Jul122020

BL Dramas Analyzed from a Writer’s Perspective: PART I

Gentle Reader, I have a lot to say on the subject of BL dramas. Honestly, I’m not sure if anyone out there is interested, but since I got sick I’ve watched way too many I decided I needed an accounting. I love many of them, but I am also troubled by them, and this is my attempt to unpack my mixed feelings as a reader, writer, and queer feminist.

I’ve divided this into two parts. This first installment is going to tackle the bulk of my concerns and analysis of these dramas. PART II is a list of recommendations with trigger warnings: BL Dramas: THE LIST

* Both articles discuss triggering elements, consent, and sexual acts. 

Honestly this could get into PhD thesis territory. I’ve considered turning this into a short book I have so much to say on the subject.

Dean & Pharm in Until We Meet Again

As a result, and mostly for my own ease of use, I put together an anchored TOC.

TOC

First and foremost, I want to make something clear:

This is an analysis and discussion not a critique or a defense.

I’m recognizing that I come from an American/British cultural background and I can only judge from within that lens (there can be no objectivity to pop culture analysis).

I urge you, as you read, when/if you react negatively or positively to something I’ve written here, to pause and think seriously about what that says about you, your up-bringing, and your own culture.

So why do this at all?

What is interesting about fiction to me, as an author of the stuff (and particularly about romance and sexualized representations of queer relationships) is how it speaks to an audience about internalized cultural biases. Both to those audience members who have a queer perspective and those who do not.

What does storytelling say about how we individually (and our society as a whole) define love, sex, and relationships?

So with that in mind, let’s talk BL dramas!

BL Fandom

I don’t consider myself a member of the BL fan community. Apart from everything else, I’m way too old, and too much of a quasi-celeb myself to be AT ALL comfortable with the real world actor/actor shipping and other seeming-obsessive behavior of some BL super fans. So I won’t be using the BL lingo in this post.

In fact, the only lingo I’ll be using is sourced in literary pop-culture analysis, a few terms borrowed from yaoi manga (my introduction to BL), some accidental anthropological stuff, and terms used in the romance author community. I try to define these for you up front.

But first!

Oh wait…

Butt first!

Before my list of BL dramas, I have a ton of codicils and thoughts on cultural differences, queer rep, language, and so much more…

APPROACH

My path to reading queer romance started in Japanese yaoi of the 1990s and 2000s. Todays BL dramas share narrative elements with those stories. A lot of the tropes, archetypes, and themes of yaoi graphic novels are still in place, only now on the screen.

My path looked something like this:

  1. yaoi manga (translated into English by presses like DramaQueen in 1990s-2000s) – A Glossary of Manga Terms for Newcomers
  2. early 2000s m/m romance novels (from small presses like LooseID)
  3. indie gay movies and mainstream queer TV soaps like Queer as Folk and The L Word
  4. Brokeback Mountain
  5. indie m/m romance (at the beginning of  the eBook revolution, my first gay ebook was 2014, and it was Bitterwood which I still love)
  6. gay and lesbian rom-com movies (see some of my favorites here)
  7. gay romance novels & queer #ownvoices YA
  8. queer romance novels
  9. Asian BL dramas

Note that slash and fanfic are not part of my journey? I’m too old.

As a result, as an author, I make a distinction between m/m vs gay vs queer romance, particularly in the fiction world. Here’s a break down of that distinction…

TYPES OF GAY ROMANCE

These are MY DISTINCTIONS, the fiction industry doesn’t usually bother.

  • m/m romance:
    This has more voyeuristic gaze and is written expressly by (mostly straight) women for (mostly straight) women readers. Like yaoi it tends to have a het-style Dominant/submissive chassis (see seme/uke below). Here is the States m/m is sourced in fanfic and slash fiction. To this day I swear I can tell if an author of gay romance comes out of slash (arches brow at Mary Calmes). I don’t mind this, probably because of my own history with yaoi and sexual identity, but some #ownvoices and gay readers really don’t like the m/m style, gaze, fetishization, or moniker.
  • gay romance:
    This is either written by a gay/queer identified person or by a non-queer with a good working understanding of the gay experience as it is now, if perhaps over romanticized. Sex scenes tend to be more graphic than most yaoi or BL, and relationships more complicated, but there are often some residual tropes carried over from m/m and 80s style romance novels. So these can feel a touch old-fashioned in tone. (See also the bara distinction in manga.)
  • queer romance:
    This means the author has a relatively intimate knowledge of the modern queer life experience and makes some effort at honest representation, either because they are queer themselves, or have significant ties to the community sufficient to give them a good working knowledge of terminology and real world relationship dynamics.

Classic yaoi dynamic: Dean & Pharm in Until We Meet Again

I feel like many BL dramas are more m/m then they are actually queer friendly or gay rep. This foundation and resulting sensibilities may cause BL dramas to offend modern American queer identified people and their allies.

You have been warned.

In Asian BL, there are many differences between the dramas coming out of Japan versus China versus Korea versus Taiwan versus Thailand. (Those last two tend to produce my favorites.)

However, the overall tenor of possessive behavior and dubious consent, plus an insistence on a hetero-sexualized central relationship featuring a dominant (seme) pursuing a submissive (uke), is endemic to most BL dramas.

If that dynamic turns you off, these shows are not for you. There is one short series, The Effect, which basically tells this dynamic as the abusive relationship it is with tragic consequences, but every trigger warning in the world for The Effect.

This warning also holds for lots of heterosexual relationships represented in non-BL Asian dramas. Viewers just might not be noticing how passive the uke is when he is a she appearing in something like Eternal Love or Love O2O.

