This article contains spoilers for Julie and the Phantoms season 1.
For all the improvements in queer representation in children’s entertainment there are still only a few shows that have queer characters and even less have them take center stage. We’ve seen a growing number of queer main cast members in recent years but many of them (such as She-Ra and Adventure Time) only confirmed their leads were queer in the final episode.
Others have queer leads but their queerness isn’t a major factor in the show. There’s of course something to be said for a character being queer and it just being a small part of who they are. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a great example of this casual queerness and the romance between Benson and Troy is delightful. For audiences starved for representation however, there’s often a desire for a character’s queerness to be more prominent. For it not to be something quietly revealed and then hardly mentioned again or only given small scenes in a few episodes. As much as queer people are more than just their queerness, it’s nice to see that part of themselves which is so often neglected in media given prominence.
Wonderfully, Netflix’s Julie and the Phantoms is not only making its queer characters central to the plot but also making their queerness very important to it.
The musical comedy drama series follows three teen musicians, Luke, Reggie, and Alex who died in the ‘90s after eating some bad hot dogs just before they played the biggest gig of their lives. In 2020 the three appear as ghosts to teen Julie and together they form a band, the titular Julie and the Phantoms, and whenever they perform the ghosts can be seen by the world. It’s a charmingly wholesome series that features a serialized plot across its nine-episode first season.
One of the main stories running throughout follows Alex (played with much charm by Owen Patrick Joyner), the bands drummer, who’s also gay. His band mates are 100% accepting of it but the show wisely establishes in the second episode that before he died Alex’s parents hadn’t accepted him. There are many valid stories to be told about queer kids dealing with unaccepting parents but Julie and the Phantoms simply uses this to acknowledge the reality of many queer kids in the ‘90s before moving on to something far more sweet and uplifting. Giving Alex a crush.
In episode three, ‘Flying Solo,’ Alex is on his own in Hollywood when, after passing through living people, he collides into a teen skater boy. As the boy takes his helmet off in slow motion, Alex is immediately smitten and it’s not subtext. A sick guitar riff plays, which Netflix’s subtitles describe as “seductive rock music,” and Alex’s mouth is agape. The skater boy introduces himself as Willie (Booboo Stewart, turning in an endearingly warm performance) and the whole scene is a perfect meet cute. The two share some awkwardly sweet introductions, Willie casually revealing he died in a skating accident, Alex sharing his nagging questions about why he became a ghost, and they even share some jokes about Alex dying by hot dog.
In this sweet and adorable exchange, filled with longing looks between the two, Willie explains the upsides to ghost life.
“Being a ghost lets me do my favorite thing… skate anywhere I want without getting busted. I mean, bro, when I’m not skating here or the beach, I’m skating Justin Bieber’s empty pool.”
Alex responds, clearly drinking in Willie’s looks, with a simple, “Wow!” before admitting he has no idea who Justin Bieber is. (Remember, he died in the ‘90s.)
What’s so great about their meeting is that there’s no room for ambiguity. Even if you somehow missed the obvious chemistry between the two, and Willie giving Alex the cute nickname “hot dog”? When Willie skates away Alex tells a human who can’t see him, “he’s cute, huh?”
It’s refreshing to see something so simple between two queer teens, sharing the kind of scene straight characters get all the time. Julie and the Phantoms isn’t the first live-action series to have queer teens, Disney’s Andi Mack previously gained a lot of positive attention for having a queer character in its cast. Still, it’s wonderful to see just how much screen time Alex and Willie get over the course of Julie and the Phantoms’ fist season.
Other series might have had that scene I described above be the big gay moment of the show and then have Alex and Willie’s romance fade into the background but this is not the case for Julie and the Phantoms. The two share major scenes in all but one of the episodes for the rest of the series.
They share cute moments, like when the two visit a museum and we get some cute hand holding and a heartwarming moment of Willie helping Alex with his anxiety by encouraging him to yell a lot. Their romance forms a core part of a major overarching plot, as Willie is under the control of the Hollywood Ghost Club and accidentally puts the three ghosts under the control of its leader Caleb (Cheyenne Jackson, who’s clearly having a blast playing the villain). If they don’t join Caleb (who tempts Alex with some cute teen boy ghosts) they’ll disappear forever. Willie and Alex are the main focus of this plot, Willie even risking his soul to check in on Alex even though Caleb has warned him to stay away. Alex is hurt that Willie seemingly betrayed them, accusing,
“Why should we listen to a word you say?”
Willie, in tears, responds, “because I care about you, Alex.”
Like any good teen romance, this is the moment where you think it’s all over but the two’s feelings manage to overcome all obstacles.
Willie can’t forgive himself for what he did, saying he should have just skated away before he told Alex about the club but Alex lovingly responds, “I would have still followed you.”
None of these scenes are short and the two’s romance is given pretty much the same amount of focus and screen time as the show’s other big romance, Luke and Julie, although Alex and Willie sadly don’t get a love duet. Both those romances are afforded the show’s biggest display of physical affection however, a hug, and I’d argue Alex and Willie’s hug feels bigger. Willie is risking his very soul to save Alex and his friends, what’s more romantic than that? He even tells Alex, “I’d do anything for you.” The hug that comes after that is charged with emotion. It feels huge.
Alex and Willie’s relationship is very tame but that’s what makes it so welcome. Speaking from experience, when I was a young kid figuring out my sexuality (I’m pansexual now) the only queer media I had access to was meant for adults. It was good to have but as a young teen the amount of sex or adult themes that were in many of those films was a lot for me. I, and many other queer kids and teens, could have used something as innocent as what you’d see in a standard Disney film. Julie and the Phantoms has given us that and more with Alex and Willie.
They’re not shunted to the side and their queerness isn’t deemphasized or hidden until the last possible moment. They get to be two gay boys with crushes on each other given a lot of screen time with room to grow if the show is given more seasons.
We even get Alex showing his queerness off in very relatable interactions with his (seemingly) straight band mates. When Reggie makes the off handed joke, “girls, am I right?”
Alex just laughs and replies, “No.”
Any queer person who’s hung out with cisgender straight guys knows how Alex feels in that moment of heteronormativity.
It’s also an unexpected delight that the acknowledgement of Alex’s parents falling out with him over his sexuality is the only time the queer characters experience hardship because they’re queer. The rest of the time they only have to deal with regular teen issues or fantastical problems. Again, queer characters being given storylines that reflect real life struggles are very important but often times it feels like queer characters are included in a show solely to go through hardship only to maybe get some happiness way later in a series’ run.
I appreciate Julie and the Phantoms for showing that making queerness a focus of the story doesn’t mean it has to involve hardship or discrimination. That, along with its commitment to making the queer characters prominent in the storyline and their romance given the same level of focus as its straight one, makes Julie and the Phantoms a welcome and needed addition to kids TV.
By the by, a love duet between Alex and Willie next season would make it even better.