We're not just like you: Love, Simon and the danger of mainstreaming LGBTQ stories
Gay teenagers finally have their own Hollywood rom-com — the first ever. But is that a good thing?
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
The hills of gay Twitter (and beyond) are alive with anticipation for Love, Simon this weekend, and with good reason. The high school-set rom-com is the first film with an out teenage LGBTQ protagonist ever released by a Hollywood studio, and — in 2,402 theatres across North America — the second widest release of a film with a lead LGBTQ character after, well, Bruno (and I guess arguably Interview With The Vampire). A lot is riding on Simon's shoulders.
I didn't even realize the film existed until the trailer was released this past November, and I have to admit I watched it at least a dozen times in a row. It introduces us to adorable 17-year-old Simon Spier (played by Nick Robinson) via a voiceover. And that voiceover is literally one I heard in my teenage dreams (and nightmares): "My name's Simon. I'm just like you, except I have one huge-ass secret: nobody knows I'm gay."
It felt utterly surreal to even bear witness to this film's existence, and I couldn't stop thinking about how massive it would have been for me had this film come out when I was a teenager. In pretty much any context, the journey of coming out is an intensely isolating experience, and I can only imagine Love, Simon will provide catharsis and comfort for so many young people currently in the midst of it. And for any of them reading this, I say wholeheartedly: Stop reading this and go see the movie and feel what that feels like for you. But then maybe come back for a little food for thought?
In pretty much any context, the journey of coming out is an intensely isolating experience, and I can only imagine Love, Simon will provide catharsis and comfort for so many young people currently in the midst of it. And for any of them reading this, I say wholeheartedly: stop reading this and go see the movie and feel what that feels like for you.- Peter Knegt
I saw Love, Simon a week ago at a small advanced screening, and was uncharacteristically optimistic about what my response would be. After a year or so of taking in some pretty extraordinary independent LGBTQ cinema — see Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, BPM (Beats Per Minute), A Fantastic Woman, God's Own Country, Princess Cyd (no, seriously, see them) — I had perhaps forgotten what happens when a studio takes on this subject matter. Which makes sense, given it has really been 18 years since any studio has. And that film was tragically John Schlesinger's final film, the Madonna-Rupert Everett disaster The Next Best Thing, which I remember now primarily for allowing the late, great film critic Roger Ebert to write one of my favourite of his zingers: "The Next Best Thing is a garage sale of gay issues, harnessed to a plot as exhausted as a junkman's horse."
Thankfully, Love, Simon is nowhere near a "garbage sale" of gay issues. On the surface, it's mostly a charming, well-intentioned teen rom-com which — had it come out in say, 2000 (which was both the year of The Next Best Thing and the year I was Simon Spier's age) — would have been fairly remarkable. You cheer on a gay teenager as he pursues both himself and love, ultimately finding both in a perfectly sentimental climax that is sure to have audiences in all of those 2,402 theatres cheering. And that in itself is worth the film's existence. But I think it's also very important that we discuss that, despite all its good intentions, if you look a little closer Love, Simon lacks a lot of perspective for a film representing LGBTQ youth in 2018.
Directed by the openly gay Greg Berlanti, who's probably best known for producing essentially every show on The CW as of late (seriously: Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Black Lightning and Riverdale), Love, Simon offers perhaps the most privileged coming out narrative of all time. I mean, Simon Spier is white, rich, handsome and straight-acting. He has an educated, liberal family and a ton of great friends. And while his coming out isn't always perfectly comfortable for him, it's overall a pretty smooth sail relative to the vast majority of folks who came before him. And I mean, what did we really expect? That Hollywood would make its first foray into portraying LGBTQ youth with a love story about two trans women of colour living in the projects? No. But it still makes you wonder if this genre of unattainable fantasy rom-com — something that has been making straight women feel shitty about themselves for decades (thanks, Nancy Meyers!) — is really something we should be advocating for. Maybe we were better off just having to seek out indie alternatives with narratives where the LGBTQ experience, in all its many forms, was portrayed with the kind of messiness we will absolutely face in our day-to-day lives.
That all said, what concerns me much more about Love, Simon is how the film portrays Simon's own identity. That same line from the trailer — "I'm just like you, except I have one huge-ass secret" — is also present in the film, and it's a lot more telling in the greater context. Simon is essentially so devoid of any expressions of queerness that he might as well be the poster boy for how straight people have historically tended to want gay people to be: just like them. But we're not just like them. Maybe at one point we thought we wanted to be, but the whole point of coming out is to start embracing the fact that we aren't.
One of the film's most problematic scenes comes when Simon fantasizes about what life will be like when he's an out gay man in college. It's an over-the-top, rainbow flag-filled dance sequence that feels like a refreshing dose of camp until it comes to a halt with Simon saying in voiceover, "Well, maybe not that gay." Um...why not, Simon? I for one could have used a little more fairy in this fairy tale. And I'm sure I'm not alone.
Do I hope Love, Simon makes a ton of money and opens the door for Hollywood to tell more LGBTQ stories, perhaps next time around with a little more depth? Of course. But it's also not the year 2000 anymore. The access we now have to the plethora of legitimately outstanding LGBTQ storytelling happening in independent film and on TV makes Simon a lot less necessary than it would have been 20 years ago. Yes, it's great to cheer on a gay teenager in a multiplex. But let's just make sure we ask ourselves: at what cost?