WARNING: This blog post contains spoilers.
Happy Pride Month! What better time to finally get around to reading Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (a gay romance written by a queer, non-binary author) than the month of June? As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, I had my reservations about this book, most of which were pleasantly proven wrong by reading it. But as usual, I still have thoughts — thoughts I’m going to share openly on this blog.
Red, White and Royal Blue is a love story told from the perspective of Alex Claremont-Diaz, the First Son of the United States. Alex lives in a parallel version of the United States where the people in office actually reflect the face of the American people. His mother is the first female President of the United States; they grew up poor; and he himself is biracial and bisexual with divorced parents. As a result, he’s an easy character to empathize with; I see myself more in Alex than I do in 99 percent of my elected officials.
Like any good book, Red, White and Royal Blue is a story about transformation. The character growth is one of the most stunning and subtly executed parts of this story, and I was deeply impressed by it. When we first meet Alex, he hates HRH Prince Henry of Wales, thanks to a bad first impression at the Rio Olympics. But, in a gay twist on the classic rom-com trope, hate soon turns to love when Alex is forced to spend time with Henry after the two get pushed into the royal wedding cake at Prince Philip’s reception. Once the two get to know each other, Alex questions everything he knows about himself, from his sexuality to his career path, as they embark on a fast-burning wildfire of a romance that just might be forever for both of them.
The romance in this book is delicious, alternating between sweet and sultry at all the right times; the sex is flaming hot (though graphic, for anyone wondering if this book is suitable for teen audiences), though the dialogue that accompanies it relies too much on profanities for my taste. But because the issue of LGBTQ+ representation was what both drew me to and concerned me about this book in the first place, I won’t be focusing on the swoon-worthy romance between Henry and Alex — and it is swoon-worthy. Instead, I want to talk about my impressions of the book as a bisexual woman, with the occasional insight from my years of study as a political science minor in college.
The issue of sexuality is most empathatically and accurately portrayed in its two protagonists’ stories. Alex represents the “questioning” phase, as we watch him make sense of his previous experiences with male friends as he falls head-over-heels for Henry, while Henry — who has seemingly never questioned being gay — represents the experience of being in the closet. Both characters’ stories touch on the experience of coming out in the public eye, though Alex is the only one fortunate enough to control his coming out story in the private setting.
In this sense, I related most to Henry, who had his opportunity to officially come out to his family taken away from him. Even though Alex is the bisexual one (and I’m grateful not to have bisexuality erased by this romance, especially knowing how easy it would have been for McQuiston to make both characters gay), my story is closer to Henry’s in that I couldn’t control my own narrative. Many people don’t know my “coming out” story, but last March, when I decided to publically identify as bisexual, I did what came most naturally to me: I came out on the Instagram account associated with my blog. Since my high school years, when I was first making sense of my anxiety and depression, blogging has been my outlet for processing challenging emotions, so it only made sense to me that I would feel most comfortable coming out to my online community.
At the time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to come out to my family at home. Parts of my family are deeply Catholic, and I was afraid that my very existence would be a disappointment; a threat to their way of life. But when I made that post to my Instagram, my choice was brutally ripped from my hands: my dad, who I haven’t spoken to in two years (a choice I made long before this happened) and who was following me through a fake account, screenshotted the post and sent it to my mom. My mom and I were equally devastated. Thankfully, she was supportive, but I could tell she was hurt when the first thing she said was, “Why didn’t you tell me?” In short, I wasn’t ready yet — and I remembered how that felt when I saw it perfectly embodied in Henry’s character.
Yet despite a very public coming out, and both men playing very traditional political roles, both men received very public support (and very little criticism) when they revealed their relationship to the media. Instead, people were waving rainbow flags, painting murals, and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Henry and Alex-isms from their leaked emails to one another. Granted, the author, Casey McQuiston, readily identifies her work as a piece of “escapist” fiction, meaning that I don’t think she had any intention of accurately portraying real life. As a queer, non-binary person, she, as well as anyone, should know how difficult it is to simply exist in a conservative culture as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, let alone come out as a member of the First Family of the United States or the Royal Family of England.
