BL. Yaoi. Shonen-ai. Say what? It's true that these terms have become much more common since I first encountered the genre two decades ago, but there's still confusion about what BL really is. So whether you're an old hand or just googled BL to find out what your teenage daughter has been going on about, let's dig in and answer the age-old internet question: what's the deal with BL?
Definition of terms
First, let's define a few terms. Keep in mind that BL is an evolving genre and some terms that were popular ten years ago are rarely used now. Other words stick around in certain regions/fandoms even as they lapse in others, or acquire nuances they didn't have before. Consider these definitions guidelines, not absolutes. When in doubt, ask the person who you're talking to what they mean. Odds are extremely good they'll be delighted to tell you.
Short for Boy's Love (yes, in English), BL is currently the most accepted and widely used term for anime and manga with gay themes and romantic relationships. It covers all ages and genres within that scope. If you're not sure what term to use, use BL.
Short for "yamanashi ochinashi iminashi" (no climax, no point, no meaning), yaoi used to be the catch-all term for BL in the US. It has since gone out of fashion in favor of the more inclusive and accurate BL, but you'll still see it around.
A very outdated term now, shonen ai literally means "boy love" and used to refer to romantic relationships between teenagers (boys) rather than adults, which was classified as yaoi. Sometimes, it was also used as a catch-all for non-sexual stories. Nowadays, if it's used it is usually only for shouta titles.
Slash is used exclusively in regards to fanworks, particularly fanfiction. It used to mean depicting two male characters together romantically who weren't canonically together (most famously Kirk and Spock, where the term originated), but these days is broadly used to refer to any fanwork containing gay themes even if the two "slashed" characters are together in the original work.
Some series deliberately imply that their characters might be gay, but refuse to confirm it or even go out of their way to make jokes about fans who think two male characters are in a romantic relationship just because they love each other. I won't name any manga or anime titles (though you could probably come up with a few if you tried), but the best-known English examples are Supernatural and Sherlock.
Not BL but mistaken for it
In the same way that a show can contain a romantic subplot without being considered a romance, there are many series that contain male/male relationships without being considered BL. The most prominent of these (which some people will forever argue over the classification of) is Yuri on Ice. Any romance between Yuri and Victor is not the focus of the series, so it's not BL. An older example is Cardcaptor Sakura. Touya and Yuki are a couple, but they're side characters and their relationship is, again, not the focus.
Why do people like it?
Okay, now that we've got our definitions out of the way, why are so many people into this very specific genre? Lots of reasons! Entire academic papers have been written exploring the topic, but here are a few of the most common. Your own reason might be something completely different, and that's okay. BL is for everyone and there's no wrong way to enjoy your favorite series.
Some people just like the idea of two guys together, the same way it's commonly accepted that many men and some women enjoy the idea of lesbians. After all, if one hot guy is good, two hot guys can only be better, right?
Romance is the most popular genre for books, and for many people the genders involved in that romance doesn't matter. BL is just another way to read about two people falling in love with each other.
It's a female space
Not all readers of BL are women, but there's no question the genre is a space dominated by women, especially the fandom. BL can feel like a welcoming haven and safe space for women to discuss their fantasies.
Freedom from gender roles
You may have noticed that women in manga are frequently get kidnapped/rescued, need taking care of, handle the emotional labor in relationships, and so on. Not all female readers want to read yet another story with the same sexist tropes. With no woman in the relationship, all of that goes away. Can't complain the woman always gets kidnapped if there's no woman to kidnap, after all. Now, it's true that many BL stories, especially older ones, have their own set of problems, especially regarding uke/seme dynamics, but it's at least a different set of problems.
Not everyone who reads BL is female. There also are many male readers, and for a while it was the only reliable way for some gay friends of mine to find stories about gay men outside of adult sites. Again, some of the common tropes in BL are problematic ("assault as love" comes to mind), but on the whole the stories are much more positive and loving than you might otherwise find on the internet.
The fandom is contagious
The second a fan finds out you're interested in reading a BL story, they'll be thrilled and offer to recommend you a bunch more stories to read. In fact, would you like to come over and borrow something from their shelves...? Perhaps marathon the first five episodes of Loveless? Oh, and what about... Then they show you the fanfiction organized not just by fandom and pairing but specific tags for everything under the sun and you realize fangirls are organized.