TERMINOLOGY

Speaking of which, for the sake of ease of comprehension, I’m going to use (and already have used) the following important yaoi terms:

seme & uke

Left = Dean/seme; Right = Pharm/uke in Until We Meet Again

  • seme refers to the sexual top or active pursuer (in binary gendered terms this is the masculine or heroic figure), he is usually taller, richer, sterner, and more physically fit
  • uke refers to the sexual bottom or passive pursued (in binary gendered terms the feminine or heroine figure, often the POV character), he is usually smaller, slimmer, kinder, and more gentle

This exemplifies a dysmorphic binary heterosexual dynamic imposed on any gay relationship in BL, and it’s practically mandatory to be considered part of the BL oeuvre. There are exceptions in the details, like the uke may be taller (e.g. Love By Chance), the couple may be equally fit (e.g. TharnType or 2gether), but one character MUST be a top and the other MUST be a bottom.

It’s almost as if love and sex can only exist between two men, or perhaps I should say comprehended to exist, as an unequal partnership. In this, BL has stronger ties to the kink community than the queer community and I tend to think of these as D/s relationships.

Not that that’s an excuse.

Other Terms Used Herein

  • BL drama: boy’s love or boy love – live-action movies, TV, or web series featuring a romantic story arc between:
    • two biological sex and gender-identified men/males
    • one or both of whom are in high school (wearing shorts) or college (wearing pants)
    • who fall in love
    • although the drama may not necessarily be a romance by the current literary definition of the term, as the story may not end happily (hence the reason these are called BL dramas not BL romances)
  • BJ: blow job, of course
  • D/s: Dominant/submissive dynamic where one partner is a sexual dominant vested with the majority of the power to control the relationship/sexual encounter and the other is the submissive partner from whom control is taken
  • dub-con: dubious consensual sexual activities, in which permission for a sexual encounter may be implied but is never expressly asked, and some factor (like alcohol or repeated “no”) makes it concerning even when a physically positive response is depicted from the submissive
  • non-con: non-consensual sex, in which permission for a sexual encounter is never expressly asked and no outside factors (prearranged safeword) make this in any way appropriate, by American definitions this is statutory rape
  • eng sub – English subtitles, when captions are provided in English (usually American spelling)
  • HEA: happily ever after ending that implies that the main couple will stay together in bliss
  • het: heterosexual
  • in world shipping: girl characters in the setting of the story fantasize publicly about the male characters getting together – it’s very meta
  • love confession: often public (but not always) verbal request/demand for acknowledged receipt of romantic interest, with an implication that a yes results in dating exclusivity or status change to official boyfriends (sometimes this confession is broken into two parts, “let me date/flirt with/hit on you and prove myself trustworthy as a partner?” and then “let me show the world that you’re mine?” e.g. 2gether)
  • LTR: long term relationship, usually depicted at the college levels (sophomore-senior), so 3-4 years
  • minor: means both or one of the characters is likely under the age of 18 as part of the story, although usually the actors are not
  • sub-plot: a secondary plot line featuring friends or acquaintances of the main couple who are also on a relationship journey
  • please ask in the comments if there are other terms I use and don’t define (I’ve been at the author game a LONG time and a romance readers since I was 10, so I chuck terms around like everyone should know them)

TROPES & ARCHETYPES

By my definitions, a trope is a culturally shared concept that is imbued with social meaning that helps to create a predictable metaphor or outcome to plot. An archetype is a character that is actually a symbol or motif.

Common TROPES & ARCHETYPES of BL dramas:

Fierce uke can also be possessive, see Tutor in Why R U

  • romanticization of possession, clingy behavior, jealousy, and jealous rages
  • food as a love offering also eating together or feeding someone as an expression of intimacy
  • gestures of infantilization from seme to uke in terms of bathing, feeding, ministering, scolding, orders, and discipline  
  • humor particularly slapstick and camp (except in Until We Meet Again, Addicted, and the History# series)
  • enemies to lovers and/or opposites attract (e.g. SOTUS)
  • friends to lovers particularly common in sub-plots (e.g. Love Sick)
  • instalove or love at first sight (e.g. 2gether)
  • forbidden/hidden/taboo relationships including step brothers falling in love with each other (e.g. Crossing the Line sub-plot )
  • romanticized rape or rape fantasies – I divide this into dub-con and non-con, see above (e.g. the TharnType universe)

    Tin’s “revelation” in Love by Chance

  • gay for you AKA It’s Okay, If It’s You
  • coming out or not coming out as a plot device (e.g Dark Blue Kiss)
  • diminished female characters or a complete absence of them (e.g. 2 Moons 2)
  • fantasized gay social equality in terms of peer group acceptance or encouragement (e.g. 2gether)
  • supportive friendships but unsupportive families (e.g. Until We Meet Again)
  • physical representations of romantic interest mostly as an exchange of jewelry (necklace, earring, rings, bracelets) or representative charms (e.g. the gear in SOTUS)
  • romance femme fatale a female character intent on separating the main gay couple, often an ex-girlfriend (e.g. Ping in 2 Moons 2)
  • the wise fool/noble jester usually a straight male BFF, but sometimes a female friend, who serves as comedic relief but also a plot device for knowledge transfer (e.g. Pond in Love by Chance)
  • romantically tragic endings – particularly in BL from Korea (I don’t review any dramas that have this trope, since I require an HEA from my entertainment)

AUDIO, VIDEO, CAPTIONS

VIDEO

The video and audio quality on many of the YouTube offerings is pretty naff. Sometimes unbearably so. It’s worth the extra ads for the HD, if available.

Most episodes are about an hour long and each is usually broken into 4 parts. When the listing says “uncut” it means these four parts have been stuck back together again. Not, you know, that kind of uncut.

Also, there tends to be over-acting as Americans might term it. It’s a little like something that might show up in a children’s show or panto, particularly in comedic side characters.

