There has been an increase in the interest in Boys Love series in recent years. In fact, this COVID 19 pandemic has given rise for opportunities like this, so-called low-key media to emerge as one of the fastest-growing genres with countries like the Philippines making its marks with fandoms exploding worldwide. Especially in Southeast Asia, where it has become the epicenter of a genre that is spreading like wildfire not only where it is being produced but has since gained rabid followers from an international audience.
—Edited by TheFNGee
By including English subtitles in their initial release, these new shows have become viewing staples and have helped the BL genre achieve unprecedented growth. Subtitles used to be created only by fans way after release until producers realized what an untapped audience they were missing. Now, to achieve full viewer impact (and numbers), subtitles are embedded within the episodes as soon as they come out, or at the very least, they appear just a few days after the episodes come out.
But there is still a very big question mark as to what Boys Love as a genre is compared to Queer or Gay shows. To answer this, we must first look into the history of where BL originated.
BL, the shortcut for Boys Love, are forms of media that depict romantic relationships between two boys. This form of entertainment originally started in Japan when young female writers made fan fiction featuring male protagonists of anime, manga, and other well-known pop culture characters and placed them into situations where they are romantically involved with other male characters. In manga comics, these were often graphic and highly sexual in detail. From these fan fictions, aimed mainly at young women, grew into the beginnings of what we generally recognize today as Yaoi.
In the west, where these forms of entertainment spread in the 90s and continue to spread today, Yaoi is still the term that is most recognized. In Japan and other parts of Asia, the term Boys Love or BL became popular and has since been the preferred term used to label anime, manga, games, novels, fan-fiction, and films that depict romantic relationships between men.
So what differentiates BL from Gay shows if the defining characteristic of both is non-platonic relationships between the same gender? Simple. Gay or Queer shows’ main target audience are gay men who take an interest because of the gay content. BL, on the other hand, are still mainly aimed towards the young women who watch these shows for what they believe as safe alternatives to heterosexual pairings; they being girls, make it a little more acceptable for them to be seen fawning over highly good-looking young men pining for each other rather than being seen as being highly sexual individuals when the object of their enthusiasm are boys and females like themselves. That’s basically why in most cases, all the actors in a BL series or even their descriptions in written and drawn media are all of very good-looking young men.
Also, a defining factor that differentiates BL from Queer shows is the fact that in Gay shows, much attention is given to the sexual orientation. In a lot of cases, the story revolves around the sexual orientation of one or more characters. In BL, this is not always the case. While sexual orientation is sometimes used as part of the plot or a way to propel the story forward, that’s just it. It’s not really that big of a deal in terms of story development. It’s just two boys falling in love with each other in a situation that could be straight out of a RomCom.
In fact, most of the highly successful shows or movies that have made BL as well-known as it is today is because these stories feel like regular Romantic Comedies; the only difference is that the romantic pair are both boys and extremely attractive ones at that.
So these are not really gay shows, its just love stories where it just so happens that both individuals are men.
The other thing that describes BL is the roles that define the characters into categories of Seme (top) and Uke (bottom). While both characters are attractive enough to get and keep the attention of the female fans, the Seme is usually described as having more angular features, taller, more muscular, older with darker skin. The Seme will also be the active pursuer in the story arc. The Uke, while still manly in action, is described as delicate, with bigger, expressive eyes and frailer in physical attributes. While some do not conform to the general description of these roles of sexually active top or bottom, there are still defining features that bring the viewers something familiar for them to differentiate one from the other.
In Love By Chance, one of the highly popular BL series that came out in 2018, the Seme, Ae, while darker and having a more athletic personality than the Uke, Pete, Ae was shorter, which is not very common in BL pairings. On the other hand, Pete’s characteristics fall strictly into the uke role comfortably because of his innate need for protection by Ae.
