The Multicultural Face of Boys Love

It’s been a while since I was a part of a BL party. When I hosted the 801MMF, BL felt brand new. The online community was still shifting from using to yaoi to BL. Yaoi hands were still a thing. And I was eager to talk about diversity in boys love at a time when it was being challenged as a queer text.

Back then, I hoped that people could embrace this media and how this was an empowering space for creative sexual expression among women. Years later, some people still refuse to see the beauty in these works.

Cultivators Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji from The Untamed

What I find most interesting is that BL creators and fans did not give a frak. Instead, rotten girls in the region rose to the occasion and created more rotten stories about boys falling in love. Seven years after I did the 801MMF, BL has a different face. BL is no longer isolated in Japan. We no longer imagine BL scenes through Japanese high schools or in high-rise offices. We now see boys love through engineering students in Bangkok, cultivators in ancient mythical China, and altar boys in Manila. There are now different faces to boys who find love in our imaginations.

WHAT MAKES A BOYS LOVE TITLE?

Given the increasing diversity of boys love, it might be important to understand what are the qualities that define boys love. Scholars in Japan would say that BL must follow the ōdō, which translates to the “noble path” of BL but I’d sooner translate it as the “central equation” to boys love because it involves the formula “seme x uke

For a story to be considered as BL, it must have these two character types where the seme “gives” affection to the “uke” who receives his love. This formula highlights the importance of romantic relationships in BL. BL is devoted to the exploration of this dynamic, whether as a couple, threesome, or an orgy. Whether romantic or sexual.

In my research, another important aspect in boys love media is how BL works play with the intertextual meanings of different narrative elements in an effort to find pleasure or moe in these works. Without going too technical on what this is, let me give an example.

In a BL story, there is a seme and an uke. To make the characters more interesting, a BL author will give one character a pair of glasses. If the author gives the pair of glasses to the uke, the author draws upon all the meanings associated to an uke wearing glasses. Maybe this uke character is quiet. Maybe he’s a bit shy. Maybe he’s a bit clumsy. And the author piles on the intertextual potential of this uke character with glasses until they are satisfied. Or, maybe, the author gives the glasses to the seme and they imagine a very cruel seme character who enjoyed teasing the uke. The way the author plays with the character and the pair of glasses is an example of an intertextual practice often seen in BL works. As BL fans, we’ve developed a rich database of elements whose meanings we can play with. From zodiac signs to the characters’ favourite drink, all of these little details gives us the inspiration to find pleasure in finding the right combination for the BL work that we enjoy.

For years, Japanese BL fans have been playing with this intertextual database and ōdō. Now, fans all over the region, from Korea to Thailand, are also playing with various intertextual elements under this “ōdō.”

A WORLD FILLED WITH BL

I still remember 2016 when the entire fandom was on to Yuri on Ice. The series certainly had interesting discussions online on queer works in Japanese media but interestingly, its impact was isolated in Japanese society. Instead, it took a parody of boys love, Ossan’s Love, to really engage public conversation on queer works and LGBTQ media in Japan.

With the end of Yuri!! on Ice, to be honest, I thought that BL fandom would just hop on to the next interesting Shonen Jump title. Sports series has long been a part of fandom but with Haikyuu dominating the narrative and with Shonen Jump exploring darker and pensive narratives as their main titles, there seemed to be nothing that caught people’s attention.

Mingwa’s BJ Alex.

What I didn’t know was that my timeline, which had always been a reliable source of fandom trends, is no longer representative of the emergent fandoms that were powerful enough to change the face of social media. One interesting shift was the discussion on the BL manhwa Killing Stalking. While this was initially discussed within the context of Yuri!! on Ice, it introduced many to Korean BL Webcomics and its darker narratives and its sexually charged panels. Have you read BJ Alex? Wow. WAO. The discussion on BL webcomics also highlighted the influence of Korean popular culture on BL fandom as some of these fans were also into KPOP Shipping. From here, I noticed the growth of the genre. What I didn’t foresee was the explosion that will happen after. 

In another part of the internet, fans turned towards Thai dramas and found pleasure in Y-lakorn. While I’ve been made aware of this corner as early as 2015 no thanks to my ever-curious mate who was asking what’s the tea on Filipino fans of this media, it wasn’t until recently that I’ve seen the scale of interest in these stories as ThaiBL series such as SOTUS was shown globally through Netflix in the last few years and just this year, the series 2gether trended worldwide with every episode. Suddenly, BL had a Thai face.

Arthit and Kongpob in Sotus

While my ever-curious mate and I think that there are biases with regards to particular character features in Thai BL, we were more impressed with the growing scale of ThaiBL media which was initially produced by Thai women on online novel platforms. Well, I was impressed by this. My ever-curious mate has his own two cents on this and I’m sure he’ll publish that in a book someday. Right now, Thai BL is an unstoppable force that is encouraging conversations on LGBTQ media in Southeast Asia.

And then there was China with their BL works called danmei. While danmei had been around for some while, I never imagined it would become massively commercial given China’s censorship and takedown of various danmei creators and spaces. Hence I was surprised when I saw mdzs and mxtx emerging on my timeline. I didn’t know what it was but I was definitely surprised when I realised that it was a danmei title was garnering global attention. And then, the live-action drama The Untamed was released. All hell broke loose. And now, one of my timelines shifted from ice-skaters to ancient Chinese soulmates. As for me, I was innit for Little Apple, the smartest of donkeys.

As these things were happening, BL manga also took a sharp turn as their seme and uke were now in South America,  Amish, and in hell. The world of BL is growing and evolving and I am up for it.

ONE KHURSTEN, TOO MUCH BL

I’ll be honest, I’m the kind of BL fan who can only handle one active fandom. I’ve gotten used to weekly manga releases that kept my heart interested in my ship. I’m used to monthly releases of new BL titles. Recently, I got into KPOP fandom no thanks to the urging of my ever-curious mate who gave me a 5-hour TED talk on his favourite KPOP band. The pace in which content is released in this space is INTENSE. My wallet is bleeding but my heart is full.

What’s fascinating is that other BL spaces such as Thai BL and even danmei are also following this tight schedule that thrives in keeping BL fans’ attention to the minute. It is insane. I am trying to find air to breathe and I am particularly impressed by those who manage to juggle all of these fandoms. For now, my focus is on my wonderful KPOP boys and the already exploding world of BL manga. Not gonna lie though, I’m also enjoying watching some Thai BL titles too! And I’m also dipping my toes over this sleuth in the Ming dynasty! I said to myself that I should establish boundaries but the temptations are too good.

Truly, I am excited by this growth. I’m looking forward to other corners of the world where boys love emerges as a space for queer expression. It’s already happening here in Manila as we started creating our own BL web drama series. I hope it happens in other parts of the world too. Maybe someone will make that Penguin BL in the North Pole. Who knows?

What are you looking forward to in this BL explosion?


Related Posts



2 thoughts on “The Multicultural Face of Boys Love”

  • Wow, indeed. I’ve noticed in SMASH the rise of Ancient Chinese SO and I’m very aware of lezhin (so generally non-hetero romances from Korean artists) but I feel lost with this boom. It kinda makes sense since I don’t follow TV series much though.

    Also I thought you lived in Australia?

    • It’s more than just TV and I don’t blame you if it hasn’t reached Aussie shores (there are a couple of Aussie artists who are into danmei).

      And yeah, I used to live in Australia but I’ve moved back to Manila for work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: