We don't know about you, but recently, our social media feeds have been flooded with posts of our friends fangirling about Thai BL series. Singing high praises for titles like 2gether, Love by Chance, and TharnType, "it's a definite must-watch," they would say of the heart-fluttering storylines. Interested but not quite sure what they are? Fret not, we're here to give you the 411 on the latest genre making waves all across Asia. Assistant Professor Kristine Michelle Santos, PhD from Ateneo de Manila's Department of History & Japanese Studies Program, and Thomas Baudinette, PhD, Lecturer at the International Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia — both fans of the genre — are here to answer all your questions on the emerging series genre.
Returning to its roots
It may be new to your ears, but BL — or Boys' Love — has actually been around since the 70s. Originating in Japan, they were formerly also called "yaoi." These romances between beautiful boys (bishounen, in Japanese) or beautiful young men (biseinen) were originally featured in media catered to young female audiences, particularly in comics or manga. According to Kristine, "It was mostly out of personal interest by young female creators who were trying to push the boundaries of women's comics. Many of these women found creative liberties in using young men's bodies because, at that time, men had more liberties than women."
By the 90s, the fanbase of the genre grew larger. In Thailand, the decade "saw an explosion of unofficial manga translations being sold from street vendors in the Siam Square district of Bangkok," Thomas noted. Similarly, in Singapore, Boys' Love comics became available with the opening of Kinokuniya bookstores, Kristine detailed, adding, "In the Philippines, the popularisation of anime on TV alongside the growth of internet culture in the country has led to fans stumbling upon BL fanworks of their favourite animated shows." Such was the case for Office Executive Rachel*, 27, who stumbled upon BL stories by exploring the diverse fanfiction and art of her favourite shonen manga (comics catered for boys).
This initial interest soon pushed fans of Boys' Love to feed their passions and produce their own content. Back in Thailand, eventually, these came to the attention of major media groups looking to produce fresh TV content for young viewers. Thomas said, "MCOT — a national broadcaster — converted an online novel entitled Lovesick into a TV drama in 2014 and from then on, Thailand’s major TV companies invested into creating BL dramas as a way to tap into young women’s consumer culture."
On its heart-fluttering appeal
Kristine explained that though Boys' Love stories work with the "seme x uke" formula, creators and fans alike add layers of elements, personalities, and meanings upon these characters to create a richer romance. This experimentation with tropes, in turn, has led to content so diverse that fans from all walks of life find something that suits their taste.
Aside from that, the ability of these romances to incite what Filipinos call"kilig", which Thomas defined as "a sense of a quickening of the heartbeat or a zap of excitement", that Kristine equates to the Japanese concept of "moe", which can mean "to sprout" or "to burn", and the Thai "fin", is one important aspect to its growing popularity as well. Watching or reading such works give quite a heart-fluttering experience, making it enjoyable for straight and LGBTQI+ readers alike.
We see these again with Rachel*, who noted the "strong focus on the emotional side of romance, the push-and-pull, [and] the bittersweet moments" as a few of the things she loves about reading BL manga. She said, "I am able to relate to the characters in terms of romance because the concept of love, or the act of falling in and out of love, is universal, I believe." Plus, the unique settings or premises that some of these stories work with also "[give her] a peek into worlds [she] would not have otherwise been able to experience."
A start on representation
Through BL series, we see an increasing visibility of the LGBTQI+ community in Southeast Asia. Thai Physical Therapist Sommanus, who initially just started watching BL dramas for the actors, eventually understood that "love without limits or unconditional" can exist beyond male-female relationships.
There's also medical student Linds, 24, who, as a member of the LGBTQI+ community, appreciates the representation he gets from this genre. Every time he watches a BL series, he looks forward to seeing a character like himself. Seeing how they put it into play and how people will react to them, "I can have an overview of what may happen to my life as well," he explained. "I am a bubbly, loud, and extra funny gay man and I think I deserve a good love story too!" Linds joked. Though his gregarious personality is often relegated to supporting friend roles, he still appreciates seeing someone like him play a part on-screen.
Opening up a dialogue
Of course, like any work of art, Boys' Love isn't perfect. According to Kristine, in the Philippines, questions of authenticity are raised by the gay community, especially since BL works are created by mostly women. The characters can also still be boxed in limiting stereotypes. Thomas pointed out, "The division of characters into seme and uke — which figuratively evoke stereotypes of men and women — is certainly problematic."
Still, Kristine believes that "Boys' Love is important in starting the dialogue of queerness in the region and community." Thomas agrees, saying that it's also important to acknowledge its positive points, like "the fact that Thai BL series have recently begun exploring issues of what it means to live as a gay man in a heteronormative society reflects the real challenges LGBT individuals face in Southeast Asia." Issues of coming out and the feelings of hopelessness same-sex couples face due to the lack of legal and community support of their love are just some that are tackled in this genre. Thomas, who became an avid fan of BL through fanfictions of Japanese video games he played, said that "this played a big role in helping me come to terms with my own homosexuality."
They make us swoon, but Boys' Love ultimately opens up possibilities for a more inclusive community — one that would accept people no matter who they love or choose to be.
*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the interviewees.