I hesitate to admit this, but here goes: I've never had a great flan. Wait! Don't hate me, I like flan okay. Flan is fine. Big fan of the custard in almost any form. Creme brulee all the way! Totally a pudding kind of fellow -- as might be obvious should we meet. I do not turn down a flan when offered. I have in fact ordered flan for my dessert when dining out, though only because it was the best of not great options and for some reason I needed a sweet so badly I wasn't willing to wait until I got home. (Guess a free mint just wasn't going to do it for me, okay?) And that flan? The last one I remember ordering in a fancy restaurant? Like all the others that flan was just... fine?
Now if flan is part of your cultural heritage -- just as Seven-Up Jell-O salad is part of mine -- then presumably you are appropriately outraged to find white-trash like me trashing flan, however mildly I may be doing so (but then isn't that kind of appropriate?) Seriously though, who hates a custard? That being my point. I don't hate flan. Flan is fine. I am largely indifferent to it as a thing mostly other people eat. If this gives you a sense of mission and you are now determined to convince me of my error, you go right ahead and I promise I will happily try any flan you bring me, but don't feel obliged. It's no one's job to make me love creme caramel, or Heartstopper.
Actually, given a choice between the two I would have to say, flan it is.
Both are so sweet, you know?
I don't know the story of flan. Part of a rich cultural history of eggy custards no doubt. I would probably read that book. However not being at all invested in flan as an absolute good or anything, I can't say I am much moved to learn more. Go with God, little custard.
On the other hand, the story of the creation of Heartstopper is very good. If you don't know it, in brief, the author Alice Oseman started drawing and writing and posting her stuff on the internet as a teenager. She got her first publishing deal at 17. The central characters in Heartstopper, Charlie and Nick, started as supporting players and an established couple in her debut book Solitaire. In 2018 she decided to revisit them and tell the start of their romance. So Heartstopper the graphic series, and the eventual and inevitable resulting book was born. The graphic novel is now up to four volumes with a fifth coming soon. She's promised at least six volumes in all. The Netflix adaptation premiered in 2022 and the second season dropped just recently. Huge hit both as a television series and an ongoing young adult graphic novel. Oseman's commercial and artistic success is both heartwarming -- she seems a lovely person -- and quite inspiring. I should think she is a perfect example to any young artist intent on making a new way in the world. Good for her, I say and mean it.
Just yesterday I was fascinated to read that now at age twenty eight, Oseman describes herself as an "aromantic asexual," a phrase I had not encountered before, at least not that first part. Had to look it up. New to me, if perfectly obvious from the words themselves once my rheumy old eyes adjusted. Those initial As do all the heavy lifting. Not and not. Got it. But, it is curious isn't it that someone whose career is founded on what has justifiably been classified as Romance should now self-identify as being even less interested in romance with a little r than I am in the history of flan. It's like learning that Anna Sewell was deathly afraid of horses, or that Lee Child always wanted to write a Broadway musical comedy, or that Leigh Bardugo is strict Church of God, or that the author of Pride and Prejudice was secretly -- gasp -- French. What now?
And then it isn't confusing at all.
I became aware of Heartstopper around about Volume 4, which I think just predates the debut of the Netflix series by about three months. Volume 4 and the three proceeding showed up en force in the bookstore in January, 2022, in other words after Christmas and not when one would normally see things coming onto the sales-floor by the cartload. The new year is actually when returns pick up and more usually when carts of unsold stock go off the floor and back to publishers. The only things one can count on in the bookstore come January are flu and returns. January is kinda sad. But then Heartstopper exploded. I must have been vaguely aware of the popularity of the earlier books, but Volume 4 was a whole thing. That's when the series was everywhere. We had so much of it it had to go into overstock displays. Even ten years ago that wouldn't be such a big deal, but now? Oprah could rave and Jesus could descend from the Right Hand of God to endorse a book and we would still order twenty copies. (It is a smaller world altogether, books, alas.) So what the hell was this thing? I took Volume 1 to lunch and finished the next three that night. So now I knew.
