“melody awakens the mind, the rites perfect through performance, thus music completes experience.” — Lun Yu , Book VIII, Chapter 8
“Death awaits us all, what is one dalliance with perversion?”
— Max von Sydow to Werner Herzog per Twitter
Spoiler warning: Given [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Given_(manga)] anime spoilers to Ep7, manga spoilers to ch 28.
Fetishization as an accusation of bad-faith practice seems to be a new thang in the discourse surrounding mass cultural vernacular narratives. As a practice, (praxis?) the actual mechanisms of fetishisation appear on closer examination to be slippery, diffuse and worse. inexorably bound to the process of simplified storytelling that makes up all that yummy, fast, cheap and ephemeral product that we fans gorge on and geek out over. Marge, You’re soaking in it. Worse, a useful definition and genealogy of the term is difficult to come up with. At least with appropriation of voice you kinda get the idea. Exactly what’s on the label. Fetishization is a whole lot harder to pin down.
If it is sexual, why not use the clinical term paraphilia? Or is schmexy-fetishism some kind of paraphilia-light/ not-quite paraphilia? Is it a fetish when you want your beloved to wear a bunny costume but hope to end up in the sack with them, bunny costume more or less removed; whereas with paraphilia, you want to rub the damn costume all over your nekkid body while sweetums is left to do the NYT crossword in the living room?
This is confusing.
A bout of Twitter discourse recently sent me down a bunny-costume-hole chasing current, useful examples. Then when the back and forth grew wearisome, I was tempted to do a stink-eye, declaring “SILLY COMRADES, I MEANT COMMODITY FETISHISATION!” because the internet, and Natalie Wynn’s Tabby
Be careful of what you poke with a stick. It had been decades since I had to fidget through any introductory Marxism reading lists but I thought a quick refresher at Wikipedia’s “commodity fetishism” page [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodity_fetishism] was worth a detour. Holy frick, the gang’s all here, hanging out back in the kitchen; Jameson, JimBo, Debord, Benjamin, Adorno, Lukács… TABBY!
Best I can puzzle out is that “fetishism”, as practice and shade, is kinda like those sci-fi stories where magic is blurred with science-y props and rituals; quantifiable, reproduce-able and easily invoked with a sufficient supply of brass mechanical difference engines.
“Marx said that fetishism is “the religion of sensuous appetites”, and that the fantasy of the appetites tricks the fetish worshipper into believing that an inanimate object will yield its natural character to gratify the desires of the worshipper. Therefore, the crude appetite of the fetish worshipper smashes the fetish when it ceases to be of service.”
— Ibid wiki per Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, On religion (orig 1842).
Karl and Fred could have given us a little more on this. They elide the mechanistic operational appeal of the magic. Drop the magic pebble into the bucket and the water turns into chocolate pudding (watch your teeth, there’s still a pebble in the pudding) Bad example — the rock had nothing initially chocolate-y or pudding-ish about it. Laws of similarity and contagion violated. Back to beans and beanstalks.
Worse, when you try to tar vernacular narratives and their derivative crap with the fetishisation brush, you run into a bunch of pre-existing, structural conditions that complicate the exercise (or charge).
A myth of originality
Plots, settings, characters – even chara designs get recycled. Contemporary Japanese Visual Culture is a very efficient recycler, whether because of a handicraft view of creative production, the doujinshi/ ani-paro tradition and/or a vigorous culture of interchange between producers and consumers/ fans. Outsiders decry this as “same-face”; pop-culture pundits whomped up elaborate end-of-history-end-of-grand-narratives visions of a “database”, while still others attempted to impose a quasi-linguistic taxonomy approach, (gotta catch em all!) taking street urchin “cliches” and giving them a good scrub, a clean track suit and lodging them in an ongoing repository of “tropes”. Cataloging is fun but the payoff comes with the permission and availability promoted by well-stocked shelves full of variously exaggerated forms. Amateur enthusiasts and underpaid hacks alike can grab armloads of pret-a-porter and keep cranking out product. So, yeah.. we might all look the same…
As well, there’s the schmexy.
We need the schmexy.
Fetishisation sounds like it must have something to do with naughty knickers but if you toss out any trace of the “yummy bits” you end up with Scooby Doo Mysteries. When Dr. Saito Tamaki (renown Japanese clinical psychologist – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamaki_Sait%C5%8D ) took a break from his work on Japanese (mostly guy) social isolates to throw some post-Lacanian theory at male manga/ anime fans and their libido(s), he opened up a giant can of beautiful/ magical fighting girl fantasies. These he pronounced as all good and healthy. Then he noticed all the porny aniparo doujinshi (fanzines) at Comiket. You would think he would ignore these, bhut noooo. All good too! Most excellent survival strategy(!) for young, alienated, isolated guys in a society that was increasingly globalised, unintelligible and overloaded with never ending shit-floods of visual narratives.
