TV + Movies

The Rise Of Korean BL

Korea has for the longest time flirted with the possibility of BL. K-Pop in itself is no stranger to capitalising on the idea of beautiful men, often seeming to incentivise members of groups to show skinship (physical displays of affection).

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Korea’s new interest in BL (Boys Love) as a genre is how long it has taken for it to happen.

In the past two decades, Korea has risen from its relegated position of being almost an after-thought in comparison to Japan and China to a media power house all on its own. This is largely due to K-Pop and K-Dramas that have filled a gap in media that Western media has been unable to meet. Chasing this high, Korea has been unrelenting in its push of Korean media, which is why its seeming reluctance to approach BL has been remarkable. 

Korea has been and remains a largely conservative society which could explain that reluctance, if you didn’t take into account that BL originates from Japan which perhaps rivals Korea in its conservatism. BL’s origins stem from the manga genre “yaoi” which has long been a subject of debate.

Over time this genre has spread all across Asia finding its home in China, Thailand, Taiwan, The Philippines and many others. Thailand in particular is notable for churning out an outlandish number of BLs each year, with each new year surpassing the pervious in acclaim and sometimes notoriety.

Korea has for the longest time flirted with the possibility of BL. K-Pop in itself is no stranger to capitalising on the idea of beautiful men, often seeming to incentivise members of groups to show skinship (physical displays of affection). Though skinship is a fairly common aspect of many Asian cultures, the behaviour is often encouraged by companies and entertainment channels. This is perhaps in response to the contractual obligation that most K-pop idols undergo prohibiting them from having relationships with anyone, lest they shatter their image of being “available”. This opens the space for more homoerotic and homosocial behaviour as close relations between the male members are viewed as non-threatening, which allows fans to continue their fantasies while riding the thrill of romantic theatre directed towards an audience.

In recent years, there has been a large shift in Korean media towards being more “liberal” especially with an exponentially increasing global audience. Idols are more open to supporting LGBT issues publicly and there have been a few people in Korean media coming out, though they are often met with limited success. The added eyes of the world have created an opening for BL shows to exist, with international audiences able to support shows that might be seen negatively domestically.

In the past, Korea has forayed into BL with short films like “Suddenly Last Summer” and “Night Flight”, however these attempts have been few and far between. It’s because of the success of recent shows line “Light on Me” and “Semantic Error” that there has been a big budget push for a BL show. Particularly “Semantic Error”, which is based on a Manwha of the same name has caught global audiences by storm. It is number 3 on its Korean streaming platform Watcha, receiving unprecedented interest both globally and domestically. This has led to a number of new Korean BLs being greenlit with all indications of an upward trajectory in the coming years.

BL has not progressed in a linear manner. It has expanded in all sides adapting itself to each culture that it finds itself in. Its nascence in Japan brought with it a myriad of tropes (heteronormative gender roles, lonely rich character/poor hardworking character, drawn out misunderstandings etc.) that have, in the hands of other cultures, been used, adapted, reverse-engineered and criticised. Due to this, BL has become a hybrid of many genres.  In many ways the success of Thai BL dramas has been its ability to take what was successful in K-Dramas and use them for BL. This meant glossy production, gorgeous actors and trope heavy romances, completing the fairy tale experience with a twist i.e homosexuality.

One of the reasons why Korea might have lagged so far behind in the making of BLs is probably the same reason why Japan itself was slow on pushing Yaoi/BL in the mainstream. As a genre of manga, BL could for the most part be ignored. The fans themselves named themselves “fujoshis”, a term which translates to “rotten girls”. Very much like the origin of the word implies, fujoshis  were supposed to be looked down upon. They were girls acting out and experiencing sexuality in a warped way. This is the lens under which most female fan engagement is seen under. The action of being so wholly devoted to anything is seen as feminizing and as such hysterical or perverse, doubly so in the case of BL.

Even in Thailand, where there can be no doubt about the popularity of BL or “series Y” as they are called locally, the genre is still limited in its scope. The biggest series Y shows do not compete on equal terms with heterosexual romances of similar production value in the domestic market. Having said that, the number of heterosexual romances that have become globally popular can be counted on one hand. The market simply isn’t looking to Thailand for its straight dramas, which they can get from Korea, which arguably has a better production system at work. Until now the product that set Thailand apart was BL.

In spite of its seeming reluctance, it was only a matter of time before Korea began to produce BL. Its media boom (Hallyu Wave) shows no signs of stopping and is constantly looking for new avenues to expand into. Korea’s position in the current media landscape makes it uniquely poised to take up the genre and their fledgling attempts into it have been met with great success. 

It cannot be denied that Korea’s involvement has resulted in a shift in the market for BL. When the genre first started being seen on screen there was maybe one show a year that could be classified as BL, take it or leave it. There are now more fans of the genre than ever before and as the audience has increased, so has the number of shows. Korea is simply meeting a very clear demand and being rewarded for it.

If we were to follow the rhetoric of money/views equals power, then this could be seen as the blatant success of queer media via capital. However, the impact of BL has always been hard to measure due to its generally sanitised presentation, being generally divorced from the realities of queer life. This is slowly changing and the growing demand has, by necessity, made the genre more nuanced and aware. It remains to be seen how these factors will be reflected as the genre progresses in Korea and other countries. 

3 thoughts on “The Rise Of Korean BL

  1. Don’t think yall should ignore the webtoon aspects or manhwa. Webtoons are populor both in Korea and America and that goes for bl manhwa too. Also the fan aspect for mainstream works like omniscient reader where the shipping of male leads is front and center.

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