The story is charming and sweet. Boy meets boy. It is also roughly that complicated. The average Beatrix Potter plot is more fraught. I was immediately reminded of yaoi manga, a sub-genre to which I was introduced thirty years ago (?!) by a friend and manga enthusiast. If you don't know this stuff in it's most popular and innocent form, think girlishly drawn boy meets girlishly drawn boy and well, hearts and flowers ensue. There is evidently a more sexually explicit version of yaoi but I never saw any of that at the time. What I saw was basically Sailor Moon in a pants-role wooing some other saucer-eyed innocent also using masculine pronouns and also dressed like NSYNC. The audience for these little "gay" love stories was, I was made to understand, largely pre-adolescent girls. Made a kind of sense. I am old enough to remember when pre-adolescent girls of my acquaintance actually preferred staring at photos of twelve year old Donny Osmond and or Tony DeFranco to the photos of more mature stars like David Cassidy -- the little fools. Years later yet another friend explained that gay romances of the yaoi type are safer for their young, female readers than more realistic depictions of heterosexual courtship. I accepted this explanation and offer it here as, well, flan.
My response to the yaoi then was, as you've probably guessed, not great. In truth I found the art both weirdly disturbing and yet bland, and the stories infantilizing and frankly repellant. This is how a generation of little girls -- and presumably a few interested boys -- were being taught to see gays?! As sexless dolls in heteronormative narratives straight out of bubblegum pop lyrics?! I guess it was progress of a kind that we were... harmless? Yeah, no. As a gay man who has now aged into harmlessness, I understand it's power. No one's called me "faggot" in a longish time. Mostly what I get now is "Grandpa" or "sir" -- just not in a hot way. I'm mostly okay with this. Takes off some of the pressure and fear I've otherwise lived under all my gay damned days. But, again, no. People didn't organize, and march, and die, and fight for generations just so we could collectively become Ken dolls for little girls afraid of smells.
So on behalf of the Active Gays as well as the Queers Emeritus may I just say oh, fuck off, kids.
Now how mean was that?!
Can you imagine? Language like that with the innocent children. And the answer is of course, fuck yeah, because this isn't about the innocent children. Everything needn't be. Stunning thought. The children would seem to have all sorts looking after them nowadays and isn't that wonderful and making a better world as we speak and yes, it is. The needs of the little ones are frankly being met at an unprecedented volume seemingly everywhere other than in places already abandoned by the Gods and civilization like Alabama and the ever more benighted Florida. And yes, King Goober and Queen Karen are very much ablaze and afoot as far North as Ohio and Michigan, shutting down drag story hours and burning books and libraries to the ground and yes, it is all horrifying and bad news for the vulnerable wee ones specially, but this is not about that, please. Please. Just this once, and then I swear we can all get back to prioritizing the needs of all the little queer babies, can we spare a moment's sympathy for the adult male cocksuckers of the world being told how much we should love Heartstopper?
I know, I know. "Okay, boomer." Totally justified, young person. I mean, what are you doing here anyway? Clearly you were meant to be at a different meeting somewhere else in the building. You are of course welcome to stay for coffee and cookies, but here at the Irascible Queer Codgers Support Group you will sadly find that that is probably decaf coffee and those "cookies" are dietetic, sugar-free and genuinely worse even than the coffee. And quick warning: this is not an entirely safe space. Cool with your pronouns and however you identify, actually thrilled by your intellectual curiosity and sophistication, and deeply sorry about burning the planet down before you even got a turn, but this is the part where I am unkind to the sexless teen romance, subgenre gay.
