It's Raining Men: Boys' Love in Korea
Updated: Jun 13
While the Boys' Love (BL) genre has recently enjoyed its newfound popularity on global streaming platforms, not many know what exactly it is. Boys' Love is a genre that includes any media form that centers around romantic relationships of boys (or men) who love boys (or men!). While uncommon in mainstream media, it would surprise people to know that the genre itself has steadily built its own cult following around the world. So the question is, what exactly is BL and how did it gain such a following today?
The Origin of Boys' Love
Whenever talking about LGBTQ+ media, people often get confused by the many terms tossed about in online forums. Boys’ Love, Shounen-Ai, and Yaoi— what exactly is the difference? Generally, the use of these terms are interchangeable and it’s widely acknowledged that they all fall under the umbrella of “Boys’ Love.”
Currently, these distinctions are more widely used by publishing houses to separate fan work (more commonly known as doujinshi) and original prints (mangas, BTW, check out our Manhwa to Drama article). It also serves to distinguish between emotionally-driven slice-of-life content (Shounen-Ai) and sexually-driven stories (Yaoi).
Boys' Love had its start during the 1970s and began with a group of same-aged women who called themselves "Year 24 Group of Flowers." One of the most renowned members, Takeyama Keiko is credited for the earliest works under the BL category. During the 1970s, Takeyama Keiko and her group wrote BL mangas as a form of rebellion towards Japan's strict gender roles and conservative relationship expectations. No work exemplifies this rebellion better than Takeyama Keiko's Kaze no Ki no Uta series which depicts sensitive topics such as non-consensual relationships, substance abuse, and of course—sex between two men.
It was during the same era when JUNE magazine was founded. Seeing the big demand for Boys' Love, JUNE magazine began to normalize Boys' Love, publishing novels set to the art style of shounen-ai. Decades after, JUNE magazine would become widely acknowledged as the stronghold of BL and ushered in the golden era of Boys' Love during the 1990s. JUNE magazine shot to commercial fame by publishing classics such as Ai no Kusabi, Fake, and Gravitation. It was in the late '90s when various production companies approached publishing houses to make animated film (called OVAs - Original Video Animations) adaptations of BL mangas.
The rise of the world wide web and technology during the early 2000s further cemented Boys' Love as an internationally beloved genre and inspired other countries such as Thailand, Taiwan, and most recently, the Philippines and South Korea.
The Rotten Fans: Fujoshis and Fudanshis
With the steady rise of Boys' Love during the 1990s and early 2000s, local and international fans were quick to get hooked and production of new content was at an all time high. The sudden increase of fan attention quickly brought BL culture (and its fans) into the general public's gaze. Criticized as being "rotten" for liking taboo relationships (LGBTQ+), and facing countless derision from the public, BL fans were quick to rally online, making up a big part of the otaku culture (those who enjoy multimedia arts stories).
Fujoshi (rotten girl) is a Japanese term for female fans who enjoy any media works that depict romantic relationships between boys/men. Previously considered as a derogatory term that is synonymous to telling someone "you're a rotten/trash woman for having this interest," the term was reclaimed by BL fans online. The male counterpart of the Fujoshi is referred to as Fudanshi (lit. rotten boy). Curiously, fujoshis and fudanshis don't only refer to fans of BL—it can also be used to describe fans of Shoujo-Ai (Girls' Love) and its sub-genres. But that's for another article! Fudanshis faced more criticisms since liking BL automatically branded them as homosexual in the eyes of the public. As such, most fudanshis tend to rely on fujoshi friends to help them navigate the fandom.
Many would assume that fans of BL would automatically be a part of the LGBTQ+ community (and some may be so); however, most fans who identify as fujoshi or fudanshi identify as cis-hetero, and consume BL for the story and engaging characters.
BL in Mainstream South Korea
In the span of two decades, BL genre in general has evolved. Previously considered as a guilty pleasure for the fantasies of a female audience, BL has now shifted into telling the stories and hardships that the LGBTQ+ community face when it comes to finding love and happiness—treating the story just like any other k-drama relationship.
Last year, South Korea embraced the Boys' Love Genre by releasing the BL web series, Where Your Eyes Linger, on major streaming sites. The second known Korean BL drama (coming after 2017's Long Time No See), its release was highly anticipated by BL fans and the LGBTQ+ community. The web series was seen as a small victory in the highly conservative country, showing that it's possible for the general public of South Korea to root for a love story between two men.
With its light rom-com style and short airtime (most Korean BL episodes range from 10 to 15 minutes only. *shakes head* tragic), Korean Boys' Love dramas are made to be sweet, relatable, and easy to consume. However, most Korean BL dramas have the same flaw, since the airtime is extremely short, Korean BL dramas tend to lack consistent storytelling and world building—which may frustrate longstanding BL fans. Listed below are some of the web series that became popular in the past year.
