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Opinion – Authentic queer representation is still vital

For a community that faces discrimination both online and offline, genuine portrayal of queer joy in shows such as Heartstopper and Red White & Royal Blue deserves to be praised.

Given how difficult everyday living is, many of us take to cinema or television to escape.

For the queer community, a group often faced with disproportionate hostility, representation on screen can mean more than just a distraction from the real world. Quite often it can shape public perception of LGBTQIA+ individuals, and serve as a cultural reflection of societal views on a broader scale.

This importance means that ‘representation’ must be done correctly, and add legitimate value to queer characters that showcase their experiences on the big or small screen.

Portrayal of LGBTQIA+ characters routinely causes more harm than good, however, and misrepresentation can vary widely depending on the context.

This includes over fetishizing or sexualizing characters within Thai BL dramas, deliberately tailoring queer experiences to appease heterosexual audiences, and ‘burying your gays’ by killing off LGBTQIA+ characters before their storylines can properly evolve.

In a climate where queer representation is often tokenistic or used to implement throwaway story arcs, finding and watching genuine, unabashed queer joy on screen is rare.

This August we saw two heartfelt queer romcoms hit streaming services. Heartstopper returned for its second season on Netflix, while Amazon premiered an original movie titled Red, White & Royal Blue.

With 15.4 million views just after two days after release, Heartstopper Season 1 debuted in the Netflix Global Top 10. It was one of the most-watched English series in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Sri Lanka, where same-sex relations are illegal.

Critics and viewers have hailed Heartstopper for being an authentic representation of queerness during childhood. It is largely considered a comfort for anyone struggling to live in a world run by heteronormativity and patriarchal culture.

Equally successful, Red, White & Royal Blue became the top movie globally on Amazon Prime in its premiere weekend, eventually becoming one of the platform’s most-watched romantic comedies of all time.

For the LGBTQIA+ community, a movie like Red, White & Royal Blue goes beyond just being a romcom with a MLM relationship at its epicenter. For some, the themes of self-exploration and identity explored throughout are a reflection on their own life experiences, and seeing them on screen in this way can feel affirming and validating.

Both Heartstopper and Red, White & Blue are good examples of well-written queer joy within popular entertainment. They were both also adapted from famous written works by LGBTQIA+ authors.

Alice Oseman, author of the Heartstopper comic series, identifies as aromantic asexual. Casey McQuiston, author of the Red, White & Royal Blue novel, is non-binary.

At times, stories of queer joy feel born out of a suspended reality, too surreal and too happy to be true. However, within their sugar-coated writing is, at the very least, an acknowledgment of how celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community can be revolutionary for culture and public awareness.

If anything, we need more portrayal of queer joy. Those that identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community are regularly told they are a liability and made to feel isolated, lost, angsty, and hurt. Creating meaningful queer characters helps alleviate some of this grief, and reinforces that everyone deserves to be happy.