Challenging the norm

Challenging the norm

The popularity of Boys' Love has created a new form of celebrity culture to fight the heteronormative media landscape


Yaoi or Boys' Love (BL) has grown from an underground to mainstream fictional genre. It emerged from women's manga comics in Japan in the 1980s, which portrayed the relationship between young boys based on the seme (active) and uke (receptive) dichotomy. Through an informal fan network, the transnational phenomenon came to Thailand in the early 1990s and a subculture was formed online.

The success of Love Of Siam (2007) broke new ground for subsequent BL series. A turning point came in 2013 when a side couple in Hormones enjoyed popularity, followed by Lovesick (2014) on a free TV channel. Since then, the production of BL series has grown substantially. During the pandemic, the romcom drama 2gether (2020) became a global phenomenon. Already, 57 Thai BL series have been released this year, 30 in 2021 and 13 in 2020, according to the fan website

"I have been investigating what I've termed 'the BL Machine' that content producers in Thailand have developed in order to create a new form of celebrity culture to promote artists, generate revenue and also bring queer intervention into Thailand's heteronormative media landscape," said Thomas Baudinette, senior lecturer in Japanese and International Studies at Macquarie University, in a seminar held by the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre.

Baudinette said Thai BL producers have pioneered the creation of khu jin (imaginary couple), a newly coined word that combines khu in Thai (couple) with jin in English (imagine). It is modelled on K-pop culture in which devoted fans imagine their idols in a homoerotic relationship. As a result, production companies offer staged homoeroticism to fulfil their desire. However, Thai BL producers are taking it to the next level.

Pirapat 'Earth' Watthanasetsiri, left, and Sahaphap 'Mix' Wongratch staged a wedding in E.M.S Earth-Mix Space. Photos courtesy of GMM TV

"GMM [its content production company GMM TV is a major BL producer] flips this narrative. Rather than having a bottom-up process, we create an imaginary world for you based on two idols who you accept as khu jin. We provide explicit content so that you can celebrate their staged homoeroticism. Thai BL innovation is to make it top-down. I want to argue that this may not be a bad thing," Baudinette said.

The creation of khu jin involves several steps. Baudinette said after they scout for handsome young men on social media, they recruit, train and debut them in BL series where characters perform homoeroticism with tie-in products.

At the same time, production companies encourage conversation with hashtags on social media. But Thailand marks a departure from other countries by focusing on the relationship between idols, not characters.

"Separate the couple from the narrative world of BL and transform shipping [a word borrowed from English to denote imaginary coupling] to focus on the relationship between idols. They are put in fan meetings, variety shows and subsequent series to continue the production of a queer affect or an emotional response to staged homoeroticism, an attraction to and a celebration of male-male intimacy and queer romance in Thai media culture," he said.

Characters join a rally in Not Me. (Photo: GMM TV)

Fans have used the term fin to describe their satisfaction with staged homoeroticism. It is gay male slang from the 1990s derived from the finale of sex or orgasm or jouissance. Thai BL producers have intentionally managed and produced it.

However, the profit motive has a political effect. Baudinette said despite appearing to be an LGBTI paradise, Thai society remains conservative when it comes to gender and sexuality. The rise of BL is a challenge to heteronormative culture in many ways. Even though actors may not necessarily identify themselves as queer, the power of staged homoeroticism should not be dismissed. From his experience with those in the industry, many idols cannot come out due to the nature of Thai society.

When it comes to fans, the rise of BL provides new ways of consuming idols that moves away from heteronormativity. It also provides opportunities for women who have been disenfranchised from the creative industry. In doing so, they become cultural agents of change through producing series or fans who create the phenomenon. Visibility politics in Thailand is important in the absence of laws that protect the LGBTI community.

Baudinette said the entanglement of fin with viewing practices can change the way fans understand the world. His interview shows they have been awoken to political issues, including marriage equality. But most importantly, it can transform Thai celebrity culture. In recent years, magazines like Praew and Sudsapda have featured more khu jin.

"It has become the dominant form of consuming celebrity engagement in Thailand. Shipping is a normal practice. It is not a subculture, but a normal way of engaging with media. That is the queer impact," he said.

The Eclipse. (Photo: GMM TV)

Is it queerbaiting or using the representation of male-male romance to sell products when idols do not identify with LGBTI? Baudinette flagged the question because the rise of queer representation in Western media culture follows rights-based change. In his view, khu jin value BL for making social change. For example, Pirapat "Earth" Watthanasetsiri and Sahaphap "Mix" Wongratch staged a wedding in an advertisement for ice cream. Both have been vocal supporters of marriage equality and other current issues.

"Their figurative wedding was a response to fan desire for homoerotic content and calls for those in the media industry to engage with political discussion," he said. "One thing I want to flag is that we don't actually know their sexuality. We cannot make any claim about whether they are straight men using BL as a vehicle or whether they are closet gay men using BL as a space to explore their sexuality."

Recently, Thai BL series have taken up political activism. Baudinette made a reference to Not Me (2021) in which young activists fight an evil businessman, an allusion to Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha. In a famous fin scene, characters played by Atthaphan "Gun" Phunsawat and Jumpol "Off" Adulkittiporn take part in a pride protest where they realise deep affection for each other.

"Within the world of BL, we see explicit calls for political activism. Another example is The Eclipse. As they fall in love, a progressive character teaches a conservative character to be more liberal-minded. It is an emerging genre that is significantly popular," he said.

Baudinette said the Thai BL is now popular across Southeast and East Asia. It has been gaining traction in Japan, the home of BL, since 2020. Posters of famous khu jin were put up in a train station. Magazines that cover Thai drama, including BL, are rolled out for the Japanese audience. The Tourism Authority of Thailand has launched a Twitter account that uses BL to engage Japanese consumers. They are conducting research on these issues in the context of soft power.

"Is it fair to say there is a Thai wind, a term I borrow from a colleague, competing with the Korean wave within the Asian media culture?" he asked.

His thoughts are based on his forthcoming book titled Boys Love Media In Thailand: Celebrity, Fans, And Transnational Asian Queer Popular Culture.

Thomas Baudinette of Macquarie University. Photo: Thana Boonlert

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