A look at the yaoi genre and its depictions of gay men.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve sought out media starring gay characters. When I’m surrounded by bigotry in society, it’s nice to see examples of people like me simply being allowed to exist. As few queer characters as there are today, there were even less back when I was growing up. To put it succinctly, I came out “pre-Glee” and almost a decade before Iceman. I read comic books from a young age, but in terms of other gay men, all the medium really offered me was Wiccan, Hulkling, and Northstar. Manga, though, was a different–albeit much more complicated–story. I was in late elementary or early middle school when I first discovered yaoi.

Yaoi is a genre of manga and anime defined by its focus on male same-sex relationships. Sometimes those relationships are just romantic, but frequently they are sexual as well. Theoretically, the existence of an entire, relatively popular genre starring gay men should have been a great discovery for my younger self. Unfortunately, the actual depictions of said men quickly soured me on the genre.

The majority of yaoi is created by and for straight women, which isn’t an inherently bad thing. With that said, art isn’t created in a vacuum, and societal attitudes about queer people influence the way they are depicted in stories. When said stories are being crafted by and sold primarily to groups of people with significantly different social statuses than those being written about, the potential for trouble rises.

There has been a lot of discussion in fandom circles about how yaoi creators frequently seem to lack base understanding of gay men, their relationships, and their sexualities. I wouldn’t have much problem with this if the all the genre’s tropes were relatively harmless. For example, the sex depicted in yaoi tends to be unrealistic when it comes to lube, timing, etc. With that said, unrealistic sex is fiction isn’t unusual. It’s the genre’s other tropes that bother me.

One of the most popular yaoi franchises, and one that is riddled with the genre’s most frequest faults.

Specifically, yaoi media tends to have major problems with consent. It’s extremely common for yaoi stories, both popular and lesser-known, to feature characters who rape or otherwise commit sexual assault. These assaults tend to take place between men in romantic relationships, or who enter romantic relationships later on in their respective stories.

What’s most troubling about all this is that the immorality of sexual assault is almost never actually addressed. It simply takes place without being treated as something wrong or unhealthy. Frequently, the stories end with both members of a relationship, the assaulter and the assaulted, happily together. Aside from how inherently troubling it is for sexual assault to be portrayed as morally permissible, there’s an added layer of cultural weight to such depictions when the relationship in question is between men.

One of the most common and dangerous negative stereotypes about gay men is that they are predatory; to have a genre devoted to gay men reinforce those stereotypes has always rubbed me the wrong way. After all, I personally have to deal with the consequences. I still remember one occasion during high school where a straight acquaintance, who was an avid yaoi reader, was surprised to learn that real-life male-male relationships weren’t like the toxic, rape-filed pairings from the comics she read.

Still, there is hope for the genre.

None of this is to say that all yaoi manga has these same problems. I have read multiple yaoi series, by creators of various sexual orientations, that either didn’t suffer from the same terrible depictions of queer men, or that were at least more complicated. For example, I recently read the first volume of a series entitled In the Walnut by Toko Kawai. The series stars a couple whose adventures center around an art gallery, and their relationship is relatively healthy and wholesome throughout the majority of the volume. The manga’s back-up stories enter some uncomfortable territory, but they’re at least comparatively less troubling than the genre’s more well-known series. Yaoi manga like In the Walnut give me hope and remind me that the genre has potential to be a lot better than its worst examples.

There are also good manga with gay characters that don’t fall into the yaoi genre. Bara, like yaoi, revolves around relationships between men, but its creators are queer men themselves. There are also some manga with gay characters that fall under more traditional genres that aren’t defined by the characters’ sexual orientations. For example, No. 6 by Atsuko Asano and Hinoki Kino is a stellar science-fiction series starring two men whose relationship is given the sort of respect that is often reserved for just heterosexual couples.

You know who I hate? This guy.

On the downside, there are plenty of non-yaoi manga that also have troublesome depictions of gay men. Take One-Punch Man, for instance. When it rose to popularity in the west, I checked the anime version and thoroughly enjoyed it…for five or so episodes. Then along came Puri-Puri Prisoner, the epitome of the gay-man-as-rapist trope. Of course, this isn’t a problem unique to Japanese comics; American comics have had more than their fair share of misses over the years as well.

Overall, I have major problems with much of the yaoi genre, but I recognize its potential for better things. I like giving yaoi series a shot, as I’m always seeking out media with queer characters. Nonetheless, I’m not surprised when I see yaoi include terrible depictions of sexual assault, or gay male characters who have been fetishized for a straight female audience. Sadly, poor handling of gay men in fiction is commonplace–in Japanese comics, American comics, and beyond. Still, there are needles in the haystack, and for that I am thankful.