This weekend, we are bringing you some honest conversation with one of our popular authors, Yarnball as she talks about “How BL Changed Their Perspective”. Join us, as we follow Yarnball on this intimate journey, where she shares her life experiences!
Whenever anyone asks me to talk about BL I take on the air of an elderly woman about to embark on a fireside chat about the ‘good old days’, because BL is something I’ve been talking about for what feels like an eternity.
What began with watching a trailer for Gravitation on a French anime channel when I was in ninth grade continues to be an obsession that’s still going strong two decades later, only now it’s taken on layers of academic meaning as well.
Unlike a lot of people, I didn’t understand that homosexuality was a thing because of BL – I grew up in a country where words related to any kind of sexuality were censored out of the media. I found out about the concept when a member of my favourite boyband of the time (Boyzone’s Stephen Gately, RIP) came out as gay and I looked it up in the encyclopaedia.
Gravitation was, however, how I found that there was actual media about gay people in relationships, and that was fascinating. Using whatever internet was available at the time, I fell down a rabbit hole of BL manga and anime.
Now that I’m writing this, I’m trying to think about what it was that really drew me to the genre back then, and what continues to draw me to it now, and I’m also trying to separate it from my own academic understandings of BL in general. It’s… harder than it sounds.
What I do know is that I’ve always been the kind of person who was never particularly interested in the romantic aspect of things I’d been watching. As a child, I know loved kick-ass female characters – Jessie Bannon from Johnny Quest is always going to both my first girl-crush and my first role model – but not when they were reduced to love interests. And this is probably why BL was interesting to 14-year-old me – there were no women reduced to love interests (mostly because there were no women at all) but all the love interests were men. Love stories between men was new and interesting and something I knew I wanted more of.
It was also thanks to BL that I learned how to find couples to ship: which, while it sounds facile on the surface, is one way that I learned that queerness is often subtextual. It made me realise that I had been subconsciously ‘shipping’ people in many of the books I’d been reading: most prominently, I remember being very excited when Holmes turned up in The Hound of the Baskervilles. The text that the subtext had been suggesting all this while was suddenly very clear. The more I watched, the more I understood.
So one the biggest things that drew me in to BL from the beginning, besides, of course, the presence of incredibly attractive men, is the kind of stories BL was telling. The men in BL weren’t the often stereotypically macho men of Western and Indian cinema that I’d grown up with, but men who were emotionally vulnerable. Men who were the objects of affection, who were being pursued in relationships, often undergoing things that I had seen women in media go through a million times but this time they were men! It was different! It was fascinating! Imagine, I thought, young and starry-eyed, men with feelings.
Since my BL journey began in the early 2000s, the live-action BL world had not yet opened up to the extent it has now. I only found out there were actually live-action movies because of my obsession with the Prince of Tennis musicals. If you’re not aware, many early Japanese BL starred at least one Tenimyu actor, for better or for worse, beginning with the 2007 Boys Love: The Movie, Sumitomo and Itsuka no Kimi E (all starring the inimitable Saitou Takumi). None of these were particularly… good, so I stuck to BL manga and anime for the longest time, possibly until Chinese danmei adaptations began to rise in popularity and dragged me back into live action BL. Sometime last year I accidentally tripped into a Thai BL deep dive and suddenly I found that South East Asia is where it’s at when it comes to BL nowadays.
So how has BL changed my life?
Did it stop me from enjoying series/dramas/anime with primarily heterosexual themes and plot? Not entirely at first, but it did make me rather more judgemental of them. If a queer couple had to jump through hoops to be confirmed as canon, then so did a straight couple. The fact that our minds are trained to default to heteronormativity is something I will rebel against till my dying day: just because two people of opposite gender identities interact with each other is not sufficient to make them a couple unless the same can be applied to two people of the same gender identities.
And also, I’ve gotten very, very good at finding couples to ship in every piece of media I consume.
It started me on the trail of academic fascination with the different ways that audiences interact with queerness within texts and I have a couple of research degrees to prove it. I have perfected my knowledge of romantic vocabulary in at least three different languages, and I have spent an inordinate amount of money on merchandise. I’ve learned to defend my interest to friends, family and colleagues and can probably talk about the merits and demerits of the genre at the drop of a hat. I’ve been in this hell for so long that I know there’s no turning back, and I don’t regret it for a second.