In Greg Berlanti’s new coming-of-age film, Love, Simon, a young, gay man becomes anonymous pen pals with another gay student at his suburban-Atlanta school. When their correspondence is leaked, threatening the genuinely sweet and budding romance, Simon is forced to come out to his family and friends before he is entirely ready to do so.
There’s much to appreciate about the film. First of all, it’s the first big box-office film to feature a gay teen character, which alone makes it hard to approach with too harsh an eye. Secondly, if you are a sucker for epistolary anything, you’ll be charmed: Simon and “Blue’s” letters to one another are heartfelt, sincere, and feel completely age-appropriate for two high schoolers with old souls and deep hearts. Nick Robinson as Simon Spier channels Matthew Broderick’s “Ferris Bueller” down to the confessional brown eyes and denim jacket.
From the start, it’s easy to see that Simon’s sexuality is the only envelope Berlanti wanted to push — and that’s enough on its own. Even so, the squeaky-clean feel of the film can be almost startling. Simon’s parents are attractive and loving, almost hyperactively hetero; his home, I’m not joking, looks straight out of a Pottery Barn catalog with its chalkboard-paint walls, multi-textured throw pillows, and bazillions of immaculate French windows. The Spiers exist in a sort of beautifully individualistic white-America nuclear-family vacuum untouched by religion, tragedy, or even extended family (why does he have no grandma?! there must be a grandma somewhere).
Simon, too, is reassuring. He has decent taste in music (the Kinks! Elliot Smith!) that even parents can approve of. He is not wearing eyeliner and stealing his mama’s bras and embarrassing his dad in public. And this is important: Because while Love, Simon does very little that is revolutionary, its very power lies in the extremely clean-cut, almost sanitized world it puts forth. The film is the perfect, easy “in” for helping a mass culture embrace the idea of homosexuality. It is endlessly reassuring. It is squeaky-clean and beautiful and suffused with excellent lighting. The soundtrack, curated by Jack Antonoff of Bleachers, is upbeat, sweet, and feels like first love.
And as a viewer, you root for Simon — you really do. The first time he signs his real name to an e-mail, instead of an alias, I teared up a little. And there are many important messages that I think are valuable for kids struggling with a dilemma like Simon’s: that even after you come out, you will still be the same person you were before. That familial love has the potential to be the most powerful force of all.
There is just one glaring problem with the film, and it gradually became too overpowering for me to ignore: Love, Simon does not treat young women well, and it knows and cares nothing for young women’s self-determination and sexuality. (Antonoff insisted, enthusiastically, to Entertainment Weekly, “The film feels like it’s for everyone. It’s the first thing I thought when I saw it: There’s just something here for everyone.”)
But is there? Everything about Simon is treated with kid gloves. His thoughts, his fears, his budding male psyche, are delicate, precious things, and we are meant to relate to them at every turn. The film is concerned with Simon, and Simon is concerned with himself, to the detriment of several of the other characters, most notably his two female friends, Abby and Leah, whose emotions are traded to protect Simon when it’s convenient for him. In the end, Love, Simon is yet another film that keeps the audience’s attention and empathy centered squarely, insistently, on a white male protagonist.
Here’s how Simon first gets into trouble: A fellow “thespian,” the thoroughly repugnant Martin, discovers Simon’s unattended Gmail account in the school library and screenshots a series of emails which reveal Simon’s sexual orientation. A quick thinker, he uses them to blackmail Simon in an effort to gain access to Simon’s friend, Abby.
It’s understandable that Simon would be terrified — this secret will change many aspects of his life, because no one, from his picture-perfect family to his close group of darling, wholesome friends, suspects that he is gay. Even so, Simon’s almost immediate willingness to sell poor Abby down the river is startling. He instantly puts underway a plan to help Martin gain access to Abby: at a party that weekend; at the Waffle House where they will be rehearsing lines, and so on. He discourages his good-hearted friend, Nick, from pursuing a relationship with Abby, even though he knows Abby likes Nick; and then he sets his friend Leah up on a date with Nick, even though no good can possibly come of it for the emotionally vulnerable Leah, who’ll get her hopes up only to realize that Nick, like Simon, is totally into someone else.
