By Tine Sarawat
As a genre, Boys’ Love or BL has captivated the fantasies of various audiences. From straight women gushing at romantic relations between handsome guys to gay men finding representation in the media, BL has attracted fans across the sexuality spectrum and the world.
Before the emergence of contemporary BL works, in Classical Japan, same-sex love and its depictions were tolerated. They could be found in art and in nanshoku relations between samurai and kabuki actors and their companions. However, during the Showa period (1926–89), homosexuality became a bit more stigmatized.
When manga was becoming a popular medium, some artists began depicting homosocial and even homoerotic relationships between young men in implicit subtext. Eventually, during the ’70s, works featuring shōnen-ai, or boys’ love, began to emerge. After shōnen-ai started trending, more female artists began producing dōjinshi or self-published works. Dōjinshi conventions and magazines helped popularize the genre as well. These also included yaoi paro works in the ‘80s that focused more on sexual content and fan service. However, it was only during the late ‘80s and ‘90s when BL became commercialized and visible outside of fan communities in a big way, both in Japan and globally.
Outside of Japan, several Asian countries, such as Thailand, saw more local BL dramas, movies, novels, and manga being produced. In China, a BL-influenced genre of texts called danmei emerged.
However, despite the popularity of BL, Japanese society continues to have subtle misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. Even amid discrimination and stigma, BL works continue to provide representation for the queer community and appeal to many fans.
According to Thomas Baudinette, Lecturer in International Studies at Macquarie University, “BL is primarily about an intense emotional response known as moe, a feeling of excitement, enjoyment, and pleasure. For some people, the taboo nature of homoeroticism is appealing, for others, it provides important queer representation. Underneath all this, however, is the recognition that [BL] allows people to explore and experience romance in a multitude of ways.”
As a genre, BL continues to captivate female audiences and provide representation for the LGBTQIA+ community. From its humble roots in implicit subtext and fan communities, it has now become a big phenomenon with large fandoms. Beyond excitement and enjoyment, these works allow people to explore romance in different ways, and may perhaps, in the future, provide more awareness and less stigma for the LGBTQIA+ community in Japan and many Asian countries.