Poking around the Internet I found this article by J.D. Ho on The Horn Book website which attempts to answer the age-old question why do girls love boys’ love manga. I think the question is a little overdetermined — why is any genre popular, after all? Super-heroes? Sci-fi? Isn’t it a little random that so many people are obsessed with tales about detectives hunting down a murderer? Any genre looks fairly arbitrary once you take a step back from it. As Ho does indicate, shonen-ai stories are extremely well-told and the art is excellent. Does there need to be another reason for people to read them?
In any case, the answer Ho comes up with, like the question, is familiar:
And herein lies the real appeal of boys’ love manga. It postulates that gender fluidity and change are ways we can identify with those who are different from us, experience new things, and, most importantly, achieve things that were impossible before. Just as in As You Like It, changing gender is liberating, an escape from parental strictures, and a means of getting the things one wants. We all need a safe place, a Forest of Arden, where we can try on different identities without consequence, a place where we can resolve our problems and face our fears — and boys’ love manga provides exactly that.
In other words, the appeal is that the reader can pretend to be something she is not, and so transcend her own boundaries and limitations in a safe space. Girls like to imagine boys because boys aren’t girls, and so the identification is safer and more fantastic. I think this line is especially telling:
If female readers are empowered by reading stories in which men are the romantic principals, they may derive the same feeling from stories in which gender is completely irrelevant in other ways.
So for Ho, the point of boys’ love stories and (as the essay goes on to argue) cross-dressing stories is that gender doesn’t matter, or is made irrelevant — it’s a way out of male/female binaries.
That position seems awfully questionable to me. Surely a large part of the appeal of boys’ love manga is that, you know, girls like boys. And if you like boys, why wouldn’t two boys be better than one? The fact that shonen-ai often blends into, or looks towards, the steamy sex in yaoi isn’t an accident these books are erotic. Girls like them because they’re romantic and sexy. If guys like to watch girls having sex (and they do), why wouldn’t girls like to watch guys having romance, followed by sex?
And ditto, for the gender-bending. Yes, experimenting with possibilities is liberating and exciting for the young girl coming of age etc. and so forth. But that liberation and excitement *are* liberating and exciting in large part because they carry a polymorphous sensual charge.
Boys’ difference isn’t safe — it’s sexy. Ho is writing on a site dedicated to children’s books, and I guess it’s understandable that they don’t want to tell the parents that little Sally reads these comics because she gets off on them. But I think she probably does.
Not sure if this is the illustrator or not, but I got this image from here.