Is it me or is everyone gay?
I don’t mean everyone everyone—just most evangelical Republicans, the North Atlantic region, 90% of the South, all of California, and pretty much everyone under 21. At least that’s the message I’ve gotten from film and television this year. While it’s all but impossible to watch everything—what with the roughly three million shows on the 5,000 network, cable, and streaming services—it’s gotten especially hard to keep up with all the queer representation. Since, it seems, everyone is at least kinda gay.
We can attribute the shift to changing societal attitudes, more creative voices and leaders with seats at the table, and the increasing fluidity of gender and sexual orientation, as particularly embraced by Generation Z. You know, those upstarts who make millennials like me feel old and resentful, but ultimately lucky for not having grown up with the internet and Instagram.
Now that I’m no longer a teen, and have about as much interest in associating with them as I did when I actually was one of them, I look to the media to tell me what they’re up to, how they’re doing, and why I should care. Of course, it’s highly debatable how authentic and reliable these representations are, but by the looks of it—and despite what’s happening in the world around them—the kids are all right.
The year in queer teens coming of age really took off with Netflix’s Sex Education and its heart-tugging storyline about Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa). Unapologetically, flamboyantly gay, Eric has to fight off the unwanted attention of school bully Adam Groff (Connor Swindells)—until Adam reveals that attention as attraction, and suddenly Eric finds it very wanted.
Eric is a nontraditional character—a gay black boy with an accepting immigrant family—who goes through a traditionally gay storyline in which he’s the victim of a hate crime. The show, to its credit, handles this rather deftly, showing how the trauma he experiences continues to affect his everyday life, but it doesn’t revel in his sadness. Instead, Eric emerges stronger and more fabulous than before, finding the courage to stand up to Adam, which in turn leads to what we can only hope are the seeds of an unlikely romance.
Speaking of unlikely romances, one of the summer’s most buzzed-about shows, HBO’s Euphoria, shocked some viewers with its graphic scenes of drug use and wanton display of full-frontal dicks, but the real drama was in the love triangle between Rue (a fantastic Zendaya), her BFF and occasional girlfriend Jules (Hunter Schafer), and all-around awful white man Nate (Jacob Elordi).
Euphoria felt especially modern because its characters didn’t really subscribe to labels. Rue simply falls for Jules because she likes her, and though Jules is trans, we’re not explicitly told so at first. Meanwhile, Nate is going through a lot when it comes to identity—just like his dad, who, fun fact, had sex with Jules.
The usual high school drama is exacerbated by the freedom Rue and crew have as Gen Zers with unlimited access to social media, staring down rules that no longer apply to them. The show is an exaggerated and highly stylized portrait of adolescence, but one that still captures the feelings of hopelessness and all-encompassing passion that often define our teenage years.
Then there are the kids in Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s delightful feature-length
directorial debut, who occupy a similar world of Southern California affluence and acceptance, but with a decidedly brighter outlook. Future national treasure and emerging queer icon Beanie Feldstein plays serial overachiever Molly Davidson, an Amy Antsler (Kaitlyn Dever) plays her gay bestie.
Like last year’s Blockers, another great coming-of-age comedy also directed by a woman (Kay Cannon), Booksmart takes familiar teen film tropes, often refracted through the male gaze, and gives them a feminist and queer bent. Amy never has to come out; she’s gay, everyone knows it, no one cares. But it being 2019, gender and sexuality are not black-and-white. Amy has a crush on a girl that she’s pretty sure is queer based on any number of qualifying factors, but she’s surprised and heartbroken to find that the object of her affection is, it seems, pretty straight.
Still, some kinds of gay are just undeniable, and Noah Galvin crawled out of his post–Real O’Neals exile to ham it up with Austin Crute as the most over-the-top high school couple you could ever wish for: George (Galvin) and Alan (Crute).
Twenty years ago—hell, 10 years ago—ancillary characters like these two would only be used for ridicule, but here they are part of the fabric of Molly’s and Amy’s high school life. We don’t see them bullied for being gay. If anything, the demanding and persnickety George is the school bully, if there even is one.
Kids today. They’re just out there fighting for gun control, tackling climate change, Tikking and Tokking, and being as queer as they want to be. It must be an interesting time to be a teenager, queer or not, when so much of your life—but also an uncertain future—awaits you. The possibilities can seem endless. That’s not true for all kids, just like it’s not true for anyone of any age group or social circumstance, but it’s good to know that art and the media can still give us portrayals of life as it is, or how we’d like it to be, or how we fear it may turn out.
This year’s positive and complex depictions of queer teens coming into themselves and the world around them gives me a little hope for what’s to come—hope that not only the kids, but everyone, will be all right.
Main image: Zendaya (left) and Hunter Schafer in Euphoria.