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This essay argues that the gay romcom is a genre that modifies the generic conventions of the mainstream (‘heterosexual’) romcom. Focusing on the first two of Leger Grindon’s 10 moves of the generic romcom plot – unfulfilled desire and the meeting – it argues that the gay romcom establishes a film within a gay cultural context: a Meet Cute in the margins. The queer romcom (an umbrella term, under which this essay places the gay romcom) has recently seen new mainstream releases both in streaming and box-office distribution. This essay takes this moment of transition to look at the gay romcom, as a modification of the mainstream sub-genre, that found prominence through queer film festivals. To explicate, it conducts textual analysis of two gay romcoms: BearCity (Doug Langway, 2010), released through the queer film festival circuit; and Fire Island (Andrew Ahn, 2022), released through the mainstream streaming service, Hulu.


The queer romcom is in a moment of transition. Changing socio-cultural attitudes and new distribution technologies have meant both streaming and box-office releases of this subgenre to a broader audience. Because of this moment, this essay suggests recent releases may be seen as early attempts to take the conventions of the queer romcom into the mainstream. Media reporting indicates this queer sub-genre has found both successes and challenges. Happiest Season (Clea DuVall, 2022) sought a theatrical release, but then opted for streaming due to the COVID-19 pandemic.1 The lesbian romcom, starring Kristen Stewart, broke Hulu records as the most watched film over an opening weekend.2 Fire Island (Andrew Ahn, 2022), a gay romcom and another streaming success, was the sixth most streamed film in its opening week on Hulu.3 While not a like-for-like comparison, when gay romcom Bros (Nicholas Stoller, 2022) opted for a theatrical release, its box-office figures did not perform as expected. At $4.8 million it fell short of the prediction for $8-10 million for an opening weekend, contributing to ‘flop’ discourse in the media.4 With the media and the queer community discussing the significance of these examples, this provides impetus to identify at least some romcom conventions and how they are modified to make a film a queer romcom.

Fire Island stars Joel Kim Booster and Conrad Ricamora

While the above examples include both gay and lesbian romcoms – and it should be noted there are also transgender romcoms – this essay focuses on the gay romcom. Queer screen studies can enable a nuanced discussion of sexuality and gender diversity in screen texts and can act as a short-hand to discuss these representations.5 On the other hand, the same approach can result in conflating representation of one group with all groups under that umbrella term.6 Clara Bradbury-Rance makes this point in relation to lesbian cinema. “This trend,” she argues, “is echoed in the queer film festivals whose titles often obscure the overwhelming bias in programming towards gay male narratives.”7 To reduce risks of conflation, the gay romcom is presented as a type of queer romcom. With this purposefully narrow scope this essay seeks to provide a starting point for other authors to investigate and contribute to the position of other queer romcoms, as they may intersect with, or even contradict the gay romcom’s conventions.

This essay argues that the gay romcom is a modification of the mainstream (‘heterosexual’) romcom. Further it argues that the gay romcom has found audiences through the curation of queer film festivals (QFFs) as a ‘festival film’. This essay begins by drawing on existing literature to establish the influence of QFF programming (and programmers) on genre. Then, the essay will utilise textual analysis of the first act of a gay romcom to demonstrate the significant influence of QFFs in its development. I assert that the generic romcom plot points in the first act establish a reflexive gay cultural context for the romance and comedy to occur. This essay then uses textual analysis to show how this context manifests in two texts: BearCity (Doug Langway, 2010), a gay romcom that premiered at the New York LGBTQ Film Festival, before doing a circuit of other QFFs;8 and Fire Island, as noted earlier, a gay romcom released through Hulu. Further, this textual analysis highlights a comparison between BearCity’s approach to reflexivity for QFF audiences, and the more direct ways Fire Island seeks to explain this context to a broader audience.

