Love, Simon and the Power of Representation
Love, Simon and the Power of Representation
An Essay by William Grant
Gay people don’t get their own movies. Sure, we’re in movies. We’re in them fairly often actually. Usually saying things in a loud and excited manner, such as “HELL NAW, BITCH!” and “Tell him, girl!” and (everyone’s favorite) “YAAASSS QUEEN!” We always back up the protagonist, clocking in around the ten minute mark where we walk down a city street with them and dish about how loooonnelllyy they are or how they just need that good dick. We’re the gay best friend. We’re the trendy necklace. We’re the Berkin bag.
For the past thirty to forty years, we’ve been given the privilege of being “represented” on the big screen. We’re what allow producers to say “Hey, look, our cast is diverse.” If you hear a movie producer say this, just picture an LGBT or black person (rarely an LGBT black person) popping up every twenty minutes to be supportive and hilarious. This is Hollywood diversity. This is Hollywood representation. This is representation that is damaging due to its lack of understanding of basic humanity.
We’ve only started getting to play the lead in the past few years and most of those movies go straight to DVD. We never get the budget. We never get the top notch promotional team. We get a colorful DVD cover that gets lost in the dollar bin at a Wal-Mart. 90% of these movies are comedies. Sex comedies, to be more specific. They’re about some lonely gay guy, working in a homophobic office, who goes out each night with his blonde girlfriends (because gay men don’t know other gay men) to slut it up in the city that never sleeps. Occasionally they find love, sometimes they fall for a straight guy, always they have an empowering moment of self-respect where they yell at their boss and quit their job to go teach yoga. The sets are bare, the acting is terrible, the camerawork is childlike at best. They’re cheap. Just like Hollywoods opinion of us.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love for gay boys to find self-respect and be fabulous. I love a loud, proud gay man. That’s not my issue. My issue is that there’s no substance. They build caricatures instead of characters. Even the most flamboyant gay is still a person in the real world. They have depth and emotion that goes further than needing a good fuck and a rainbow pin. They’re people. These movies, and their creators, don’t agree.
This kind of “representation” harms us as individuals. It manufactures and idea of what an “acceptable gay” looks and acts like. To be like and welcomed into society, we have to fit into this mold, we have to entertain. For many gay men who don’t identify with these attitudes and qualities, it can put more pressure on them to hold back and to not come out out of fear that they won’t be accepted and welcomed in the same way if they can’t play the part.
This past year, Hollywood got their shit together a bit. In the autumn of 2017 we were gifted with Call Me By Your Name, an adaptation of André Aciman’s novel of the same name. The film tells the story of Elio (Timothee Chalamet), a young man living with his parents in Italy, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), the man who comes to stay with them for the summer to work on his book and learn from Elio’s father - a professor. It’s a beautiful film that delves into the complex and sensual feelings between two men having a sexual awakening. The depiction of masculine sexuality and desire is groundbreaking for a film that would go on to be nominated (and win) at the Oscars. Gay men don’t often get shown in scenes of a sexual nature that are about desire as opposed to simple horniness (and there’s a difference). The story revolved around fully-formed characters, not the caricatures I mentioned earlier.
The only downfall is the heartbreak at the end of the film. Don’t get me wrong, I sobbed while the final credits rolled. I was inconsolable. The ending works for the film (and the book it was adapted from) and it couldn’t have realistically ended any other way. The problem is with the culture of gay films in general. If we get a film like this that takes us seriously, it’s always a tragic love story. Like Brokeback Mountain before it, CMBYN ends with sadness. It’s never a happy ending unless it’s a comedy and those utilize a different meaning of the phrase. We don’t get the sweeping romance and the happily ever after. We’re always left with sorrow.
Last weekend, God smiled on the culture in the form of a film called Love, Simon. Like CMBYN, this film is also based on a book. Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli is a young adult novel released in 2015 about Simon Spier, a high school student in Atlanta who is hiding his sexuality from everyone he knows. After another closeted student makes a post on a local blog under the pseudonym “Blue,” Simon starts up a series of back-and-forth emails that lead to the two young men falling for each other despite not being able to meet. There’s some other drama that comes into play, but I won’t ruin it for anyone who still plans to read the book/see the film. In late 2015,it was announced that FOX 2000 would be adapting the book into a film with CW-god, Greg Berlanti, set to direct. This announcement alone was groundbreaking. A major film studio was going to adapt a book about a gay protagonist struggling to come out into a major motion picture. This was unprecedented. The gay community, and specifically gay teenagers, had never had a movie like this. Soon after, they began to announce casting with Nick Robinson to star as Simon, with Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. set to play his friends (Leah, Abby, and Nick).