The irrepressible Win seducing Team in Until We Meet Again

AUDIO

Audio tends to lean on cartoon sound effects and dramatic music or romantic pop songs at major moments of emotion. To me this seems as if the audio tech doesn’t trust the actors to transmit the emotion needed for comprehension. There’s a puppet-like Punch & Judy feel to this.

Either you can tolerate the absurdity of this, or you will find most BL dramas unbearable. Try the ones out of China and Taiwan to avoid this.

That said, the first three on my list are the least egregious, but the music will always SWELL. (Pun intended.)

CAPTIONS (or eng sub)

The captioning (English subtitles) is mostly done by volunteers, many of them are Thai native speakers with ESL (English as a second language). So the translations are often off, odd, or occasionally incomprehensible.

Also, there are words that just don’t translate directly into English.

And also, there are English slang and colloquial terms, ultra-modern American parlance, queer vocabulary, and longer more old-fashioned terms, that just aren’t taught as ESL and so translators don’t know to use them. (Singular/gender neutral they, for example, would be very useful on many occasions. As would use of the word ravage.)

This can occasionally be really funny. I’ll give an example from Eternal Love (Chinese and not BL).

Basically, it’s all these dignified gods and everyone is bowing all the time. But instead of saying “rise” or “arise” after an obeisance, the social superior says, “get up.” Which, to a native English speaker, sounds very mean and curt and rather rude and modern.

Also somewhat hilarious given context.

Some common mistakes include (my guess at a better term from context):

  • giving me goosebumps – I think a better translation would be creeping me out or giving me the shivers/willies
  • scratch – often actually should be touch, tickle, or horsing around
  • itch – is also Thai slang for being horny, but usually just translated as itchy
  • rape – when spoken of in a joking manner usually should be ravage, fuck, screw with, or screw around with (I have a lot more to say about this in the Consent section) modern romance writer parlance might use wreck
  • this person – should be singular they/them
  • I like you – maybe should be I’m into you or I’m seriously crushing on you or I’m crazy about you, this one is difficult as Americans don’t really define this kind of relationship or level of intimacy as distinct from dating, see love confession in Terminology
  • pluralization of irregular nouns – stuffs, foods

There is confusion over the terms boyfriend and girlfriend… they don’t really exist in polite Thai. The word that’s usually used, faen, is non-gender specific, so more like lover. I kinda adore this as a queer person, but it means that when a man speaks of his lover, people tend to assume it’s a woman, so he is going to have to get very specific in order to come out, either using names, or outright saying, “My lover is a man.”

SETTING

All the BL series I’m going to discuss closely are set in alternate but contemporary Asian environments, mostly Thailand. Almost all of them are set in a college or high school environment.

They are all profoundly influenced by their source country. They have to be. Any Hollywood set piece goes out and promotes a whole mess of American ideals and assumptions, these do the same for their homelands. Nothing is explained, nor should it be.

Friendship and loyalty play huge roles in a high school/college context as acting surrogate family. There is a level of intimacy and involvement in friend’s lives (and love lives) that would be perceived as inappropriate by most Americans, or allowed only between very best female friends of long duration.

The same can be said of sibling relationships. Older siblings and older students have a familial obligation of care to their younger counterparts that can read to Americans as unpardonably nosy, bossy, and interfering.

Oh, and boys go to the toilet together.

Hopefully, if you enjoy the show, you’ll be motivated to learn more about the history and modern culture of its setting.

NAMES & HONORIFICS

FYI several Asian languages dictate that the speaker refers to themself by name in certain sentences, declarations, and contexts (outside of introductions). In Thailand you can use your own name instead of “I/me.”

For example when Pharm is introducing Dean as his boyfriend to his mother in Until We Meet Again, he states the equivalent of “this is Dean the boyfriend of Pharm” or “Pharm’s lover.” Even though Dean is sitting right there next to him. He doesn’t say “this is my boyfriend, Dean” possibly because there is no way to directly formally say that to a parental figure.

I have to say, as someone who meets A LOT of people and forgets names easily, I really like this. I wish English had this linguistic element. It would be great if there were more conversational reasons to say our own names, as it would give people consistent knowledge of correct pronunciation!

Also, a reminder that in China, Taiwan, and Japan, surnames come first. Also address and conversation usually dictates that the full name is used, even between intimates. Calling someone by a pet name or just their first name is always a significant moment and often somewhat intimate if not outright proprietary.

And now a word on Thai BL names specifically (both the ones they call each other on screen and the actor’s names).

The actor, Suppapong Udomkaewkahjana AKA Saint, plays Pete in Love By Chance and Tutor in Why R U

Thai Names for the BL Watcher

Naming conventions are complicated in Thailand, and some of them sound insane to Americans.

There’s a full/written/official/legal name (first + last) and then there is usually a conversational chue len or nickname.

The nickname tends to be the name the person actually goes by both at home and in society.

  • Sometimes the chue len is actually a nickname, as in – a shortening of the legal first name, like Kong for Kongpob.
  • Sometimes the chue len is more a childhood pet name (or in addition to), like Kit.
  • The chue len is decided on by the family. It is usually chosen and given around birth, so unlike in the States, it’s not something you get or earn from your friends (although is can be adjusted to this later).
  • Also it’s sometimes English, or at least written and presented in Latin script, particularly for actors and other public figures.
  • Sometimes it’s what Americans would think of as a normal first name, like Dean or Pete.
  • Sometimes it will seem very odd to Americans, like Team or Type (although it’s usually pronounced differently).
  • Occasionally it’s just the Thai formal first name, like Pharm.

The first letter of the nick name is often shared among sibling, e.g. in Until We Meet Again Dean’s sister is Del and his brother is Don.

Here’s more on Thai names.

Still with me? Okay, now Thai HONORIFICS!

Thai speakers put an honorific in front most names.

This indicates relationship of the speaker to the person they’re addressing. If you don’t know how this works, there are plot points in Thai BL dramas that will not make sense.

