the two guys desire *each other* seems really quite likely to do it for her, at least to me.

Threesomes however, completely a different thing.

You may now shoot me down in flames :)


[1] Hey, I'm sitting here writing about fantasising being a woman in certain circumstances, so I think some TS tendencies are definately a given, m'kay ;)

Molly said...

I know so many women who love reading stories about gay men, I can't even tell you. I think it is just as widespread as the stereotypical het-male "lesbian fetish", yet barely acknowledged or exploited.

And I agree that the "threesome" explanation doesn't cut it. I don't know anyone who watched Brokeback Mountain and thought, wow, this movie would be REALLY romantic if there was a chick on that fishing trip too! I mean, please.

I swear there's a million to be made here somehow. The rabid audience for Yaoi and slash fiction has got to mean something.

eatrawfish said...

I've read Yaoi for years and I think that there is a truth to the guilt-less aspect, but agree strongly that the threesome idea is totally off. Never have I imagined myself in a Yaoi story.

Also, I think there is a certain macho aspect of gay relationships that is often overlooked. In a way isn't a man who is only interested in men more masculine than one who is into women? Perhaps it's not totally logical, but nor is a great deal of fiction. I think that macho aspect appeals to me on some level.

Furthermore, these stories range quite strongly in how they depict gay relationships. Some are (I imagine) close depictions of what a real gay romance might be like. Others are virtually heterosexual romances except that one of the two men (the smaller, girlier one) has a set of (very tiny) male genitals. The second situation seems to me like it would hardly appeal to an actual gay man, but women might go for it.

Anyway, just my two cents on that part.

Dan Jacobson said...

Here from When Fangirls Attack.

I had always supposed that part of the allure was the lack of a default power imbalance in a same-sex relationship. It really allows you to put all the crap we're constantly being fed about "men are like this, women are like that" out of your head and focus on what you're there to see. That's hot.

Also, erotica, even heterosexual erotica that is marketed to women, tends to be packaged in a way that displays naked, sexualized (and for a male gaze at that) women on the covers that might be off-putting for some hetero women.

Just a couple guesses...

Lyle said...

Dan, I've heard the "subverting the male gaze" argument quite often and that one makes a lot of sense to me.

As for male/male relationships in other media, aren't E Lynn Harris' novels various "straight woman helps her gay friends work through their relationship issues"?

sunflower said...

I've been reading yaoi for some time now. Yaoi, a particular Japanese expression, has not been commercially available in the US in translated form until the last two years, though fan-translated versions have been floating around for much longer.

It really only plays the barest lip service to real gay relationships. The thing to keep in mind about yaoi is that it is, like romance, written by women for women. It contains romantic and sexual fantasies for a specific group of female readers (though on websites where there are polls I've seen as much as a 20% male readership, BL is not written for them). Many mangaka don't even know any gay people. They just write/draw what they themselves find appealing.

Why do we like it? That's always the hot topic of debate whenever yaoi is discussed among non-yaoi readers, as if they need to put our choice of fantasy into a little organizer so they can feel comfortable with it. There's no one reason, but the simplest is often "It's hot". Some men like watching two beautiful women have sex. Some women like watching two beautiful men have a sexual romance. Personally, I love the Japanese aesthetic of the beautiful male, even moreso when he falls into a romantic and sexual entanglement with another male I find attractive. And I love a happy ending (yes, I read het romance too). But most gay romances, and slash, and even American yaoi don't interest me in the least. The focus and visuals are simply different in those, not something I enjoy. I couldn't care less about Brokeback Mountain, though there is certainly an overlap of fans.

Want informed essays on BL by women well versed in it? Try (no idea how to hyperlink here, sorry). Many articles are only for those registered as over 18, but there are still quite a few for the general public.

Sakura Kiss said...

Thank you for writing this, I myself is interested in yaoi and shonen ai romance. It is hard to explain why young women are attracted to the idea of young men being intimate. I believe the reason for this is because men being intimate together is still taboo. So, women may think it's fascinating for two men to be romantically involved together. Another factor is that yaoi, doesn't have to involve two homosexual men, in fact, more often than not the men that are having sexual relations together are not homosexual. They are in fact, heterosexual.

I like your insight on this subject.

IM Cupnjava said...

This is a great article, but I'd like to state one thing.

Brokeback Mountain is not yaoi. It doesn’t hold to the conventions of yaoi. It’s doesn’t have painfully beautiful men. There’s not a single bishie in that movie. They might be sexy, but they’re not bishie. (I can’t speak on Queer as Folk.)

Just because something is m/m and appeals to women does NOT make it yaoi.

Yaoi requires a specific tone and style. There are elements that must be part of any yaoi story and from what I’ve seen Brokeback Mountain does not have it—even with as good as it is.

I’m all for Brokeback Mountian’s success and I hope it has a long flourishing life in DVD, but it’s not yaoi.

For those of us who are rabid yaoi fangirls (a title we wear proudly), the distinction between “m/m popular among/targeted toward women” and “yaoi” is a no brainer and we expect there to be confusion among those who don’t understand yaoi.
I try to speak up when I can.

Yes, there are non-yaoi titles that are popular with the yaoi crowd. Cross-over is a beautiful thing, but crossing over doesn’t make it yaoi.

IM Cupnjava said...

Oh! I'd like to add...excellent article. I think you address some of the problems of yaoi in the States quite well! Thank you for writing it. ^_^

Ikana said...

Good article!!
I'm a fangirl of CLAMP artwork, they always have bishies with canon couples, the plot in their manga makes you daydream for yaoi, so then is when fangirls attack with fanfiction stories and artwork.
U.S. may turn this thing completely wrong, because yaoi is not gay, is the "egodisthnic" love of a very masculine man (seme) for a single man, who may not be gay but very femenine (uke) and the argument while this love turns into a "egosinthonic" one, is what all women are looking forward to read, and the final is always full of hot, romantic and caressing sex combined sometimes with rough and wild one.
Mexico has plenty of good writers, but manga is not being sold as in other countries. We're shy, we don't go everywhere saying that we love yaoi. And I, personally, don't like spanish translations of yaoi, not writing, reading or video in spanish (cuz I'm avoiding reality).
The psychological background I was researching for, I think has to do with what all women want. We want to be the bishie uke boy. We idealize the seme as a perfect lover, who is risking everything (proud, prestige, job, family relationship) for someone who is not a woman.
W/W and M/M can be seen on porn, but yaoi is not porn. It includes pictures but if I don't know their circumstances is not interesting. Finally, gay men are known by promiscuity, by superficial relationships among themselves. There is no promiscuity in yaoi, and the personalities are completely opposite most of the times.