The film seems to think that our allegiance is squarely enough with Simon to render only blackmailing, skeevy Martin, in this long charade of competitive matchmaking, unlikable. But, I’m sorry to break it to Simon: his utter lack of empathy for, and even awareness of, female emotion renders him pretty darn unlikable too. When it comes to the feelings of the women around him, he is a blunt, stupid board of a human, colliding with things that surprise him — female love, female anger — but worst of all, he doesn’t even seem to try. He does not seem to think it’s required of him to imagine how his female friends feel. The pressure on Abby is so intense in the film to be a good soldier, a good comrade, and donate female attention to Martin, that it made me squirm in my seat. Where would this end: would Abby have to pity-fuck him?
At one point Simon shouts to Martin, in frustration, that revealing his own sexual orientation was supposed to be his thing, it was supposed to be his to control, to reveal on his own terms. Certainly this is only fair, but then why is his female friends’ sexuality so clearly less-theirs to control?
The women in the film — as well as all of us in the audience — are constantly requested to consider Simon’s feelings, from the movie’s first seconds to its final, glossy salvo. How is Simon doing? How does he feel? Leah and Abby are constantly checking in. We, the viewers, are, too. How is Simon–is he depressed, lonely, uncertain? How is Simon today?
Part of me can understand how this cleverly turns a common television trope on its head: If I were a gay man, I think I might be frustrated by the scores of movies and sitcoms in which gay men have served mainly as sounding boards and one-man therapists for pretty, conflicted, midlife career women (My Best Friend’s Wedding, Will & Grace, and on and on). I’ve had grown women tell me, “I wish I had a gay best friend!,” which seems like code for “I wish I had a servant-hairdresser with excellent taste who would drink wine with me every night and adore me no matter how whacked-out I occasionally get.” However, it also seems to me that such a wish on the part of women has grown out of a cesspool of toxic masculinity, a frustration with the lack of empathy, creativity and support shown by many heterosexual American men. Because at the end of the day, we are all, overwhelmingly, asked to consider, above all else, the feelings of men. The more silent and Neanderthal they are, the better: Good Will Hunting, Manchester By the Sea, Hostiles, Braveheart… The only thing that can really undo a man is a woman, and the only thing that can save a man is a woman. It’s a line of thinking that is not only played out, but it gives men the ultimate pass. And it has always been dangerous.
This is “Walk Up” culture: a culture of support for the male psyche that comes, overwhelmingly, from concerned female peers. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, as a conservative substitute for the school walkouts held across the nation, some districts and administrators advocated “walking up” to the troubled students in one’s school: the loners, the quiet kids — the possible, future shooters. While the idea of kindness and compassion is thankfully not new, this fresh take had the ludicrous tinge of being offered as an alternative to actual legislative action and adult support for students who feel endangered in their school environments.
Furthermore, who do proponents imagine is doing the “walking up” in such a scenario? As my friend, English professor Amanda Fields of Fort Hays State University, has pointed out, the vast pressure of this effort can only be felt by young women — the young women in any given American school who are worried about the mental and emotional states of the young men around them; girls who feel guilty about a bad breakup, a boy they politely shunned, some kid they really didn’t want to go with to the sophomore dance. Is that grieving, unpredictable white male now going to shoot up his school with his dad’s legal AR, and is it up to this sixteen-year-old girl, between choir practice and math tests, to single-handedly prevent it?
Surely, the onus is not on our elected officials, our school administrators, or our president; it’s not on the NRA or a pervasive gun culture that’s shown itself to be grossly opportunistic at every turn. It’s on young women! While they may not have been the entirety of the problem (some blame must at least rest on the shoulders of young, white men), perhaps they can be our solution!