Queer film festivals influencing genre

Queer characters – particularly gay men – have found a role in the mainstream romcom. Claire Mortimer examines how contemporary romcoms would find new ways to satisfy audiences, such as the inclusion of a ‘gay best friend’ character.9 Here, queer characters that found their way into romcoms were not the subjects of love, but the source of comic relief and often through stereotypes. ‘Gayness’ as a source of comedy has a history in the romcom, but the mainstream genre has historically stopped short of acknowledging it as part of the romance.10 Betty Kaklamanidou does suggest the exploration of queer relationships in independent cinema “has destabilized the genre’s insistence on heterosexual romance.”11 But that destabilisation, until very recently, existed predominantly in the QFF circuit.

In positioning the gay romcom as a modification of the mainstream romcom, this essay places it as a genre that formed part of its cultural capital in the QFF circuit as a ‘festival film’. A ‘festival film’, being a film that “fits the profile of [a film] festival,” can be a product of curation/exhibition, and/or festival-initiated funding programs12 QFFs emerged in the 1970s as “places committed to counter negative representation and bring about pride and visibility.”13 A global network of QFFs has created parallel circuits of distribution, separate from the A-List festivals “such as Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and Toronto.”14 Just as those A-List festivals and their programmers serve to create cultural and financial capital, so too does the parallel global circuit of QFFs.15 The QFF circuit then comprises a network of institutions that create cultural and financial value and can influence genre. Antoine Damiens discusses the function of festival circuits in creating value, as well as the QFF context for genre development through circulation.16 In her 2007 book Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre, Tamar Jeffers McDonald notes early examples of the queer romcom that found success with broader festival audiences. However, she goes on to argue that “mainstream films have yet to follow this example.”17 Jeffers McDonald lists Go Fish (Rose Troche 1994), Saving Face (Alice Wu, 2004), Touch of Pink (Ian Iqbal Rashid, 2004) and Imagine Me and You (Ol Parker, 2005).18 The four films were premiered at mainstream film festivals and went onto theatrical release with varying levels of success. However notable for this analysis is the heteronormative framing of the themes. The films place the lesbian and gay identities of the romantic coupling almost entirely within a heterosexual world. In comparison, gay romcoms that emerged in the QFF circuit place gay romance within the margins.

QFFs have offered an avenue for queer romcoms to find audiences. As a result, the genre’s conventions have shaped to meet the expectations and needs of those audiences. The QFF as distribution method has been analysed for its function in assembling audiences for films that centre queer stories.19 Further, the QFF can be understood for its role as a commercial space that also contributes to social needs for the queer community.20 QFFs as a category are growing in size and significance at a global level.21 It is the growing circuit of these festivals that made space for the gay romcom to meet that specific audience’s expectations. Here, the conventions of the mainstream romcom are repurposed with a gay lens.

Frameline47, the San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival.

Modifying the conventions of the mainstream (‘heterosexual’) romcom

The gay romcom is a modification of the mainstream (‘heterosexual’) romcom. Importantly, this modification is broadly contiguous with the mainstream romcom. The plot for both films broadly follows the same generic conventions. Of course, noting that any chosen genre is not fixed, it is contextual, and it is ever-changing in the face of innovation, and socio-cultural and industrial shifts.22 The romcom, as with all genre, is contextual and evolving in ways to give “new pleasures to the contemporary audience.”23 With that caveat noted, Leger Grindon presents ten moves of the standard plot of a romcom: unfulfilled desire, the meeting, fun together, obstacles arise, the journey, new conflicts, the choice, crisis, epiphany, and resolution.24 Both Bear City and Fire Island broadly follow Grindon’s generic plot. But it is the reflexivity that emerged through the programming of QFFs25 and its function and ability to influence genre26. that provides the context to assess the gay romcom as a modification of the mainstream genre. 

