Boys’ Love vs. Yaoi: An Essay on Terminology

Boys’ Love vs. Yaoi: An Essay on Terminology

YaoiYesterday I was glancing through the Yaoi entry on Wikipedia and felt dissatisfied by the way the term was defined there. I’d like to propose a slight change in usage.

In Japan, the genre is called boys’ love, Bōizu Rabu, and I believe that term should be used in English, as well, to label the broad category of male/male romance and homoerotica that is (primarily) created by women for women. I intend, in fact, to define it more broadly than do the Japanese, as I explain below.

I realize that the term boy is misleading, suggesting as it does material centered around prepubescent males and calling to mind the North American Man/Boy Love Association. Despite these potential misunderstandings, however, I think it’s easiest to retain the term because of its existing widespread use among the genre’s readership. Readers concerned over the confusion simply need to make it clear that the genre addresses m/m romance and sex over a wide range of ages.

I’ve chosen to punctuate the term as boys’ love to indicate multiple boys possessing love. Boy’s love indicates only one boy possessing love, which may be the case in some BL, but usually isn’t. Boys love is grammatically incorrect in English.

The term yaoi is used interchangeably with boys’ love in English; I don’t expect the practice to stop, especially since it’s been well-embedded in the U.S. by manga publishers. However, whenever precision is important, such as in formal scholarship, the two terms should be differentiated. Properly speaking, yaoi is a subset of boys’ love. (It could be argued that yaoi should be capitalized as the acronym it is: YAOI — yama nashi [no climax], ochi nashi [no point],  imi nashi [no meaning]. However, its capitalization has already fallen out of general usage, and there’s precedent for dropping the capitalization of acronyms in English, e.g., radar, laser, and scuba.)

I wrote earlier that I intend to propose boys’ love in the widest possible sense. The defining characteristic of boys’ love, I’d argue, is that it is a narrative about the romantic or erotic relationship between two or more male characters that has been created with the intention of appealing to a female audience. The creator is traditionally female, but need not be, just as the audience is traditionally female, but need not be.  Many writers have described yaoi and slash as existing in a “female-gendered” space; this would be the space of BL.

Narratives about the romantic or erotic relationship between two or more male characters that have been created with the intention of appealing to a gay or bisexual male audience and are typically created by men are, properly, gay literature/film/manga/etc. Again, the creator and audience could be female, but it could be considered, overall, a “male-gendered” space.

These two categories are fluid, but at this historical moment, I believe they are applicable and useful, although I acknowledge that in the future they may become indistinguishable. Further work might be done on identifying those themes, narrative techniques, and cliches common to BL works in order to aid in the analytic differentiation between BL and gay narratives.

This broad definition of boys’ love has the advantage, to academics, of expanding it beyond its traditional application to Japanese or other Asian media (usually manga and anime) to encompass non-Asian genres such as slash and to permit the analysis of books about male/male relationships written by women that have otherwise been left out of such categorization, such as The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Last Herald-Mage series by Mercedes Lackey, Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, and various works by Tanith Lee, Storm Constantine, and other women that have included male/male romantic and/or sexual relationships as significant or central to the plot.

Subgenres within boys’ love, then, would include those various categories based on setting, source material, age of characters, status of presentation, plot type, and the like. For example:

Setting: Boys’ love manga and anime, especially, are often categorized by setting: high-school romances, salaryman romances, etc.

Source material: Boys’ love that comes out of a fandom and/or is based on somebody else’s characters would be yaoi or slash; boys’ love based on real people would be real-person slash, and so forth.

Age of the characters: Boys’ love can be subcategorized according to character age, as in the case of shota BL or chanslash, in which at least one of the characters is a prepubescent boy.

Status of the presentation: Boys’ love can be categorized according to whether the presentation is professional or amateur — as in the case of mainstream BL manga versus dōjinshi, or officially mandated novelizations versus slash. Note that I hesitate to say “status of the creator,” because, for example, some professional mangaka have created BL dōjinshi and some professional authors have written slash.

Medium: BL might be categorized according to the medium of presentation: for example, BL manga, anime, novels, cosplay, roleplay, videogames, movies, songs, and so forth.

Plot type: Not only could BL be categorized as drama, comedy, science fiction, fantasy, etc., but also in plot terms that have arisen out of fanfic, such as hurt/comfort, mpreg, PWP, and so forth.

Level of sexual explicitness: Some boys’ love fans have used shōnen-ai to refer to  works that are not sexually explicit and yaoi to refer to works that are. I would discourage such usage as confusing. The majority of BL fans have variously adopted other terminology — for example, MPAA ratings (G, PG-13, R, NC-17), manga ratings (G, OT, M), or color ratings (citrus, lemon, lime). Boys’ love material might also be sorted out in terms of romance, erotica, or pornography.

Country of origin: In a debate particularly associated with discussions of manga, some fans have considered “BL” to refer only to Japanese-language boys’ love and have sought to differentiate it from OEL BL (original English-language BL) and other types of native-language BL, such as that arising from creators born in Korea, Italy, Spain, German, and other countries.

Although in certain analytical cases it may be useful to differentiate BL works according to their country of origin, I prefer to apply the term boys’ love to all suitable works regardless of their country of origin. I appreciate Tina Anderson’s useful term GloBL to refer to the current international nature of boys’ love. When differentiation is necessary, it makes sense to use nation-specific or language-specific terms, e.g. Italian BL, English BL, Japanese BL.

My intention in this essay was to propose a slight shift in the use of terms in order to facilitate the discussion of boys’ love, which I feel is a much broader and thus more interesting category than set forth in general discussions of the subject. Including slash and hitherto uncategorized mainstream m/m novels and stories written by female authors into the BL category gives researchers and fans a more organized way to discuss, analyze, and critique the phenomenon.

I welcome elaboration and critique of this proposal.

I read, write, roleplay, travel, teach, and occasionally do research. I am a lizard, a warrior, a minimalist, and a scholar.
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