Thai Boys-Love Phenomenon: When Entertainment Breeds Community (The “Y” Chronicle Part III)
Audiences at the fan-meeting concert featuring actors from the BL drama KinnPorsche
(cr. Gossip Star)
Following the recent massive success of boys-love (BL) medias in Thailand and abroad, it is becoming apparent that the BL or “Y” genre is becoming something far greater than a mere category of entertainment. Rather, it has given birth to a community of fans, possessing unique characteristics as a result of several key elements. In this article, we are going to explore each of the element of the Thai boys-love phenomenon and the impact of said movement on Thai culture as a whole.
This article is the concluding piece to a three-part article series exploring, first, Thai boys-love literature, and second, Thai boys-love series.
It is naturally impossible to discuss the Thai boys-love movement without first getting to know the source materials which sparked the whole phenomenon. Recently, Thailand has become one of the biggest (if not the biggest) key contender in the boys-love media market, consisting of literary publications and serialized dramatization. In particular, Thai boys-love series, also known by its Thai terminology as Thai “Y” series, has attracted quite a tremendous number of audiences globally each year. In its earliest days during the 2000s, however, the boys-love genre mainly existed in the form of fan-fiction and its similar equivalence circulated primarily through online forums, such as Dek-D.com. Often, fans of boys group at the time, such as TVXQ and Super Junior, would imagine their admired male band members being a couple with one another, or in vernacular term, they would ‘ship’ the members with one another. This earlier phase of boys-love genre in Thailand is important to mention, as it encapsulates the general “spirit” of boys-love movement, which, according to Prasannam (2019), can be described as “spirit of playful appropriation”, wherein conventional entertainment medias would be appropriated by fans in the genre and modified to fit into the boys-love narrative. This enables a crucial ‘interaction between fandom and industry’, whereby the industry would also cater to the fantasy input from the fandom, as can, for example, be seen during the launch of a Thai reality show Academy Fantasia (AF) in 2004 starring aspiring idols, where some of the idols were also romantically paired up by the network as BL couples or, as known in Thai, khu Y (คู่วาย). Correspondingly, the first complete and massively successful Thai boys-love series, Love Sick the Series (2014), was adapted from a novel of the same name posted on the aforementioned online forum, Dek-D.com. Nonetheless, the modern iteration of Thai boys-love medias, especially the series, has only just seen a rapid surge in popularity during the lockdown imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, where people were indulging themselves on streaming service, seeking new uplifting contents to enjoy.
Thai BL novels
Most of Thai boys-love medias follow the yaoi literary tradition, originated in Japan, wherein the relationship dynamic between the main protagonists is often depicted in terms of dominant-submissive trope, or, more commonly known by the Japanese terminology, seme and uke. This trope is usually represented to the physical characteristics of the protagonists, whereby the dominant characters tend to appear more masculine, older and taller, whereas the submissive characters would possess more feminine or androgynous attributes. Traditionally, the settings of most Thai BL narratives would be in high-school or university, where seme characters would often be studying in a traditionally-viewed as masculine fields, such as Engineering, while the uke would be studying something more traditionally-associated with female, such as Humanities.
Nevertheless, in the recent time, following the industry’s rapid growth, we can experience a wider variety of plots, settings and creative directions, not restricted to the traditional teenage love story. For instance, one can encounter a boys-love spin on conventional Thai love story trope of reincarnated destined lovers, which, due to Thais’ predominant belief in the Buddhist reincarnation cycle, is typically present in many Thai melodramas. Furthermore, modern Thai boys-love medias also strive to provide a more realistic and less romanticized picture of the people within the LGBTQ+ community, moving away from the seme and uke trope and bringing awareness to several social issues faced by the group, such as unacceptance from conservative parents, marriage status, and bullying in school.
Thai BL drama
Obviously, Thai boys-love media constitutes a vital part of the Thai boys-love phenomenon, whereby it provides the fandom with source materials to congregate around and further contribute to the genre.
Naturally, the like-minded audiences of the genre congregate together, mainly through online platforms, to form a community of devout fans. As mentioned earlier, this community plays an important role in providing inputs and feedbacks to the industry, which enable the genre as a whole to fully develop and become a staple in Thai media. Initially, however, the community mainly comprised female audiences. Reportedly, these female fans, or as known in Thai sao-Y (สาววาย) have always been enticed by the pure love depicted in the genre. Most of them often view themselves as “khun mae” (คุณแม่) or “mommy” who watch the flourishing romance between the protagonists with a congratulatory glance and joy, not with envy.
