The following contains spoilers for Julie and the Phantoms season 1.
Straight male affection in media has been handled with, charitably, mixed results. For every deeply moving film or TV show about the bonds between straight men and how much they care about each other, there are 20 others that conflate male intimacy with weakness or downright evil. Talking about manly feelings is one thing but physical affection? There’s still a strong stigma that straight men (and boys for the matter) who show too much physical affection are somehow out of the ordinary, immoral, or automatically seen as gay. For years this was fueled in the media with endless “gay panic” jokes featuring characters negativley reacting to any display of male on male affection. A prominent example comes in Friends’ “The One With The Nap Partners” where Joey and Ross accidentally fall asleep on each other and, upon waking up and discovering they’re cuddling, freak out and have to confirm that nothing gay happened.
This has slowly changed in recent years, with the idea of the “bromance” gaining traction in many films and TV shows. With a bromance two men being close in physical and emotional ways is seen as a positive but more often than not it’s played as a joke. Many comedies dominated by straight men feature gags involving guys hugging too long, expressing their feelings to the point of it becoming awkward, or others assuming they’re gay based on how close they are.
Scrubs’ ‘Guy Love’ song from “My Musical” is the epitome of this, the whole sequence based on the joke that Turk and J.D. are extremely close but have to clarify, “there’s nothing gay about it in our eyes.” After J.D. sings that Turk is “the only man who’s even been inside of me,” Turk has to hastily add, “whoa, whoa, I just took out his appendix.”
It’s better than gay panic to be sure, but it’s still not great. Straight men genuinely expressing their feelings for each other without being the butt of a joke are something that’s hard to find done well.
Much of this has roots in decades of societal pressures to appear masculine and it can be extremely harmful not just to straight men but queer men as well. When society tells you, as a straight man, that showing affection toward another man is a joke or flat out bad,It’s not a hard leap to assume gay men are at best a joke or at worst something to fear. Even worse if you’re a gay or queer man, who may internalize this by assuming there’s something inherently wrong with you because of your desire to express affection to other men.
That’s what makes Netflix’s Julie and the Phantoms stand out because it shows, without fanfare, an example of two straight men who are not only comfortable with showing affection to each other but openly embrace it. It also manages to take a scene that would normally be used as a joke at the expense of male affection and turns it completely on its head in a way that’s rarely been seen before.
Julie and the Phantoms is a musical comedy drama series that follows Luke, Reggie, and Alex, three teen musicians who died in the ‘90s but have come back in 2020 as ghosts. Together they form a band with Julie, a living teen, and whenever they perform the ghosts appear in the flesh. Luke sings and is lead guitarist, Reggie plays bass, and Alex drums (he’s also gay and we wrote a lot about him and his male love interest here.)
In episode seven of the show’s first season, Reggie and Alex tease Luke about his crush on Julie, one that’s quickly grown throughout the episodes. Luke tries to shrug it off but Reggie doesn’t let him, pointing out, “everyone can see the way you look at her when you sing. You guys ooze chemistry.”
Luke denies this, claiming, “I have chemistry with everybody that I sing with.” He then proceeds to demonstrate this talent by serenading Reggie with one of the show’s many love ballads, getting extremely close to his face.
For most shows and movies this would be the set up for a typical gay panic joke where at least one of the straight characters would be revolted at even the idea of being flirted at by another man. Reggie might pull away and be grossed out. If it was a bromance joke they might pretend to kiss for laughs.
Julie and the Phantoms, however, has Reggie caught off guard by Luke’s flirting… but he’s really into it! Luke turns the flirt all the way up, grabbing the back of Reggie’s head as if they’re about to kiss. Reggie is flustered but he’s not confused or scared… he’s smitten with all the affection Luke is aiming directly at him.
Alex, watching all of this with a smirk, says, “Wow. I see chemistry.”
Having a gay guy say this out loud doesn’t then make the two pull apart in disgust or lead to the punch line of a joke. Instead the show has Reggie, still flustered, stammer out,
“T-that was pretty hot.”
It even goes one step further! Luke kisses his fingers and puts them on Reggie’s lips, flustering him even more. Reggie isn’t angry about this, he likes it!
This scene is incredible because it’s played for comedy but not because the two straight guys have chemistry or they get REALLY close to kissing. The joke is simply that yes, Luke can have chemistry with anyone he wants and is very good at it. So good at it that Reggie, who before now has only shown romantic interest in women, falls under Luke’s charm. There is zero negative association with the affection between these two straight men, it’s extremely positive and sweet. The joke isn’t aimed at the affection; it’s aimed at Reggie for underestimating just how smooth Luke is.
Now one could point out that Luke and Reggie are extremely progressive for ‘90s straight boys but in a lighthearted and wholesome show like Julie and the Phantoms there’s really no need for them to be homophobic for historical authenticity. It’s a tween show about ghosts from the ‘90s forming a rock band. The fact they even mentioned Alex’s parents hadn’t accepted him for being gay is more realistic than would be expected.
After years of bromance scenes between straight men where their closeness is often played as a joke, this scene is a revelation. So often male affection has to be couched in jokes or “bits” to fly but here it’s perfectly normal. It gets to be part of a joke but it isn’t the butt of the joke. Reggie getting flustered by Luke’s charms is played as cute. (I should note it’s never flat out said Luke and Reggie are straight but the show emphasizes their attraction to women so I made the assumption.)
Seeing Julie and the Phantoms play this affectionate closeness 100% sincerely (as it does with so many of its plots) is heartening. Anyone who watches this is being shown that straight men, gay men, queer men, bi men, pan men, ALL THE MEN can be affectionate to one another and it’s not a bad thing. It’s just another way to interact with those closest to you.
The more we see of scenes like this, the better the world will be. It’ll hopefully lead to more acceptance of showing your affection to other men, which will hopefully make it easier for straight men to accept affection amongst queer men as well.
Julie and the Phantoms was already a delightfully charming series for including a queer romance with one of its lead characters but this is just another reason to love it. More normalization of straight male affection in media, please!