To BL or Not to BL: A Brief Analysis of Reader Motivation


Girls who like boys who like boys…

I was trying to riff Blur’s Girls and Boys… although I kind of failed (I personally prefer Blaqk Audio’s cover, even if Blur’s lead guy is kind of cute and their music video itself is kind of hilarious, like when he sticks his finger in his mouth).

One quick note before I start – I’m going to be speaking largely in reference to manga, as there is much, much more BL manga than anime, but the same basic arguments would apply to viewers/viewing of BL anime.

I recently saw someone positing that girls turn to BL because then they get to look at multiple pretty boys instead of one, and it also removes the pesky female “problem” of traditional shoujo language – which is to say that female readers come to dislike the female lead of their shoujo manga of choice since they become jealous of her surplus of male attention. While getting to look at more than one pretty boy is probably a plus once someone has actually picked up a BL manga, I would argue that this is not the initial attraction force. As for the idea of disliking female leads, I would say this really only occurs when the female reader would rather slash two of the male characters with one another than have the canon male-female couple – and, honestly, shows up most frequently in response to non-shoujo manga and anime (for a good example, try perusing old Gundam Wing fanfiction or websites – Relena is attacked at an astounding rate, since the fangirls would rather that Heero and Duo get together).

But if the ladies aren’t flocking to BL for the pretty, pretty boys and the lack of female competition, then what is drawing them all in?

I would make the argument that one of the primary reasons adolescent girls flock to BL is simply a matter of the fact that shoujo manga tend not to provide much of an outlet for sexual feelings, and that, when they do, the end result isn’t terribly satisfying – its all flowers and sparkles, nothing terribly explicit, and therefore doesn’t really help them learn anything about what sex really is (because, frankly, sex ed classes don’t really tell folks anything about the human element, as bizarre as that sounds – they’re very interested in being clinical about it, e.g. this is how babies happen, p.s. std’s suck). At the same time, though, this is a tentative period wherein one is awakening to the fact that they possess a sexuality of their own, something that can be a bit frightening considering how vastly different such an understanding of themselves is from previous conceptions of self (admittedly, the conception of self is pretty limited for young children, regardless of the lack of sexuality to it). So you think they’re jumping into the josei stacks yet? Hell no.

BL comes in at this juncture because it is a fairly ‘safe’ way to explore human sexuality – the characters falling in love and having sex are all male, the reader is not, so there is a disconnect that isn’t as present if one were to skip into josei immediately. What I’m trying to say is that the reader can fully separate herself from the lead character because of the sex difference between herself and the lead. So it becomes a safe way of beginning to understand human sexuality, because it doesn’t technically apply to oneself, even if it is acting as a conduit for learning. To a lesser degree, this also acts to protect the adolescent girl from parental judgment to an extent – yes, the girl is reading an explicit story, but its about guys so there isn’t a need to worry! Now, if this had a girl and guy having sex… well, that’d be more worrisome, since it would seem to indicate an interest in sex, not an interest in gay guys – gay guys are pretty harmless to straight girls overall, after all.

Of course, it is important to keep in mind that this isn’t at all to claim that BL manga is realistic – I think we can safely agree that BL manga resembles life for homosexual/bisexual males about as frequently as yuri manga resembles life for homosexual/bisexual females. But the degree of realism to it is neither here nor there, as can be demonstrated by the fact that most of us probably learned a lot about sex and sexuality from dubious sources ourselves (hello, fanfiction).

This process isn’t a conscious one – no one is sitting in the manga store going, “Hmm, Girl Sparkle Flower doesn’t have any sex in it, and I’m beginning to have these bodily and mental changes that make me wanna know about sex… but Hot Working Women and Men has girls having sex with guys, which is too scary right now, so I guess I’ll read The Beautiful Boys of Apartment 2C!” Like a bunch of the mental processes and changes going on during this time, its below the surface.

Another factor in approaching BL manga is the idea of it being a forbidden thing – holy homosexuality, Batman!* But I think this is a relatively minor one, and doesn’t have a lot of staying power – someone might read a little bit of BL because of its seemingly taboo nature, but they aren’t going to hang around reading more of it unless they actually enjoy what they are reading. Granted, BL-as-exploration-of-sexuality doesn’t entirely explain its staying power either – otherwise, wouldn’t girls just move on to josei as they aged? But in this case, BL remains in the picture longer for the original reason – exploration – because sexual awakening isn’t quite an overnight process. After that, I suppose it becomes just a matter of habit, or, perhaps better put, a matter of personal tastes – they like BL, so they read it, kind of like how I like bad apocalyptic novels, so I read them.

