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BL (Boys’ Love) Literacy: Subversion, Resuscitation, and Transformation of the (Father’s) Text

From: U.S.-Japan Women's Journal
Number 43, 2013
pp. 63-84 | 10.1353/jwj.2013.0001

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BL and the Genealogy of Girls’/Women’s Reading

The significance of the act of reading in girls’ culture has been recognized in a variety of fields, including literary and cultural studies, visual art, history, education, sociology, and anthropology.1 The childhood studies scholar and pioneer of shōjo studies Honda Masuko identified July 1916 as marking the “birth of ‘the girl’ in modern Japan,” with the first installment of what was to become known as Hana monogatari (Flower tales):

Through the act of writing, the young literature-loving woman named Yoshiya Nobuko clarified the [invisible institution called] “shōjo” . . . . One might say that the author Nobuko lived her “shōjohood” through the joy [yorokobi] of writing, while her girl readers also discovered the “shōjo” in themselves through the pleasure [kaikan] of reading.2

From the outset of shōjo culture, reading and writing have been its core activities, which are closely related to each other and both generate “pleasure.” The genealogy of girls’ intense and pleasurable reading/writing certainly goes back to much earlier times. The poet and scholar of classical literature Fujii Sadakazu argues that since ancient times, even before The Tale of Genji, “girls become shōjo through reading and hearing monogatari.”3

As in many other cultures around the world, however, girls, being both female and underage, have long been marginalized by the “mainstream” culture dominated by adult men. In many historical periods and socioeconomic classes, girls were not encouraged or allowed to study and enjoy reading and writing. Even in modern times, girls’ and women’s reading matter, reading habits, and writings have tended to be neglected or derided.4 As Deborah Shamoon comments, “Claims that girls’ culture and by extension the girls themselves are willfully immature, incapable of meaningful emotion, and obsessed with themselves have been used to dismiss girls’ culture since the 1920s.”5 This situation is not limited to Japanese girls’ culture or young women alone; Karen Joy Fowler, the author of the bestselling novel The Jane Austen Book Club, points out that there have been “centuries upon centuries of hubbub,” such as that women are “too literal-minded,” “too sentimental, too empathetic, too distractable [sic] for reading,” and so on. “Yet,” continues Fowler, “through it all women have read on . . . . Suddenly the crisis is not that women read, but that men don’t.”6 In Japan, too, after centuries of derision and even demonization of female readers, “culture girls” (bunkakei joshi) are “taking over the Humanities” and increasingly dominating literary magazines such as Yuriika (Eureka).7

Girls’ reading culture has attracted attention in both popular and scholarly discourses in recent decades. One of the most intriguing topics in this rapidly growing scholarship is shōnen ai (love between boys), and its more recent versions known as yaoi and Boys’ Love (BL), all of which are used to signify the theme, the texts, and the (sub)genre of male-male romance, usually created by female artists/writers for female audiences. The texts can take the form of manga or prose fiction, and often—though not always—contain sexually explicit material.8 The main focus of studies in this area has been gender and sexuality, rather than the significance and the mechanism of reading and writing in this particular genre.9 However, reading is still at the core of contemporary girls’ and women’s print culture: avid readers are everywhere among its producers, fans, commentators, and protagonists.10 Recognition and sharing of texts play a vital role in the formation, maintenance, and development of a girls’ “imagined community.”11 In BL and yaoi production, distribution, and reception, too, “imagined” as well as some actual “communities” (such as those involving the amateur dōjinshi magazines and the biannual Comic Market) are essential.12 Mizoguchi Akiko discusses the “special sense of community yaoi has come to constitute.”13 In sharing their readings of selected texts, members of this “community” create and develop their own style and conventions. Those outside the “community” may find it difficult to understand its “language,” and may tend to dismiss its culture as puerile, absurd nonsense unworthy of attention. Members of the community are well aware of this; they...



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