There’s Never Been More Queer Representation. So Why Don’t I Love It?

The trailer for bros, a new film from Universal that opens in September, will be cozily familiar to anyone who came of age in the peak era of Judd Apatow. It’s glossy, quippy, and shows off a stacked cast of comedy performers working in idiosyncratic harmony—and Apatow is in fact a producer. There’s a very 2022 twist, though: Every actor in the main cast is queer, and the central love story concerns two men. The film, the brainchild of guerilla comedian turned movie star Billy Eichner, is being heralded as a breakthrough for LGBTQ+ representation onscreen, both by outsiders and, with a wink, by the film’s marketing.

bros—which I have not yet seen but cautiously await—is only the highest profile of recent projects that have helped usher in a queer renaissance. Or at least the feeling of one. In June, Hulu released the gay rom-com fire island and Peacock premiered its updated Queer as Folk. Earlier in the spring there was the sleeper-hit YA love story heartstopper on Netflix, while in July a new Neil Patrick Harris series, a gay-themed comedy called uncoupled, debuted on the streamer. These are times of plenty for (some) queer audiences, a buffet of options that hardly seemed possible during the penurious Will & Grace days.

And yet the more we’re served—as much as there is an amorphous “we” at all—the hungrier I have felt. It’s not that the recent offering of queer content hasn’t been satisfying. It has, in profound ways. As someone who was a teenager in the 1990s, it’s still a pleasant shock to see, say, a gay kiss on the big screen or an intricately mapped queer relationship on a small one. Perhaps it’s less exciting, or startling, for people who have been traversing the internet wilds since they were children. For me, though, each new prospective addition to the queer canon is greeted as a welcome stranger arriving in a mostly barren place.

Still, a certain longing has set in over these recent years of representational progress. It’s a feeling I’ve seen expressed by other writers, YouTube pundits, tweeters. The gist is that, yes, it’s great that queer thing X exists—but couldn’t it have existed a little better? More inclusively, more specifically, more explicitly? The problem of clamoring for representation and then being given something—by distant people in unknowable conference rooms—is that it’s never going to be quite what you ordered, or what you wish you’d ordered, anyway.

There is an important distinction to make between that feeling—that ineffable lack—and genuine, worthy calls for better representation. Most of the projects I’ve mentioned center on cis men, which leaves trans people and cis women out in the cold. Whiteness is still the default filter of lots of these projects. Those are not entirely separate from the other want matters, but they can at least be addressed concretely. The more diffuse sensation, though, of watching this spate of queer media and feeling something missing, is trickier to solve. It’s a bit like a trip to the uncanny valley, close enough to the real thing—whatever that is—that slight differences register all the more glaringly.

I wanted to wholly love Fire Island, and I do very much appreciate its intrasocial debates about gay friendship and romance, its gauzy camerawork, its locational specificity. And yet when watching the film I felt that pesky pebble in my shoe. It wasn’t quite right—the tone, the patter, the emotional topography. I sat with niggling, mostly useless questions: Would those two characters really be friends? Would that person really say that in that context? Is that what my fraught Blue Whale tea dances were like? similarly, with heartstopper, a sweet show about English high school boys falling in love, a sense of slight offness haunted my viewing. Maybe it was too cutesy or too dreamy about what is for so many people a painful process—with or without first love.

The new Queer as Folk throws a heck of a party, yet the show so demands that we revel with it—and cheer on its existence—that it quickly grows alienating. Its merry insistence that this is how queer people live now makes the show rigid, despite all its attempts at freewheeling fluidity. While watching it, I wished it was framed as The queer show rather than the queer show.

Years ago, in 2014, I came to the defense of HBO’s looking, an airy series that was oft-maligned by critics who found something hollow and untruthful about it. The sex was too shy, they said; the friend group was awfully cloistered; its stereotypes about gay men were fussy and antiquated. At the time, I found the series plenty sexy, plenty credible. I argued that looking didn’t have to be a perfect and wholly summative depiction of the gay experience, because what ever could be?

I haven’t really followed my own edict in the years since. (And, in fact, when revisiting looking this spring, I felt as disconnected from it as anything else I’ve watched recently.) I’ve instead been chasing something that probably can never be—all the while feeling a familiar, glum dip of disappointment when I watch, say, the bros trailer and think, Oh that’s how they’re doing it? Perhaps we shouldn’t feel cajoled into gratitude for stuff that doesn’t get it right enough, but we should also loosen the standards of what “right” even is.

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