In Defense of Fujoshi

Content warning for discussion of rape fantasies, illustrations of penises, and strong irony regarding sensitive topics.

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I’m really serious about the content warning.
This essay is potentially triggering and extremely NSFW.

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At the Toronto Comic Arts Festival last weekend, Picturebox announced their plan to publish a bara manga anthology titled Massive. This news has been met with congratulations from all corners of English-language manga fandom, which is fantastic, because congratulations are in order.

What this excitement has occasionally been accompanied by, however, are snide comments about BL manga. To summarize and simplify these comments:

Male sexuality is BEAUTIFUL.
Female sexuality is GROSS.

Pornography drawn by men is ART.
Pornography drawn by women is TRASH.

Male sexual fetishes are EXCITING AND REVOLUTIONARY.
Female sexual fetishes are DESTROYING FEMINISM AND/OR LGBT RIGHTS FOREVER.

In other words:

Bara manga is GOOD.
BL manga is BAD.

This sort of mentality is often accompanied by essentializing statements such as:

All bara manga is AUTHENTIC.
All BL manga is HOMOPHOBIC.

The idea behind the above sentiment seems to be that, while all bara manga is always, by its very nature, an accurate depiction of the realities of the gay male lifestyle (note that there is apparently only one gay male lifestyle), BL manga, because it is always drawn by straight women, cannot accurately depict the concerns of gay men.

Okay, so if bara manga is always an accurate depiction of the gay male lifestyle…

Tagame Gengoroh - Standing Ovations

…then Tagame Gengorō’s one-shot manga “Standing Ovations” (pictured above), which is about a boxer who is drugged and forced to become a slave and repeatedly raped in front of a live audience, is apparently an accurate representation of the reality of what it means to be a gay man.

In another of Tagame’s stories…

Tagame Gengoroh - Arena

…titled “Arena” (pictured above), a boxer is drugged and forced to become a slave and repeatedly raped in front of a live audience. Except he’s eventually chemically lobotomized, and he ends up loving the rape, so it’s not really rape anymore!

Wow. I had no idea that all gay men everywhere in the world are either attending or participating in these sorts of rape battles.

This makes me wonder about bisexual men, or straight men who participate in group sex. Do those guys have their own separate rape battles, or are they just not invited to the rape battles? What about transgender men? Do they still get to go to the rape battles? And what about the gay men who aren’t interested in rape battles? Do they still get to be gay? Or am I just being a silly vagina-head by assuming that all gay men are not all totally alike?

But wait! It turns out that Tagame also wrote stories that were published in BL magazines like June, as well as magazines that have a balanced male/female readership, such as Kinniku otoko:

“I wrote ‘Hairy Oracle’ knowing that half of the readers were going to be women, so I tried to include some elements of romance and lightheartedness,” explains Tagame. “When I write for gay men’s magazines, it’s primarily about the hero’s initiative and interiority. When I know that women are also going to be reading it… they’re more interested in seeing actual relationships and coupling. So that’s a big difference when I go for writing for one or the other.”

Wait… So Tagame Gengorō has written BL manga… And BL manga is not authentic, because it’s all written by straight women… Which means that Tagame Gengorō is a straight woman?

My head just exploded.

Anyway, let’s consider the sick fantasies women have about gay men…

Kagurazaka Hanko - Hitotsu yane

…like gay men in monogamous relationships raising children.

SO GROSS.

The really terrible thing about these twisted women is that they’re not content with stand-alone BL manga; they also have to get their dirty lady cooties on mainstream media as well. For example, Azuma Kiyohiko’s series Yotsuba to, which manga critic Kamiya Kōsetsu has called an “eternal summer vacation” meant to provide adult men with an escape from the real world, is a huge hit with adult women, who are attracted to the role-reversal of a single father raising a child and the strong friendships between the female characters. When these women get their filthy lady hands on the manga…

Ookina hanayasan

…they write dōjinshi fanzines that turn the escapist fantasy of the original manga into a serious exploration of adult male gay relationships and the social constraints against two men raising a child in Japan.

HOW DISGUSTING.

I am one hundred percent certain that it’s entirely possible to use different examples and thereby demonstrate how bara manga is not all about bondage and rape fetishes (it totally isn’t) and how some BL manga is nothing more than shallow, disposable pornography that conflates homosexuality with sexual deviance (some of it totally is). There is a great deal of porn in the world, and there is more than enough to go around. The point I’m trying to make here is that there is a wide variation in both bara and BL manga, and it’s useless to make absolute statements about the people who read and write manga belonging to either category.

According to Dan Savage, author of The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family, gay men can be kinky and enjoy porn and raise children in stable families. In other words, gay men can have sexual fantasies and still be “normal” people; it’s not an issue of either/or.

