From “Bottoms” to “Booksmart” and “Fire Island,” queer cinema deserves to be silly and fun again

Not all queer stories are tragedies. And not all queer stories end in heartbreak, death or great loss

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published August 25, 2023 7:37PM (EDT)

Nicholas Galitzine and Taylor Zakhar Perez in "Red, White & Royal Blue" (Amazon Studios)
Nicholas Galitzine and Taylor Zakhar Perez in "Red, White & Royal Blue" (Amazon Studios)

Last month, many cinephiles and casual moviegoers reveled in "Barbenheimer," the internet phenomenon that began in anticipation of the simultaneous theatrical release of two major films: Greta Gerwig's "Barbie'' and Cristopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer." The event has been hailed as America's big return to the movies. And while that's true, there's also another — albeit more subtle — cinematic phenomenon that has been occurring in tandem. 

The latter is the surge in queer films, specifically silly, feel-good queer films. LGBTQ+ representation in film has been at an all-time high in recent years but lately, there's been an uptick in queer-centric comedies and romances. In August, audiences have been able to watch the son of the U.S. president and the grandson of the British king start an unlikely romance in Prime Video's rom-com "Red, White & Royal Blue"; a pair of lesbian besties start their own fight club in the newly released teen sex comedy "Bottoms"; and an aspiring queer toy designer struggle to navigate the New York City art scene in A24's surrealist comedy "Problemista."

Queer joy and queer love that end in "happily ever afters" also exist.

Such films were also quite popular (and prominent) just a few years prior. Take a look at the most-anticipated films from the past five years and you'll notice that a handful of them are, well, incredibly queer. There's the 2018 romantic comedy-drama "Love, Simon," which tells the heartfelt tale of a closeted gay teen struggling to come out and come to terms with his own sexuality. There's the 2019 comedy "Booksmart," in which Kaitlyn Dever's Amy Antsler attempts to get with her crush, the tomboyish Ryan, before graduating high school. There's Emma Seligman's 2020 comedy "Shiva Baby," which follows a directionless, 20-something bisexual woman who has an awkward encounter with her sugar daddy and her ex-girlfriend at a Jewish funeral service. There's also "Fire Island," "Single All The Way" and "Bros," which all earned much praise from viewers. 

Quirky queer films are plentiful. And, they are a nice change from the more solemn LGBTQ+ cinematic masterpieces we've seen fairly recently, like "Moonlight," "Call Me By Your Name," "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," "Ammonite" and "Carol." This isn't to say that those films shouldn't be watched. After all, there's a reason why they've scooped up awards and garnered widespread acclaim from critics. But they also tend to hyper-focus on the hardships of being queer, which is validating but, quite frankly, exhausting and depressing.

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So much of queer cinema has been rooted in trauma to showcase the real-life consequences of homophobia, marginalization and living in a patriarchal society. For sure, the queer experience has its fair share of hardships. But when films are overtly grim in the name of being "real" or "raw," they in turn box queer folks into a single kind of story, even if it isn't reflective of their own life experiences. Not all queer stories are tragedies. And not all queer stories end in heartbreak, death or great loss. Queer joy and queer love that end in "happily ever afters" also exist.

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Perhaps the best critique of queer representation appeared in a 2022 article from The Daily Utah Chronicle: "Whether gradual or brisk, where do we draw the line when despair creates a deeper story and when gloom outweighs film integrity? . . . Tragedy is an integral vessel within the art of storytelling, yet why do gay people suffer disproportionately?"

Happy endings in queer cinema can be credited to "Maurice," the 1987 romance drama based on E.M. Forster's novel of the same name. In the epilogue written in 1960, Forster explained why he believed it was important a gay love story ended on a positive note:

"A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn't have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood. I dedicated it 'to a happier year' and not altogether vainly. Happiness is its keynote — which by the way has had an unexpected result: it has made the book more difficult to publish… If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors. But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime."

"Maurice" may not be a rom-com or a sex comedy, but it certainly paved the way for queer fiction to end with hope and happiness. That being said, the queer experience is not universal, so it shouldn't be portrayed (or characterized) solely as tragic or painful. It's time more movies highlighted queer stories filled with fun and glee.

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


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