BL Comics attract audiences worldwide

Depending on your Instagram algorithm, you might occasionally have seen images of straight, male comic book and manga characters embraced in a kiss.

If this has happened to you, you may have been exposed to the complex and fascinating world of “BL.” Short for “Boys’ Love,” this Japanese term refers to mangas, webcomics or other fictional forms of entertainment which shows an erotic or sexual representation between two or more male individuals.

In the late 1970s, the birth of specialized magazines dedicated to the flourishing BL genre reached a transcendental stage. Keiko Takemiya and Kaoru Kurimoto, recognized as precursors to the genre, stood out as visionary authors by publishing narratives that openly embraced homosexuality. In 1976, Takemiya’s groundbreaking manga series “Kaze to Ki no Uta” established a crucial precedent by explicitly exploring sexual relationships between men, thus triggering the development of this romantic subgenre of comics with explicit sexual content and giving rise to the “fujoshi,” female fans of BL.

The term “fujoshi” is a play on words meaning “rotten woman.” While the name was coined by the Japanese media in a derogatory way, it was reclaimed by BL fans as a symbol of pride, similar to what has happened in the LGBTQ+ community with the term queer.

Today, the popularity of BL mangas and webcomics is undeniable, particularly in the realm of independent webcomics where this romance subgenre dominates much of the market. The Netflix series “Heartstopper” is an example of these indie comics that have gone beyond the page, having now become one of the streaming service’s most recognizable adaptations.

BL is not only popular among consumers. It is also one of the most popular romantic subgenres for amateur webcomic creators, like those in Latin America. The region’s top five romance series on WEBTOON’s CANVAS platform in Spanish, where users upload work, is dominated by BL stories. Most are written by heterosexual women.

This is one of the most striking and possibly problematic curiosities surrounding BL. It is a genre of stories about gay men written by women for women, which — as Masaki Satō, a gay writer who criticized the genre in an open letter points out — can result in an inaccurate depiction of gay men that reinforces the perverse nature of misogyny and can objectify them in disturbing ways.

Some of these aspects are reflected in the raciest (and generally most popular) stories of this genre, with many fetishizing sexual violence in gay relationships. Some even go so far as to objectify their characters, who often end up being idealized versions of attractive gay men who fight against an irresistible attraction.

So why are the majority of BL creators and consumers heterosexual women? The most fundamental reasons can be summed up through the testimonies of experts involved with Latin American BL. Individuals like Alix Pérez, a journalist specializing in Korean pop culture, who stumbled upon the genre when her fandom for the British group One Direction began to cross over with BL themes, speculating about homosexual relationships between members of the group who were part of the “headcanon” of their army of followers.

Pérez became an avid consumer of mangas, webcomics and BL series. According to her, the predilection of straight girls for these types of stories stems a little “from the ego” of the readers themselves.

“I think people say ‘no, I don’t want [the character] to be happy with a straight person of my gender, it’s better for you to be happy with your friend.’ Literally any basis for a fanfiction is this longing for a relationship that a woman would like with a man with certain characteristics,” Pérez says. “I find it interesting to see a man outside of the canons of masculinity.”

For webcomic editor Maro Weber, some reasons fans give “suggest that women like to observe a romance without the typical gender stereotypes, while others suggest that they see women as competition in a heterosexual romance.”

“In heterosexual romances, there is usually an attractive young man and a beautiful young woman,” she explains. “At the BL, there are two attractive young men. In the case of a heterosexual woman, she is more likely to find one of the two young men in a BL attractive. Additionally, [the reader] finds it easier to understand what one character finds attractive about the other, which prevents the romance from being perceived as forced and allows for a better understanding of the chemistry between them.”

Other experts like Fernando Avalos, a Mexican journalist from Kmagazine, believe that the popularity of BL is due to the fact that “it continues to be a novel theme, since it exploded around 2020 and, therefore, still has many areas to explore compared to other branches of romance that saw their peak of popularity several years ago.”

One artist who has enjoyed the genre’s growing popularity is Pía Prado, creator of “Triple Nacional,” a successful WebToon series with a printed edition through Planeta Cómic. As a creator, Prado interprets the popularity of BL in its young female readership as a response to repressive tendencies.

“Repression is something that women and minorities commonly suffer, especially in the romantic and sexual sphere, also linked to the gender roles that must be fulfilled,” she says. “That unconscious and internal repression can evolve into seeking to consume fictional stories that provoke stronger emotions in order to release that repression.”

Prado had her first contact with BL at the age of 12, while searching for fan art of the popular series “Naruto” on the internet.

“I don’t really remember my reaction, but from there I began to understand what it was and that there were many girls adhering to the genre,” she says. “Around the age of 15 I saw ‘Loveless,’ a BL anime and I became a big fan of the genre. I loved drawing fanart and sharing it with the very active community on the internet … it became my favorite genre to read and tell stories.”

As a female BL creator, Prado finds ways to circumvent the problems involved in representing a type of romantic relationship that would be foreign to her otherwise.

