A Reflection on “Making Strange”: On Exploration and Otherness

Donovan Cleckley and Annika Bastian

“Cosmic fear or angst or despair suggests, even if only temporarily, that the world lacks the secure structure and meaning that we ordinarily assume it to have.”

-Stephen T. Asma, excerpt from On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

“Queer theorists are thus devoted to rereading past events, texts, and social theories—especially those related to sexuality—with an eye toward disruption, on the slant if you will.”

– Kathy Rudy, excerpt from “Queer Theory and Feminism”

How does something such as one’s gender performance and gender expression become strange? How does sex in itself become a process of othering?

Over the course of the semester, I enjoyed our explorations into readings on what it means to make strange and how to define the process of “making strange.” When I consider our past readings and how they tie in with topics in gender and sexuality which Annika and I have explored, I think about how we’ve waded into topics so often left unexplored or rather disregarded. As Annika and I have discussed othering and what it means to other femininity, to make it strange with discourse, we’ve also considered the way outsiders are often treated with violence and brutality. In “Torturers, Terrorists, and Zombies: The Products of Monstrous Societies,” Stephen Asma writes: “Chimps, like humans, can perceive their enemies as monsters and then respond with torture and other forms of excessive brutality. Perceived monsters bring out monstrous reactions” (p. 239). Within our studies and research, we view how gay feminine males often become the outsiders whom violence is committed against. Particularly, in Boys Love (BL) manga, we view how the status of being feminine is not only othered, but also constructed as essentially a “deviant,” feminized, and often demonized type of maleness.

Topics such as what I’ve mentioned above have been part of our discussions over this past spring semester.

Making a website/blog-type project about “strange” gender and sexuality has been a rewarding experience this semester and also a process of “making familiar” from what was once alien to us. In combining the fields of English studies, rhetoric, sociology, communication studies, gender studies, and philosophy, we created an interdisciplinary multi-feature that allowed us to wrangle making strange in terms of gender and sexuality.

On further improvements, I would have really loved to spend more time analyzing more media and further integrating sources. There really was so much Annika and I wanted to do beyond what we’ve accomplished, even if we are proud of our accomplished project.

Moving forward, I know I will take much of what we’ve done with me. I’ve loved sharing my analyses with Annika and discussing queer theory with her. More than the content itself, I’m so happy for the work I’ve done with Annika this semester and how dedicated and wonderful she’s been to work with as a colleague and as a peer mentee in our Honors Program at the University of Montevallo.

Through our explorations, we’ve, in ways, made the strange more familiar, unmasking the obscure figures at the masquerade, and, at least, engaging in a discourse of otherness. Employing queer theory, we dispel the layer of normalcy that people ascribe to reality and thus view a queer—and strange—reality in a way that makes it familiar.

The Mask by Donovan Cleckley

Making Reflections on Making Strange

I’ll admit, I was hesitant at first to take an online course. I’d heard horror stories from classmates in high school who’d attempted them. They told me about teachers who never checked their email, obscure assignments with unintelligible directions, and technical problems that made turning in assignments on time a disaster.

I’m very glad I didn’t listen to them, because this class hasn’t been that at all.

Instead, this class has been an incredibly eye-opening experience.

More than anything, this class gave me the tools I need to identify and talk about othering and making the mundane strange. With our lively discussions each week applying the concept to different social issues, I got to see the words and concepts we read about used in actual conversations.

In my English class, when we began discussing postcolonialism and othering, I was completely equipped for the discussion, and came into the theory with such a practical, applicable knowledge.

The ideas I learned in this class I can apply to so many of the classes I’ll be taking from here on out. Even in my final English paper, I talked a lot about stripping away social contexts to make something strange and turn it into something foreign and other- so I can definitely say this class was worth it, and I was right to take it despite my initial trepidation.

I particularly enjoyed our discussions on othering and making strange in art and religion. The art exhibit where the artist created a model and took pictures of it only to destroy the original so only the photos remained is something that will stick with me for a long time.

BUT, I didn’t just enjoy the curriculum!

I think the class we had, students and teachers, was stellar. All the students were actually, earnestly involving themselves and were engaged in the conversation. The same can be said for the teachers, in addition to their being prompt on delivering readings, responding to emails, and being understanding about set backs and problems we might encounter through out our projects. I really appreciated them being so inviting of people asking the class for advice or solutions for problems, and encouraging honesty about set backs in our projects.

I would say, I’ve run blogs on Tumblr and Bloggr before, and there were features on both of those sites that I think made them easier to work in some ways compared to WordPress. (LOOKIN AT YOU PICTURE INSERT FEATURE. YOU ARE NOT EASY TO USE.) But besides that, I had absolutely no complaints with the technology side of this course. None. It honestly went so much more smoothly than I ever imagined.