To explicate the influence of the QFF, reflectivity is crucial to this modification of the genre. Two of Grindon’s moves, unfulfilled desire, and the meeting, are key here. Taking place in the first act, Grindon’s first two moves establish the categorisation of a gay romcom. To do this, the essay argues that the exposition of unfulfilled desire establishes in the gay romcom “the anxieties, assumptions and desires,”27 of the gay community at a specific time. Further, the essay looks at the influence of intersectionality, a framework that conceptualises the interconnected systems of oppression,28 as significant to establishing these anxieties. The gay romcom situates expectations and anxieties within the gay cultural context to establish unfulfilled desire. Grindon defines unfulfilled desire as a presentation of “disappointment in romance” or “a frustrating absence in their life.”29 This unfulfilled desire suggests an “ideological mandate towards coupling” as means to address the “anxieties, assumptions, and desires” outlined by Jeffers.30 Here, the explication of unfulfilled desire sets up a gay context for those cultural anxieties to play out throughout the film.

The meeting further emphasises culturally specific anxieties in the gay romcom. A ‘Meet Cute’ is the moment in a romcom where the couple-to-be have a chance meeting that sets their relationship in motion.31  Film critic Roger Ebert editorialises on the Meet Cute in his review of Green Card (Peter Weir, 1990): “Hollywood has since time immemorial defined the Meet Cute as a comic situation contrived entirely for the purpose of bringing a man and a woman together, after which they can work out their destinies for the remainder of the film.”32 This moment is what Grindon describes as the second move of a standard romcom film.33 Mortimer describes the Meet Cute as “prophetic” in how it suggests “the nature of the couple’s relationship.”34 While this trope is evident in the gay romcom, there is one important caveat. The gay romcom has a Meet Cute in the margins. This essay argues that the gay romcom represents established queer spaces onscreen in which the Meet Cute can take place. 


The mainstream romcom moves of unfulfilled desire and the meeting establish BearCity as a gay romcom. BearCity is a romcom centred around New York City’s bear community, exploring gay romance, body image, and masculinity. Tyler (Joe Conti) and Roger (Gerald McCulluch) court one another in a romance entirely set in gay bars and the ‘gayborhood’ of New York City. A ‘gayborhood’ is a “playful shorthand” for an area in a city where “gays and lesbians set the tone of the neighbourhood.”35 As a film made for QFF audiences, BearCity appears to assume a level of audience awareness about the gay community. There is also some intersectional positioning of experiences around body image and masculinity showing that gay fat, fem men can experience a sense of being undesirable within gay culture.36 This positioning reflects how the bear subculture is celebratory of fat (often masculinised) bodies.37 Exposition in setting Tyler’s unfulfilled desire and his meeting with Roger demonstrates a reflexivity of the gay bear subculture.

In BearCity, Tyler’s unfulfilled desire comes through exposition of his unrealised sexual and romantic interest in bears. In the opening scene, Tyler dreams of his housemate catching him having sex with Santa Claus (much to the horror of the camp, young, thin, and feminine gay housemate). Tyler’s fear of being caught infers a fear of his interest in fat gay men being discovered. Then later, unfulfilled desire is shown in his refusal to share a picture in an online dating profile. This presents Tyler’s boyish looks, hairless, slim physique, and his fear of judgement, as a barrier to the community where he wants to find romance. While Tyler’s place as a newcomer allows for some overt exposition at points where ‘established’ bears explain the ‘scene’. This approach to exposition stands in contrast to recent mainstream releases of gay romcoms. In BearCity there is some expectation of assumed knowledge about gay communities, and it is Tyler’s steps to join the bear community and fulfil a desire that enables reflexive exposition.

Sexy Santa Claus from Tyler’s fantasy in BearCity

In contrast, Roger’s unfulfilled desire is not immediately apparent and rather is presented as unattached sexual freedom to establish him as the playboy. The “transformation of the playboy” convention emerged from the 1950s sex comedy.38 However, while the sex comedy used bachelor pads curated to reflect culture and to infer a place to lure women,39 the gay romcom is overt in its presentation of what this looks like. During the first nightclub scene, while Tyler’s newcomer status is shown to the audience, he is contrasted with crosscuts to Roger engaged in confident sexual freedom. Roger is centred in the frame as the focus of an orgy. His confidence, sexuality and dominant masculinity play out through his sexual performance, setting him up as a playboy.

