The Meaning of “Vanilla”

About a year ago I wrote a post wondering about the “NTR” (essentially cuckolding) genre of porn in anime and manga, and in it I had a small aside in the introduction where I mentioned the English-speaking anti-NTR fanbase that has developed in response, people who will proudly and adamantly proclaim their love of “vanilla.” At the time, I referred to these vanilla fans and their fervor as if they were an extreme response to the popularity of NTR because the intense championing of very conventional depictions of sex seemed odd (though understandable). Upon thinking about this subject again recently, however, I realized that I had overlooked something, and that one of the reasons there seems to be this contingent of vanilla supporters is that the definition of “vanilla porn,” at least according to certain fans of anime and manga, is quite a bit broader than how people would normally define it.

In general usage, vanilla (used for sex or otherwise) implies something that is ordinary and simple, and if one is being negative, bland and boring. In depictions of sex, this generally means something along the lines of missionary position between a couple. But when you look at the categories used in English to describe specific works of erotic anime and manga, you’ll sometimes get tag combinations such as “BDSM HAREM INCEST VANILLA.” I’m not making a value judgment on those other categories by any means, but I think that everyone can agree that, typically, those things don’t go hand in hand with “vanilla.”

What this has me realizing is that the ardent support for “vanilla” may be an even more direct response to NTR than I had first thought, because it ends up being defined by fans as essentially “not-NTR,” though to be more accurate it would probably be “anything that is not gay, rape, or NTR.” Given this definition-by-negation, it would seem that the most vital aspect of “vanilla” is loyalty. In this conception of vanilla, the relationships can be polygamous, they can be extreme in one way or another, but if there is a sense of betrayal or if feelings are hurt through sex, then it falls to the other side.

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3 thoughts on “The Meaning of “Vanilla”

  1. I think we’re at the point where “vanilla” porno means “equivalent in content to mainstream US porn.” When it comes to manga, I’m sure some of this stuff must exist, but as far as anime is concerned it seems that you have to search pretty darned hard to find Japanese cartoon pornography that does not fall along the “I really, really, really would rather this not be happening to me right now” spectrum. Even things which may seem at visual glance to be this can often be revealed to feature such content once the dialogue is translated. I know people who tend to prefer they not know what’s being said in these things for precisely this reason.

    In the modern era, the stereotypes of other nationalities/ethnicities are reinforced by the pornography these groups create for themselves. The fact that it actually requires a bit of effort to find anime/manga porn that is similar in tone and content to what would colloquially be considered “regular” US porn (in other words, “does NOT contain any murder, torture, rape, slavery, crying, strong protest, humiliation, vomiting, scatological elements, etc”) is what gives rise to “vanilla” as some distinct qualifying label. It’s also a big part of what perpetuates “weird Japan.”

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  2. Perhaps NTR themes are the nemesis / guilty flip side of harem themes? Both seem to be male-readership fantasies/ anxieties. Hogamous, higamous, man is polygamous (or in this case polyandrous)… Higamous Hogamus, woman monogamous ??? The trouble with -squick- (non-vanilla) is that it always plays on fantasies that will cause real damage in the real world if it gets lose, and therefore feeds a drive towards abjection in its user.

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