Fan-boy gets that strange feeling looking at the powered-up cartoon cutie, wonders if his wiring is off, finds all manner of variants, becomes a connoisseur of the effect and gets to spread the faith and bond with fellow enthusiasts. Hack the spew with cartoon pr0n!!! Your life is no longer endless grey concrete drudgery and kombini take-out meals — your rich fantasy lives have been re-cathected (cf Mary Shelley per Freud ) Then the FATE franchise was born and everyone lived happily ever after.
Anyway, otaku have no problem whatsoever distinguishing fantasy from reality; their sexualities don’t get warped by all them weird cartoons and the majority of them are functioning heterosexual guys who will go on to marry and reproduce. Don’t freak out.
Feeling better? No urge to go hide in your room for 5 years? Good! Get back to work…
Later critics would argue that women fans had their version of this as well but it worked somewhat differently… (2)
Fuck you Muddy-boi, where is my Given review?
Can it! You want the free grub, you gotta sit for the sermon… Ok, whatever!
Given is a manga and a current season anime about a bunch of guys who get together to practice and hopefully start a band. The story puts their band interaction, taking place in a rented practice space at the center of their personal lives. Home, school, jobs are all places where the band members do time before they can once again get together and jam. The band-verse is the hub of their manosphere — everything radiates out from it. A male homosocial, to use the fancy-shmancy academic term. While contemporary “queer theory” grabbed that term and ran off yelling Squeeeeeeeeee! into the night (in many ways anticipating a variation on the slash/ fujoshi conceit that all guys, male socials and male power structures are and will be up to the same-old-same-old mischief, all the time) it is worth remembering that the concept was born out of sociology/ anthropology and was initially appropriated for use in literary criticism.
However BL guy homosocials are not like the ones that Sedgwick’s Between Men dissects. Buncha guys in BL is a magic.
This fun tradition of the BL genre has been shorthanded as “the fetishisation of male friendship”. The initial appeal of this notion appears to spring from two IRL conditions: 1) Japan does same-sex socials a lot and 2) the genre fandom, the audience for stories riffing off this conceit are notorious for the occult gender exclusivity of their socials. The girls only-club gets to have fun ascribing exaggerated characteristics to hypothetical boy-only clubs. Win!
If I run with my simple metonymic rule for build-a-bear fetishisations;
“Simplify a complex condition, exaggerate one remaining aspect, then ascribe that aspect machine-like magical powers within the story”
… then the simple act of putting some guys together in a band will have magical consequences within the story because while the guy social is a dumb-simple plot machine, it has one inescapable effect:
Guys within get love-stuck and properly paired (one, true-ly) off.
A somewhat similar effect can be ascribed to isolated forest cabins that offer shelter in the midst of snowstorms, when one of our two heroes is sick or wounded and will die unless his rival-companion lavishes care upon him.
“…reminds me of a German guy I knew in Tokyo to whom I lent some Eroica slash stories. Helmut returned them to me in agitation. ‘Don’t these writers realize men can be friends and not want to have sex?!’ Naturally, I said, but the point of the slash exercise is that the guys do have sex. He didn’t see it.”
— Mary Jeanne Johnson/ Aestheticism forum (ca 2000)
I should dial it down a bit; Given — especially the anime version — remains well-behaved, sympathetic and sets up its main characters in a way that maintains a good balance between leaving things unsaid/yet to be revealed and naturally developing the initial dynamics between the four main characters. At the start of the story, only one of the four is acknowledged gay and he’s had a bad time of it. Satō Mafuyu had a fight with his first ever boyfriend and then walked in on the aftermath of Yuki’s suicide. Now with Yuki’s guitar, given to him by the deceased’s mother he walks around in a grieving daze. Uenoyama Ritsuka finds Sato-kun nodding off in his secret high school napping spot and grudgingly re-strings the expensive Gibson hollow body, growing even more annoyed when he realises that its owner has no idea at all about guitars or how to play.
