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How Thailand's 'boy-love' TV dramas raise LGBTQ+ awareness

April 24, 2024

Gay-romance TV dramas produced in Thailand are becoming popular across Asia and making LGBTQ+ issues more visible. But are these series how the LGBTQ+ community wants to be depicted?

A person taking part in Pride Parade in Thailand's capital Bangkok
Critics have pointed out that these series don't reflect the real diversity of the LGBTQ+ community in ThailandImage: Andre Malerba/ZUMA/dpa/picture alliance

When the protagonists of the gay-romance drama "Cutie Pie," Lian Kilen Wang and Kuea Keerati, tied the knot at the end of the series, they did so knowing that their marriage would not be legally recognized, even in the fictional world of Thailand's "boy-love" TV shows.  

But now, in real life, that is about to change, as Thailand is set to join Taiwan and Nepal as the only places in Asia to allow same-sex marriage.

Cutie Pie, which has an assertive pro-LGBTQ+ stance, is one of many shows in a genre called Boy's Love (BL). 

These shows focus on romantic relationships between two male characters, and are mainly enjoyed by a primarily straight female audience.

"What the Thai BL industry is already working on is increasing the visibility of LGBTQ+ people," said Natthanai Prasannam, associate professor of Thai literary and cultural studies at Kasetsart University in Bangkok.

Huge commercial appeal

Thailand's BL series have attracted a large following internationally, especially in Asia — including China where the government bans the genre — and even in South America.

Last year, rom-com "My School President" starring Gemini Norawit Titicharoenrak and Fourth Nattawat Jirochtikul racked up at least 150 million views on different streaming platforms.

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Given the main actors' chemistry on and off screen, the cast held live meet-and-greets with fans all over Asia — from South Korea and Japan to the Philippines and Singapore.

Some fans have even started learning Thai. "I started learning the language myself several months ago because I wanted to understand what my favorite 'couple pairing' says," Rose, a 19-year-old fan in China, told DW.

Thailand now has a reputation as an exporter of "boy-love" series. In 2020, when the breakout show "2gether" was aired, there were only 24 BL shows. Last year, over 60 series were released, according to local media.

"The popularity of the Thai BL industry is closely linked to the fact that we produce more than other countries due to legal, religious and cultural factors," Natthanai told DW.

He added that the actors' charisma, coupled with the extensive interactions between the actors and their fans through meet-and-greet events, and social media also contribute to its success.

Perpetuating gender stereotypes?

While portraying the lives of queer communities gives them more representation, there are concerns over stereotypical gender roles assigned to the lead couples in the Thai BL shows.

Many of them follow traditional heterosexual norms, with one person taller and more masculine while the other is usually smaller and more feminine, according to Bangkok-based data center Rocket Media Lab, which studied 13 Thai BL series aired between 2020 and early 2021.

Critics have also pointed out that these series don't reflect the real diversity of the LGBTQ+ community in Thailand.

"You don't really see flamboyantly gay people in the shows. When you do, they exist as props or funny characters," said Jason, who has been a BL fan for a decade.

But some experts say this trend is gradually changing.

"Effeminate gays are being shown more in the media and portrayed as empowered individuals. This is a significant development," Nattanai told DW.

"But we must not forget that BL series' role to increase LGBTQ+ awareness cannot take place without other changes such as the attitude of the audience or the public and that of the government," he added.

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Mixed feelings from LGBTQ+ community

While Thailand enjoys a welcoming reputation for these BL series, some say the characters are free of the real-life obstacles that many queer people have to go through.

Instead, the majority focus more on marketable scenes and romantic tensions between the leading couples.

"I like watching these boy-love series because, for me, they have become a source of escapism, everything is so easy," said Jason, who is part of the Thai LGBTQ+ community.

Nearly 60% of the Thai BL series produced in the past decade do not address real-world problems faced by LGBTQ+ community, according to Thailand's online newspaper The Matter.

"Sometimes some scenes are oversimplified, for example, when they come out to their family and friends, they are either immediately accepted for who they are or people would say 'I've known for a while, no big deal.' But in real life, it's not that simple, especially when you are not from a big city," Jason said.

But he admits that reinforcing the normalization of the queer experience — even if current portrayals can still be problematic — does help change public perceptions, especially those of more conservative older generations.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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Emmy Sasipornkarn Srimingkwanchai
Emmy Sasipornkarn Multimedia journalist covering Thailand and Southeast Asia