Kokoy de Santos, the 23-year-old Filipino actor in Gameboys, is everything you could want in a heartthrob — debonair as he is handsome, with a smile that opens like the gates of heaven, and an ocean of curls to get lost in. On an August day in northern Manila, under strict Covid-19 guidelines, he stands a few feet away from his co-star, 20-year-old Elijah Canlas. Their characters are meeting again in the middle of the pandemic, for the first time sans facemasks. Music swells as de Santos palms Canlas’s tear-streaked cheek, inching closer, vibing off every moment they couldn’t be together, until — they kiss. This is the crescendo of the five hour symphony that is the Filipino web series, Gameboys. This is a repressed queer kid’s dream lived out loud. This is Boys' Love.
Growing in popularity around the globe, with some shows reaching 100 million streams, Boys' Love especially resonates with queer people, and more Western viewers are catching on. Shortened to “BL,” these stories originated in early ‘70s Japan as “yaoi,” a niche genre of shōjo manga depicting homoerotic relationships between men, with less plot and more sex than its current iteration. By women and for women (yes, you read that right), yaoi rendered a safe escapism for girls to reject societal norms and gender constructs. Integral to the spread of the genre across East Asia was a shift into more sophisticated storytelling, borrowing heavily from coming-of-age novels.
Now produced in web and TV format in countries like Thailand, Taiwan, and the Philippines, Boys' Love appeals to audiences for its no-holds-barred depiction of gay romance. Where Western media appears slow on the uptake, Boys' Love shows from Asia are downloadable, here to give us the queer stories we deserve. Growing demand from English-speaking audiences has ushered in faster turnaround of accessible translations, which fans can access on YouTube, LINE TV, and also GagaOOLala, the global streaming platform for Asian queer media.
Stories told in Boys' Love are universally relatable to anyone who has ever grown up repressing a pivotal part of themselves, allowing viewers to experience young gay love without negative consequences. They present a non-toxic masculinity ideal, where closeness between boys is normalized, in contrast with Western attitudes which remain extremely retrograde. There’s a word in Tagalog, kilig — that pulse-racing, cheeks-flushed, butterfly-inducing excitement that arises in romantic situations — and BL dramas like Japan’s Cherry Magic, Thailand’s A Tale of Thousand Stars, and South Korea’s Mr. Heart have this quality in spades.
Swoon-worthy dialogue and gauzy visuals are the hallmarks of the genre. Enchanting cinematography is the cornerstone of the Thai BL series I Told Sunset About You, following the young love between Teh (Billkin) and Oh-aew (PP Krit). “It can touch the viewers’ souls, because it can be similar to [their] experiences, it may also [inspire] someone’s openness to new experiences,'' PP Krit tells Refinery29 (through translation from BKPPUniverse). Vibrant and playful in his role as Oh-aew, PP Krit believes that audiences can learn from the program “about the characters’ coming-of-age [and] for them to ‘come through things,’ including coming out to tell others who they are or what they like.”
Fresh, bold, and gorgeously shot in Phuket, I Told Sunset About You is the Boys' Love gold standard. Fans fell for the alluring narrative and the characters’ intimacy — nuzzling into lovers’ chests, kissing in secret under the sea, exploring each other’s bodies — there’s no kilig quite like it. The second part of the story, I Promised You The Moon, concludes this month, delivering a more mature storyline set against the backdrop of metropolitan Bangkok. “Not only LGBTQ+ [people should watch the series] but actually everyone should,” says its star, PP Krit. “I use the word ‘everyone.’ I really want everyone to watch this series and learn with the characters about new perspectives on life.”
Set amid coronavirus lockdown in the Philippine island of Luzon, Gameboys follows Gavreel and Cairo, gamers who fall in love online. Kilig emanates from the pair whenever they are on screen — this must be how straight people feel watching mainstream romances. For many queer fans stuck in Covid-mandated isolation, Gameboys was a much-needed tether to the world of gay romance, an administered drip-feed of serotonin.
