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.