For many of us, Friday nights during the lockdown meant binge-watching new programs on Netflix. But for millions of Boys Love (“Y” in Thai) fans around Asia, it was one night to fix their eyes on the screen to watch the latest episode of 2gether: The Series, unarguably Thailand’s most popular Boys Love drama.
Throughout the 13 weeks of its airing, the #2gethertheSeries hashtag topped global trends on Twitter—the most favored social media of Boys Love fans—and triggered millions of virtual conversations about the series in various languages, from Thai to Chinese to English. The series was so popular that its lead actors, fresh-faced Vachirawit “Bright” Cheva-aree and Metawin “Win” Opas-iamkajorn, garnered more than a million Instagram followers from all over the world in just a few weeks. 2gether: The Series became the global phenomenon no one expected.
When boys love boys
The presence of Boys Love series, a unique drama genre that depicts homoerotic relationships between male characters, has increased significantly in recent years. Narratives revolving around two boys in a romantic relationship were pretty much secondary subplots before the 2014 series Love Sick, which was a significant turning point for the subgenre. It was probably the first time in Thai entertainment history that two boys with homosexual inclinations were featured in the lead.
Since then, other players in the market jumped in, including GMMTV, a subsidiary of Thailand’s largest entertainment conglomerate, GMM Grammy, and producer of 2gether: The Series.
Noppanat Chaiwimol, a director and producer for GMMTV (pictured above), tells us that the company first chose a less obvious course by dropping in Boys Love characters into heterosexual series (Tay-New from Kiss and Pik-Low from Senior Secret Love, for example). After gaining positive feedback, the entertainment powerhouse decided to go all the way. Sotus was its first try. “The first [season] was an experiment. We didn’t know how would it go,” says the young exec. “Back then, it was controversial for a major entertainment company to pair up two guys. Well, it turned out to be a big hit and Chris-Singto [the portmanteau for the actors in the series] are still around today even if it’s been about four or five years.”
LINE TV, the free streaming platform that has been broadcasting Boys Love series such as Make it Right and Sotus since 2016 says that the coronavirus lockdown earned the platform the biggest increase in viewership in history. From a five percent audience share in 2019, the first quarter of 2020 alone saw the number peaked at 34 percent. “Boys Love is no longer a sub-genre. It’s gone mainstream,” says Kanop Supamanop, LINE’s VP for content business. LINE TV alone currently stockpiles 33—and counting—Thai Boys Love series on its platform, making it the biggest producer of the subgenre in Thailand.
Reading love between the lines
Like many Boys Love dramas before it, 2gether the Series is based on a novel of the same name.
Thai Boys Love is a local appropriation of yaoi, the Japan-originating form of homoerotic fiction that revolves around the romantic narratives between a masculine boy (called “uke”) and a more feminine boy (called “seme”). Traditionally, yaoi is created, consumed and favored by women. This Japanese subculture arrived in Thailand a decade ago in the form of novels. The community of Boys Love readers flourished long before the culture came to the small screen.
“It started off underground, before surfacing around 2011 to 2012. The genre picked up and blossomed in around 2014-2015,” says Dr. Utain Boonorana, a medical doctor who’s also an LGBTQ fiction author known by his pseudonyms, Patrick Rangsimant and Mor Tood (“Homo Doctor” in Thai). The Boys Love novels he penned include My Ride, I Love You, which has been translated into English and is set to become a TV drama.
Walk into any major bookstores in Bangkok—as well as other major provinces—now and you’ll see what would have been unheard of a few years back: Boys Love novels taking over more and more shelves.
Observing the growth of Boys Love literature, decades-old publishing house Sataporn Books jumped onto the bandwagon in 2018 and launched a new brand called Deep. So far, Deep has published around 70 Boys Love titles, and 20 of them being produced into a television series. “I guess society seems to be more accepting of Boys Love fiction,” says Jetiya Lokitsataporn, the owner of Sataporn Books. She goes on to explain that the Boys Love industry has seen tremendous growth because more producers, including major channels, have shown interest in turning these novels into television series. More series translates into better sales of the books.
Jetiya also points out that she has seen fewer stories about students and more about people with actual careers. “There is also more fantasy fiction, like those in which men could become pregnant. If you treat them as fantasy, we could simply accept them [as entertainment].” Deep is also selling the rights to their novels to international publishers in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea.
The (clichéd) formula that guarantees success
Similar to many other successful Thai Boys Love media, 2gether:The Series centers around college students living out unreal storylines and engaging in somewhat irrational conversations. It’s these elements that seem to guarantee the success of a Boys Love series—in addition to attractive characters with on-screen chemistry, that is. Other hit series such as TharnType and En of Love also fall into this cliché.
“Most readers and authors are teenagers, so life in college is what’s closest to their real life,” says Utain, adding to the premise. “Pre-teens and teens [which are Boys Love’s main target groups] would not be able to understand how a frustrated 30-something woman actually feels about life…they won’t be able to empathize.”
Curiously enough, Boys Love protagonists all come from the same demographic. A parody on the sub-culture pointed out that most lead characters are either engineering or medical students from affluent backgrounds.
