As the demand for queer representation increases, boys' love (BL) anime are gaining momentum. But what is BL anime? Here, we explain the meaning and subgenre of boys' love in anime.
One of the greatest things about anime is its wide range of subgenres, themes, and target demographics, which means even the most demanding viewers are likely to find something of interest.
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What Is the Boys' Love Genre in Anime?
Unlike the term "shounen" which is not a genre but describes anime that have preteen and teenage boys as their target audience, "boys' love" or "BL" is a romance subgenre featuring romantic relationships between male characters.
BL anime was formerly known as "shonen-ai" but the term has declined in recent decades due to unfortunate implications regarding the presumed age of the characters involved.
While the term "boys' love" might also sound wrong to some, the anime works currently known as BL are not necessarily problematic.
BL anime can simply be anime featuring romantic relationships between two male characters.
Occasionally, you might see the term "boys' love" used interchangeably with "yaoi."
The term "yaoi" is also associated with anime and manga featuring gay relationships. It is often used to describe more explicit content that's only appropriate for adults.
Nowadays, there's much less guilt associated with liking yaoi works, and "boys' love" or "BL" is more of an umbrella term that describes gay relationships that may or may not be explicitly sexual.
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Boys' Love Anime Demographics
Above, we explained the meaning and scope of the BL anime subgenre, but what about its target demographics?
As the differences between shounen and shoujo anime suggest, not to mention josei and seinen, Japanese animation is often as much about marketing practices as it is about genre.
Such labels are simply indicative of the age group and gender an anime is marketed towards, without this meaning that anyone not in that group is barred from enjoying it.
Even so, demographics and target audiences tend to be associated with various aesthetics and tropes.
As such, your typical fantasy shounen anime, for example, is likely to look a little different from a shoujo fantasy show, and the same can be said about romances.
At this time, Boys' Love or yaoi works are written by women more often than men, and they frequently have women and girls as their target audience.
As such, they are often likely to reproduce heteronormative models in gay relationships and miss some of the nuances associated with relationships between men.
There's nothing wrong with women and straight people liking well-written stories that feature gay romances.
However, the disproportionate female fandom for some BL -- as well as the disproportionately large male audience when it comes to yuri anime -- highlights the fact that LGBTQIA+ stories and characters are often fetishized by people who have no experience with the identity they write about.
Moreover, this phenomenon highlights the need for more authentic storytelling and characters, in which queer people can see themselves represented.
A lesser-known term, "Bara," which describes gay manga written by male authors for a gay audience, is rising in popularity. Hopefully, this will fill this representational gap, as the demand for it rises.
Is BL a Genre?
Much has been said about whether shounen and shoujo anime are genres, but what about BL?
If a BL anime is mostly about a gay romance and the plot revolves around romantic scenarios, then a BL anime belongs to the romance genre.
You can think of it as picking up a romance novel with the additional modifier that it is an LGBTQIA+ book.
That being said, anime that are not part of the romance genre can still be BL, if, for instance, they feature a couple of queer characters going on an adventure and falling in love while at it, or if the story follows an established couple but the main focus is elsewhere.
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Why Are BL Manga and Anime So Popular?
There are several reasons BL manga and anime are popular. Here are some of them:
Exploring Romance Outside of Gender Confines
Above, we mentioned that BL anime shows tend to have a disproportionate amount of female authors and fans.
One theory for this particular interest of female audiences in BL anime is their potential to explore romance without adherence to rigid gender norms.
Of course, this is possible with any type of romance, regardless of the characters' genders, but anime and manga remain relatively conservative mediums.
While things are slowly improving, there are still many anime that objectify female characters or force stereotypical roles on all characters based on their gender.
For those who are tired of this stereotype, BL manga turned out to feel somewhat liberating.
BL can feature male characters who demonstrate a greater range of emotions compared to other genres, while a show focusing on gay romance is less likely to use female characters for fanservice.
That being said, many BL do fall into stereotypes, such as frequently presenting one half of the couple as stereotypically masculine and somewhat aggressive, and the other as timid and vulnerable.
BL of the past decades have often been seen as escapism from rigid gender roles, but they also have the potential to objectify or fetishize LGBTQIA+ characters.
The interest of so many female creators and audiences in BL -- and the issues that arise when BL also resorts to harmful portrayals of gay relationships -- emphasize the need to write all marginalized identities in new and better ways.
The Associated Aesthetics
Shounen manga and anime often opt for harsher lines and gritty aesthetics, but this isn't the case with BL anime.
Since BL manga became popular several decades ago, they established more elaborate and romantic-looking styles and character designs.
Many BL protagonists are drawn in what is known as a Bishōnen style, which is used to describe beautiful-looking, young male characters whose designs often blend both masculine and feminine characteristics.
Many fans of BL works mention their art style as one of the elements they find appealing.
The Need for LGBTQIA+ Representation
In past decades, the portrayal of queer relationships was taboo in most mainstream media.
Currently, there's still a limited number of wholesome BL anime that portray realistic and healthy relationships or experiences queer fans can identify with.
That being said, fans are keen to see anime and manga with romances they can relate to, so they actively seek out relevant BL titles.
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