As I’m working my way through the first (and longest) book on my summer TBR list, The Greeks and Greek Love by James Davidson, one of the points early on in the book was that while men liked to gain bragging rights about their conquests, male or female, no one wanted to become just another “notch on the bedpost” and it was regarded as decidedly shameful–or at least was mocked as such–to be known as a habitually passive homosexual.
My first thought was “Well, nothing much has changed in that regard.”
Today’s language is filled with insults implying male sexual passivity. I’m sure you can think of dozens of them. (Well, maybe not dozens. But many.) And then there’s all the stereotypes of gay men in popular culture, swanning about with limp wrists and a particular, feminized mode of speech that instantly identifies them as “gay” to the audience.
Or how about the way that some 20th century performances of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida decided that since Achilles and Patroclus were “gay” (btw, Achilles at least is bisexual in the play, being also in love with the entirely off-stage Polyxena), Achilles should do things like dress in drag, try to seduce Hector, and wear feather boas. (Seriously, these things happened. Uh, probably not all in the same production, though.) Now, as amusing as the idea of Achilles in a green feather boa is –and as accurate as Achilles in drag at an earlier time in his life is–it’s utterly inappropriate to Shakespeare’s brutish Achilles. The odd thing there, of course, is that the text makes it very clear that in Shakespeare, it’s Patroclus who’s the passive partner–unlike in the Iliad, where Patroclos, being the elder, would probably not be the passive partner if there was penetrative sex–and yet it was Achilles they were feminizing in the performance. I admit to having no explanation for that, apart from general homophobic desire to spread the taint of weakness to surround all men perceived as preferring their own sex.
Anyway, it struck me that there is actually one exception to my “nothing has changed since then” reaction, and it comes in a most unexpected place.
The last I heard on the subject (admittedly, some years ago, so this may no longer be the case), Japan was not a particularly friendly place to live if you’re gay. (That could, of course, be said of almost every country in the world, the US included.) However, somewhat surprisingly, there is a sub-section of otaku culture that positively dotes on the entire concept of (highly idealized) male homosexuality. The adherents of this sub-section of otaku culture are called fujoshi (literally “rotten girls”) if they’re women, and the rare male fans of the genre are called fudanshi. (I forget what the definition of that one is, but I suspect it’s similar.) The material itself, in its non-explicit form, is called shonen ai, “boys love,” and in its sexually explicit form is usually referred to as yaoi, a literally meaningless word believed to be “an acronym of the Japanese phrase “YAma nashi, Ochi nash, Ima nashi” which roughly translates to “no climax, no resolution, no meaning,” — in other words, it’s all about the drama and sex.” (Quote from the translator’s notes to Vol. 1 of the manga Fujoshi Rumi by Natsumi Konjoh, of which you will hear more later.) Many American fans apply “yaoi” to things that should properly be called shonen ai. (There is also the female equivalent, shojo ai and yuri, but that’s a completely diffierent issue. And shojo ai seems to be less prevalent than shonen ai.)
Now, I am not a fujoshi, so my experience with shonen ai/yaoi is minimal, and my analysis is therefore admittedly flawed, based as it is on statistically insignificant, anecdotal evidence. As a scholar-in-training, I feel it important to admit that from the get-go, though having said it, I doubt much would change even if I had read a lot of shonen ai/yaoi.
Before I get back to my true point, let me describe the two actual yaoi texts I’ve read. Okay, “texts” isn’t the right word. One’s a manga, and the other is a doujinshi.
Many years ago, before Borders Books closed its doors, I was browsing the manga section, and saw a yaoi manga that someone had removed the shrink-wrap cover from. Flipping through it out of idle curiosity, I saw the sex scene near the end, and to my shame, I was a little turned on by it. I hastily put it back on the shelf, but it haunted me, and I went back the next day and bought it. I told myself it was to protect innocent kids from seeing it, but…yeah, I just wanted to read the rest of it. Of course, once I actually read it, I found it was more tame than I had initially thought. It was what I think would officially be called “soft-core porn”: just detailed enough to be titillating, but not quite showing everything, you know? I wasn’t sure what to do with it after reading it, and dumped it under the bed (despite that no one ever enters my bedroom (or even my house)) and it’s still there to this day, surrounded by massive dust bunnies. Shameful secret I’ve never shared before. (Don’t you feel special?) Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is how the lead character, the one the girls it was aimed it were expected to empathize with, was portrayed: basically, he was a flat-chested girl in every way until his clothes came off and it suddenly became apparent that yes, he really was a boy. His behavior was no different from that of the heroines of similar insipid romance manga stories, and even his face was similar to such heroines. They even put him in dresses on several occasions. I suspect the latter detail was atypical, but the former…that part I’m not so sure was unusual, but I admit I’m not positive.
