“I have no doubt that Love, Simon means well. But writers still make the key decision to prioritize masculinity over female and femme representation."
Title: Love, Simon (2018)
Director: Greg Berlanti 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈
Writers: Original novel by Becky Albertalli 👩🏼🇺🇸 and screenplay by Isaac Aptaker 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Elizabeth Berger 👩🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon is a simplistic film that borrows much from predecessors, whether it be major studio rom-coms or smaller films that feature coming-out storylines the likes of Maurice (1987) or Geography Club (2013). But what Berlanti does borrow, he executes with expert precision, leveraging the familiar as launching pad for a crucial step forward as he helms the first LGBTQ film to see a wide theatrical release with the backing of a major studio (20th Century Fox). This milestone may be a long, long time coming, but it remains an important one to finally cross.
The classic markers of a teen drama are all present and resonant as ever: adolescent insecurities, friendships under duress, unrequited love, and subterfuge in the face of seemingly clueless parents. I watched the film with tempered expectations; the trailer was so saccharine, I couldn’t help but feel this was intended for predominately straight and older audiences—viewers dipping their toes into “queer media” for a self-congratulatory peek.
But as soon as the synth pop hit my ears, I dropped any preconceived notions about whether or not I would like the film, and I just...well...liked it. It's almost impossible to turn away from the ear candy, quick pacing, and tried-and-true romantic setups of Love, Simon.
The women of Love, Simon are second-class citizens in a film that centers the narrative of Simon (Nick Robinson) who grapples with male love interests and a male antagonist, Martin (Logan Miller). The most complex characters are Simon and Martin and they drive the story’s progression while undergoing personal transformations themselves.
Simon does hold relationships with an array of women, such as his mother, younger sister, childhood friend Leah, and newer friend Abby—played by Jennifer Garner, Talitha Eliana Bateman, Katherine Langford, and Alexandra Shipp. But despite their positive spins as modern women, they ultimately remain flotsam and jetsam in the tidal wave of Simon’s emotional upheavals.
Specifically, I didn’t love seeing Simon manipulate his female friends Leah and Abby. The reasoning for his behavior is believable and embedded into the plot: he is blackmailed by Martin, a theater geek who threatens to out Simon unless he helps him “get” Abby. Simon reluctantly goes along with this plan. Thankfully, the film calls out Simon for enabling Martin’s predatory behavior, but it’s too little, too late. By the time the script punishes him for his wrongdoings, we’ve already spent the majority of the film seeing women as movable chess pieces. Besides, Simon is never in any real danger of having to suffer consequences for his actions. We all know his friends are going to forgive him, regardless of how skin-crawling it is that Simon let an entitled creep harass and badger his friend, who is visibly uncomfortable with his presence in multiple scenes. On a positive note, however, I loved the way that the rom-com staple of The Grand Gesture gets turned on its head, as the film shows how fucked up it is to put women on the spot by having men ask them out in a very public and high-pressure situation.
Overall, the careless handling of Leah and Abby is a shame because the writers succeed in making them wonderful, relatable, and gently flawed characters. They’ve made us care about them, so it’s that much more disappointing that Leah and Abby never get the chance to make their own decisions or to connect with each other, or with other women. Even accounting for offscreen development, Abby and her friend Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) pursue a romantic relationship while Simon’s parents plan each other’s gifts for their upcoming wedding anniversary. All the while, female relationships are glaringly absent from Love, Simon.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 0% of creative decision-makers were POC (!!!)
Love, Simon harbors no creatives of color behind the camera, yet Berlanti and writers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger succeed in tapping their powers of empathy to portray non-white characters with depth.
Yes, the narrative is centered from a white perspective. Simon is white, his family is white, and the majority of his potential love interests are white. On the plus side, we see characters of color take part in significant roles that are crucial to the plot:
- Among his three best friends, two are non-white: Abby is played by Alexandra Shipp, who is biracial black and white, while Nick is played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr. of Dominican descent.
- Simon’s primary love interest, the studly Bram, is played by Keiynan Lonsdale who is also biracial black and white.
