That’s right, I said scrubbing. Scrubbing sweat off of underage boys in a locker room. It’s central part of a new game for the Nintendo DS called Duel Love, in which you play a female transfer student who ends up as the personal trainer for a secret “Fight Club” at her new high school. That’s right, the companies that brought you Pac-Man, Tekken, Power Rangers, Tamagotchi and many more now bring you… scrubbing down sweaty boys and giving them massages!
Romance comics for girls, often featuring delicate, beautiful boys who fall in love with the plucky or cipher-like heroine — or, just as often, fall in love with each other — are nothing new in Japan. It used to be that you could pretend this was just another Or in the United States; check the Manga section of your local Barnes & Noble. Dating games based in similar scenarios (often called otome, the Japanese word for maiden) are nothing new either, but they’re getting to be bigger and bigger-budget projects. And utilizing new technology as well… as you can see in the trailer below, you have to actually scrub back and forth with the Nintendo DS styles, and here’s a picture instructing the player to blow into the microphone to clear away the steamed-up shower stalls. Why, whatever on earth for?
Here’s another one with a chart showing the different moods that you can, uh… scrub a boy into. It goes from normal into delighted and eventually he’s in… uh… “heaven.” This is basically just the same game mechanic you find in games like the recent smash hit Doki Doki Majou Saiban, where you have to feel up high school girls to figure out which one of them is a witch. (Sadly no, I am not joking about this.) Just in reverse — girls tenderly ministering to boys. Until they close their eyes and start blushing.
Now, this is not the kind of content most Americans are used to seeing, unless it’s targeted towards gay guys. But if the boom in Japanese comics for girls continues at the rate that it has been, it’ll be pretty common fare for girls who are growing up now. My 11-year-old sister still thinks this stuff is gross (Card Captor Sakura is more her speed) and not every girl will be into comics, of course. But it’s still an interesting shift.
The first thing I noticed in the trailer is the fact that all the bodies featured are uniformly hyper-thin and pale. The game features the usual cliched lineup of cute boys to fall in love with: the moody cool loner, the rascally troublemaker, the older intellectual, the long-haired beauty, and the disturbingly young cute kid, but they all have the same disturbingly unrealistic body. (These kids are supposed to be fist-fighters?) A coworker of mine who’s into this genre says the artist who’s responsible for the character design has really gone downhill.
Now, I happen to agree with Zuzu’s points in that post I just linked: this kind of portrayal of boys is relatively insignificant in terms of role-modeling compared to what girls grow up dealing with, either here or in Japan. Although I did notice a very conformist “hot boy” look the last time I was in Tokyo, it certainly wasn’t an anorexic look. I still always wonder what’s going on with the fairly predictable kind of objectification you find in so many hundreds of shōjo and shōnen ai (those are the gay ones) comic books, visual novels, and games. These are products made mostly by straight women, for straight women. So what’s with the hyper-elongated torsos with the bizzarely placed pectorals? Is this really sexy? I remember seeing a Death Note bootleg game not that long ago that even featured a hyper-skinny guy with an absurd 12-pack of abdominal muscles. It’s not just that these artists don’t study realistic anatomy — just like the equally anatomy-and-physics-deficient artists who draw female characters with gravity-defying, spine-shattering boobs, there’s a particular kind of focused fetishization.
I’ve heard some theories about how the attraction of bishōnen is that they let girls explore their sexuality — sometimes through projection, if they’re gay — without the disturbing presence of an adult male body, with too many muscles, hair, etc. There are plenty of other theories: some readers say it’s the only form of wank material that caters to straight girls (sigh, whatever happened to the supermarket check-out bodice ripper? so much for “men are visual, women are verbal” sex theories) Others suggest it’s a form of escapism into a character who you can identify with, but who’s different enough from you that it’s less threatening. When asked, some Japanese women speculated that women, dealing with patriarchal sexism all the time, like seeing men suffer in painful and awkward relationships that are forbidden by society. Unfortunately, they still thought being gay was gross in real life.
This was the theory that grossed me out the most, I have to admit, since it hits a little too close to home for me:
The (male) characters in shonen ai are escapist vessels into which (mostly female) readers can pour themselves. They may be gently treated or horribly abused, but their bodies are the battlegrounds for fantasies which people can never play out, at least not under normal circumstances. Since they are unfamiliar battlegrounds, they are particularly roughly treated. Emotionally and physically (those hairless bodies, that long, sleek hair) they fuse male and female traits in a way that matches the readers’ desires, creating a sort of perfect hermaphroditic creatures who happen to have penises.
Angel Dumott-Schunard, anyone?
I know we have some shōjo / shōnen ai / yaoi fans in the audience… what’s your take? Is what’s good for the goose good for the gander? Should we deplore objectification and unrealistic body-images of anyone? How about the fact that many of these characters are minors?
And why the hell do they all have to be so formulaic, especially the gay ones? I don’t read this stuff all that much anymore (ever since I stopped seeing someone who was an avid yaoi reader) but it always seemed to me like it would be nice to see more relationships that aren’t ALL strictly top/bottom with no switching, where the top isn’t always dark and moody and taller and smoking cigarettes, and the bottom isn’t always cute and innocent and bratty and ashamed. OK, so I’ve drifted off of the original topic — a straight otome game — into complaining about how little comics about gay guys have anything to do with actual queer relationships, but still: what do you think? Discuss.