Gay Romance: Korea's Latest Cultural Obsession
Shows focusing on same-sex male couples are the rage in South Korea since last year. Do they signal that attitudes toward homosexuality are changing?
This spring's K-drama Semantic Error is centered on two university students. One is reserved and rule-bound to a fault, the other is carefree and irresponsible, and their first encounter is as disastrous as can be expected. But following the conventional romance formula, opposites attract, misunderstanding transpires, and they discover that they are in love.
That makes Semantic Error sound like generic small-screen entertainment, but the show offers a key difference from the usual Korean boy-meets-girl stories: the two main protagonists are male.
It's only one of multiple South Korean productions lately to put homosexuality front and center. Blooming, described as a "coming-of-age campus romance", was released in March. A month before that came First Love, Again, about a man discovering that his one and only love from 300 years ago is reborn as male. Last year's Light On Me focused on a gay love triangle at an all-boys high school. To My Star, also released a year ago, now has a second season out.
It's a startling development in a country where being LGBT has been viewed for the most part with disapproval if not outright hostility.
Granted, the South Korean film industry has for long been somewhat accommodating when it comes to the theme of homosexuality. The 2001 movie Bungee Jumping of Their Own, starring A-list actor Lee Byung-hun (best known outside South Korea for his roles in the Hollywood fare Red 2 and Netflix's Squid Game), was a notable example, with Lee playing a high school teacher who falls for a male student that could be his long dead girlfriend reincarnate.
But such works invariably opted for tragic endings in order to contain the transgressive implication of same-sex love and uphold heteronormativity. The King And the Clown (2005), A Frozen Flower (2008) and Method (2017) are typical: by showing men in love with each other, but only in the context of doomed relationships, they underscored the impossibility and even undesirability of such feelings.
That's still better than the TV industry, which, subject to greater public scrutiny, tends toward more conservative programming. Within that restricted creative climate gay characters are often relegated to the sideline as comic fodder, and homoeroticism is exploited to heighten heterosexual romantic tension (throw in a woman dressed as a man, who falls in love with a man, who loves her back but doesn't know at first that he is a she).
Coffee Prince (2007) is a recognized masterpiece of this genre, followed by You're Beautiful (2009), Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) and even the recent hit The King's Affection (2021).
An exceptionally sensitive portrayal of men in love could be found in the 2010 drama Beautiful Life, which broke grounds by featuring a gay couple struggling to win acceptance from their families. But even then, their tribulations made up for only one among multiple plot lines, and rightwing Christians condemned the show, with some even taking out a newspaper advertisement to say "SBS [the broadcaster] should bear responsibility if my son watches Beautiful Life, becomes gay and dies from AIDS!"
And yet only a dozen years later, K-gay romances are going mainstream without pulling any punches. Kiss scenes linger for what feels like forever. Sex, while nothing really gets bared (except some very sinewy chests and arms), doesn't get glossed over, either.
Although it may seem to come out of nowhere, the explosion of South Korean queer content is in fact the culmination of a sub-culture known often as BL (boy's love).
Originating in Japan and meant primarily for female consumption, the genre first took off underground as novels and comics which later found bigger audiences through the medium of the internet.
Mirroring the "fanfiction" phenomenon in the West, where predominantly cisgender female writers titillate mainly female readership with stories of man-on-man love, the BL genre in Asia, including sometimes very graphic descriptions/illustrations of gay sex, is noted for being created by women for other women.
The blossoming of BL literature in South Korea was boosted by the expansion of K-pop fandoms. Already in the 1990s and 2000s certain pseudonymous South Korean writers gained online fame by writing BL literature that involved members of well-known K-pop groups as central characters (the megastar boy group BIGBANG was among beloved materials in the aughts, and instead of reacting angrily, the group even made a spoof of Coffee Prince to show that they're cool with it).
This sub-category of BL involving actual male celebrities, known as RPS (real person slash), has been controversial.
Back in January, the conservative People Power Party members came down hard on RPS, calling it "similar to hardcore pornography, different from deepfake [porn] only in format." Ha Tae-kyung, a lawmaker from the party, said, "It's conventional wisdom that largely men are involved in online sex crime, but it's been confirmed through the discussion of the RPS issue that women, too, are committing online sex crime."
But there has been little criticism of BL content as a whole when characters are fictional. The news in March that a scheduled fan meeting with the two main actors of To My Star had been canceled at the last minute possibly due to objections from the Christian community had even the rightwing, normally anti-LGBT paper Chosun Ilbo editorializing, "Even though views toward homosexuality have become more flexible in society, there are still those who refuse to accept it. That's unfortunate."
In 2018, the Korea Institute of Public Administration, a government-funded research center, recorded opposition to homosexuality in South Korea at below the 50-percent mark for the first time. A Pew Research Center survey published in 2020 similarly noted a dramatic increase in acceptance of homosexuality among South Koreans, from 25 percent in 2002 to 44 percent in 2019.
Interestingly, another survey, conducted by Hankook Research last year, showed that support for homosexuality was especially high among women in their twenties and thirties—the same demographic known for consumption of BL content—at a whopping 68 percent.
Does that mean the ascendancy of gay romance for broad consumption reflects growing acceptance of homosexuality in South Korean society?
Even Hwang Da-seul, the industry veteran who directed Where Your Eyes Linger, To My Star and Blooming, cautioned against such a reading in an interview with the paper Kyunghyang Shinmun in March:
"Queer content has a foot in reality, but BL is a bit closer to being pure fantasy. In BL there are no struggles over identity."
In fact, few if any South Korean gay romance under the BL umbrella acknowledges the widespread homophobia in the country, and that's in keeping with the reader expectation. As journalist Lee Sang-won at the magazine Sisa IN points out, those who "enjoy the love between characters in the BL genre have in actuality no big interest in homosexuality."
He adds, "It's hard to predict that the popularity of the BL genre brought on by Semantic Error will lead to social change."
Lee and writer Jeon Yeoul at the magazine W Korea agree that something else accounts for the proliferation of BL content, namely the influence of streaming platforms. Speaking with Jeon, a producer at Whatcha, which streams Semantic Error, said, "The current fervor has been made possible because streaming services have changed the content production environment."
Put plainly, streaming platforms ranging from Netflix to those you probably never heard of, such as Whatcha, are fighting to attract and retain subscribers. To distinguish themselves from competitors, they are open to "content that targets specific demographics and even minority tastes, and even content that was once liked by only some consumers but is now acquiring mainstream appeal."
And there isn't much to object to in the emerging BL dramas. Pretty men in the throes of young love without a hint of cynicism or fear of homophobia. It's pure escapist fantasy. Isn't that what entertainment is meant to be?
Cover: a kiss scene from the K-drama Semantic Error (source: YouTube)