Intro to Yaoi: Because Two Pretty Boys are Better than One

Whether you are an outsider looking in on the strange world of anime fandom or a hardened veteran of too many Naruto-vs-Dragon-Ball wars, chances are you’ve heard of it in your travels: yaoi. Sometimes it’s defined clearly, sometimes it’s said with a scratched head and a funny look, and very often it is spat out along with words like, “fangirls”, “smutty fanfics,” and “crazy anime weeaboos.”  But what exactly is yaoi?

Well, who better than a fangirl who isn’t into yaoi but hangs out in yaoi-heavy fandoms to guide you through this dark and perilous (and by “dark and perilous” I mean “sparkly and angsty”) journey? Come follow this enlightened outsider, or reluctant insider, or… something, and learn a bit about the genre that brings all the boys to the yard. It’s a topic that can easily cover several posts, but for today, let’s just go through the beginner basics.

What is yaoi, and what does it mean?

Yaoi is a genre of anime and manga (as well as fanworks) that focuses on romantic relationships between two (or more) men. Often fairly explicit in terms of adult content, the genre also tends to feature large amounts of melodrama, lush artwork, and incredibly pretty male protagonists, usually to the point of being considered bishonen. Yaoi is shorthand for “yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi” which means “no climax, no point, no meaning.” This was a good summation of many  works in the genre, which tended to amount to, “Two beautiful men fall in love. They have beautiful sex. They die tragically and beautifully. The (Beautiful) End.” While yaoi still often has a tinge of its old tragic roots behind it, it now encompasses all sorts of tones and themes, even outright comedy.

Note that, in modern yaoi fandom in Japan, the term itself is actually passing slightly out of vogue in favor of shonen ai, Boys Love (or BL), june and other terms. Some of these have slightly different implied meanings (e.g. Shonen ai used to refer to fluffy G-to-PG romances vs more explicit yaoi, june used to refer specifically to original gay romance vs. fan comics or fanfiction). For the moment, however, we’ll just cover them all under the same umbrella.

So this is gay romance for gay male readers?

No. Yaoi is meant almost entirely for a female audience, and is usually written and drawn by female authors and artists. There is a different genre known as bara which is geared for a gay male audience, and the differences are quite marked; whereas yaoi showcases beautiful, androgynous and willowy men, bara tends to show more beefy, brawny protagonists and characters. Naturally, there are always going to be some exceptions to the rule (e.g. gay men who love yaoi or straight women who love bara), but in general, that’s where the intended audience divide is.

Ugh, why would women want to read about/watch men having sex?

If I had a nickel for every time I heard this question from a straight man who loves lesbian porn, I would be a very rich woman. Next question?

What is all this stuff I hear about seme/uke?

Seme and uke are two terms used widely by both Japanese and Western yaoi fandom as titles of sorts for the two members of the couple. “Seme” is a form of the verb “to attack” while “uke” comes from the verb “to receive.” I’m sure you can work out the, ahem, mechanics for yourself. Having said that, these terms have many more connotations than just bedroom preferences. They tend to be used as quite far-reaching definitions of character, to the point one can say things like, “Muraki is such a seme,” or “Cloud is a particularly messed up uke.” The character archetypes are pretty well ingrained in yaoi and anime fandom in general, so they’re worth taking a look at.

The seme character type usually tends to be slightly aloof, perhaps even cold, with a lot of confidence and calm demeanor. He knows what he wants (usually the uke) and is willing to go a long way to get it. He’s almost always older, taller, and more bulky relative to the uke. On a more uncomfortable note, some semes seem to have a bit of trouble wrapping their brain around the concept of “no”, resulting in some uncomfortable interactions between partners, but it usually ends up all “working out” in the end (which can have its own uncomfortable implications). Villains are almost always cast as semes.

Ukes tend to be shorter and younger in general, and this often gets reflected in their personalities; while they tend to fall into a slightly broader range of stereotypes than semes, they always tend to be rather emotional in some capacity. Some of them are spunky tsundere types who squawk indignantly when manhandled, call overzealous semes on their crap, and generally behave like Jerks with Hearts of Gold. Others will be more demure and uncertain of themselves, or struggle with shyness or their own embarrassment over their feelings. Some manga or fanworks take things a bit too far and end up with what is derisively known as the weepy uke, a boy-child constantly whimpering over whether the seme LUUUURVES him and who bursts into pure and sparkly tears at everything from a declaration of comittment to the news that the seme will be late for dinner. It becomes all the more hilarious when they turn canonical jerks and badasses like Heero Yuy or L into this.

Naturally, plenty of yaoi stories avoid these stereotypes, or at least use them in interesting and well-developed ways. But the roles are still useful to know for the next time your yaoi-loving girlfriend quizzes you on your advanced knowledge of sparkly boy sex.

It sounds like crap.

To be honest, some of it is. There are plenty of titles and fanworks that pretty much amount to Twilight without the “icky” girls (sparkles still included).  But like any genre of literature or media, there’s good stuff and bad stuff, and good yaoi can deliver just as much subtlety, intrigue and emotional impact as any other kind of anime, manga, or fanfiction. And hey, even the stuff that isn’t exactly Shakespeare can be enjoyable in a fun, popcorn kind of way, like romance novels.

Why do the fangirls keep ruining the purity of the Gundam series with their ideas about Lockon/Tieria and Heero/Duo? Why can’t they keep the yaoi out of my fandom?

Yaoi, like its western counterpart slash, is always going to find its way into existing fandoms, even those that don’t have canonical gay characters. Chances are if your favorite anime series has strong emotional bonds between its male characters – even if the strong bonds are I HATE YOU I HATE YOU DIE DIE DIE – yaoi is going to pop up sooner or later.  There are going to be fanfics, fanart and fan comics where Guy A and Guy B realize their love for each other, have blazing moments of emotional honesty and passion, then ride off into the sunset together.

Having said that, yaoi fangirls tend to congregate in their own areas like LiveJournal or on specialized fanfic archives, and the pairings in question are usually advertised pretty obviously (because hey, if you’re writing Goku/Vegeta romance, you’re going to want to make sure fans of Goku/Vegeta notice your stuff!). Thus, the only way you’re going to get seriously exposed to it is if you seek it out. So… what’s the problem? It’s not like they’re tracking you down, holding you at knifepoint and demanding you appreciate the perfect love that is Amuro/Char. Relax.

My girlfriend/potential girlfriend likes yaoi. What should I do?

Depends. What would you want her to do if she found out you (hypothetically) liked girl/girl porn?

In all seriousness, though, it’s a perfectly harmless interest for her to have, so why make it into a big deal? It saddens me to hear so many stories of men who originally liked a girl only to run the other way screaming as soon as she hinted at the idea that she might just like reading about hot and pretty men together.  Obviously you have plenty of other interests in common and you like her for plenty of other reasons. Just take her interest in stride. You don’t have to like it, just respect her right to like it, and if she starts gushing about how your favorite anime hero looks so cute with his male best friend… just smile, nod, and continue enjoying yourselves together.

Of course, if she talks about nothing but yaoi and starts gushing about how YOU look so cute with your male best friend… well, then she might be a little overzealous in her yaoi addiction, but look on the bright side… at least you have a great setup for the next hilarious romantic comedy anime plot!

(And besides, you two do look totally cute together.)

Do you like yaoi? What have been your experiences with yaoi anime, manga, or fanworks? What do you make of it as a genre? Do you think it’s “weird” or perfectly normal?

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