Star-Crossed Twinks: The Problem with YouTube's 'Cute Gay Shorts'
This story begins in the depths of third-lockdown-Leicestershire, where I spent early January temporarily stranded and working from my boyfriend’s house. Looking to dull my senses with digital trash between classes, I reached for a nearby iPad and sank cosily into the familiar quagmire of the YouTube algorithm. Yet where I’d usually be greeted by a chaotic sprawl of Cyrillic text and drag web shows, I found myself in a parallel dimension of glistening teenage boys, caught in steamy shower kisses over fish-hooks of ‘Cute Gay Short!’; ‘Beautiful Teen Love Story!’. A veritable homo paradise; pages of pretty young things locked in muscular embraces, bristling with promises of vicarious adolescent sexuality. Yet in place of any interest or arousal, I felt an odd revulsion towards this sea of shimmering teens, a feeling that remained with me long after I’d fled to the jumbled sanctuary of my own damningly well-curated YouTube picks.
The encounter was brief, yet for some reason I couldn’t stop thinking about those dumb gay kisses and the inexplicable hatred I’d felt towards them. I couldn’t let go of the question of why, as someone hardly averse to the sight of shirtless men, my boyfriend’s (admittedly wet) YouTube history had struck such a nerve with me. Put bluntly, why do I hate watching cute gay boys be happy?
For my non-MLM readers (and any gay men who have been living under a rock since the early 90s), I should probably clarify exactly what kind of content I’m referring to here. It’s not a specific genre so much as a recognisable blanket of visual tropes and narrative beats, a non-exhaustive list of which might encompass: photogenic, conventionally-attractive young white boys, coming-of-age turmoil and simmering sexual tension building to a money-shot gay kiss - the inevitable promo snap to persuade thirstier viewers to sit through the preceding minutes or hours of meandering banality. Bonus points could be awarded for schoolboys, ‘coming out’ being the source of all drama, and a saccharine happy ending in a world where being queer apparently carries no lasting internal or external consequences for those involved. For fairness’ sake, I should note that for all their unoriginality, these tropes aren’t always poorly executed. At the upper end of the quality scale one might place the third season of Norwegian teen drama SKAM, which at least couches its gay arc in a tangible world of fully-formed characters and dynamic motivation, while a descent towards the bottom of the pile will inevitably pass tokenistic side-stories in forgettable Netflix originals and, of course, the sea of ‘cute gay shorts’ that clog the airspace of queer YouTube.
The over-prevalence of conventionally attractive young white boys in queer media is not unaddressed, nor are its problematic entailments. I would be crudely reformulating the words of more eloquent and relevant writers were I to attempt a breakdown of the racist dynamics of white-twink ubiquity, or the pitiful underrepresentation of other bodies – trans, fat, disabled – in the visual pantheon of gay love and sex. Yet my real problem is not one of representation. While a feeling of vicarious injustice for the unrepresented might fuel my desire to see the cute-boy content reduced proportionally, it doesn’t cover my rather personal aversion to its very existence. After all, the internal animosity can’t come from my own non-representation; for all my armchair queer-radicalism, the real world reveals me as a young, slim, white man, in a stable relationship with a similarly blandly attractive boyfriend - by all accounts one of the chosen few so idolised by the gay-boy media.
My real issue lies in the framing, the way these white-teen romances are so often positioned as the ‘ideal’ manifestation of the gay experience. The comments sections of these YouTube shorts and OTP kiss-comps are strewn with red-flag proclamations of purity, innocence and perfection, inscrutable labels rarely applied to the scant depictions of less conventional queer love and sexuality. For gay men, a desire to re-establish the sanctuary of pure and natural is understandable; in a world which frames us as tainted aberrations, there is a clear urge to claw back some model of ‘normality’ around which to anchor on our own terms. The smooth, idolised white boys and clichéd teen love stories are the perfect candidate; a queer sub-ideal marginally more acceptable to the hetero world outside. If gayness by default entails imperfection, then we will strive for the next best thing: to be a hot teen boy, ‘innocently’ love-struck with another baby-faced Adonis - a model of natural purity in all ways but one.
But shifting the boundaries of what is natural only tightens the chokehold of a fundamentally meaningless concept. We are all expressions of nature, yet equally transgressive of her primordial rulebook. What does it mean to be natural in a world of biotechnology, GMOs and artificial intelligence? Should one have to live naked in the woods (without sex, mind you!) to avoid accusations of aberration and impurity? The boundaries of nature are decided by people, and what has historically constituted the term is little more than the dirty bathwater of our collected prejudices.
From the garden of Eden to Tolkien’s Aryan elves, our cultural depictions of the pure and natural grow from thorny ideological roots: nature is youth, beauty is purity; nature is whiteness, purity is sexual inexperience. In the shade of nature’s crooked branches, our queerness is inevitably fragmented along a sliding scale of cultural acceptability. The hot gay schoolboy becomes the exemplar model, a parallel to the misogynist ideal of the ‘porcelain virgin’ against which other women – queer, foreign, sexually awakened – are cast as imperfect deviations. Whether or not we’re willing to confront it, the gay idolisation of twink boy romance runs deeper than mere sexual preference (the Minoan labyrinth of niche pornography proves that this is significantly more varied). Instead, the maximally conventional aesthetic and narrative framework of such content offers a warped sense of comfort; an embraceable brand of gayness which still falls within the tidy picket-fence of cultural prejudice.
Snapping back to reality for a second, I should probably try to be a little less scathing of cute gay boys. If there’s anything concrete we can take from the above, it’s that queerness is alienating, and if the comfort of these teenage fantasies can make that easier for some to navigate, then they aren’t entirely without merit. But I want to see a confrontation and recognition of the fact that the purity of our experience is not a sliding scale; that a pair of star-crossed white twinks are no more or less pure than any other of the kaleidoscopic manifestations of queer love and human sexuality. Until then, I will not be able to watch cute boy happiness without a heavy heart, and will remain safe in the refuge of YouTube’s esoteric underbelly.
Matt is currently based in Kyiv. He is passionate about clothing with Cyrillic on it, Björk, and diet cherry Pepsi. When not making avant-garde prawn-films (try and find that one on YouTube), he can be found trying to find language conversation partners by looking enigmatic in edgy coffee shops. His interest in queer post-soviet aesthetics was sparked during his year abroad, which he spent 'studying' on exchange in St Petersburg.