Let me start off by stating that I understand that BL a.k.a Boy Love movies and shows can be a guilty pleasure for a lot of viewers. It starts and encourages conversations about the cis-gendered gay community specifically, however, it does not come without its faults. Those cannot be ignored and nor should we brush them under the carpet. Criticism and opinions are a critical part of the art world and it makes it such a popular medium of expression because different people perceive the same thing in their own unique way.
History of BL
What is BL? Boy Love concept shows usually revolve around two cis-gendered males who fall in love and have a romantic and sometimes comedic storyline. While the tv shows tend to be more light-hearted, the movies tend to take on a heavier approach – dealing with social stigma and the struggles men may face being gay.
It first emerged in the 1960s in Japan, where homoerotic manga and novels took precedence with a large female readership. It soon saw a shift with female authors taking over in the late 60s, post-world war II, and it was commercialized in the 90s. Due to the lack of social standing women had in society in the latter half of the 20th century, depicting male-centered characters instead of female-centered characters in an erotic way gave these artists and writers more freedom of expression. These writers often wrote stories they themselves wished they could read and oftentimes were not much older than the audience themselves. These comics came to be known as yaoi which was erotic and shonen-ai which focused more on the emotional connection between the characters. Shonen-ai are adolescent boy’s stories, presented in mangas catered for girls where the characters would have strong bonds and erotic encounters.
Once commercialized, this genre spread its readership overseas into other East Asian nations with increased demand for translated works. Animes, television dramas, and video games were created with the BL genre at its center. Currently, Thailand takes the crown for the most number of BL tv shows and since 2016, has a growing international audience. Taiwan and China aren’t far behind, with South Korea recently joining the craze.
What’s the problem with BLs?
Problem #1: BLs can give a very problematic view of the queer community as a whole and of gay men specifically. The genre is mainly aimed at a young straight female audience and the storylines cater to them. Additionally, conventionally attractive and often straight men portray these characters which tend to draw a lot of criticism. Oftentimes, unknown or new actors are cast in these shows. If the show does well, it brings them brand deals and a company they can sign onto for more commercial projects. It makes them popular on social media, with zero to no contribution to the gay community that they clearly have profited off of. My theory as to why specifically straight men are hired to play these roles is because even today, straight men are considered to be more attractive and ‘masculine’ as compared to gay men.
Problem #2: In quite a few shows, there is absolutely no concept of consent. So many stories start off with assault and coercion which results in the character ‘becoming’ gay and accepting that this is okay. The character exerting force is portrayed to be so in love and unwilling to give up, that they can barely control themselves, as though that justifies any action. Romantic and comical music is played in the background, ensuring the audience that this is all in good jest. Of course, this is a common trope in romantic tv shows in general, however, I believe an uproar would take place if we normalized assault in a show with straight people in 2022. Assault can never be funny or deemed okay. It’s not sexy, it’s not cute, and certainly never justified. It cannot be excused just because it is a show ‘representing’ the gay community – no representation is better than bad representation.
I would like to add, that I am not going to detail out how bad the acting and writing in BL dramas is, because that isn’t specific to this genre, it is unanimous with movies and shows across the world. We see the same stories and character tropes played out over and over again. The difference with this genre is that the story is almost completely fanservice. The story rarely adds up or makes sense, solutions, and resolutions arrive suddenly and almost abruptly.
Quite often in the story’s universe, the show is set in, almost everyone is supportive of the two leads. Additionally, there are rarely any female characters which take us to Problem #3. If they are any female characters, they are reduced to cliches as being annoying women or seductresses who are trying to tempt a gay man.
My biggest PROBLEM (#4) with BLs: It caters to a straight audience made by straight people starring straight people who profit majorly from this. It doesn’t create awareness the way the LGBT community majorly needs and deserves.
Problem #5: Most of the characters are macho, muscular, and attractive, who just happen to like other macho, muscular men. Since these are written by straight cis women it caters to their stereotypical fantasy. Fem presenting men are usually used as side characters or are there for jokes and jests which completely defeats the purpose of a BL. They are made to come across as gossipy, ugly, trying to tempt the lead character, they want ‘manly-men’ or they serve no purpose. There is zero acceptance of bisexuality or it is done poorly. Of course, without a doubt, masculine gay men exist and it’s great it breaks barriers and prejudices that you cannot tell who is gay or not by just looking at them, although it shouldn’t come at the cost of exploiting people who fit within society’s stereotype.
What do gay men think about BLs?
While I do not have a statistic on how many people from the LGBTQ+ community watch this, the ground-level situation and reality in which these shows are made are quite different. While Taiwan has the most liberal laws benefitting the community, South Korea doesn’t have any anti-discrimination laws in place as yet. Therefore, these fairytale stories that are told, might not be relatable to a lot of these men. However, the entertainment industry is here to provide relief from our reality, so I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing having these cute-cheesy stories exist.
Why do I still watch it?
I am a queer person. Some days, I just wanna watch some queer stories, and I’ll take anything that I can get. In times like these, I’ll hit the spacebar to the first drama that I come across and watch it until I lose interest in the storyline or complete the entire series. Don’t get me wrong, there are a number of really incredible shows out there, Thailand’s I Told Sunset About You, which is my all-time favorite, South Korea’s The Tasty Florida which is cute and cringy in parts but makes for a rather light-hearted watch and Semantic Error which is adorable and hearfelt. Movies like Japan’s His being incredibly groundbreaking for me on a personal level and lastly, Taiwan’s Your Name Engraved Herein which made me feel seen and understood.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that this genre has a very interesting and exciting history. Something that started as a sexual liberation movement for women to see relationships which they would otherwise want and like to have or see in a man they want to be with to a genre that has a fan base across the world. The BL genre is a phenomenon, which is here to stay and probably will grow drastically in the years to come. They have a long way to go in terms of representation, and these stories are often more embraced on screen than in person, which is disheartening but it could bring about some form of change if told properly and people from the community are given more space.