Alright, now I’m running out of steam and would rather go read some of said bad apocalyptic novels. I’ll say in closing that I don’t know if I read BL as an adolescent because of the need to explore human sexuality in a ‘safe’ manner, although I will admit that I read some seriously explicit BL fanfiction (I really wish I could link to this pretty nasty Trigun [remember that?!] fanfic I read when I was fourteen years old – it’d make your hair curl) back then while avoiding the heterosexual variants. Josei was (and remains) pretty absent from the American manga market, so I wouldn’t’ve had the chance really to read that if I’d desired to do so, and heterosexual hentai tends to have a sexist bent in favor of men, so its also possible to just take it as my seeking out the only sexual corner of the market that could appeal to me, in a sense; given that, I wonder if American girls reading manga go to BL in part also because of market restrictions not present in Japan.

Hmm, for some reason I now feel like reading a lot of BL…

*I am smug about my ability to cram a really relevant cultural reference in there.

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8 Responses to To BL or Not to BL: A Brief Analysis of Reader Motivation

  1. Snark says:

    Hmm, you make a compelling argument about reader motivations for consuming BL manga.

    Sadly, I don’t really read GL or BL manga, so I can’t really comment further, so I’ll leave it at that -_-

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Actually, the term ‘GL’ is a pretty interesting one, since it has only recently begun to appear in some retailers in Japan – for the most part, the stuff marketed in Japan is all labeled as ‘yuri’, while the boy-boy stuff gets the BL-yaoi dichotomy. Previously, the term ‘GL’ was associated with ‘shoujo-ai’ if it was used at all, and shoujo-ai in Japan, if I’m not mistaken, refers to pedophilic materials (the same applies to the term ‘shounen-ai’, except here the males are the underage partner involved).

  2. saimaisama says:

    Well that was enlightening. I never saw it that way really, but it’s quite true. When I ask people the reason they like BL, I often get answers like “because there are no girls involved” (the obvious jealousy thing towards shojo girls) and “because the guys are hot” … Yeeeaah, I was never quite satisfied with that because I was asking to try and found my reason for reading BL.

    When I first found out about BL, I think I was probably intrigued by it. In the “Wow, now this is something I’ve never seen before!” type of way. I’ve never been able to understand what got me hooked onto BL, but I always thought it was like how I didn’t know what got me hooked onto anime. To me, it was just one of those things I couldn’t really explain. By the time I realized I couldn’t live without BL, it was too late for me to think of how it had begun.

    Though, I always thought that one of BL’s staying points was the fact that it was different from other works made by women for women. Whenever I read BL, I become incredibly happy, giddy and overall fangirly no matter what my previous mood was. That’s something that I never got from Shojo, Josei or any other genre; A foolproof method to cheer myself up.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      I would say that josei generally wouldn’t make a person giddy since josei tends to be fairly rough – lots of abusive storylines, and they just generally tend to be darker.

      I do know that giddy feeling, although I think I got it a lot more over BL when I was a bit younger. I suppose it might be due to the fact that BL tends to resolve itself much more quickly than shoujo, since BL manga usually has a much shorter run than shoujo publications do (since there is more of a market for shoujo versus BL). So while shoujo can drag itself out seemingly ad infinitum, frustrating the reader as the heroine and hero continually have relationship issues, the relationship issues in BL work out faster and we come away feeling more satisfied since most people do prefer instant gratification.

  3. Baka-Raptor says:

    I opt Not to BL, but I’m totally supportive of girls using BL (or any other means) to explore their sexuality. Girls need to know what they want instead of expecting guys to figure it out for them.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Mm, I disagree a bit – maybe your argument has a slight bit of validity, but generally guys just kind of expect girls to know what they (guys) want, and then expect that satisfying their own needs automatically means that the girl is satisfied, too. But, hey, I deal with anime, not real life, so I’m pretty sure everything just works out like it does in hentai.

  4. I agree with your concept, but it doesn’t always have to deal with discover of sexuality.

    I began to read BL later than the average (19/20), so I felt more of an emotional connection of what I wanted in a relationship. All these stories that had females as leads had a very basic shy approach when it came to relationships, that didn’t have the spark nor connection that these male- male seemed to have.

    Also, I wanted to comment to Baka-Raptor’s reply in “Girls need to know what they want instead of expecting guys to figure it out for them.”

    I disagree with you because I think it helps us learn what we come to like in qualities of a relationship, both emotional and physical. It doesn’t tell is what we want or what to do, but evoke feelings of what we want or dislike. They are like guidelines that can evoke real emotion like any romance novel.

    Overall it’s just a fun read that people either like or dislike.

    -Lady T

  5. an individual any for creating this

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