Romantic Pandemic: COVID filtered through Boys’ Love Series

Responding to current events, many of the Boys’ Love series in 2020-21 were set during quarantines, and dealt with the obstacles to and possibilities of making human connections during that time.

If you had asked me six weeks ago about why I would choose to write a series of posts on COVID and Pop Culture in Boys Love series, I would have responded that I thought I would be writing more of a retrospective. While it looked like there was going to be one final Delta wave where I lived, there didn’t seem to be another variant in the pipeline that we hadn’t seen before. Two years into this pandemic should have taught me that there’s always something that I haven’t seen. I allowed hope to get a little ahead of events. Again. Bah humbug. But despite Omicron throwing us all into a state of confusion again where I live, I still think enough time has passed since the onset of the COVID to wonder about what the public memory of the COVID era will be. How will we look back upon this time? Will it be somberly remembered through memorials, sentimentally remembered through cultural nostalgia, or just forgotten without much cultural impact only to be rediscovered 100 years later like the 1918 Spanish Flu?

Since I’m living through this period now, I can’t claim more privilege for understanding how it will end than anyone else. It’s not likely that I’ll live to be 150 to read those centenary histories. My guess is that framing the narrative and memory of the era will be highly contentious and unsettling, but the only thing I can do is document what I have been experiencing the past two years and how COVID has been reflected in the culture I’ve been consuming. Which happens to be primarily scripted Boys Love or ‘y-series’ out of Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan. My view is thus very slanted. Limited once by my experience as an American white-collar professional who has largely been able to isolate and work from home most of the time, away from the front lines. Limited again by my ability to have mostly checked out of the pop culture of my own country for most of the duration by watching romantic comedies and dramas about two men falling in love.

For those readers unfamiliar with “Boys’ Love” or “Yaoi” or “Danmei” genre, I’m providing a link to the Wikipedia entry for the topic. It provides a good general background on the development of the genre and its related industry. Beyond the fact that it deals with romantic and often erotic relationships between two men, there is less agreement as to what content counts as “BL” and what belongs to other genres such as LGBTI+ fiction, mainstream offerings that just happen to have gay characters, and cultural production outside of East Asia. I tend to take a broader view of the boundaries of the genres than others might. The media I’m going to be discussing, though, tends to be marketed to young women and adapted from other media created by women such as manga, web comics, light novels, fan fiction and even sim video games.

Pipu (Win Kulkaranyawich), Paul (Khaotung Ratanakitpaisan) and Noinae (Prigkhing Sureeyaret Yakaret) discuss the boundaries of the Boys’ Love genre in 55:15 Don’t Look Back (Thailand: 2021). Yes, discussions of what counts often end this way. series link

One of the reasons I’ve been able to “check out” of my own pop culture during COVID has been that the  genre BL video series has been going through its “golden age” during COVID.  While I’ve been following the yaoi for a few decades now, until 5 or 6 years ago, outside of Japan, there might be 2 or 3 series or films to follow in a year.  In the past two years, the output has expanded rapidly. According to genre compiler BL Update, there were 104 series completed in 2021. With the content expansion, I could use my online time to keep up with the latest news then retire to the fantasy romance world as an escape from that reality.

The number of BL Series has increased, despite production delays and cancellations during COVID.

Escape somewhat. BL was not shrouded from the impact of COVID. Several series dealt with the issue directly and by doing so, some of the and cultural artefacts of the pandemic became part of popular culture. Over a series of blog posts, I’ll be exploring a few of those cultural artefacts and how they were used within a romance genre with an overall goal of answering the question of how pop culture may shape public memory. The installments I’ve planned are:

  • Hand Washing
  • Masks
  • Virtual Meetings
  • Lock down (forced together)
  • Lock down (forced apart)

Hopefully that will keep me occupied until this wave passes.

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