In downtown Bangkok, a crowd of waiting women squeals as rookie actors Jitaraphol “Jimmy” Potiwihok and Tawinan “Sea” Anukoolprasert step out of a shopping mall. With their blushing humility and matinee idol looks, they effortlessly charm the assembled office workers and students in uniform.
Yet it is Jitaraphol’s hand on the small of Tawinan’s back, and their fleeting glances, that elicit the loudest cheers. The intimate gestures echo their exchanges in the new series 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 is a senior researcher at the Institute of East Asian Studies at Thammasat University in Bangkok, who has made a study of BL. He says that if the genre was able to hook foreign audiences “it would be a high potential revenue generator.”
BL’s success isn’t a given, however. Thailand is a socially conservative, primarily Buddhist country with a significant Muslim minority. 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.”
In that sense, a setback for BL is a setback for LGBT representation.
The development of Boys’ Love dramas
BL has its beginnings in 1970s Japan, when women created homoerotic manga called yaoi for other women. Some yaoi became commercially successful and were turned into animé. By the 1990s, publishing houses were producing yaoi for a mass market. With the advent of the internet, yaoi crossed 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.
University rom-com 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 found fans in socially conservative nations, like China and Indonesia, and as far afield as Latin America. The success of 2gether prompted producers in South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam to try their hand at 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, the production company that 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.
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.”
On the face of it, 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 famously welcomes the pink dollar.
Advocates of same-sex marriage still have many hurdles to overcome, however. When marriage equality activist Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree kissed his 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 a 2021 report from Human Rights Watch.
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. Cuts appear to be 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.
BL producers are also careful not to push 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 fails to reflect the systemic discrimination faced by LGBT people in the kingdom.
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In response, 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 believes that the genre has a real shot at changing the culture by going 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, it is precisely through its commercial appeal that BL can increase LGBT visibility in places previously deprived of queer representation.
“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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