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Fanservice Friday: From the ladies

… or at least one lady.

There’s been quite a bit of talk already about editor Sean Michael Wilson‘s assessment of female critics’ reaction to AX: A Collection of Alternative Manga, most of it much smarter than anything I might offer up (posts from Brigid Alverson and Kate Dacey among them).

Still, as a North American lady, I feel compelled to examine Wilson’s argument, my personal reaction to it, and why I feel this is appropriate for Fanservice Friday. As I proceed, please keep in mind that I have not read AX, so my reactions are to Wilson’s theory about the tastes of North American ladies, not about those ladies’ reactions to that work in particular. This is important. Please remember it.

First, the increasingly famous words from Wilson:

Now, onto ‘AX alternative manga’ book. It has had a huge amount of reviews, and overwhelmingly positive … However, one aspect has surprised both myself and Asakawa, the Japanese editor – quite a few female American reviewers have taken issue with the large amount of scatalogical toilet humour and also the sexual content of the collection. Somehow they seem to find it offensive, or unpleasant, or immature. It was surprising to me to see this kind of reaction, as it never occurred to me at all – as a British person – that these could be seen as negative …

Now, I don’t mean that ‘I am right,they are wrong’ and certainly don’t mean to upset these reviewers – its their opinion, and I’m interested to see it. It’s been an illuminating thing for me to see such reactions. What hits me the most is that it’s perhaps an example of cultural (and gender within culture) difference on perception of such things. I say that because I noticed that all the people making such comments are North American ladies. I have not seen a single man say it, or any women from outside North America. Therefore, I presume that it MAY be something in the shared cultural values and norms of such commentators coming through that makes them react negatively to such toilet humour and sexual content – perhaps? In Britain toilet humour is one of the main types, and our attitude towards sexual content is relatively ‘liberal’, it seems. Asakawa, as a Japanese person, was also rather surprised, for perhaps similar cultural reasons.

Given that this is Fanservice Friday, I’ll leave the discussion of toilet humor to others and move on more appropriately, to sexual content, because here is where I must emphatically disagree with Sean Michael Wilson.

North American ladies don’t like sexual content? Has the man never cracked open a Harlequin romance? I can easily imagine that many men might be unaware of things like the enormous volume of sexually explicit fanfiction churned out by North American women on the internet every day, but sexual fantasy is big business in this part of the world, and there’s no shortage of demand for it from women.

Even in the (relatively small) North American manga market, we women like our fanservice just the same as anyone. Sure, some of that comes down to chaste romance and slashable bishounen, but many of the best loved and most eagerly anticipated manga among female readers in North America derive their main appeal from sexual content, ranging anywhere from coy bedroom scenes to outright pornography. Fans of yaoi in particular (me included, perhaps), have not usually been known for our delicate tastes.

What I think Mr. Wilson is more likely encountering is that we, many of us, also have other standards, at least when we’re engaging with something that believes itself to be Art. We see merit in sexual content, but we expect it to have meaning beyond shock value or pure titillation. Hell, even in our pornography, we expect some level of craft, either visual or narrative in nature.

Speaking for myself, having come from a prose background, I’ll cut the artwork quite a bit of slack, but if the sex doesn’t drive the story (at least when it’s onscreen) I’m probably going to be unimpressed. In fiction, as in life, effective sex scenes require effort, and I don’t have a lot of patience for slogging through otherwise. I’m over forty. I’ve seen it all. You can’t shock me with your content. But there’s an excellent chance that you’ll bore me if you don’t have something more to offer. And if your point is simply to be subversive, you’ll likely bore me with that as well.

Now, obviously AX is not concerned with fanservice. Nor is it, I expect, concerned with having fans. “Experimental” work is generally about social commentary, self-expression, Damning The Man, and other perfectly noble causes, none of which are guaranteed to produce art.

Having not read the collection, I’m not prepared to comment on what its contributors have produced, but if my fellow Ladies haven’t appreciated it, I’m fairly certain it’s not the sex.

Really, quite certain.

