The YouTube algorithm is one of the craziest internet phenomena in existence. For example, if you look up ‘tan buns’ at 3 a.m., you can either choose to watch aesthetic milk buns tanning under the sun or two dudes making out and shooting each other into the river. That’s probably how I was introduced to Thailand’s ‘Boys Love’ genre. And before I start whipping out terms native to fellow fujoshis, here’s a gentle initiation to ‘Boys Love’, one of the most viral genres of East Asian entertainment to date.
Boys Love (BL) originates from yaoi—Japan’s homoerotic fiction featuring relationships between male characters. With roots in webtoons and anime, the genre has evolved into a culture ever since its live-action debut with films and dramas.
BL is primarily created by women for women, with the fanbase typically consisting of straight women in their early 20s (a triggering insight, I know). This is probably one of the major reasons why casting crews reel in the hottest actors for lead roles. As for the character and story tropes, they commonly revolve around college romance, something the audience themselves can relate to. Although recent series like A Tale of Thousand Stars and Manner of Death feature dark and mature workplace romance, college romance is always a preferred trope due to its popularity.
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Most fujoshis (read: female BL fans) admit to liking these dramas since they feature a “sensitive” side of men that is not present in everyday lives. For me, they are all about favourable depictions of the LGBTQ+ community. Sure, the characters are initially confused about their preferences, but the others around them are relatively unfazed. Those ‘against’ the relationship later reflect on their beliefs as well and do so without associating any labels to the couple’s preference. In short, they idealise the concept of an inclusive environment we increasingly seek to live in.
But what’s so fascinating about the genre? We’ve got plenty of LGBTQ+ films and series in the western media too, right? What makes the BL genre so addictive? Well, I like to equate BL to a rabbit hole—there is no climbing back up once you fall in. It’s similar to Korean pop music and its fandom. There is way too much content revolving around the genre, other than the dramas themselves, for fans to get hooked.
For starters, the cast are shipped both on-screen and off-screen as couples. Like Tin and Can from Love By Chance have their fictional ship named ‘TinCan’ and their real-life ship named ‘MeanPlan’ (handy abbreviations of their real names Mean Phiravich Attachitsataporn and Plan Rathavit Kijworalak). Now, these two ships (of the same two people) have thousands of fan-made videos of them on YouTube. And I’m not kidding when I say thousands, you will have to keep scrolling for days for the algorithm to stop suggesting you these edits. This is the reason why many stumble upon these videos by chance—there are way too many of them.
On top of all the scenes from dramas that these skilled fans use for their videos, the actors themselves provide edit-worthy content from interactions at global concerts and meet-and-greets. Unsurprisingly, these videos surface mere minutes after a drama or event airs. This goes on to show the dedication and impact the genre has had on its fans.
If you still aren’t convinced of the ‘viral’ status this genre has achieved, let me hit you up with some facts. 2gether is one of the latest BL dramas that was released over the pandemic. Throughout its 13 weeks of airing, #2getherTheSeries topped global trends on Twitter and has now gathered more than 1.16 billion hearts from fans during its VLive broadcast. The show also hosted a virtual fan-meet post its airing, the official hashtag of which, #GlobalLiveFMxBrightWin trended in 18 countries with a total of 2.3 million tweets, making it Thailand’s most tweeted about events.
In an interview with Time Out, the free BL streaming platform LINE TV admitted to having earned the biggest viewership in its history over the lockdown—from a 5 per cent audience share in 2019 to a 34 per cent peak in the first half of 2020 alone.
Termed ‘fandemic’, Thailand is now the biggest exporter of Boys Love series. It is how the nation exercises its ‘soft power’—the power a country possesses through its image. One thing that particularly interests me here is the fact that Thailand isn’t a homophobia-free country either, yet the genre has influenced its economy to such great levels.
Now, the genre isn’t exactly void of any shortcomings either. For instance, these dramas don’t necessarily cast queer actors to play queer roles—Until We Meet Again might be the only Thai BL drama to do so till date. It has also been shunned by various LGBTQ+ advocates for its ‘fake portrayal’ of the community. Serious LGBTQ+ issues regarding healthcare and democratic rights are claimed to have not been addressed in these dramas. Despite these allegations, however, I believe BL is an evolving genre and is definitely a step towards the bigger picture considering the waves the shows have made in countries less than accepting of the community.
