Illustration by Ben Beechener
Yesterday I was ranting to some friends about how utterly irritating I found Casey McQuinston’s (tik-tok approved) Red, White and Royal Blue (a novel following the Bridgerton-esque ‘fake-lovers to real lovers’ journey taken by Prince Henry of the UK and Alex Claremont Diaz, the son of America’s first female president). Today, I’m writing about all the many many reasons I love Netflix’s Young Royals. The irony isn’t lost on me.
I confess, I hate most things romantic and sentimental, and I really cannot stand all these Netflix high-school dramas about how hard it is to be a teenager. Watching privileged tweens crying about choosing between two (or three, or four) ridiculously attractive people just does not float my boat. To quote baby Taylor Swift, there must be more to life than ‘dating the boy on the football team’. So yeah, by process of plain, simple, unarguable logic, I should really be writing about how much I hate Young Royals; yet I’m not. Weird.
Think of it as the strange lovechild between Red, White and Royal Blue, Gossip Girl and Sex Education. Actually, maybe don’t think of it like that – I don’t know what kind of show that would make, but I’m not convinced I would want to watch it! The main plot follows the life of the fictional Prince Wilhelm of Sweden as he deals with the emotional excitement (and later tragic fallout) of his growing attraction to one of the boys at his new super-exclusive boarding school. At first glance, it is a show with more cliches than a One Direction song. The rich boy with everything falls for the driven kid with nothing, their relationship is ratted out by the captain of the sports team, an unexpected event suddenly forces Wilhelm- a party loving spare-heir- to take royal responsibility, the final episode even contains the line ‘I won’t be your secret’. Big big points for narrative innovation up for grabs here.
Yet, having said all that, it has been a while since I watched a show which was as refreshing and (dare I say it?) new. It felt real, not realistic. Realistic would only describe a falsity that might vaguely resemble the truth. Equally, it is not relatable, because I am not (yet!!) in a royal family, have never set foot in a boarding school and only know about 30 words of Swedish. It’s just real- now, that is an adjective I have never found myself applying to a tv show before.
A lot of this is down to the casting of actual real-life teenagers. While this sounds like an obvious move, accurate age representation really isn’t something we see in teen dramas. Google any American teen show and I guarantee that at least one (but most likely almost all) of the kids will have been played by adults. Take the immensely popular (and quite good I find myself (somewhat reluctantly) adding), Outer Banks – John B. is 12 years younger than Chase Stokes! Now, I’m not about to jump on a soapbox to complain about the unrealistic expectations it so obviously sets for young people. To be frank, I just find it plain irritating. Like how can you expect me to get emotionally invested in a 20-something year old playing high school dress up?
What makes Young Royals different is that it celebrates all the things that make teenagers, well, teenagers. I found myself getting weirdly excited over seeing schoolkids with actual acne. Not the sort that is badly painted on for the sake of ‘teen representation’ but the sort that couldn’t have been anything but real. To be honest, I loved how everyone just looked ordinary, and I genuinely mean this as a complement. Sure, both the boys and the girls are attractive, but they aren’t the bronzed-up, 25-packed Greek Gods we are used to seeing on our screens. They also dress like normal kids. In Episode 2 we see the cast donning the coolest (and cosiest) of pj combinations for a movie night. Where we might expect to see low cut tops, skimpy sleeves, shorty shorts or bare chests; we are instead treated to dressing gowns, boarding school hoodies and grandad slippers. Yes, Wilhelm does wear an irritating amount of Ralph Lauren, but so did many a middle-class crunchy child in their teenage years; and I say this with immense self-awareness.
The show also handles intimacy with a beautifully refreshing subtlety. This innovation can be explained simply: Simon and Wilhelm hug more than they kiss. Why is this such a big deal? Something I find perennially irksome is the sheer amount of shagging going on in teen dramas. Characters meet, exchange serious suggestive glances to each other and then – within a matter of minutes – the clothes are off and the rest is history. With all this time devoted to spontaneous, and sometimes quite frankly ridiculous (Chuck and Blair in a Limo, Adam and Eric in the school’s music room, Archie and Veronica in the shower just minutes after his dad was shot…I mean, come on?!), sex scenes precious little attention is ever given to the development of the relationship. The difference with Young Royals is that you do see their attraction grow. Yes, it takes 4 full episodes of will-they-won’t-they before the big yay moment, but by then you are so totally invested that you find yourself almost looking away, weirdly anxious about intruding on their privacy. Sex is not treated like a fantasy or a fetish, but a genuine demonstration of affection and commitment.
I must also shout out the show’s incredible handling of sexuality. Earlier I said Young Royals is chocked full of cliches – which it is! – however, there is one that is notably absent, particularly given how it is often labelled as a ‘queer’ drama. There is no occasion where either of the main characters ‘comes out’. In fact, we never see Simon or Wilhelm place a specific label on their sexuality. Now this isn’t to say that their relationship is presented as ‘just a phase’, or a ‘boarding school experimentation’ because it’s just not – and thank goodness it isn’t, because that really would be a disappointing cliché. In a world which is still so frustratingly quick to put people into boxes, it is genuinely nice to see a coming-of-age drama resisting this tendency. Their relationship is continually supported with dialogue which suggests both acknowledgement and acceptance. One of my favourite moments (maybe of the whole show ooo) has to be when Wilhelm’s older brother Erik is teasing about his new ‘crush’. As the conversation goes on, and the innocent teenage embarrassment grows, you keep expecting Erik to come out with the classic line ‘come on, who is she?’. Instead, he uses gender neutral pronouns and so subtly suggests that he not only knows about his brother’s sexuality but also accepts him. What we see is an innocent brother-on-brother teasing session which could happen in any family– regardless of the sexualities of those involved – rather than an in-your-face coming out. Acceptance seems not only possible but natural, which is a definite step in the right direction when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation on the small screen. Yes, it’s small step and yes, there is still much work to be done; however, it is so refreshing to see queer characters exist as more than a closet or a cliché.
I could really go on forever about how much I love Young Royals. Like, gosh, I’ve only talked about the two main characters, I haven’t even touched on all the other issues it elegantly explores. It really is a show which gives voice and affirmation to so many of the challenges tweens face- which really is quite impressive given it is only six episodes long!
Wait, it’s only six episodes- that’s an afternoon for seasoned Netflix watchers. Just watch it, I promise that experience will be much more meaningful than reading my raving.
(But please please please, watch it in the Swedish with the English subtitles…the English dub is DREADFUL!!)