Coming-of-age is messy, especially when you are queer. From the inner confusion and angst, to the euphoria of connection, leading to the fear and pain of rejection. Representing this tangled web of emotions on screen can thus be a challenge. How can the struggle of queer coming-of-age be represented truthfully and authentically, while also providing an empowering story from which vulnerable teenagers can draw strength?
Netflix’s 2021 release Young Royals attempts just this. We follow 16-year-old Prince Wilhelm (Edvin Ryding), the second son in a fictionalized version of the Swedish royal family. After having to publicly apologize for embarrassing himself in a bar fight, he is sent to an elite boarding school. Initially resistant to this change, his mind is changed when he meets outsider student Simon (Omar Rudberg). Despite their differences, the two connect and soon a friendship blooms into something more.
While also tracing the storylines of characters beyond the two romantic leads, the show writers chose to place the queer relationship at the beating heart of the narrative. This choice gives queer audiences of the show the chance to see themselves as protagonists rather than as side characters. Through this set-up, the narrative plays with and navigates around the tragic tropes so often found in depictions of queer relationships such as forbidden love, a secret relationship, and being outed.
The word “realistic” has often been used in reviews and commentaries of the show. This description is, on the surface, surprising. The lives of Sweden’s teenage nobility are of course not an immediately relatable topic. However, upon viewing the show, the word starts to appear remarkably fitting. Extreme and largely unrelatable settings are common in teen drama; we see this in shows such as Elite and Gossip Girl. Even those set in more everyday high schools such as Riverdale and Euphoria follow extreme plotlines, involving the likes of gangs and murder, dramatized in ways that feel worlds apart from typical teenage reality. While there is nothing inherently wrong with these shows and the stories they depict can have value, they miss out on a certain truth and sincerity that more down-to-earth teen dramas achieve. In fact, during early talks for Young Royals, head writer Lisa Ambjorn was encouraged to write a murder into the plot, but she chose to pivot away from this idea, opting instead for a story that, while existing in a dramatized and exaggerated version of reality, stays within the borders of plausibility.
A large part of Young Royal’s realism is owed to the casting of real teenagers to play the roles. Ryding, for example, was 17 at the time of filming. This immediately sets an authentic tone for the series as we see teenage acne, body-types, and mannerisms represented on screen with ease. The characters are seen completing mundane activities; they re-wear outfits, experience anxiety and self-consciousness, do homework, scroll through social media, and eat dinner with their families. This grounding in reality gives the series a sense of universality such that despite the exaggerated boarding school setting, the show remains an authentic representation of teenage life.
Furthermore, the characters are not reduced to two-dimensional tropes. Where Felice (Nikita Uggla) is set up to be the stereotypical mean girl, soon it is subverted through her displays of genuine kindness. August (Malte Gårdinger), the main antagonist of the show, is not reduced to a simple villain role. In fact, some of the most sincere lines of the show are given to him when he speaks to Wilhelm about his experiences with grief and later encourages him to follow his heart. Each character’s perspective can be followed easily and sympathetically. This level of empathic storytelling allows the characters to be complex and fully-realized.
Additionally, the show is sympathetic to the different paces at which people are able to come to terms with their queerness. Simon is at ease with his sexuality: he states confidently that he is gay in episode one. Wilhelm, on the other hand, needs more time. We see Simon allowing Wilhelm to initiate things, never wanting to force him into something before he’s comfortable with it. Throughout the course of the season, he never labels himself. At the point where he is forced to make a statement about his sexuality his reaction is that he doesn’t want to say anything. In not labeling Wilhelm, the focus of the story is shifted away from dissecting his identity and seeing it as something “other.” What’s more important is simply that he wants to be with Simon. Rojda Sekersöz, conceptual director for Young Royals, said in an interview that “at some point you have to take a stand about reproducing certain stories around LGBTQ+ characters, and instead let them just be people and characters who ‘happen to’ have a certain sexual orientation or identity. But that’s not at the forefront, it’s there as part of their character.” All this encourages teenagers not to be frightened of not knowing or understanding their sexuality, but to embrace themselves as a person who exists as more than just a label. This shift away from the common “coming-out” narrative therefore normalizes queer attraction and speaks to the feeling that no-one is entitled to your identity.
