Soooooooo, this is an extremely unpopular opinion, but I didn’t enjoy Red, White & Royal Blue. This is a book that made me feel justified in not reading contemporary romance/NA fiction. I have partially gotten over myself. I do read romance now, but this is still not a book that I enjoyed.
I don’t really need to give a plot summary, we all know the story, son of the president hates a prince of England because he’s actually in love with him without having even known that he might be queer and then they fall in love and have a lot of sex, but drama, but it’s ok because the world is progressive or something.
I’m not going to talk about every part of this book, but I am going to talk about some of the areas that I didn’t like and what made me particularly unhappy with the toxic behaviours that were being perpetuated by this book. This isn’t to say that these issues are only seen in this book and in no other media. But RWRB is a recent piece of media that I have consumed with these issues, and I think we should talk about them. It is important to be critical of the media we consume.
We are told that Alex chose to enter politics because he genuinely cares about people, but I never really saw this character trait explored. In fact, the majority of Alex’s actions throughout the book go against this trait. In almost every interaction he has with another character he takes more than he gives. He often acts like an ass. This isn’t really helped by the fact that almost all of the characters he interacts with on a regular basis are women. The women in Alex’s life are the ones to explain to him that he is bi, they are the ones to walk him through his emotions whenever something doesn’t go his way. Women are always the bearers of men’s emotional labour IRL and to see this perpetuated in media is endlessly frustrating (especially when all of the female characters in the book weren’t really well defined as individuals).
Let’s talk about how one of his first thoughts when he realizes he might be bisexual is to run downstairs to ask Amy about her wife and her transition. He doesn’t think about how that could be an incredibly selfish invasion of privacy – just because someone is openly queer or trans doesn’t mean that they owe you their story. He doesn’t think about how that might affect her, or how he could find out the same kind of information online. He thankfully doesn’t pursue that line of action, but he still gets another woman to walk him through his own sexuality instead of any level of self reflection.
I can’t name a single queer person that I know who didn’t think about their own sexuality extensively before broaching the subject with another person, even if that other person was queer. And guess what? My anecdotal evidence doesn’t have to be the be all and end all here – data proves my point. The median age that someone first thought they might be bisexual is 13, the median age they knew for sure is 17, and the median age when they first told someone is 20. That’s 7 years from thinking about it to telling anyone. Like, my experience was a few years shorter than that. I thought I was bi around 16 or 17, didn’t think about it again until I was 18 and started dating a woman and then went back and forth on the lesbian vs bisexual labels before landing on bisexual. But from when I first thought about it, I still didn’t tell anyone until I was 18.
And on the whole emotional labour note, we really need to talk about Liam, and Alex’s treatment of Liam. Liam was Alex’s best friend during high school, but it turns out that on closer examination that they may have been something more. Alex never thought to question the fact that they were giving each other mutual handjobs, and clearly never thought about Liam’s feelings in all of this. When Alex finally realizes that he just might be queer, he calls Liam to talk about the fact that they were doing Gay Stuff ™ . Liam is out to lunch with his boyfriend, but Alex keeps pestering him with questions even when Liam is giving him very curt answers. I was deeply uncomfortable throughout this entire scene. Alex is clearly a toxic person in Liam’s history, but Alex can’t acknowledge that he might have been in the wrong. This is only made worse when McQuiston decides that it would be like, super cute or something, that Liam shows up to support Alex’s mom in the election. Sorry, but that last place that I would want to be is a party with my high school ex.
Wait, how does the royal family work?
Okay, so, did McQuiston do any research about the royal family before writing this novel? I’m Canadian, I might know slightly more about the British Monarchy than the average American being part of the commonwealth (and having to have all of our laws signed by a representative of the crown) and all that.
But I can tell you I don’t really pay attention to the royal family or the intricacies of the monarchy. But two things immediately jumped out at me as soon as I read them. One, only the heir apparent is the Prince (or Princess) of Wales – in this case Henry’s mom. Henry would be Prince Henry Duke of Wherever.
Second, and perhaps the worse error of the two, when Phillip goes on a rant about why Henry can’t be gay with an American boy he says that Alex would be fourth in line for the throne. That is not how that works even in the slightest. The spouse has no stake in the crown. And as we know from the real life example of William and Harry, as our fictional Philip starts to have children they will be in line to inherit the throne before Henry will be. Henry, like Harry, isn’t that important to the royal lineage.
Now I realize that this a super nit-picky issue to have, and that scene is meant to be super romantic. But when Alex decided to rush off to England to support Henry he buys a plane ticket less than two hours before the flight takes off before he is even at the airport. You can’t do that. I actually looked it up because I wanted to be sure. You might be able to buy an international flight ticket from the ticket desk at the airport two hours before the flight leaves, but you can’t buy that ticket over the phone when you aren’t physically at the airport.
Let’s talk about sex, baby
This isn’t an issue with this book specifically (although it does happen in this book), but can we please stop writing gay sex scenes where spit is used as lube. Just don’t do it. Please use real lube, or like, coconut oil. You are leaving yourself open to all sorts of tearing. If the ancient Greeks used olive oil as lube, you can find something better than spit for all for all of that.
Now, onto points from this book. Do Alex and Henry ever use condoms? I don’t remember them ever using condoms (even though his mom lectures him on using condoms). If you are going to put sex in your books, please demonstrate safe sex. For one, condoms will help with the whole lube situation to a degree. Secondly, STDs are a thing. Protect yourself and your partner and wrap-up, thanks.
I’m going to be honest, I don’t read a lot of books with this amount of smut, maybe the occasional sex scene. I don’t even really like reading sex scenes (of any orientation). They make me uncomfortable, I’m just here for the plot. But my friends, bad sex scenes are a whole other beast. And RWRB is rife with them. These are pretty explcit sex scenes, but we never see the word dick, cock, penis, or even any euphemisms that for anatomy. This made the sex secenes feel very immature. I’m not sure if this was a choice from the publisher, trying to make the book more PG, but it didn’t read well. You can say penis, it isn’t a bad word, in fact using it helps make sex something that we can talk about in a puritanical culture that likes to oppress sexuality.
And can we talk about the fact that Alex, who has only just realized that he might be bi, and might have feelings for Henry just jumps right into blowjobs and penetrative sex without ever having a moment of inner turmoil? I would expect someone who has just started to come to terms with their sexuality to get overwhelmed in the heat of the moment, to have a moment of pause or panic while having sex because they haven’t had time to fully process their feelings yet. For a lot of people, coming to terms with their sexuality is a process and you can have moments of regression, moments where you think maybe you aren’t actually queer like you thought. It would have been interesting to see that explored in the book. I think it would have brought some conflict into the relationship that didn’t exist.
There is a lot more that I could say about RWRB, but I think that there are a lot of toxic elements that should not be overlooked. Yes, a lot of those elements are also seen in other books, but not all books get the same attention as RWRB has garnered. We need to be critical about the media we consume and the problems it perpetuates, particularly when that piece of media gets to be extremely popular and is held up as an example.