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Comments

  1. I find it interesting that all the manga you show is yaoi. There are no examples that involve hetero relationships? Does this just speak to the dearth of josei manga in English? It seems like all the more sexually focused manga in English are a) male-targetted porn (is that going to get my comment spammed, I wonder?) or b) yaoi with some few exceptions…

    • There really hasn’t been much sexually explicit josei (well, yaoi is all technically josei, but that aside) successfully published and marketed in the US. Aurora tried a few series that I don’t believe sold very well, and the closest I can come in current publication is Butterflies, Flowers from Viz, which does have some sex, though it’s not as explicit as any of the yaoi I’ve pictured here. I chose these because they had covers that would best make my point (I don’t have a scanner available at the moment for internal pages), so that’s *really* why there is no josei pictured, but the fact is, there isn’t much of it available.

      • That’s kind of what I thought. I’m actually surprised Viz hasn’t tried to publish more josei, seems like it could fit in with the Signature line.

        • David Welsh says:

          There actually is some josei and sort-of josei in the Signature line… All My Darling Daughters, Ristorante Paradiso, and Gente are all mature works that I think were conceived for a primarily female audience. It’s hard to tell with the latter two, since their home magazine, Manga Erotics F, seems to publish a less demographically identifiable range of titles than the average magazine. But none of those stories are especially romantic/erotic in the same way that titles in a significant number of josei magazines favor. Viz is also sneaking some josei titles into its Shojo Beat line, like the aforementioned Butterflies, Flowers, which is more funny than smutty (though it’s certainly smutty). Ooku has a fair amount of steamy sex, but there are a hundred things going on in that series in addition to the romantic and sexual relationships.

          It is weird how few opposite-sex, non-ero romance stories for adults there are in English, isn’t it?

        • I really should have been more clear–there *is* josei being published (as David mentions) but it’s not the same kind of thing I was using the yaoi to represent. Aurora’s Make Love and Peace is the closest I’ve seen to real smut, in terms of having a sex scene basically every chapter, the same way yaoi frequently does, but I disliked it and it doesn’t have a smutty-looking cover, which is what I was going for. :)

  2. @ DerikB: “It seems like all the more sexually focused manga in English are a) male-targetted porn (is that going to get my comment spammed, I wonder?) or b) yaoi with some few exceptions…”

    Like Melinda said, very little explicit josei (ladies’ comics, teen’s love) has made it over here, and the few things that have (basically Aurora’s LuvLuv line and the Harlequin manga line, which is nowadays an e-imprint) don’t sell nearly as well as BL does (there are probably several reasons for this, one being that the selections available so far are mostly not terribly good).

    @ Melinda: “yaoi is all technically josei, but that aside”

    If this is using yaoi in its general Anglophone meaning as “all BL”, then this is not the case; a lot of BL magazines, including many of the larger ones, are aimed at the shoujo market. BL tends to gain an age rating when it crosses the Pacific; quite a number of BL books labelled 18+ here ran in magazines targeted to teenagers. Of your examples, for instance, Deeply Loving a Maniac, Love Skit and bónd(z) ran in Be x Boy, which Libre considers shoujo (whereas Be x Boy GOLD, home of Viewfinder, is marketed as josei). Red Blinds the Foolish, for comparison, is solidly josei.

    • yaoi is all technically josei

      Interestingly, I was told this as fact by another commenter in a previous post, when I tried to describe some BL as shoujo, so I’ll leave it to commenters to fight it out. ;)

  3. I haven’t read AX, either, and my repeated flip-throughs in the bookshop have ended up hitting roughly equal amounts of interesting stories and stories where I feel the creators are being deliberately offensive to emphasise their edginess. What actually pushed me into not buying it was the cover; I had a tiny moment of heartsink when I saw it, because once again “alternative” appears to be equated with naked women, despite naked women being pretty much plastered over mainstream media. And the pose, which I find hard not to read as “My body is a sexual cornucopia for You, (presumptive straight male) Reader,” – I’m a bi female reader (from New Zealand, which is not particularly prudish), and it makes me weary rather than excited.

    I read explicit sexual content all the time, but it’s mostly same-sex. The best explicit hetero book I can think of off-hand is Alisdair Gray’s 1982, Janine, but although he does illustrate his own works this one’s more about playing with typography. It’s basically one night in the head (and sexual fantasies) of a man preparing to commit suicide, and brilliant; I can imagine manga doing the same thing, but I haven’t seen it.

