What Are Thai 'BL' Series and Why Are They Suddenly Exploding in Popularity in the Philippines?
Within the last month, the Thai BL (Boys’ Love) series 2gether from broadcaster GMMTV has become a massive hit in the Philippines. Hundreds of thousands of fans across the region and the world, a great many of them Filipino, are glued to YouTube every Friday night, which is when new episodes are uploaded.
In a local market skewed towards straight Korean or K-Drama, this sudden popularity took the older niche Pinoy BL fanbase probably by surprise—though perhaps not by much, considering that the circumstances surrounding the release helped push the show’s visibility more than any prior Thai BL series. People in quarantine continue to look for new material to keep themselves busy at home, while GMMTV has invested more heavily in this show’s marketing than usual.
As a longtime BL fan, I get queries on whether this signals the possibility of more LGBT content in the Philippines. While I think we’ve had good LGBT material in Philippine entertainment in the last few years—we just haven’t been able to always market it well to an existing audience—it’s important to understand what BL is and what it is not in order to gauge the long-term viability of the genre for the local market.
Metawin Opas-iamkajorn (Win) and Vachirawit Chiva-aree (Bright) star in the hit Thai BL series 2gether
What exactly is “BL?”
There’s a reason why BL is called “BL” and not “gay series.”
BL is its own unique genre, formally called yaoi, which originated in Japan. It is homoerotic fiction primarily created by women for women, as opposed to bara (gay fiction by gay men), although it has also attracted a smaller following of LGBT consumers.
In recent years, BL fiction has been more visible across Asia due to Taiwanese and especially Thai studios successfully adapting many BL novels into TV series, including the legendary SOTUS, Dark Blue Kiss, Theory of Love, Accidental Love (a.k.a. Love By Chance), TharnType, and 2gether. They have also incorporated BL subplots into non-BL specific shows such as Slam Dance, Senior Secret Love: Puppy Honey, and My Dear Loser: The Edge of 17.
The genre has been consumed mostly by young women in their teens and early 20s. Thus, marketing has focused on notions (right or wrong) that the audience go for the kilig factor and handsome, straight-acting celebrities.
This is why, despite the representation of male/male relationships, BL follows some standard tropes which, in the context of its primary authors and audience, may not be compatible with actual real-life gay experiences.
SOTUS, which starred Perawat Sangpotirat (Krist) and Prachaya Ruangroj (Singto) was also a massive Thai BL hit
Among the more common tropes in older BL include:
- The boxing of the couple in seme (top) and uke (bottom) roles, stemming from a heteronormative POV of its straight female authors;
- A preference for straight-acting masc4masc characters, with effeminate characters either invisible, comic relief, or villainized;
- Conflict or at least aversion between the two leads who eventually fall in love—one or both of whom have never shown any indication of homosexuality or bisexuality; in several cases one or both would already have a girlfriend or female love interest;
- The lead characters not explicitly identifying as gay or bisexual, even after finally getting into a relationship with each other; in a few examples, the character may even declare they don’t like men and their male partner is the only exception;
- A lack of positive and empowering female characters, which is strange considering the authors and the audience; women are usually portrayed as the token (soon-to-be-ex) girlfriend, villainized, or just props.
An evolving genre
That said, the genre has been evolving, rightfully so now that it has started to gain more LGBT followers in the last few years. If the genre does not adapt and start depicting better LGBT and female character, it will attract further criticism from the LGBT community and will also stagnate.
In recent years, we’ve seen:
- Sun in My Dear Loser, Sun in Dark Blue Kiss, Tharn in TharnType, Korn in Together With Me, and Third and Aun in Theory of Love explicitly identifying as gay;
- Pete and Kao in Dark Blue Kiss openly discussing their sexualities, a topic that often gets swept under the rug in older BLs;
- Three-dimensional empowering effeminate cis-gay leads who are neither comic relief nor negative. Examples are Intouch and his reincarnation Pharm in Until We Meet Again; and Green in 2gether, despite having started as stereotype, is revealed later in the series to be more positive than what he was initially portrayed as;
- More positive representations of women, such as Ainam in My Dear Loser, Sandee in Kiss Me Again / Dark Blue Kiss, Zol in Why R U?, and Yihwa in Together With Me;
- 3 Will Be Free, though not strictly BL, featuring a complex gay character (Shin) that goes into a polyamorous relationship with a woman and a bisexual man; moreover, it features a transwoman (Mae) who is layered and well-delineated;
- Greater visibility of several out gay actors being employed to star in several of these shows.
A growing Filipino fanbase
Given this changing face of the BL industry, the influx of a new and bigger Filipino fanbase is a pretty interesting phenomenon to see on my social media feeds.
Tawan Vihokratana (Tay) and Thitipoom Techaapaikhun (New) starred in Dark Blue Kiss
On one hand, I have always supported and advocated for the genre to reach a bigger audience; long before 2gether, I’ve succeeded in influencing my closest friends to be avid fans as well. Despite the genre’s flaws, there are still very good stories and characters that come out of it. Having new fans in the fold is always a great thing.
On the other hand, newer fans need to have their expectations set in order to better understand the nuances of the genre and to not conflate it with expectations for more accurate LGBT-influenced entertainment.
I’ve always believed the Philippine market has long been ready for more progressive and positive LGBT material. The success of My Husband’s Lover, Destiny Rose, and Die Beautiful / Born Beautiful have proven this. The growing success of BL because of 2gether is another layer to this progression which, if harnessed properly, can be a good way of injecting more positive interest in the LGBT community.
However, local producers and creators tempted to ride the bandwagon and tap this market need to be cautious in their approach; they may risk simply “imitating” Thai BLs.
Aside from the literary context behind the roots of BL, Thai LGBT politics as influenced by their national culture may be different from Filipino LGBT politics influenced by our own culture. Thus, misunderstanding these key elements by merely trying to do, for example, 2gether or SOTUS Filipino-style, can be detrimental to the LGBT community’s representation in local entertainment.
The reality is that we are perfectly capable of producing excellent non-BL LGBT material that can be world-class with the proper push and visibility. If we can tap the growing BL market while understanding the culture and context behind it—at the same time adapting a unique Filipino approach suited to our culture and market, learning not just from other Asian BLs but also from our own rich history of LGBT material—then we can take the entire Filipino LGBT entertainment industry into a positive next level.
Allan Carreon works in the corporate world, but on the side he blogs, travels, and stans Thai BL. A lot. If you want recommendations, you can message him via his Facebook page, through Twitter or Instagram @axelcarlisle, or through his blog at www.allancarreon.com.