You know who have actually been the most vocal advocates of the TV Heartstopper, at least in my admittedly aging social-media circles? Call them lesbians of a certain age. Curious, that. Would seem to have all but uniformly embraced the whole baby-fags-in-hesitant-love-thang. I do not pretend to understand this, though one lady watcher not in the actual sisterhood (and who signs up for a full membership these days?) did offer an explanation all to do with what she insisted was a very female desire for romance and comforting visions free of the more usual toxic masculinity of traditional straight stuff. I accept that without comment. Sounds about right, at least for a generation other than the actual kids. Pretty good flan as flan goes. Nothing to do with me though.
Meanwhile back at the Crisco sling, a variety of voices will insist that even we old queens should just be wet with gratitude to have these romantic stories we did not get in our own youth. I cannot tell you the number of comments along these very lines in every social media post and or journalistic profile or review that I've read. So many old darlings just tickled to pieces by all these pretty children falling ever-so innocently in lurv, why there mustn't be a dry embroidered handkerchief in our reticules, I declare. Men my age or older, mind. It is true that all we got by way of the gay when we were little was pretty much Charles Nelson Reilly's giggle and a promising length of tan thigh from Ron Ely as TV's Tarzan. And yes, it might have been very nice indeed -- then.
I do not begrudge anyone their enjoyment of the Puppy Bowl or the Super Bowl, in neither of which have I invested so much as five minutes. But then neither has anything to do with me, if you follow. Not a dog owner. Don't follow football. As unbelievable as it might seem now, I was once a teenaged boy and what is more, I was even then queer as a three dollar bill. I remember what that felt like, what boys felt like, though in every sense it has been years. My experience need not be entirely representative to be both authentic and typical. I don't need all of the stories to be my story, and I don't need my story told back to me verbatim in order to have a good time in front of the TV. Generally I like all sorts of TV fiction, save probably Housewives franchises and scary fireman shows (too fake and too real, respectively.) The beloved husband on the other hand loves a good, grim foreign language drama, a western, or a police procedural, and won't watch anything with dragons or superheroes. When it comes to a gay love story, we are forty years in on ours. Stay tuned. We're obviously into this kind of thing. I care. He cares. This is my love story, ours, my culture, our lives.
I think the boys in Heartstopper have their first kiss roughly episode sixty-three. Felt like that anyway. Pretty sure that in this narrative neither of them has ever had an erection let alone a wet-dream, neither has ever gotten to second base with a boy, masturbated, or touched their own or anyone else's butthole ever -- eeewww, gross, what is wrong with you?! Pretty sure in this story their sweat smells like strawberry shortcake, their bedrooms smell like meadow flowers. Their sheets are as fresh as the first day their beds were changed. The only thing they do with their athletic socks is wear them in athletic montages without getting them dirty but washing them anyway with environmentally friendly detergent, then dry and fold them carefully, finally returning them in orderly rows to their sock drawers. I was frankly amazed that after that one chaste kiss at least one of them didn't say "Golly!" in a heart-shaped thought-balloon. This is of course exactly as I remember it being when I was sixteen. Exactly.
What this actually is is flan. As storytelling, as romance, this isn't Jane Austen, this is baby's first gay boardbook. (When a boy likes another boy they kiss. The end.) The obstacles to love in Austen were real, adult, even when her heroines aren't entirely. Occasionally the consequences are potentially dire, not just sad but frightening. The emotions in a Jane Austen novel arise from character and circumstance, yes, but those circumstances include specifically the restrictions of time, sex, class, and convention, and all of that is every bit as important and interesting to the writer and hence her reader as the actual love story. Austen's prose is the only tidy thing about an Austen novel. Life is not safe. Love is not sanitary and romantic love is not even altogether sane. Escape? Try the Nature Channel. They love that stuff. But Jane Austen writes toward something, not away from it. That's how she earns those happy endings. (Fan, obviously, though I had to be middle-aged before I felt I really got it.)
