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Week-to-Week: Pride (In The Name Of Combatting Longstanding Marginalization)
Reflections on Hulu's Fire Island and HBO Max's Our Flag Means Death and the burdens of queer representation
It’s Pride Month, which means that streaming platforms are angling to release queer-oriented titles, and queer people—read: me—feel that tinge of pressure to catch up on queer-oriented titles they’ve maybe neglected over the past few months.
Accordingly, over the weekend I both caught the debut of Hulu’s Fire Island—technically Searchlight’s Fire Island, skipping theaters to go direct to streaming—and caught up on Our Flag Means Death, HBO Max’s pirate comedy that finally got its second season renewal in a seemingly Pride-timed announcement on June 1. I have thoughts on both individually, of course, but a common thread I keep coming back to is about how we set the “bar” of sorts when it comes to queer representation.
Fire Island is, to my mind, a great example of a queer project with a very clear understanding of the burden of representation. Written and starring comedian Joel Kim Booster, it’s not just a queer veneer over top of Pride & Prejudice, but rather uses the class stratification of Austen’s novel as a starting point for a breakdown of multiple dimensions of gay culture broadly, yes, but also the experience of gay Asian men in particular. The film has its moments of romcom excess, but it never crosses that line into letting the tropes swallow its specificity, particularly in the friendship between Noah (Booster) and Howie (Bowen Yang) and how issues of race and body image define their respective relationships to gay culture.
Essentially, Fire Island knows it could have gotten away with just being a queer Pride & Prejudice with explicit discussion of and depiction of the straight-offending dimensions of queerness, but it digs a lot deeper because it knows it has to. It understands the burden of being a prominent studio gay romcom, and the added burden of having four main queer Asian characters, and never forgets that. Its use of voiceover acknowledges an imagined straight audience with no understanding of what Fire Island is or its importance to gay culture, but the film is otherwise filled with a casual deployment of queerness that doesn’t attempt to make room for those viewers to “get” the story. This is true right up to its resolution, which threads a needle between the romcom ending we naturally desire and the film’s consciousness about the heteronormative dimensions of said endings. It’s just a consistently thoughtful and purposeful effort, with both Booster’s script and Andrew Ahn’s direction operating with a big picture grasp of the burdens involved and delivering something that registers are revelatory as a result.
This idea of burdens was admittedly on my mind after I started working my way through Our Flag Means Death on a flight back from Europe last week. As someone who doesn’t live under a rock, I’ve certainly seen enough tweets about the show to understand that a huge part of its fanbase comes from the relationship between Stede and Ed, and thus went into watching the show with a very clear understanding that it’s an explicitly queer text. What I realized quickly though was how that reshaped the burdens of the text compared to those who watched it on a weekly basis. Those viewers experienced subtext between the two characters and had that moment of uncertainty, unsure whether what they were seeing was something the show intended to follow through on. By comparison, I knew from the discourse that it was, the text’s queerness foregrounded in my reception in a way that I imagined it wouldn’t have been in real time (especially when you consider this trailer has zero indication of this as a central theme).
Watching the show, though, I realized two things. The first is that while the discourse prepared me for Stede and Ed’s relationship, I hadn’t fully realized the degree to which the text as a whole is engaged in queerness, in ways I might have been more suspicious of if not for the discourse. Lucius and Pete’s relationship is a good example of a story that starts as a joke—blowjobs of convenience—but reveals itself to be very earnest and endearing, in a way that starts creating a safe space to interpret the connection between the Gentleman Pirate and Blackbeard as something more than just flirtatious personalities. Combined with the matter-of-fact non-binary representation with Jim, the show isn’t just casually queering a single relationship, but rather embedding that queerness into its very premise in ways that wasn’t “necessary” for a pirate comedy.
The second thing I noticed, though, is that it’s somewhat bleak to me that a show turning out to not be queerbaiting is celebrated to this degree. This is not to begrudge this celebration, or suggest it is unwarranted, but the idea that in the year of our lord 2022 it’s still groundbreaking to casually queer a story that doesn’t necessarily have an inherent burden of representation is not a particularly triumphant story for me? But this is where I sense I might have felt differently if I had experienced all of this as it played out: the recognition of what was happening, the anxiety that it was subtext, the satisfaction when it was addressed directly. But free from those emotions, with the resolution spoiled, it was just an effective emotional dimension to a solidly funny pirate comedy where the undesired Will Arnett cameo episode was offset somewhat by the agreeable Nick Kroll/Kristen Schaal cameo episode.
