This post contains spoilers for the 2018 Netflix drama Elite.
The Netflix series Elite follows a group of Spanish private high school students, some on scholarship, most rich kids with powerful parents. There’s partying, there’s sex, there’s murder. Think Riverdale except good. I’m not too interested in reviewing the series as whole, but I do want to talk about a few of the relationships the show features which are really what held my interest for 3 whole seasons. There’s representation of different sexualities and relationship styles, definitely, but the show didn’t escape a lot of the tired tropes and stereotypes about queer relationships that are everywhere.
One of my undergrad final papers was on the Evil TV Bisexual trope which presents us with untrustworthy, shady, morally ambiguous, and usually deeply confused characters who are shown as bisexual. We are presented with these characters and where I am initially excited to see someone who apparently loves like me, it’s rare the character will say the word “bisexual” or “pansexual”. The best we can get is often “I don’t do labels” or another character insisting that “but you’re really -” usually gay with male characters and usually straight for characters who are women. Sometimes there are characters who are just ‘behaviorally bisexual’ but never address the changing gender of sex partners, or if they do, it is cause of much internal stress. Basically, when we get bi characters they aren’t proud of their sexuality.
Early on in Elite, rich couple Carla and Polo notice that Christian, a class clown and new student not from their socioeconomic class (he’s poor but he knows how to have fun), is obviously interested in Carla. Beginning as a game to spice up their own sex life, Carla begins hooking up with Christian while keeping Polo in the loop of everything they do together. Eventually, Christian finds out that the secret is not really a secret and all 3 begin hooking up as a trio. Although Carla enjoys shocking her parents with a rebellious, semi-public confession of the tryst at one point, its understood that Christian is not particularly interested in Polo romantically or sexually outside of the fun of their taboo threesomes.
In season 3, Polo is in a (unfulfilling) relationship with Cayetana, largely due to the two of them being social outcasts and Cayetana latching onto the long-term benefits that dating someone like Polo (wealthy + alone) can have for her. As she continues trying to maintain relevancy in Polo’s life as his girlfriend, the couple end up bonding with Valerio, another student who had been ostracized by their peers. This season, things are different in terms of actual mutual romance and Polo’s (kind of) confirmed bisexuality. To start with, Polo convinces lifelong friend, Ander, out as gay, into mutually masturbating. Ander talks about how their friendship with another character was different before he came out and “before you [Polo] were bi”. “Bi?” Polo asks, as if he never considered his sexual exploits with other guys to alter his presumed heterosexuality. He nods and shrugs though, seeming to accept the observation.
Back to the throuple that is Polo, Cayetana, and Valerio: it is much more obvious that the 3 high school seniors are actually invested in their relationship with each other. Valerio expresses sadness to the couple, stating that he feels there is no word for his addition. Polo and Cayetana both comfort him, assuring him that they both care about him and that their grouping is about more than sex. The three even invite him and begin plotting going to university together abroad, free to pursue their romantic triad with less boundaries. The 3 are caught hooking up in Polo’s family pool by his two mothers, and Polo seriously and level-headily defends the relationship, even comparing their intolerance to the homophobia his mothers might’ve faced. This does not go over well with his mothers.
While it was nice seeing a polyamorous relationship explored and enjoyed on Elite season three, especially after the teasing of such a dynamic with Christian the first season, its important to note the way that the participants are characterized throughout the show. If you’ve never seen the show and don’t want major spoilers, stop reading now. To start, while Polo still ends up being an endearing character who elicits sympathy, he is a blueprint Evil Bisexual trope. He is, at least until Ander tells him, confused about his bisexuality. Oh, and he’s a murderer. The cause of much of his own inner moral turmoil until the end of season 3, it is known to the audience for 2 whole seasons that Polo accidentally kills and then hides the truth about his lifelong friend Guzman’s younger sister. It doesn’t get more evil than covering up a murder. Cayetana’s character arc exposes her to be a manipulative liar, concerned only with social climbing and hiding the truth about her economic class. Valerio, the missing piece that Cayetana says is just what the relationship needs to be revitalized? A drug-dealer who was in love with and making out with his half-sister. Yeah, incest. Considering all this, its hard to really see the relationship as a win for an example of healthy polyamory or progress in representing queer love.
Another pitfall follows siblings Nadia and Omar. Nadia attends the private school on a scholarship, navigating being a good Muslim daughter, exploring love, and pursuing her academic goals. In season 3, Nadia discovers her new boyfriend, respected by her father for being a good Muslim, but showing Nadia that she can lie to protect her family and live her life the way she wants to, is not who she thinks he is. His charm is exposed as a front when he cheats on Nadia with her gay brother, Omar, causing him in turn to cheat on his boyfriend Ander after discovering upsetting medical news. Omar not only never confesses the truth to Ander, who finds out and feels to blame for the infidelity, but also never truly apologizes for hurting his sister. Instead he shucks blame entirely and Nadia forgives him without him ever really taking accountability for not only cheating on his sick boyfriend but also for being a shitty brother. Again, having a secondary character (Nadia’s boyfriend) portrayed as a down-low gay (Black Muslim) man who hurts people without shame and Omar also being shown as being deceitful and sexually shameful when he disregards his family- are queer people being shown as human beings capable of human mistakes or is it being communicated that we are always hiding some inherent deviance?
To end on a positive note, one thing I do for sure think Elite did well was the growth and progression of Nadia and Lu’s friendship by the end of season 3. Beginning as enemies in a love triangle, Lucretia and Nadia end up bonding and forging a genuine found family with each other that truly made me happy. Elite definitely did them right in allowing the girls to outgrow not only the Mean Girl attitude of pining for the same boy, but you also see them genuinely protect each other, respect each other, and feel for each others’ emotional wounds. A genuine and natural illustration of girls supporting girls. I love to see it.