The nature of love in Yuri and BL

Almost a year ago, 2DT, whom we all know and love, wrote a thought-provoking post over at Yi’s Listless Ink, titled Learning the Art of Love: Yuri versus BL. I gave my two cents in the comment section and got the thumps up. And since it’s not often you get credit from the most-respected figure in the anisphere, I think I should treasure these ideas here in our diaries, while I revisit them, elaborate on and add to the discussion. 2DT made the following point back then:

It helps to think of BL and yuri are two sides of a coin, not merely in a physiological sense but romantically as well. In fact, as someone who’s read their fair share of both, I believe that BL stories at the core tend to be about infatuation, mystery and power, while yuri is more often about vulnerability.

He got motivated to write on the topic after coming across @Aquagaze’s tweet:

Remarkable how in a lot of yuri doujins the hookup isn’t the climax and goal of the story, but revealing the relationship to the public.

We know that when someone writes a story, (s)he uses bases his/her work on his/her experiences, be it from real life or from other fictional texts. The author usually writes having in mind a specific audience that (s)he has to please. It is also true that the audience of this story has his/her own experiences and wishes, and during the act of reading and comprehending the story these experiences and wishes contribute to the formation of an interpretation, which is unique to each of the readers. Thus, I want to approach the nature of love in Yuri and Boy’s Love from two different points of view, the society’s POV and the reader’s POV.

 

Society’s POV

Cigarette in the mouth sideways, provocative gaze, possessive embrace and naked bodies- the world of yaoi is glaringly sexual and has an aura of defiance.


Society establishes certain stereotypes for each gender while at the same time sets specific expectations. Women and girls are expected to be docile, meek, show tenderness and express a wide range of emotions. They are also thought to mature faster than boys and take on progressively more responsibilities, because their biology supposedely dictates their future as mothers. On the other hand, men and boys are supposed to be aggressive and build relationships through acts rather than words. They are allowed a great deal of things and among these is a life free of obligations. They can remain single their whole life and even in societies like the japanese where family is a central value, adultery gives an escape route and isn’t very much frowned upon, if it’s kept secret and doesn’t lead to divorce.

Since yuri is love between girls, it seems logical to see the vulnerability and feminity and passivity that a slowly developing love story hides. Coming out in yuri has to do both with the need of women to be able to express their love and be honest with themselves. It also has to do with the role they play in reproduction; they need to make clear they won’t follow the role they were assigned. Respectively, yaoi is love between men who are ‘hunters’ and fearless at that, too. As a result, coming out for yaoi isn’t important: they are men, they need sex, they get it and that’s where it ends. They don’t need to come out. Society has taught them to chase what they want, obtain it but also hide it, if exposure isn’t necessary.

And I think a very tiny part of reality is also reflected in yaoi and yuri: from a discussion I had with a gay friend I understood that in the LGBT scene gay men are in general more interested in affairs rather than in long term relationships like lesbians.

 

Reader’s POV

Flowing hair, gentle caresses, hesitant lips and soft gazes- the world of yuri is one of tenderness and delicateness with a tinge of ethereality.

More often than not the reason someone reads a story coincides with the reason the author writes the story and its characters the way (s)he does. So, why do people read yaoi and yuri? This question will help us understand the nature of the relationships in these categories of anime/manga.

Let’s begin with yaoi. Its readership in its majority is women and very few gay men. This has its roots in the apolitical aspect of the romance, namely the fictional men there rarely identify as gay; it’s just two men who happen to fall for each other. Besides, it’s related to the idealized romantic world where everything takes place in yaoi.

When fujoshi are asked about their preferences, the reasons vary, but they are all very intriguing. One of the easiest to comprehend reasons is voyerism: two men are better than one. There’s also no female competition. It’s almost the same reason why many men love lesbian porn. Then, there is the claim that love between men is superior from that between a man and a woman, probably because it’s taboo and it doesn’t involve mating. Another explanation of the yaoi phenomenon is that women project their experiences of abuse onto the characters (see the rape=love trope) and even some edgy answers have been reported that go along the lines of taking pleasure in seeing men suffer [1]. But what’s really interesting is that “the yaoi territory of the dojinshi subculture provides a site where females are free to experiment with the possibilities and the prospects for their own identities, to construct new notions of gender for themselves, and to rehearse potential romantic and sexual relationships.”[2]

So, it’s no wonder the seme/uke dichotomy is so prominent. This display of power, mixed with strong emotions, is what the female readership desires, and yaoi are their wish-fulfilling realm. The lust or gender identity they suppress in real life, finds a way into an open space just for them.

What about yuri? Oh wait, what works are considered yuri? Is the vulnerability displayed in yuri the wish of a male readership? Does this wish have queer undertones like yaoi? Are things even simple like this?