For the purposes of understanding Thai BL, here’s a quick breakdown:

Pharm in Until We Meet Again ALWAYS uses the P’ with his boyfriend Dean.

P’ or Phi is for colleagues, friends, and siblings older than the speaker: “P’+[name]”. Phi can also be used alone, e.g. “What’s up, P?” Captions sometimes use “bro” for this, but I don’t think that’s right. The P is rarely dropped, even between lovers. For example, in Until We Meet Again, Pharm calls Dean, who is older than him, P’Dean, even when they are in bed together.

A’ or Ai’ is for same age friends and social equals: “A’+[name]”. In BL the Ai is usually left off by speakers and caption writers. Exceptions are made for polite characters and plot points. For example, Wayo accidentally calls Kit, his senior, Ai in 2 Moons and gets chastised for not using Phi. (This is also a comment on how young and innocent Kit looks.)

Nong: The opposite of Phi. Nong is used for younger sibs or junior colleagues/friends although less often than Phi. It is not often captioned unless being emphasized by the speaker. Under certain circumstances Nong can be considered a diminutive like little one. When used alone it can be translated as “kid.” As in, “See you later, kid.” In Until We Meet Again many of the older boys interested in dating Pharm use Nong on him. Possibly because he is so slight and cute, but also because they know that his seme Dean (who hardly takes his hands out of his pockets) would fuck their shit up if they ever did anything to Pharm. So it’s a tease.

Duen of My Engineer, biggest brat in BL, which I only realized when I noticed he dropped the P’ so quickly

No honorific: Use of a name without honorific when intimacy is not established/codified is considered rude, or at the very least highly presumptive especially if the speaker is younger. Duen drops P’ with his seme (and senior!) Bohn right away in My Engineer. This is a sign of disrespect in response to Bohn’s rudeness but also shows Duen’s brattiness and sets up the combative nature of their relationship. Bohn perversely loves it, and even teases Duen by using the P on him! (Unheard of!) However, they do discuss and revert to the correct honorifics when out with Duen’s little sister, because they don’t want to set a bad example.

Khun: This more formal (gender neutral?) honorific is translated as Mr/Ms/Mrs but it’s rarely used in BL. It’s a character plot point in the SOTUS S final episode and joked about in Why R U

Naming honorifics are significant plot points in 2 Moons, 2 Moons 2, and My Engineer.

Here’s more on Thai honorifics.

THE WAI & HAANG SIENG

Thai greeting wai

The Wai or formal acknowledgment

In Thailand there is something called the wai, or formal Thai greeting/farewell. The wai consists of a slight bow of the head, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion and raised towards the face. The height of hands and depth of bow determines level of respect. In the gif above from 2 moons, Wayo and Ming are greeting P’Forth who is an older student from a different department. Ming (on the right) doesn’t know P’Forth as well as Wayo, so even though he’s a less submissive character he gives more of a bow, plus P’Forth is courting Wayo, so Wayo doesn’t have to be as servile.

Pete(L) is younger & entering P’Oh’s(R) territory so he bows first & deeper

The words usually spoken with the wai are sawat di which sounds, to my ear, like shwa-dee. This is followed by the krub/ka polite particle. Here’s one of the actors from My Engineer, Perth Nakhun, who is Australian but acts in Thai explaining how exactly to pronounce sawat di to both English and Japanese speakers – polyglot much?

So, as a woman, I would say “sawat di, kha” but Pete says “sawat di, krub.”

The closest Western cultural analogy I can think of is Victorian (and earlier) British use of the phrase “How do you do?” which would have been accompanied by a nod, bow, or curtsy.

The Wai is observed upon entering or leaving a house, with parents and members of older generations, and under various other circumstances like meeting older students, plus starting and ending conversations with strangers. It is an important gesture of politeness, gratitude, or occasionally abject apology, and also a means of extracting oneself from an awkward conversation (see Pete in Love By Chance). Younger persons should do it to older persons first, but if in doubt, always Wai.

If you’re planning to travel to Thailand you should read up on and learn the proper way to Wai. It is far far better to Wai than not to Wai.

The haang sieng or polite particles: Krub & Ka

Basically this is a word that comes at the end of a sentence, like spoken punctuation. It is also used alone to acknowledge understanding/or state inquiry. Krub (or khráp, or slightly less formally, kab) is for male speakers and ka (khá) is for female speakers.

Speaking a sentence without adding krub/ka to the end is considered curt, abrupt, and impolite (or at least very informal). They aren’t used often among close friends and older characters may drop use with younger characters in a school setting relatively quickly.

Examples:

Pete in Love By Chance has a near pathological use of krub at all times. He is VERY polite. If you travel to Thailand, BE LIKE PETE.

Type, when he meets Tharn’s family for the first time in TharnType, leans on krub as a crutch. This is a sign of his nervousness as Type is normally a notably crass/brash character who leaves off honorifics and swears a lot.

Dean uses krub with Pharm after Pharm tells him “no need to hurry” in Until We Meet Again. This is a joke way of saying “Yes, sir!” Dean is the seme character and older than Pharm, and prior to this was using gentle but informal language with Pharm. To switch to using krub under those circumstances is a way of teasing Pharm for his presumption in giving an order.

Just saying krub/ka alone is like a simple nod of agreement or acknowledgment of understanding.

However, as honorifics are gendered it’s way more complicated than that.

P’Money in Love By Chance insults Tin, who richly deserves it

An out femme gay man may use the feminine ka. But polite gentleman may also use ka when he is addressing a young female child in a kindly manner. Or a womanizer might use ka when picking up girls at a club.

There are variations, like “ha” or “haa”. They’re still considered polite, but not as much as krub/ka and carry other subtext as they are often used under very specific circumstances (affection, intimacy, siblings or family members) or by certain more fluid genders such as members of LGBTQ+ community or third gender (who also use ja).