Other examples are not so obvious. In SOTUS and SOTUS S and its single-episode conclusion in the Our Skyy Anthology, the characters of Kongpob, the Seme, and that of Arthit, the Uke are blurred. For those who read the novel or the manga, it’s obvious who fits which role. For the series, this was not that obvious. At the start, Arthit was the dominant one being the head hazer of the faculty, where Kongpob was a freshman. And while Kongpob was opinionated and had a strong character, Arthit was equally firm. It was not until the middle of the initial season that Arthit is portrayed as a softer character. While a line from one of Kongpob’s dialogues was a dead giveaway as to the roles they will both eventually play, calling Arthit his “wife,” the play on the characters is a refreshing take on how the personalities of the BL defining roles could be manipulated and made more interesting.
In other cases, while the roles are “assigned” to the characters at the onset of the show, the audience can begin to believe that the roles are interchangeable between the two. For example, Knock and Korn of Together with Me are both very masculine, and the roles of whether which one is the “bottom” and which one is the “top” does not matter.
With these as examples, it only shows that there are multiple ways to create these characters. What is important, though, is that they are not particularly depicted as gay or queer, but are boys or men who just happen to have fallen for the same gender. One could argue that the BL world is better because of the near absence of “labeling sexuality,” or the need to do so.
Roles in the BL World
We have discussed the main roles of a Boys Love story. But while they are often the ones who get the most attention, they are not the only ones who propel the story forward. In fact, other supporting characters are almost always in the story that aids in the progress and evolution of the story. Who are these characters, and how important are they in the success of the BL genre? I would say they are very important.
In almost all BL shows, there will have to be the fangirl or fanboy character that usually acts as the reason why the characters meet in the first place; or they are the ones who encourage the Seme in active pursuit. Why are they important in the series? It’s because these characters give the audience a sense of being within the story. These characters are frequently the catalysts whose dialogues are the expressions with which the directors or writers want the viewing audience to express internally. They voice the thoughts that the viewers are thinking at the exact moment that the director wants. These characters are those that effectively guide our minds as the audience, often causing us to blurt out “exactly my thought” or “I was just about to say that,” when one of these characters speaks.
Another character is the “ex” or the “current,” usually a girl in a relationship with the Seme at the beginning of the story until he realizes that he has fallen in love with someone else. These “girlfriends” can be any personality but what is defining about them is that they are mostly the clingy types who treat their boyfriends as trophies. Think “Mean Girls,” and you will get the picture.
But the story also does not only revolve within the world that is exclusive to the main couple. Often, a “side” couple is also part of the story. This couple is usually unexpected, but their romantic entanglement starts by the middle of the season and is often funny, interesting, or more dramatic than that of the main couple. For example, in HIStory 3: Trapped, one of the more recent BL series from the HIStory series from Taiwan, the side couple was completely unexpected but had one of the best endings in BL stories. Also, an entire fandom grew from the couple Tin and Can of the original Love By Chance, where the complete opposite personalities of the couples eventually cause them to fall in love. Unfortunately, their story ended Season One with the bitter taste in the mouth of audiences. LBC’s Season 2, titled “Chance to Love,” focuses more on their story, but its reception has decidedly been mixed at best.
So, in summary, a BL series technically has the Seme, Uke, the fanboy/fangirl, best friend, side couple, and a host of other characters that drive the story with twists and surprises. But to an avid BL fan, these twists and surprises still conform to a formula that seems common to all.
Boy Love Formula
While there are innumerable story arcs that can propel a good BL series, there is a skeletal guide that acts as the framework as to how all these stories work – they are called tropes.
· The main characters meet or have met but are hiding feelings from each other; such is the case with the pairings in 2 Moons where it took them years to meet and accept how they feel eventually
· The fangirl/fanboy does something that propels the relationship such as when Mo, a character in Make it Right, suggests to Fuse (a Uke), his heartbroken best friend, to sleep with a boy instead of his two-timer girlfriend; the story starts there
- The main characters are conflicted with their emotions
- They finally accept that they are romantically involved
- One of the characters, either the Seme or the Uke, feels that the other is best suited to be with someone else; this is when the ex or the current usually is introduced
- They realize that they are meant to be together in the first place; this is also when the side couple usually begin their relationship
- Towards the end, we see the development of the relationship. For bigger productions, this can set the tone for a Season 2, where the conflict almost always is a third party or cheating from any one of the main or side characters.