So what about fujoshi, the women who read and write BL manga?

Here is a common conception of fujoshi:

Fujoshi Stereotype

The above image may seem like a caricature, but many critics have extremely uncharitable opinions of women who read manga.

In his Neo review of the BL manga periodical Dear+, Jonathan Clements mocks the magazine’s readers, saying, “one imagines an audience of shelf-stackers, burger-flippers and NEETS, smiling dreamily at the thought of a world where everyone can wear, and afford, posh clothes, and gets to sit in an office all day thinking of ways to sell perfume to people like them.” In other words, the women who read Dear+ are useless, lazy slackers who can’t get real jobs but like to fantasize about what a high-powered professional life in the creative industry is like through the bodies of the men who have these jobs in the real world. Right. Let’s put aside the realities of the professional world in Japan, where men do in fact hold jobs women are strongly discouraged from attaining, and assume that the glass ceiling exists because women are too wrapped up in the fantasies of BL manga to be functional adults. Obviously.

Clements concludes his essay with the argument that BL contains elements of homophobia:

Dear Plus follows a format familiar to us from other magazines in the boys’-love genre, running the gamut of possible relationships in a single issue from chaste adoration to hardcore sex. But as noted in earlier Manga Snapshot columns on boys’ love, sometimes one detects that oddest of undertones, an arguably anti-gay assertion that all of this man-on-man action is merely a phase, and that what these lonely boys are really waiting for is the right girl to come along. In other words, these men are only snogging each other because the Reader hasn’t met them yet.

This is, we might say, another appropriation from the mainstream world, where myriads of lonely manga boys have suddenly received the girl of their dreams by some fiat of the fates, in which she drops out of the sky, appears in his wardrobe, or otherwise manifests through deeply unlikely means. In denying, however subtly, the desire of men who truly love men, Dear Plus suggests its true colors as a publication that is really aimed at lonely, heterosexual girls.

To summarize, all of these BL manga readers are terribly lonely (maybe because they’re such losers), and all they really want is a man of their very own. That sounds like an extreme projection of male heterosexuality to me, but it’s not as if Clements is the first man in the world to state that girls just wanna have cock.

In any case, it’s bizarre to me that Clements would identify fujoshi as man-hungry, lonely women, especially since the vast majority of scholarship on these women identifies them as participating in highly active homosocial communities. For example, in her monograph Fujoshika suru sekai, Sugiura Yumiko argues that the reason Ikebukuro became a fujoshi paradise (as opposed to somewhere like Nakano or Kichijōji) is because it’s a centrally located area that’s a convenient place for women to meet each other. In Ikebukuro, women can shop for both clothes and dōjinshi and then meet up with friends afterwards to have coffee in the cute and trendy cafes that dot the neighborhood. These women were early adapters to social networking sites like Mixi and Twitter, which they use to organize casual meetups. In fact, there’s a trend of fujoshi using Skype and Google Hangouts to talk to one another while and immediately after their favorite shows air live in the evening. It’s not that these women don’t have husbands and boyfriends, but rather that they also have female friends with whom they share their interests and hobbies.

Slash and BL fan communities in the West are highly social as well, with friends often forming offline clubs and art circles to share and promote their hobbies. In the vast majority of these communities, straight and gay men are totally welcome; and, in the artist alleys of American (and Canadian! and British! and French!) anime conventions, one is just as likely to see boys both in front of and behind the tables of artist collectives selling homegrown BL manga and fanzines. In some of the more commercially successful Western BL comics, such as the erotic comedy Teahouse, one can even spot the mention of the artists’ husbands (and partners) on the acknowledgements pages.

I am not saying that everyone who reads and writes BL manga is female, straight, and cisgender. That’s a common assumption, but it’s not true. Even if it were true, however, it would not be an excuse for the misogyny that pervades opinions about manga not explicitly targeted at men.

So seriously guys? Cut that shit out.

People who read bara manga are okay.
People who read BL manga are okay.

Maybe you personally prefer one over the other. That’s okay too.

Non-normative sexualities are okay, and other people’s fantasies are okay, and there doesn’t need to be some sort of weird war on the internet over whose gender is the most “authentic.” Everyone is perfectly free to mock the ridiculousness of both bara tropes and BL tropes until global warming renders such trivialities inconsequential, but please take a moment to consider whether writing homophobic and misogynistic things about people who read comics is really the most productive exercise of social justice before you waste your time trying to convince women that girls are yucky.

Schoolgirl Milky Crisis

Title: Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade
Author: Jonathan Clements
Publication Year: 2009
Publisher: Titan Books
Pages: 272

Do you love anime? Do you really love anime? Have you lived long enough to catch references to anime titles more than five to ten years old? Do you appreciate dry humor? Do you want to hear some great gossip about the anime industry? If so, you should seriously consider grabbing a copy of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis – or downloading one to your Kindle, which is what I did.

