It's no secret to those who know me that I'm a yaoi fan, but it's not something I talk about much, and even though there was a yaoi convention--Bishie Con--here in St. Louis recently, I didn't go. To see why, you need only look at the cover of the current Riverfront Times.
Despite calling it the Midwest's "ickiest" anime party, the article paints a reasonably accurate picture of the whole scene. You can read it here if you like. However, when I cracked open that issue, I nearly started foaming at the mouth before I even got to the article, and here's why:
For anyone who might not know, that's a girl whacking another girl on the butt with a yaoi paddle. A few years ago, an enterprising businessman decided to print "YAOI" on some wooden paddles and sell them for $40 a pop, and now the detestable things have become something of an unofficial symbol of the whole genre. I couldn't hate them more if I tried.
What does a paddle have to do with yaoi? Diddly squat, that's what. Sure, there's plenty of yaoi stories out there with BDSM themes--the same is true of standard heterosexual romance stories, but you don't see women walking around romance novel conventions toting whips with "Regency" printed on the handle. How about historical handcuffs? Contemporary ball gags?
To be fair, I can understand why fans buy these paddles. They're highly visible signs--when you see a fellow paddle-wielder, you know that the two of you have something in common, and that common interest can facilitate the sort of instant friendship between strangers that convention-goers remember fondly for years.
But if I could take every yaoi paddle in the world and fire them into the sun, instantly incinerating every last one of the damn things, I would do it in a heartbeat. The biggest problem with these paddles (apart from the fact they're tacky and overpriced) is that they're the only exposure that many non-fans have to the entire genre. Non-fans go to anime conventions, and they see girls screaming at the top of their lungs, waving paddles around and whacking strangers on the butt with them. How likely do you think the average person is to research what yaoi is really about after that kind of introduction? Not bloody likely.
If these paddles were only being used as signs, I'd still find them tacky, but I wouldn't be as rabidly against them as I am. However, I struggle to recall any convention I've been to in the last five years where I didn't see someone whacking someone else with a paddle. A few anime conventions have gone so far as to ban paddles from their premises, and attendees have asked for bans at many more. When even Yaoi-con doesn't allow them, you know there's a problem.
I read yaoi stories because I enjoy the romance; because there's an element of dangerous, forbidden love that isn't present in a lot of hetero romance. Your hero has the traditional obstacles to overcome when pursuing his love, plus a few more: does he swing that way? What will our friends think? Oh, we mustn't! It's delightfully cheesy and unrealistic, but it's fun to read anyway. I've been asked before where the abuse and paddling comes in, and it was a struggle to try to explain that it doesn't.
It's hard enough trying to explain my hobby to someone who's genuinely interested and open-minded, let alone someone who's been accosted by a hyperactive teenager trying to bludgeon people with a wooden oar. I'm sick of people assuming I'm a borderline-Asperger's case with violent tendencies just because I think Johnny Depp should have kissed Orlando in that pirate movie.
If you really want to announce your love of yaoi to the world, how about a t-shirt or something--you know, those things normal, well-adjusted people use to broadcast their interests and hobbies? I hear they're all the rage.