It often seems that there are only two queer narratives the entertainment industry is interested in: coming out or going through immense pain. Pop culture is brimming with queer tragedies — from TV’s first lesbian couple Tara and Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Degrassi killing off trans character Adam and Jack in Brokeback Mountain. The overindulgence in the ‘bury your gays’ trope has befallen many iconic queer love stories. And if queer people are not met with misfortune, they are going through interpersonal trauma relating to coming out and their queer identities (as seen in Love, Simon, Moonlight and Glee).
However, we’re recently starting to see more mainstream queer content that’s not exclusively concerned with coming out or the trials and tribulations of queer life. Queer joy is finally being represented on screen — and it's about time.
Queer films have historically been rooted in tragedy instead of liberation. This is, in part, due to homophobia in the entertainment industry, as seen in the now-overturned Hays Code, which stated that homosexuality could not be presented positively on screen. Entertainment executives looked unfavourably at narratives that explored queer joy, and so, queerness was shown to be arduous in the hopes of minimising public queerness.
But the Hays Code was overturned in 1968, so why are so many films with queer characters still entrenched in disaster and heartache? In my opinion, experiencing uninhibited queer joy is still so new for queer people and until recent times, many queer writers would not have been able to portray a wholly joyous queer narrative as that was not their lived reality.
Rom-coms have always been a very heterosexual genre, with very few queer rom-coms in existence (let alone from major studios). But through recent releases like Red, White and Royal Blue and Bottoms, it's becoming apparent that the world is ready for queer stories that allow for the characters to simply exist and experience life as their authentic queer selves.
Men loving men (MLM) focused pieces of media over the past few months have been immensely successful. Prime Video’s film adaptation of bestselling novel Red, White and Royal Blue was the most popular movie on Letterboxd for a few days (surpassing both Barbie and Oppenheimer) and sparked discourse surrounding the representation of queer love in movies. Since the beginning of cinema, straight couples have been afforded the right to have saccharine, cheesy and gooey love stories with heightened and near-farcical plot elements. So, if straight people can have both Chasing Liberty and The First Daughter that explore the political ramifications of the first daughters of The United States falling in love with men, then we deserve Red, White and Royal Blue.
Pop culture commentator Evan Ross Katz had this to say of the film: “Here's the thing: I did like it, yes, but I also thought it wasn't just good... I thought it was outstanding. Not just as an entry in gay cinema but as a worthy entry in the canon of great romantic comedies”. The importance of being able to witness a celebration of queer love in a fluffy rom-com cannot be overstated. Media is a representation of the real world and its values and beliefs, so having such a successful, respectful and charming MLM film see such mainstream success will hopefully open the door for lighter queer representation that queer folk can see themselves in.
Meanwhile, Bottoms is the newest addition to the women loving women (WLW) cinematic Hall of Fame. (It was released in the US earlier this month but is dropping onto Australian streaming services later this year.) This is particularly notable because it showcases queer women in the 21st century, which is refreshing in 2023 as most female queer narratives are period pieces — see: Carol, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Dickinson. The propensity for queer women’s narratives to be created as period pieces is undoubtedly a means to distance themselves from the male gaze and innate hyper-sexualisation that stems from misogyny. This objectification of queer women in modern stories can be seen in the mismarketing of cult classic Jennifer’s Body. But due to the era that period pieces are set in, they are mostly relegated to the aforementioned queer narratives of tragedy and coming out.
Refreshingly, Bottoms is a boisterous and bloody riot that comedically explores the realities of queer young women today. It is extremely rare that women are placed at the centre of major comedies, and films centring queer women are even more scarce. For Bottoms to exist means that the entertainment industry might just be taking further steps towards more light-hearted content surrounding women who love women.
But this is just the beginning. We need more queer love stories that speak to and reflect the vast array of queerness in the world. We need more stories featuring people of colour, and interracial queer relationships that don’t default to centring a white person with a person of colour, but instead, include people of many different ethnicities. Give us more stories about trans love and joy, and exploring love through the asexual spectrum.
For every When Harry Met Sally, queer people deserve fluffy heart-warming stories about being queer that less closely resemble emotional torture porn, as has been the norm thus far. It is uncommon in films for queer people to just love one another and have that be the plot, despite that being a mainstay of entertainment for heterosexual couples for aeons. Love should be the norm, not tragedy and loss — and if these past few months of media are any indication, we are on our way to achieving this dream.