boy love love

‘Heartstopper’s’ got nothing on Thailand’s “boy love” TV shows

Screenshot: ‘I Told Sunset About You,’ YouTube

Without a doubt, gay teen romance Heartstopper has been one of the big television success stories of the year. Netflix‘s British series—adapted from the graphic novels by Alice Oseman—became an international smash when it hit the streamer this past April, with viewers across the world swooning over the the love story of Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson.

But Heartstopper isn’t without precedent. In fact, it follows in the footsteps of a number of wildly popular Thai television series that fall under the genre known as “boy love”—commonly referred to simply as “BL.” And, well, it’s fairly self-explanatory: These are shows mostly about young adult gay romance…. boy love!

The popularity of these stories in Thai television has exploded in recent years, becoming a proper phenomenon that draws in viewers from Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and beyond. Per fan site, 17 BL series have already premiered so far this year, with a combined 43 released in 2020 and 2021. That’s a whole lot of boy love!

The guys are cute, the stories are sweet and breezy, the music is upbeat, and they’re largely optimistic, free of anything too traumatic (seriously, it’s almost as if homophobia doesn’t exist in a great many of these shows). At a time when the general state of things *motions wildly* feels grim, it’s not hard to understand why people are gravitating towards BL shows.

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Like Heartstopper, the genre has its roots in comics and graphic novels. BL—or “Yaoi”—began to find fans in Japanese manga, tracing all the way back to the 1970s. Despite its focus on homoerotic stories between two men, BL has largely been created by and for women.

Historically viewed as content with a niche audience, the swelling fandom around these TV series of late seems to have taken many by surprise. As Thai production companies adapt more and more BL manga for television, the viewership just keeps growing, spurred in large part by internet culture, where shows can stream freely and fans feel encouraged to share clips, memes, and more.

And perhaps the most unexpected ripple effect of “boy love” love is that it’s been a major boon to tourism in Thailand, an industry the country’s been steadily rebuilding in the wake of the pandemic. According to a piece in The Guardian, fans from all over are flocking to filming locations, boosting businesses like the “always fully booked” table in a Phuket cafe—which happens to be a frequent date spot in the popular BL romance I Told Sunset About You.

It’s a fascinating phenomenon as BL becomes more mainstream, getting further away from its underground manga roots. As one might imagine, the eroticism is largely downplayed, and the chemistry between any given two leads is relegated to longing glances and brushes of the hand. It’s certainly a limited idea of the queer experience, with most BL media focusing on light-skinned, well-off young gay men whose biggest concerns are whether or not their crushes like them back.

Related: ‘Heartstopper’ just made this TV host break down on the air

As Thai academic Kangwan Fongkaew told The Guardian, international fans “might misunderstand that Thailand is a gay paradise, which is totally not true.” BL series hardly reflect the diversity of the country’s LGBTQ community, nor its ongoing issues with discrimination.

However, the popularity of BL does bring hope that the broader cultural opinion towards queer stories—and queer people—could change for the better. Like Heartstopper, these boy love television shows may present a particularly rosy view of the gay experience, but their widespread reach has an opportunity to encourage a more global embrace of the LGBTQ community.

And for that, we’ve got to say: We love boy love.

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