Lara Jean and Lucas apply face masks and gossip about boys in the "To All the Boys I've Loved Before" series. (Netflix)
Girls Academic Leadership Academy

Opinion: The tokenization of LGBTQ+ figures in rom-coms

For years, LGBTQ+ advocates and allies have called for popular streaming services such as Netflix to produce and carry more inclusive romantic comedies. Such advocates have called for films with characters that deviate from the typical character makeup seen in the platform’s most popular heart-throbbing movies: white, heterosexual, cis-gendered couples. 

Upon receiving pushback, Netflix answered the call to diversity its narratives–sort of.

In the name of “inclusivity,” Netflix Originals has produced a selection of rom-coms that feature eye-brow raising, cringe-inducing, and stereotype-reinforcing LGBTQ+ figures in the past three years that have LGBTQ+ people and allies alike wondering if such roles are triggering more harm than good.

For instance, take the Netflix Original series “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a fan-favorite that was the most viewed romantic content on the platform in 2018.

Of the five boys to whom Lara Jean writes letters, one is gay: Lucas James. Lucas and Lara Jean soon become friends in a manner that can only be described as playing into the harmful and stereotype-ridden “gay best friend” trope, as Lucas seems to appear only when a conversation revolving around boys, clothes, or drama is circulating.

Though Lucas is kept a minor character throughout the trilogy, a decision that some LGBTQ+ publications such as Them celebrate, his role never changes, and little depth is given to his character. Lucas contributes little to the plot, and serves only as the occasional comedic relief, though such jokes are often funny solely because of Lucas’ sexuality.

While analyzing another popular rom-com series, “The Kissing Booth,” similar character tokenization can be observed. The original “Kissing Booth” movie came out in the summer of 2018, and immediately was chastised for its complete lack of diversity and the over-amplification of heterosexuality.

So, when the second installation of the three-part series premiered this past summer, hopes for a cast more reflective of the diverse Los Angeles area the movie was filmed and set in were high.

Unfortunately, such hopes collapsed almost immediately after viewing the movie. Instead of inserting multi-faceted, developed LGBTQ+ characters into the sequel, the “Kissing Booth 2 hosted two gay characters that seemed to be in the film for no reason other than to check off the “more than heterosexuality” box on the list of revisions to make. 

In the more than two-hour movie, all that is learned about one of the gay characters, Ollie, is that he’s gay, has a crush on another boy named Miles, and is, again, gay. Ollie confides as much in the main character, Elle, who works to orchestrate a kiss between Ollie and Miles in the final scenes despite Ollie and Miles never speaking to one another.

Ollie and Miles are never seen in the school hallways, have no relation to the dancing competition taking up all of Elle’s free time, and are essentially absent for all the movie except for their combined thirty seconds of screen time, in which all focus is suddenly on them as if the movie plot revolves solely around this LGBTQ+ love.

The issue with LGBTQ+ characters in such movies is that they are rarely multi-faceted characters with well-thought-out backstories. Instead, their sole personality trait is their sexuality, and every action they take — from the outfit they wear to the discussions they engage in — mirrors and further pushes an outdated ideology about LGBTQ+ people that is ridden with harmful stereotypes. 

From the “Kissing Booth” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” series to movies such as “Prom,” which received scathing reviews for its flamboyant, stereotype-reliant characters, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: token LGBTQ+ characters that can be counted on one hand are not and will never be a stand-in for movies displaying real, authentic, joyous, and long overdue LGBTQ+ love.