I don’t have any qualms with the curriculum side of the course, either. It was interesting, it broadened my horizons, and I came out the other side of it feeling like I had the tools to join academic discussions about a whole new subject I knew nothing about when the course started.

BL Manga, Right Here, Right Now: What Does It Say About Modern Culture?

So, over the length of this course, I’ve talked about several things. First, I talked about how feminism seeks to empower women and advocate for equality, while queer theory looks to break down the very ideas of gender and sex, and their roles in society. Next I talked about fujoshi, the women who are happily accepting society’s othering in favor of their own, redefined version of womanhood, which is much more sexually enterprising than femininity has traditionally been. Then, I talked about how BL as a genre is not just othered but does itself other. BL readers other gay men, picking and choosing which parts of the gay experience they wish to consume. In so doing, they push away the real gay experience, because it doesn’t fit their idyllic escapist literature. BL readers also other traditional femininity, except instead of magnifying the positives, they exacerbate the negatives, leaving femininity a weak, whiny label no one wants to take on.

Evidence of a fujoshi’s lack of shame at her interest in homoeroticism. Teague, Justin. Fujoshi Pins, Pack of Four.

So while that’s a brief overview of the BL phenomenon as a whole, that’s where it was as of the last batch of research papers to be published.

BL lives, like the rest of us, in the age of the internet, and is continuously changing as it subsumes media, voraciously consuming itself as an ever-morphing amalgamation of Western and Eastern culture. While scholars can look at the landscape of BL as it was five or ten years ago, when they started their research, where is BL right now, as of May 2017?

That’s a hard question to answer. In some ways, it’s the same as ever: othering gay men and feminine women, critiquing gender roles, and questioning traditional relationship dynamics, all with gratuitous helpings of self-indulgent pornography and sexual taboos. On the other hand, writers and readers of BL have become more and more outspoken against prejudice, with the publishing companies responding accordingly. Most scholarly papers have looked at BL manga from 2010 or earlier, but even in that relatively short time frame, fangirls have become more outspoken in their critiquing of rape culture and the suave alpha male character. They’re asking for discussions about consent and relationship ethics, and wondering why no one has put out a restraining order against the crazy guy who shoots first and asks questions later.

I’d to give some concrete examples of this.

Viewfinder, a long-running juggernaut in the BL manga world, represents everything about rape tropes and sexual objectification that critics of BL have a problem with. However, the ten year old series is no longer the the number one title in BL. Ten Count and Don’t Be Cruel to Me, two other series which are long-running and have swept up various awards, have acquired popularity on par with Viewfinder, and the newer generation they represent is encapsulated in the themes of these two newer works.

The works both represent more realistic relationships, with Don’t Be Cruel to Me seriously addressing rape and homophobia in Japan, and Ten Count addressing the relatively taboo topic of mental health while favoring the development of the characters over their sexual chemistry—though both of these are still highly adult and escapist in nature. Don’t Be Cruel to Me in particular reflects the changing times, as it started out  nonconsensual—as you could probably infer by the risque title— and the characters’ relationship has since changed in response to the popular demands of the BL fandom. Now the couple is earnestly working towards clear communication and trust, and every chapter features a different challenge in their lives they have to overcome, sometimes as an individual, sometimes together.

However, it would be a mistake to look at these two works and decide that BL manga and its readers are suddenly wholesome, problem-free topics. We can’t simply label the BL fandom as wholly reformed, or even on the road to reformation. To say they’ve been shamed into morality and othered into following the rules would not be true at all. Rather, the nature of BL is simply morphing. With every step towards social justice, readers of BL take a step away from shame, meaning that while BL manga itself might not seem so taboo, its

BLu-Ray Cover for Kiss Him, Not Me!, a 2016 anime about a fujoshi. Junko. Watashi ga Motete Dōsunda, Blu-Ray, Volume 1.  2016. Brain’s Base, Crunchyroll.

fans seem more and more bizarre. The fujoshi presence in Japan is strong enough that there have been whole shows aired around the archetype, portraying fans of BL manga as deranged characters with an insatiable lust for homoeroticism, throwing away their social standing and reputation for any glimpse of guy-on-guy action.

So is there othering going on in BL manga? Yes. The fans are othered more than ever, and the genre is too varied to really draw any decisive conclusions about its overall morality. But is the othering going on within a total lack of self awareness when it comes to consuming the other for voyeuristic, sexual gain? That’s where the waters get murky. I would like to suggest that going forward, scholars going forward look more at society’s relationship with fujoshis than the morality of escapist literature. That’s not to say neglect looking at BL itself, but I do feel that fujoshis have been seen as dirty old men peeking at what they shouldn’t by more than enough authors looking to shame and other them. It’s time to look at what’s so shameful about men having sex and women enjoying watching it in the first place.