Obviously not every story, not every romance has to be Jane Austen. I can hear someone pointing out that it simply isn't fair to judge every romance by the standard of Pride and Prejudice. Too true. I bring her up only because the hacks and the grubbers and cosplay Austenites just love making the old girl grandmother of a pulp genre she never read or ever saw the like of. It's like sideshow cooch-dancers talking about their sisters in the Bolshoi like they're family. But even by the standards of a Hallmark movie, this Heartstopper business is remarkably bland stuff. As flan goes? not even sauced much. Frankly the only thing heart-stopping in this romance is the audacity in pretending this is about teenaged boys at all, let alone gay boys.
These are not realistic teenaged boys. Boys stink. Boys have hard-ons from pushing a vibrating lawnmower or riding the bus. Or so at least was my experience. Admittedly there are different boys. But these boys? The Heartstopper boys? Never met, saw, or heard of any like them outside of these comic books and the TV version. Also? This is not how gay works or ever did. Again, the world moves on, but every gay boy I've ever met, with or without a penis, however gendered otherwise, if they say "gay" they do not mean they like boys the way ten year old girls like ponies. Nope. This is just yaoi with plummy British accents for a preteen audience that has weirdly expanded to include straight women in their thirties, elderly lesbians, and old queens nostalgic for a love in the locker-room that never happened and with a boy who never talked to them in a time and place that never was. This is a fairy tale, not a fairy story. This is an aromantic asexual English girl's version, frankly, of my life.
And this, me complaining about this thing other people like so much, this is not helping, is it? I'm complaining about flan again, aren't I? I think we've established already that I don't have to eat it, now do I?
Here's what I want you to picture though, before you dismiss me altogether as just another grouchy, dirty-minded old coot. (I mean I guess I kind of am, and proud of it still, but I like to think I'm just ever so much more.) Picture a menu with nothing but flan. Better, picture shelves of flan, whole aisles of flan. Picture flan stretching across the whole dining and media landscape and replacing not just other custards or desserts but meat and potatoes and green salads and tacos and fillet meuniere and everything else you're used to or might enjoy occasionally eating. Flan to the left of me, flan to the right -- what? You don't like flan?! Who doesn't like flan? Have you tried this flan? This flan is gorgeous. Trust us, this is excellent flan. Top quality ingredients -- look at these sunny yolks in these eggs! Look at this pure caramel!!! Try the flan. No, seriously, EAT THE FUCKING FLAN.
That's what it feels like now. So, so much flan.
I know I was spoiled by the Golden Age of gay publishing when there were more than two major publishers in the whole world and mainstream houses had gay editors and imprints, and there were gay publishers, and there were gay bookstores, and movie houses showing independent gay cinema and gay theater companies and, yes, print porn. All gone. To everything there is a season, right? Fine. Much of what has come since has frankly been better than so much of what we happily, greedily consumed before. Feels like the ideas are bigger now, the definitions more expansive, and even with all the renewed hate in America today, the world is in fact a better, safer place for a lot of us. But our literature? Cinema? Television? Now? Try the flan.
A respected, award winning gay author of my acquaintance and generation was told by his publisher that if he wanted to see print again as a novelist he needed to write a YA. His experience I know is not unique. An actor I sort of know still lives in Los Angeles. He's considerably younger than me (and gorgeous) and also so far as I know always out and proud since forever. He was told he was too old for gay roles now not because my people are/have always been nasty about crows' feet, but because the only gay stories getting made now are about teenagers and while he could maybe still play thirty, he definitely couldn't play sixteen anymore. If he knew the right people he could maybe play a background gay, maybe a daddy, in that one gay feature we still get a year. You know the one. Funny guy in his thirties falls hard for someone, you know, butcher and prettier. The Courtship of the Prettier Top. Classic. But there are now only just so many gays even in that movie, honey, even in Village street scene or at a party on Fire Island. Sorry. Abs we got. Youth!
Otherwise it's Red, White & Royal Blue! What is that you say? Well, you know it's YA because no Oxford commas but also because the President's son? He knocks an actual Prince into a cake-table or something and then harmless, naughty hilarity and love 'em cuddles ensue. (Aren't they dreamy?!) Now streaming on Amazon Prime! (I lasted roughly fifteen minutes. The script and the acting made me miss the emotional subtlety and wit of 90s Warner Brothers cartoons like Animaiacs and Freakazoid.)