- Although he doesn’t see a ton of screen time, Ethan’s role as the one kid who is already out of the closet is necessary to Simon’s development. It’s good to see this film nod towards intersectionality, as Ethan is an original character not present in the source novel. He is played by Clark Moore, an actor who is black and gay. Unfortunately, his character is ostracized for being outwardly feminine, and the prioritization of more masculine LGBTQ characters such as Simon and Bram begins to flirt with problematic territory of femmephobia that we’ll get into in the next section. I do want to mention, however, that I am glad to see the inclusion of Ethan as he was clearly drawn with good intentions. His clumsy execution gives us a jumping point for discussion, with the hopes that writers will learn and grow in future works.
Meanwhile, Love, Simon also slips into tropeish territory with another role. The theater teacher, Ms. Albright, played by Natasha Rothwell, shows up as a “sassy black woman”. Her comedic chops are solid, as one should expect from an SNL alum who is also currently making waves in Issa Rae’s Insecure. But the writers pigeonhole her as the plus-sized, finger-wagging, African-American Vernacular English (AAVE)-speaking woman who swoops in with funny quips but is otherwise irrelevant to the plot. She even gets dropped into a lazy savior scene, helping Simon fend off high school bullies so that he doesn’t have to. Her verbal smackdown is meant to be an applause-garnering denouement, but instead, merely falls flat by its overt retreading of familiar territory.
I don’t say this to dissuade writers from black women into small, comedic roles. But it’s highly possible to do this without devolving into caricature; Michaela Coel in Chewing Gum harbors frenetic energy but is awkward and unsure. Tiffany Haddish could easily fall into this trope, with her heavy usage of AAVE and big personality that pretty much defines “sassy”, but the roles she has chosen largely feature her signature raunchiness as something that is uniquely Haddish rather than caricatured. I could go on all day with positive examples of black characters who sidestep the “sassy black woman” trope. Perhaps this is where an authentic voice behind the camera would have lent itself to a more nuanced character without losing any of the wonderful vigor that Rothwell injects into her scenes.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +0.50
I’d love to add a full bonus point for the normalization of gay and bisexual teens in Love, Simon, which is an important barrier to break in mainstream cinema. But we have to interrogate our own victories and ask: Are we bringing everyone with us, or are we marginalizing others on the road to onscreen representation?
I have no doubt that Love, Simon is well-meaning but nonetheless, it falls into the latter group with its prioritization of mascs over femmes. A quick refresher from Gina Tonic on Bustle: a femme is “a queer person who presents and acts in a traditionally feminine manner.” Naturally, a masc is the opposite—someone who presents as traditionally masculine.
With this in mind, Love, Simon depicts a lone black femme, Ethan, as the local punching bag for trollish classmates. The film attempts to paint Ethan as a strong character, as we see him fend for himself through shade, reading, and other sassy verbal defenses. Yet, Simon is somehow saved from having to do any of this legwork. Through either the guiding wisdom of Ethan who has single-handedly taken the brunt of these abuses for years now, or by Ms. Albright who swoops in to defend Simon from those same foes when they turn their nastiness to him—where was Ms. Albright when Ethan was getting the same crap?—the film has prioritized Simon’s well-being over Ethan’s. The fact of Simon being white and masc is a visible contrast to Ethan, who is black and femme.
This subconscious value put in "male” over “female” characterizations shares an ugly overlap with misogyny. Apparently, it doesn’t matter where you come from—femininity will always be seen as less desirable than masculinity. Lucky us!
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.25/5
Unlike recent films Moonlight (2017) or Call Me By Your Name (2017), both of which challenge and push LGBTQ cinema in different ways, Love, Simon instead makes inroads with mainstream audiences who are only just now embracing the baseline humanity of individuals who remain comfortably white, male, and cisgender. For this reason, the film can feel a bit pandering at times, as if we should be congratulating it for basic decency and ignoring the way it continues to posit femmes as “other”.
Still, as someone whose sensibilities has never been pandered to in media, I soaked up this film like parched earth. The catchy soundtrack, high production values, and unusual joy of seeing a sweet romance uncomplicated with terrible gender and racial stereotyping was something that I devoured.
I hope future works build on what Love, Simon has spoonfed to the masses. LGBTQ protagonists of all walks of life should get the opportunity to thrive onscreen, as each person is deserving of protection and love.