Schoolgirl Milky Crisis has been out for more than two years now, but I had put off reading it because I didn’t think I wanted to read a book “mixing reviews, cultural commentary, insights into classic manga and anime titles, interviews and profiles of Japan’s top creators, and hilarious insider stories from the anime trade.” I assumed such a description was advertising code for “short, unrelated blips of a journalistic nature crammed haphazardly together within an appealing bright yellow cover that will attract potential teenage buyers in the wake of the success of Japanamerica.” In other words, I thought it would be rubbish.

It’s not. Jonathan Clements is a fantastic writer, and the editing and organization of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis is equally well done. The result of this excellent writing and editing is a product that is intelligent and eminently readable. I downloaded the book on a whim during a short train ride yesterday afternoon and ended up doing several loads of laundry just so I would have an excuse to sit on my kitchen floor all night and continue reading it.

The essays in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis can be divided into three main categories. The first and foremost category is insider industry information and gossip. The gossip includes tidbits such as how fan-run conventions fail to respect their guests from Japan and how a famous director with a name suspiciously close to “Ōtomo Katsuhiro” was almost physically kicked out of the company that distributes his films in Britain. The insider industry information contains all the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts that fans often aren’t aware of, such as how property rights are acquired, how difficult it is to get a show on television, and how people end up becoming voice actors (apparently, voice acting is not a job anyone actually wants). The second category concerns information on foreign markets for anime in countries like China, Korea, the United States, and Britain – and also places like Finland and Estonia. I imagine that this category might be genuinely interesting for anime fans (especially those in the States) who see anime as existing only in their own country and Japan (and who aren’t freaks like me who read anime magazines in three different languages). The third category involves extended analytical essays that were originally delivered as public lectures. “Five Girls Named Moe: The Anime Erotic,” for example, is about the porn industry in Japan, and “Highbrow Skills in a Lowbrow Medium” concerns the issue of “translation” versus “localization.” In my opinion, these longer essays in particular make the book worth reading and are well worth the price of admission.

Unfortunately, there were several sections that I found myself quickly clicking through after the first four or five pages. One was the chapter on Chinese animation, which begins with a brief overview and then launches into extended plot summaries of all of the titles mentioned in said overview (none of which could be found on Google). Another was the essay included as the liner notes in the re-release of the 1961 film Mothra, which lists name after name after name of a cast and crew I knew nothing about. Name dropping and plot summaries are rarely interesting, especially when the names are relatively unknown and the plots belong to films that are almost impossible to actually get one’s hands on. Speaking of which, even reviews that were interesting and fun to read could become frustrating, as the anime industry in the West moves quickly (and older titles have a tendency to become rare). For example, I was especially impressed by Clements’s liner notes for the anime series Saikano (released in 2002 in Japan, 2004 in America) but soon found that I couldn’t rent it from Netflix or Tsutaya or watch it on legally streaming sites like Hulu or Crunchyroll. What’s the point of reading about how great an anime is if you can never watch it?

In any case, what keeps the reader going through sometimes tedious and occasionally disjointed material is Clements’s wry and amusing narrative voice and common sense approach to the topic at hand. To illustrate this, I’d like to quote a paragraph from an essay titled “The Measure of Tape: The Lost World of VHS,” in which Clements describes a fantasy he had after witnessing a distributor throw out all the old review copies of VHS tapes he had gone through the trouble of returning:

So I decided that was it. I was going to liberate VHS. I was going to hoard my review copies until my office burst at the seams, and one day a grateful university library would come along and open the Jonathan Clements Wing, packed to the rafters with PAL copies of obscure titles like Ambassador Magma, and errant NTSC dubs of Fatal Fury. Researchers would then come from far and wide to leaf through my collection of ancient Japanese-language Newtypes and make notes for their dissertations. And once every few years, when I needed to check a scene in episode #8 of Ushio and Tora, I would pop back and visit my old tapes, just for the day. That was the plan.

I think this serves as a fitting analogy for Schoolgirl Milky Crisis itself. Sure, some of the titles Clements discusses may be old and obscure, and sure, maybe nobody cares about foreign markets and industry information besides the people actually involved in the process, but the essays in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, when read as a whole, succinctly track the history of anime in Asia and the West, bit by tantalizing bit. The writing style is engaging enough to keep the reader invested in the process all the way until the end. If you’re not an anime fan, you probably won’t have much use for the book; but, if you are a fan and haven’t checked out Schoolgirl Milky Crisis yet, I highly encourage you to do so.