Contributors: Jules, Brianna
Freeform’s Cruel Summer is the smash hit everyone is talking about (and watching: it’s Freeform’s biggest audience ever). From jaw-dropping plot twists to those 1990s fashion trends, it serves up nostalgia while pulling viewers into its central mystery. But one aspect of Cruel Summer that is refreshingly in the here-and-now is its portrayal and treatment of its queer characters. Ben, Vincent, Mallory, and Kate each have their own distinct journeys, and watching each of them slowly understand more about themselves and find their way to loving out loud is beautiful to watch, especially since the story unfolds over three of their teenage years. Actress Harley Quinn Smith (Mallory) notes how she felt about portraying such a broad spectrum of the LGBTQIA+ experience in an interview with GLAAD.
“It makes me so happy that the LGBTQ community is so represented in our show. Not just by one character but by multiple characters, which I feel like shows or films are sometimes like, ‘Oh, OK, there’s one queer person. That counts. Check.’ But with this, it’s a more realistic look into what a teenage life would be. No, there’s not just one queer person; there are many queer people. And maybe not all of those people are out, and the hope is everybody would feel comfortable to come out and feel safe. Obviously, that’s the most idealistic scenario, but that’s not the case all the time.”
With that in mind, we wanted to examine some of the moments that made Cruel Summer stand out for its onscreen queer representation. SPOILERS AHEAD for season 1 of Cruel Summer.
Kate and Mallory
If there is one thing queer television viewers are familiar with, it’s queer coding. It’s a common way for creative teams to signal that a character may not be straight to the audience, and it’s often shown during emotional or particularly tender moments. That first big moment for Kate and Mallory was Kate’s 18th birthday. We know by this point that Kate and Mallory are each other’s best friends, and Mallory is determined to give Kate her life back. Mallory shuts down the entire roller rink, allowing her and Kate to have it to themselves. Free of judgment and prying eyes, it’s a beautiful 90s teen skate party for two set to a gorgeous cover of “Today” by Olivia Holt (Kate). The party itself feels like a grand romantic gesture from a rom-com, and it’s accompanied by the two wearing ring pops and Kate selecting a bright rainbow boa to wear. It’s paralleled with an earlier birthday of Kate’s when her then-boyfriend Jamie gave her an expensive promise ring that she clearly was not ready for and did not want.
The rings, the gesture, and the rainbow clothing all point to something more, but the girls also get to really enjoy the day as the best friends they are at that moment. It’s not a forced romance scene, but a subtle romantic moment where the two have undeniable chemistry and get to let loose and just be themselves.
This is a continuing theme in Mallory and Kate’s friendship and, later, the beginnings of their romantic relationship: they are both freest when they are with each other. Although we don’t know it at the time, Kate dancing to “Zombie” in the headlights is for Mallory. They get high together in a goofy scene that reflects how even with their trauma, they are just kids. Mallory gives Kate the fun she’s missing from every other aspect of her life, but they can also discuss darker thoughts with each other without worrying about being judged.
Mallory and Kate meet because of therapy and bond through their own emotional traumas. While that trauma is vastly different for each girl, Mallory tries to help Kate through hers with a sympathetic ear and rash “therapeutic” ideas like burying a teddy bear at Martin’s grave and then smashing the headstone. The scene felt almost sinister when it begins since two teens sneaking into a graveyard in the middle of the night typically spells mischief. But here, it’s a moment of healing. Kate gets to release some of her pent-up rage in the quiet of a cemetery, and the closest to releasing it at Martin, she can get. Notably, she is able to let go with Mallory in the present. She trusts her to witness her anger and trauma, and the moment deepens the bond between the two. Therapy is a deeply personal thing to share with others, and Kate’s willingness to not only share her trauma with Mallory but actually play her parts of her taped sessions speaks volumes to the trust she has placed in Mallory. Kate isn’t willing to share these with anyone else, especially details about Annabelle, something she cannot remember.
It’s that trust that allows Kate to forgive Mallory when it is revealed that Mallory knew Kate’s secret about not being in the basement throughout her captivity with Martin. It’s clear that Mallory feels horribly guilty about letting Kate down and has lived with that knowledge through the majority of their time together. Even though we can see the heartbreak on Mallory’s face, she’s still willing to leave Kate alone if that’s what Kate wants, with Mallory having always been the biggest champion for Kate’s autonomy over her own life after having it taken away for so long. Kate’s response shows compassion for Mallory while also expressing her own desire to keep the friend who has gotten her through her darkest days.
It all leads up to the most joyous moment in the season: Kate and Mallory kissing by the overpass as “Only Happy When It Rains” by Garbage plays. This moment was a beautiful culmination of truths being spoken and Kate finally feeling as if she’s been set free from the weight of everything to do with Martin. She’s faced Jeanette and learned (some of) the truth of the situation, righted that wrong in front of the press, and is riding high with elation over possibly being able to really move forward on her own terms. It’s also massively important for Kate as a sexual assault survivor to have complete control over the moment. We see her look at Mallory, pause, and confidently move forward to kiss her.
For Mallory, it’s the moment she realizes her best friend loves her back in the same way she loves her, and the look of surprised bliss on her face feels like a puzzle piece fitting into place. It’s a moment of happiness and joy, of two teens being free and wholly themselves as they dance in the middle of a deserted road. As showrunner Tia Napolitano said in an interview with The Dipp, “I really wanted them to kiss during a time of joy, and not a time of trauma, or sadness, or therapy. It’s Kate’s happy ending.”