Where your Eyes Linger (2020)
Where Your Eyes Linger introduces viewers to Han Tae-joo (Han Gi-chan), the typical rebellious chaebol heir for the fictional corporation, TB Group of Companies. With his good looks, charming personality, and womanizing (or the teenage equivalent of womanizing) ways, Han Tae-joo definitely causes a lot of headaches for his bodyguard / best (and only) friend, Kang Gook (Jang Eui-soo). Used to spending their days in their own little bubble, things slowly begin to change as new friends and possible love interests enter their life.
WATCH IT: If you want to see the typical push and pull between a Master and Servant relationship!
Mr. Heart (2020)
The same director of the BL hit, Where your Eyes Linger, now brings us a shounen (youth comic targeted for boys) style mini-series that centers around the relationship between Jin-won (Cheon Seung-ho), a runner in a slump, and his pace maker, Sang-ha (Lee Se-jin). At first, prickly and stubborn, Jin-won is determined to win a race on his own. So when his straight-forward and cheerful hoobae (junior schoolmate) Sang-ha offers to keep him on track, Jin-won is thrown into confusion. How can he keep things professional, when his pace maker suddenly declares his unconditional love for him?
WATCH IT: FOR LEE SE-JIN. Mr. Heart made Lee Se-jin a BL mainstay for a reason. His cider-like (refreshing) aegyo and acting are just *chef's kiss*.
Color Rush (2020 - 2021)
In a world where a small part of the human population only see shades of grey (aptly branded as Monos), Choi Yeon-woo (Yoo Jun) lives a lonely life. Hiding his status as a Mono, Yeon-woo goes about his life keeping everyone at arm's length to avoid meeting the one person who can make him see colors, his probe. However, he did not expect Go Yoo-han (Heo Hyun-joon) to crash into his life so suddenly and vividly. Yoo-han's presence in Yeon-woo's life brings about an overwhelming rush of color... and emotions. What would happen to two people in desperate need of companionship living in a world that desperately wants them to part ways?
WATCH IT: For its interesting storyline that seems straight out of a fanfiction (highly likely). Also, to hear that beautiful Color Rush OST.
To My Star (2021)
The drama starts as celebrity Kang Seo-jun’s (Son Woo-hyun) career starts to plummet due to a fighting scandal. Despite this, Kang Seo-jun remains cheerful and actively wants to solve his problem. However, his agency has advised him to lie low and let things slowly cool down. His manager sends him to stay at a rented apartment that belongs to the company. To the shock of the current tenant, introverted Chef Han Ji-woo (Kim Kang-min), Kang Seo-jun loudly walks into his apartment AND his heart. Will they be able to get together without causing another scandal?
WATCH IT: For Son Woo-hyun's effortless acting. Also, the storyline doesn't feel as underdeveloped despite the short airtime.
You Make Me Dance (2021)
Song Shi-on (Choo Young-woo) is a Contemporary Dance Major who's been trying his best to live his life and fulfill his dreams. Without the support of his family, Song Shi-on refused to give up on his dreams—even if it meant getting a loan from an extremely shady woman. Shi-on must now try his best to continue delaying the payment of his debts by avoiding the numerous debt collectors sent his way. Who knew that the last debt collector he'd meet would be someone like Jin Hong-seok (Won Hyung-hoon)? Cold and aloof, Jin Hong-seok tries his best to prevent Shi-on from fleeing and at the same time, to stop himself from falling in love. Because who has time to watch the red string of faith dance when you have to earn money?
WATCH IT: THAT BED SCENE. You'll know it when you see it. Also, a mean debt collector suddenly becomes a supportive sugar daddy? Yes, please. Bonus, the acting is great.
Nobleman Ryu's Wedding (2021)
The story starts in the most unusual starting point, the wedding day. Often, weddings are the end of any good romance story—except this one. On the day of Ryu Ho-seon's (Kang In-soo) arranged wedding to a woman he has never met, Ryu Ho-seon suddenly realizes that he has married the wrong person! To cover up his sister's escape, Choi Ki-wan (Lee Se-jin) dons his sister's wedding hanbok and pretends to be her. Together, Ho-seon and Ki-wan must cooperate with each other to avoid causing a scandal that would rock the city. This gets even more complicated when Ho-seon's best friend, Kim Tae-hyung (yes, that's his name) falls in love with his not-wife, Ki-wan. Until when can these two fool everyone, including themselves?
WATCH IT: Lee Se-Jin is back as a crossdressing supportive brother in the Joseon Era. While not as uwu inducing as Mr. Heart, Nobleman Ryu's Wedding is a cute and funny story to tide you over. Also, love that love triangle storyline!
Civil, E. (2020, June 18). Fujoshi: All you need to know about the Female Fans of BL. Retrieved from Japan Yugen: https://japanyugen.com/fujoshi-all-you-need-to-know-about-female-fans-of-bl/
Fujimoto, Y. (2020, September 04). The Evolution of “Boys’ Love” Culture: Can BL Spark Social Change? Retrieved from Nippon.com: Your Doorway to Japan: https://www.nippon.com/en/in-depth/d00607/
Yabai Writers. (2017, July 26). Fudanshi: Men and the Consumption of Gay Themes in Manga and Anime. Retrieved from Yabai: http://yabai.com/p/2725