The Commercial Appeal of Thai BL Dramas

Iin downtown Bangkok, a crowd of waiting women screams as rookie actors Jitarahol “Jimmy” Potiwihok and Tawinan “The Sea” Anukolprasert exit a shopping mall. With their blushing humility and matinee idol looks, they effortlessly charm the assembled office workers and students in uniform.

Yet Jitaraphol’s hand on Tawinan’s waist and their fleeting glances elicited the loudest cheers. The intimate gestures mirror their exchange in the new series On the contrary— one of the many quirky romances that are Thailand’s hottest cultural export. Known locally as Y shows and globally as Boys’ Love (BL) dramas, the series are poised to compete with South Korean soap operas for viewing 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 did for India or K-pop for South Korea. Jitaraphol tells TIME that queer dramas in the country “can compete with series from other countries.”

Poowin Bunyavejchewin is a senior researcher at the Institute of East Asian Studies at Thammasat University in Bangkok who did the BL study. He says that if the genre can attract a foreign audience, “it would be a potential source of revenue.”

Read more: How ‘Queer as Folk’ Became a Defining Gay TV Show

However, BL’s success is not a given. Thailand is a socially conservative, predominantly Buddhist country with a significant Muslim minority. The country’s military-backed regime — known for its use of repressive laws to smash on politically progressive forces – is also unlikely to be enthused by the country’s burgeoning reputation as an exporter of lavish gay television.

At stake is not just the growth of an entertainment genre. Thomas Baudinet, a cultural anthropologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, credits BL with “an emancipating, very positively framed, romantic portrayal of male-male love”.

In this sense, failure for BL is failure for LGBT representation.

Jirakit “Mek” Tawornwong and Jiruntanin “Mark” Trairattanayon are the leads of the GMMTV show Boys Love Sky in Your Heart.


The evolution of romantic dramas for boys

BL started in 1970 in Japan when women created homoerotics manga Named yay for other women. some yay became commercially successful and were turned into anime. Until the 1990s, publishing houses produced yay for mass market. With the advent of the Internet, yay crossed borders.

The first Thai BL dramas were created in 2014, but the genre didn’t take off until the COVID-19 pandemic kept many people at home glued to their devices looking for new content to stream. BL’s escapist plots and vaguely androgynous actors were an instant hit with audiences looking to block out the depressing new reality of lockdowns, mask mandates, social distancing measures and quarantines.

University rom-com 2 togetherwhich first aired in 2020, was BL’s breakthrough show, accumulating at least 100 million views of the now defunct Thai streaming platform LINE TV. He found fans in socially conservative nations such as China and Indonesiaand as far as Latin America. The success of 2 together prompted producers in South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam to try their hand at the genre.

Read more: Homophobia is not an Asian value

In June 2021, the investment promotion part of Thailand helped with security 360 million baht ($10.7 million) foreign investment for Thai BL. That may be a modest amount by Hollywood standards, but it represents BL’s new, export-oriented mindset. GMMTV, the production company that makes On the contraryhas already made deals with Japan’s Asahi TV and a Filipino broadcaster ABS-CBN.

“They’ve gone from a company focused on the domestic market to a company that recognizes that their product has a foot in the global market,” says Baudinette.

Pirapat “Earth” Watthanatseri and Sahaphap “Mix” Wongratch star in GMMTV drama Boys Love Cupid’s Last Wish.


Boy love and social conservatism

But outbreaks of “moral hysteria” will threaten BL’s chance to thrive globally, warns Puwin. When the Thai government boasted of its efforts to promote BL to overseas producers, it downplayed same-sex love and instead spoke coyly of BL’s “interesting and unique plots and talented actors.”

At first glance, Thailand is LGBT friendly. It has taken steps to become the first country in the region to legalize same-sex unions, and its tourism sector has welcomed the pink dollar.

There are still supporters of same-sex marriage many obstacles to overcome, However. When a marriage equality activist Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree kissed her boyfriend on the steps of Parliament in December 2019, it sparked a huge homophobic backlash. Social tolerance of the LGBT community “has significant limits” according to 2021 report by Human Rights Watch.

Read more: Tell weird stories instead of focusing on weird characters

While Puwin dismisses as “myths” the idea of ​​Thailand as a devout Buddhist society, there can be no doubt about the country’s deep-rooted social and political conservatism. Broadcasting Laws ban shows that undermine “good morals,” and Thai TV censors are notorious for glossing over everything from alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking to the neckline and even disposable plastic bags. The cuts appear to have been made arbitrarily. Rape culture and violence are a staple of Thai dramas but scenes of two women kissing was deleted from the show before it aired in February 2021.

According to Poowin, being gay goes against the version of national identity espoused by the Thai government, but BL’s potential as a source of income means it is tolerated – for now. “Given the social mores positively defined as part of Thailand, the government is watching [BL] series, ensuring they don’t cross the red line,” he says.

BL manufacturers are also careful not to blow their luck. Critics of BL within the Thai queer community say the genre presents a soft-focus version of what it means to be gay and does not reflect systemic discrimination facing LGBT people in the kingdom.

Read more: Disney’s Public Payback for LGBT Equality

In response, the director of On the contrary, Nuttapong “X” Mongkolsawas, says the show has touched on the topic of marriage inequality and is willing to tackle other LGBT issues “if there’s a way that we feel is appropriate, at the right time and place in the series. ” Other BL series have not shied away from discussing social issues such as corruption, drugs and political protests.

Nuttapong believes the genre has a real chance to change culture by becoming mainstream. Through BL, he says, socially conservative viewers “may discover that there really is more love like this in modern society and that it’s not abnormal and there’s nothing wrong with it and that it’s no longer considered taboo.”

In other words, it is precisely through its commercial appeal that BL can increase LGBT visibility in places previously devoid of queer representation.

“Yes, it’s about money,” Baudinet tells TIME, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing.”

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