237.231 Creative Cultures in Context II
Assignment 2: Rhetoric
Word Count: 1,182
Like slash fiction in the West, Yaoi or “Boys Love” is a genre of graphic novels in Japan typically written by female authors for a female audience. The genre’s narrative formula of hetero-normative gender roles, “Seme” and “Uke”, or Top and Bottom, echo the same sex practices of Samurai. Responding to criticisms of Yaoi, fetishizing Queer characters and their relationships, and being a vehicle of its female audience’s sexual fantasies, this essay studies the genre and the roles of “Seme” and “Uke” from a historical context. Drawing from Queer Theory, historical and cultural studies, this essay argues that the hetero-normative roles in Yaoi fiction may be problematic, deeply rooted in an archaic practice for the sake of its female reader’s sexual fantasies.
A Yaoi relationship is defined as “Seme” and “Uke” or Top and Bottom. These originate from martial arts terminology, and as such, Seme means “to attack” while Uke means “to receive”. Professor Aleardo Zanghellini of the University of Reading suggests that the martial arts terminology have special significance to Japanese Yaoi authors and audiences due to a certain archetype of a homosexual gay relationship (Zanghellini 159). This archetype is the same-sex love between Samurai and their brothers in arms. Zanghellini attributes this archetype for “the ‘hierarchical’ structure and age of difference” presented in Yaoi fiction of today (Zanghellini 162). Not only is the convention of Seme and Uke hierarchical and age based, historical evidence suggests that it is, to some extent, hetero-normative as well. In 17th century Japan, Homosexuality among men was a fully integrated and non-stigmatized part of society. Homosexuality flourished within the Buddhist priestly traditions and eventually, spread to its warrior classes. The practice of same-sex love among Buddhist monks and Samurai were widely accepted due to the belief that “female bodies are ritually polluted and polluting, females can never fully achieve (male-defined) feminine ideals” (Roberston 299). An example of hetero-normativity coming into play is in “Shudo” – a practice in Samurai where an older and more experienced warrior takes a young apprentice under his wing. The “Uke” of this relationship, called a “Wakashu” (meaning young person), is typically aged from pre-teen to late teens. Due to their young age and having yet to enter adult society, a Wakashu’s appearance were feminine – they were able to wear long sleeved kimono with flamboyant patterns and powder their faces. Feminine traits, both physical and emotional, are highly desirable in Wakashu, such as fidelity and “willingness to relieve (an admirers) suffering through his sexual and romantic availability” (Brown 1000 Years of Pretty Boys). Beauty, fidelity, as well as romantic and sexual availability echo traits desired in women throughout history to the present time. Wakashu males, in their roles as a younger, beautiful lover, have transformed themselves to conform to an idea of a ‘woman’ (Butler 522). Same-sex practices of Samurai would influence Yaoi fiction of the present, and is an archetype authors and audiences are most familiar with due to its cultural and historical significance. The hetero-normative aspect of a Samurai same-sex relationship, while present, is further enhanced due to other factors, such as hierarchy and an age gap. Not only do the Wakashu in the relationship conform to ideas of “feminine” beauty and ideals, they fill a hetero-normative gender role.
Yaoi fiction’s common trope of the hetero-normative “Seme and Uke” prevents the genre from realistically portraying same-sex relationships as Queer. The term Queer is loosely defined as encompassing “all non-heterosexual, non-cis-gender identities” (Ziyad Everyday Feminism). People use Queer as they do not identify with “traditional categories around gender identity and sexual orientation” (Stonewall Glossary of Terms). Yaoi’s Seme and Uke narrative trope does not fit in the definition of Queer; as mentioned before, the trope is hetero-normative, thus representing a gender binary that follows set rules based on such standards. Rather than depicting a realistic Queer relationship, Yaoi fetishizes it for the sake of the female authors and the reader’s sexual fantasies. In 1961, a novella called “A Lovers’ Forest” by female author Mori Mari, was published as the first of a trilogy depicting tragic, passionate love affairs between beautiful young men and their older male lovers. Japanese scholars cited her works as the antecedent of the genre of Yaoi fiction and manga (Vincent 64). A Lovers’ Forest tells the story of 38-year-old wealthy French Literature professor, Gidou and his young lover, Paulo. It is argued by critics that Mari, through A Lovers Forest, created a “space of her own pleasure in which her ‘maturation’ into hetero-normative adulthood can be deferred indefinitely” (Vincent 65). Mari would set the standard in Yaoi where authors and readers reconfigure Queer relationships into “a form of ideal love” through hetero-normative tropes (Saito 187). Works like A Lovers’ Forest and the Yaoi fiction that came after it, was heavily criticized by the LGBT community in Japan, the most verbal was Gay activist, Sato Masaki. Masaki, who wrote an open letter to Yaoi authors and readers in the feminist magazine, “Choisir” in 1992, stated that the genre maintains a “false image of gay men… being misused for the pleasure of women” (Lunsing 287). Masaki further criticized the depiction of its characters as “female forged images that accord to their sexual fantasies. Also, these characters are very distant from gay men in reality” (Toku 64). He clarifies that the attractive, wealthy and prince-like tropes of Yaoi characters were harmful, especially to Queer or Gay men who are forced to hide their sexuality (Toku 64). Individuals who identify themselves as Queer feel like they do not fit into traditional notions of gender identity or sexual orientation. However, Yaoi fiction has shown that the hetero-normative narrative trope of Seme and Uke (Top and Bottom) does not fit into the definition of Queer. In fact, scholars and critics criticize that Yaoi authors reconfigure Queer relationships as an agent of their own masturbatory pleasures. The LGBT community in Japan has strongly vocalized that the female idealization of its stereotypically wealthy and beautiful characters is not a realistic depiction of Gay men. Such tropes are deemed by members of the LGBT community as harmful, to the point where Queer individuals are not open about their sexuality.
“Seme and Uke”, the Yaoi trope of “Top and Bottom” in a same-sex relationship, has a special cultural and historical significance to Japanese Yaoi authors and readers. This is due to the archetype of same-sex relationships in Samurai and their younger lovers. The archetype is hierarchical and age based and is present in Yaoi fiction of today. However, scholars and critics have criticized the hetero-normative aspect of the trope, preventing authors from portraying realistic Queer relationships. The LGBT community in Japan strongly vocalized that they cannot relate to Yaoi characters and their “Seme and Uke” tropes are harmful. The “Seme and Uke” trope is popular among female authors and readers because they imagine themselves in the position of the “Uke”, thus fantasizing an ideal “love” for themselves. However, this is at the expense of the LGBT and Queer individuals, as the Yaoi genre is widespread to the public, thus opening up about their sexuality is difficult.
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Image by Kasai Rikako