Now, the doujinshi is another matter. A doujinshi, for those who don’t know, is an amateur manga. They’re sometimes scanned in and translated then posted online, though I don’t know if the fans who wrote them would approve of that. (I’ve heard varying opinions on that subject.) Anyway, doujinshi is usually, but not always, a fan treatment of an existing product, frequently sexual in nature. (So, yes, usually it’s five to fifteen pages of your favorite characters bonking each other. Uh, if you’re lucky.) Anyway, this particular doujinshi was for a game I particularly love, Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne, pairing the hero, a silent protagonist (therefore largely personality-free) with Dante (yes, the one from Devil May Cry, he’s also in SMT Nocturne), who definitely seems to me like the type who might be bisexual, so I was like “okay, why not give it a try?” Mostly because I love the game, more than any other reason. Usually the people who translate game-related doujinshi only focus on the more popular series like Final Fantasy, so seeing something MegaTen that isn’t Persona was a treat, and all the more so since it didn’t involve rape. (Rape is all too prevalent in doujinshi, I’m sorry to say.) The hero of Nocturne was the passive partner (sorry if that’s a spoiler, lol!) and while within the story of the doujinshi he was given a temporary weakness, it didn’t seem to me that he’d been given any feminizing personality traits (unlike the hero of the yaoi manga) nor that he had been presented as in any way weak prior to the temporary weakness. More importantly, their relationship was preexisting, so Dante was not taking sexual advantage of the hero’s sudden weakness, but was actually using sex to provide comfort in a moment of psychological distress…which doesn’t sound that much better when I phrase it like that.
Now, beyond those two actual works, my experience with shonen ai/yaoi is a bit more indirect. I’ve witnessed fan art and the comments on same online, which gives a pretty good idea of the English-speaking reaction to the fujoshi community, and I’ve read two different manga both about normal(ish) boys who fall for fujoshi girls and try to deal with the insanity that ensues. One is the aforementioned Fujoshi Rumi, which is purely fictional. The other is called My Girlfriend is a Geek, manga by Rize Shinba, based on the real-life blog of Pentabu, so that one’s (hopefully somewhat loosely) based on reality. Based on my observations of real yaoi/shonen ai fans making online comments (frequently on non-yaoi/shonen ai fan art of mainstream characters), and on the fictional(ized) fujoshi in the manga, I would say that while it is sometimes the case that the weaker/younger/more timid of the pair is made the passive partner, sometimes the opposite is true. (In fact, in Fujoshi Rumi, one of the two fujoshi characters asserted that it was a “rule” that bullies are always the “bottom” in a pairing. I’m sure Patroclos would be pleased to hear that the pendulum is finally swinging the other way again…)
But who’s banging whom isn’t actually supposed to be the point. The point is supposed to be how the audience–the fujoshi, in this case–is reacting to those on the receiving end.
As far as I can tell, with adoration.
In that manga I purchased at Borders, the boy who was the lead character was also the passive partner in the solitary sex scene. In the doujinshi, the game’s hero, who was also the hero of the doujinshi (for whatever that’s worth) was the passive partner. As far as I can tell from fan art on-line, it seems like the “pretty one” is often the one who becomes the passive partner (depending on the pairing; sometimes they’re both “pretty”) thus getting most of the fan art and most of the love.
Of course, the fans wouldn’t be pairing these couples unless they loved both characters, so that’s probably not a very good yardstick with which to measure, but I haven’t a better one, unfortunately.
The really telling thing would be to see how fujoshi react to meeting real homosexual men. Are they supportive, seeing their fantasies made flesh, even as they realize that real gay men aren’t as pretty as their 2D fantasies? I hope they are.
That’s sort of the hope I see for the future, in fact. As the generation now growing up with the Internet, seeing all the shonen ai/yaoi and shojo ai/yuri fan pairings all over the place, whether in art or in comments, when they hit adulthood, I hope they’ll accept same sex pairings in real life as well as on the Internet.