Coming of Age as Who we Are

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12-12-2020

Young, queer love is hard to capture on screen. Far too often, these narratives center a coming-out plotline, which favors defining identity over valuing the relationships that come to define queer coming-of-age. The problem with this kind of framing for young queer stories is that it constructs the transition into “queer adulthood” as only possible by means of coming out. And all too often, we decide to portray coming out stories as tragic, rife with internal and external struggle, and solemnly contemplative. But sometimes we get young, queer love right. And Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are (WRWWR) is such an instance.

The problem with this kind of framing for young queer stories is that it constructs the transition into “queer adulthood” as only possible by means of coming out.

WRWWR primarily follows the lives of Fraser, a fourteen-year-old boy who has just moved onto an American military base in Veneto, Italy, and Caitlin/Harper, one of Fraser’s newfound friends who struggles with their gender identity throughout the eight-episode miniseries. Fraser moves to Italy after one of his moms is named the new colonel in charge of the base, and his family’s presence seems to disturb the base the moment they arrive. To make matters more complex, the show is set in 2016—before, during, and after the election of President Donald Trump—and the politics of social conservatism permeates the ways in which WRWWR deals with nationalism, militarism, and queerness.

Some may recognize Guadagnino’s name because he directed the widely-celebrated Call Me By Your Name (CMBYN). There are certainly some parallels between CMBYN and WRWWR, namely their willingness to openly portray homosexuality on screen and their idyllic settings in Italy. But WRWWR actually improves on CMBYN in important ways. While CMBYN was certainly limited by its literary origins, the film still leaned into the negative affects of Elio and Oliver’s story. Elio “grows up” in CMBYN, in part, through the tragic exploration of his own sexuality. And while he never overtly comes out to his parents, Elio does have a confessionary moment with his father near the end of the film. CMBYN relies on adversity, (re)creating means by which queers come to age through anguish.

WRWWR is far more joyous. Despite the immense hardships that its characters face, identity-related and not, WRWWR maintains that queer coming-of-age need not be tragic. Instrumental to this effort to celebrate queer young adulthood is a rejection of the popular coming-out framework. There are no sit-downs and no confessions. Fraser and Caitlin/Harper may feel pressure to define who they are, but they consistently refuse to let that pressure affect their journeys as young queer people.

We Are Who We Are maintains that queer coming-of-age need not be tragic.

We should be more critical, then, of how young, queer love is presented to us. It feels as if we assume an inherent links exists between coming out and coming-of-age for the stories of young, queer people. But to do so is to render the act of queer becoming much more simplistic than it really is. Furthermore, the absence of an explicit coming-out narrative doesn’t necessitate negative outcomes for queer youth. Growing up queer is not (always) about coming out. It’s moreso all about simply figuring out who we want to be, which is a process that never truly ends.

Growing up queer is not (always) about coming out. It’s moreso all about simply figuring out who we want to be, which is a process that never truly ends.

WRWWR thus wonderfully distorts narratives of queer (be)coming-of-age and transformation by combatting the coming out imperative with a much deeper exploration of what it means to both struggle as a kid becoming an adult and as someone constantly coming to terms with their own queerness. The show is at its best when it lures its viewers into thinking that they have one of its characters figured out, only to flip the script entirely to demonstrate that coming-of-age is inherently un-figure-out-able.

WRWWR sets a new standard for portraying young, queer love on screen. It shows us that queer coming-of-age stories are often different from their straight(er) counterparts, but they are rarely more tragic or any less triumphant. Fraser can obsess over his mother’s hunky subordinate and set himself up to be disappointed in the absence of reciprocated desire, but that disappointment has nothing to do with him being gay or bi or whatever. Rather, Fraser’s doomed exploration of such desire is just another stepping stone for him to better understand who he is, or who he may be, as someone who doesn’t perfectly align with heteronorms.

And Caitlin/Harper may struggle with their gender identity throughout the miniseries, but why should such a question be definitively answered for us by the end of it? Why should such a question ever be definitively answered, especially if Caitlin/Harper is comfortable and content within such a space?

Coming of age has been sold to us as some kind of finite journey, one which starts at adolescence and ends around the time you’re twenty. And for the most part, queer coming of age tales have stuck to this paradigm, requiring coming out moments and unrequited love at every turn. But I would argue that coming of age never really ends, and queer people are constantly (re)engaging with strict definitions of gender and sexuality. So, there seems to really be no point in structuring these narratives around coming out or defining who we are. Coming out isn’t always necessary or traumatic. And sometimes the other young queer likes you back! To be young, queer, and in love is to be living and becoming.

Coming of age never really ends, and queer people are constantly (re)engaging with strict definitions of gender and sexuality.

And that is the beauty of We Are Who We Are: it never demands that its characters explain themselves. They are young. They are queer. They are living. And they are becoming. They are who they are. Who are we to demand anything more?

Article by Jack Mackey.

Art by Lauren Reitze.

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