The Rise of Boys Love: Breaking Barriers in South Korea

The Rise of Boys Love: Despite his industry-perfect looks, Park Jae-chan’s K-pop group DKZ had limited success. Their albums sold only 1,000 copies in the first week. His last chance at fame was auditioning for “Semantic Error” on TV. The Boys’ Love (BL) genre was rare in South Korea, and the series featured same-sex romance.

In a CNN phone interview, Jaechan, who prefers his given name, admitted his initial concerns. His label’s management worried but supported him. BL, also known as “yaoi,” depicts homoerotic male relationships. “Semantic Error,” based on a popular web novel, follows two male college students who fall in love. Unlike LGBTQ literature, heterosexual women write and read BL stories.

Jaechan was cast as Chu Sang-woo, a main character in the show. “Semantic Error” was a hit in 2022 after taking a risk. It ruled Korean streaming platform Watcha for two months. After its success, the platform released a movie in Seoul theaters, selling about 60,000 tickets.

Jaechan appeared in Elle, Cosmopolitan, and Dazed Korean editions after the show’s debut and won several awards. His new album sold over 100,000 copies in its first week, making him feel loved and appreciated by fame.

“Semantic Error”‘s success surprised many, but fans and creators saw the genre’s growing popularity outside Japan. Taiwanese and Thai series had mainstream success recently. Despite its conservative LGBTQ views, BL fandom in South Korea grew online.

Kim Hyo-jin, a Seoul National University scholar of Japanese culture and BL research, says pirated Japanese BL manga brought a few readers decades ago. In the 1990s, local writers began anonymously writing Korean BL stories on dial-up internet and personal computers, increasing readership. These stories featured K-pop-inspired pop stars in romantic scenes where they had to hide their relationships from their agencies and fans.

After South Korean internet giants Naver and Kakao launched their online fiction platforms in 2013, amateur writers, including those writing BL content, could make a living selling web novels. Since 2016, Tappytoon’s BL audience has more than doubled annually, reaching 800,000 last year. More than 300 BL titles, a third of its catalog, are available in English, German, and French. Due to clips and compilations of characters’ love stories, best kisses, and angstiest moments on social media and apps like TikTok, the genre is popular in the West.

“Semantic Error,” a web novel by anonymous author J. Soori, marked the genre’s transition from online fiction to television and film adaptations. “Where Your Eyes Linger,” South Korea’s first BL hit, debuted in 2020, but the “Semantic Error” streaming series made the genre profitable and attracted many new Watcha subscribers. South Korea produces over 20 BL shows. The loyal and vocal BL fan community frequently watches their favorite shows to boost their rankings on streaming platforms’ most-viewed lists, making producing shows in this genre a good business decision.

Watcha’s Chief Marketing Officer Kim Hye-jung noted the dedicated BL fandom and the potential for big returns on small budgets. She compared it to K-pop idol fandom, where fans obsessively play their favorite shows to boost their rankings. Kim also saw fans “spirit sending” tickets to “Semantic Error” screenings they couldn’t attend.

BL is criticized for its typical relationship dynamics. A masculine, aggressive character seduces a passive one, who eventually reciprocates after repeated advances that may resemble harassment or assault. Thomas Baudinette, a queer media professor at Sydney’s Macquarie University who specializes in BL, says BL may appeal to women because it eliminates heterosexual male dominance over female bodies. LGBTQ activists say BL stories fetishize and appropriate gay culture. However, many BLs argue that these fantasies are just that—fantasies—and do not accurately portray LGBTQ people.

Korean culture researcher and educator Jeong Areum said readers sometimes want to escape reality. She remembered steamy BL stories about pop stars who had to hide their romances from their agencies and fans. In a country where same-sex marriage is illegal and LGBTQ rights advocates fight for anti-discrimination laws, the popularity of BL may help promote understanding and acceptance.

The Rise of Boys Love

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Last year, BL starred Holland, South Korea’s first openly gay idol. He thinks the rise of BL books, TV, and movies is good. Holland acknowledges that South Korean on-screen BL content has focused more on romance and intimacy than explicit sexual scenes found in comics, novels, and fan fiction. In a country where LGBTQ people are portrayed negatively, these fantasies normalize same-sex relationships.

Holland is helping write realistic dialogue for another BL show. Kim, the scholar, expects more LGBTQ voices to contribute to BL dramas, blurring the line between BL and queer media.

Baudinette, a gay BL fan, believes the genre will challenge South Korean gender and sexuality conservatives. He also notes BL’s growing male fanbase. Heterosexual women can use BL to express their sexual autonomy in a world without heterosexual male dominance politics. BL also promotes gay-male romance.

As BL grows in popularity in South Korea and beyond, it could challenge social norms and promote acceptance and understanding of diverse love and relationships.

Our Reader’s Queries

Why is Boy Love so popular?

Readers enjoy the absence of gender norms and lack of objectification of women in the content. Some simply appreciate the aesthetic appeal of the male figures.

What is a BL show?

The genre known as “Boys’ Love” or “BL” is a type of romantic drama found in novels, manga, anime, movies, and TV series. It first appeared in Japan in the 1970s and was mainly created and enjoyed by heterosexual women.

Are there any BL K dramas?

Cherry Blossoms After Winter (2022), Love Class (2022), and Individual Circumstances (2023) are among the top titles. Long Time No See, Korea’s pioneering BL drama, debuted as a brief five-episode series in 2017. Due to its favorable reception, it was swiftly turned into a movie that very same year.

Why does Thailand have so many BL dramas?

Thailand has leveraged the impact of BL series to promote the idea that same-sex couples and marriage are a normal part of an inclusive society. According to Dylan, actors will not encounter any discrimination from the production team regardless of their gender and appearance.

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