Surpassing Japan not long back, Thailand is now ranked first in the production of BLs (Boy Love; in other words, male-male romance shows), with hundreds upon hundreds of shows released each year. However, the importance of this genre goes far beyond a tear-inducing binge – Thai BLs have revolutionized the way we think about both politics and pride alike.
Originating from Manga comics in Japan during the 1970s, Thai BLs have gone a long way generating over 360 million baht (≈10.1 million US dollars) annually.
This rising industry has done wonders for the queer community both through a source of top-tier entertainment and by reversing homophobic sentiments in societies globally.
Yet, criticisms of the industry remain.
BLs in Thailand seem to have a common “formula” – rich, attractive engineering or medical students in college, one guy thinks he likes girls until he meets the boy of his dreams. The plot is rather utopian, often skipping over the questioning phase and homophobic sentiments gay couples face after coming out.
On one hand, it provides viewers with a sense of escape from reality and a glimpse of what it would look like if being gay was considered normal.
On the other hand, critics claim that the genre’s inaccurate representations of homophobia present Thailand as an accepting country when in reality, there are several societal and legal barriers to gay folks such as the nonrecognition of gay marriage, non-binary genders, and blood donation. This serves to undermine LGBTQ activism in Thailand and may be seen as counterproductive.
Yet, defenders of the genre argue that Thai BLs do not paper over homophobia, but rather envision a worldview in which society can overcome negative sentiments. Several producers claim to always end their series with a lesson about acceptance and argue that not every queer person faces rejection or ostracization either.
Another prominent criticism is that Thai BLs are too sutured in heteronormative mindsets. Most star actors are straight and the field originates from cishet women who wrote homoerotic fiction for other women. On top of that, the “formula” also includes one masculine boyfriend and one with slightly less masculine features, often stereotyped as the “wife of the relationship”. The majority of viewers are straight women, which also means producers cater the main characters to this audience, further creating beauty standards for the gay community from a heterosexual lens.
“Yes, it’s about money,” says cultural anthropologist Thomas Baudinette to TIME Magazine, “but that doesn’t necessarily always mean that it’s a bad thing.” Even if producers must cater to cishet women for profits, that does not take away the effect Thai BLs have had on LGBTQ acceptance. Baudinette argues that the entertainment industry is about finding the right balance between a message and consumer interests, or the genre would cease to exist. This is not a problem with the genre but with the industry as a whole.
Additionally, even if the primary audience is straight women, there is still a massive queer community that bonds together over the utopian romance between these queer couples through fandoms.
Regardless of one’s viewpoints on the morals of Thai BLs, what is undeniable is the revolutionary impact that the genre has had on media, politics, and culture writ large. With the massive revenue intake Thailand gains from the industry, Thailand’s pan-national relations could experience a new renaissance in the coming future, similar to the impact of K-Pop on Korea. The industry is only projected to grow larger, and all we can do is sit back and enjoy the show. Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll be providing some recommendations on which shows to watch!