Or it's Boyfriend Material, when the son of famous rock stars has to find a respectable boyfriend to help clean up the family's image after dad gets out of rehab or something like that. Soon to be a limited series!
Or it's Back Me Up where a teenaged computer whiz and game designer sees his avatar kissing the perfect boy right there in the street! For real! Dude!
Maybe it's Stars in His Eyes about two boys who meet at Space Camp, or the one where the boys meet one hot summer on the Oregon coast and nothing really bad happens, or on a double-decker bus and nothing really bad happens, or across dimensions and nothing otherwise remotely interesting happens, or whatever -- and how many of these did I just make up?
Because other than a few venerable surviving elders of the Purple Quill generation, that's what gay books look like now. Romance. Pap. Flan.
Do we really need more stories about sixty year old gay men? You bet your sweet ass we do. As I said though, I don't need every gay story to be mine. I don't. I do need more stories to be more interesting than all this treacly nonsense. Shit, they can even be romances, if not Romances with little hearts where the Os go. Two boys fall in love? Fine. Maybe one of them has to work in a nursing home to pay for community college and maybe his boyfriend is trying to unionize a Starbucks? How about that? Maybe one of the boys is trans -- but please Jesus don't stop there. That's not a plot, children, that's a caption. Who is is he? Does he have a job? Does he maybe work in a bookstore? Is his father helping with insurance because our protagonist can't afford to transition without financial help? Does his romantic partner maybe try to earn a living with his art but fall back on drugs as both an addiction issue and an economic necessity?
What? That all sounds too real? Well, that's probably because I based these scenarios on young people I happen to know. But that doesn't sound funny? Aren't rom-coms supposed to be funny? Bitch, did I say these people weren't? See, that's part of the problem, the assumption that romance, let alone comedy requires a certain level of economic security. You know who ain't funny? Besides rich, male comedians? Middle class, boughie boys who play lacrosse, and nearly all the children of privilege and the direct beneficiaries of capitalism, and the kind of gays who talk more about their sweaters and their TikToks than their comrades, and the royal fucking families of anywhere after 1917. Not funny. Not romantic. Not sexy. (The only reason Prince Harry is still fuckable? Guess, and it's not his receding ginger curls, you shallow queens.)
You know what is romantic? Fucking. Fucking is romantic, fun, more than a little funny or you are definitely not doing it right. But fine. Actual sticky, sweaty, messy, smelly sex is too much or too hard to do even on a billion dollar streaming platform in 2023? Remember how many actual battles are depicted in drama from the Greeks right up through Shakespeare? Yeah, that. Doesn't mean we don't get to hear about them or see what went on before and after. And sex, in case anyone is still confused about this, is or ought to be both healthier and more interesting to sane people than war. Romance is anticipation and fulfillment and conflict and obstacles and who the hell am I to have to explain this to supposedly grown people? (I know nobody asked me to.) Yeah, I would be genuinely interested in a story about an aromatic asexual relationship, gay, straight, whatever. Honestly that could be fascinating. Maybe write that someday.
Also? Comedy is not about comfort, but it doesn't have to be about shame or humiliation either. Falling in love is fucking funny. Have you done it? Did it go well? You know what's even better than Keaton or Chaplin in confrontation with want or the elements or the cops? Well, nothing. Or I mean to say nothing but Chaplin or Keaton in love. Please note that all of Shakespeare's comedies are about what? Anyway, I'm just restating the obvious by now. Sorry.
So if you like it, enjoy your flan. As I've said, I don't mind a bit of the ol' flan now and then myself. Tonight though, I couldn't swallow another bite. I'm thinking roast, suckling pig, vegetable samosas... maybe something involving grown men and grease and a little grit and musk and wit and am I still talking about sweets? Why, yes, sailor, I am. Try the cakes.