On this past New Year’s Day, the musician Hayley Kiyoko christened the year to come as “20gayteen.” Her meaning: Queer kids were about to take over pop culture. Rising stars like Kiyoko, Troye Sivan, and Kim Petras have sung of flighty first love through an LGBTQ lens. On TV, shows like Riverdale have been extending the work of Glee to make stories about, say, girls asking girls to homecoming into no big deal.
It’s happening in cinema, too—though the films hardly feel like celebrations of liberation. In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, I wrote about the proliferation of gay teens in recent, widely seen movies: the hit rom-com Love, Simon, the buzzy conversion-therapy dramas Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and the Best Picture nominee Call Me by Your Name and winner Moonlight. In content and style, these works vary widely, but they share a somewhat reserved, cautious tone as they portray kids coming to understand their homosexuality. The rambunctious experience of puberty so familiar in film history—from Grease to Sixteen Candles to Lady Bird—has so far not been central to Hollywood’s vision of the queer coming of age.
Of course, that vision is wider than just the five recent films I wrote about. Gay kids have long shown up in mainstream high-school comedy, just not as stars. And as supporting players, they’re allowed to be rowdy rather than just prettily pensive. Think of Damian in Mean Girls or Blaine in Cruel Intentions: sassy sidekicks so hilarious, and also such clichés, that there was a 2013 comedy called G.B.F. all about the phenomenon of the “gay best friend.” Some female protagonists have flirted with queerness, but many of them merely as part of a larger exploration of delinquency; see the deadly troublemakers of Peter Jackson’s 1994 feature, Heavenly Creatures, or of the 1998 thriller Wild Things.