Queer teenagehood can be an isolating time. For many, it is marked by loneliness, and the feeling that you are behind your straight peers, unable to make meaningful romantic connections. This is why the representation of queer coming-of-age stories is so important: it helps queer teenagers know that the spark of connection they seek is possible. This immediate connection is seen in the electric chemistry between Wilhelm and Simon. Wilhelm is instantly attracted to Simon in a way he cannot place. He wants to talk to him whenever he has the chance, and goes out of his way to be around him. This attraction bleeds into confusion and hesitation. “I’m not like that,” says Wilhelm, the day after their first kiss. It is an obvious lie and denial tactic, but it is a real feeling nonetheless. Shortly after this scene, we see Wilhelm in the dorm corridor at night where he sees a male and female student kissing. He stares, confused, as if to say Why don’t I want that? This portrait of confusion is an important step in Wilhelm’s self-discovery. He is confronted with the fact that he does want Simon and that to want him is the most natural feeling in the world.
Once Wilhelm and Simon are together, their intimacy is represented with a tenderness that reflects the awkwardness and apprehension mixed with the pure joy specific to first love. The directorial choices are highly sensory: the camera lingers on embraces and touch, and these scenes are filled with a warm, golden glow. There is a clear sense that these characters draw strength and comfort from being in the presence of the other. It comes as no surprise that an intimacy coordinator, Sara Aarhuius, worked closely with the actors and directors to choreograph these scenes. This portrayal of healthy intimacy is empowering as it exists in the gap left by so many teen series, where showrunners too often resort to toxic dynamics between love interests, especially when the characters are queer and responding to the pressures of heteronormative society.
The honeymoon period ends abruptly with a violation of privacy, and Wilhelm and Simon return to the bitter side of reality. Wilhelm is forced to make a choice between duty to his family and his desire to be with Simon. In this moment he succumbs to the pressure of the systemically homophobic monarchy. His denial, while painful, is distinctly familiar. It represents the compulsive obligation to conform to familial expectations that so many queer people feel. The silencing of Wilhelm throughout the storyline is stark and tragic. In their first conversation, Simon grills Wilhelm about his lack of participation in a lesson: “Why didn’t you say anything?” Wilhelm responds: “I’m not allowed to talk about politics.” In his statement denying his relationship with Simon, he adds, “Everyone should be allowed to live as gay or straight or however they want.” For those who know that the statement is false the subtext is clear: It is allowed for everyone except for me. While this level of scrutiny and surveillance is more extreme than most queer viewers would ever experience, the basis is still very real, and Wilhelm’s defensive response makes for a true-to-life story.
However, in this moment, the seeds of change are planted within Wilhelm. Before his decision to deny his sexuality, Simon encourages him to find agency over his life: “No matter what, they can’t dictate what you say.” When Wilhelm looks unconvinced he adds “we didn’t do anything wrong.” Later he affirms Wilhelm again, saying simply “You’re brave”. This feeling of we didn’t do anything wrong, of having to defend yourself for the crime of loving someone, or of being made to feel ashamed over something that came so naturally to you, is intensely resonant amongst queer people. In this case, the dramatized setting in Young Royals increases the stakes of being outed. For Wilhelm, his status means the whole world is watching. This in itself is not relatable, but reflects the very real feeling of being outed, and the feeling of your world collapsing because of it.
This is only the start of Wilhelm’s story. With season two confirmed, we know that his character will only grow from here. On discovering he’s been betrayed by a family member, his perspective changes. There is a moment of silence, of near tranquility. We see him standing devastated and alone. But after a moment, something in his expression changes, morphing from that of pain to that of determination. The scene cuts to the sound of a match being ignited.
In the next scene, we see the culmination of this shift: Wilhelm chooses Simon, he choses love. With a public, 30 second-long embrace and a private declaration of love, Wilhelm promises change. It is in this catharsis of realization and personal growth that the first season ends. Wilhelm walks away from Simon, to a car which will take him back home to the palace. Once inside, he looks into the camera, defiant. His look seems to say this isn’t over yet. A song plays in the background. The lyrics are a battle cry: Revolution…revolution…revolution.