Now, why do these formulas click when they are essentially the same? Simply because it’s what we expect and what we can relate to. It’s also almost always the formula for any girl and boy relationship. They meet – there is a push in the right direction – there is conflict – they begin to fall in love – they question – they realize they are in love – a happy ending.
If you compare the more successful shows to date, these are the time-lines:
- Characters are introduced
- Viewers know from the beginning who the main characters are
- Characters and the themes that affect them are presented
- Something happens that makes the characters see each other in a different light
· Series shifts to a different location where a pivotal change will occur; this is especially true when SOTUS and 2 Moons had the beach trip episodes. After those episodes, the tone of the series took a more romantic approach than it previously had done. This is also true for Theory of Love when Khai goes off to “think” at the beach. When he went back, things started to get more interesting. If you think about it, many of these series have travel scenes or overnight scenes where things changed after that night’s events.
- Issues take a turn for the worse
- One will be in denial
- They make up
But does everything end happily ever after? Well, not always. But that depends on how the creative team wants the audience to feel; and if they want the audience to ask for more.
So How do they Make a BL Story Successful?
As much as the groundwork for a successful story is laid out, it still is not the case that one puts in the names of characters and the situations, and you are guaranteed a great BL work. When Thailand released Love of Siam in 2007, it was marketed as a teen romance but turned out to change the BL landscape all over. With its critical and box-office success, Love of Siam caught the attention of the producers that there was money to be made from BL stories.
Eventually, “Love Sick the Series” was released and attracted fangirls’ attention. However, not only girls were interested, even straight guys called fudanshi got on the bandwagon that soon Yaoi and BL were everywhere. But still, Thailand probably remains the leader in producing the most series, some independently and some released through networks. The majority of these series are also released through streaming media, which have managed to improve viewership significantly. Taiwan and China also are two other countries that produce a lot of BL materials every year. The primary difference is that Taiwan is more liberal in its depiction of same-sex relationships. Simultaneously, Chinese BL is restricted from showing gay content to the point where the shows are somewhat pejoratively referred to as “Bromance” rather than BL because overt romantic love has been neutered from the content because of mainland China’s rigid censorship. This year, Myanmar also released their first BL series along with Indonesia and Vietnam last year.
So, going back to the question as to how do they make a successful BL story? It’s primarily up to the writer and the director’s handling of the characters. Writing and directing with restraint and avoiding tired overly-used tropes seems to be a winning combination. As long as the audience can relate to the story, despite whatever gender they are, the story will almost certainly get noticed. A great soundtrack, color grading so that each scene looks like music videos help propel a BL story into fandom worthy status.
The year 2020 has seen drastic changes in the landscape of the BL as fans know it. With varying degrees of reaction, viewers are now seeing a merging of the traditional, fluffy BL and the angst-ridden Queer media. With the entrance of the Filipino made BLs that are gaining international attention at an extremely rapid rate, the BL genre as we know it has changed, and standards are being revised as you read this.
In fact, on the top 10 listed BL Series of All Time on MyDramalist, one of the foremost online source of information on Asian BL and LGBTQ content, two (2) Pinoy BLs have entered the list that is predominantly Thai and one Korean. Gameboys and Hello Stranger have entered the picture, and they will not be the only ones.
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Super good read and definitely a go-to reference for anyone new to the BL universe. Also a great refresher for those already immersed.
Couldn’t help but reflect on the My Day series during your discussion of labeling sexuality and the absence thereof so far in this series. The intimate role in the relationship doesn’t seem to matter; just two guys wildly in love exploring all the carnal and emotional avenues available to them. And as portrayed by Ace and Sky, so authentic. Just one example of how the genre is evolving.
Strikes me gender-neutral love and affection, as portrayed in most BL series, goes a long way to normalize LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters in the mainstream heteronormative universe. Certainly as much or more as any approach we may otherwise have. Have tuned in a couple of straight friends who left the viewing experience with positive remarks, and a smile and even a tear.
Thanks, really enjoyed your perspective.