What is the “boys love” genre sweeping Asia?

Malvika Padin 26 March 2022

Over the years Asian TV and film have gone from being niche forms of entertainment to hitting the mainstream. But has one of Thailand's most popular genres managed to get big outside Asia?

The origin of BL or Boys’ Love can be traced back to Japan, with very loose roots in Yaoi—Japanese literary media which blends fan-fiction tropes imagining popular manga heroes in homoerotic relationships (doujinshi) and sugary heterosexual romance stories (shoujo).

In Thailand, Yaoi grew as an underground literary genre largely penned under pseudonyms. One of those stories, written under the pseudonym Indrytimes, blew up in popularity, kickstarting the journey of Thai BL from a niche literary genre into a lucrative subgenre of Thai visual entertainment.

Beginnings of Thai BL on TV

In 2013, a boys’ love side couple featured on Thai teen soap opera Hormones and became hugely popular, planting the first seeds of inspiration for what would become a sprawling genre.

One year later, Love Sick, an adaptation of Thai BL novel Love Sick: The Chaotic Lives of Blue Shorts Guys, starring Chonlathorn Kongyingyong and Nawat Phumphothingam as teen boys in love, made history as one of the first Asian shows featuring a gay couple as the main protagonists.

From here, there was no looking back for BL—known locally as “Y series”—as one of the most lucrative genres on Thai TV.

The rise of Thai BL

The success of Love Sick prompted the creation of a longer, second season, urging further development of the genre by adding multiple BL couples to the story, and expanding upon the on-screen LGBTQ+ representation in brought in its first season.

Two years after Love Sick came Make It Right, marking yet another evolution in the genre, with a majority of its characters being same-sex couples. Meanwhile, another series, SOTUS, proved that providing BL with solid financial backing and a cast of experienced actors could pay dividends.

"Two years after Love Sick came Make It Right, marking yet another evolution in the genre, with a majority of its characters being same-sex couples"

However, it wasn’t until 2020 with 2gether the Series starring Vachirawit Chivaaree and Metawin Opas-iamkajorn, that Thai BL truly hit it big with international audiences. This sweet, fake-love-turned-real-love story, filled the pandemic-confined lives of many with much-needed joy. This also marked the moment that Thai BL proved it could find a space in mainstream entertainment outside Asia.

Beloved tropes of Thai BL

Fans of BL point to the appeal of its uncomplicated, fluff-filled world of escapism.

This notion of escapism is furthered by the BL trope of showing that anyone can fall in love with anyone, regardless of gender, offering an idealised version of our real world. The crux of Thai BL plots is often the same—coming of age stories of young love, focusing on men in their twenties who are easy on the eyes, and whose relationships are easy on viewers’ hearts.

Despite a tendency to lean towards light-hearted, rom-com plots, Thai BL has also shown its ability to deal with genuine fears of the LGBTQ+ community, including parental approval. One series which deals with the anxieties of “coming out” is Dark Blue Kiss, starring Tawan Vihokratana and Thitipoom Techaapaikhun. With heavy doses of the sugar-sweet love that audiences came for, this 2019 drama also allowed the more negative realities of some LGBTQ+ experiences to permeate the storyline.

Showing signs of versatility

While a university backdrop remains the go-to setting for Thai BL, the genre is evolving as its audiences grow to include more than the young, female fanbase it originally consisted of.

Released in 2020, Manner of Death starring Nattapol Diloknawarit and Pakorn Thanasrivanitchai was one of the first Thai BLs to pull viewers out of the cocoon of the university romance into the real world, showing adult men in love and allowing their queerness to be the foundation for a thrilling investigative plot.

"Despite a tendency to lean towards light-hearted, rom-com plots, Thai BL has also shown its ability to deal with genuine fears of the LGBTQ+ community, including parental approval"

Most recently, Not Me, starring Jumpol Adulkittiporn and Atthaphan Phunsawat (2021), broke down conventional expectations for a Thai BL by framing the lead couple’s romance around much larger, socio-political issues with real-life relevance to Thai audiences.

The series, directed by Anucha Boonyawatana, not only shines a light on power imbalance, privilege and oppression in Thai society—all framed around a sweetly, vulnerable love story between the lead pair—but reveals the incredible potential that Thai BL holds beyond being swept-off-the-feet queer romances.

Not all positive, but worth celebrating

Despite shows like Not Me establishing the true power that Thai BL holds in being representative of LGBTQ+ and much more, the genre is far from perfect.

With deep-rooted issues in consent, severely underexplored female characters and a lack of representation for others in the LGBTQ+ spectrum, Thai BL can sometimes leave a bad taste in the mouths of international audiences. In part due to cultural differences and at other times simply as a byproduct of bad writing choices.

However, despite its drawbacks, the genre is worth celebrating for being a snapshot of the Asian LGBTQ+ community, allowing those in Asia to see themselves represented on-screen and for those elsewhere in the world to have a glimpse of the experiences they know nothing about.

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