This is of course the paradox of burdens of representation: we strive for a society where marginalized groups being represented isn’t a big deal, but part of achieving that society is making a big deal out of what representation those groups receive, even if some part of us knows that it shouldn’t be a big deal. It’s not the worst cycle to be trapped in, admittedly, and is certainly preferable to when there’s no representation at all, or when we’re forced to accept token supporting roles or unrealized subtexts. But it’s nonetheless something I’m thinking about as more Pride Month launches—like the final season of Love, Victor—enter into this discourse in the weeks ahead.
Episodic Observations: Fire Island
Although I perked up significantly when I realized Noah was reading Alice Munro’s short story collection Runaway (which I read for a grad-level seminar on Munro/Atwood short stories, as one does), the most Myles-targeted moment was still when Noah’s phone fell in the pool, and I was like “Uh, modern phones can handle that, why is his phone busted?” and then he clarified that he still had an iPhone 6S, which became a marker of the group’s lower class status. And then there was a meta Quibi joke, given that’s where the project originated. I’ve never felt my pedantry as anticipated as it was here.
Perhaps my central “critique” of Fire Island is the voiceover, which I never found particularly enriching to the story, making it seem like a bit of a crutch all told. There was one particular moment where Noah got home and went to sleep by the pool where Booster’s performance was doing every bit of work necessary to sell the scene, and the voiceover was just repeating it, so I wish that note could have gone the other way.
I have to say that when I saw Andrew Ahn was directing this, I knew it was going to be in good hands—having an indie director handle things allowed for the milieu of Fire Island to be realized in a way a glossier approach couldn’t have achieved. (Notably, when the project was originally set up at Quibi, it was to be directed by Closet Monster director Stephen Dunn, which would have achieved a similar effect albeit without the additional dimension to its Asian reperesentation).
Speaking of discourse, the reality of the burden of representation is that it becomes very easy to pit projects against each other, so there’s no question Fire Island is going to become a barometer of sorts for Billy Eichner’s own writer-star vehicle, Bros, when it arrives in theaters in September. My take based solely on the trailer for that film is that it is aiming for something very different, but whether that’ll be parsed when the time comes remains to be seen.
If you haven’t already, read E. Alex Jung’s great profile of Joel Kim Booster, which digs into the specificity and burdens of representation the movie deals with really effectively:
“Like, I don’t need a fucking medal for casting an Asian love interest,” Booster says. “It is funny how the fact that I have a real-life white boyfriend doesn’t validate that for a lot of people. I don’t think you can control who you fall in love with the same way you can control who you cast in a movie.” Rather organically, the movie became more Asian American than Booster had intended once they cast Ricamora and Margaret Cho as the surrogate mother. “He was excited,” says Ahn. “And he was also thinking about how this now feels like an Asian American film that would be scrutinized by the Asian American community and was worried about the rep sweats — the burden of representation.”
Episodic Observations: Our Flag Means Death
I’m sure that Taika’s scheduling was the reason they didn’t renew this show for so long, but waiting even longer to announce it at the start of Pride Month is a great example of misreading the level of anxiety that queer people have about their shows in general.
I realize that it’s been almost a decade since Ben & Kate, but it was still weird for me to see Nat Faxon so low-billed in the show, even if he gets some fun moments as The Swede.
That said, the show does have a weird billing situation: its lead is clear, but Taika is technically a guest star who morphs into a co-lead, and the dynamics of the rest of the crew are sometimes hard to gauge. Samson Kayo’s Oluwande arguably gets the most well-rounded arc out of the crew members, but it still gets sidetracked by the Blackbeard of it all, which will be interesting to see worked out in a second season.
I will say that it’s a little weird for the show to even feign at killing its most overly queer character like it does with Lucius—I feel pretty confident that the absence of an actual body means that Lucius could wash up somewhere in season two, but I suppose it also gives them an out if they need to cut cast for budget reasons or some such.
I complained about the Will Arnett cameo above, because I will always complain about Will Arnett cameos, but in general I found some of the guest casting a bit too conspicuous for its own good. The Kroll/Schaal bit worked in part because it was meant to be a drop-in, but Leslie Jones/Fred Armisen took up a more significant piece of the story, and never stopped feeling like Leslie Jones and Fred Armisen (especially in the latter case, but that’s a longstanding concern comparable to the Arnett issue).
Selenis Leyva, however, can pop up wherever she wants: I’m always happy when Orange Is The New Black ensemble members pop up, showcasing the long tail of that show’s casting department.