PhD researcher Ronnayuth Euatrirat, who’s studying the Thai Boys Love phenomenon, explains that this may be due to the fact that many Boys Love novels are penned by female authors. “We find Boys Love characters reflect the desires of a young woman. An engineering student, for example, is a typical desirable personification of a dependable man. These characters also have a manly appearance and come from well-to-do backgrounds. These standards respond to women’s needs.”
GMMTV, now the best-known producer of Thai Boys Love series, is taking a risk by tweaking these clichéd standards. Later this year, it will release A Tale of Thousand Stars, its first Boys Love series that doesn’t feature a teen, nor an engineering student, in the lead. Instead, you have a budding relationship between a volunteer teacher and a forestry officer. Noppanat, who is writing the screenplay and is directing the series, wants to explore new possibilities in the Boys Love landscape. Though the series’ has yet to be aired, previews have received positive feedback from Boys Love fans that are starting to get fed up with teenage fantasies.
LGBTQ and Boys Love: two parallel universes?
The wide reception and popularity of Thai Boys Love owes so much to the freedom of gender expression in Thailand. But is the LGBTQ community actually benefiting from the increasing popularity of Boys Love novels and series?
A number of local LGBTQ advocates have shunned Boys Love culture, saying that it doesn’t reflect the real lives of LGBTQ individuals, and even portrays a false perception of the community. But the experts we’ve spoken with don’t wholly agree.
Noppanat acknowledges that this is one topic you can spend days discussing. The veteran producer and director, who has been doing research on Boys Love for more than five years, doesn’t think these series are “too fantasized” and are not an appropriate reflection of the LGBT community
“All Boys Love dramas revolve around same-sex relationships so, personally, I think they represent diversity. They are a sub-part of the LGBTQ genre. However, at the end of the day, we’re talking about the Boys Love genre that focuses on romantic fantasy and not more serious LGBTQ issues such as equality and HIV. Being in the middle of this lengthy discussion for so long, I have had to find the right balance between what the audience needs and what needs to be done,” he explains. “Many LGBT individuals possibly live their lives like those [in Boys Love series]. You see young same-sex couples everywhere, right? Society is now more open and they might not have to overcome many obstacles like those before them. So if you take this case into account, Boys Love series could be real [examples of society].
An LGBTQ advocate himself, Nopparat tries to inject a message about gender acceptance into every Boys Love series he produces. He’s also the mind behind GMMTV’s LGBTQ productions, many of which have been praised for their complex and thought-provoking narratives, including Gay OK Bangkok. “We see new narratives, more diversity popping up every day. For example, I’m really interested in the gender fluidity young people are talking about these days. The world of LGBTQ is sensitive and needs further exploration.”
The butterfly effect: The unexpected consequences of popularity
A few months ago, one of 2gether: the Series’ young lead stars posted comments on social media that allegedly criticized China’s power over Hong Kong and Taiwan. Though his comments were clearly misconstrued and taken out of context, it didn’t stop a full-blown war from exploding on Twitter. Thai and Chinese users, Boys Love fans and just simple detractors alike, exchanged insults. It wasn’t too long until Hong Kongers and Taiwanese weighed in and banded together with the Thais in a digital coalition called “Milk Tea Alliance.” Even famous Hong Kong political activist Joshua Wong showed his support for the affiliation.
When the Embassy of China in Thailand issued a statement on its Facebook Page (which wasn’t received well by netizens), everyone knew things had gone out of control. The controversial issue went on to make the headlines of many news agencies, including Reuters.
But like everything else in the Twitter universe, the fire was doused as quickly as it sparked. After a few weeks, the online dispute died down, but it did leave the series more popular than ever.
Soft power in the making
Exercising a nation’s culture as “soft power,” a persuasive, indirect international relation tool, has become a common practice worldwide. For example, K-pop has been one of South Korea’s key export products for years, making waves—and money—across the world. In 2018, it was reported that Korean cultural content exports were worth US$9.55 billion.
Similarly, Thai Boys Love is becoming more popular across the region, but could it become so influential as to affect pan-national relations and eventually evolve into Thailand’s new soft power?
“South Korea is exporting K-pop culture and, you know what, we are now exporting Boys Love series,” Utain says, adding that Boys Love fans around the world have praised Thai versions as some of the world’s best. “There are communities that monitor Thai Boys Love series. There could be a new Facebook Page popping up right following the news about the release of a new Boys Love series.”
Shortly after 2gether: the Series ended, GMMTV announced a series of virtual fan meetings featuring lead actors from its other Boys Love series—moderating in various languages, no less. Tickets were sold worldwide. You don’t have to be an economist to say GMMTV will definitely be bagging a hefty profit.
“I’m very confident in the quality of Boys Love series produced by many Thai production companies. 2gether the Series, for example, has proven successful,” says Noppanat. “It was the first time we saw opportunities in new markets: South America, Europe, the western hemisphere. 2gether the Series was the case study for us all [to prove] that it could go beyond Boys Love fans.”