it’s time for a queer rom-com renaissance
Because queer audiences deserve their own 'When Harry Met Sally'.
Still from Alex Strangelove
I don’t usually tend to get particularly introspective while trying to decide what to watch on Netflix. But as I browsed the platform’s LGBTQ section on Sunday night, I realised just how radical this easily accessible viewing experience would have seemed to my closeted teen self. Back in 2000, I would secretly seek out gay films on the family computer, downloading them for clandestine late night screenings and deleting them before sunrise. I would watch anything and everything I could digitally get my hands on, but my favourite was the gay-friendly romantic comedy, a subgenre perfected by production company TLA Releasing.
Not only did these gay-friendly rom-coms feed my hunger for gay content, which was scarce enough in the early 2000s, they also provided the kind of representation that I couldn’t find in the standard token gay characters on TV. These films centred same-sex love stories and, just as importantly, they allowed gay characters to have happy endings. They felt like a gift when every mainstream film I could find featuring gay characters either reduced them to stereotypes or ended with them tragically dying.
Of course, these films weren’t perfect ... But to a lonely gay boy living in the midlands, they were a source of hope.
In many ways, the gay rom-coms I devoured in secret were just like the Meg Ryan vehicles I would watch with my mother; love stories in which two attractive people got off on the wrong foot, then were placed in all kinds of farcical situations before realising their true feelings for each other. But in addition to following well-trod tropes, they showed gay love as a norm -- they used the shared cultural vocabulary we all learned via When Harry Met Sally and Notting Hill to drop same-sex romances into a cinematic landscape that any viewer could instantly recognise.
For example, Adam & Steve follows the budding relationship of two New Yorkers, one an uptight WASP, the other a neurotic Jew. In a delightful reversal of type, it is the straight characters who fulfil the role of quirky sidekick (including a very funny turn by Parker Posey). Eating Out has the kind of premise you might find in an old Hollywood screwball comedy; Caleb pretends to be gay in a misguided attempt to get closer to the object of his affection, Gwen, setting off all kinds of hijinks. Even the trashier entries in this niche hold a special place in my heart. The smutty teen parody Another Gay Movie and its sequel weren’t exactly made with the intention of being taken seriously, but they blew my mind with the mere fact that every character was gay, and therefore they had scope to portray different kinds of queerness.
Of course, these films weren’t perfect. Watching them through the lens of 2018, it’s impossible to ignore their overwhelming whiteness, not to mention the way they perpetuate gender archetypes, frequently casting masculine-presenting beefcakes as romantic leads. But to a lonely gay boy living in the midlands, they were a source of hope.
My beloved subgenre seemed to die out at around the same time that the mainstream rom-com gave way to the Judd Apatow era, populated by stoner comedies that more often than not focused on the experiences of straight men. But we may finally be on the verge of a true revival. Netflix recently dropped Alex Strangelove, a high school comedy which shares multiple DNA strands with Love, Simon, the big-screen YA adaptation everyone was talking about earlier this year. I adored Love, Simon, even though I’m more than a decade older than its target audience; it’s the kind of film I would have loved to be able to see in a cinema when I was younger, instead of furtively looking for representation online.
That said, just like their early 00s predecessors, these films are still predominantly interested in telling very white, cisnormative stories in which gender and sexuality are presented as binaries. Love, Simon introduces a femme black gay character only to use him as an illustration of everything the main character isn’t, while Alex Strangelove spends about five seconds attempting to validate bisexual and pansexual identities before shrugging its shoulders and informing the audience that its protagonist is gay. As first steps though, they are still encouraging.
Love, Simon marked the first time that a major studio gave its support to this kind of story, and there is growing evidence of an appetite among audiences for a new kind of romantic comedy. Netflix’s recent original films Set It Up and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before both prominently feature Asian-American leads, while Crazy Rich Asians is smashing box office forecasts and proving that there is very much a financial case to be made for big-budget studio pictures which update the classic rom-com recipe to include more diverse casts and experiences.
We need films like Moonlight and We The Animals, but queer audiences deserve their own When Harry Met Sally too.
One criticism of the romantic comedy is that it is formulaic, but formulas aren’t inherently bad; they are why we still find detectives and superheroes so satisfying. While promoting her new film, Second Act, on The Tonight Show, Jennifer Lopez made a case for the enduring appeal of the rom-com: “You need that funny, quirky look at life sometimes -- that romantic look at life. I think things are tough sometimes, and we need that escape.” No lies detected. In an era when LGBTQ freedoms are still being questioned and debated in bad faith by certain corners, a slightly fluffy category of culture where we can just live feels important.
And as far as a broader audience is concerned, what better way to shake things up and revitalise those predictable genre tropes than to invite a plurality of perspectives into the writing and casting process? Straight, white rom-coms have long been able to dig deep into the quirks and quibbles of falling in love because those characters’ lives are seen as the default. However, when telling stories that focus on marginalised identities, there is often pressure to educate as well as to entertain, to lean into narratives of trauma and oppression without showing the joy. We need films like Moonlight and We The Animals, but queer audiences deserve their own When Harry Met Sally too.
Let Indya Moore bring the magnetic charm she exhibited as Angel in Pose to a leading lady role in a trans-inclusive rom-com. Or cast Tessa Thompson and Lena Waithe in a girl-meets-girl flick. Seriously; imagine an ensemble LGBTQ rom-com in the vein of Four Weddings or 10 Things I Hate About You, and tell me that wouldn’t make you fall in love with the genre all over again.