 

Variety and evolution of Girls’ Love and Boys’ Love

from left to right: Maria-sama ga Miteru, Kannazuki no Miko, Indigo Blue, No.6, Ai no Kusabi, The Man of Tango

That’s what Erica Friedman says about yuri:

Yuri is drawn by and for men and women. If I ask you to name your top three Yuri artists, you’re just as likely to come up with male or female names.
But this isn’t the end of this story, it’s really just the beginning. Shoujo, Shounen, Josei and Seinen each have specific tropes associated with them. And, as Yuri moved into each of these demographic/genres, it took on some of those tropes. The boyish hottie from Shoujo, the sexy femme fatale from Shounen, the young professional woman from Josei, the badass from Seinen and the hyper cute girl from all of them…Yuri now includes all these things side by side.

People write and read yuri for multiple reasons and thus it’s very hard to pinpoint what’s the quintessential ‘yuriness’. Yuri can be tender and very slow-progressing, letting on just hints, like Maria-sama ga Miteru, or it can be more violent and gratuitious in the sexual department, like Kannazuki no Miko. It can be fluff, sex and/or psychological support like any other piece of literature, since lesbian mangaka are out there as well.

The same can be said for yaoi nowadays even though to a lesser degree. Yaoi are still written mainly by and for heterosexual women, and men’s love for gays is called bara and has its own tropes. Yet with artists like est em and the surge of reversible couples, the audience has expanded to both genders and without the seme/uke contrast, the readers surely don’t seek (only) power relations to enjoy. Then, we shouldn’t forget shounen-ai where everything is and more or less remains platonic, and has existed for a long time.

Oh, reality is complex and really delicious. What kinds of romances do you read/watch? And why?

———————————
Notes:
[1] Information from Matt Thorn’s paper “Girls and Women Getting Out of Hand: The Pleasure and Politics of Japan’s Amateur Comics Community”
[2] Taken from Brent Wilson’s and Masami Toku’s paper “Boys’ Love, Yaoi, and Art Education: Issues of Power and Pedagogy”

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11 thoughts on “The nature of love in Yuri and BL

  1. My blog pretty much speaks for itself what side I am on. Yuri is a thing of beauty that whenever it focuses more on the romance than the sexuality, it creates countless possibilities of how the girls fall in love with each other…and that’s what I look forward to the most. The journey is more important than the destination. After the girls’ hearts are one, then we can turn up the heat, which brings me to another exciting factor after the girls have sealed the deal, the first time. Just seeing how both women feel as they prepare to take the next step…simply beautiful when done right. I could go on and on but you get the gist of it.

    Physical yuri, where it is more about lust than passion, can work…as long as the viewer is given a respectable reason to cheer for the “hunter” as she tries her best to win the heart of her “prey”. It is also equally exciting when the hunter becomes the hunted.

    I know yaoi also has these kinds of elements…but I’m not into yaoi so I can’t say for sure.

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    • I like a lot the way you’ve described the steps of love in yuri ❤

      Most yaoi center around the 'hunter' – 'prey' dichotomy to the point that even in manga with a reversible couple you can see the emphasis put on 'turning someone gay'.

      You may have already understood it, but I like both yuri and yaoi, mostly realistic ones, that avoid top/bottom labels and there's a bonus for adult protagonists. I'm fond of fluffiness, but it's even better when sex is involved, too 🙂

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  2. I did a bit of research as you've probably noticed in the notes section, so I can't claim I said anything totally new or added much; just a tiny bit perhaps. In any case, I'm elated you loved it :)I agree that homophobia towards gays is way more intense. Our culture does focus a lot on phalli and sees them as 'weapons' and/or symbols of power. Two vaginas don't seem too dangerous and lesbians in fiction/erotica are usually seen as foreplay for the heterosexual male. Female sexuality IRL is sadly still faced as something of not great importance. On the other hand, a penis inserted in another man's anus appears to disturb the image of the 'powerful' sex…Yi-chan, relax, we're having some intellectual fun here, so there's nothing to worry about. Plus, if you have any prejudice towards yaoi, I fail to see it in your comment. /I/ might have appeared prejudiced, since i talked a lot about yaoi, but I read a fair share of both, as you probably know. I just couldn't find many papers on yuri and its content, unfortunately.

