Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"Straight" Women, Queer Texts: Boy-Love Manga and the Rise of a Global Counterpublic

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"Straight" Women, Queer Texts: Boy-Love Manga and the Rise of a Global Counterpublic

Article excerpt

In recent years Japanese manga (comics) have exploded onto the North American comics market, rapidly taking over the graphic novel sections of book and comic stores and generating fans among adolescent audiences.' Most comics being translated and published in the United States are aimed at this age group and along clear gender lines. Shorten comics are considered to be primarily for boys and tend to focus on action and adventure narratives, while shojo comics for girls typically present more romantically oriented stories. More than a passing fad, manga have become a firmly established segment of the U.S. publishing industry, and in 2004 total manga sales for the United States and Canada were up to $207 million (Memmott 2005, 4d). The manga industry in Japan is even larger, with "gross revenues totaling 531 billion yen ($5 billion)" in 2001 (Thorn 2004,169).

Japanese manga are flourishing in North America, but the majority of texts translated and sold are heterosexually oriented despite the fact that there is a wide array of more sexually transgressive manga being published in Japan. Therefore, when Tokyopop, a U.S. publisher of Japanese manga, released several new queer series in the fall of 2003 they took a brave leap in introducing what I will be referring to as "boy-love manga" to the U.S. comics market. As the name suggests, boy-love manga present romantic narratives that visually depict homoerotic love between male protagonists. By and large, these comics are created by and for women. They have a well-established history in Japan and have generated a huge following of female readers, particularly teenage girls. It is their recent emergence on the North American manga market that raises several interesting questions. In particular, how does the transnational circulation of these comics require us to consider their popularity in new ways? And how do boy-love manga, by virtue of their queer content, work subversively within a more global context?

To clarify my terms, in this paper I will be using boy-love manga as a larger all-encompassing genre term, while distinguishing between the two separate categories of shonen-ai and yaoi that fall under it.2 Shonen-ai manga tend to emphasize elaborate romances that contain imagery more suggestive than sexually explicit. A palpable thread of erotic tension is, however, present and maintained, predominantly through visual cues such as sudden longing looks, unexpected caresses, suggestive body language, and intimate kissing scenes. Typical panels are often erotically charged as readers catch a glimpse of a tongue here and a wandering hand there, ultimately leaving more to the imagination than meets the eye. In contrast, the often pornographically explicit boy-love manga known as yaoi generally forgo coherent plot development in favor of using every available opportunity to get the beautiful male characters in bed together. In fact, yaoi is an acronym in Japanese that ironically translates as "no climax, no punchline [sic], no meaning" (Schodt 1996, 37).

Despite the steadily growing publishing market for boy-love manga outside Japan, current scholarship has not focused at great length on the increasingly global nature of the readership or the function and effect of such widespread textual circulation. Mark McLelland (2000a) argues that there is a clear distinction between how Japanese and Western audiences receive homosexual texts, which necessitates a restricted cultural analysis:

Although Japanese society is no more tolerant of men or women expressing a gay or lesbian identity in real life than many western [sic] societies, as a fantasy trope for women male homosexuality is understood to be a beautiful and pure form of romance. Hence, it is possible in Japan for mainstream bookstores to carry many boy-love manga titles (among them classics such as June and B-boy) that depict stories about love between teenage boys often featuring illustrations of anal sex and fellatio, which can be purchased freely by anyone, including their intended audience of high school girls. …

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