Okay, so how is it September 2022??? Seems like I fell into a BL drama hole these past two months (feels MUCH longer!) and couldn’t get up. OMG, Jules! I hear you say. What is this awesome-sounding thing you’re into and why are you obsessed?
Well, come closer, my bébés, and let me give you a crash course.
Just like K-Drama is all about stories made in Korea and featuring Korean actors, BL (aka boy love) Dramas are stories involving boys dating, falling in love and (mainly) living happily ever after. The HEA has some exceptions which I will WARN YOU ABOUT because I am STILL SALTY about this (Love By Chance S2, I am looking right at you!). A lot of the stories are adapted from novels, or short stories, or manga. Some start out as an online game (!)
On to a few definitions, courtesy of Nothing But Yaoi.
BL is also known as Yaoi (Yah-OY), and is a media genre depicting romantic and homoerotic relationships between males. This genre blossomed in Japan in the ’70s as a literary genre and originally consisted of derivative works from parodies of original anime and manga stories. However, it gradually transformed into an umbrella term for other forms of fiction – such as anime, movies, dramas and fan-works – featuring homosexual relationships.
Seme – (sem-AY) refers to the ‘top’ or the one who penetrates the ‘bottom’ during sex. Usually portrayed as the character with the most masculine features and the one with the more dominant personality. In standard romance writing terms, he would be an alpha.
Uke – (oo-KAY) character with the most docile and submissive personality and the ‘bottom’ in the relationship. Physically, he is presented as being more graceful and feminine.
Riba – characters with mixed traits of semes and uke, and is both submissive and dominant in the relationship.
Tsundere – (SOON-de-deh) A character who initially shows off a moody and harsh personality and sometimes violent tendencies, but then gradually shows a sweet and gentle side.
Yandere – (YAN-de-deh) a character with a possessive and obsessive personality, who will do anything to be with their crush or love interest.
The Futekiya blog has a good explanation on the differences between seme/uke/riba.
I totally recommend Gail Carriger’s 2020 article BL Dramas Analysed from a Writer’s Perspective because she goes into the background stuff and I don’t need to say the same thing because I pretty much agree with all of it. Go read both parts.
Now, here’s my observations. BL isn’t just about gay/queer stories. It also deals with friendships, romantic pairings, families, school/college, acceptance and social issues. A lot of them fall into the New Adult subgenre (defined as stories with 18-24yo protagonists navigating their way in the world while dealing with a new job, college, family, social and romantic issues).
Sometimes I feel some male actors aren’t that comfortable kissing other men, but that could be me. I know some actors see BL as a stepping stone in the industry and do it for the money. You can find a bunch of YouTube clips that delve into this, but please take those with a grain of salt, because the bottom line is, it’s all subjective unless an actor has gone on record about it. And most will not.
BL run the gamut of SUPER HOT (KinnPorsche, Unforgotten Night), to one kiss in the last 30 seconds of the last ep (Where Your Eyes Linger, Light on Me, Minato’s Laundromat). Some BL are light and fluffy because sometimes we just need that feel-good romance story about two people falling in love. And then we have the more grittier stories that deal with social and political issues, bullying, assault, social media.
A lot of BL are only one season, except when not (TharnType, SOTUS). This gets confusing when they give the second season/related seasons a different title. (For example, Kiss: The Series, Kiss Me Again, Our Skyy are all related, with the same actors playing the same roles) I loved 2Moons (Phana and Wayo MY HEART!!!) but the company then produced a Season 2 and 3, but with completely different actors in the same roles for both seasons. People are not happy. I’ve managed to find a lot of related shows via IMDB, and I’ve also referred to My Drama List for details about number of eps, shows with the same actors, etc. It can get more confusing when it looks like a series is also a movie, and then I realised they make a ‘movie’ version of the series but there’s a lot of heavy editing involved so I recommend watching the series to get the complete story.
Like other fiction genres, BL has its tropes, expectations and issues. I think the oldest BL I’ve watched was made in 2016, and the earlier stuff shows its age when it comes to dealing with bullying, sexual assault, consent, stereotypes, gay rights and acceptance.
