But I’m tired of explaining why so many bigoted stereotypes, bad representations, tokenism, and the rest are both bad writing and immoral behavior. I’ve written about them before and I’ll surely write about them again, but I’d rather talk about a show that treated its gay character right.
So let’s talk about Julie and the Phantoms.
If you’re not familiar, Julie and the Phantoms was recently released on Netflix, and it’s about a high school girl whose mother has recently died. An aspiring musician in a music program at school, Julie has been unable to bring herself to perform. After getting dropped from the program, she decides to clean out her mother’s music studio as a step in trying to move one. Among her mother’s things, she finds a demo CD for a band she has never heard of. When she puts it in the player, three ghosts are summoned from limbo.
The ghosts are three members of what was a four-member boy band. The three boys died in 1995 after eating bad street food on the night before they were supposed to debut at the Orpheum Theatre.
At first it seems that only Julie can see and hear the boys, but they soon discover that if she is singing with them, everyone can see them and hear their music. With a cover story that the boys are holograms, Julie embarks on a journey to find her voice.
Yes, it’s cheesy, yes it’s a teen musical show. But it is well done and in these troubling times, a story with a big heart is exactly what some of us need.
Warning: There are some spoilers below…
One of the three boys in the band, Alex, is gay. We learn this very early on when one of his bandmates mentions how Alex’s parents weren’t exactly supportive when he came out. That one line is the only point in the show where anything approaching the usual cliched approaches to handling a queer character happens.
Early on the boys meet another ghost, a skateboarding cutie named Willie. It is clear in just a few lines of dialogue the Alex and Willie are attracted with each other and awkwardly flirting. Alex’s two straight bandmates take it in stride. “He is totally into you!” “And he’s cute!” They treat their bandmate’s queerness very matter-of-factly. The dialogue would not have sounded out of place in a more typical show if the object of Alex’s flirtation had been an opposite sex character.
Which is how it should be.
The subplot that Willie is involved in (he is under the thumb of a villainous ghost who is trying to enslave the three band members) doesn’t cross into any of the gay cliches, either. Their roles in the story are based on their personalities, not their sexual orientation. Their orientation is just another fact about them, not the defining characteristic of everything they do and say.
None of the bad things that happen to either of them have anything to do with their orientation. Not even the villain says anything even vaguely homophobic about either one. Neither is killed (I realize they are ghosts, but it is made clear that bad things can happen to ghosts in this fictional world) at the end. Neither of them realizes it would be better to be with an opposite sex person.
If you don’t happen to be queer, none of those statements may sound extraordinary—but trust me, having all of those things be true about a queer character in most works of fiction that aren’t explicitly aimed at a queer audience is an extremely rare event.
Furthermore, neither the show runners nor the network said anything in advance about how “and we have gay characters!” and then expecting to get congratulated on their open-mindedness. That is extremely rare, as well. In fact, that other show I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, not only did the network and people running the show keep crowing about their gay character–they even put such crowing into the mouth of one of the straight characters in the opening episode.
Now, all of this isn’t exactly an accident. The director of Julie and the Phantoms is Kenny Ortega (who is also one of the producers). Ortega is probably most well-known at this point as being the director the first High School Musical TV movie and several of the sequels. You might also recognize his name as the director of 1993’s Hocus Pocus. He in much less famous as being one of a couple of actors who—in 1972 when this was a very risky thing to do in any career, even theatre—came out in the pages of The Advocate, one of the nation’s oldest gay and lesbian publications.
During the press interviews after the release of Julie and the Phantoms, when asked about the characters of Alex and Willie, Ortega has said, “Alex is the character I wish was there for me when I was growing up, and who never appeared.”
Which makes sense. Speaking for myself, as a scared closeted kid growing up I was not interested in seeing stories about gay bashing or coming out and being rejected or the other usual queer story lines. I wanted—needed—to see queer characters living ordinary lives, facing the same challenges and triumphs as all the other characters in those stories.
Which is what Julie and the Phantoms gives us. And I’m so glad it does.
Because I participate in the Hugo Award nomination and voting process, I frequently find myself at this time of year scouring review sites and such looking for things that were published in the last year that I might want to read. Now, I look at review sites and follow-up on book recommendations year-round, but usually when I sit down to nominate and start going back through the things I’ve read recently, it turns out that a large portion of those books and shorter stories were published more than a year ago, and therefore aren’t eligible—hence the need to find and read more things that are eligible to see if any of them wow me enough to nominate.
During this process I occasionally come across recommendations of things that I decide I definitely will not read. Sometimes my reason for not reading it is because the review tells me that the story deals with things I don’t want to read about.
Now, when I have admitted this before, there have been people who chime in to say that it is wrong of me to condemn a story without reading it; why don’t I give it a try, just in case I like it any way? I have two responses to that. The first is, me declining to read a story is absolutely not the same thing as condemning it. Secondly, I don’t owe anyone or anything my attention. How I spend my life (energy, time, money) is my business.
My friends will tell you that when I really like a book or a show or an author, I will enthuse about them rather a lot. I’ll urge them to check it out. If they’re someone I see frequently, I may repeat the recommendation many times. I’m doing this because I really like that thing, I genuinely think that they will too, and it’s fun to share an enthusiasm with friends. Sometimes, I don’t recall that they have already told me that they aren’t interested, or that they checked it out and didn’t like it, or whatever. So I’m not meaning to be annoying. But I know it can come across that way.
I know it, because I’ve had those “Why not give it a try?” conversations mentioned above, and find myself explaining exactly why I’m not interested in a particular subject matter or whatever.
