Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s hard to claim that “Boys’ Love” (BL) or Yaoi, a genre of fictionalized media that features homoerotic relationships between male characters, has reached mainstream Filipino pop culture consciousness. But it also feels inaccurate to say that it hasn’t been noticed.
BL shows, specifically those from Thailand, have reached our shores, thanks to online streaming sites. Netflix has a number of them in its Philippine catalog. Thai TV networks like GMM TV also upload most of their shows on YouTube with English subtitles immediately after they air. This practice has allowed the network to amass a sizable international following, including a Filipino audience.
I don’t have hard data to prove that a lot of Filipinos are indeed watching these shows aside from anecdotal evidence. For instance: this year alone, Thai actor Mew Suppasit of the popular 2019 series “TharnType” has been in the country for fan meets and official functions. He was supposed to return last March with the other cast members of “TharnType” for a fan meeting, which was cancelled because of imposed travel bans due to COVID-19. I started watching BL shows because of endless recommendations of friends and countless social media posts of people fawning over these Thai gay stories and their cute male stars.
Even personalities such as spoken word artist Juan Miguel Severo have taken notice of the hype. “Is it just me or have you guys gotten sick of a lot of hetero stories now that you’ve been watching a lot of BL series too?” He recently tweeted.
The replies to his tweet revealed the obvious, at least for fans of the genre. For gay men who have been exposed to love stories featuring straight love teams, from Claudine Barretto and Rico Yan to Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla, watching a TV show about two guys falling in love with each other can be refreshing. “Thus, all our thoughts and confusion growing up were validated,” one of Severo’s followers said.
Perhaps the best example of this is the current local popularity of the Thai TV drama “2gether: The Series,” which airs in Thailand every Friday. The episodes of the ongoing show are officially uploaded with English subtitles on Youtube.
“2gether: The Series” tells the story of Tine (played by Metawin Opas-iamkajorn), a girl-crazy college freshman who’s excited to start his university life to find the girl of his dreams. In college, he finds himself being chased by a persistent gay admirer who Tine can’t seem to get rid of. So Tine and his male friends come up with a plan: convince campus musician and heartthrob Sarawat (played by Bright Vachirawit) to pretend to be his boyfriend to discourage the admirer from pursuing him.
Sarawat is hesitant to play Tine’s fake boyfriend at first, but Sarawat eventually agrees. And because this is a BL story, Tine and Sarawat end up questioning if their fake relationship is slowly turning into a real romance.
Nothing about the first few episodes of “2gether: The Series” would suggest that it is different from other Thai BL shows. In fact, if you’ve seen other BL shows or read online BL novels on Wattpad and the like, you probably know exactly where the show is heading. After seeing the first couple of episodes, it reminded me of an older Thai series which also used the same fake relationship trope: “Love Sick: The Series,” often regarded as one of the BL shows that made the genre popular in Thailand.
Still, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the show. “2gether: The Series” is light on plot in its first five or six episodes, the show more concerned with putting Tine and Sarawat in situations that would elicit kilig in its audience.
It’s a young adult story that does not always seem like real life. Unlike the more popular youth-themed shows like Spain’s “Elite” or US’s “Riverdale,” it does not tackle the issues of being a young adult or feature an overarching mystery to be solved at the end of the series.
Instead, it focuses on the chemistry of Tine and Sarawat. Its main concern is to make viewers believe that Tine and Sarawat should end up together by the end of the show. It has to make a strong argument for that, because the series starts off with Tine identifying as a straight male. The romance between the two male characters is the anchor of “2gether: The Series.” Everything else often feels like dead weight.
"I’m sick of watching hetero stories over and over again. Sometimes, I just want to see my story told, my experiences validated. Filipino media and their straight love stories have yet to tell a story that have approximated what I feel as a gay man."
The first three episodes of the show suggest that it’s a good example of the genre, though not necessarily groundbreaking.
Obviously, some spoilers ahead: Episode four of "2gether" features a school fair, where all the campus bands of the university are set to perform. In exchange for a favor, Tine asks Sarawat to convince his bandmates to play the song “Everything” by Scrubb during their performance. Sarawat agrees, but gets mad when he finds out that Tine only asked him to perform the song for a girl he is hitting on. Tine does not get to see Sarawat perform the song.
Near the end of the episode, the two make up. They watch the band of their music club president perform, the last act of the fair.
While the band is performing, Tine tells Sarawat he feels bad that he didn’t get to hear “Everything” performed.
“Because you weren’t here to listen when I played,” Sarawat tells Tine.
“I know. I feel so damn guilty here,” Tine answers.
Then, Sarawat takes out his earphones and shares it with Tine.
“What are you doing?” Tine asks.
“Listening to ‘Everything',” Sarawat says.
And so, sharing one set of earphones, among other students watching the school fair performance, Tine and Sarawat listen to “Everything,” a song only they can hear. The band onstage performs a song that’s now inaudible to the audience as we hear Scrubb’s “Everything,” with Tine and Sarawat singing along.
By this fourth episode, it becomes obvious what the show is trying to do: present Tine and Sarawat, two young men possibly confused about their feelings for each other, happy together in their own world. Again, this isn’t new: young couples in love have been presented in romance stories as people isolated from reality, time and time again.
The episode sets up a romantic scene, one of many instances that show Tine and Sarawat slowly coming to terms with their feelings for each other. But it also feels specific to me, to the gay experience.
When you’re a young gay man still trying to understand your sexuality, having feelings for another man can sometimes feels wrong. Societal norms — and, sometimes, familial expectations — say your feelings are not normal, that you shouldn’t have those romantic feelings for the same sex. Sometimes, when you’re a young gay man figuring out yourself, you need to live in your own world, even for just a duration of a song, to feel happy and accepted. You need to be Tine and Sarawat in order to be happy, literally singing to a song only they can hear.