Most of my BL comes from Thailand and Korea, mainly because they are the ones stepping up to meet demand and consistently making content. I’ve seen a few Japanese and Chinese BL, but these are few and far between. A few production companies produce my favourite shows (GMM and Domundi are two) and those companies have a stable of actors who are in a multitude of different shows, promote those shows and endorse products (more about that later), plus do live greets, fan service and provide content for the original soundtrack. I watch in a bunch of various places – I have Prime and Netflix but they don’t have a lot of the old shows I’m looking for – and I’ll tell you about them all further down.
Okay, so apart from boy love, what’s BL about??
Aside from the fact that most of the boys are just SO FRICKING BEAUTIFUL IT MAKES ME CRY???? JUST LOOOOK AT THEM!!!! Who wouldn’t want to watch all the dramas with these guys???
Okay. It’s also about the tropes. I get a kinda-sorta “old romance bodice rippers of the 80s” vibe from BL: low/dubious on consent, sexually aggressive, the “I’m interested in you so I’ll overtly pursue you – even though you’ve said no – because I MUST HAVE YOU.” The alpha-seme characters are often forceful and in your face. There’s open bullying going on. Sometimes sexual assault is used as a plot/character device that makes me mega-uncomfortable (TharnType…. 😒) But anyway. Here’s a bunch of plot/trope devices that seem to crop up in a lot (if not most) BL.
Dominant male/passive male dynamic – I can count on one hand the BLs I’ve watched that don’t have this dynamic – alpha-type guy pursuing a shy, often nerdy, passive (same age or sometimes younger) boy. It’s your classic seme-uke. Most BL I’ve watched are set in college or just starting out in the workforce, so a huge New Adult vibe to it all, which is helpful to get past the censors re: sexual content.
Hot previously-hetero fuckboy has GFY (gay for you) thoughts about roomie/bestie/cute nerdy boy – “gay for you” is a legit trope in the romance genre. Some hate it, some aren’t bothered about it. It basically means that a previously heterosexual guy – with no indication he’s ever questioned his sexuality and in fact, is overtly sexual with women – will suddenly start to have the feels for another guy. It’s not that he’s GAY, because he doesn’t feel that way about other guys. It’s just this one guy who sets his heart all aflutter. Theory of Love fits this, as does TharnType (two very male men who don’t classify themselves as dominant or feminine, although Tharn is openly gay and says early on that he’s a top).
Not gay, just GFY – see above
Accidentally falling on other so they can ‘accidentally’ kiss – tripping over objects, a kerb, a fence or wall, people crashing into them – with their bodies or vehicle – and forcing them to kiss. Bonus if it involves water, like falling into a bath or a pond. Water fights are also good.
Getting drunk – this appears to provide an opportunity for the seme to kiss or touch the uke. It also allows them to talk about their feelings ‘honestly and openly’. Can also lead into…
Drunk kisses – doesn’t always come with consent. Many a drunk kiss may start out as ‘wtf are you doing??’ And because the pursuer is just SO DAMN GOOD at kissing, it morphs into consensual (and sometimes into sex, which again, is not always consensual or appears to be ‘forced seduction’ – a romance writing term that’s loaded with issues and sometimes used as a euphemism for rape, especially when we’re talking older romance novels of the 80s-90s).
Placing a hand on a wall/chair/object and leaning in to stare into their face/get intimately close – SO. DRAMATIC. I love this aggressive move (usually by the seme) and also love seeing the uke getting all flustered and nervous. See Cutie Pie, Secret Crush on You, Unforgotten Night.
Watching the other one sleep – So we get those lovely vulnerable moments with lingering looks and tender expressions. See also: pretending to be asleep so the other one can watch them sleep and possibly confess aloud how much they secretly have the feels. Is also related to the classic #OnlyOneBed conflict device.
Bringing food/feeding – this is a culture thing. Putting food on someone’s plate, bringing them noms when they’re sick or too busy to take care of themselves. Feeding them directly from a utensil has MAJOR sexual vibes, and we often get close ups of parted lips and lots of staring. There’s also a bit of extreme dramatic offence taken by the seme when an outsider/potential rival puts food on the plate of the seme’s love interest. This preferential treatment of being served food does not go unnoticed by family or friends.