The meeting continues this reflexive exposition to establish the gatekeeping that can take place within a gay subculture. There are experiences of some people in queer subcultural groups seeking to restrict people from self-identifying using terms such as bear if they do not “meet the identity’s perceived ‘criteria’.”40 The meeting is “prophetic”41 through its set up of subcultural gatekeeping, which will go on to feature in Grindon’s42 later generic moves (in particular obstacles arise and new conflicts). Tyler, as someone not immediately recognised to fit the criteria of a bear, experiences this type of gatekeeping from his potential romantic interest. When Tyler attempts to flirt revealing he is “new,” Roger responds dismissively with “and I’m used. Keep the change.” The set-up is one of Tyler as an outsider, and the playboy of the bear scene setting a clear boundary that he is not interested in an outsider.

The cultural anxieties and expectations of the gay bear subculture in BearCity use the established conventions of the mainstream romcom, making them specifically gay. Central to this is the ‘gayborhood’ setting, which provides a backdrop where the reflexive anxieties can be established. For BearCity the protagonist, while not new to this setting, is new to the cafes, bars, and clubs where bears have built a visible community. This ‘gayborhood’ setting is also reflected in Fire Island prompting the term: Meet Cute in the margins. However, without the newcomer narrative, and with a pitch to a broader audience, this exposition is presented in a more overt way.

Fire Island

Fire Island is a gay romcom that centres the gay Asian experience of its protagonist and presents its reflexivity directly to the audience. The “anxieties, assumptions and desires”43 are about the intersectional position44 of its protagonist, Noah (Joel Kim Booster, who is also the writer of Fire Island) within gay culture. Fire Island depicts the convergence of race, class, and sexuality. In the establishment of unfulfilled desire and the meeting, the protagonist’s experience as a gay Asian man is emphasised for the audience. 

The narrative of gay Asian romance is depicted with discrimination and othering in a reflexive manner45 often associated with QFF-aligned titles. Fire Island’s method of presenting reflexivity indicates how QFFs influence the genre46 for a broader audience. Unlike the QFF-distributed BearCity, where exposition is justified through interaction and dialogue to explain the idiosyncrasies of the scene to a newcomer, Fire Island addresses the audience directly through non-diegetic voice-over. There is a sense that Fire Island is taking the reflexivity of the gay romcom associated with QFFs. The voice-over provides the broader audience with a brief overview of the intersectional politics of gay culture and their relationship to the protagonist and his friends.

The gay Asian experience within the broader gay community is set up through exposition of unfulfilled desire. Noah’s non-diegetic voice-over explains to the audience his experience as a gay Asian man, who feels invisible within the gay community. His commentary, somewhat nonchalantly, states his aversion to relationships “…he had boyfriend energy and that is just not me.” Then, his interactions with his friends highlight the reflexivity of how this view is informed by his experience. Noah points out, “Whatever, I’m still invisible to most of these people.” To make the inferred overt, Keegan responds with a declaration of, “No fats. No fems. No Asians,” with a wide shot of the group to show that each of them characterises at least one of those exclusionary categories. This line is a comment on the prevalence of this exclusionary statement as a headline in dating (and hook-up) profiles.47 Noah’s voice-over in Fire Island goes on to spell out the reasons for his cynical view of romance. He neatly explains: “In our community money is not the only form of currency. Race, masculinity, abs… just a few of the metrics we used to separate ourselves into upper and lower classes.”  This line completes the context for Noah’s potential unfulfilled desire, centering his experience within a community and culture where he feels invisible.

Fire Island’s central ensemble represent those meant to be excluded by the phrase, ‘No Fats. No Fems. No Asians.’

