Since its publication in 1813, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” has endured. The classic tale of enemies-to-lovers courtship in Regency-era England has been read, taught, adapted, and reimagined for two whole centuries, remaining largely unchallenged either because of the eternal truths therein, or because its ideals have remained aspirational to generations that have followed. The same dynamics apply even in the year 2022 to a group of queers, posits screenwriter-actor Joel Kim Booster with his first feature Fire Island, now streaming on Hulu.
It’s a well-known adage that queer people get to choose our family, so the 2022 version of the Bennetts is makeshift and racially diverse. Erin (Margaret Cho), a “lesbian scam queen” with a house in the Pines, hosts the annual gathering of five surrogate sisters: Howie (Bowen Yang), Noah (Kim Booster), Luke (Matt Rogers), Keegan (Tomás Matos), and Max (Torian Miller). However, it’s not a marriage proposal from a wealthy suitor that’s on the agenda this time: it’s casual sex. Noah is determined to fix up the virginal Howie with someone. Howie’s top prospect is Charlie (James Scully), whose snooty pal Will (Conrad Ricamora) haughtily repudiates the courtship. But the Jane Austen modernization tells only half the story here.
The original Bennetts faced antiquated 1813 problems such as fee tail, but the one thing they never had to confront was racism. Noah describes Fire Island as “gay Disney World” from the outset, but before the ferry even docks, Keegan reminds him of the well-worn mantra: “no fats, no femmes, no Asians.” That verbiage has all but vanished today thanks to apps such as Grindr finally taking a stand in 2018, more than a decade after activists such as Andy Quan and Tim Mansfield first surfaced the issue. But sexual racism is no less prevalent and no less beyond reproach today; any suggestion of it in some heteronormative circles can still attract reflexive bad-faith cries of “incel.”
Indeed, even a gay haven like Fire Island is no safe space for queers of color, who must brave hostility and constant reminders that they are unwelcome, all in service of the quixotic hope that they may find that rare, needle-in-the-haystack connection, even if it lasts only one night or often less.
Though Fire Island is comedic and fictional, the cliquishness, microaggressions, casual racism and sense of alienation it depicts are all too real. Gay Asians often regard each other as competition (more on that in a bit), but Howie and Noah share a bond made credible via a flashback of them waiting at a “cursed” gay brunch spot where they get hurled racist catcalls of “Jackie Chan” from a white diner seeking a refill of his bottomless mimosa. Via voiceover, Noah further points out instances of other such transgressions, and they just keep coming. Upon their arrival at the house shared by Charlie and Will for a party, they are interrogated by Braden (Aidan Wharton): “Excuse me. Can we help you?”
“That’s code,” Noah muses in voiceover. “He does not want to help us.”
“I think you may have the wrong house,” Braden says.
“Why would you think that?” Noah retorts.
This bit plays out repeatedly every time Noah pays a visit. There’s depressing truth in this all-too-familiar exchange, manifesting not just at social functions but also on the sales floors of Barneys New York, (RIP) among others.
Even a gay haven like Fire Island is no safe space for queers of color, who must brave hostility and constant reminders that they are unwelcome.
And then there’s the rice queen. Ask every gay Asian, and he’ll have an unsettling anecdote or ten involving those suffering a bout of yellow fever. Sadly, gay Asians often tolerate, indulge, and sometimes even fight over rice queens, all with the fatalistic resignation that beggars can’t be choosers. Long Yang Club, an organization for gay Asians and their fetishizers that boasts more than 35 chapters across four continents, upholds white supremacy and turns a blind eye to colonialist toxicity. Truly, no space is safe for gay Asians.
The film pays tribute to this unsettling truth in more ways than one. When Noah and Will first tentatively lay eyes on each other, Moses (Peter Smith) rudely inserts himself to make a move on Noah.
“Are you Korean?” Moses asks. “You look Korean.”
This is what they all do. They size us up before ascribing stereotypes to us. They assure us they know everything about people like us, our cultures, our “family values,” and whatnot. The ones without an ounce of self-awareness may even start running down the laundry list of gay Asians they have conquered—a classic sociopathic template.
Quick-thinking Noah grabs Will—a complete stranger at this point—and calls him “honey” in a bid to get himself out of this jam. Will is also a gay Asian: He must be able to relate. He must understand the assignment.
“Are you Filipino?” Moses now asks Will. “You look Filipino.”
True to his Mr. Darcy character, Will declines to humor Noah and extracts himself from the situation. It’s shocking that Moses doesn’t propose a threesome (as most rice queens would) though in a later scene he does indeed pitch it to Howie and Noah.
This is what they all do. They size us up before ascribing stereotypes to us.
But by Austen’s own design, a happy ending is in order. As a lifelong sucker for the romcom, I’ve never imagined such an ending could be afforded someone like me – that a gay Asian could be someone’s Elizabeth Bennett, or even someone’s Mr. Darcy. Until now, characters like me have seemingly been destined for a tragic life of loneliness, as depicted by Tsai Ming-liang.
I know it’s just a movie. I know that even Meg Ryan, the rom-com queen herself, divorced Dennis Quaid after a decade of marriage. But if movies are supposed to be escapism, there’s finally somewhere that I can escape to without having to imagine I were someone else. Through Fire Island, I can visualize, clearly, the prospect of a joyful existence where love and friendships abound, and that it’s within the realm of possibility for someone like me – a realization that leaves me in tears for hours after Noah and Will share a dance on the dock against the sunset as Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” takes us out.♦