In recent time, the genre has also begun to attract a lot of people from the LGBTQ+ community, which views the genre from a different perspective from the aforementioned female audiences. Whereas the female group is drawn to the genre through the depiction of pure love, the LGBTQ+ views it as a way to ‘healing tool’ which provides them with some refuge from the social issues they face in real life. Viewers often put themselves into the shoes of the protagonists, imagining themselves in the world where their love flourishes and is not hindered by prejudices. They imagine their own future and goals in line with certain aspects of the protagonists’ story, helping fuel the drive for social changes. In addition to this, fans in the LGBTQ+ community also consider the genre as a powerful instrument to let the public see life their perspective. This includes enabling conservative parents to see the ‘what-could-have-been’ version of a happy and loving family, if they just open their hearts and accept their children for who they are.
In any case, uniting both of the groups together, is the fact that they both enjoy the escapist aspect found in the majority of Thai BL medias, most possessing a happy-ending, which provides the fans with some respite after a long day.
Audiences at a fan-meeting concert featuring Thai BL duo Bright Vachirawit and Win Metawin
In recent time, Thai boys-love fandom has transcended borders to become an international sensation due to the rapid advancement of the internet. Not only does the modern internet allow Thai boys-love medias to reach a far wider range of audiences through video hosting platforms, such as YouTube, or streaming platforms, such as Netflix, it also allows for more and varied engagements within the fandom. Fans from around the globe can congregate and appreciate the genre, as well as admire the stars together on various social media platforms without having to meet in real life. Adding to this, is the friendliness of Thai people who are always ready to welcome fans from other countries with open arms, leading to the rapid growth of the fandom community internationally.
Examples of online engagements range from simple sharing of photos of favorite scenes or admired actors to employing creative and amusing hashtags to attract more people into the conversations, and, ultimately, to filming reaction videos. Pages have popped up, devoted to keeping up on Thai BL-related contents. Naturally, a large number of fans translates to a larger number of people participating in the movement, each providing feedbacks to produced works through interactions on social platforms. It is through insights from these interactions that producers rely on to improve the genre gradually.
Another vital component that drives the Thai boys-love is none other than the people who encapsulate the charm and personality of the characters and portray them on the silver-screen. These are, of course, the actors. Some of the fans were even originally drawn to the genre through their admirations of the actors. Thus, boys-love genre came to serve as a gateway for many of the budding stars to achieve their fame and popularity. A prime example of this would be the ‘shipped’ couple from the series 2gether the Series (available on YouTube), Bright Vachirawit and Win Metawin, both of whom rose to prominence following the massive success of the series. Celebrities, such as singers or idols, who are not involved in boys-love dramas may also benefit from the boys-love movement by being ‘shipped’ by fans, as can, for instance, be seen with the aforementioned reality show Academy Fantasia (2004).
Of course, our discussion of the celebrities within boys-love movement would not be complete without exploring the ‘shipping’ practices. Shipping or, as known in Thai, kaan `gine
In actuality, this practice of shipping is not restricted to the boys-love community; however, shipping constitutes the core ‘spirit of playful appropriation’ found within the movement and acts as an important channel through which fans and the industry can interact with one another. Typically, within the boys-love context, two male celebrities who possess ostensible chemistry with one another are imagined by the fandom to be in a romantic relationship with each other. Following this, these two would often be cast as a couple in many of their prospective works in an attempt from the industry to service its fans. Additionally, when appearing off-screen, the shipped actors would also be coupled up in such events. For instance, they would host fan-meet events, star in commercials or be an MC together.
Advertisements featuring the BL duo Bilkin Putthipong and PP Krit
As with every community constituting a movement, the Thai boys-love fandom community has developed its own set of full-fledged vocabularies. Our discussion of Thai boys-love phenomenon would, of course, not be complete without delving into some of the most frequent or most striking terminologies.
First and foremost, are the Japanese terms derived from traditional boys-love dominant-submissive trope, seme and uke, most often abbreviated in Thai usage as me (เมะ) and khe (เคะ) respectively. To reiterate, me is used to describe dominant protagonists, whose physical appearances constitute more masculine traits, whereas khe is used to refer to submissive protagonists, who would typically possess more effeminate or androgynous characteristics.
Famous BL duos (cr. Kazz Magazine)
Secondly, as a result of the importance of ‘shipping’ practice in the movement, there is a plethora of terminologies derived from the English ‘ship’, which was, originally, shortened from ‘relationship’. The first example of this are the expressions khu ‘gine (คู่จิ้น) and khu ship (คู่ชิพ), both of which refer to the couple that is shipped together by the fandom, albeit with different etymologies, with the former being derived from ‘imagine’ and the latter from ‘ship’. Incidentally, one can use both terms without the prefix khu as a verb, such as “rao kamlang ‘gine khu nii yuu” (I’m shipping this couple at the moment). Another example is the term ruea (เรือ), which is the literal translation of the English ‘ship’; however, ruea may not be used as a verb as it denotes the subset of fans who are shipping the same couple with one another.
