I&I

How yaoi helped me avoid a bad romance

In honour of World Pride, I thought it would be fitting to write about my yaoi reading days, and to own up to my appropriating, straight, female gaze.

Yaoi manga was one of my first forays into the world of comics beyond the newspaper funnies. At the time, I wasn’t yet able to find manga in mainstream bookstores, but aestheticism.com was active online and I had recently discovered X:1999 while in Osaka, a serial that wasn’t yaoi per se, but featured both homosexual and homoerotic relationships between its male characters. Sure, my Japanese was poor, so most of the dialogue went over my head, but really, how much fluency do you need to understand this:

X-1999

Wet oxford shirt contest

It couldn’t have come at a better time. I was still a teenager, at the height of my intolerance for heteronormativity. All media made for women about hetero romantic relationships – women’s magazines, classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, romantic comedies – struck me as patronizing, intellectually insulting and made me want to fucking vomit. I had extreme difficulty relating to the women in these narratives. They were more often than not, pathetic creatures whose primary, if not only, accomplishment in life was being attractive to a man. Even the competent and intelligent women were ultimately represented as worthless without male attention.

Even more infuriating, was how often these romantic stories for women featured an emotionally unavailable bad boy lead. These handsome, charming men, ranging from impulsive, irascible ruffians to wealthy business scions oozing power, were all easily identified by their acts of emotional manipulation, whether this was portrayed as intentional or not. Well timed hints and gestures of love, rather than actual love, were all that was necessary to string a woman along until by the redemptive power of her masochistic/sacrificial attentions or, less often, by the wit of a woman who could play the game as hard as he, these men would transform from red flag waving jerks to fierce protectors, providers and lovers.

carrie-big

Bad boy lesson #1 from Sex and the City: it’s only real love when your teeth are bared.

As someone who values autonomy and freedom, the idea of having to “capture” anyone, to break down someone’s emotional defenses in order to win their commitment, repelled (and still repels) me. But my distaste for the bad boy was cemented in real life, during my final year of high school, when one insinuated himself in my circle of girlfriends and proceeded to take down every single one. He was older, charming as all hell and for all his misogyny (or perhaps because of it) understood women like no boy I’d ever met. And because I didn’t fall for his attentions, I was the one left to deal with the mess he left behind and I wanted to castrate him for it.

So looking back, I find it interesting that the yaoi stories that I consumed often featured bad boys to the extreme. Emotionally unavailable and at times, even physically abusive, men. Men that made the Mr. Bigs and Mr. Greys of our time seem like patron saints of feminism.

A part of my interest had to do with the erasure of mainstream heteronormative dynamics. In particular, yaoi was an erotic world that made sense to me, where people didn’t think about their genitals like precious little commodities or prizes to be won and where sexual intercourse was not a pseudo financial transaction. It was a much needed alternative to a teenaged world where the girls around me equated having sex with putting out. A world where the dominant discourse was that something had been taken from them and even if consent was given, it was taken violently.

So I’m sure another aspect of my interest was motivated by more than a small degree of vengefulness. Finally, instead of seeing some naive girl get used (or worse, an intelligent one reduced to an idiot) by a manipulative asshole, I could read about yasashi pretty boys getting played. For once, it wasn’t a girl eating shit in the name of love and romance. And there was something subversive and satisfying about narratives featuring men who were just as vulnerable and needy, if not more, than the fictional female characters and the IRL girls I was growing up with. I read yaoi because I wanted to fantasize about men needing my protection and care instead of having to deal with the reality of men using and abusing my girlfriends, my fear that I was losing my ability to relate to women and the fact that my growing resentment with heteronormative ideologies was blunting my compassion for my peers.

And yet, if I am to be honest, I did find these bad boy yaoi stories deeply romantic and emotionally satisfying. There was something attractive about watching someone suffer, and suffer often, to please the object of their affections. At that time, I had internalized many Patriarchal norms about hetero relationships and I was unable to conceive of alternatives. Reading yaoi offered me a radically different vantage point from the one mainstream women’s media kept pigeon holing me into. When yaoi replicated Patriarchal power dynamics, I used it as a means to consider the way I had been trained to devalue female-gendered traits (like feeling “weak” emotions) and to eroticize my own subjugation without dirtying my hands in the process as it were, because I didn’t have to identify with any of the characters in the way I would identify with a female character. Yaoi gave me the distance I needed to accept and explore my attraction to the bad boy narrative without actually having to be played and demeaned by a bad boy.

It was around the same time that I discovered yaoi that I spent a great deal of time analyzing my own assumptions about gender, romance, love, sex, relationships and power. I decided not to date anyone until I had sorted all this out in my mind, and invested my teenaged energies into reading psychological theories and teasing apart contradictions between my beliefs, my desires, my thoughts. Because the lack of female characters took gendered double standards out of the equation, yaoi narratives became like control groups that I used to test out my theories and ways of thinking. And as I prised apart my unconscious narratives about relationships and female sexuality and power exchanges, my interest in yaoi waned until it became non-existent.

A short while ago, a friend sent me videos of a relationship between two fine looking gay men, one of whom was an inveterate bad boy. And while I’d never say no to gratuitous depictions of young, male lust, I found myself horrified at the way in which the bad boy was represented: as a romantic figure, a wounded soul who so desperately needed the salvation of an irrepressible young lover which somehow excused his behaviour as a violent and abusive man.

I suppose you could say that it’s a shame I don’t enjoy this kind of thing anymore. People are always so afraid of examining and “overanalyzing” their desires because they suspect this will kill their ability to get off. They have so little faith in the power of the erotic drive. The way I see it, bad boy stories were fun when I was a teen, but they’re child’s play to me now. And I much prefer the play of adults…

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