But when the only dissenting voices in the story were that of the Queen of England (who, let’s face it, couldn’t possibly be expected to react otherwise) and, at times, Henry’s brother Prince Philip, I had to suspend my disbelief for the purposes of enjoying the story. I couldn’t believe they hadn’t received more negative media attention, that Alex’s mother’s reelection campaign could succeed, after this news spread across the country, given that, if this were real life, they would have probably received nothing short of death threats and condemnation to hell from the peanut gallery that is the American media.
At times, it felt like McQuiston was trying too hard to make a statement while still remaining inclusive — which are goals that can be at odds with one another, when you consider the unwelcome truths you have to acknowledge when accepting the reality of the gay experience. She wanted to make it clear that her idyllic alternate reality was one in which LGBTQ+ people enjoyed full rights and acceptance, while also making political quips about the struggles they face (and the irony of it all, considering how many gay public figures there have been throughout history — which McQuiston exhibits by having Alex and Henry quote many such figures’ letters in their emails to one another overseas). Yet you can’t have both. LGBTQ+ people can’t be both accepted and oppressed — and as an LGBTQ+ person myself, I found it heartbreaking to watch Alex and Henry repeatedly doubt the response they would receive, yet repeatedly become overwhelmed by an unexpected surge of positivity, given that so many LGBTQ+ people in our country experience their worst fears coming true every day.
These thoughts brought me back to the question that loomed over me the whole time I was reading Red, White and Royal Blue: is representation still representation when it isn’t realistic? After spending a long time debating the question, I’ve finally decided what my opinion is — and I say yes.
Like any good rom-com, parts of Red, White and Royal Blue were infuriatingly starry-eyed and stereotyped. Characters overused the word “fuck” and constantly spoke in Tumblr-isms. Every main character agreed with the protagonists’ political opinions, and any character who disagreed (read: any Republican character, of which there were few) was portrayed as a black-and-white villain with no moral gray area. And even though McQuiston clearly went to painstaking measures to ensure she included different races and sexualities, from Latinx to trans to pansexual individuals, many of these characters were only a footnote in the story. The trans and pansexual characters are only identified as such in the last chapter, during a Pride celebration outside the White House following Henry and Alex’s public announcment of their relationship, and the story’s only Black character is a flamboyant sidekick-type who exists only to prop up Henry and serve as a laughingstock in his relentless pursuit of Alex’s sidekick, June.
As long as we put these tropes out in the open and acknowledge them, I don’t see a problem with them. When I consider the issue of representation, I’m forced to acknowledge that heterosexual rom-coms have relied on sexist, racist, and unrealistic tropes since the dawn of time. Relegating an LGBTQ+ story to a different category, and forcing any one author to delicately reflect the full spectrum of diversity within the LGBTQ+ experience, reeks of a double-standard. We don’t expect rom-coms like Confessions of a Shopaholic or Bridget Jones’ Diary to serve as a realistic expectation of what it’s like to be in a relationship — and we shouldn’t expect LGBTQ+ romances to do that, either. On top of it, we often expect one LGBTQ+ author to speak for the experiences of an entire population of people, much as we do with the Black population — but that’s just the thing: we can’t expect any one LGBTQ+ story to reflect every multifacted aspect of the LGBTQ+ experience, precisely because it’s so unique and multifaceted.
We also don’t expect hetero rom-coms to serve us up some deeper moral platitude — and likewise, LGBTQ+ fiction isn’t obligated to make a moral or political statement about gay rights, the AIDS epidemic, or trans discrimination in order to be worth reading. Sometimes, it’s enough to offer us an escape; a glimpse, no matter how brief, at a better world — a potential future — in which LGBTQ+ people don’t have to fight so hard to be respected or heard.
McQuiston refers to her book as “escapist” fiction, and I believe that’s an accurate portrayal. And taken for what it is — no more and no less — Red, White and Royal Blue is exactly the piece of romantic, escapist gay fiction I didn’t know I needed to find.