Titles to start with
If you're looking to try a BL story, you have a lot to choose from – a wonderful change from just twenty years ago. And that's great, because there's so many different kinds of BL to read. Don't go thinking they're all the same. The only thing that's certain in a BL story is a romantic relationship between two men. BL stories can be dark or light, funny or tragic, short or long – the list goes on. Many stories cross genres. For example, one of my favorite series, FAKE, is a "dramedy" series about two cops.
It's true you'll see certain story tropes repeated (high school romances will be popular until the end of times), but even within that framework there's a lot of variation, from tone to characters to art. If you don't like the first story you read, don't be afraid to try another one. Unless you hate romance altogether, there's bound to be a story for you.
As always, check the ratings if you're concerned about adult content. Every English publisher is careful to include a rating on the back of the book or Blu-ray, especially when it comes to BL. But just because a series is listed as 18+ doesn't mean the series is any more pornographic than a standard romance novel. (In fact, many fans have been known to complain about series not being sexy enough or shrink-wrapped despite having very tame content indeed.) Reviews are readily available online if you're looking for a certain amount of adult content.
Awkward Silence – A shy boy gets asked out by his crush on the baseball team. They're happily in love, and deal with problems no more daunting than "I miss you while away at baseball camp" and "when you're quiet it's hard to me to ascertain if you're consenting; could you speak up just this once?" It doesn't get much sweeter than Awkward Silence.
Classmates – Nakamura Asumiko deliberately went with romance basics with Classmates, and while the resulting story is itself a cliché (honor student doesn't get along with popular student, then they each realize there's more to each other than they thought, love eventually blooms), the lightness with which she treats the story is bright and refreshing, as is the slightly unusual art style.
Embracing Love – Youka Nitta's Embracing Love is a BL classic. It's been around in some form or another for 20 years now, with some new piece getting released in English every few years to keep interest up. The plot is nothing amazing – it opens with two adult stars competing for a role with each other, and I think you can guess how it goes from there – but not only was it one of the first BL titles in English, it was the first multi-volume BL series for many fans for years afterwards, as the story further explores Iwaki and Katou's relationship beyond their initial meeting and consummation.
Love Pistols – Confession: I will always recommend Love Pistols in a list like this just because it epitomizes the silliest BL tropes in the most hilarious, exaggerated fashion even as the characters take things extremely seriously. The plot? There are these guys, they can turn into animals, and (almost) everyone wants to get it on with the rarest guy/animal who of course happens to be our hapless protagonist. Sexytimes and some truly implausible plot points ensue. Do not read with your critical thinking cap on.
What Did You Eat Yesterday? - Fumi Yoshinaga's What Did You Eat Yesterday? comes across more like a cookbook than a BL story. Each volume focuses on the dishes Shiro cooks for himself and his partner Kenji. Much more grounded in "real life" than most BL series, older readers will find themselves nodding in recognition at Shiro's conundrums, from what to do with fruit bought in bulk to debating whether to come out to a friend. Fair warning: you're likely to come away from each volume hungry and itching to try out a recipe.
I Hear the Sunspot – I Hear the Sunspot has more in common with A Silent Voice and With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child than it does most college-based BL romances. Energetic Taichi and reserved, hard-of-hearing Kohei make an unusual pair, but their bond proves stronger than anybody anticipates. Unlike most college-set BL romances, I Hear the Sunspot focuses more on what happens off campus and it's very satisfying to see the characters finding their way in the world.
Gravitation – An excitable wannabe rock star meets a taciturn writer and is instantly smitten. Love and wacky hijinks ensue. Gravitation was the series for introducing new fans back when I got into the genre, and it's still popular now. (Witness the number of people excited about the upcoming Blu-ray.) If you love JPop, you'll be singing along to the opening theme by episode three.
Junjo Romantica – Why watch a show about one romance when you can get a show with three and a half? (The problem, of course, is when you like one couple the best but the episode you're on focuses on a different one.) Junjo Romantica combines several popular BL tropes into one series to hit you with that "oh god they really love each other" romantic punch at least once per episode.
-Lisa Marie Cooper
This isn't the first time Lisa's written about boy's love – she was the author of "On the BL" in Newtype and PiQ Magazine. Long-time Right Stuf fans may also recognize Lisa as Marie from the Anime Today podcast or as the OG RightStufSpecialsMinion on the Anime News Network and Fandom Post forums. Her non-anime articles can be found at PositivelyEditorial.com.