Major and Classification
East Asian Area Studies; Global Studies
Research Gateway Project
The “Top” and “Bottom” Framework: Understanding Gender and Extent of Heteronormativity within Male-Male Sexual Encounters in Mature Korean Boys’ Love (BL) Webtoons
Since its explosion in popularity from the late 1970s, the boys’ love (BL) genre has continuously attracted criticism for its homoerotic, overtly sexual storytelling. Contemporarily, many netizens have denounced how BL portrays male-male relationships and sex, claiming that one character presents as “the boy” and the other character as “the girl.” The rise of Korean BL webtoons, or online comics, has rekindled this discourse among audiences, but how critics reach these conclusions about the characters’ adopted gender and sexual roles remains unclear. Through close readings of two popular, completed, and mature Korean BL webtoons—Banana Scandal and BJ Alex—I examine gender in these characters’ designs and interactions before and during sexual encounters through visual and textual analyses to understand the extent that the BL “top” and “bottom” character framework conveys heteronormativity. Cross-engaging with gender studies, sex studies, and pornography studies, I find that one character is illustrated in a hypermasculine manner, while the other is illustrated in a demasculinized and feminized way, which translates masculinity to sexual leadership. I argue that sexual objectification of the less masculine partner and prioritization of penetrative sex in these titles also reveal how heteronormative structures have affected portrayals of non-heterosexual sexuality. I conclude that specific performances of gender are expected and integrated through assigning the character roles of “top” and “bottom,” which reaffirms and confutes BL characters’ identities as men depending on their perceived sexual positions among readers.