Young Royals: To BL or NOT to BL?

I recently finished watching Young Royals. In this post, I want to review it for you and address whether it is a BL or not. As you know, I have a very strict definition of what a BL is, so read on to find out if I consider this to be the first Western BL… or not.

Season 1 Synopsis [Spoiler Alert]

After an embarrassing outburst forces him to issue a public apology, young prince Wilhelm is sent to an exclusive private boarding school, where his older brother Prince Erik, heir-apparent, graduated from. The two brothers are shown to be close. At the school, his brother introduces Wilhelm to their second cousin, August, telling him that he is family and he should trust him. During the welcoming ceremony, choir boy Simon catches the eye of Wilhelm. After being taunted, Simon sings proudly (and loud). Simon, who is poor and the son of an immigrant, is a “no-res kid”, one of the very few students who does not live on campus. He is also openly gay. Wilhelm also sees Felice, who he knows from pre-school. August describes Felice as “modern royalty”, as her parents are rich and proclaims he plans to marry her. However, Felice has a crush on Wilhelm. As soon as the two boys meet, it is clear that there is a certain attraction between them, which comes to a heading when Felice invites Simon to a movie night with the rest of the residents. Simon and Wilhelm kiss. When Erik passes away in a car accident, Wilhelm becomes the heir apparent. Wilhelm finds himself in a untenable position, divided between his royal duty and what his heart wants. In a moment of blind lust and passion, Simon and Wilhelm make love, but August accidentally sees them and decides to film them. Later, when Wilhelm humiliates August by telling everyone else the truth about his finances (earlier we learn August is really poor. His father lost everything before killing himself), he decides to take revenge on Wilhelm by releasing the video. As both Wilhelm and Simon’s entire life begins to unravel, the two lovers most make the painful decision of ending their relationship to save their reputation (well, really the Prince reputation). In the final scene, Wilhelm decides that he can’t be separated from Simon and the two reconcile in front of other students in the school. Felice, who helps Wilhelm find out that it was August who released the video, becomes closer to Wilhelm, while August ends up having sex with Sarah, Simon’s sister. The ending is upbeat but leaves open the possibility of a second season.

Analysis

From episode 1, I felt this show was setting itself apart from other teen romantic dramas and gay dramas. First, unlike Glee or other teenage series with gay characters, the focus of the show was clearly the boy’s romance. Thought this is pretty much normal in a BL, it is unheard of in the West. Second, unlike most Western gay dramas, this series felt innocent and fresh. There is a scene in the first episode in which Wilhelm covers Simon’s mouth. It is erotic, but simple, and it reminded me a lot of Love Sick. In a later episode, Simon kisses Wilhelm, only to be interrupted by a loud noise. At first, Wilhelm pulls away and says no. But when Simon walks away from Wilhelm, he pulls Simon back towards him and kisses him. It is a sweet, scene that really came as a surprise to me (I expected Wilhelm to say, “I am not gay”).

Simon is my favorite character. While we can question his actions, we never question his motivations. Omar Rudberg is amazing as Simon. Omar is also half-Venezuelan, and hearing him talk in Spanish surprised me. He speaks Spanish like a native speaker, which I am guessing he is.

Simon is not a bad guy, he is just trying to fit in and trying his best to survive in a school where he doesn’t feel that he belongs. His only friend in school is Wilhelm. There is no fag hag (thankfully). Simon dreams of getting out of the “slum” where he lives. It is really not a slum, but it is a poor area of town.

In some ways, Young Royals is a story of characters who feel trapped and/or lack freedom. Simon feels like the world he lives is not where he belongs. Wilhelm feels like the school is a prison (and August is the prison guard). Ironically, as a non-resident, Simon has more freedom than Wilhelm, yet both feel trapped. Sarah, Simon’s sister, feels trapped inside her own world, as she suffers from a learning disability (ADHD? Asperger?). Felice, the modern royalty, is also not free to pursue what she wants and ends up rebelling against her mom. August may seem like the bully, but in reality he is only acting out. He is miserable. His dad killed himself, his family has lost everything and he really has no friends. He is trapped in his own lies.

One of my favorite scenes in the series is when Wilhelm confronts August about his betrayal. “I trusted you”, he quietly tells August. It is heart wrenching and it almost made me tear up. Edvin Ryding, who plays Wilhelm, is a good actor and this scene shows it. Another great scene is when Wilhelm is in the soccer field, drunk and high, and he calls Simon to tell him that “everything is all fake” but that “I like you and that’s not fake”.

Sarah is the only character that reminded enigmatic all the way to the end. She is really strange. Her relationship with her brother is not as sweet as I expected it would be. Her decision to blackmail August and then go to bed with him, even after she knows what he did to his brother, is puzzling. Perhaps, she is seeking revenge in a strange way? All we know is that she did not share what she knew about August’s betrayal with her brother and that makes her a character with questionable motives.