    • once again “alternative” appears to be equated with naked women, despite naked women being pretty much plastered over mainstream media. And the pose, which I find hard not to read as “My body is a sexual cornucopia for You, (presumptive straight male) Reader,”

      I had this reaction when I first saw the cover as well.

      • Moomintroll says:

        For what it’s worth the cover is by a woman (Akino Kondo).

        Personally, I thought AX was a mixed bag (though more good than bad by a decent margin) but there was nothing in there that wouldn’t be perfectly at home in a European or North American alt-comics anthology.
        My impression is that that sort of material doesn’t go down so well with people whose comics reading mostly revolves around – and is mostly informed by – manga (most of which, for both better and worse, is relentlessly commercial genre material). Possibly that might explain the dissenting reviews rather than the gender or nationality of the people who wrote them?

        • To be honest, I haven’t found, as a rule, that female artists are necessarily any less guilty of perpetuating sexual stereotypes than men. Certain artists, sure, but not most, especially in Japan.

          And though, as I said, I haven’t read AX, to suggest that critics as well-read as Kate Dacey or Brigid Alverson would be critical of the anthology based on the fact that they read a lot of manga is insulting and pretty far out there.

          • Moomintroll says:

            “To be honest, I haven’t found, as a rule, that female artists are necessarily any less guilty of perpetuating sexual stereotypes than men. Certain artists, sure, but not most, especially in Japan.”

            True. But I don’t think the cover image does what you think it does, at least not at second glance. The woman’s expression isn’t inviting – it’s positively scornful – and she’s got giant beetles crawling all over her. I’m not sure what exactly Kondo is trying to say with the piece but it doesn’t strike me as being designed to be sexually titillating in the way that most cheesecake comic art / fanservice manga is.

            “And though, as I said, I haven’t read AX, to suggest that critics as well-read as Kate Dacey or Brigid Alverson would be critical of the anthology based on the fact that they read a lot of manga is insulting and pretty far out there.”

            I’m sorry if what I said came across that way – that wasn’t my intention. The point I was making (badly, evidently) is that while a lot of people who read NA and European alt-comics are also left cold by deliberately crude art (I generally am myself), it’s so pervasive that a few stories of that type in a thick anthology wouldn’t generally raise too many eyebrows (on the contrary – it’s pretty much expected) whereas a lot of the reviews of AX seemed to centre on those kinds of works to the detriment of the many stories that exhibit considerable craft and eschew the tedious shock-for-shock’s-sake thing. In other words, it’s the emphasis that’s surprising rather than the criticism.

            • the woman’s expression isn’t inviting – it’s positively scornful

              I don’t think I agree, but I can accept that it’s open to interpretation. The point Cyphomandra was really trying to make, though, is that there is nothing “alternative” about having a naked woman on your cover. It doesn’t offend me (or her, I don’t believe), but my immediate reaction is, “Oh, it’s just the same old, same old.” It wouldn’t stop me from buying something I wanted, but it doesn’t invite me in.

              a lot of the reviews of AX seemed to centre on those kinds of works to the detriment of the many stories that exhibit considerable craft and eschew the tedious shock-for-shock’s-sake thing. In other words, it’s the emphasis that’s surprising rather than the criticism.

              I’m not sure which reviews you’re talking about, but that really hasn’t been my impression from those I’ve read. In fact, that’s partly why I found the editor’s complaints to be so off-base. I expect I’ll pick up a copy of AX at some point (and actually, I think I may have a pdf from the publisher I just haven’t dug into), and that’s based on the reviews I’ve read, all from manga critics I read regularly. Both Deb Aoki and Connie C. positively glowed about it. Kate’s review was extremely thoughtful and covered the works fully, though certainly from a feminist viewpoint, which is one of the reasons I’m always so keen to read her. And the AXed conversation (with six different manga critics) discussed every single piece in the collection one-by-one, so they can’t be accused of centering on some more than others. None of these focus mainly on the stories’ shock value, either, and all of the critics–even those who are genuinely critical of the collection–agree that it’s worth reading. In fact, the only review I saw in the course of my regular reading that could be described as having the emphasis you mention is Johanna Draper Carlson’s, and much of her background is in American comics. I think the emphasis on this point has come from Sean Michael Thomas’ comments about reviewers more than the reviewers themselves.