And now that your browser knows you’ve read an opinion piece on the genre, I wouldn’t be surprised if you get BL recommendations on your YouTube feed tonight. The initiation is hence complete. See you on the other side!
Last month Netflix’s CFO David Wells announced that in 2018 alone the streaming giant would be forking out upwards of $8 billion on producing 700 original titles. For relentless binge-watchers and professional procrastinators alike, this was probably equally exciting and daunting news. However, on a more serious note, this is in many ways emblematic of the attention-driven digital economy we now find ourselves in, defined by sheer excess and algorithmic consumption, and its effect on how we consume culture; extending to every corner of the cultural landscape, not just film and TV.
As Netflix strives for a global monopoly, pumping out unprecedented amounts of content in over 190 countries to around 118 million users, it is arguably us the consumers that are suffering as a result. The oh-so-hopeful neoliberal dogma of endless free choice is ironically underpinned by a snake-like grip on production, distribution and consumption. Hours upon hours have been spent staring gormlessly at my TV, trudging through the endless ether of rubbish on Netflix to then, in sheer frustration, give up and start Peep Show for the 13,683th time. If Netflix hadn’t already proved you definitely can have too much of a good thing, then surely this is it. In its search for worldwide economic and technological capital, Netflix has sacrificed quality in favour of incessant mass-production.
Minus the intellectual-elitism, this is all somewhat reminiscent of the work of German philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer and their work on the culture industry. They argue that capitalism (Netflix as a proponent here) has sought to it that culture is resorted to almost-mechanical mass-production in order to meet only our most basic needs, leaving us docile and idle consumers at the expense of culture’s potential for subversiveness. This account comes from a sneering disapproval of popular culture, which I think is a bit reductive, but what’s interesting here is that, like many of the digital platforms we use on a daily basis, Netflix also has control over how and what we consume on a personal level. Its process of recommendations supposedly accounting for around 80% of content watched on the platform.
Netflix’s recommendation system works by taking a detailed log of our individual viewing habits and spitting out multiple profiles on each user based on taste as well as behavioural patterns, which are then pooled into thousands of different audience groups. Then, this data is pumped through an algorithm that combines it with an extensive collection of tags on each and every episode, which can include anything from specific genre-traits to moods or emotions that are invoked when watching. These tags are meticulously compiled by Netflix staff and freelancers who watch every TV show and film from start to finish. Even the little image previews you see on the homepage are selected from a number of choices per TV show or film based on that same data—using algorithms to work out which image is most likely to make you click that title. When you break down the process in this way and consider just how much control Netflix has over what we consume, the romantic idea of endless free choice in the neoliberal digital economy seems like nothing other than an illusion.
It’s clear that culture is at a precarious point right now. With Netflix striving for a worldwide monopoly of distribution and production in film and TV, constantly expanding into new geographic regions and pumping out a stupid amount of original content, it ends up running the risk of overshadowing local producers across the world and sacrificing culture’s value in the process, whilst at the same time using our online habits to control what and how we consume. This extends far beyond just film and TV too. Take Spotify for example, we now have access to a previously unimaginable amount of recorded music yet we still often find ourselves stuck in a never-ending loop of the same old stuff, our recommended artists permanently haunted by that friend with the terrible music taste who used your account that one time.
Some might argue that it’s never been better, precisely because of the sheer amount of different content available. However I think it’s less about a dull, homogeneous cultural world than one that’s been forcibly fragmented into so many different niches within an attention economy that, in seeking to keep us habitually logged on, uses algorithms to keep us in a perpetual loop of recommendations. As a result, this has left us confined to restrictive patterns of consumption so tailed around our ‘data self’ that it becomes almost impossible to escape from. Big data and algorithms are deeply ingrained in how we consume culture, but as we’ve seen with the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, their presence is being widely felt not just in the cultural, but also the social and political realms too.