This theme of class continues through the first act, setting the protagonist and his love interest to be othered in the now established cultural context. However, the comedic moment of the Meet Cute is also “prophetic”48 in Fire Island. Much of this tension sits in perceptions of class, and the misunderstandings that take place, demonstrating the inspiration taken from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The disparity is established through Noah and Will’s (Conrad Ricamora) different experiences and approaches to the gay community. Here, the audience sees race, class, and sexuality intersect at Grindon’s49 second move, the meeting. With the foreknowledge of Noah’s voice-over exposition, Noah and Will both face objectification and othering, which they handle differently. 

The Meet Cute between Noah and Will sets further cultural context for the different ways each of them navigates the intersection of race and the gay community. As their eyes meet across the bar, they are interrupted by (and the subjects of microaggression from) a man who is presented as white, wealthy and with the ‘ideal’ body. Microaggressions are the “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults.”50 He almost immediately begins, “Are you Korean? You look Korean. I have a sense.” To deflect the situation, Noah grabs Will as he walks past as an unwilling fake boyfriend. The man immediately asks, “Are you Filipino? You look Filipino.” Will is initially confused and appears uncomfortable, and when he realises, he walks away. Here, Noah’s initial explication and views of class in the gay community appear to be playing out. But Will does not respond in the way he expects. Here the audience sees how the response to their gay cultural context is the source of difference between Noah and Will, ultimately shaping their relationship throughout the film. Fire Island uses these two conventions to establish class and racial distinctions within the gay community as a central theme around which the film, and the romance and comedy, are built. 


This essay has sought to establish how gay reflexivity appears within two significant plot points of the gay romcom as it has been curated through QFFs. It also looks at the current moment of transition and innovation for the genre, as it steps into the mainstream. The role of the QFF is still clear. It provides a space for queer stories to deliver on the expectations of queer audiences. Meanwhile, the queer romcom will continue to evolve. This evolution will be in both its pitch to the mainstream, and in its role to deliver for queer audiences. This analysis provides a point-in-time of how reflexive themes are established through Grindon’s first two moves of unfulfilled desire and the meeting.51 This essay provides a specific presentation of queer reflexivity for future comparative analysis of the genre as it seeks to meet both mainstream and marginal expectations. Through its focus on the modification of unfulfilled desire and the meeting in the gay romcom, this essay invites investigation of other moves. It also invites investigation of lesbian, bisexual and transgender romcoms which may or may not find similar approaches to the first two moves of a mainstream romcom plot. There is value in continued monitoring of the queer romcom more broadly, as queer cultural products continue to intersect, engage, and challenge the mainstream.


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  2. Gonzales.
  3. Shannon Connellan, “Most streamed movies this week are all about Vikings, dinos, and hedgehogs,” Mashable, 11 June 2022.
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  10. Mortimer: pp. 80, 136, 142-143.
  11. Betty Kaklamanidou, Genre, Gender and the Effect of Neoliberalism: The New Millennium Hollywood Rom Com (Oxon: Routledge, 2013): p. 2.
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  18. Jeffers McDonald: p. 10.
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  25. Renée Penney, “Desperately Seeking Redundancy: queer romantic comedy and the festival audience” (Master thesis, The University of British Columbia, 2010), Open Collections p. 66.
  26. Damiens: p. 31
  27. Jeffers McDonald: pp. 13-14.
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  30. Jeffers McDonald: p. 13.
  31. Roger Ebert, “Green Card,” RogerEbert.com (11 January 1991); Grindon: p. 9; Jeffers McDonald: p. 13; Mortimer: pp. 5-6.
  32. Ebert.
  33. Grindon: p. 9.
  34. Mortimer: p. 5.
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  37. Whitesel: pp. 244-245.
  38. Jeffers McDonald: pp. 42, 74.
  39. Jeffers McDonald: pp. 42.
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  42. Grindon: p. 9.
  43. Jeffers McDonald: p. 13.
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  49. Grindon: p. 9.
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  51. Grindon: p. 9.