The Commercial Appeal of Thailand’s BL Dramas
Itn downtown Bangkok, a crowd of waiting women squeals as rookie actors Jitaraphol “Jimmy” Potiwihok and Tawinan “Sea” Anukoolprasert step out of a shopping mall. Their blushing modesty and matinee idol appearances charm all those who see them, including students and workers in uniform.
Yet it is Jitaraphol’s hand on the small of Tawinan’s back, and their fleeting glances, that elicit the loudest cheers. In the series’ new episode, their intimate exchanges are echoed in their small gestures. Vice Versa—one of many queer romances that are Thailand’s hottest cultural export. Known locally as Y shows, and globally as Boys’ Love (BL) dramas, the serials are poised to compete with South Korean telenovelas for viewership in Asia and beyond.
Some see BL as Thailand’s soft power, doing for the Southeast Asian nation’s global image what the yoga boom has done for India or K-pop for South Korea. Jitaraphol tells TIME that the country’s queer dramas “can compete with series from other countries.”
Poowin Bunyavejchewin, a senior researcher at Thammasat University’s Institute of East Asian Studies in Bangkok has done a study of BL. He says that if the genre was able to hook foreign audiences “it would be a high potential revenue generator.”
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BL’s success isn’t a given, however. Thailand is conservative country that is primarily Buddhist, and has significant Muslim minorities. The country’s military-backed regime—known for its use of repressive laws to crack down on politically progressive forces—is also unlikely to be enthusiastic about the country’s burgeoning reputation as an exporter of luscious gay TV.
It isn’t just the growth of an entertainment genre at stake. Thomas Baudinette, a cultural anthropologist at Sydney’s Macquarie University, credits BL with an “emancipatory, very positively framed, romantic depiction of male-male love.”
A setback in BL can be seen as a setback in LGBT representation.
Jirakit “Mek” Tawornwong and Jiruntanin “Mark” Trairattanayon are the leads in the GMMTV Boys Love show Sky in Your Heart.
The development of Boys’ Love dramas
BL was born in Japan during the 1970s, when homoerotic women were creating it. mangaSo called yaoiOther women. Some yaoi became commercially successful and were turned into animé. Publishing houses started producing anime in the 1990s. yaoi For mass markets. The internet has made it easier to access information. yaoiCrossing borders
The first Thai BL dramas were made in 2014, but the genre didn’t start to take off until the COVID-19 pandemic kept many people at home, glued to their devices, browsing for new content to stream. BL’s escapist storylines and vaguely androgynous actors were an instant hit with audiences seeking to block out a depressing new reality of lockdowns, mask mandates, social distancing measures, and quarantine.
Romance-com for university 2gether, which first aired in 2020, was BL’s breakout show, amassing at least 100 million views on the now-defunct Thai streaming platform LINE TV. It was popular in conservative countries like China and Indonesia as well as Latin America. It was a huge success. 2getherProducers in South Korea and the Philippines were inspired to attempt the genre.
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In June 2021, Thailand’s investment promotion arm helped secure 360 million baht ($10.7 million) in foreign investment for Thai BL. That may be a modest sum by the standards of Hollywood, but it represents BL’s new, export-oriented mindset. GMMTV Production Company, which makes Vice Versa, has already made deals with Japan’s TV Asahi and Philippine broadcaster ABS-CBN.
“They have shifted from being a domestically focused company to one that recognises that their product has legs in a global market,” Baudinette says.
Pirapat “Earth” Watthanatseri and Sahaphap “Mix” Wongratch star in the GMMTV Boys Love drama Cupid’s Last Wish.
Boys’ Love and social conservatism
But outbreaks of “moral hysteria” will jeopardize BL’s chance to flourish globally, warns Poowin. When the Thai government boasted of its efforts to tout BL to overseas producers, it played down same-sex love and instead spoke coyly of BL’s “interesting and unique plots and talented actors.”
Thailand appears to be LGBT-friendly. The country has been able to take steps to legallyize the same-sex unions in its region and is well known for its hospitality sector that welcomes the pink dollars.
There are still many challenges for advocates of same-sex marital relationships. Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, a marriage equality activist, kissed his partner on the steps to parliament in December 2019. This sparked an enormous homophobic backlash. Social tolerance of the LGBT community “has significant limits” according to a 2021 report from Human Rights Watch.
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While Poowin dismisses as “myths” the notion of Thailand as a pious Buddhist society, there can be no doubt about the country’s deep-rooted social and political conservatism. Broadcast laws forbid shows that undermine “good morals,” and Thai TV censors are notorious for blurring out anything from alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking to cleavages and even single-use plastic bags. The cuts appear to have been made arbitrarily. Rape culture and violence are a staple in Thai dramas—but scenes of two women kissing were deleted from a show before it aired in February 2021.
According to Poowin, being gay runs against the version of national identity upheld by the Thai government but BL’s potential as a revenue earner means that it is being tolerated—for now. “Given the social mores positively identified as part of Thainess, the government has monitored [BL] series, ensuring that they do not cross the red line,” he says.
Producers of BL are careful to not push their luck. The Thai gay community criticizes BL as it presents a light-hearted version of homosexuality and does not reflect the discrimination that LGBT Thai people face.
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As a result, the Director of Vice Versa, Nuttapong “X” Mongkolsawas, says the show has touched on the topic of marriage inequality and is prepared to deal with other LGBT issues “if there is a way that we feel is appropriate, at the right time and right place in the series.” Other BL series have not shied away from discussing social issues like corruption, drugs, and political protest.
Nuttapong thinks that BL has the potential to change culture and become mainstream. Through BL, he says, socially conservative viewers “might discover that there really is more love like this in modern society, and that it is not abnormal, and nothing is wrong about it, and that it is not considered taboo anymore.”
In other words: BL’s commercial appeal is what can make LGBT representation more visible in areas that were previously underrepresented.
“Yes, it’s about money,” Baudinette tells TIME, “but that doesn’t necessarily always mean that it’s a bad thing.”
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