A HIStory of problematic relationships

The HIStory series started back in 2017 and is now winding up its third season. A series of self-contained stories within each year, it’s not a series per se but more of a set of thematically-linked stories each year. The theme being male homosexual romance.

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HIStory3: Make Our Days Count has not one but two problematic relationships

HIStory was Taiwan’s low-budget attempt at riding the rave of Boy’s Love (BL) that arguably started in Thailand with 2014’s Lovesick but burst into international consciousness with China’s disturbing, controversial and game-changing Addicted/Heroin.

That’s of course ignoring that Japan invented the genre of Yaoi in Manga and has been making gay films for far longer.  The first Yaoi Manga was translated into English back in 2002 and so that gives some indication of just how long gay Asian romance has been coming out of Japan. It’s not surprising that South Korea’s 2005 Coffee Prince, about a tomboy who falls in love with her boss while pretending to be man, had a Japanese insert character whose job was to comment on the (outwardly) gay romance with statements like, “Who cares? This isn’t a big deal in Japan”.

However, Yaoi was a niche genre. Lovesick’s big budget success with its large cast, original music and mainstream appeal was the first taste of what BL would eventually do for the Thai film industry. It took BL out of comic books and racy novels and put it on the small screen where it could be watched by a much larger audience.

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Phun and Noh in Lovesick ended the show with a healthy and loving relationship

Unfortunately, it also set a template that for better or worse writers keep trying to emulate, at least in Thailand. When the first (and only) season of Addicted/Heroin aired as a cheap web drama in China in 2016 it opted for the more aggressive tone that the country had established in previous small-budget attempts at BL and in the novels on which the show was based. While Lovesick is about a sweet, consensual and bumbling romance between two schoolboys, Addicted/Heroin depicts a disturbingly violent and obsessive relationship between two stepbrothers.

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Bai Luo Yin and Gu Hai’s relationship in Addicted is dysfunctional and obsessive

While it wasn’t the first Chinese BL, it was the first to attain a mass audience and to depict graphic and often non-consensual sex between two men who are legally brothers. It’s not surprising that Chinese censors reacted badly to the show but it is unfortunate since Chinese censorship is not something to be messed with. China didn’t just ban the show and stop the second season – it banned the depiction of homosexual relationships completely. Several BL novels in the process of being adapted at the time – some of which were already airing – had to be radically rewritten to remove the gay. Most people might have noticed that China makes a great deal of sweeping epic bromance tales these days – the most famous and popular being The Untamed – but many won’t know that all of these are supposed to be epic sweeping romances instead. If you didn’t think it was possible to ban reality in this day and age, you haven’t met China.

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The Untamed is a new breed of Chinese BL without the BL

I’ll take a small break at this moment to point out what you’ve probably already noticed – female homosexuality is nowhere in this discussion. There are reasons for that but the PhD is not yet written as far as I’m aware. I have my own theories but misogynism pays a big part. Thailand in particular practices a peculiarly Victorian form of misogynism and it’s no surprise that young women turn to BL to give form to their own sexual fantasies – especially when they’re told they’re not supposed to have them. For this reason, the genre tends to have a female insert character – the uke (or bottom) – who embodies traditionally feminine qualities such as beauty, fragility and passiveness. The uke is pursued by the seme (the top), who is corresponding big, strong and aggressive. Which is not to imply that this is an explanation of the cultural underpinnings of seme-uke relationships in Yaoi: this is more to explain why the genre became such a hit with pubescent girls in highly patriarchal cultures like Thailand. Young women who consume Yaoi are called Fujoshi and are frequently portrayed to be obsessed with romances between two men. So strong is this cultural phenomena that young Thai actors are often encouraged – even forced – to maintain publicly homoerotic relationships with other men as way of gaining a foothold in the industry. 

But back to this post, which is about the HIStory series.

It’s no surprise that with the booming popularity of BL in Thailand and the brutal crackdown in China, Taiwanese writers would decide to get in on the action since they could provide Chinese language content without being censored by the Chinese government.

The first three stories in HIStory aired in 2017: very short, cheap web series’ with poor production values and simplistic texts that recycled old BL plotlines rather than trying to create their own. Nonetheless, the world was crying out for new BL and so the show became surprisingly popular, despite its low level of quality.

That popularity led to the production of HIStory2 in 2018. For that set of stories, Taiwan upped its game. Right or Wrong and the immensely popular Crossing the Line (Boundary Crossing) propelled the series into the mainstream in the same way that other BL web series had in the past.

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Hsia Yu Hao and Qiu Zi Xuan’s romance in Crossing the Line is sweet and believable

Crossing the Line in particular became the new gold standard for BL in many people’s eyes with its sweet and unproblematic romance between two highschool boys on a volleyball team. Right or Wrong was more controversial, especially around the age difference between the two men and the somewhat awkward and uncomfortable tone the two straight actors brought to their love scenes.

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Right or Wrong portrayed a romance between a University professor and one of his students

Nonetheless, HIStory2 was an unexpected hit and started to be mentioned in tandem with Lovesick as the best of BL. It was especially popular with people uncomfortable with the romanticisation of abuse, stalking, harassment and assault in dramas such as Addicted/Heroin and in Thai Lovesick knockoffs such as Make It Right, which frequently depicted non-consensual sexual overtures as normal and romantic. Thai Lakorns have a big issue with the portrayal of rape and assault generally and, as Thai censorship eased, writers took advantage of the latitude to titillate using male-on-male sexual violence rather than the usual male-on-female violence the Lakorns are known for.

All of this context is to explain why so many people were looking forward to 2019’s set of stories in HIStory3 and why so many are disappointed and jaded at what they’ve gotten. HIStory1 was certainly nothing to write home about but nobody had expectations of the series at that point – Taiwanese BL was almost an oxymoron – and most people barely noticed the show’s existence.

Two years later it’s a different story and it seems like the HIStory series has been a victim of its own success.

As HIStory3: Make Our Days Count comes to an end this week, fans of BL have started to cast their eye across the series as a whole and realise that the problematic and unhealthy relationships depicted in this year’s instalments is not a new phenomena but in fact a pattern. While I devoted a separate post to discussing the relationship in HIStory 2: Right or Wrong, this post will discuss the original HIStory series and the fact we all probably should have seen this coming.

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Make Our Days Count has vulnerable Xi Gu bullied into a relationship by the aggressive Hao Ting 

My Hero

Probably the least problematic of HIStory1 is My Hero, which portrays a mild harassment-free seme-uke relationship between a jock and a bullied loner. Some people have cited this series as being welcomingly progressive since it’s as much about the jock coming to terms with his bisexuality as anything else. But since the openly-gay uke character spends most of the drama with a woman’s soul inside him, the unfortunate message – gay men have a woman inside them – is made anyway.

Stay Away From Me

Following My Hero, the next story is Stay Away From Me. It portrays a cliched and somewhat juvenile romance between an Idol and his – you guessed it – stepbrother. An obvious attempt to capitalise on the popularity of Addicted/Heroin and stepbrother plotlines generally, there is nothing particularly wrong with the romance itself (other than the incest) but the show has a self-insert Fujoshi character who fetishises her friends’ relationship to a point that is as disturbing as it is wrong. When the two men are forced to live together, she begins to write BL fan fiction involving them, grilling her friend for details on his non-existent sex life and stalking them, taking photos of them without their knowledge or permission. This character’s unacceptable actions normalises bringing obsessive Fujoshi behaviour into the real world and is part of the reason why young gay men now find themselves surrounded by young women who fetishise their very real, non-dramatic lives.

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This behaviour is not okay

Obsessed

The final story in HIStory 1 was Obsessed and, honestly, I barely know how to start with everything that is wrong with this gross seme-uke piece of nonsense. After dying, one character travels back in time and decides not to get involved with his boyfriend since he blames him for everything that went wrong in his (short) life. The show’s message – that true love wins out – is not necessarily an issue itself. Instead the problem is the aggressive sexual assault and harassment that occurs throughout. The title is an obvious nod again to Addicted/Heroin, as is the romanticising of non-consensual sex as a seduction technique. We know that the reincarnated boy is in love with the man who was his boyfriend in the alternate timeline. But the boyfriend doesn’t know that and yet we’re supposed to swoon at him forcing sexual activity upon a man who has loudly proclaimed himself not interested. This is the worst of the original plotlines and probably should have given viewers a hint as to the writers’ weaknesses. Especially since the show’s underlying plot doesn’t make much sense.

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No means no except when it actually means yes I guess

This year HIStory3 has given us Trapped – a poorly written crime show with a romance where one of the male leads actually shot and nearly killed the other – and Make Our Days Count – which is practically a user’s manual for abusers trying to choose and groom their victims.

Looking back over the series as a whole, it’s hard not to conclude that the success and popularity of Crossing the Line somewhat blinded viewers to what is a systemic problem in the show. And even that storyline, upon reflection, has an unnecessary shoehorned stepbrother plotline in it.

With the film sequel Crossing the Line 2 due soon, it’s no surprise that fans of the show have begun to get concerned at the writers potentially ruining what was, in retrospect, the one iteration of this show they got (mostly) right.

I personally hope the writers manage to retain what was good about the show in the film. And that they use negative reviews of this years’ stories to improve. It would be a shame to lose some of the last remaining BL in Chinese, even if it routinely disappoints.


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