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The Female Gaze: The World of Gay Relationships in Webcomics

Randeep Mandar spoke to a webcomic author, as well as American journalist Lauren Orsini, about LGBTQ+ relationships in comics.

Drawing of two anime male characters embracing in front of a pink background
Illustration by Dara Singh.

I have a dark secret: I’ve been reading fan fiction on and off ever since I was a preteen. It was mostly heterosexual romances, that is until the summer of 2017 when I began to dive into the world of slash pairings.

What is a slash pairing? “Slash” is a fan fiction genre that pairs two or more characters of the same sex, according to TV Tropes. I had one gay pairing in particular that was my raison d’etre — one that I refuse to share, if only to keep my dignity intact.

While I enjoyed the slash fictions, I couldn’t ignore how explicit they were. Now, there’s nothing wrong with erotic fan fictions, but I couldn’t help noticing that there were barely any sex-free fan fictions. Almost every slash fan fiction I read had a sex scene at least somewhere.

This contrasted heavily with the plethora of chaste heterosexual fan fiction I read in my youth. While heterosexual romances had a good mixed bag of erotica and purely virginal romance, slash romances were almost exclusively sexual.

I also noticed that the odd fan fiction had the word “yaoi” in their descriptions. I later found out that the term “yaoi”, also known as boys’ love (BL), is used to describe “a narrative or visual work featuring a romance or sexual relationship between two or more males, primarily intended for a female audience,” according to the English Wiktionary.

The mere mention of this Japanese originated comic genre (known as manga) made me irrationally angry. To me, yaoi was a terrible genre that regulated gay men to strict roles of the “seme” (the aggressor) and the “uke” (the submissive) — a genre that exploited gay men for the female gaze.

Even more so, yaoi wasn’t just regulated to manga or fanfiction — it was also deeply entrenched in webcomics. In fact, most webcomic hosting sites like long-running Tapas have separate sections for so-called boys’ love, and even its less wide-read sister genre, girls’ love.

It angered me to know that so many people used harmful tropes about gay men to create a female fantasy and distort readers’ ideas. These tropes were a recurring theme, constantly cropping up in the fan fictions and comics I read. Fired up, I decided to look into it.

After researching, I felt foolish and judgmental. From webcomic authors, journalists and academic essays, I learned that this issue was more dimensional than I had originally thought.

To understand this genre, we need to delve into its origin. In Japan, gender roles and sexuality, specifically womens’, are rigidly structured. Japanese women are often expected to be submissive to their exclusively male partners. More often than not, sexually active women are also shamed in the larger Japanese societies. Thus, most of the erotica curtailed to women is of stereotyped heterosexuality with no place to explore any other sexualities.

Aleardo Zanghellini, a gender and sexuality researcher and law professor at University of Reading, wrote the essay Underage Sex and Romance in Japanese Homoerotic Manga and Anime.

Zanghellini wrote, “Japanese female artists have produced manga about love between pretty boys (bishounen) since the early 1970s largely as a reaction against the contrived and formulaic heterosexual love stories marketed at a female audience at the time.”

These Japanese artists chose to write yaoi in order to express sexuality in other forms than the heteronormative romances they were resigned to reading. Writing gay romances frees Japanese female readers from the constraints of mainstream heterosexual romances that restrict how female sexuality is normatively portrayed in Japanese society.

But what does that say about its international appeal to people, like Canadians, who live in societies where gender roles are less rigidly structured than Japan? Systematic gender roles and distorted views about female sexuality still exist, so these stories still maintain a similar effect on American and Canadian women, women like American journalist Lauren Orsini.

“For a lot of women, female sexuality comes with a lot of self examination,” she says. “For me, I know pop culture messages I've received about sex and my role as an object for pleasing men hit pretty hard when I was a teen. There's also a real dangerous edge to sex — as a teen I began learning about all the ways I needed to protect myself from rape. Discovering yaoi allowed me to explore romance and sex without having to worry about potential dangers or my own confusing role in it. I think yaoi is a safe way for young women to explore their sexuality...​It allows her to explore sexual scenarios without being a part of them herself.”

Webcomics provide another interesting aspect to yaoi that may not be found in manga: the exploration of one’s queer identity through art and narrative.

One webcomic author, who preferred not to be identified by name, spoke about how webcomics are “often done by youth who are just in the early days of their own sexuality or gender identities.”

This author’s words resonated with me because they explain why people read yaoi in addition to why some folks write it. In particular, it made me realize why I read yaoi despite my discomfort with it. As a person who is utterly unsure of their sexaulity, reading things like slash fan fiction allowed me to see LGBTQ+ relationships with all of the markings of sex and romance. It allowed me to feel like a part of the community and to immerse myself in mediums that weren’t exclusively heteronormative.

This is not to say that yaoi is not without problems.

The dichotomy of “uke” and “seme” regulates gay men in rigid roles. In fact, it seems that ukes are just stand-ins for female gender roles as they are often younger than the seme, sexually inexperienced and submissive. Meanwhile, semes take on the male role of being older, more experienced and the aggressor.

There are gay relationships that happen to look like that, but to put every gay relationship under this umbrella is irresponsible and inaccurate. It also encourages the fetishization of gay couples and misrepresents gay people as solely driven by sex.

These strict roles distort how women see gay men, and that’s something that needs to be addressed, regardless of its history of safe sexual expression for women.

Yet, as Orsini says, “Of course, that doesn’t mean we need to ban or censor yaoi. Plenty of fetishes are problematic,student/teacher relationships, for example, and it is fine to explore them in fiction. But young women do need to be taught the difference.”

Yaoi is a complex genre that has multiple layers and it shouldn’t be discarded or embraced so immediately. Genres in narratives may have psychological and sociological roots, but that does not protect them from criticism.


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