I’m breaking away from my usual form to talk about a movie I saw last night: Love, Simon. In many ways, it’s familiar. It’s a classic coming-of-age teen movie. It checks the boxes for every teen movie cliché. Fun-loving squad of friends? Check. Wild house party? Angst-filled teen longing? Check. Public declaration of love? Check. But Love, Simon is also groundbreaking, because it’s arguably the first movie about two dudes falling in love to insert itself into the canon of teen rom-coms. You don’t need me to tell you it’s great (it is). Even if it weren’t, I’d still tell you to go watch it, just to make it clear to the people who make movies that queer stories are commercially viable.
Even though I unreservedly loved the movie, I probably wouldn’t have felt that compelled to talk about Love, Simon if I hadn’t read a review last week that set my teeth on edge. The TIME‘s headline read, “‘Love, Simon’ is a Groundbreaking Gay Movie. But Do Today’s Teens Actually Need It?”.
I mean, I get it. Part of online writing is knowing how to make people click on your articles, and using contentious headlines is one way to do that. But knowing this fact doesn’t make the article’s headline, or its argument, any less dismissive.
First, let me explain a little bit more about Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon. The movie works very hard to inform its audience that it’s another coming-of-age teen movie while sprinkling in numerous references to today’s trends (cf: five thousand shots of iced coffee). During this set up, the movie establishes that, like most other teen movies, it’s talking about the hyper-privileged lives of white, upper middle class kids. The main character, Simon (Nick Robinson), is good-looking and popular. Simon’s friends are good-looking and popular. Simon’s parents are good-looking, wealthy, and supportive. Simon gets a new car for his birthday. Simon’s bedroom looks like it was lifted from Pinterest. At no point does Simon deny that he’s got it easy. In fact, he struggles to articulate why he finds it so difficult to come out to his accepting friends or his liberal-minded, women’s-march-attending family.
This seems to be the detail over which the above article’s writer, Daniel D’Addario, takes his beef. D’Addario argues that today’s teens are “barely familiar” with the tropes of coming-of-age teen movies like Clueless or The Breakfast Club or Mean Girls (I highly doubt that), and he sees no reason why the first mainstream romantic gay comedy should resemble those movies. He complains that each narrative twist takes Love, Simon deeper into some “fantasyland idyll.” He asks, “Can a love story centered around a gay teen who is very carefully built to seem as straight as possible appeal to a generation that’s boldly reinventing gender and sexuality on its own terms?”
I want to be clear. Today’s teens are not running around like a bunch of errant snowflakes holding rainbow paintbrushes. They are not “boldly reinventing gender and sexuality.” The diverse forms of gender and sexuality that we are finally starting to acknowledge have been here the whole time. Teens aren’t reinventing them, they are pointing our attention to the fact that they’ve always existed. Teens are actively taking up both physical and virtual spaces and carving out room for non-heteronormative identities in a society built on sexual binaries and traditional gender roles. Just as the “fantasyland idyll” of Love, Simon is a reality for only the smallest of populations, the idea that today’s teens are free to flaunt their sexual and gender identities without fear of judgement or consequence is only a reality in the most liberal of circles.
Love, Simon seeks to normalize queer stories by setting one in the most mundane place: the teen rom-com. It’s not edgy, and it’s not supposed to be. Through this choice, Love, Simon gives three key things to its audience. Firstly, it exposes straight audiences to a happy queer love story in a familiar setting. This alone is invaluable. Secondly, it grants queer audiences the chance to recognize themselves in an unremarkable setting—not as quirky, secondary characters or as tragically-doomed main characters, but simply as main characters who are entitled to a happy, feel-good, romantic ending. This, too, is invaluable. Thirdly, Love, Simon takes a character who occupies one of the most privileged positions in society and tells the audience that his struggles are still important and real. This is extremely validating. By allowing Simon to feel pain in the process of coming out, every other queer person is granted the same right. D’Addario claims that Simon’s privilege will prevent teen audiences from empathizing with him. I disagree. Instead, I think by showing how real the struggle to come out is even in the most privileged of situations, Love, Simon allows its queer audiences to acknowledge and realize their own struggle. That is groundbreaking.
D’Addario claims that Love, Simon is overdue, and I won’t argue with him there. That’s been the case with most groundbreaking movies to come out in the past year and a half. Isn’t it shocking that it took until 2017 for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, a superhero movie starring a woman, to be made? Doesn’t it strike you as strange that it took until 2018 for Ryan Coogler’s Blank Panther, a superhero movie with a mostly Black cast, to be produced? But surely, we live in a world where women and Black people are boldly reinventing their positions within society, no? Yes, these movies were long overdue, but that isn’t very surprising to the communities they most directly affect. As a woman, it was deeply frustrating that Wonder Woman took this long to happen, but that didn’t make it any less important when it finally did happen. I can’t speak personally to what it must have felt like to be a Black person in the audience watching Black Panther, but articles by Black writers like Tre Johnson indicate that it was similarly meaningful.
Finally, with Love, Simon, we have a mainstream teen comedy about two boys in love. It should have gotten here sooner, but here it is now. This movie hasn’t “outpaced reality”—that isn’t possible. There is no extant collection of complex, relatable gay characters in major comedies that queer audiences can refer to, because those movies haven’t been created yet. It took this long for Wonder Woman to be made because sexism is still a very real problem. It took this long for Black Panther to be made because racism is still a very real problem. And it took this long for Love, Simon to be made because homophobia—yes, despite the US’s marriage equality bill—is still a very real problem. It doesn’t come as a shock that it took a woman to make Wonder Woman, a Black man to make Black Panther, and a gay man to make Love, Simon. These are movies that marginalized communities need, and, clearly, they won’t get made unless the members of those communities make them themselves.
To say that Love, Simon isn’t relevant to teens is akin to saying that there are no closeted teens afraid to come out, and that’s just not true.