The ending suggests that a second season is planned. Wilhelm decides to show affection towards Simon in public again. August has sex with Sarah. Felice becomes everyone’s best friend (except August, of course). None of the stories end in a way that suggests finality. Unless Netflix pulls the plug for some non-creative reason, the second season will happen.

I am curious how the writes will handle this second season. If Wilhelm comes out and decides to live an open life, how will the Swedes react knowing the future of the monarchy is doomed? As the heir-apparent, Wilhelm would have normally married a woman, perhaps another royal, and carried out the royal lineage. Clearly, there are other ways he can perform his royal duty. It would be interesting to see how far Young Royals will take this issue.

Is this BL?

As many of you know already, I tend to define BL as being non queer-centric, homoerotic romance, that often has fantastic elements. I have also emphasized that at least in Thai BL, the stories are written by women and that this is important because it makes Thai BL an idealized homoerotic romance that is not told from an experiential point of view. Lastly, BL is derived from YAOI and has certain tropes that the viewers expect. Does Young Royals fit the BL mold? I think to some degree it does. I would define it in fact as a “Western BL”.

The script for Young Royals was written by three women. Perhaps, this is why the romance seems so reminiscent of the romantic scenes we see in Thai BL. I have read reviewers of this series who are clearly not familiar with BL claim that what they loved the most is how causal the romance here is. As yet another review puts it, “There are secret eye glances, smiles, hand holding, little kisses… my heart!”1. Or as a YouTube user says, “Finaly a gay drama, without everything being over sexualised [sic] or unrealistic”. Of course, we Bl watchers are used to these homoerotic romantic scenes. Finally, BLs in general takes us away from real life and into a world of fantasy. Here, we are living vicariously the fantasy of many little boys and girls of having a prince fall in love with you or as another youtuber puts it, we are used to seeing the prince fall in love with the girl but here, he falls in love with the boy.

To really define this series as a BL, we need to address two more issues. Is the series queer-centric? Is it derived from YAOI?

While one of the main conflicts that drives the plot is Wilhelm’s patriotic duty to continue the Royal line by marrying a woman and having kids, which comes into direct conflict with his homosexual romantic desires, the main focus of the series is in the homoerotic romance between the two leads, and not the “identity” crisis that either of them suffers. In fact, little time is spent in the characters exploring their sexual identities.

The last important issue is whether the series characters conforms to seme/uke dynamics. BLs derive from YAOI manga and a seme/uke dynamic is, technically speaking, a pre-requisite for a BL. While I think one could make a case for Wilhelm as the pursuer (Seme) and Simon as the pursued (Uke), other dynamics are not presented the same way we see them in BL or they are the opposite: Simon rescues Wilhelm from a drug overdose (which makes him the Seme), he also initiates the first kiss (a Seme thing), while it is Wilhelm who seemingly holds the position of power (something we associate with Semes, though not always), while it seems that Simon is not good in sports (Uke thing). Overall, I thing this series fails to characterize either Simon or Wilhelm as an Uke or Seme.

Interestingly, there is a scene in which Wilhelm hugs Simon from behind, the classic manga trope of Asunaro daki, though I think this gesture is pretty common all over the world. The gesture has a special meaning in Asia and it is common in BLs. However, one gesture, a BL does not make.

Bottom line: is this a BL? It is up to you, if you as a BL fan want to consider this as a BL. However, from a technical stand point, I think this does not follow the strict definition of a BL, at least the way they have been come to be known as in Asia. It was written by woman, it is not queer-centric, the main focus is the homoerotic romance between the leads, and it has a rough, basic outline of a seme-uke dynamic, and yes, it even has an Asunaro daki, but it is not a true BL because it lacks clearly defined seme-uke dynamics. In some sense however, this is more a BL than other series and movies often attributed to the BL genera, like Brokeback Mountain and Call me by your name. I would consider it a Western BL, so as not to confuse it with a classic or Asian BL.

Would I recommend it?

Absolutely. Whether you are an avid BL watcher or a casual watcher of BL, you will enjoy this series. The chemistry between the leads is outstanding, the romance and homoerotic scenes are perfectly shot, and reminded me of Love Sick, with the gentle but erotic hand holding, and the Asunaro daki. The secondary characters are all interesting and teenage angst is as real as it can be. A prince falling in love with a commoner is every little gay boy fantasy (or at least it was mine). This show, and its characters, will stay with you, long after you watch it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
  1. https://thegeekiary.com/young-royals-season-1-review-a-young-queer-prince-falls-in-love-drama/98144

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