At no point in the film do we feel that young Simon is going to shoot up anything; his jokey, daffily liberal dad (Josh Duhamel) surely does not own a firearm.
But Martin’s dad might. And that could be very bad. Martin’s got all the markers: he’s unbalanced, over-the-top, needy, white, and extremely sensitive. He really might — it crosses your mind as you watch — he really might shoot up the school if talented, beautiful Abby is too harsh in her rejection.
Of course, Abby insists to the people around her, “Martin’s really not so bad! He’s kind of fun.” Abby is a Good Girl extraordinaire. I know what that is like because I am one, too. I know what that is like because my middle school went through one of the first school shootings in the nation, in the early nineties. Listen up: good girls cannot prevent school shootings. The only match for a bad guy with a gun is not a good girl with a heart of gold.
For all his blindness to his female friends’ emotion in Love, Simon, our sweet protagonist does get a brief comeuppance near the film’s end. Still, it’s a slap on the wrist considering the emotional damage he did his female friends and even the potential danger he put Abby in. (Simon repeatedly refers to Martin as a “creep” and advises him to be less of a “creeper,” all while continuing to machinate dates between Simon and Abby. Who’s the creep, Simon?)
Simon’s status as most-deserving-of-audience-empathy is quickly restored, even after a short dressing-down from his friends, when two idiot jocks interrupt the school’s remarkably calm cafeteria hour to impersonate Simon and another “out” student, Ethan, who is black. (Ethan, far more flamboyant than Simon, has been out for some time, but it’s only when Simon’s secret is revealed that the vice-principal, Mr. Worth, quietly dons a small gay-pride pin. This also begs the question — are there any lesbians at this goddamn school?!) Simon’s friends, including the very recently-wronged Leah and Abby, watch with welling eyes as Simon is publicly embarrassed. But the jocks doing the embarrassing are so obviously in the wrong, so garish and stupid, and the rest of the student body so obviously supportive of Simon, that the scene cannot possibly ring true for a large number of gay students throughout the U.S. and the world who find themselves in much more hostile daily environments.
Still, the quick dismissal of the jocks’ mis-stepped parody is cathartic, and a relief. Yes, yes– this is homophobia — shut that shit down. It’s not good for anybody. So, while the jocks’ swift and entirely deserved punishment may feel a little too good to be true (surely one of them has a parent on the school board? or who’s, say, a former football coach who garners great local affection?), it is in keeping with the just, wholesome after-school-special feel of the movie as a whole, one which delves somewhat bravely into tricky issues but reassures us that we will always, together, emerge on the fair and right side.
In fact, I had the sense, while watching Love, Simon, that maybe I was actually watching a very successful movie for middle-schoolers. And while it may not be high praise to say that what you think you’re watching is actually a terrific movie for immature people, it certainly doesn’t negate the film’s purpose. If there’s even one young, white gay kid saved by ‘Love, Simon,’ then the whole enterprise was worth it. I hope those boys absorbed and fed on every word. Let’s just hope the young, impressionable women watching did not absorb quite so much.
Like many people, I’ve been enjoying the recent inundation of movies based on superhero characters, particularly those directed by under-represented groups in the comic book world — Wonder Woman, Black Panther. What I think has struck me most about these films, and the comics they’re based on, is their shared fantasy that, somewhere on earth, secret worlds exist, inhabited by groups of under-represented people.
In both Themyscira and Wakanda, groups of people who’ve had power systematically robbed from them over centuries are granted a secret life where their true power and worth is understood. This trope operates as both an equalizer, and as a gatekeeper too. While it aims for an equalization of power, it also sets up a barrier that lets the underrepresented group control how well it is known. Themyscira and Wakanda are not readily accessible. They hold themselves back. They control their representation and they will call your number when they are ready, in the order received, thank you very much.
And so in this way — having seen all of the recent superhero movies with my daughter, and now Love, Simon, too — I’m almost relieved that Love, Simon missteps so hugely when it comes to young women. I feel almost reassured by its utterly male vision and the fact that this vision cannot know us.