Major spoilers for HIStory: My Hero, Stay Away from Me and Obsessed ahead. I will not warn you for individual spoilers. There is also discussion of sexual assault. Proceed with caution.
If there’s anything media struggles with, and I mean all over the world, it’s LGBT+ representation. In all my years of consuming Asian media, I’ve found time and time again that there are only a few Asian nations that are really able to delve into LGBT+ representation in any meaningful way. The most common way they do this is through “BL” or “boys’ love” series. They’re wildly popular, with shows like SOTUS and Make It Right being absolute royalty within the genre. There’s a third franchise I would add to the pile, though: HIStory.
HIStory is a series that has been running since 2017 and specializes in telling pocket-sized gay love stories. So far, the franchise has featured 7 different stories. In order, they are My Hero, Stay Away from Me, Obsessed, Right or Wrong, Boundary Crossing, Trapped, and the unreleased Make Our Days Count. These stories vary widely in quality, realism, and even offensiveness (because, yes, some of these are harmful stereotypes and, yes, we will be talking about that). So, how about we discuss the HIStory franchise and all of its highlights and terrible, horrible mistakes?
Before we jump in, though, there are a couple of things I want to address right now. First off, I am not an MLM, so I can’t speak about how shows like HIStory make me feel from that perspective. I am, on the other hand, a queer woman, so I do think I have the right to address some of the terrible stereotypes associated with this community. Secondly, I think there are ways to do representation wrong; there is a distinct difference between genuine depictions of LGBT+ characters and flat-out fetishization. Finally, I am more than happy to discuss anything I write here today with anyone who wants to chat. I believe that the door to the discussion should always be open when talking about topics like this.
With my rainbow unicorn mug of coffee in hand, let’s have a chat about HIStory. Strap in, because some of this trip is… rocky.
To say that season 1, which consists of Stay Away from Me, Obsessed, and My Hero, is rough would be a hilarious understatement. There’s a lot of icky going on here that I think should be addressed. Oddly enough, almost none of the MDL reviews or YouTube comments I’ve read seem to think anything is wrong. Yet, here I am… writing about everything wrong with this first season.
We’ll start with My Hero, which is by far the best part of HIStory season 1. It tells the story of a woman named Lan Xi who dies and possesses the body of a man, Si Ren, in order to continue to be with her boyfriend, Ying Xiong. Going into this, I was sure that My Hero would do what gender-benders do. Here is more-or-less how gender-benders (like Coffee Prince) progress:
Ms. Lady has to dress up as a guy for some reason and is stuck around the terribly attractive Mr. Man.
Mr. Man finds himself interested in Ms. Lady, but doesn’t realize that she is a she and is stricken with Gay Panic™.
Mr. Man says, “To hell with it”, and professes his love to Ms. Lady, thinking that she is a he. Triumphant kiss goes here.
Ms. Lady reveals or it is otherwise discovered that she is a she and Mr. Man is upset for a few episodes.
Mr. Man still likes Ms. Lady and they get back together, with the entire subplot of Mr. Man thinking he is gay being swept under the rug and all that self-discovery is forgotten because he was secretly still straight the whole time.
Happy end with no repercussions or trust issues.
I have to say that this formula for gender benders can be a bit unsatisfactory because all of the self-discovery Mr. Man does is invalidated. Here, we have a slightly different circumstance. Now, Ms. Lady is actually a man, and Mr. Man never finds out that the body was occupied by the spirit of a woman. Si Ren, pre-possession, already liked Ying Xiong, so he wins. Lan Xi gets her kiss and her closure, so she wins. Ying Xiong ends up learning a lot about himself and now has a nice boyfriend, so he wins. What Ying Xiong learns about himself isn’t invalidated because what makes him profess his love to Si Ren isn’t anything Lan Xi did, but rather what Si Ren did before Lan Xi possessed his body.
Overall, this drama is mediocre, but compared to the rest of season 1, it’s alright. There’s some stereotyping, but it’s relatively harmless stuff. I felt pretty positive coming out of this one, and I’m glad that there is something good about the actual dumpster fire that is HIStory 1.
And then there is Stay Away from Me, the awkward middle child of season 1. SAfM has its own problems, primarily the inclusion of a character named Meng Meng. Meng Meng is a stereotypical fujoshi, which, if you don’t know, is a woman that is effectively a “fan” of gay relationships. This is where a lot of the problem I have with this series lies. Meng Meng is best friends with the main character in the series, Feng He. Feng He ends up being step-brother to a celebrity by the name of Cheng Qing. Meng Meng, completely unprompted, starts talking about how Feng He and Cheng Qing would make a great couple and asks if they’ve slept together yet. Later on, in the show, Meng Meng even asks what kind of “top” Cheng Qing is. All of this is meant to be humorous.