Severo is right; I’m sick of watching hetero stories over and over again. Sometimes, I just want to see my story told, my experiences validated. Filipino media and their straight love stories have yet to tell a story that have approximated what I feel as a gay man.
Meanwhile, in just a few minutes, a young adult drama from Thailand has just shown me a scene with a conflict and emotion as if straight from my own life, our gay lives.
Filipino soap operas as ‘restorative’
It would be easy to heap praises on Thai BL while castigating Filipino media for failing to tell gay stories. But that would be a huge mistake.
For one, the BL genre isn’t perfect. It’s a genre that is concerned with narrating gay feelings, specifically the joys and confusion brought about by young gay love. But it isn’t always concerned with telling a realistic portrayal of the gay experience. The genre has a tendency to be problematic, relying on tropes that neglect the nuances of the homosexual life. “2gether: The Series” isn’t immune to this, but it does try to address its problematic elements later on in the series (it is up to the audience to decide whether it successfully addresses its problematic aspects).
In his paper “The Yaoi Phenomenon in Thailand and Fan/Industry Interaction'' published in the humanities journal Plaridel, scholar Natthanai Prasannam reminds us that the BL genre, like most genres, is both a construct and a marketing tool. BL is made to tell gay stories, but these stories are also produced that way to sell products — specifically, the show and the actors who star in them. The BL genre is used to make people watch TV shows, buy novels (BL shows are adapted from online gay romance novels), and attend fan meets. It is a money-making industry. Which isn’t bad in itself — a lot of professional storytelling endeavors are money-making industries. But the decisions made in producing these shows and creating these Thai male love teams are mostly influenced by profit.
In short: It’s not any different from how TV networks produce and sell hetero love stories and pairings.
Of course, that doesn't address the fact that there aren't a lot of gay media in the Philippines. It exists, but one has to look harder to find it. The closest we have to a Boys' Love series is the 2019 mini-series “Mga Batang Poz,” which is available on ABS-CBN’s online streaming service iWant. Tackling the lives of four young men with HIV, “Mga Batang Poz” is one of the platform’s most popular original shows, perhaps showing that there is an audience for these gay love stories locally. In mainstream TV, the ABS-CBN soap opera “A Soldier’s Heart” has a gay subplot that’s reminiscent of Thai BL, though it’s yet to be seen if the show will take it to that direction.
It is anyone’s guess why mainstream media hasn’t gotten in on the BL genre. We aren’t exactly lacking in gay stories to tell, as Philippine cinema offers a more robust selection in this genre.
Our fictionalized TV content is basically just soap operas. And local soap operas, through the years, have diversified in terms of themes and execution, playing with genre conventions to tell stories beyond the usual love stories. ABS-CBN’s “Wildflower” and “The Killer Bride” are good examples of how the network plays with soap opera tropes, while GMA-7’s “Ika-6 Na Utos” is proof that networks are sometimes aware that soap operas are campy and ridiculous.
But one still can’t shake the feeling that it’s not offering viewers diverse enough stories. It isn’t serving a wide spectrum of pop culture interests. If one doesn’t like traditional soap operas, there’s a chance that one won’t enjoy most of the fictional TV shows produced by a local network.
In a 2014 talk, renowned screenwriter Ricky Lee said that soap operas tend to be repetitive because they have a goal to be “restorative.” This, he added, highlights “conservation and affirmation of the empowerment of the family and the identity of the Filipino” Pinoy soap operas have the goal of “rebuilding” the family and rebuilding one’s self because we have been fragmentized as people, as family, as a nation.
“That's why ang [goal] natin lagi, i-affirm yun,” he explained. “Ang need nila sa television show is mabuo ang pamilya at mabuo ang pagkatao. Laging ganun nang ganun nang ganun ang takbo.”
This can explain why we don’t have BL shows, apart from possible cultural concerns and issues with the local censors. Our modern Filipino soap operas are collective stories: they’re usually centered on romance, but they’re also about family, community, and country. Love in soap opera isn’t an individualistic pursuit; it is always informed by economics, by social status, by, what Lee pointed out, the need to rebuild the Filipino family. Take note of another local gay-themed drama, 2013’s “My Husband’s Lover.” It tells the story of a wife who finds out her husband is cheating on her with a gay man. It doesn’t villify homosexuality (Jun Lana, who is a gay man, was the creative director of the show, which was created by Suzette Doctolero) but it also sees, maybe unintentionally, the gay relationship as a threat to the Filipino family. The finale of the show sees the two gay characters ending up together, but it also sees the show’s wife rebuilding herself after her failed marriage with a gay man. It fits Lee’s description of what the Pinoy soap opera’s goal is: to rebuild the family and one’s self.
Meanwhile, BL dramas focus on the personal: self-journey, coming-of-age. The angst and conflict of the characters are often rooted in their sexual confusion and discovery. There are exceptions, of course; some of the more recent shows have started figuring in family and familial issues as part of the character’s sexual formation. But BL tends to view love as an individualistic concern. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s built-in to the structure of the genre. Yes, the same way the need of “rebuilding” is a default in the structure of the Pinoy soap opera.
Yet, Lee also acknowledged that “we want to hear the same things, but we don't want to hear them the same way.” That should explain why shows like “2gether: The Series” have an audience in the Philippines.
In any case, there is hope that local interest in such shows will make Philippine media consider telling these kinds of stories. It would be nice to have our very own Tine and Sarawat.
Watch "2gether: The Series" here.
Erratum: An earlier version of this article credited Jun Lana as creator and writer of "My Husband's Lover," instead of creative director. The creator and head writer of “My Husband’s Lover” is Suzette Doctolero. The article has been edited to reflect the correction.