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  3. Ooh, I love your discussion on yaoi and people's motivations for reading and liking yaoi. Short, to the point, and quite fascinating. Love it!I like your comparison of the demographics of yuri to yaoi as well. To add to your point, I think one possible reason for the wider varieties of yuri audience and stories (besides of course my own bias, as I know far more yuri titles than yaoi), is that in the largely male anime world, homophobia toward gays are more prevalent than homophobia toward women. That is, your average fan is more likely to not mind yuri than to love yaoi. As such, yaoi has a more specific, albeit perhaps more intense, core audience: heterosexual women. This is also related to the following point you made:"Its readership in its majority is women and very few gay men. This has its roots in the apolitical aspect of the romance, namely the fictional men there rarely identify as gay; it's just two men who happen to fall for each other. Besides, it's related to the idealized romantic world where everything takes place in yaoi."This may be a consequence of a society where LGBT is still not very openly recognized—an audience that wants to see a lack of self-identification/ admittance of being gay, and there is not as much demand for variety from this.On the other hand, with yuri, lesbian relationships are more accepted in fiction (again, perhaps because of the male dominance in anime), open relationships allow for a more diverse story-telling.There is a lot to discuss here, and I wish I knew more about yaoi. I will also admit that my unfamiliarity with it may have biased and prejudiced my comment. So don't take it too seriously. ^ ^

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  4. Yes, it may have as a result not the full potential of the work. That's why so important that Masaaki's Yuasa experiment with Kickheart succeeded. He was able to create without the restrictions of the market. I hope other creators will find the same way to funding their creations.Miyazaki is almost the equivalent of Disney, so the audience it catters to is family. It's what it's called 'minna'(=everyone) and has a touch of 'kodomo'(=child).I'm looking forward to your post 😀

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  5. Right. Everyone has their own reasons.You make a good point that I overlooked. There are people who read such material specifically for the tropes.I want to comment on the financial aspects and how it affect the work. I agree that having an audience in mind beforehand makes more financial sense. However, I argue that it potentially waters down the quality. The production is focused on making money as well as art instead of merely the latter. Not to say that's not feasible but logic suggests that something is lost when focus is divided?I think Miyazaki is a perfect illustration of the outcome when one focuses solely on the task at hand. He always tells the story of a girl, her coming of age, of the female experience. Yet, ultimately, how would one label his work? Shoujo? No, it defies category. Except perhaps one of humanity.You might have inspired me to write a post…

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  6. I believe that at least for yaoi I've given an answer and of course you can explore the links I gave which are very fundamental when someone asks the questions 'why yaoi?'Hm, I can understand you- storytelling and characters are important. But there are things like your sexuality or the whimsiness of your hormones that dictate what you want to read in particular. Manga are an art form that is there to please in multiple ways and not just intellectually. A dear friend of mine reads yaoi as comedy for example.Your last question is very logical and there are many people who would like things to change. BUT firstly you disregard the needs of a large number of people who do read for the tropes and secondly you and I can think as readers, but what about the people behind the production? In order to ensure profit, which is fundamental for the continuation of production of similar works, companies need to cater to an audience. Just look at the demise of tokyopop… And think of it this way as well: if you write a letter to everyone and to no one in particular at the same time, you'll get almost everyone displeased. The receivers will feel betrayed. That is not to say that there aren't efforts towards establishing something enjoyed by a lot of people- see http://hoodedutilitarian.com/2011/03/overthinking-things-03022011/ But people are beings that usually prefer to stick to patterns to be safe. For better or worse.Thanks for commenting! I heard some good words on twitter about this post, but seeing one more comment is in a whole other class. Blogging is about expression of feelings and exchange of ideas after all 😀

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  7. "Oh, reality is complex and really delicious."This. Everyone has their own reasons for consuming a certain piece of work but I would be more interested in what leads people to consume something within a category.Personally, I have never sought out BL or yuri. I base my decisions on storytelling and characters regardless of elements/tropes it may contain. BL and yuri are no different than shounen or shoujo in practice by targeting a certain audience which is problematic in its reinforcement of social expectations?

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  8. Yeah, or opposite attract. Reversible couple is nice, but very rare in yaoi or yuri. I don't hate seme/uke style, but if it overdone, then it will be really annoying.While the power of shoujo turns gay men straight (or they discover they're bisexual.

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  9. I can gulp down much easier blue oni, red oni when in yuri than in het and yaoi, most probably due to the power plays which are not my cup of tea- most of the times, that is. I have an affinity for reversible couples :)Oh, I do know about foe!yay. After all, I'm a fujoshi myself. I guess this derives from the notion of anger sex and aggresiveness=sexual tension.loled so hard with the P.S.

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  10. "What kinds of romances do you read/watch? And why?"Hmmmm, that's a difficult question. As long it's interesting, it doesn't matter if it BL, yuri and straight. Maybe something like star crossed lover and Red Oni, Blue Oni trope. If A is wild, then B is quiet type.But, what I love the most is: friendship or rivalry (sometimes fujoshi like me mistake it with BL) between man.P.S: The power of yaoi turns all straight men into straight men in denial into other men who like the shaft but only sometimes and with the right version.

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