        • Katherine Dacey says:

          Moomintroll:

          I’d caution about drawing conclusions about people’s reading habits based on their responses to AX. Most of the manga I enjoy falls outside the commercial mainstream. I certainly have a special place in my heart for artists like Rumiko Takahashi, but the works I’ve been most enthusiastic about won’t be making the NY Times bestseller list any time soon. Children of the Sea, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu, A Drunken Dream, and Red Snow are just some of the titles in 2009-10 that made my best-of-the-year list. I’m not alone in championing these kind of titles; there are plenty of other female critics out there — Melinda, Michelle Smith, Kai-Ming Cha, and Deb Aoki, just to name a few — who also passionately advocate similar works.

          I can’t speak for those critics, but I certainly don’t limit myself to manga. It’s true that manga was my gateway to comics, but my tastes are pretty wide-ranging; I’ll read just about anything but superhero stories, and even then I’ve been known to make exceptions. Whatever the underlying reason for female critics giving mixed marks to AX, I don’t really think it was because it failed the Fruits Basket test.

          • Moomintroll says:

            “I’d caution about drawing conclusions about people’s reading habits based on their responses to AX. Most of the manga I enjoy falls outside the commercial mainstream. ”

            Sure – I guess I’m just reacting to my perception that most of the positive reviews of AX I read were written by people who also write a lot about non-Japanese comics whereas a lot of the not so positive reviews seemed to be coming from blogs that exclusively deal with Japanese and Korean stuff. This wouldn’t be the first time my perceptions have led me astray though…

            “there are plenty of other female critics out there — Melinda, Michelle Smith, Kai-Ming Cha, and Deb Aoki, just to name a few — who also passionately advocate similar works”

            Absolutely. And there are other American women who write exceptionally well about manga – Shaenon Garrity is an obvious example – who are also very widely read and enthusiastic with regard to non-Japanese comics. That’s why I made a point of saying that I didn’t think gender or nationality had anything to do with the reviews Wilson was talking about.

  4. Katherine Dacey says:

    We see merit in sexual content, but we expect it to have meaning beyond shock value or pure titillation. Hell, even in our pornography, we expect some level of craft, either visual or narrative in nature.

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. I love Lady Snowblood, for example, even though it verges on pornography. It’s beautifully drawn, for one thing, and the sex, sexual violence, and nudity are all fundamental to the story, for another. Yes, some of the stuff is pretty gratuitous — and clearly meant for male readers — but it works because the heroine’s sexuality is an essential element of her revenge; she uses her appearance to disarm and deceive people so that she can gather evidence, assess her enemies, and strike when they’re vulnerable. So in a context like that, explicit scenes don’t bother me. But when the female characters are just passive objects of desire or violence? Thanks, but no.

    • I’ve tried for years to find a way to say this that doesn’t border on TMI, but, y’know, I think it might even be fair to say that pornography for women may demand more craft than many other kinds of writing, at least for women like me (whatever that means). I can accept sexual excitement as a goal for a fictional work (or sections of a work). This is not an issue for me. I used to read & write lots of slash fanfiction. I’m on board with the awesomeness of erotica. But if I’m pulled out of the moment by inconsistent characterization, outrageous leaps of logic, offensive comments on gender, or just plain boredom, it’s not going to get me going.

      I can comfortably say that probably 75-80% of the sexual content I’ve ever encountered in fiction (books, movies, comics, etc.) has actually gotten in the way of the story rather than enhancing it. This is not a problem with sexual content as a concept. It is a reflection of how poorly and lazily it is usually written, and not just by male writers. Women are equally as guilty. Sexual fantasy is not easy to write well, and sexual content *outside* fantasy is even harder, in my opinion. Yet so many writers treat it like a no-brainer, and end up boring or offending their readers.

    • See, now to me, Lady Snowblood sounds awesome! Maybe I’m not a prude after all!

  5. What a huge generalization. I’m one of those North American ladies (probably), but at the same time, I’d never read anything remotely like it before & I’m not a toilet humor person, at least not like what AX had. I have plenty of North American lady friends who are, however, and they’d probably love AX. So what can you do? Regardless, there was plenty in the anthology that I did like and like I said in my review, it’s probably going to be a mixed bag for most people.

    • It seems to me that nearly all readers are going to have a “mixed bag” reaction to any anthology (isn’t a “mixed bag” generally the point?) so your reaction strikes me as entirely reasonable. :)





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