Sato Mafuyu then goes stray-puppy-to-11 and begins to stalk and pester Uenoyama, begging for guitar lessons. Uenoyama-kun is restless and easily annoyed but fundamentally good-natured. He also has a bad case of dogged determination; when young he had pushed himself not just to learn but to master the electric guitar his father gave him. Recently he has felt that his skill has levelled off and guitar is less fun than it used to be. Later we will find that he has little patience for going along with amateurs and has left at least one other band and/ or a school light music club because they were insufficiently “serious”. This won’t stop Sato-kun. Bit by bit, Sato wears him down until Uenoyama agrees to give him a few pointers.
Then Sato sings a melody line and Uenoyama is taken.
Uenoyama is in a band with two other guys, older university students. Nakayama Haruki is basist, band-leader and veteran of a few other bands. Although nominally straight, we soon find that he has somehow developed an undisclosed crush on Kaji Akihiko; drummer, music major, violinist and semi-pro man-whore. Akihiko-san is currently rooming with/ freeloading off his ex-boyfriend, the musical prodigy Murata Ugetsu who destroyed Akihiko’s musical self-confidence and stole his heart. Unfortunately Aki-san has irresponsible parents who travel abroad and neglect to send a regular allowance, so mr blond hunk music student has also found it expedient to cultivate the sponsorship of rich, older, generous girlfriends. The manga does more reveal on this than the anime has currently offered – including genius roomie’s toxic, sadistic nature. Initially, in both the anime and the manga, the two senior band-mates naturally take the role of sempai(s), with one important reservation; both feel that Uenoyama’s “serious” approach to music might be what they need to get a band to “click” and as such defer to Uenoyama’s musical tastes.
It doesn’t take long before Sato is introduced to the sempai, they get to hear him sing la-la-la syllables and encourage him to join as their singer. Uenoyama then has to stalk Sato to convince him to join the band, as Sato lacks confidence.
Sato puts in the effort to learn to play, begins to heal and starts to socialise at school but Uenoyama grows progressively more out-of-sorts. He wonders if he wants the responsibility of teaching Sato. A girl in his class who quite clearly has strong feelings for him takes him aside and blurts out the gossip following Mafuyu Sato: he openly dated a guy in junior high and then the guy committed suicide. “Don’t get involved with him, he is dangerous!” Huh? Involved? Uenoyama has no previous romantic experience, or for that matter unresolved desires — at least any that were not sublimated into obsessive guitar practice. He gets on great with the rest of the guys in his class but is often half-asleep because of band and part-time job (to pay his part of the studio rent) demands on his time and energies. He is not shy or uncomfortable around girls; at home his older sister expertly bosses him around. Why is everything suddenly getting complicated?
One makes allowances for anime and manga stories. We expect details to get brushed over, or rushed past. Still at 7 episodes and/ or 28 chapters in, we only have the vaguest idea of who has what in the way of parents, let alone where they are about or underfoot. Someone besides Mafuyu must be taking care of the dog… Please! Also; the shade of Yuki is an uncomfortable presence in more ways than one. A young lover’s suicide out of the blue, after a teen romantic spat between guys? Somehow his feels callous on the part of the writers.
Then there is the question of sexualities as fixed within the self; as a “born this way” innate characteristic of personal identity. While neither manga or anime has yet to pull the infamous “I’m not gay it’s only you“, it is still a stretch that %100 of the bishie guys in a band end will up paired off with each other. Sure it is possible that they all were so inclined but the happenstance, presented with little concern, foreshadowing or explanation beyond “lightning strikes” is a bit of a stretch. Also what of informal traditions of band exogamy?
Put it down to an aspirational staging rule — turns out all four were predisposed to the idea of loving another guy and the band social provided a safe space where this could happen. Like magic.
As well, the “reasons” for attraction are portrayed as complex, emotional and empathic. At least, Given does not reduce male same-sex desire to “Wow, whatta hunk, nize ass!“
One week before their first show and Uenoyama is screwing up at practice, ostensibly over-worried about Sato’s ability to play and whether Sato will be able to finish the song lyrics on time. Kaji-sempai, talking to him after the rehearsal asks if he is completely out-of-sorts because he has developed a crush on Sato. Uenoyama, in one of the few, minor concessions in the story to notions of fixed sexuality and social conformity goes all “Huh?” Sempai replies “what of it? I’ve gone out with guys too… though it was some time ago.”
Sempai sez no biggie. So much for societal disapproval. Moving right along…
At their first live gig Sato sings a powerful song about his feelings of loss for Yuki and Uenoyama, overcome with the emotion of the moment, hugs and then kisses Sato backstage. Soon after they confess to each other and begin dating.
