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In Asia's Boy Love TV shows, characters live in a world that is unapologetically queer

Anjana Pawa   

In Asia's Boy Love TV shows, characters live in a world that is unapologetically queer

  • Boy Love, abbreviated as BL, is a TV genre popular in many Asian countries — especially Thailand.
  • These shows focus on romantic relationships between boys who seem to exist in a world free of the obstacles many members of the LGBTQ+ community face.

In Thailand's "2Gether: The Series," Tine is a self-described "chic" college student who has a reputation for dating a string of girls, but always breaking up with them. In an attempt to squelch the affections of an unwanted admirer, Tine convinces the popular football-playing Sarawat to fake a date with him. Eventually, their fake dates turn into real ones, and the two boys have to confront how real their pretending has become.

The show is one of many in a genre known as Boy Love, usually abbreviated as BL. These shows focus on a romantic relationship between two boys who seem to exist in a world that's unapologetically queer, free of the everyday obstacles that many members of the LGBTQ community face.

In many Asian countries, BL shows are among the most popular on TV. According to streaming service LINE TV, "2Gether" surpassed 100 million views on their platform by April 2020 becoming one of their most popular shows that year; the first episode of "2Gether" has garnered over 28 million views on YouTube. Thailand has become one of the biggest producers of these shows — over 20 BL shows were produced in the country last year alone.

A usual BL series will consist of 30-minute long episodes that follow the story of two boys in a high school or university setting, much like "2Gether," or South Korea's "Semantic Error." BLs from China or Taiwan have expanded the genre further into fantasy and drama, with shows like "The Untamed," or workplace dramas, like "HIStory 3: Trapped."

The BL genre is essentially a modern-day adaptation of the manga genre yaoi, which originated in Japan and initially focused on stories of relationships between two men. The genre emerged in the 1970s and has since grown to mainstream popularity. While yaoi originally existed as manga, modern day BL genres have expanded to many types of media, including anime, web comics, TV shows, films, and video games.

These shows have brought together millions of fans from around the world, regardless of age, race, or gender identity. On Twitter, hashtags trend weekly as new episodes of shows are released, and subreddits are overflowing with comments about fan-favorite moments. Some even have entire YouTube channels dedicated to BLs.

One of these fans is 29-year-old *Jordan S. from California. "I initially found out about BL through manga," Jordan told Insider, though now, he said, he mainly watches Thai BL shows.

Jordan was always fond of the genre, but wasn't aware of just how large the fandom was until he fully immersed himself. In 2019, he began making BL reaction videos for YouTube. He said he was initially drawn to BL shoes because the gay characters don't have to overcome obstacles in order to live their authentic lives. They are the love stories he hoped to see on screen.

"As a gay man, through [these shows], I've found people that I can talk to that I can actually relate to," Jordan told Insider. "I've made a group of friends online who I can open up to and be comfortable around." He's even been able to meet up with some members of his online community in person.

For many fans, BL shows have created safe spaces across social media.

"I've always been a fandom person, from 'Teen Wolf,' to K-Pop, all the way back to the Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber," 27-year-old Alexa J. told Insider. "As I got older and came into my identity as a bisexual, discovering a genre that exists in a world where no one bats an eyelash at everyone being gay really stuck out to me," she said. Through other online spaces, Alexa found a Discord server for fans of BL — an online forum for fans to gather. This is where she met 32-year-old Pixie O., who was active in some of the same channels.

As they became closer friends, Pixie pitched the idea to Alexa that they should host a podcast, which led to the inception of "Lovecast: A BL Podcast." Despite living in different countries, Pixie and Alexa said they maintained a friendship through the BL fandom and created a community where people can engage with each other and have meaningful discussions.

Unlike Alexa, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community, Pixie identifies as straight and is aware of the common conception that, through BL, straight women may be taking up queer spaces.

"This space is also for me," she told Insider. "It's a place where I feel safe. It's a place where I can learn about myself and learn about the world without the male gaze." Historically, straight women created yaoi as a form of entertainment free of misogyny and traditional gender roles. "That's what drew me to the genre at first," Pixie explained, "but what made me stay is the stories and the community."

Their small community has since grown, and their podcast has added a third host: 26-year-old Kayla who had her own YouTube channel to discuss BL shows. Kayla used her platform to discuss social issues within various BL dramas, such as colorism, homophobia within the industry, bullying, and the romanticization of abuse. "I wanted to discuss these issues from my perspective as a lesbian and a Filipino-American," she explained to Insider. She was a guest on the podcast for two episodes before joining as a host.

In a recent episode of their podcast, Kayla and Alexa addressed some of these issues directly, starting a conversation about colorism within BL shows. "It's hard for me to comment on these issues directly because I'm not Asian," Alexa shared, "but as a light-skinned Black person, it often is hard watching a drama and seeing characters with lighter complexion [than me] being subjected to various stereotypes."

Kayla echos the notion that it's sometimes difficult to consume media that perpetuates these colorist ideals where fair skin is represented as superior. The trio now use their platform to discuss their favorite parts of these shows, while also sparking important conversations around issues that impact their communities. They said the podcast helps them learn and grow from each others' lived experiences.

This article is part of "We/Us/Ours," a series about LGBTQ spaces that encourage queer support and empowerment.

*The sources in this piece spoke with Insider on the condition of confidentiality.