Danmei is a genre that is written by, consumed by and targeted for a female audience. The term itself means “indulgence in beauty” and symbolizes the (over)romanticizing of male-male relationships sometimes to the point aesthetics overcome the importance of plot and character development.
There are a few speculations as to why this phenomenon came to be.
- The systematic ban and the socially taboo nature of homosexual/homoerotic content
- Gender inequality and inequity in society where women feel oppressed and objectified
- The inevitable ties in a conventional romance – marriage and childbirth – which ultimately interfere with the idealized concept of love
The first two points are not unique to China and apply to most of Asia and other parts of the world where civil rights have not transformed as they have in most of the West (remember, the emergence of slash coincides gay rights movement). Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise to find that danmei or yaoi is very popular with the female audience in those places, as well. Just as pornography set in a classroom or in a religious facility invokes a feeling of naughtiness, homoerotic fiction can provide readers with the rush of witnessing something taboo and forbidden – and the forbidden fruit is sweet. Along with that comes the freedom and privilege that a male-submissive character embodies, insofar that men, even though they are penetrated – often raped – can continue with their lives without any implications (or so the female writers thought) that might otherwise affect women such as slut shaming, virginity and pregnancy.
This leads into the third point, which suggests that in a homosexual romance, the characters are not concerned with marriage and children. Same-sex marriage is still not possible in Asia except in Taiwan (where it has been judged as constitutional!), and children do not have to be involved in the couple’s lives (no shotgun weddings!). This allows a thing called “pure love” to exist in the danmei world, where two characters stay together solely because of love and not because of social responsibility.
Without a widely observable homosexual community, life as a homosexual man was mysterious and romanticized, and at the same time served as a blank canvas for writers hoping to create a form of “pure” romance for an audience eager to consume a romance without the conventional restrictions. However, this lack of understanding also brings an interesting pattern found in danmei – that the submissive partner is often portrayed like a woman with feminine exterior and interior traits, only she has junk in her trunks (sorry BEP fans, not in the back). This is perhaps the most obvious difference between danmei and slash fiction.
Slash on the other hand has grown out of the Star Trek fanfiction circle where stories were written by fans on Kirk and Spock that they felt the canon did not do justice to. The name comes from the practice of putting a slash between the names of two characters that are “shipped.” This often involved romantic or erotic elements that extend from friendship and companionship. Subplots from canon are elaborated, and darker themes are explored such as domination and violence. In other words, it is often whatever fans wanted to see happen but the original writers did not make happen.