Then, sometimes my reason for not reading it is because the author of the story is someone I find problematic. For instance, back when I was in my early 20s, a series of sci fi books came out that several of my friends were reading and really enjoyed. And the world the books occurred in seemed to be right up my alley. So I read the first book and liked most of it. There were a couple of points where rape—one instance psychic, another physical—figured in the plot in a way that felt unnecessary to me, but other parts of the story were great. But as I read through the subsequent books, physical rape, psychic rape, maiming, and a disturbing number of murders while in the middle of the sex act became more and more prominent.
I decided I didn’t need to read any more in the series. Even though there were a lot more books, and people were gushing about how great they were for years after. And when the author started another series in a related genre, and it became a bestseller, people were again enthusing about it. It had been long enough that I didn’t connect the author’s name with my previous experience until I read some reviews. The guy’s plot, according to all the reviewers, still wallows in rape, grotesque murder, and similar stuff. And I just don’t need to read yet another tale like that.
There are thousands of books that don’t leave me feeling dirty and blood-soaked nor do they cause nightmares. I’ll read those. It’s perfectly fine if other people want to read the blood-soaked rapey books. Me not reading that sort of thing is not the same thing as saying it shouldn’t be published, nor that it shouldn’t have been written. Many years ago, after a series of unpleasant experiences of by verbally harassed by bigots who (correctly) guessed that I was gay, I wound up writing a story in which a gay character was cornered and gay bashed… and rescued. With the bashers dying in the process. It was not great literature. The plot was barely there. Some people read it and enjoyed it. Other people read it and didn’t enjoy it. Some people, I’m quite sure, declined to read it when they saw the content warnings.
And all of those responses are valid.
You don’t owe other people an explanation for why you don’t want to read (or watch or listen to) a particular thing.
One of my pet peeves as a reader is the story told in flashback. Admittedly, one of the reasons I dislike it is because, having been involved with several small press and fannish projects over the years, I’ve read, in an editorial capacity, a huge number of stories written by aspiring/beginning writers. And a beginner usually doesn’t understand how to use a flashback.
The most common problem with the told-in-flashback story is simply that there is no dramatic tension. In the opening scene we meet a character interacting with some other people. The dialogue is often a bit of clever banter. Something happens in the scene which causes the main character to mention something that happened to him a long time ago… and in the next scene we are in that long ago time, and we watch the stuff happen.
The reason there is no dramatic tension is because usually the plot of the flashback portion of the story seems to place the main character’s life in jeopardy—except the reader knows that the character isn’t in real danger because in the opening scene set far in the future the character is alive. These amateur told-in-flashback stories suffer from an additional problem. Most of them all fall into the same outline:
- Opening scene in which protagonist gives the story’s ending away by saying something like, “This reminds me of the time I almost died because of an engineering mistake…”
- Several scenes of story in which the character gets into trouble because of said mistake, nearly dies, then survives somehow.
- Closing scene in which we return to the opening and the other characters say something along the lines of, “Wow! That’s some story. You almost died because of an engineering mistake.”
It took me years of reading those stories or complaining about those stories before I finally realized what was going on. What is the most common way people are taught to write either informative essays in school, or to make presentations in either school or business: 1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, 2. Explain it in detail, 3. Reinforce their memory by summarizing what you just told them.
When I reviewed such stories in an editorial process, I always advised the same thing: drop the opening scene! It’s unnecessary and gives away the ending. Start when the character actually gets into trouble and tell how he gets out of it. If you want to then flash forward to a a point long afterward to make an additional plot or character development point at the end, that’s fine, but don’t just rehash what the reader has just seen.
Which is not to say that there isn’t some value to be had in the story told in flashback. Particularly if you have a story in which it takes a while for the plot to develop (and that while is necessary, not simply a matter of the author rambling), a scene that grabs the reader’s attention, making them strongly want to know how the character(s) got in that situation, without giving anything away, can be a good opening. There are a couple of things you have to keep in mind even thing: the opening has to be quick—don’t spend a lot of time getting the reader involved in the framing sequence before you flashback, don’t give away anything.
I know I repeated the “don’t give away anything” part, but it is so important.
I’m watching a new TV show right now, mostly a typical modern police procedural with the soap opera-ish ongoing character plots. My main reason for watching it is because one character in the show is played by an actor I like a great deal. Only four or five episodes in, I’m already at the point where I’m putting up with the rest of the show just to see the actor I like doing his usual excellent job.
One of the things I’m putting up with is that not only is the entire series told in flashback, but each individual episode is also told in flashback. Each episode begins with another scene from the future period of the original flashback that introduces the incident about to be shown. Then each episode closes with another flashforward that ends with some sort of “shocking” revelation about the future of one of the other characters featured prominently in the episode.
So far, the individual opening scenes have always managed to either a) give away a plot point of the enclosed story of police solving a case, b) telegraphed in often laughably obvious ways the shocker we’re going to get in the closing scene, or c) both!
One reason they keep doing this is because the opening scene is always too long. Worse than that, they aren’t really all that interesting. The protagonist talks to someone while they walk from one place to another, generally.
If you think you need to tell a story in flashback, keep the future scene as short as you can. Make it intriguing, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to cleverly drop hints about what’s going to happen. For a story in flashback to work, the only thing that needs to be in the reader’s mind is a single variant on this question: how did this come to be?
Anything else gives things away, which makes the entire story a waste of the reader’s time.
It is a sin to waste the reader’s time.