by Oshi Agarwal
Thailand has been able to find its source of soft power through the production of shows that are all about “boys love”. In a country where queer communities are still discriminated against, these series have been able to garner massive popularity worldwide. This article aims to break down this explosion of the genre that is created solely around a certain performance of sexuality.
If you are a Netflix user, you have probably already come across the “Popular LGBTQ shows” section. It is hard to let it go unnoticed. There has been a steady rise in TV shows and films centred around queer characters that have gone viral and have social media users talking about them for months. When Heartstopper first came out earlier this year, it had everyone in a chokehold regardless of whether they had watched the show or not. But this was just one show about a queer relationship between men that caused such a sensation worldwide. Imagine if there were more than 30 shows like this released every year! Well, you won’t need to imagine as Thailand has been doing that for the past couple of years already, creating the beloved genre of Thai BLs.
BL is not a new genre per se, nor has it originated in Thailand. BL or Boys Love goes back as far as the 1970s in Japan when women wrote mangas (comics) exclusively for women that paired up two men in a romantic and sexual relationship. This genre, previously known as Yaoi, became what is today known as BL and has been able to branch out beyond Japan to other East and Southeast Asian countries, especially Thailand. The country has been releasing tons of these shows which are almost becoming part of their identity. This year alone, so far they have released more than 35 BLs. Their easy accessibility is one of the many reasons for their popularity as most of them are on YouTube for anyone to watch with tons of subtitles. 2gether The Series, released in 2020 on the GMMTV YouTube channel, has episodes with more than 10 million views each.
Journey to Becoming a National Identity
So, what are these Thai BLs all about? Many of them are actually known for their simple plot lines and characters played by conventionally attractive young actors. The shows are more often than not about university students, all of them in their identical uniforms of white dress shirts and black slacks. The story usually revolves around the light-hearted teenage drama of friend groups with added elements like family conflict in Bad Buddy, incarnation and traumatising past lives in Until We Meet Again and the arranged marriage trope in Cutie Pie. A key feature of Thai BLs is the elements of culture, lifestyle and ideologies that blend in with the romance genre. It could be as overt as the blatant ads the characters do of products in the middle of dialogue or as subtle as the food habits of Thai people. I Told Sunset About You tells the audience a lot about the connection between Thai and Chinese cultures while Until We Meet Again does a deep dive into traditional Thai cuisine. As a result, these shows have become important communicators of culture to a large audience that is largely international. Many fans have come forward to show interest in learning the Thai language and travelling to Thailand. And so, last year, Thai BL officially came to be recognised as one of Thailand’s major exports when the Department of International Trade Promotion invited other Asian nations to purchase streaming rights for these shows and collected 360 million baht (around 11.3 million USD in 2021). Given that Thailand has been suffering from a tourism slump ever since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, it only makes sense why the industry and the government have taken desperate measures to flourish their economy. This year in June, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), started their tourism campaign in Japan that used shooting locations of BLs as an attraction.
Interestingly, these Thai BLs differ from other queer media in their utopic depiction of homosexuality. Since the focus of these shows is on the romance between two men, they hardly deal with issues of external or internalised homophobia, especially in the space of university and home. This has come to portray Thailand as a queer-friendly nation and has played a central role in Thai soft power. But Thailand is not the queer paradise that it is portrayed as or known for. While sodomy was decriminalised in the country in 1956, that is where any progress vis – a – vis human, civil or legal rights, ends for the queer community. Same-sex couples are not recognised by the state and therefore, do not get legal rights like marriage and adoption. Over the last few years, there have been significant amendments to the anti-discrimination law which now includes sexual orientation and gender for employment and housing. The country is also working towards legalising same-sex marriage which will make Thailand the second Asian and the first Southeast Asian country to do so. But even with the policy changes so far, a change in social attitude is still at a great distance as prejudice against the queer community is deeply ingrained in their conventions. But Thailand is still being sold as a queer-friendly destination to tourists while its own citizens suffer discrimination on so many levels. So then, is all the support the Thai BL industry is getting just to attract an influx of pink money and rainbow tourism?
The Thai BL industry and Complications of Representation
Ironically, the BL industry is known to have had homophobic actors involved who use these shows to jump-start their acting careers. Most, if not all, of these actors, are cis-gendered heterosexuals, at least in terms of public expression. It is difficult for actors to make it in the industry as queer individuals so it is only fair that hardly any of them are openly queer. Although many have advocated for the human rights and social acceptance of queer people, some have revealed how they were not comfortable playing the role of a homosexual man. The entertainment industry has been greatly affected by the popularity of Thai BLs to the point that being part of these shows seems like the obvious “smart” choice. The huge fan-following of these actors is also not limited to the shows too. The actors usually get ad campaigns and brand ambassadorships together as well and during promotional campaigns, they are made to provide “fanservice”. Fans expect them to act like lovers in their real lives, especially on social media, which has made their queer portrayals even more like performances.
Thai BLs are also notorious for their stereotypical representation of queer men. The lead males always have a masculine gender expression while their dynamic together is often similar to the heteronormative idea of a romantic relationship. One of the characters is usually hypermasculine and his love interest would have a slightly softer masculinity. The superficial treatment of their sexuality limits the characters’ experiences with it as well and makes their “queerness” more one-dimensional. To put it simply, sexuality in Thai BLs is dealt with a lot like in Mills and Boon’s books. This is not to criticise every Thai BL in existence but it is more of a general idea about them. Some of them have depicted homosexuality in a more nuanced way than just putting it like “I’m not gay but I’m attracted to you exclusively.” I Told Sunset About You does a great job of showing adolescent desire and how complicated coming to terms with identity is as an 18-year-old. Unfortunately, the overproductive factory of Thai BLs makes it a hit-and-miss affair to score good writing and execution. But the lack of diversity in queer personalities is a serious problem that BL viewers have been vocal about for the past few years. Besides gender and sexuality, another facet that they are yet to cover well is the differences in class and rural identities as Thai BLs have predominantly urban-elite characters.
Thai BL, as mentioned before, is known to be typically consumed by female viewers, mostly middle-aged and cishet. While this is partially true, many queer viewers are also part of the fanbase. A study done on the experiences of Filipino Thai BL fans revealed that most of these fans were aware of the misrepresentation and talked about how the shows can be quite unrealistic in showing the experiences of queer lives. The Philippines is yet to reach a safer environment for queer individuals to live in. So, these viewers can’t imagine being openly expressive about their gender and sexuality, as portrayed in most Thai BLs. But they still enjoy watching these shows (and sometimes even exclusively watch BLs) as they are an appropriate replacement for media that they can’t imagine themselves in. Even with heavy misrepresentation, they would prefer to watch these shows as a way to “escape reality” and be able to imagine a world where being queer, at least, isn’t the biggest problem.
Thai BLs, therefore, persist in an ambiguous zone where they are harmless but can’t be viewed without a critical lens. They have developed into a game changer for Thailand’s economy by disseminating Thai culture and lifestyle. It goes without saying that their popularity is impressive. But whether the country will be able to maintain the quality and demand of these “exports” with the way it is mass-producing them can only be known over time.
Author’s bio: Oshi is in her 3rd year at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, majoring in Literary Studies. Her interests include film and visual media studies, queer studies and learning languages.