“In all my stories I write in a universe where ‘coming out of the closet’ does not exist or a person’s sexual orientation is not a topic of conversation,” she explains. “So we could say that in fact it is very far from what it is like to be homosexual in real life … it has never been my goal to make real representations of what it is like to be LGBT in the real world.”

Prado’s decision is related to a painful experience that the creator herself had around this situation, one she wishes that no one, not even her own characters, would have to go. “My approach is to put more global conflicts on the table that all types of people can experience beyond their sexual orientation. These types of conflicts are what drive the story.”

Pía Prado sharing her work at conventions. (Photos courtesy Prado)

While some BL creators may avoid issues of stigma, others continue to feature themes of sexual violence or non-consensual sexual relations (called “non-con” by fans.) Avalos’ explanation of this sheds light on much deeper issues.

“On the side of women who write BL, according to UN Women, about 75% of women in Asia have been victims of some type of sexual harassment,” Avalos says. “On the other hand, you only need a quick review of X to find that it is common for men’s first intimate homosexual experiences to arise from relationships with clear power differences.”

Their theory is that these types of encounters with marked power dynamics first end up becoming normalized in the communities where they occur and later even become romanticized. “In the end, since the two population groups that write the most about BL are also violated groups, it is common for this to be reflected in their writings,” he says.

For Avalos, this raises the question: If this violent content is so unpleasant and disturbing, why is it so popular?

Two possible reasons: content is consumed by readers with less understanding regarding situations of abuse, and some violent behaviors within these stories are presented in ways that generate empathy with the perpetrator, who therefore can be judged less harshly.

There are signs of progress within the “fujoshi” world, though. According to Avalos himself, fans are beginning to demonize those stories that glorify these type of violent encounters between homosexual men just to garner attention.

“In the last 2-3 years, criticism against situations of sexual violence in series has increased, resulting in some production companies making consent explicit between characters or making it implicit that both characters agreed with the situation,” he says. This implies “that a character does not reject what the other boy is doing to him and, on the contrary, he likes it.”

But BL is not only evolving to move away from fetishistic clichés of sexual violence between gay men, it can also be interpreted as a response to other types of internal violence that women suffer. According to Prado, “from a young age, women are taught they have a gender role to fulfill, and in hetero romance stories this role is constantly reproduced and set as a canon of what should be followed.

“This generates a lot of internal violence in the unconscious of girls,” she continues. “The BL genre proposes something different, where the female role no longer exists, so there is no mirror in which to look at oneself as a woman. The fact that a woman does not exist in the story allows for a sexual and romantic exploration that liberates many possibilities without the internal violence generated by the very image of the woman. BL allows for a romantic relationship to exist with a less asymmetrical power balance than what exists in heterosexual fictional relationships.”

Sebastián Ceniceros, known as SweetKingart on social media, is the openly gay author of the BL “Anomalía Espiritual.” For him, the fact that there are people outside the LGBTQ+ community creating this type of content is not a problem.

“We were complaining that there was no representation,” he says. “Now they give us representation and now the problem is that the author is not part of the community… it’s like dude, what do we want?”

Ceniceros, a fan of action anime like “Naruto,” began producing BL out of the simple impulse of seeing two characters in a story as a gay couple. “I always liked the action genre, so when seeing the trope of the protagonist and the guy who is his friend but is also his rival, I’d say ‘I like them both, but as a couple.’”

Ceniceros notes that he strives for a more credible representation of what a relationship between two gay men truly is in his work.

Selections of Sebastián Ceniceros’ work from “Anomalía Espiritual.” (Photos courtesy Ceniceros)

“I try to make certain interactions as real as possible,” he says. “With my own story I try to base it on experiences that I have had with some of my partners.”

To Avalos, sexual orientation should not be a limitation when writing fiction, so the creator doesn’t see BL as a form of queerbaiting.

“In the end, we all have the right to try to earn a living by any means possible,” he says. “Many times, when trying to write about a topic that is not so familiar to us, it allows us to educate ourselves about it and better understand the realities that are different from ours. So it could even be beneficial for people outside the collective to write BL.”

This interpretation is shared by Prado, who believes that the motivation to write BL comes from an “unconscious desire for sexual and romantic exploration that is much more possible in fiction than it is in the real world.”

Ultimately BL, like any genre, is ever-evolving art that reflects the societal and sexual complexities of its audience. As it continues gaining in popularity and scrutiny, creators are exploring narratives that balance creative freedom with the responsibility to accurately and respectfully represent the LGBTQ+ community.

“Fiction and art are revolutionary and liberating spaces, so it is very harmful to place limitations on them,” Prado notes. “BL is a genre that allows for a healthy exploration of the unconscious about the sexual and romantic repression that many women and minorities experience, allowing for a much-needed and healing liberation.”

Selections of Pía Prado’s work from “Triple Nacional.” (Photos courtesy Prado)

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