Thai BL Dramas: A Messy History
Writer: Jelly Tongpaitoon
Editor: Hafiza Binti Abdul Samath
Graphic Designer: Benedicta Shafira
Illustrator: Benedicta Shafira
TW // Homophobia, Sexual assault
BL or “Boys’ Love” dramas is a term predominantly used for East and Southeast Asian men loving men (MLM) TV shows and films. The genre first appeared around the 1980s in the form of Japanese yaoi. The terminology was created by female manga artists Yasuka Sakata and Akiko Hatsu.
On the surface, the increasingly popular LGBT+ representation in media from non-western-centric countries might sound like a major step forward. The genre allows gay relationships to be the main plot rather than just include a “gay best friend” side character. Similarly to what Noppanat Chaiwimol who is a director and producer, stated to TimeOut:
“Back then, it was controversial for a major entertainment company to pair up two guys”
However, given the context and the history behind BL dramas, it may be more of a step backward than expected.
The main contributors to this genre are countries such as Taiwan, Japan, China, South Korea, and Thailand; which is admittedly an interesting note since same-sex marriage is only legal in one of the five countries mentioned. This could be seen more prevalently in Thailand, which is a country often praised for its LGBT inclusion although the action to be “progressive” is deemed little to none. Other than decriminalising same-sex relations in 1956, the country has only passed its Gender Equality Act in 2015 and had considered homosexuality to be a mental illness up until 2002.
A clear example of Thailand’s hypocritical approach to LGBT topics is its stance on transgender rights. Despite having a prominent transgender community and flourishing trans-positive activities, such as transgender beauty pageants and the legalisation of gender reassignment surgery, there is still a rather strong stigma that follows transgender topics.
Many trans people are very rarely taken seriously, often represented in the media as the “butt of the joke “ and considered to be less professional; as a number of companies would rather hire a cisgender person with the same skill set purely based on their gender.
Furthermore, Thai trans people are not legally allowed to change their gender on government documents such as ID cards and passports. A hauntingly similar - if not a repetition of this situation is currently displayed in full view regarding Thai BL dramas.
Thailand is currently considered one of the main attributes of BL dramas, producing famous shows and films such as “2gether”, “Love By Chance”, TharnType”, shows and films that garner a female-dominated fanbase. This isn’t that surprising once you consider the fact that its source material - yaoi and bl manga - are mostly written by straight women for straight women.
The main characters are often written to suit the “ideal man” written for women and played by conventionally attractive straight actors. Many gay men have since stated that BL dramas are a misrepresentation of the community. In the case of some BL dramas, the characters don’t even mention that they are gay.
The fetishisation of MLM relationships includes harmful and inaccurate portrayals of gay men, which mirror the traditional gender roles in a heteronormative relationship. This then results in the characters not seeing each other as equals, because there would always be an “uke” (more effeminate and submissive character) and a “seme” (more dominant and traditionally masculine character).
However, the messiest and sadly, one of the most common recurring themes in BL dramas are the romanticization of sexual assault. In the 2020 Thai BL drama “2gether”, non-consensual acts such as forced kissing, drugging someone’s drink, and taking photos of unconscious half-naked people are excused under the pretext of it being a “cute” moment. Other examples from “Love By Chance” (2018) and “Tharntype the series” (2019) include rape, touching unconscious people without their consent, manipulation, and gaslighting. The fetishisation of such activities reinforces toxic ideals for a relationship while adding fuel to the harmful stereotypes that have plagued the LGBT+ community for decades.
Not only is it sad that Asia’s most popular form of LGBT+ representation in media is BL dramas. But the fact that liking said “LGBT+” media comes with the fact that it is rooted in homophobia, fetishisation, and a mass audience of straight people. Thailand boasts itself for being the “most LGBT+ friendly Asian country”, Thailand is however incredibly hesitant to do the bare minimum such as legalizing same-sex marriage.