Welcome to the 16th installment of our 2021 Pride Month Series! Each day in June, we will be highlighting a different member of the LGBTQIA+ community who we think is a great example of representation and dynamic characterization. We will focus on fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike — the positive voices within the LGBTQIA+ community and mainstream media.
Alex and Willie are one of the two main couples from the Netflix series Julie and the Phantoms. The series is the most recent project from Kenny Ortega — the mind behind DCOM favorites like High School Musical and the Descendants trilogies — and has all the elements of his previous projects that fans loved: catchy tunes, tight choreography, loveable characters, and a storyline that draws you in. However, Julie and the Phantoms does something special that is not often seen in media for this demographic — the queer characters are primary characters whose relationship is integral to the plot.
At this point, if you have not yet watched Julie and the Phantoms you may want to step away from this article because there are spoilers ahead.
The first season of Julie and the Phantoms (available on Netflix now) tells the story of three teenage musicians, Luke, Reggie, and Alex, and their new friend and bandmate Julie. Seems pretty straightforward until you find out that the boys are dead, and have been for over 20 years. Picking up with the boys’ first appearance as ghosts in Julie’s garage/music studio, the nine-episode season follows the four teens as they become friends, form a band, learn more about being ghosts, deal with typical teenage drama, and more creating a multitude of storylines both minor and major across the season.
One of the major storylines that carries throughout follow Alex (Owen Patrick Joyner), the band’s drummer, who is gay. His band mates are clearly completely accepting of this, but a flashback shows viewers that Alex’s parents had been decidedly less accepting of his sexuality. However, the show doesn’t focus on that issue. They simply acknowledge it as part of the reality of many queer kids in the ‘90s before moving on to introduce Willie (Booboo Stewart) as Alex’s crush, pushing the story in a much more sweet and positive direction.
There is no doubt that the scene in which Alex meets Willie, the first ghost outside of the band he’s met, is supposed to be a meet cute. The boys literally run into one another on the streets as Willie is skating, and Alex is clearly in awe as Willie takes off his helmet and shakes out his hair. Then they move through some awkwardly perfect introductions and jump straight to teasing and flirting as Alex asks Willie all his questions about being a ghost and Willie lays out the upsides of being a ghost. There really isn’t any room for ambiguity about their feelings here, especially when, as Willie skates away, Alex tells the nearby human (who can’t see or hear him), “He’s cute, huh?”
From there the show keeps their blossoming relationship in the foreground of the story. First as Alex runs to Willie when things with the band get stressful, and we see an adorable moment — complete with handholding — where Willie helps Alex deal with his anxiety during a visit to a closed museum. Then later the budding romance becomes a key plot point when Willie offers to help the boys become visible to all humans as part of another storyline, and accidently gets them trapped under the control of Hollywood Ghost Club leader Caleb (Cheyenne Jackson). The whole situation is complicated, because Willie simply wanted to help and when it backfires he is forced to stay away from Alex so as not to make things worse. As you might have guessed, he can’t do it and despite Caleb’s clear threats of what will happen if he does, Willie risks his everything to check on Alex. This leads to one of the couple’s best moment in the show, as Alex asks, “Why should we listen to a word you say?” and Willie, in tears, responds, “Because I care about you, Alex.”
Then as if this moment was not enough, Willie later risks Caleb’s wrath again to get rid of the band who was standing in the way of the Julie and the Phantoms gig that might save the boys from Caleb and let them move to the other side, by driving the other band’s bus into the desert. Even with this, Willie can’t forgive himself for the trouble he got Alex into but when he comments that he should have just skated away when Alex first asked for help with becoming visible it is Alex’s turn for a sweet line as he responds, “I would have still followed you.”
As a show aimed at a younger audience the biggest display of affection onscreen is a hug, but Willie and Alex’s hug doesn’t leave viewers wishing for more. The chemistry between the two is obvious and the hug is prefaced by Willie telling Alex, “I’d do anything for you.” The moment feels emotionally huge for the couple, and even though it is a tame moment it carries a lot of weight. Especially when compared to the similar moment with the show’s other, straight couple — Julie and Luke — whose moment is sweet, but doesn’t carry nearly the same level of emotions.
In fact, part of what makes Willie and Alex’s relationship so special is that it is essentially the show’s primary romance in this first season. The manner in which Alex and Willie’s sexuality and relationship are treated as normal is refreshing in a show for this demographic. For kids and teens just learning about their own sexuality, this is a show that features a queer relationship that is treated as normal, and is given as much, or possibly even more, screen time than the “conventional” straight relationship. The romance is never hidden or shunted to the side in favor of the heteronormative options and their story isn’t centered around the fact that they are queer.
Netflix has yet to confirm a second season for the show, but given the cliffhanger of the first season fans certainly hope that a second season will be coming. If or when the second season does arrive it will be interesting to see where Alex and Willie go from here, especially now that Alex is out from under Caleb’s control. There will likely be some major drama, but also hopefully some more of those wonderfully sweet moments that made us fall in love with them. Be sure to check back tomorrow for another Pride Spotlight!