Promotion for the movie, which started popping up mid-2017, was in full force. Several billboards, print ads, and social media posts played off the plot line of the movie, making pointed jokes and comments towards the fact the movie was about a boy coming out. There was no hiding the gayness of this movie. It was 100% gay. So gay. All gay. Where as CMBYN casually advertised their subject matter, never pushing the envelope on the gay love held inside, Love, Simon lead with it.
The weeks leading up to the release of the film were filled with TV commercials promoting the film and even a prominent mention in the CW series Riverdale. It was inescapable.
Needless to say, I was intrigued. I had read and loved the book when it was released and was curious to see how it would be as a film. I was apprehensive, as I believe most gay people are when we see someone trying to represent us in the media. We’ve seen a lot of shit and we just don’t have time for more.
The weekend before the movie was released, I saw that the theatre I go to in Evanston was having an early screening on Saturday night. Curiosity peeked, I grabbed my boyfriend (I’m gay, remember?) and got some tickets.
Folks, this film is a gift. Over the next two hours, I got to watch a film about a young man who is gay struggle with coming out in a big studio film and it didn't feel like he had a label on his forehead that says gay. He was just a guy, who was also gay. It’s difficult to put into words what that is actually like. I know someone is reading this right now saying “But he’s gay and it’s a gay movie.” Yeah, unseen reader, you’re right. But it didn’t feel like it. It felt like a John Hughes movie. It felt like a typical rom-com. It felt like being seen as more than the other. There has never been a big budget rom-com staring a teenager who is gay falling for a boy. This doesn’t happen.
While not feeling like a (*fabulous screaming*) GAY movie, it is also a love letter to young gay people. The film is a positive story for gay youth that has a happy ending of the Reese Witherspoon variety. We get to have it all. But, on a deeper level, it gives gay youth a lot of the things we needed to hear when going through our own coming out. A scene late in the film between Simon and his mother (a generous and thoughtful performance from Jennifer Garner), is one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve watched in recent years. Simon’s mother sits him down to discuss his recent announcement and instead of internalizing her son’s revelation into something about her own emotions, she turns the conversation into a monologue about how he can finally be himself.
Having seen the film twice now, I can confidently say I will likely never be able to watch this scene without a tear in my eye. This single moment of dialogue captures so much of the experience of hiding yourself from those around you. I didn’t realize until I moved to Chicago from my small town in North Carolina that I had been holding my breath for years. My family, like Simon’s, showed me love when I came out, but that doesn’t protect you from the experience of keeping your cards to your chest around the rest of the world. Such simple words, but they captured so much. Simon’s father (Josh Duhamel) later apologizes for jokes and comments he’s made in recent years that added to Simon’s anxiety about his sexuality. These two conversations hold so much for gay people as far as things we all needed to hear when coming out. The simple acknowledgement of comments that could have made us feel the need to hide is powerful on its own.
Now, I don’t mean this to sound like the story and Simon’s experiences are universal. Simon is a caucasian male living in Atlanta. He’s just one thread in the fabric. The film doesn’t capture the experience of people of color who are LGBT, people living in countries that are less tolerant than the US, people who are in danger of physical/emotional abuse for coming out. The film can’t answer every call from every individual in the LGBT community. No single film can represent every story. But what we can look to with films like Love, Simon is better, more honest representation.
Youth across America have come out to the people in their lives over the past week, sharing their stories on social media. LGBT icons, such as Neil Patrick Harris, Matt Bomer, and Tyler Oakley, have been buying out screenings of the film so young people can see it for free. This kind of attention isn’t just because it’s a movie about a gay guy. It’s because it’s a film that offers authentic, deep representation of a member of the LGBT community. Young men, women, and non-binary individuals are seeing themselves and their story (or something similar to it) presented on the big screen. They’re going to see a movie, like they do every weekend, and seeing themselves reflected in the story. Seeing yourself and your story on the big screen is its own type of validation. It shows that you’re seen, that there are people who have felt and gone through the same things you have. It’s validation that helps represent people who have never been properly represented in the past. This kind of representation is necessary. The kind of representation is healing. This kind of representation matters.