Predominantly known as “Yaoi,” if you say “BL” in Korea every Gen Z/Millennial knows the content you’re talking about and you may definitely get some looks for it.
BL, short for Boy’s Love, is a term endeared by teenage girls and members of the LGBTQIA communities in and outside of Korea. BL can range from soft, wholesome romances and dominant, kink-oriented relationships, to even slice-of-life love or scary mafia stories – just with a gay twist. The themes always surround gay men and the heated romances between them.
But how could such content thrive in such a conservative country?
Korea is clear with its stance on homosexuality. From politicians to everyday people, homosexuality is seen as taboo, a sin, or something “foreign,” having no place in Korea. Korea still lacks any laws regarding discrimination, equal rights, and marriage equality. Gay people co-exist in the communities on homohill, an infamous club street in Itaewon and Jongro. Yet, Korea still tends to shun, contain, and prevent the growth of the LGBTQIA communities, forcing secrecy and discreetly gathering (search the Seoul 2023 pride festival being banned if you’re curious).
However, webtoons are dramatically being consumed at an even larger rate in Korea and with various shows having adaptations on Netflix, it is no surprise that BL can ride the coattails of success.
Lately, webtoons have continued to flourish on Naver or Lezhin Comics. Semantic Error (web novel turned web drama) is one of the most widely recognized BL stories in Korea but others such as Painter of The Night and Killing Stalking, created quite the viral buzz and stimulated a rather niche Korean-themed BL content surge. Isn’t it uncanny how a country that is opposed to homosexuality continues to deliver the most hyper-focused content?
Despite the irony, the love and interest shown towards BL has unearthed support in genuine ways. Due to the fame of Semantic Error fan meetings and organized events allowed many like-minded fans to meet and even movie theaters were rented out for special greetings with the cast or episode viewing. Now, due to the devotion of fans and the global recognition BL receives, other projects can flourish and ‘Killing Stalking’ is getting its own live-action series adaption next year!
Still, similar to Hallyu, has the BL craze really changed Korea’s perspective? Not necessarily. Despite all the attention drawn to it, Webtoons like Painter of The Night unironically continue to paint stereotypical portrayals of what often abusive or unhealthy relationships (gay or straight) look like and, despite being a compelling and entertaining piece, can further advance the stigma surrounding gay relationships. It makes it harder for Koreans to value these relationships as real.
BL is becoming more of a saturated novelty in the webtoon universe and is over-exposed in order to gain views or pique public interest – particularly among Otaku (fan of Japanese culture) communities. Currently, in Hongdae, the AK Plaza Mall features a giant display of BL content at a bookstore and Cafe. You can find endless rows of BL and young adults warily browsing.
When asked, many Korean shoppers admitted BL is something girls read in private and boys mockingly imitate when teasing one another. It is a popular genre but why exactly girls are the top consumers is still confusing to some. A quick search reveals some women enjoy the separation of female leads in stories. Others explained there are no damsel in distress scenarios or gender inequality amongst male lovers. There are also no demands or expectations as to how characters should engage or behave since the taboo concept lacks any scripted standards and expectations. BL is a world free of today’s relationship shackles (beautiful I know) but isn’t used as a tool to necessarily promote the equality of gay rights.
Although media and entertainment will forever remain the cornerstones of building exposure rather than tolerance, BL is just more of a dazzling gimmick than a groundbreaking medium that’ll change Korean society (at least on a large political scale). Celebrities like Nana Youngrong Kim, a drag superstar making dozens of TV appearances, and 2AM JoKwon who promotes LGBTQIA-oriented musicals and shows in Korea will most likely pave the way for gay representation and growth in Korea. As more artists come forward, talent outside of BL have more chances to appear on the screen or in other roles.
However, just because advocates are vocalizing more, the interest in Korean BL content and the changes it has on society shouldn’t be underestimated. BL web dramas have casted K-Pop idols as well and opened the door for discussion amongst the younger generation. Where Your Eyes Linger was a popular one that blew up and featured A.C.E member Jun and now more releases like Wish You, Florida Spot and Come Back to Me are riling up fans and creating more opportunities to see BL in a more realistic on-screen setting. We haven’t had this much gayness since Gong Yoo in Coffee Prince and B1A4’s Baro in Reply 1994 honestly! If there are more BL web series and media, more than webtoons, these projects can portray the romantic developments in a more relatable image that furthers the realism of LGBTQIA relationships in a real-world setting. It can break the barrier of BL being just a manhwa fantasy.
Although BL may be a silly manhwa (manga) concept for some, we can’t overlook the influence it has had within the entertainment industry. Is it pioneering LGBTQIA rights? Meh. Did it stimulate exposure that younger generations are aware of and spark debate? Yes, indeed. Although Korea’s stance is still firmly against the LGBTQIA, BL sparks the conversation and whatever else evolves from that can change the views of anyone willing to be a little more open-minded.
DISCLAIMER: This OP:ED reflects the opinion solely of the writer and is not reflective of the opinions, ideas, or values of ZAPZEE and ODK Media.