Author’s Note: The following post will discuss depictions of sexuality in media. As such, content may not be acceptable for young children. Please read responsibly.
In light of Zach’s recent post, I’ve decided to finally talk about an issue that is of serious concern to me, and one about which I have rather conflicted feelings: the homosexual relationship as depicted in manga. The concept of graphic depictions of homosexuality in media is something that is fairly new to the Western market, and something that is being met with varying levels of approval all over the U.S. But homosexuality in history and fiction is nothing new in Japan – though the acceptance of homosexual relationships might not always be 100% fair or equally-minded.
Fans of anime will already be familiar with the terms shonen-ai (boy love), shojo ai (girl love), yaoi (male homosexual relationships), and yuri (female homosexual relationships). In fact, many people seek out these specific genres and/or write fanfiction for their favorite series within these genres, often pairing characters that are not paired in the original work. On the surface, this can seem like acceptance for homosexuality, or indeed, a place where individuals who identify as homosexual can find stories about them, as opposed to having to wade through the centuries of heterosexual romance stories. In many ways, I think this can be seen as a positive trend in Eastern comics, especially as opposed to Western comics (as Zach’s post suggested). But there are also some pretty horrible stereotypes perpetuated in these stories, and it’s important to understand which ones are written from a truly honest place, and which ones are pure sexploitation (it’s a word).
It is not uncommon in the West for men to be interested in seeing two (or more) women engage in sexual acts. This mentality is not at all foreign to a Japanese audience; the only difference here is that there’s also work being created for women who enjoy watching two (or more) men engaging in sexual acts. As yaoi became widely prevalent on the internet, lots of 14-year-old MySpace girls got it into their heads that this was something they also found really sexy (trust me, I was there). This, in a very small way, is a victory in terms of gearing sexual media toward women – but in a much larger sense it is a hugely problematic exploitation of homosexuality. In both cases, these homosexual acts are seen as being provocative and entertaining for a heterosexual audience. They are not being taken as sexual acts between partners who actively live this way, who express their passion in this way.
The other downside to this genre is that the stories are almost always exclusively about sex – about wanting it, feeling guilty about it, obtaining it, obsessing about it. These aren’t characters who have normal lives who also happen to be sleeping with someone of the same sex. These are sex machines, created solely to be beautifully entangled in sexual frustration and relief. Their lives are defined by their sexual habits. They are drawn in such a way as to heighten their sexual attractiveness, posing to highlight their assets (not unlike how 99.9% of women in Western comic books are depicted).
But one of the most heinous offenses, as far as I’m concerned, is that nearly every single story has a very obvious gendered role; that is, one person is the “man” in the relationship, while the other is the “woman.” In the genre of yaoi specifically, there are terms for this: seme (meaning “attacker”), and uke (meaning “receiver”). I hate this stereotype with a profound and burning hatred. The concept that someone is attracted to members of the same sex because they are “too feminine” or “too masculine” to be attracted to the opposite sex is harmful to both homosexual and heterosexual individuals. It waters down sexuality to being based solely around socio-typical gender roles that must be fulfilled in order to have a successful, real relationship. Once again, this idea is not restricted to one society or the other; in the U.S. we suffer from this delusion as much as they do overseas.
With this sort of media being easily accessible, fans often take series into their own hands with fanfiction and fanart depictions of favorite characters. Once again, there’s no specific harm in this at the outset – that’s what fandom is all about! But it becomes a real problem when fans actively put down other characters who “get in the way” of their favorite pairing. For example, the series Gundam Wing has five male protagonists. Naturally, this leads to lots of different kinds of pairings – there are plenty of options. In this series, however, there is a very clear female love interest named Relena. Because fans want to use her boyfriend, Heero, in fan works with the other male characters, she is almost exclusively shunned by all. She is called stupid, ugly, annoying, an upstart, too perfect…all descriptions that are more or less incorrect, considering she’s a very dynamic character who goes from being rather naive and, yes, annoying, to literally becoming Queen of the World and having to make really important decisions. Demeaning of pivotal characters aside, there is also the practice of gender-swapping just one character in a pair in order to make their story homosexual. Once again, this more often than not happens to female characters, most of whom already have the short end of the proverbial media-image stick. So fans exploit a homosexual relationship while, at the same time, diminishing a valid relationship that already exists. For no reason other than “it’s sexy.” Once again, fans can do whatever they want, but I think there’s a certain point where it’s important to recognize that the way they treat characters might say a thing or two about the way they view people in general.
I don’t imagine that the industry is going to change overnight. In fact, I wouldn’t see these trends as even being that harmful – if they were in the minority and taken with a grain of salt. But people are very serious about these types of stories, to the point where it’s very difficult to find a genuine love story that is about two people of the same sex. I am 100% all-for homosexuality (and, yes, homosexual sex!) in manga and anime – but not at the sacrifice of the story, and certainly not with the kind of disrespect it currently perpetuates for an entire population. Is it wrong to enjoy these stories? I don’t think so, no. But the error comes when you believe that this is what it is to be homosexual, to be in a homosexual relationship.
In closing, I want to clarify that I have never personally been the brunt of any of these stereotypes, being more or less heterosexual. I am very open to discussion on this topic from all sides of the issue, because I genuinely want to know what people think, and how we can improve media and fandom so that all people are given the kind of respect we all deserve as human beings. Additionally, I only talked about homosexuality in this post, but I recognize that there might be more specific concerns for individuals who identify differently on the queer spectrum – bisexual, transgender, etc. I haven’t encountered much media that deals with these specific groups of people, but if any exist, I would be very willing to check them out!