“We all wanted to tell the story of Gameboys the right way,” series star Canlas tells Refinery29 over email. A media darling and one of the Philippines’s rising stars, Canlas consulted queer crew members for sensitivity advice. “[We wanted] to represent these characters the right way,” the actor says. “As an actor and as an ally, I take note of these and do all the preparation needed.”
It’s no secret that Cairo and Gavreel’s Western counterparts are often relegated to the B-story in favor of the cishet lead, or cast as the chummy sidekick. Groundbreaking as it is, FX’s Pose is an exception, not the rule. Shows still capitalize on queerbaiting, and gay teen romances like Hulu’s Love, Victor are few and far between. But Boys' Love is testament to the fact that a fuller spectrum of queer love exists.
“When I portray characters, I treat all of them in the most human way possible,” says Canlas. “Yes, Cairo is gay, but there is so much more going on in his life.” While diluted depictions of queerness are a mainstay of Western TV, BL series are progressive in their willingness to center their gay characters, and show their intimate moments without their entire existence revolving around being gay. Watch a BL episode and you might find a steamy sex scene followed by a run-of-the-mill visit to the grocery store for milk. “Stories like Gameboys and other BL shows are important to be shown now as it normalizes queer love,” says Canlas. “It’s about damn time. Love is love.”
But Boys' Love is not without its problems. The sexual assault storylines that are a common theme in the genre are a growing concern among fans and critics alike, and new shows are joining the critique. Ash Malanum, the writer behind Gameboys, is pushing BL into a more modern and sensitive realm. “As a storyteller myself, I know that’s not something I’d want to do if I’m given the chance to write [Boys' Love],” says Malanum over email. “I made sure that as much as possible, I was going to be truthful to my experience as a gay man myself. I don't know if Gameboys is representing the community well, but I feel like I represented my authentic self through my storytelling.”
I think we should not differentiate love, whether it is for whom, or wrong or right. Everyone has their rights to love anyone or anything.
actor Billkin from I Promised you the moon
It’s also easy to forget that the same countries dominating the genre have not legalized gay marriage. Aam Anusorn, Thai director of Call It What You Want, knows this all too well. “People say Thailand is the land of LGBTQ+ people, but it’s not,” he says. “They don’t really accept LGBTQ+ people. [Some of] the fans do not support same sex marriage. They don’t even care about the rights of LGBTQ+ people, they just care about the couple on TV, and that’s it.” Gay rights live in the pixels of their screens, and they stay there.
On the flip side, shows like Gameboys signal tangible change. “It’s fun and also challenging,” Kokoy de Santos tells Refinery29 over email, “challenging in a way that you somehow put pressure on yourself because you wanna make sure you’re not overdoing things, and you wanna show the genuine love. I’m very happy and proud of it. Finally Boys Love is now in the limelight here in the Philippines, and Gavreel and Cairo are the main characters in the story.”
It’s important to acknowledge that we view BL dramas through a Western lens. “Acceptance of LGBTQ+ in Thai society and in the U.S. is different,” Billkin tells Refinery29 (through translation from BKPPUniverse). “U.S. fans watching [I Told Sunset About You] may be able to see how someone from a different environment like in Thailand, and [how being in such an environment] shapes their thoughts.” Billkin makes note of the ‘cultural dimension’ that rifts the Western and Thai attitudes to queerness. “It is more open, accepted, and equal in the U.S., including the expression of affection, than in Thailand,” he says of the culture’s differing attitudes toward queerness.
At the end of the day, love is love. “I think we should not differentiate love, whether it is for whom, or wrong or right,” says Billkin. “Everyone has their rights to love anyone or anything. As long as they do not trouble anyone, or deprive others’ rights, then it is their right to be able to continue doing what they do.”
Boys' Love reminds us that we are worthy and capable of love. Silly and cliché rom-com tropes are not just for heterosexual love stories. Cheesy and heartwarming tales belong to everybody. A fuller and richer spectrum of love exists in Boys' Love, and we are the better, and more entertained, for it. Kilig is for us, too.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of this TV genre. It is Boys' Love.