Now, you might be thinking, “But it’s just a character in a show! No one really acts like that! It’s just innocent fun!”
No. No, it isn’t. Check out this Twitter thread made by a gay cosplayer, in which he talks about actual, living people that have actually come up to him and said the exact same things Meng Meng says in Stay Away from Me. I also think that the fact that he is talking about anime specifically doesn't invalidate how his argument applies to mine. I also agree very much with that last tweet and what he says about representation.
Or how about this Twitter user, who describes a girl similar to Meng Meng that actively made him uncomfortable with her advances.
Obviously, some people do act like Meng Meng in real life and, according to Nipah and @ender_legends, it’s very uncomfortable. Hopefully, you can now understand why the inclusion and apparent approval of Meng Meng’s harmful behaviour would make me a bit upset. I believe that not addressing the harmful behaviour of characters like Meng Meng leads to reinforcement of behaviours that hurt real people. This exact problem appears in the comments, where many viewers find Meng Meng’s behaviour charming, cute, or similar to their own behaviour.
And believe me, I’m not saying for a second that there is anything wrong with enjoying shows and movies that feature gay love stories. What I am saying is that the objectification and fetishization that goes on in the show is happening in the comments and in real life, and by not having any meaningful commentary about it in the show, the writer is effectively abetting such behaviour. Like what you like, feel what you feel, but as soon as it begins to hurt other people, it’s no longer okay.
None of the awkwardness of Stay Away from Me, though, can compete with the third part of the first season of HIStory, Obsessed. A lot of folks love it. I certainly enjoy myself a good, hearty kiss (or a couple) in a TV show or movie, and this series is full of them. There is one very important difference between the spicy scenes in this and those in, say, Right or Wrong, though.
Obsessed has sexual assault.
There are multiple sexual assaults that are never addressed and actually result in a romantic relationship. Jin Teng, a man known for lying and not being very nice, repeatedly assaults Yi Chen, a man who is clearly trying to avoid him. These assaults are intense, often leaving Yi Chen visibly upset. He does a lot of crying in this series, and most of it is inflicted by the man that we, as viewers, are supposed to want him to be with. Just look at Yi Chen! In the actual episode, he tries to get the attention of anyone that will help him and is visibly shaking the whole time. In the second photo, that raised fist is him actively trying to break away from Jin Teng.
Tell me that's the face of someone who wants this.
The series is called Obsessed, but I think it’s absolutely toxic that this show depicts sexual assault as a means of winning a relationship with another person. There is no interesting commentary on the subject of obsession and possessive behaviour. The power imbalance in this series is truly icky, and it reinforces the belief that gay men are predatory and that homosexual relationships are based around abuse and that aforementioned power imbalance.
And I will say this: there are possessive, predatory jerks of all sexualities and genders, including gay men. They exist, but it certainly isn’t all of them or even a majority of them. I have to complain when depictions of these characters reinforce harmful stereotypes and don’t address the fact that there’s something seriously wrong with this sort of behaviour. Assault is never a means to an end, yet this is not discussed in any form in Obsessed, seeing as how the victim, Yi Chen, gives in to his abuser and everything is happy in the end. If there was some sort of meaningful discussion of Jin Teng’s abusive behaviour, or if Yi Chen managed to stay away from Jin Teng, I think the series would have been far more satisfying and worthwhile.
Stories about abuse should be told, but this story doesn’t actually say anything about abuse. It’s just… there, and it’s treated like it’s just part of the "game of love". I think a large part of the problem for me is that so, so many people in the comments of these episodes see all of these attacks as sexy or cute. Jin Teng employs guilt, threats, and violence to “win over” Yi Chen, and even after they’re officially together, that power imbalance is still very evident. This isn't cute. It's a bit scary, honestly. I can't help but imagine myself in Yi Chen's position, and all I can imagine is fear.
Now, that was a lot, and it sounded very critical, mostly because it was. I believe that LGBT+ representation is very important, but it shouldn’t rely on stereotypes. The point of gay representation isn’t just to have characters that are gay, but instead to show how gay folks are just… folks. I have the same standards for portrayals of both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. People who abuse others shouldn't be made out to be heroes or ideal romantic partners. Friends and otherwise unassociated individuals shouldn’t make creepy comments or ask personal questions about relationship-related activities. Such questions shouldn’t be made out to funny or charming.
I believe in treating people right, and for most of season 1, they’re treated pretty poorly. Thankfully, seasons 2 and 3 are very different, and in the second and final article in this series, I will gush uncontrollably about how HIStory 2 and 3 do so much so well.