LGBTQ+ Representation in Japanese Media (Q&A)
An undergraduate student currently undertaking a class assignment asked me these questions and they kindly gave consent to my sharing their questions & my answers on my blog.
1. Representation of the LGBTQIA+ community has been prominent in the media for many years. What are your thoughts on the current representation of queer relationships in the media? Do you think the representation is mainly positive?
In recent years, probably for the past half decade, the mass media portrayals of same-sex relationships between two men have largely been positive, although such relationships primarily function as a bait to garner attention from heterosexual women. Gay male relationships represented in the mass media like TV shows and films mostly fall under either of the following categories: comedy (e.g. overly sexualized), taboo (e.g. eroticized), and pure love (i.e.. under-sexualized). We have yet to see more nuanced, complicated relationships between two men represented by the mass media.
For lesbian women, things are much worse. Lesbian relationships are, when they occasionally make it to the mass-targeted TV shows or movies, most of the time eroticized, and portrayed primarily for heterosexual men to enjoy.
With transgender people, I think the Japanese mass media have been doing quite a good job documenting their lives and difficulties they may face through their documentary and semi-documentary TV programs and movies. On the other hand, though, in talk shows and other kinds of programs, trans women are often either a target of ridicule (i.e. being laughed at) or a clown (i.e. making people laugh). Meanwhile, trans men are almost non-existent in the mass media.
Other identities such as asexual, nonbinary, etc. almost never make it to the mass media (or any kind of media, for that matter). Thanks to famous singer Hikaru Utada who came out as nonbinary about a month ago, some TV programs explained the concept on air to report on their coming out, but that’s just about it as far as I’m aware. Nothing negative has been said about Utada, though.
2. Many countries have begun to become involved in the representation of queer relationships through the BL (Boy Love) industry. Do you believe this brings more of a positive representation to queer relationships?
The genre has evolved so much in the last two decades. When I started consuming BL back in late 1990’s, BL was only starting to gain popularity or even recognition from the public. There was not much critical discourse around BL and, as far as I recall, many BL mangas were just a bunch of sexual imagery. I loved BL novels, though. Now, critical discourses have since shaped the current state of the genre, where discussions are very active on issues like (mis)representation, romanticization, and who get’s to write about whom. I think BL is the most vigorously contested genre among all, perhaps because of misogynous ideas about women writing about men, and now is the forefront of debates over representation. With the development of BL as a literary genre, we now have a huge number of good BL mangas, novels, and animes, and I do think that the more BL the world is exposed to, the better people will understand nuanced complexities of what it means to be in a same-sex male-male relationship.
3. Do you think the BL industry has enabled for consumers to romanticise toxic and abusive queer relationships?
Representation does not happen in a vacuum. I think we, the general public, had different, quite outdated notions of what counts as toxic or abusive relationships, say, 10, 20, 30 years ago. As social awareness grew after the Internet, especially in the past social media era, we have very quickly updated our ideas about power dynamics of relationships. Representation always falls behind but keeps following people’s ideas. And BL, I think, is the most responsive to such social and cultural updates. Heterosexual pornography (including manga, anime, etc.), I think, is the least responsive.
4. Do you think romanticising queer relationships are harmful towards LGBTQIA+ individuals?
LGBTQA+ individuals do romanticize queer relationships, so I guess I have nothing against romanticizing haha. But on a more serious note, I think the word “romanticize” needs to be firmly defined in order for romanticization to be problematized. And while that’s a very important discussion to have, I do think that any of the problems associated with representation such as romanticization, eroticization, under-sexualization, etc. etc. will become completely harmless when we eradicate real-life dangers and life difficulties of queer individuals and their communities, because, then, we can just laugh about misrepresentation and “weird” ways of consumption.
5. In your own opinion, do you think those who romanticise queer relationships are feeding into the harmful representation of the LGBTQIA+ community?
Again, I think it’s important that we define terms like “romanticize” and “harmful.” For example, gay and bisexual men, alongside straight men, lesbian women, etc., grow up in this homophobic society just the same. They grow up internalizing homophobic ideas. And we all know that sometimes, we desire what we ought not to desire, or at least we can say that our desires are constantly informed by society and cultures that surround us. So, for instance, if we someday successfully eradicate homophobia and the taboo associated with it, gay and bisexual men and their desires will never be the same. Some gay and bisexual men, I’d say, might not find gay sex as attractive or sexy as they do today because for them, their desires were the result of romanticization of prohibition. So, singling out BL consumers, for example, to blame for romanticizing male-male relationships and thus creating harms, in my opinion, is very, very off. We as existences are all creation of society and creators of society, no matter our genders or sexualities. Of course, however, critiquing a specific TV series, movie, manga, anime, etc. is important work.
6. What do you think can be done to bring more positive representations of healthy queer relationships in the media?
I think that it is when people see not only “healthy” queer relationships but also “unhealthy” queer relationships and do not feel the urge to attribute whatever they find bad, disgusting, atrocious, etc. to queerness, that we can finally say that queer relationships have fully entered the general public’s cultural consciousness as part of human diversity. I don’t think that white-washing queer representation to make it look good and respectable is the only path we must take. It is precisely for that reason that I see hope in BL where the nuances and complexities of male-male relationships are most depicted. And I hope there will be more creators producing content in similar ways about lesbian relationships, trans-cis relationships, trans-trans relationships, queerplatonic relationships, aromantic relationships, queer friendships, and queer communities.