The BL manosphere/ magic guys club forcefield comes with secondary effects. Women characters vanish into the mist. They become negligible threats to the bonds between the guys or cheerleaders on the sidelines. Jealous girl had already apologised for “he’s dangerous” and although not “out” at high school, Uenoyama and Sato start spending more time together, though Uenoyama reverts to “tough coach” mode when it’s music time. If the two are “exploring” anything it happens off-stage.
The action in the manga then shifts to Nakayama Haruki; flashbacks about his growing attraction to Kaji Akihiko, the latter’s troubling relationships and behavior and finally, from Akihiko’s POV; cutting clean from Ugetsu-san, tracking down the wayward parental units, dunning them for proper support, dropping the host gigs, resuming serious attention to his music degree and otherwise trying to clean up his act, “so as to be worthy” of Haruki-san’s affection.
The left one now, it has bells on it and makes pretty sounds.
So far no 1970’s era bishounen-style, “Even after the flames take my body” vows of eternal and undying monogamous love (OTP! OTP! ) but we still have a few chapters to go. They could tone it down a bit and go for contemporary adult romantic realism “I’m gonna work real hard at this, call me on it if I get out of line — I’ll do the same for you because I’m all in as long as you are” — which would raise the exercise in my eyes and even tone down a lot of my snark. Putting up with anyone, in one’s face all the time, for any promised indefinite period is one of the big questions that drives BL and associated dreaming in queer het-gaze exercises in speculative romantic fiction. We’d like to think –even if only in our fictions — that maybe without all them dysfunctional rules, roles and expectations that someone(s) can come up with a new, workable approach to love.
Relationships are complicated. No shit, Sherlock. Takes work. Also needs agreed upon boundaries. What would be a “code of honor” for an equal, mutually affirming arrangement for two anyones to stay together and not crumple each other?
Audience is restless.
Unfortunately, another magic simplification fetishism trap now lies in wait for us. Part of the appeal of the magic BL guy-group effect is that male friendships appear, to observers to be simple and direct; as simple and direct as guy sexual desire. Indeed, the simple, selfish entitled stupidity of guy sexuality is one of the things that women find troublesome, annoying, threatening, even lethally dangerous about the way guys spark. Male:male desire, as imagined by a significant subset of the BL audience is prone to being simplified to these extremes, even if “only in stories, for fun”. Everyone gets to have their porn and porn needs to move fast and get on with the hot stuff but the simplifications can spread and contaminate even more restrained works. The guys in Given are fastidious, cautious and as empathic as they can manage in getting close and finding out if… but when Akihiko and Ugetsu have a hate-fuck the manga audience gets their satisfying glimpses of the rough “default setting”.
Then the stories overcompensate. If stereotypical guy attraction is short on “see the other person as a person, with unique characteristics, hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes and behavior patterns”, we get the temptation to have the guy-puppets in aspirational romantic same-sex fictions make good the shortage when they turn their attentions on each other. Guys only act “really” romantic with other guys(!) because uh, fetishisation and Tumblr…
Too easy to toss water bottles at a nice, simple anime/manga romance. Ease off and enjoy. Part of the appeal of vernacular love stories is that they do one thing in a satisfying way. Close enough for rock and roll. Enjoy the band. Clap a lot and they’ll do an encore.
They will inevitably leave the stage.
Whining about fetishisation in pulp fiction is wasted effort. Only as technique is it worthy of consideration and study.(3)
(1) “Tabby; a far-left communist anti-fascist Cat Girl […] is well-meaning but struggles to connect with the common person, coming across as overly intellectual and militant; either lecturing people on dialectical philosophy or threatening to bash their skulls in with her trademark baseball bat.”
(2) Dr Tamaki had a go at expanding his theories to include women fans (2006) but came up short, I suspect because the post-Lacanian framework he uses to take apart individual subjectivities gets confused when the subject in question doesn’t have a wee bit of patriarchy in their shorts. Besides, he was too busy having fun repeating “no… is the sexy bits, they are important” at other guy pop-culture experts who would get all worked up by the idea that guys might wank to comic book babe drawings. Dr. Nagaike burned a massive load of theory powder trying to bring the woman reader into this equation (see her doctoral thesis) but her solution remains prone to reductio-ad-shotacon. For now, everyone has settled on “asymmetry” as the compromise solution. Guys reportedly geek out on individual sexy charas while women are supposed to be more interested in character interaction and interpersonal emotional dynamics. Your mileage may vary.
(3) MUCH LATER: An amazing ‘tojisha” discussion of fetishization in BL in this YouTube
interview from “The Yaoi Shelf” podcast with Dr Thomas Baudinette: