SEOUL – Two men fall into each other‘s arms on a bed. This scene, which might have been nearly unthinkable on Korean TV only a few years ago due to negative attitudes toward homosexuality, was part of the first episode of Korean streaming service Wavve’s new reality show “Merry Queer,” starring gay, lesbian and transgender couples.
The co-hosts of the show, famous comedian Shin Dong-yup and TV personality and restaurateur Hong Seok-cheon, who came out as gay several years ago, expressed their emotions at the launch of the LGBTQ romance reality show “Merry Queer.”
Shin felt that the public’s view toward sexual minorities here is slowly changing, and a program like “Merry Queer” will be watched by many. Meanwhile, Hong said he never thought a show like this was possible and was deeply moved to be hosting.
“To be honest, I found some of the scenes surprising, but I am certain that the show will offer a chance for viewers to hear the voices and stories of sexual minorities,” a 31-year-old housewife surnamed Kim told The Korea Herald on Saturday, “I am mostly surprised that such content is being made in South Korea.”
Many argue that Korea has come a long way in its views on LGBTQ issues.
In 2010, SBS’ drama series “Life is Beautiful” stirred debate on whether the series was appropriate for broadcast. The star-studded show featured a gay couple for the first time in Korean TV history.
In 2021, more than a decade later, SBS was criticized for removing Freddie Mercury’s kissing scenes in “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018) by those who argued that such editing discriminates against sexual minorities.
Growing popularity of LGBT series
There has been a better-than-expected response to LGBTQ and “BL,” or “boys’ love,” content on platforms like Netflix and webtoon-based projects in Korea.
“Semantic Error,” an original series from Korean streaming platform Watcha, topped the service’s chart for eight weeks after its premiere in February.
A screenshot shows a gay couple in Watcha’s “Semantic Error.” (Watcha)
The eight-part series, adapted from a web novel of the same title, is about two male college students who fall in love with each other after working together on a group project. The screenplay of “Semantic Error” also topped the bestseller list of local online bookstore Yes24.
“I started watching ‘Semantic Error’ because my friend and I were fans of Jaechan, from the boy band DKZ, who plays the lead role in the series. Though we did not know the series was a BL romance, the unique story and characters were refreshing compared to other rom-coms,” a university student surnamed Lee, 25, told The Korea Herald on Friday.
Lee added that she knows that many others also enjoyed the series, judging by the records set by “Semantic Error.”
Another BL show, “To My Star,” was recently commissioned for a second season, with producer Energedic Company eager to build on the first season’s success. The show will be released on Tving, the subscription-based streaming Platform owned by entertainment powerhouse CJ ENM.
Meanwhile, South Korean streaming service Wavve announced it will release another variety show featuring a gay cast called “His Man” this month.
Season two of “To My Star” (Tving)
“With the rise of online (streaming) platforms, content creators can make content without being restricted by the Korean Communication Standards Commission or having to meet the strict standards of terrestrial broadcasters. Standards like maintaining dignity and protecting the social and emotional development of the children,” culture critic Jung Duk-hyun said, referring to JTBC’s “Sunam Girls High School Detective,” which received warnings from the KCSC after airing a scene of two girls kissing. “The subscriber-centered services and a shift in viewer tastes are leading to the production of more diverse contents.”
Slow change in perception
Foreign films and dramas available on streaming services have exposed Korean viewers to LGBT content, according to Choi Jin-sil, a Keimyung University professor.
One example of this shift in attitudes can be seen in Korean streaming service Watcha’s marketing for the British series “Killing Eve” (2018).
“BBC iPlayer, a UK-based video-on-demand service, promoted ‘Killing Eve’ season one as a story about two women lethally obsessed with each other. Watcha first introduced the series as a suspense thriller between a psychopath and a spy,” Choi said. “But this slightly changed for the third season in 2020.”
Watcha’s trailer for “Killing Eve” season three features the phrase “I cannot stop thinking about you,” according to Choi, promoting the LGBTQ aspects of the show.
“The focus of the trailer has changed as the season highlights the deep, complex relationship of the two female leads,” a Watcha official told The Korea Herald.
Recognizing the growing popularity of LGBTQ content, the official said, Watcha plans to offer more diverse entertainment, such as the period movie “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
Poster image for “Killing Eve” (Watcha)
Culture critic Hwang Jin-mi believes that the novelty of LGBTQ content may have positively impacted viewers’ reception of it, especially given the overabundance of programs featuring heterosexual couples.
“From dating shows to marriage, divorce and remarriage, viewers have seen enough of celebrity love stories in both reality shows and dramas. There’s simply nothing new about these programs,” Hwang said.
The critic added that a series featuring a gay couple is no longer content exclusively for sexual minorities but can be enjoyed by broader audiences.
Meanwhile, BL content is proving popular because it caters to the needs of many female viewers who are tired of obvious romance and thirst for something different, according to Hwang.
Though it may be difficult for LGBTQ content to become part of mainstream TV, Hwang believed that it is likely to become an enduring topic.
“Audiences are no longer opposed to content because they are LGBTQ-related. Viewers are starting to recognize them as a new wave of creative content,” Hwang said.
Culture critic Jung believed that LGBTQ-related content is slowly strengthening its foothold in the entertainment business.
“Watcha is establishing its brand as an open-minded service for such genres by offering many domestic and foreign LGBTQ projects,” Jung said.
South Korea is one of the big markets for Boys Love content being distributed on streaming platforms. It's an indication that there is growing acceptance of equality for LGBTQ people in the country.
For example, Semantic Error - an original series from Korean streaming platform Watcha - topped the service’s chart for eight weeks after its premiere earlier this year.
The eight-part series - adapted from a popular novel of the same title - is about two male college students who fall in love with each other after working together on a group project. The lead role in Semantic Error was played by Jaechan who is widely known from boy-band DKZ.
Other locally produced productions that centre queer characters and are distributed on streaming services include To My Star, and His Man.
An important part of the picture is the influence of international productions that are also distributed via streaming services in South Korea. For example, Killing Eve was a series that was hugely popular in South Korea. The story centred on two women was a surprising hit.