It’s a Saturday night. My partner, our new cat and I sit down with cups of tea and McVitie’s biscuits to watch Matthew López’s Red, White & Royal Blue on Amazon Prime. The fluffy rom-com based on the YA novel of the same name (written by Casey McQuiston) is exactly what it says on the tin: it doesn’t try to pretend to be deep, meaningful text.
Not that it doesn’t make some passing salient points: how archaic the institution of a monarchy is, or the reality that would face an immediate member of British royal family if they did engage in homosexual activity (*cough* Prince George of Kent…) It even touches on the natural conflict and controversy that would surround a member of the working class roots becoming an elite (in this case, the son of the President of the United States.) But Red, White & Royal Blue is not serving a social drama; its a romantic comedy that just happens to have a set dressing suggesting something greater.
The formula behind Red, White & Royal Blue
The hallmarks of your classic rom-com are all there: an antagonistic relationship between Alex Claremont-Diaz (the son of the President, portrayed by Taylor Zahar Perez) and Prince Henry (the eldest grandson of the King of England, played by Nicholas Galitzine) morphs to begrudging camaraderie. The ice in the two lovers heart melt at the small acts of kindness and humility they display. When the two share an electric first kiss, their romance blossoms. Emotion conflicts with duty, and a choice between the love they have and the responsibilities they hold fortifies their decisions.
Both the parts of Alex Claremont-Diaz and Prince Henry are played by heterosexual actors (Taylor Zahar-Perez and Nicholas Galitzine respectively.) Despite this, their romantic chemistry is superb. The willingness of embracing the ridiculousness, romantic sap and the occasional raunch make what is largely a middling comedy all the more enjoyable.
…and how it’s changed
One welcome omission from the factory-made settings of Red, White & Royal Blue’s rom-com formula is the absence of the “stalking equals love” theme that has plagued many heterosexual rom-coms of the 90’s and 00’s. But even this change of course was nothing compared to one of the most tender, and uniquely queer, scenes in the entire film.
In a luxury hotel suite in Paris, Alex and Prince Henry have anal sex for the first time. There’s no comedy here. In the night lights of the Eiffel Tower, the scene is performed movingly and accurately.
Real, passionate “rom” triumphs over the “com”
After Alex explains he has never engaged in full-blown intercourse with a man, Henry’s assures him: “I went to English boarding school, dear. Trust me, you’re in good hands.” This washes away any hesitation Alex had of performing badly for his lover. They slowly remove each others clothes, and then gently trace their fingertips over each other’s nude bodies.
Alex then mounts himself over Henry, with Henry’s knees pulled back expectantly. Alex’s moan during the initial penetration, his slow strokes, and gradual increase of rhythm… all the while, the two actors’ eyes are fixed on each other, lips so close you can see their breath. Their hands clench each other at what we can assume is an orgasm.
Displaying gay sex “incredibly accurate physically”
I got rock hard (or as it was delightfully put in the film, “like Stonehenge!”) But more importantly, I was sincerely touched with the scene’s beauty.
Director Matthew López was clear about displaying gay sex “incredibly accurate physically”, as he told Tommy DiDario on the podcast I’ve Never Said This Before.
“[I wanted to] show two men having sex in a way that is loving, that is connected, that is pleasurable and that is beautiful.”
In a piece for Variety, López spoke about his precision for this scene particularly:
“We [needed] to make sure that it is unambiguous to anyone watching this scene what precisely is happening,” he said.
“… to be accurate to the body positioning, to the breath, to the moment of insertion.”
Male on male anal sex in film and TV is not new. But, big Hollywood films rarely portrays such tenderness or accuracy. Even in queer made film (looking at you Rainer Fassbinder), sex is brutal, comic, or included to bait scandal. And Red, White & Royal Blue could have done that. It could have even ignored the sex entirely! But it didn’t. It made a simulated queer sex scene with tender reverence, something rarely been accomplished in mainstream film.
How times have changed!
I grew up with devouring all the little bits of gayness in media I could as a young man. I was a horny teenager, and wanted to see male sexuality beyond the light of my old iMac screen. It was moving that this fun movie was willing to do it accurately, and to take the pleasure and connection of queer sex seriously. It seems like this scene is doing a bit of heavy-lifting culturally, as well, what with many straight viewers suddenly realizing that gay men can have missionary sex.
Red, White & PrEP
The film didn’t stop there with intimate yet important details. It even followed a type of internal logic about why the couple used condoms, and a great deal of time was spent on whether Prince Henry would be on PrEP, a medication taken to prevent HIV infection during sex.
“Robbie [the intimacy coordinator] and I decided together that the prince is probably not on PrEP, because it would be too dangerous for him to ask for prescription,” López told Variety. “So the prince absolutely uses condoms. And because we couldn’t really effectively answer the PrEP question (within the narrative,) we wanted to also just tell the story that the prince engages in safe sex practices and takes his sexual health seriously.”
Make no mistake, Red, White & Royal Blue is not a cinematic masterpiece. But it has contributed a small glint of transgression wrapped in layers of sentimental cotton wool. A little more queer sex done well in cinema is good for the next bunch of young queers to see their sex performed lovingly, reverently, and accurately.