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Red, White and Royal Blue, 2023
Red, White and Royal Blue, 2023(Film still)

Who gets to write about gay men?

From Heartstopper to Red, White and Royal Blue, many of the biggest books, shows and films about gay men are written neither by gay men nor, arguably, for them – does it matter? Eli Cugini weighs in

“The number of gay men I know who watched this? Zero,” says drag queen Trixie Mattel on Netflix’s “I Like to Watch”, sitting down to watch Heartstopper’s second season. “The number of straight girls I know who watched this? Five million.” In the midst of the runaway success of Alice Oseman’s comic series and its TV adaptation, the largely positive response has occasionally given way to a slight unease: many of the biggest books, shows and films about gay men are written neither by gay men nor, arguably, for them. Meanwhile, lesbian media rarely enjoys the same boost in viewership that gay media does: Prime’s recent cancellation of acclaimed lesbian comedy-drama A League of Their Own led to a wave of anger from lesbian viewers, many pointing to the success of Heartstopper and recent gay blockbuster Red, White and Royal Blue as markers of an obvious disparity. Is the current queer media landscape too angled towards attracting the viewership of straight women? Does it even matter?

Part of me wants to deflate the entire argument immediately. People can like whatever shows they want; why do I care who precisely is watching Heartstopper? However, I was troubled recently by the response to queer journalist Patrick Sproull, who recently argued in The Independent that Heartstopper, while a good, heartwarming show, is too unrealistic with its lack of sexual material and ‘safe, smiling and unproblematic’ characters. Their review was mobbed by fans of the show, usually young women, replying ‘why do you want to see teenagers have sex?’ – a disturbingly homophobic smear at a time where similar smears are leading to violence and book bans, including bans of Heartstopper itself!

Seeing that media cycle felt representative of how consuming stories about hyper-palatable, cute boys in love doesn’t mean that you’ve done the work to unpick more deep-seated homophobia. Plus, these shows are rarely interested in depicting homophobia as more complex than blunt, cartoonish bullying, which viewers will likely not see themselves as complicit in. It’s not hard to be against a big-eyed gay teenager being assaulted. It’s harder to oppose barbed little homophobic comments wrapped in plausible deniability.

That being said, I’m not so sure the issue consistently lies with the gender of the author. Judging from my days in the fujoshi mines (a half-pejorative Japanese term for women who are fans of gay male content), women are perfectly capable of depicting good gay sex and romance, and I probably learned half the usable gay lexicon from some 60,000-word M+-rated fanfiction monstrosity by KLAINE_GIRLY_93. Gay men are not inaccessible, mysterious creatures. As long as they’ve done some research, the worst that your given decent fanfiction writer is probably guilty of is getting a tad overexcited about the prostate, and it’s hardly like the prostate has too much good PR these days.

I’d obviously trust men far more with the complex intricacies of gay life, but Heartstopper and Red, White and Royal Blue are both pretty clear about the lane they’re staying in: fluffy coming-out-focused YA for the former, silly sexy romance for the latter. There are limits to that, but there are limits to most gay media by virtue of the fact that most shows are not very good. I don’t buy that Glee, for instance, has some ineffable authentic gay essence that Heartstopper doesn’t that marks it as being written by a gay man, not even its heights of camp, homoeroticism and tone-deaf insanity. (Have you seen Law and Order? or House?).

Plus, gay men’s content is important to non-gay men for reasons that don’t boil down to, say, fetishisation. There’s a misogynistic flavour to the idea that women only write and want sexless, twee gay content, or that they exclusively use gay men as instruments to achieve some sort of feminine feelings-orgasm. Seeing attractive, interesting men with chemistry is a powerful thing; the idea that that immense energy, crackling with risk and impossibility, might actually realise itself? The idea that the beautiful, interesting men on screen might wrench their lives in a different direction, away from the thudding plot of straight romance and the tired, misogynistic routines straight desire is often stuck in, to reveal each other as newly shaped, newly vulnerable, newly sexual? Male homosexuality and homoeroticism are, counterintuitively, things in which women are deeply involved. They remake women’s lives, too. Women’s lives and ‘women’s’ lives; an oft-missed component of this whole thing is that neither Alice Oseman nor Casey McQuiston is a straight woman, they are both queer and nonbinary, and a substantial percentage of ‘woman’ fans of M/M content end up, well, not being women. There are teenage girls watching Heartstopper right now who will, God willing, be part of the graduating new gay guy cohort of 2027.

That is to say: I have a wide range of defences of Heartstopper and its popularity. Yet I still feel a little unsettled. But that feeling isn’t really about Heartstopper itself – it’s about the gay landscape in general, in books, TV, film, music, and elsewhere. Certain kinds of people are more palatable in marketing ‘representation’ than others – rich, cis, white, respectable, focused on Job-like gay suffering, or else squeaky-clean gay joy that might make straight people feel a little less bad about those slurs they said in 2011 – and women buy and read more books than men, so authors who aren’t gay men, or who promise to appeal to women better, make more money. I resent that. I don’t begrudge any straight woman her soaring joys, but I might begrudge her the greater cultural value of her time and money. And maybe I begrudge everyone else the greater value of their time and money, because I am the most important princess in the entire world, and people should just be focused on making media that I want.

Joking aside, the omnipresence of certain types of ‘representation’, and of liberal platitudes about love and acceptance, can hide that we’re still in a state of fear and scarcity. Troye Sivan dancing with a bunch of identikit twinks still feels like news. Finding a gay show I like feels like a miracle. Going to a party where nobody is rude to me is still rare. Two gay guys got attacked in London last week. I want popular media to solve things. And it can’t. That’s the unease: people do not ever seem to love us, not even our own people, as much as they do the lovable boys. Watching so many people enjoy Heartstopper is inextricable from that grief.

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