Kate and Mallory go on very different journeys throughout season 1. Mallory loses one of her best friends in Jeanette but gains another in Kate, with whom she bonds deeply within a very short amount of time. Mallory is also on a journey of discovering her own sexuality, as Smith said when discussing the character in the same interview with GLAAD.
“She never really comes out to anybody, but it has always been clear to me. Even before I had discussions with the showrunner, in the beginning, I always knew that Mallory was absolutely queer. Such a big part of her identity is her queerness.”
Meanwhile, Kate fully becomes the opposite of what her mother wanted her to be, finally making her own identity. She goes from being the All-American blonde, popular, rich teen dating a football player to the grunge music-loving queer kid falling in love with the school “burnout” that her mother hates. She’s finally free to be herself, and we love to see it.
Ben and Vincent
Ben and Vincent represent a different queer experience in the series, and their story together is beautiful in its own way. Unlike Kate and Mallory, Ben and Vincent are in an established romantic relationship during the majority of the series (albeit secret). We, as the audience, discover this when they find an underground gay club to go to, simply wanting to find a place where they can dance together that is safe for them. In the car outside, gathering the courage to enter, Vincent confesses he’s nervous. But Ben reassures him that he’s ready for anything as long as they’re together. They enter together, and they both visibly exhale as they are surrounded by queer adults like them. As they sway to “Fade Into You” by Mazzy Star, the bartender is tipped off that two underage kids are there, and she declines to kick them out, saying, “This is a safe space, for us, for them … ain’t too many of those. Let them dance; I just won’t serve them.”
We don’t often get a scene like this one on television for men and boys. It’s emotional, tender, and full of young romance and vulnerability. They don’t speak much, but they are given a safe haven to explore their emotions for one another in the open; no hiding, no fear, just the promise of a new relationship. It’s also important in establishing that there WAS a queer community for them to find even in their small town. Ben mentions searching forums to find this place, which parallels how Kate used the newly surfable Web to find a trauma message board. These teenagers might be living in small-town Texas in the 90s, but they are beginning to find a more welcoming world through online connections.
Ben and Vincent’s initial connection is just as deep as that moment, which we got to see in a flashback scene where Vincent nervously trying to talk to his crush comes out as him bringing up their dead mothers in an endearing, relatable moment of word vomiting. Everything about this scene felt like an homage to the typical high school experience. They seemingly have only one thing in common, their deceased mothers, and at first, it’s awkward as they each try to figure out how emotional they can be with each other. Slowly though, they open up, and much like any teenager with a crush, aren’t willing to put it into words. Instead, they share just the gentlest of touches, clasping pinkies together in an unspoken moment to tell each other that, “Yes, I’m queer too, I see you, I accept you.” The moment is made even more emotional when Ben quietly reveals that he never got to tell his mother he was queer before she passed away and that he wishes he had been brave enough at that moment. Even if they hadn’t been romantically involved after that, it was clearly a moment of total surrender for both boys as they revealed themselves to each other.
This is what makes Ben’s injury and Vincent’s attempt to help him all the more heartbreaking. As Ben is being loaded into an ambulance after the car accident that Jamie caused, Vincent rushes forward and grabs his hand. As he says later, all he was thinking at that moment was how to be there for the boy he loved. Ben’s football career was everything to him, and it was clear to everyone that that dream was over. But Ben sees that they are surrounded by other people, and in a moment of pure fear, he pushes Vincent away. It drives a wedge between them and causes them to break up. When Ben later apologizes to Vincent after talking to Jamie, realizing he was punishing the wrong person for his anger over losing his football dream and anxiety around what being out would mean, it’s clear that the hurt isn’t going to vanish immediately. But Ben recognizes this and says he wants to earn Vincent’s trust back, ending on a note of understanding if not outright forgiveness just yet (hopefully, we get to see this in season 2!).
Ben and Vincent’s story is notable in queer representation, particularly for a show taking place in the 1990s, because of the show’s willingness to give these characters allies. They don’t face serious persecution or backlash on screen (though it’s certainly alluded to and a valid fear given the setting), but they do have friends who accept them for their queerness. Jeanette sees Vincent and Ben together and is quick to reassure Vincent that she fully supports him and wants him to be happy. She continues to be a person Vincent can talk about Ben to throughout the series. Additionally, the show flips the script by having Jamie, who in many ways is an example of how toxic masculinity warps teenage boys in particular, be supportive of Ben’s sexuality. Following the accident, Jamie tells Ben he should apologize to Vince and that Vince doesn’t deserve to be shut out, solidifying Jamie’s acceptance and support of his friend.
Overall, Cruel Summer is an example of how LGBTQIA+ representation can be woven into stories in a realistic yet ultimately optimistic way. Napolitano echoed this sentiment in an interview with Decider, saying, “We wanted to honor the homophobia of the time and the place being the ’90s in Texas, but also we’re making TV for today. So to have this other queer relationship that isn’t a coming out story, that isn’t sad on another level, but it’s just pure and honest and just lays it out there for you, is great.”
The series isn’t naïve about what being a queer kid in the 1990s in Texas would be like. We see it in Ben’s terror of being seen in public holding Vincent’s hand and in how Jeanette must reassure Vincent she supports him when she sees the two of them together. But Cruel Summer also lets its characters have joy and love instead of focusing solely on intolerance. We’re aware of the context of the historical moment, but we don’t actually watch active homophobia or bullying on screen. The fear of discovery and other’s reactions is there, but they’re allowed to just be kids who are falling in love and finding their identities, both in regards to their sexualities and personalities. That is what makes Cruel Summer special and why we are excited to see where the series goes in season 2.
Cruel Summer is available on Hulu now, with season 2 hitting screens next year.