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Entertainment, Opinion

Cruel Summer and ‘90s-era queer representation

The Freeform hit Cruel Summer is one of the most talked-about shows of late, featuring queer representation while doing what many teen dramas never could: depicting real-life issues in a realistic light.

Set in the ‘90s, Cruel Summer follows Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) and Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) over the course of three years. 

(Major spoilers ahead.)

When Kate goes missing, Jeanette takes over her life. 

But everything turns upside when Kate is found and accuses Jeanette of knowing where she had been.

While the premise may seem outlandish, Cruel Summer explores grooming, trauma, domestic violence, and a plenty of other issues over its nine episodes.

Not only are these issues explored in serious tones, content warnings and hotlines are included when necessary. 

The show’s queer representation is and isn’t complicated. 

Representation doesn’t need to be wrapped in a pretty bow – it doesn’t need to be anything other than not disturbingly problematic, and Cruel Summer thankfully doesn’t venture into that territory. 

The characters first made explicitly queer are Vincent (Allius Barnes) and Ben (Nathaniel Ashton). 

Vincent is one of the only Black characters on the show and without a doubt one of the best characters overall, while Ben could be dismissed as a white cishet jock. 

Interracial queer relationships aren’t earth-shattering, but queer characters in Texas in the ‘90s are. 

To have neither of them experiencing religious dilemma or extreme self-hatred is surprising. 

Their relationship feels natural, not forced, especially during the third episode (‘Off with a Bang’) that shows they’re secretly dating.

They go to a queer gathering and slow dance to ‘Fade into You’ by Mazzy Star (one of the dreamiest ‘90s songs).

Unfortunately, that relationship takes a nosedive because of a chain of events, leading to Vincent standing up for himself and vocalizing how he’s Black and gay in Texas. 

He sets his fears aside to try to be there for Ben after his accident. 

Comparing this relationship to the one shown in the finale, it’s roses and butterflies. 

Fans clued right away into Kate and Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) being attracted to each other. 

Once they develop a friendship during 1994–1995, they are almost tied at the hip, with Mallory very protective of Kate. 

But there’s something off about Mallory, and it’s later revealed she knew more than she let on. 

Mallory wasn’t directly involved in Kate’s disappearance, but she didn’t piece everything together until after she was rescued, and she kept what she knew about what really happened to Kate a secret for her sake. 

This unfortunate detail makes their relationship slightly problematic, mainly in the sense of their connection being built on deception, guilt, and lies. 

Despite Kate’s disappointment in Mallory’s actions, she embraces her feelings, leading to them kissing after dancing outside together. 

There’s no fault in their build-up as a relationship, but Mallory isn’t the greatest character overall. 

It’s definitely good to note that Harley Quinn Smith is bisexual. 

Cruel Summer’s inclusion of any queer representation at all, avoiding the route of being aggressively straight, sets it apart from television of the era it evokes. 

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