Wiping food from their face – again, we are taking care of that someone we have the feels for. Wiping off food, sauce, cream, often on their lips or corner of the mouth. Bonus if the pursuer then licks that finger. HOT VIBE ALERT.
Patting/washing/drying hair – indicates intimacy, which a shoulder or arm pat definitely doesn’t.
Tending to wounds – to show their caring side. Can also involve kisses to said wound, or blowing of said wound. Which then gives us variations of gay panic from the one being pursued.
Nursing them when they’re sick – see above. This is also a good turning point for the uke to realise their pursuer is indeed, concerned for them. Which means their romantic feels start/increase.
Falling asleep together – with major spooning and possible kissing occurring. Can also be paired with the #OnlyOneBed conflict device.
Introducing a female/ex to make the other person jealous – some of these are done SO BADLY and sometimes the ex inserts themselves into the budding romance just to be dramatic/evil/demand attention. I have a love/hate relationship with this device. It can be done so very badly, or used extremely well so I accept and understand why my boys are in conflict. In which case, I keep telling myself they’ll eventually get their happy-ever-after, SO DON’T PANIC, FOR GODSAKES!
‘We can never be together, so go find a woman who will make you happy’– see above.
Disapproving relative – to create tension and conflict. Yes, it’s the 21st century but the reality is not everyone accepts same-sex relationships, especially when we’re dealing with parents, older relatives and society as a whole. Many Asian countries still don’t have gay rights or allow same-sex marriage, which makes the producers of these shows even more brave and forward-thinking.
Staring off into space, deep in thought – seriously, why is it so difficult to get someone’s attention when they’re doing this? It’s not like they’ve suddenly been struck deaf.
Product Placement – Snacks, drinks, face creams, collegen powders and pills, nasal sprays. I see them all, and some can be subtle (Theory of Love) and some literally IN YOUR FACE and wtf obvious (Unforgotten Night). Sponsors throw money at the show and expect a return, both within the show and from the actors when they do promotional activities. Not gonna lie, I’ve gone out and bought a bunch of those promoted snacks from my local Coles because I wanted to know what they tasted like. I am an advertisers dream.
Someone is gonna be shipping someone on social media – this is a cute device, and very in keeping with modern teenage life today. For those not in the know, ‘Shipping’ is basically the act of putting two people in a relationship together, either romantically or not. Mostly, it’s of the romantic kind. In Fish Upon the Sky, this is a major conflict device for our nerdy uke, Pi, and his seme pursuer, Mork. Their ship name is #MorkPi. The actors are also shipped outside the show too (for e.g. #BrightWin, #OffGun, #MewGulf, #BibleBuild). Of course, some actors will do this for the fan service (i.e. providing that fan-driven squeeeee! content that keeps people interested/obsessed with the show), but then you will have a ship that sails into real-life couple waters: #MaxNat, #OffGun, #ZeeNuNew 😍😍
A Happy Ever After – this is the most important trope in a romance novel – in fact, it defines the entire genre. If a Romance is not HEA or HFN (happy for now) i.e. an uplifting ending, it is not a romance novel. Whatever else is going on in the story, however the characters fight and break up and reconcile and suffer, romance readers expect and demand a HEA / HFN for them. I want my BL boys to have a happy ending because I like love stories to be positive. I honestly don’t think I’ve seen any BL that has ended badly (except when there’s a S2…. don’t get me started on Love By Chance S2 😡😡). *UPDATE 3/6/23 HIStory: Make Our Days Count, Gray Rainbow and Love Bill ALL END BADLY!!! You’ve been warned. I’ve seen some left up in the air (Ingredients and HIStory: Trapped), some that have a ‘X years later’ (Where Your Eyes Linger), and some that are bittersweet (On Cloud Nine, Doctor I’m Coming for Soul). I watched Present Perfect (original Thai movie) and Present Still Perfect (sequel), but saw the sequel first, so I got Toey and Oat’s initial romance backstory last. Didn’t diminish or spoil the story at all and they’re now two of my favourite BL movies.
The “I like you” moment – When a boy confesses their feels. I think a more accurate translation should be “I have a crush on you”. Gail Carriger goes into more detail about translation issues, which you can read in her article I’ve linked to above.