There is also “wa” which is an informal mood particle that acts even more like punctuation and is only used among intimates. And finally “na” with is mostly used in questions and pleading, but can be leaned on like English speakers do with rising inflection AKA high rising intonation sentences ends to soften a declarative.

I’m not sure if these less formal particles are technically gender neutral or not.

From a queer perspective, krub/ka is a near constant way to verbally self-gender. Kind of like a formalized state your pronouns.

Here’s more on polite Thai speech.

FOOD

In most Asian entertainment, but particularly in the Thai dramas, food is a REALLY BIG DEAL.

I saw you feed him. (Until We Meet Again)

It represents lots of things: sharing, family, intimacy, caring, community mindedness, provision, non-verbal communication, and love.

Which, of course, I adore possibly more than anything and might be one of the reasons I keep watching these shows.

As a result, feeding someone carries intense weight and significance, as does serving someone from a communal pot. This is the kind of thing ONLY a boyfriend would do.

Since communal meals among friends are commonplace there are a couple of incidences of “mistakes” made trough the simple act of one boy serving or sharing food with his boyfriend when they are not out (see Pete with Kao at family meals in Dark Blue Kiss).

Also food offerings, like buying beverages or snacks, are almost always gestures of caring, and usually represent courtship.

PACING

The pacing of most Asian love stories is different from the Western romance world. It might take a few episodes for the love interest to even be introduced on screen.

In many cases 1/3 of the way through all you get is a lingering hand touch, a hair touch, or maybe a kiss of frustration. In some instances even when an LTR is depicted, maybe one or two kisses are shown on screen (see SOTUS S).

Don’t expect the normal pay out, or a high sexual content, either. The most you ever get to see is tops-off making out that’s very sensual (TharnType universe) or very rough (China and Taiwan do this a lot). Queer as Folk this is NOT.

There’s a lot implied tho…

AFFECTION

Okay, intimacy is different too. I’m not sure on the scale (and it various between countries) but much much much greater weight is given to the following than here is the ol’ USA:

Affection options ( Until We Meet Again )

  • face touching/soft caress (cheek, lips, eyebrows)
  • hair tousling or touching of the head/hair
  • wishing someone sweet dreams
  • hugging
  • forehead kisses
  • cheek kisses (which are more like snuffles in Thailand)

I get the impression these all have profound family-care true-affection emotional meanings, that imply a more significant romantic interest than just a lips-on-lips kiss, which expresses mostly sexual interest.

Also the head often has religious/sacred connotations.

Which is not to say mouth kissing isn’t significant, but a lips kiss seems to be more “just sex” ish, and therefore less romantic than, for example, a hug.

French kissing is rarely, if ever, depicted on screen.

Dean caresses Pharm’s face in public (GASP!) in Until We Meet Again, Dean is very handsy with his uke

For example, in Why R U, Fighter will kiss the stuffing out of Tutor given the slightest opportunity (even though Fighter is dating someone else). But it takes him forever and several aborted attempts to work up the courage to kiss Tutor’s cheek, and only after he’s made a vow of exclusivity.

Holding hands in public may be the only one that carries similar weight as it would in the States.

Possession, ownership, and proprietary behavior (even so far as obsession) is over-romanticized.

“I give five on my confidence, ten on my look. I give over a hundred on how clingy my boyfriend is.”

~ Type talking about Tharn in Why R U (ep. 2)

Distinctions are made between hitting on someone (flirting), dating or trying to date someone (possible exclusivity), and being officially boyfriends or a recognized couple (which I think is a bit more serious than in the USA, more old-fashioned like going steady).

Tharntype and a few others like My Gear and Your Gown acknowledge that there is also the concept of casual sex (fuck buddies) but this isn’t really considered an option in most BL dramas, possibly because they are less sex forward than the TharnType universe.

More food sex stuff from Until We Meet Again

Certain phrases we would say casually have sexual connotations, often associated with other cultural intimacies such as eating or feeding. You can sort of see how this might work.

For example, in Until We Meet Again, much is made of Pharm accidentally offering to eat Dean (like it’s eating in the BJ sense, or more likely offering to feed Dean in the BJ sense, since seme usually goes down on uke). Why R U plays with idea this too.

Later there is direct association between Dean eating Pharm, again as an allegory for sex. I think this could be better translated to the American mind-set as Dean feeding Pharm his cock in the ass-up sense of the phrase.

(Sorry to be crass, but there is is.)

On a less explicit note, wishing someone goodnight, or more likely sweet dreams, is often something only a lover (or someone who wants to be your lover) would do.

Otherwise there are formal/friendship ways of greeting/goodbye. Which brings us nicely to…

RACE & CLASS

There are some frank discussions of aesthetics and standards of beauty in BL, particularly out of Thailand. Pale or fair (AKA bright) smooth skin (in men and women), certain so-called Western-identified features (in men, like a larger nose) and tallness (in men) are considered (and called out as) explicitly handsome.

Subtext: Because you’re so hot? ( Until We Meet Again )

There is a companion implication that a really pretty uke or really handsome seme can turn a straight boy gay (e.g. Kit’s internal monologues about Ming in 2 Moons 2).

On several occasions the equivalent of “you’re handsome, are you mixed?” (race) is asked bluntly (see Tharntype). Also the Adam’s apple and thick eyebrows seem to be be somewhat fetishized.

The opposite is implied ugly, and clearly carries with it racial stereotyping and/or certain class/rural or uneducated implications.

King’s sister in My Engineer shipping her brother with Ram (before they get together).

Often darker skinned or shorter male characters, even when they are the love interest, are depicted or referred to as tougher, more violent, crass, less controlled, regrettably informal, or uncivilized.

