Feminism in modern media is all about taking ownership of your vagina and being your own boss: getting the corner office, the boyfriend of your dreams, and an orgasm whenever you need it, wherever you want it. In the early 2000s Sex and The City continually shocked viewers with its frank discussions of safe sex and promiscuity, and the trend continued in the 2010s, with Orange is the New Black showcasing both strong female characters and a portrayal of femininity as downright feral and violent as any man’s world. Mass media opened society’s eyes to the fact that women have a sex drive too, and traditional gender norms watched, horrified and fascinated, as women began taking the initiative in their sex lives, no longer remaining a passive specter of femininity, a contrast to the universally accepted masculine.
Meanwhile, LGBT representation in modern media has also improved over the past decade. While the community is underrepresented, it’s getting more visibility all the time. Before LGBT visibility grew to where it could not be ignored, media catered to the cis-het worldview and shunned gay men and queer identities, othering them by only using them for humor. Now, LGBT content can be serious, though many still complain LGBT characters are included ONLY to be queer, not complex well-rounded individuals whose LGBT status is only a part of their identity.
Now, that’s mainstream Western media. Do we see these ideals also reflected in the niche market of BL? The argument has been made both ways. Some argue BL others the gay men it consumes, while scholars on the opposing side hail the genre as female empowerment.
Equally empowering? Is one empowering and one fetishizing?
The argument for BL being a source of fetishization of the gay male experience is not without merit. BL definitely others being gay, removing from it all of the negative aspects of its reality, and exaggerating the positives to cater to its own readership. The BL readership reconstructs homosexuality for their own purposes, picking and choosing which parts of it they will accept, and discarding those they don’t.
However, defenders of the genre argue that the othering isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and that gay men aren’t the only ones subjected to said othering. Female characters in BL are few and far between, and when they do show up, all positive aspects of the performance of femininity have often been stripped away, leaving a whiny, nagging shrew whose only role is to interrupt the love story playing out between the two men. The women in BL have been othered so that there is as little chance as possible of empathizing with them. These women often embody all traditional feminine ideals, the home, marriage and feminine clothing and mannerisms, so when BL texts make them into unrealistic characters, caricatured beyond any sense of kinship, authors are in a sense othering femininity itself.
“This leaves BL as too queer, as it cannot be declared unproblematically be declared heterosexist or homophobic due to the focus on love through hommoeroticism, yet not queer enough, as it cannot be unproblematically declared pro-gay or anti-homophobic due to its treatment of homosexuality as an aesthetic without social consequences.”
– Neal K. Akatsuka, excerpt from “Uttering the Absurd, Revaluing the Abject: Femininity and the Disavowal of Homosexuality in Transnational Boys’ Love Manga”
This fact performs a dual defense of the genre. On one hand, othering femininity means this genre is groundbreaking, defending women from the patriarchy. It not only others homosexual males, but also feminine females, meaning that the genre isn’t about fetishizing, it’s about the pursuance of an erotic, romantic ideal. On the other hand, no matter how much the case may be made for BL as an instrument of social change, its defenders cannot escape the fact that straight women use gay males for their own empowerment.