“Even better than the real thing: Fantasy and phantasy in Boys’ Love manga” by Anna Madill

gender-and-sexuality-in-contemporary-popular-fantasy-beyond-boy-wizards-and-kick-ass-chicks-by-jude-roberts-esther-maccallum-stewart-1317130537Using a Kleinian psychoanalytic framework, Prof. Anna Madill explores the central motif of the ‘doll’ in boys’ love mangas.

The first paragraphs of her book chapter

Boys’ Love (BL) is an umbrella term for a cluster of genres originating in early-1970s Japanese popular culture which portray male-male sexuality largely by and for women. BL incorporates, with variable and often subtle differentiation, yaoi, shonen-ai, and – possibly – female-oriented, male-male shotacon. The characteristic media in which BL appear are manga, anime, illustrated light novels, and computer games. However, BL dojinshi – non-professional, but often highly polished productions – are also sold, traded, and uploaded to the internet. Since the late-1980s BL has gained a worldwide audience and commercially translated products are available, as are fan-translated manga, fan-subbed anime, language-patches for games, and original work in different languages.

BL manga in commercial translation usually take the form of books bringing together stories under the name of a single mangaka (artist-author) which appeared as one-shots or as longer serialisations in Japanese magazines. An almost essential formula is that a story revolves around a central couple one of whom is identifiable as the seme (top) and the other as the uke (bottom), although reversible relationships are sometimes explored. BL tend to involve a restricted range of character types, contexts, and plots however there is surprising diversity in the genre frames drawn upon. Hence, although virtually all BL might be considered romance of a more or less erotic nature, it spans comedy to crime, tender-love to tragedy, and includes stories in the fantasy genre.

Surveys suggest that the international audience consists predominantly of women in their late teens and early twenties (Castagno and Sabucco, 2006-7 cited in Pagliassotti, 2008; Li, 2009; Zhou, 2009). This echoes what is known about the Japanese consumers, although Pagliasotti (2008) suggests that the female fans are much more likely to identify as heterosexual than are their western counterparts. For instance, in Pagliasotti’s English-language survey of BL consumers (n=478) only 46 per cent of female respondents identified as heterosexual and my own ongoing survey of the Anglophone BL fandom (interim n=2155) gives the even lower figure of 41 per cent. My survey also suggests that, internationally, BL attracts a significant minority of individuals of non-hegemonic gender with 8 per cent of my total respondents so far identifying as non-binary or trans* gender (while 78 per cent identify as female and 14 per cent as male).

In this chapter I offer a Kleinian psychoanalytic reading of four short BL stories having in common the central motif of the ‘doll’, interpreted broadly as a humanoid figurine. These are three inter-related fantasy genre stories constituting the collection Hybrid Child (Nakamura, 2006) and, for contrast, one non-fantasy genre story – Celluloid Closet[1] – in the collection Almost Crying (Takahashi, 2006). I have selected a Kleinian dialect, in part, because it allows me to exploit slippage between the concepts fantasy (popular culture genre) and phantasy (Kleinian-posited unconscious process). Without conflating the terms, there appears significant similarity in that both denote the following of laws or conventions which, almost by definition, differ from those of reality. Moreover, interestingly for my purpose here, Kleinian theory has a distinct literary ambiance in that in phantasy one is considered to “take in, personify and dramatize what is encountered” (my italics, Likierman, 2001, 65) to the extent that the mechanisms of phantasy may actually simulate human relationships.

[1] A reference to Vito Russo’s book Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies


Madill, A. (2016). Even better than the real thing: Fantasy and phantasy in Boys’ Love manga (pp. 68-84). In Jude Roberts & Esther MacCallum-Stewart (eds), Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Popular Fantasy: Beyond boy wizards and kick-ass chicks. London: Routledge.

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