This autumn’s MIPCOM featured an eye-opening session on “Boy Love Drama – A New Drama Sensation”. At least, it would have been eye-opening to western TV producers and commissioners who were unaware of just how popular same sex drama shows are in Asia. In truth, this is a genre that has been building for decades.
In many Asian countries the “Boy Love” trend, or BL for short, can be traced all the way back to 1961. That was the year in which A Lovers’ Forest (恋人たちの森), a gay romance novel by Japanese author Mari Mori was released. By the 1970s, the term ‘yaoi’, referring to homoerotic manga about men but created by women for women, started to gain traction, growing in popularity even faster once the internet arrived, spreading to other Asian countries, and then exploding on TV in the streaming era. Followers of these male-male romantic stories are known as ‘fujoshi’ – many of them lifelong fans of yaoi manga and BL, its TV offshoot.
It’s no surprise that MIPCOM has decided to highlight this genre, given its obvious appeal and untapped commercial potential on the global market. 2gether, a 2020 university-set gay romantic comedy from Thailand reached at least 100m viewers on streaming platform LINE TV. As well as delighting domestic viewers, the show found fans across Latin America, and even more socially conservative countries such as China and Indonesia.
GagaOOLala, Asia’s biggest LGBTQ+ streaming platform, now has one million monthly active users and has seen subscriber numbers grow by 96%. In 2022, hours watched on the platform has more than doubled. GagaOOLala’s BL dramas account for over 30% of those total views in the top three subscribing Western countries, with the USA, UK and Germany each responsible for more than 40% of views on GagaOOLala’s Boy Love content.
This fresh wave of interest from the west has given many Asian companies confidence to invest more into this once niche form of programming. In 2021, $10.7 million in foreign investment was specifically poured into the making of BL dramas in Thailand alone, making this ecosystem “export-minded”. Just as Korea’s romantic comedies and dramas attracted teenage viewers around the world due to the lack of similar programming in their home countries, these young audiences outside Asia have also found their way to watch BL dramas as the logical next trend.
Many people new to this genre may struggle to understand that most Asian BL drama viewers are heterosexual women aged between 20-40 years old. In the past, some Asian commentators credited this to the limited societal expectations for female social roles, encouraging many girls to seek emotional satisfaction in fictional relationships. The androgynous nature of much BL drama meant girls could project their romantic ideals onto a safe fantasy scenario.
However, nowadays the BL genre is attracting audiences across the spectrum of gender and sexual orientation. Indeed, to newer fans that’s the appeal. No restrictions. No judgements. Aesthetics is the attraction. For many young people, particularly in Gen Z which has shown itself to be more open-minded regarding sexuality and gender, that’s proved incredibly liberating. Entire communities have sprung up to enjoy the freedom and confidence that indulging these fantasies brings.
According to a survey by LGBT Capital, the worldwide LGBTQ population numbers around 450 million – nearly one-tenth of the world’s population – with consumer spending power valued at around US$3.7 trillion annually. With such a big economy at stake, it’s not hard to imagine creative and thorough business minds already working to tap into this audience.
The aforementioned GagaOOLala is an excellent example. Only six years old, it has made more than sixty original titles serving 2.5 million users around the world. 80% of subscribers come to the platform to watch gay content, while 60% of members say they subscribed specifically for BL titles. Portico Media, the mother company behind GagaOOLala, is already seeking global expansion. Based in Taiwan – the first and so far only Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage – Portico Media is pushing boundaries for LGBTQ content in Asia, contributing to this healthy ecosystem.
One of GagaOOLala’s most popular short-form movies, Light, is being adapted into an interactive game – a shrewd move considering that, according to Nielsen data, the LGBTQ community spends more on games than the general public. Having run for two live action seasons, Asia’s first gay parenting series, Papa & Daddy, is getting an animated spin-off to help children understand and accept diverse family types. Portico could well be at the forefront of another trend with this project, as western animation becomes more diverse. Cartoon Network has 19 animated shows and Netflix has 14 that make a point of being LGBTQ-inclusive, according to INSIDER (2021).
This Pink Economy is no longer an underground phenomenon serving a small minority. It’s aesthetically appealing and represents a big global community. It’s growing and is trusted. Related IPs are spinning off into marketable brands and content distribution has matured. It’s only a matter of time before BL, and other LGBTQ content, becomes a recognised mainstream genre outside of Asia. Indeed, one day, you could find in-flight entertainment featuring BL dramas and passengers in the next seat won’t frown when two beautiful boys have a smooch onscreen.