The Politician is an amalgamation of a lot to things, mostly the explosion of teen films in the late ’90s. The new Netflix series is equal parts Election, Cruel Intentions, and Jawbreaker, serving as both an ode to those touchstones and a parody of them, thanks to creator Ryan Murphy’s well-documented reverence for flamboyance and nostalgia.
The show’s central character, Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), is an overachiever with political aspirations in the vein of Tracy Flick, made famous by Reese Witherspoon in her breakout role. Meanwhile, the dalliances with murder and blackmail—as well as the very adult posturing of its teen protagonists against the backdrop of an affluent high school—smack of Jawbreaker, Drop Dead Gorgeous, and Cruel Intentions.
All these films had an undeniably queer aesthetic, but if they had queer characters, they were often relegated to supporting or ancillary roles. The Politician, on the other hand, is so abundantly and seamlessly queer that practically no one in it is 100% straight.
Payton is bi, his rival Astrid (Lucy Boynton) is sexually fluid, his one-time running mate Skye (Rahne Jones) is gender nonconforming, and his campaign manager, James, is played by trans actor Theo Germaine, though the character’s gender identity is never discussed. Even Payton’s mom, Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow), is having an affair with her horse trainer Brigitte (lesbian tennis legend Martina Navratilova).
Starting in 1999, Hollywood churned out an impressive slate of teen films that were far darker and sexier than the John Hughes classics of the previous decade. While my adolescent self and my peers sought versions of ourselves on screen back then, we barely resembled these 20-something (and sometimes 30-something) adults and their complex, seductive machinations. Still, I personally devoured any and every hint of queerness in them, identifying with characters that briefly popped up to assuage my own sense of invisibility. They were usually funny and attractive, and had at least one good line or scene. Their presence felt incredibly important.
So, in honor of The Politician’s effortless queerness, here are 10 cinematic teens who paved the gay way.
Christian Stovitz in Clueless (1995)
Played by Justin Walker, this disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde–reading, Streisand ticket–holding friend of Dorothy was the cakeboy of many a mid-’90s gay dream. Poor Cher (Alicia Silverstone) just doesn’t see the signs—as bestie Dionne (Stacey Dash) observes, “The boy can dress”—but somehow Dionne’s boyfriend Murray (Donald Faison) is more worldly in those matters.
Courtney Shayne in Jawbreaker (1999)
Gay writer-director Darren Stein’s cult classic basically kicked off a yearlong run of films that painted the sinister side of teen life when it hit theaters in February 1999. Though featuring no overtly queer characters, fewer things near the millennium’s end were as knowingly camp as Rose McGowan’s performance of remorseless bitch on wheels—and in heels—Courtney.
Blaine Tuttle in Cruel Intentions (1999)
Frosted highlights reached their cultural peak when Pacey from Dawson’s Creek—a.k.a. Joshua Jackson—got his giggles in as the conniving Blaine, who leverages his secret affair with football star Greg (Eric Mabius) in service of the greater plot: all that 18th-century-inspired intrigue and backstabbing among its straight main characters (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Reese Witherspoon).
Tammy Metzler in Election (1999)
Reese Witherspoon was having quite the ingenue’s year between this and Cruel Intentions, but Election showed the chops we’d all come to admire and fear two decades later in Big Little Lies. Matching Tracy Flick with her ruthless tenacity, Tammy (Jessica Campbell) throws her hat into the race for student body president (and a wrench into Tracy’s plans) after her girlfriend Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia) starts dating her dimwit brother and Tracy’s political opponent Paul (Chris Klein).
Peter Swenson in Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)
Though only seen in pictures, Peter (Jamie Olsen) looms large for Lisa Swenson (R.I.P. Brittany Murphy). Peter is her big gay brother who ran away to the city the first chance he got, like many a small-town homosexual. His dad, however, is in denial about him and his penchant for dressing up like Liza Minnelli—until Lisa gives him a rude, and rather loud, awakening.
Megan in But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
An anomaly for 1999, But I’m a Cheerleader had a queer heroine, and the plot revolved around her queerness. Natasha Lyonne stars as happy-go-lucky Megan, who is forced into a conversion-therapy camp after her family and friends suspect she’s a lesbian. At the camp, run by none other than RuPaul, Megan falls for fellow camper Graham (Clea DuVall). Even more remarkably, those two crazy kids get the kind of happy ending that still feels like a rarity 20 years later.
Ray Wilkins in Scary Movie (2000)
All right, bear with me. Scary Movie was a parody of Scream and all those subsequent teen slasher flicks that came out in the late-’90s, and so Shawn Wayans played a parody of the “closeted jock” archetype. After all, Billy and Stu were totally gay. Ray just takes the archetype to the extreme—like, a dick in the ear extreme. But at that point (and up until rather recently) representation of queer people of color on screen barely existed, so this was pretty much the best we got.
Les in Bring It On (2000)
The Citizen Kane of cheerleader movies (Roger Ebert’s words, not mine… but also mine), Bring It On gave us so much: a post–Drop Dead Gorgeous Kiki Dunst at her best; Gabby Union convincingly masquerading as a teenager, which she still could do to this day; a stake-less Eliza Fucking Dushku branching out from Buffy; Blaque! But most of all (or at least for me), it gave us hunky male cheerleader Les (Huntley Ritter). While straight cheerleader Jan (Nathan West) has a chip on his shoulder for always having to defend his sexuality, Les informs new girl Missy (Dushku) that he’s more “controversial.” Fluently controversial.
Paul Denton in Rules of Attraction (2002)
I tend to lump this movie into the late-1990s and early-2000s teen-movie blitz even if the kids in it are doing terrible things in college rather than high school. The same spirit prevails, though. Based on the 1987 Bret Easton Ellis novel, ROA follows the love triangle between drug dealer Sean (James Van Der Beek), virgin Laura (Shannyn Sossamon), and her bisexual boyfriend Paul (Ian Somerhalder), who has the hots for Sean. Paul tries and fails to get with him, which is probably for the best since Sean Bateman’s brother Patrick is quite the ladykiller.
Damian Leigh in Mean Girls (2004)
Five years after the teen movie bonanza bust, Mean Girls proved the genre still had some kick. However, Christian’s spiritual cakeboy cousin Damian (Daniel Franzese) gets more to do than just act as a foil for the protagonist. As one half of the outsider dynamic duo with BFF Janis (Lizzy Caplan), Damian is the logical end to this era of teen-movie queers. He’s more developed than most of his predecessors and responsible for many of the movie’s best laughs—but he’s not the target. And not for nothing, but Damian looks like your average guy, not some ideal of what a gay teen should look like. That in itself was—and still is—incredibly affirming.