A bit more on translating issues. Depending where you watch, they could be A+ or piss-poor. Some are just very very odd. I laughed aloud with KinnPorsche – a story about mafia and their tough bodyguards – and their cursing. ‘Fudge’, ‘darn’ and ‘shoot’…? LOOOOL. Vegas definitely says “fuck” in English, but ‘fudge’ is the translator’s go-to. For Love By Chance, one site’s subs were “at least you won’t be told you’re a faggot.” Viki translates it as: “you won’t be told you’re the wrong gender.” The subs for Make It Right on Bilibili were crazy-ass around Ep10, so I swapped over to YouTube.
So where can I watch these awesome shows?
My first port of call is either a legal paid platform or the creators’ official YouTube channel.
YouTube – GMMTV has a channel for catchup, which I love. I also recommend MindTrio. Make sure you get an ad blocker, because I totally forgot YT has ads, and one time I watched on my iPad … annoying ads ahoy! Plus, I read on an Instagram account that there’s some censoring going on, but this is a bit hit-and-miss for me. For e.g. there’s a hot bath scene in Secret Crush on You between Toh and Neua that I DID NOT KNOW ABOUT because I’d watched it on Bilibili and they’d cut it. The full uncut scenes can be found on Viki. I’ve also had ep10 of Cutie Pie censored because of ‘sexual content’ and unless I send YT a copy of my ID (wtf, not gonna do that!!) then I’m blocked from watching it there.
Yay 👍 – free!
Boo 😒 – censorship! And ads.
Rakuten Viki – The format is very Prime-looking. You can get a bunch of shows for free, and the quality is great, but sometimes they’ll make the first few eps free, then the rest of the season is VIP-only, which you have to pay for. They also place LOUD ads wherever they feel like in a show, so you’ll be watching an intense emotional scene and suddenly there’s a 20sec ad for Pocky. UGH. And the frequency/number of ads is totally random: one 30min ep had 5 breaks in it?? On the flip side, I watched a 90min movie with two ad breaks. And sometimes you get a Skip this ad>> button so there’s that?
Yay 👍 – good range of BL and somewhat free!
Boo 😒 – random ads everywhere unless you pay for VIP. Paywall to see a complete season.
iQiYi – I have this app on my iPod but the ads ARE ANNOYING on the free version and totally in the way of the buttons. Paying for a subscription removes them, of course. But some content is be country-restricted (e.g. Unintentional Love Story), so even if you’re a subscriber, you may not get access to every show.
Yay 👍 – excellent uncensored content!
Boo 😒 – paywall/sub fee can be expensive, plus content may be country-restricted.
GagaOOLala – this channel is LGBTQIA dedicated, so if you’re unhappy with the shitty offerings of Prime or Netflix, I’d totally be paying a sub for this. You can see an ep or two for free, but then you have to subscribe. Also, as with iQiYi above, content may be country-restricted, even as a subscriber.
Yay 👍 – CONTENT that is frequent and excellent!!
Boo 😒 – possible country restrictions, plus sub is $$
HiTV – I recently discovered this app and it’s fab because there’s lots of older shows here that iQiYi and Viki don’t have. It does have ads, but only static silent ones at the start of each ep.
Yay 👍 – content you may not be able to find elsewhere.
Boo 😒 – The tiniest of tiny ads at the start of each ep.
Netflix – I’ve watched heaps of K- and C-Drama here (While You Were Sleeping, Love and Leashes, Final Life, Sweet Home, Alice in Borderland) and I still have a bunch bookmarked, but I haven’t turned on my TV for weeks. I watched Your Name Engraved Herein, plus technically-not-BL Hwarang and The Untamed here, but Netflix have edited a few scenes of the latter, which makes me v. angry. Also, apparently Germany has absolutely no Chinese drama available, which is… just weird.
Yay 👍 – HD content, no ads.
Boo 😒 – choice is limited via your country. Plus, you know… you have to pay for a subscription. And with the ‘no family sharing thing’ that’s being phased in, Netflix may not be your best choice.
Okay, so that’s my crash course on BL Drama. Stay tuned for a list of my favourite series so far. And if you watch BL, let me know your faves in the comments!