For example, in Love By Chance, Ae (who is shorter and has a tan) is called the roughly translated equivalent of “grassroots shorty” while Pete (his love interest who is taller and very pale) is mostly referred to as Koon-Chai a kind of “princely gentlemen.” Although both of the Thai terms used lack a direct translation into English.

There’s clearly complicated linguistic underpinnings to class and wealth.

Most BL dramas take place in private high schools or at the university level, which puts a wealth barrier in place. There is also a clear language of formality that ties to class and money also effecting social dynamics.

Much is made of the physical differences between Pete & Ae in Love by Chance

Establishing who is older, and whether there is any familial relationship, is pretty vital right away (see my notes on naming conventions and honorifics above).

Not only what characters say, but how they say it to each other, carries significant weight and judgement. As Americans reading captions we cannot hope to fully understand the nuances.

Pete in Love By Chance is the most startling representation of this. His speech is very formal and polite, all the time, even in bed.

The contrast between how he speaks and how his seme, Ae, speaks is shocking even to an untrained ear, and must be profoundly significant to a native Thai speaker.

The best (not quite right) comparison to this might be how certain British accents are considered impossibly posh and blue blooded – like the Eton accent, while others are considered merely highly educated – like the BBC accent, while others are considered lower class – like the Cockney accent.

SEXUAL IDENTITY

There is an amorphous lack of definition to sexual identity in a lot of BL dramas.

Very rarely do characters outright identify as gay or bi (or in one case, gray/demi/ace). In a few instances, the couple never comes out of the closet at all, because it would be too dangerous.

Thus, these BLs are not necessarily queer affirming, and you’re often left with the impression that the HEA will be a struggle, even in the rom-coms.

GASP?! Alex in Until We Meet Again

The implication most of the time is that these are gay for you stories and that the main characters are not, in fact, actually gay. Instead, it’s just they are overwhelmed by this one person. There is a ton of discussion in queer author communities about the damage done by this trope in queer romances (not the least of which is bi/pan erasure), so I won’t be covering it here.

There are some exceptions:

  • Pete in Love by Chance, Tharn in Tharntype, and Fei Sheng Zhe in History2: Right or Wrong all openly identify as gay. In all three cases, their ownership and acknowledgment of this identity is a plot point and a problem for the character.
  • Alex in Until We Meet Again identifies as bisexual. And Frame in Make It Right probably would ID as Pan, if he knew the term.
  • Prae in SOTUS identifies as a lesbian.
  • There’s a kind of tacit acknowledgment amongst Kao’s friends in Kiss Me Again and Wayo’s friends in 2 Moons & 2 Moons 2 that when they date, they date dudes, but it’s never discussed openly.

And… that’s about it. (More recent offerings are expanding on this but it’s moving slow.)

Heterosexuality in BL

In a strange way, this gay for you underpinning diminishes any het relationships the boys also have, or plot points where a femme fatale is introduced. Loving a woman is seen as somehow different or lesser (in context of a feelings so powerful it literally turns a guy gay) and therefore a girlfriend is less important than the all-consuming obsession driving the primary gay relationship (that would cause a man to defy social normals and his own “natural” inclinations).

Only Love Sick directly addresses this.

This base assumption ties to a prevailing idea that gay love (and acting sexually as a result of that love) is both corrupt/unnatural while simultaneously being more/better/different than a heterosexual relationship. This means that cheating on an existing het relationship with a man, is somehow not bad, or not as bad, as other forms of cheating.

Owning a Gay Identity in BL

In many cases, characters are teased, beaten up, or abused by friends or family members for their love affair and that behavior is not condemned by the lens of the drama (it’s more: well, that’s life, dude, suck it up if you want to suck cock).

Trans women, gender fluid masc presenting, or femme out gay men are often depicted negatively, play stalker or predatory characters, or are, at the very least, queeny and campy. In Thai dramas these characters tend to always be present and have a liminal third gender-esque linguistic identity. In interviews, some of the actors refer to these characters as third gender, although the term is not in use within the dramas themselves (so far as I can tell).

In TharnType gay is conflated with pedophile without challenge. (There is a reason TharnType is such a long entry on my list, it has many issues.)

Type aggressively owning the term “Wifey” and a uke/bottom identity in Why R U

If friends/peers know about the gay relationship, casual use of and joking reference to the uke partner as “wife” or “wifey” might occur (from the seme himself and/or their more accepting friends). Yes, this implies that the wife is the one taking it, and yes, friends and outsiders (even family) have an almost pathological need to establish this dynamic.

In this sense, any gay relationship can only be seen or modestly accepted if it mirrors a heterosexual relationship.

Yeah, so, there’s also that. Sigh.

CONSENT

So in BL, from all I’ve seen, consent is NOT sexy.

Colloquially known in the romance business as non-con or dub-con both are a near constant thing in BL dramas. I am not excusing it, but it happens in het dramas out of Asian countries ALL THE TIME too.

Actually asking for it in Until We Meet Again

Particularly around alcohol. It is assumed that alcohol lowers a characters inhibitions so he does what he really wants to do. Or, at the very least, that in drinking too much he basically deserve to be taken advantage of. (Examples of this from American pop culture include 16 Candles and Revenge of the Nerds.)

Yeah, yech.

Whether booze-instigated or not, acceptance of the idea is based on this premise:

The seme is so overwhelmed with his feelings (and so bad at talking about them, admitting them, or dealing with how they change his sexual orientation) that he lashes out at the source of them, the uke.

This can take the form of fist fights (when we deal with an enemies-to-lovers trope – see Pete and Kao in Kiss Me Again). Or it can take the form of rape, or start as rape until the uke submits (argh).

There is a kink component to this and it means a lot of the sex scenes involve the uke being physically held down by the seme, even if the seme is a sweetling love muffin like Ae in Love By Chance.

