Daniel, 30, has been working from his home in Banten, Indonesia since April. With social distancing measures in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, days are an endless slog of writing reports and sending emails. But Fridays are special. Up until recently, they were for forgetting the dreary life under quarantine while waiting for an episode of his favourite TV show to drop at 9:30 PM. He would sit on his bed, go on YouTube, and wait for hours with his phone in hand until he sees three words pop on screen: “2Gether: The Series.”
The show, produced by Thai channel GMMTV, tells the story of two college boys faking a relationship to ward off a gay guy, only to fall in love with each other in the process. As someone who identifies as bisexual, it’s all Daniel, who only wished to reveal his first name, wanted growing up.
“It's like seeing a figure of myself,” Daniel told VICE.
Indonesian TV is filled with “sinetrons,” or soap operas that have outlandish plotlines, melodramatic music, and low-budget special effects. These dramas must adhere to Islam’s conservative standards, which means no swearing, no revealing clothes, and most certainly no gay relationships.
Growing up, Daniel never saw himself represented in the media, which is why he loves 2Gether so much. He would watch an episode three times in one day, even though they did not come with subtitles in his language. He is not alone. 2Gether is popular across Southeast Asia, and is just the latest example of a growing TV genre called Boys’ Love (BL). The name says it all: at the centre of every BL show is a gay love story.
2Gether’s success earlier this year pushed the genre’s popularity over the edge. The show premiered in February and was a cult hit by March, as more people stayed home due to the pandemic. In Thailand, GMMTV reported that the show already had over 100 million views on the local streaming platform LINE TV by April 19. That’s apart from audiences who tuned in on TV and YouTube.
It was the YouTube live stream every Friday that crossed borders in Southeast Asia. According to social data firm Social Blade, 2Gether’s first episode is one of the most viewed among GMMTV’s over 10,000 videos on YouTube, now with over 9 million views.
The hashtag #2GetherTheSeries was a Twitter trending topic in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Cambodia whenever new episodes were released. Lead actors Vachirawit Chiva-aree and Metawin Opas-iamkajorn have also drawn massive followings on social media — Vachirawit with 4.3 million Instagram followers and Metawin with 3.1 million, as of writing.
“It is a fantasy,” Daniel, who has not come out to his family, said about BL.
“Where I live, who I am...especially as I am a Muslim, it is highly forbidden and not allowed.”
These shows are a way for him to live out a life he always wanted, one where he could love anyone freely and be loved in return. For many LGBTQ Asians, the rise of BL is a win for representation. But the shows are also popular among straight people, particularly women.
Anggi Anggraeni, a 20-year-old student from Bali, Indonesia, said she began watching BL when she was 15 years old, to know more about LGBTQ people.
“The first Thailand drama I watched is Hormones, and in that drama there was a boy who was confused about his sexual orientation and liked both his guy friend and girl friend,” Anggraeni said. “It opened my eyes.”
Phim Jena, 22, a student in Cambodia, started watching BL at 14. She’s a fan of its “you and me against the world” storylines.
“The common thing about BL shows is that they try to show us that love between the same sex is also love," Phim explained.
She said she has seen a rise in LGBTQ acceptance in Cambodia over the last decade, despite the homophobic views of older generations.
BL’s image as an icon of diversity is fairly new. In fact, it was never meant for the LGBTQ community at all. The genre dates back to 1970s Japan, when they were called “yaoi,” which literally means “no climax, no point, no meaning.” Back then, this referred to homoerotic manga, anime, and dramas that were exclusively made by women for women. They were more like soft porn with no clear plot, not the teen dramas they are today.
A 2018 study found that women like yaoi because it goes against gender stereotypes and patriarchal messaging in straight relationships. For some women, sex scenes in yaoi also seem less threatening, compared to those featuring a straight couple, because the lack of a female character somehow makes them feel less intimate or personal. Copies of BL content eventually spread across the world through the internet during the 90s, creating a cult following in China, Taiwan, and Thailand.
"Before the Thai fans created their own original yaoi or BL fiction, they read translated BL manga from Japan," said Natthanai Prassanam, a literature professor in Bangkok’s Kasetsart University. "It was quite huge during the late 1990s, until the early 2000s."
The TV genre blew up in Thailand in 2014, with the show LoveSick: The Series. According to Prassanam, the show’s 14 episodes averaged at 3.8 million views each on YouTube. The success pushed other companies to produce more BL shows like SOTUS: The Serie_s (2016), _2Moons: The Series (2017), and Love By Chance (2018). Now, BL storylines are a staple in Thai soap operas.
In China, the genre became popular in 2016, with the online show Addicted. The show's producers said that it raked in 10 million views the day after its initial release. However, to the dismay of its fans, the series was pulled from streaming platform iQiyi, three days before its 15th and final episode was set to air. Showrunners only cited “China’s broader context” in explaining the pull-out. Fans then uploaded episodes with subtitles to YouTube, where they now have an average of 500,000 views each.
BL is also growing in the Philippines, with the country’s biggest media network ABS-CBN set to add 2gether on cable and online platforms. In June, the network also dropped promotional posters of an upcoming Filipino BL show titled Hello, Stranger.
While many see the genre’s popularity as good news for LGBTQ people, some members of the community are more sceptical.
Jesus Falcis, a 33-year-old Filipino who identifies as gay, said that while he watches BL shows, he also thinks that they perpetuate antiquated gender roles.
“They would write [gay] characters in a way that there seems to be a husband and a wife,” Falcis said, explaining that the shows tend to stereotype gay men as either “top (dominant)” or “bottom (submissive).”
Two-dimensional characters like the token trans woman and insufferable female antagonist are also very common.
Aam Anusorn Soisa-ngim, a Thai director who has worked on a BL show, said that tropes are present in many Thai BL and could be very problematic. For example, many of these love stories start with a man sexually assaulting or raping another, only for the survivor to fall in love with his rapist.
“It’s disrespectful,” Soisa-ngim said. “Human rights are zero. It’s so bad.”
And while BL shows have broken barriers for the LGBTQ community, he said that behind the scenes, there is much work left to be done. He recounted an incident during taping for a BL drama, when crew members pretended to vomit while the two male leads kissed. Soisa-ngim also said that some straight Thai actors only use BL as a stepping stone.
"They will act in only one or two series and then just like, 'Oh, I'll say goodbye to BL. I'm not gonna play BL anymore,’” he said.
Other filmmakers say that BL shows can only be truly inclusive if they’re created with the LGBTQ community in mind.
One of the first BL shows soon to come out of the Philippines is helmed by a team of mostly LGBTQ people — from the show’s writer Juan Miguel Severo, to the directors and musical scorers.
“The entire team will undergo a gender sensitivity workshop and a SOGIE (educational discussion) before the official part of the production,” Severo told VICE.
While 2Gether still has some tropes, fans say it's more genuine and captures what it's like for gay people to come of age. The show aired its last episode on May 15 but on June 1, GMMTV announced it would release five additional episodes in an anthology called Still 2Gether.
As always, Daniel said he will be at home in Indonesia, waiting for these episodes to drop every week, with the hopes that one day, he too will experience the love he watches on screen.
Find Chad on Twitter.