When I was just starting the fifth grade, I had a friend. We'll call her Mary. Mary was four years older than I was, and when I first met her we bonded over our mutual love of anime - specifically Sailor Moon. She was the one who leant me her untranslated volumes of the manga Kusatta Kyouhei no Houteishiki - describing the story to me as she had half learned from assiduous internet research and half deduced from following the illustrations - and, in doing so, gave me my first introduction to shounen ai.
Shounen ai, literally "boy love" in Japanese, is a genre of Japanese manga and anime (comics and cartoons if we want to be boorish and ignore the subtle cultural differences) that focuses specifically on gay romance between men or boys. This genre is much more popular in Japan than any similar equivalent in the states, and is targeted not at a gay male audience but primarily at straight females. In fact shounen ai is generally written and illustrated by women as well, occasionally to the point of radical inaccuracies about male physiology.
A typical shounen ai story focuses around two characters - the "seme" and the "uke" (pronounced "sehmeh" and "ookeh"). In a literal sense, the seme is the top and the uke is the bottom in the gay relationship. But much more than in any Western story, the characters in shounen ai manga are defined by these labels. The seme is generally gruff, stoic, and often pushy often to the point of being almost rapey. When he is not tough and stoic he is cheerful and puppy-like, overbearing in his eagerness, and still the more aggressive of the two. The uke, by contrast, is usually smaller, more feminine, easily confused, easily brought to tears, overthinks things, is highly emotional, and in most cases, is either reluctant to accept the seme's advances or secretly pines for him without realizing that his feelings are reciprocated. There are a number of stories that can be told with these two archetypes, and for the most part these same stories are told over and over and over again with different set dressing across various manga.
It may sound like these stereotypes lack nuance, but that's a problem endemic to manga and anime as a whole and not unique to shounen ai. Most anime characters fall into broad archetypes - the "tough guy," the "shy girl," the "nerdy character," etc. Much more so than Western media, Japanese media is oriented around comfortable stereotypes that the audience recognizes. I won't spend a lot of time belaboring this point, but if you're interested in the idea, there's a very good book called "Otaku: Japan's Database Animals," by Hiroki Azuma that explains this trend in great and fascinating depth.
When I was in middle school and receiving my first shounen ai education from Mary, these stories were fascinating to me. I was too young to read critically and pick out the fact that all the stories were basically the same - all I knew was that they appealed to a very visceral and newly-formed notion of the romantic (a childish one, yes, but I was a child). To this day I still find myself enjoying some shounen ai here and there, provided it doesn't adhere too faithfully to the basic stereotypes and devices of the genre. There was and still is something appealing about the sheer, unapologetic emotionality of them - the longing, the heartbreak, the misunderstandings, and so forth - that is enjoyable in a very onanistic sort of way.
I had given up more traditional shounen ai for several years when I recently stumbled upon an anime that encompasses all the worst (or best, depending on how you look at it) of shounen ai cliches. (The series, pictured right, is called "World's Greatest First Love" and is available on CrunchyRoll.com, for anyone who is interested.) Looking over it again with a much older and more critical eye, I tried to pinpoint what about it was so pleasing to me back when I first discovered it, why it sparked an interest in me that I have to this day not really lost.
I started to think about the uke character - I have long believed that the uke is basically a wish-fulfillment stand-in for the author/reader, but in male form. At any rate, the character is almost always written in an unbelievably feminine way, either intentionally or from lack of writing skill. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the uke embodies a very specific subset of characteristics.
The uke is everything that we as young women growing up are taught is supposed to be romantic, but which we are simultaneously taught is a sign of weakness in women (or, less charitably, the weakness OF women). Confusion, being too quick to mope and overindulge in negative emotion, sighing crushes from afar that the character is too shy to act upon - all of these are characteristics that are rather Victorian in their notions of how women should behave in a romantic situations, and all of these are traits which modern feminist women abhor in female characters.
If you don't believe me, take Bella Swan. Bella is the main character in the Twilight Series (for the two people who aren't already familiar). She is universally defined by her love for her man, she accepts his stalker-like behavior as a sign of the trueness of his love, and when he breaks up with her she literally spends four months locked in her room staring at the wall and moping. She's that kind of protagonist. Bella Swan is a non-character created to be a wish-fulfillment fantasy for author Stephanie Meyers and her twelve-year-old female audience. A very specific demographic absolutely adores these books, while most of the rest of the reading public basically despises them.
We despise these books because Bella is weak. As more mature women, we don't want to be anything like Bella. We've learned to cope with our emotions, to not let men rule our lives. We hate her for being the sort of character that flies in the face of the equality and respect that women strive for in the modern world. And yet, Twilight DOES have a huge fan following - which indicates that these situations and these behaviors have found some appeal somewhere. How is it that these things can be simultaneously romantic and detestably anti-feminist?
Well, for most readers of Twilight, they can't. You're either in the pro or anti Twilight camp, and there's not a lot of room for compromise. But with shounen ai, there is room for compromise. With shounen ai, you neatly side-step the problem of "is it okay for a girl to be like this?" by making the character a boy. Many of the uke characters in shounen ai manga are just as bad as Bella Swan, but much better received by many of the same women who would scoff at Twilight.
So I suppose the question is, is this okay? Does the fact that the character is male make these behaviors acceptable? Are the actions of the uke scornful, or are they actually romantic in the absence of feminist baggage? It's not a question I feel comfortable answering on my own. Am I a bad feminist because I found (and occasionally still find) these subservient, melodramatic characters compelling, even though they're male? Is shounen ai somehow groundbreaking, or is it just the opposite? And why are these plots compelling at all in the first place - what is the cultural construction that causes us to find these things romantic at all? And if I DO find these things romantic, does that make me a hypocrite for disliking Twilight?
More and more questions pile up, and I feel inadequate to answering any of them. Perhaps it is because I know that the answers will lead to some heavy self-evaluation, always a daunting prospect. But regardless, I hope some of the questions will lead you to thought as well, and encourage you to examine your own preconceptions. Are female stereotypes universally detestable, even when applied to men?