Ae giving in to his seme urges and holding Pete down against the lockers in Love by Chance

One important point though, when the word “rape” is used in jocular/teasing conversation between characters (e.g. Wayo and Ming in 2 Moons), this is actually a flawed translation to get around censorship.

The Thai word used means “to do sexual things with force/intent.”

I think the correct modern term is probably fuck (as in the verb: aggressive, masculine, and penetrative), and the ESL doing the captioning doesn’t realize that screw is a pretty decent alternate term best used to get around blackballing or even the more twee and old-fashioned ravage.

There’s also a trope of actually kidnapping someone for love, especially in BL from China and Japan. So, huh?

Safe, sane, and consensual?

Not so much.

The underpinning assumption is basically: if the uke doesn’t like it, he’s a dude so he should just defend himself physically.

TharnType is horrible on this one.

For example, as if to prove the point that “uke likes it or he’d just fight” we actually see Type, in a jealous rage, fully defend himself by kneeing Tharn in the groin, thus proving that he can fight if he wants to. It’s just in the past he hasn’t bothered.

Dean touches Pharm immediately in Until We Meet Again establishing intimacy/ownership on the basis of their shared past life

TharnType also defies code by representing a sexual relationship between equally physically fit men, where as most BL pairings have a size/fitness differential.

The smaller and sweeter the uke, the more the onus is on the seme to “be a gentleman” while simultaneously sanctifying when he “can’t take it anymore” because the uke is “just too darn cute.”

Most commonly this is expressed as “the uke doth protest too much” AKA “no means yes.”

I actually remember the USA university no means no campaign of the late 90s. The sweeping policy changes were much discussed by students at the time. You see, in my lifetime, there was indeed an American belief that saying “no” was really just a flirtatious way of saying “yes,” and that the dominant partner knew better and only had to push a bit harder to get the submissive partner to relent.

The idea of protesting as a form of flirtation/encouragement permeated 80s American romance fiction, and still pops up (I’m looking at you, 50 Shades), and it’s a prevailing part of the kink scene because it is still perceived very sexy whether we like it not.

Here are some ways this manifests in BL:

How dare you want sex? (Until We Meet Again)

  • Seme is overwhelmed by his lust for uke.
  • Seme won’t take no for an answer because his needs are too great and his needs take precedence.
  • This is what the uke really wants, anyway, isn’t it?
  • If the seme makes the choice for the uke, then the uke is not at fault and is still an innocent.
  • If the uke is interested in sex, he’s made impure or dirty by this interest.
  • The seme must read the uke’s mind and know what the uke really wants.
  • Sex of any kind diminishes both parties but particularly the one submitting, so the uke can’t possibly bear the responsibility of wanting sex, so the decision must be made by the seme for both of them.

Those are only some of the damaging messages underneath this narrative device. It doesn’t stop this from being used A LOT in BL dramas.

Tutor in Why R U is the only uke character on my list with an active interest in sex (expressed aggressively). His seme, Fighter, still spends half their time together worried about hurting him and trying to be a gentleman. That said, in TharnType Type comes around eventually to loving bottoming, but this series has so many issues with consent I can’t legitimately use him as a positive example of anything.

Oh and safe sex?

Let’s just say I spend an inordinate amount of time yelling at the screen about condoms and lube.

CRASSNESS

Friends Teasing BL

Many of these dramas are far more frank about masturbation and non-sexual bodily functions than Americans are accustomed to seeing on screen. You’ll see outright discussion of both, particularly from straight male side characters who usually play the wise fool archetype to the gay boys (like Pond in Love by Chance and June in Kiss Me Again).

There are also female/gender queer friends fulfilling/playing jester roles who act in clownish or in overly flirty ways. These characters are rarely considered threatening, no matter how outrageous they are, because female is identified by the narrative as submissive and therefore safe and non-aggressive. Straight men will happily flirt/joke with out femme gay characters, and a protective seme usually feels safe leaving his uke with a queer gender-fluid support group (e.g. 2 Moons 2).

On a more serious note, threat of man-on-man rape is casually joked about (even if they might not exactly mean rape, more ravage, sometimes they really do mean rape).

Also non-con voyeurism, peeping Toms, perving, and plying someone with alcohol with sexual intent, are all considered rather cheeky and not necessarily negative.

PRODUCT PLACEMENT

Product placement in most BL dramas is totally egregious. So so so bad. Really, honestly, awful. But hey, whatever makes enough money to make these, I guess?

The worst offender is 2gether, but most of the Thai dramas feature significant product placement. It’s how the series are paid for, one assumes. This doesn’t happen as much in BL out of Taiwan.

Okay, I think that’s all the warnings I have.

Other People’s Thoughts

Still with me?

Then read on for Part 2: THE LIST!

Happy watching, may all your dumplings be purple and all your milk be pink,

Miss Gail

Tutor & Fighter in Why R U

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14 Responses

  1. Matthew said:

    These two posts are fascinating, even though I’ve not seen any BL series. (I sort of struggle to remember to turn on the tv and be better a part of modern pop culture…). I also really liked your discussion of different types of gay romance. I came to the romance genre pretty late in life and recently so I’ve had a difficult time finding the right vocabulary to discuss why I enjoy some gay romances much more than others. From your definitions, it all makes a lot more sense why some move me more/feel more relevant.

    1. Gail Carriger Post author said:

      Oh hooray! I am so glad you enjoyed the post, and thank you. Yeah I think without knowing the history of gay romance within the author community many readers are confused.