The expression ruea also gave birth to many following playful derivatives:
- ruea laen (เรื่อแล่น) – faring ship, referring to when the romance of the shipped couple finally transpire on the series,
- ruea lom (เรือล่ม) – sinking ship, denoting the breaking up of the shipped couple,
- ruea haeng (เรือแห้ง) – dried up ship, which is the antonym of ruea laen, and, finally,
- ruea phii (เรือผี) – ghost ship, describing an unpopular shipping, where not many fans are ‘on board’.
Thirdly, closely related to ruea is the term mai paai (ไม้พาย) or “paddle”, which is mostly used to refer to the shipped couple (the element that allows the ship to function). The term also spawned an idiom yoon mai paai (throwing away the paddles) meaning to stop shipping because the protagonists finally become a real couple on the show. Alternatively, it can also be applied to cases, when the shipped admired stars begin a romantic relationship in real life.
Finally, some expressions within the movement also had their fair share of time under the spotlight of pop culture, such as arumcho (อรุ่มเจ๊าะ) and watdii Bell (หวัดดีเบลล์), with the former referring to a sly grin stemming from tacit satisfaction after the shipped couple had their romantic moment, and the latter used to confess one’s love to one’s crush. The colorful lexical library of Thai boys-love movement, evidently, goes in tandem with the aforementioned ‘spirit of playful appropriation’, where, in addition to neologisms, words in daily usage are reimagined with new definitions from the boys-love fandom.
Overall, the rise to prominence of the Thai boys-love movement helps to bring about welcome positive changes in Thai society, and even the international community at large. Among the most important is the more ubiquitous representation of romantic relationship outside of hetereonormativity, which leads to a higher sense of normalcy and validity for all types of love. Secondly, as mentioned earlier, following the recent trend within the Thai boys-love industry to provide a more faithful representation of the LGBTQ+ community, awareness regarding social issues and prejudices faced by the said community has been tremendously raised, with problems, such as implicit and structural ostracism and non-acceptance from some conservative parents, being brought more into general discussion, allowing for future positive changes. Arguably, both of these impacts can concretely be seen from the recent push towards the legalization of same-sex marriage in the country. Furthermore, the boys-love genre can act as a subtle way to communicate with unaccepting conservatives, such as providing conservative parents with an ideal version of a happy family, if they were to become more accepting of their children for who they are.
International fans reacting to Thai BL drama
Finally, the Thai boys-love movement, following its massive surge in global popularity, not only help to spark interests in Thai culture among foreigners, but also shed a preliminary positive light on the Thai way of life. People, for example, became interested in aspects of Thai high-school and university culture, such as uniforms and senior-junior relationships. Additionally, Thai boys-love medias also serve as an excellent practice for foreigners striving to master the Thai language, while also attracting more and more prospective learners each year. The sharing of BL series videos, for example, has served as a venue for translators, both professional and amateurs, to exercise their skills through creating subtitles. If you are among the learners, or aspiring connoisseurs of everything-Thai-culture-related, you are, fortunately, we would like to cordially welcome you into a whole new world of exquisite and elegant culture and help you with your progress through the resources available on our website!
With that being said, the Thai boys-love movement is a direct product of open-mindedness of the Thai people, who respect people for being who they are and view all kinds of love as valid and beautiful as the other. The Thai value of compassion is also extends to all people, even marginalized groups. With the fandom ever growing each year, attracting more and more people globally, the boys-love phenomenon in Thailand shines brighter than ever. And, thus, we conclude our exploration into the Thai boys-love phenomenon with this final entry in the three-part article series.
The story of BL phenomenon is another fascinating aspect of Thailand’s popular media. The Thai characteristic of respect, compassion, and openness has allowed not only for BL medias to thrive, but also for a community of fans and actors to grow. With the advent of the internet, the BL effect has become an international phenomenon, helping to connect people across borders as well as promote the acceptance and respect for LGBTQ+ individuals. Join us in exploring more stories of Thailand and the Thai people, as we take you on a journey to discover Thainess.
- Prasannam, N. (2019). The yaoi phenomenon in Thailand and fan/industry interaction. Plaridel, 16(2), 63-89.
- ภัชรพรรณ์ อมรศรีวงษ์. (2019). การศึกษาทัศนคติ และพฤติกรรมของสาววาย. Journal of Digital Business and Social Sciences, 5(1), 34-49.
A special thanks to Phuritat Hongwiwat, a graduate student at the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, and a boys-love-serie aficionado, for providing the author with preliminary insights into the genre.
Author: Yodsawin Uaychinda
Editor: Tayud Mongkolrat