  2. The Cloaked Eclair said:

    THIS sort of thing is why I adore you so, Miss Gail. You can take I topic in which I have zero interest, make it interesting, and make me want to know more (especially if you are the one writing it). From the first chapter of Soulless to Enforcer Enigma (and – literally – everything else you’ve written (seriously – blog posts on women’s fashion, even), I simply MUST read you. If they ever allow in-person cons & such again, I may have to (politely) ask for a hug.
    Or, at least, another picture with the Phoenix Mad Scientist with the longest, whitest hair.
    (I do hope none of that came off creepy or stalkery – and my apologies if any of it is out of line.)

    1. Gail Carriger Post author said:

      Aw, thank you so much! I’m glad you gave me blathering on a chance. And not stalkery at all, happy to have someone interested.

  3. Katharina said:

    I am happy to have discovered a new kind of media content (also by the links you provided)! As a heterosexual female and ESL, I am very well conscious of the undercurrents from Jane Austen over Georgette Heyer onward to modern romances. This analysis is very entertaining, circumspect and helpful. And I understand very well the ambivalence between entertainment and analytical view/moral implications.

  4. Pelerine Dumpling said:

    This is so interesting. I am old enough to not have read any yaoi or BL, never mind watched dramas, before I was lucky enough to stumble onto quality queer romance, and only recently came into contact with BL after I got sucked into The Untamed, and decided to read the novel it was based on. I found the genre very addictive — and also very problematic, sometimes actively off-putting, for many of the reasons that you have brought up here (not least the consent issue). But so far, I’ve only read Wuxia (fantasy) BL, and not very much of it, and I’m not sure if I’ll read much more. Anyway, I’m so impressed by your very thorough analysis, and tempted to check some of these out, for, um, research purposes… XD

    1. Gail Carriger Post author said:

      Thank you so so much! Your path is fascinating, since I LOVED the idea of The Untamed, but couldn’t get into it because the BL was way too subtext.

      1. Pelerine Dumpling said:

        Haha, yes, The Untamed is not really a BL drama at all (they turned it into a “bromance” for Chinese censorship reasons), but to be fair, the BL subtext is pretty obvious, if you know what to look for, and at least it had a more or less happy ending (unlike the Guardian drama adaptation, which was also turned into a “bromance”, and still had way more obvious subtext, but let the protagonists die horribly at the end, instead of the book HEA. I haven’t actually watched the end of that). Anyway. Let’s just say that The Untamed has vast amounts of eyecandy. The settings, the clothes, the SUPER PRETTY protagonists. Despite the lack of romance, I was drooling throughout. Even when I was crying.

        BL is currently a bit of a guilty pleasure with me, because of all the issues with consent and heteronormativity. I did start watching Until We Meet Again, and dear gods, the way Dean looks at Pharm is just like you say. It’s nuclear meltdown-level hot. *fans self*

        But the way Pharm acts as soon as Dean tries to touch him (wincing, backing away, protesting, squirming with discomfort) is also kind of off-putting. It’s like all ukes are written as ace, and all semes are allo, and the resulting script that aces have to put up with/put out for the sexual needs of their allosexual partners is just… Ew. I definitely prefer enthusiastic, informed consent in my romance. And yet, there’s something very addictive about it! *goes off to watch some more*

        1. Gail Carriger Post author said:

          Yes exactly with Pharm, sigh. Why can’t he be a bit more like his former self, Intouch?

          One of the better ones in this regard (timid Uke but who still has sexual agency) is actually Pete & Ae in Love by Chance, they are so cute together. But two of the sub-plots from that sereies are so awful, I wish there were just a PeteAe cut.

          The Uke Doth Protest Too Much trope really bothers me. Argh.

          1. Pelerine Dumpling said:

            Yes, it’s so strange, because Intouch is the one who takes all the initiative and has no shyness, and is still a ray of sunshine and sweetness! Pharm is so different from him that it’s even kind of weird that anyone recognised him as In. I almost wish we could have had Dean/In, because Dean has a lot more charisma than Korn. Or at least that some of In started bleeding through in Pharm.

            I read your overview of Love By Chance, and the main couple sounds lovely, but those subplots sound seriously weird!

            And it’s really way past time to stop with the “no really means yes” trope. Urgh.

  5. Pelerine Dumpling said:

    Okay, so I watched TharnType, and I am going to fight you on Thitiwat Riprasert being the hottest human being on Earth. It’s obviously Suppasit Jongcheveevat (Mew). You are wrong and I am right. There.

    (I reserve my right to change my mind later when I have watched other things. But for now that is an immutable fact.)

    I LOVED TharnType. Yes, despite its many, many issues. It just feels so bloody *real*. I feel that if you get past the first two-three episodes with all the vile homophobic outbursts and the weaponised gay non-con harrassment (and yes, the very contrived, out-of-the-blue, from sexual PTSD to unconcerned “hey, let’s have sex just one time” — and the equally fucked-up “sure, who cares what your reason is”), it turns into a pretty decent story about self-discovery, self-reevaluation and slowly coming out of the closet (except for the bi-erasure). I love that they don’t have the classic seme/uke dynamic, and are pretty evenly matched, and that the chemistry on screen (and off-screen, yes I admit to watching some behind-the-scenes) is off the charts. (I can see why there’s such insane MewGulf shipping.) The enemies-to-lovers thing is hot AF, but boy would I like to utterly rewrite that whole beginning. (And adress the pedophile thing, because ugh.)

    I would have liked to see Type coming out to his family and ESPECIALLY apologising and making up with his gay childhood friend (whatshisname, Khom? something), but I guess (hope) that will happen in series 2?

    I can’t get over how much I loved this. Once we get past all the hate speech and non- and dubcon at the beginning, we actually have enthusiastic consent here, the thing I felt was the greatest flaw in Until We Meet Again.

    1. Pelerine Dumpling said:

      Oh! Oh! Oh! I found the special “Everlasting Love” episode set three years on, where we do see them go to visit Type’s parents (his dad is terrible and hilarious), and Type does make up with Kom! (It’s here, just in case).

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