Let Queer Kids be different

milkboys Articles, Films 31 Comments

This year we’ve seen a number of mainstream stories focusing on straight people’s relationship to queerness — which insist that queer people are “normal” and “just like you!” — rather than queer people’s relationship to their own identities.

The queerest part of Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon — the first major studio release to feature a gay teenage protagonist, which has been warmly received since its premiere last month — isn’t that titular gay teen. Instead, it’s Ethan (Clark Moore), femme and black with a Michelle Obama blowout and a sanguine rejoinder for every bully he encounters, who embodies the familiar high school figure of the kid everyone knew was gay.

The contrast between the two is sharpest following a bullying incident in the school cafeteria, when two jocks dressed like Simon and Ethan jump on a table and pantomime anal sex. Simon runs over, ready to fight them, while Ethan more or less rolls his eyes: To him, this is merely a change in flavor from the usual menu of ridicule. Before Simon can get to them, the drama teacher, Ms. Albright (Natasha Rothwell), marches in and, after a flurry of well-deserved shaming, sends the jocks to the vice principal’s office, along with Simon and Ethan, who wait to receive a forced apology nearly as humiliating as the incident itself.

Waiting with Ethan outside the office, Simon apologizes to Ethan, saying, “Nothing like this ever happened when just you were out.” But by this point in the film, Simon has personally witnessed Ethan getting bullied on at least one other occasion, so we have to suppose what Simon means is, This only used to happen to you. Ethan delivers a brief, moving monologue about his mother’s reaction to his gayness, and her obvious disappointment in who he is — an experience common to queer teens, but seemingly inconceivable to Simon.

In his few minutes of screentime, Ethan is exactly as sidelined in a film about a teen who is gay (but not that gay) as he would be in the hundreds of thousands of high school cafeterias that Ethans must move through. Ethan can’t hide or code-switch the way Simon (Nick Robinson) — white, masculine, conventionally handsome — is able to. Simon spends so much energy on preserving the secrecy of his own homosexuality that he fails to see the pain and danger for queer people who don’t have the luxury of keeping such a secret.

In an op-ed for the New York Times last week, one of a number of pieces to criticize the movie’s love affair with normalcy, activist and writer Jacob Tobia wrote a stirring critique of Ethan’s treatment in Love, Simon. “He is a sideshow, a subtle foil to show how palatable and masculine Simon is.”

Normalcy pervades Love, Simon, from the landscaped, Stepford-y suburb through which its protagonists drive to school to Simon’s parents’ cookie-cutter high school love story. In the film’s opening voiceover, Simon calls himself “normal” more than once, as if in a prima facie defense of his secret homosexuality. I’m gay, but I’m still normal! Even though, obviously, if he truly were like everyone else — that is, straight — there would be no movie to be made.

In a review for Time, critic Daniel D’Addario 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?”

Apparently, it can. Simon’s normalcy is one of the reasons why everyone from grown-up critics to teenagers themselves has loved the movie — it’s following in the footsteps of so many teen rom-coms before it about the lives of conventionally attractive straight kids; shouldn’t queer kids get a “normal” aspirational rom-com too?

Normalcy, after all, doesn’t only feel good — it also has political power. “Gays are just like everyone else” has been the rallying cry of a certain strain of gay liberation, a tactic that succeeded in ending policies like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, toppling the Defense of Marriage Act, and achieving federal marriage equality. And yet these efforts have been criticized from more radical corners of the LGBT community for their focus on issues concerning only the most privileged of Americans. The double-edged sword of normalcy-as-value is that it is always including and excluding with the same stroke.

Ultimately, Simon offers no more queer representation than hyper-mainstream antecedents like Will Truman (Eric McCormack) in Will & Grace, upstanding gay lawyer, or Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) in Philadelphia (1993), upstanding gay lawyer: a poster boy for well-behaved deviance, never forcing straight people to look directly at the boundaries of their world. Simon Spier is basically Wally Cleaver with an iPhone.

“I’m just like you” as an argument for equal treatment suggests that Simon Spier, or any other gay person, deserves respect and understanding by virtue of our similarities with straight people, rather than despite our differences — a construction we’re still being fed in queer media that sets the limits of acceptable queerness at the border of heterosexual comfort. Simon’s opening voice-over leans on his “totally normal” surroundings to excuse his deviation from them, rather than to question the boundaries “normal” builds.

Of course, all teenagers deserve to hear that they aren’t deviants and that they’re worthy of love — but what queer teens may need to hear more than anything is that popular notions of what’s “normal” are what make you feel wrong, or weird, in the first place.

Read on…

Comments 31

  1. I am just glad socially and culturally to see shows that portray diversity of people and also touch on negatives associated.

  2. I saw Love, Simon, a couple of weeks ago. Quite disappointed, to say the least. For me, it turned out to be nothing more than a slick Disney movie [throw in a little High School Musical, while you’re at it] with a ‘gay theme’. And the final kiss? Again, it was nothing more than that one and only kiss for ‘Jonnor’ on The Fosters. It had NO passion whatsoever — jut the prerequisite ‘pecking’ so they could justify the ‘gay theme’ [yeah, I know, there was a little hand-holding too …. WOW!]

    Nick Robinson played a credible character — if you removed the gay element in the story. He’s a good actor, but the combination of him and the director (and possibly the producers as well) simply don’t have any idea of what, how a gay teen is “supposed” to be like (in their minds, anyway).

    Another disappointment was the other character, Ethan — a black. Sorry, but within the entire setting of this movie (location, etc) a black as a romantic partner for Simon not only isn’t “right,” it just doesn’t “cut it” for this type of story. I have nothing against blacks, but ‘Hollywood’ uses blacks just to say they have ‘color’ [they call it “diversity”] in their movies even when it’s obviously ridiculous. If they REALLY wanted diversity, it could and should have been a particular type of Latino or Asian …. yes, Asian — the one “diversity” that Hollywood never seems to think about except to do their accounting or their catering.

    Many stories [scripts] can well have a white-black ‘romantic’ plot, but most of the ones they show are bizarre in that context — but because of the black ‘caucus’, they put a black person in just to say they have a black diversity. That doesn’t always make it correct.

    I know, I’m going to be slammed as some “racist” — but I don’t give a shit. It should be obvious to anyone who watches this movie that a black is simply not right for the real context of this story.

    1. Black?
      Looks somewhat milky coffee colour to me. Same as my husband who is Asian.

      Perhaps you should have said — African American

      1. It’s always a bit cringy to me to see/hear some one use that particular grammatical structure. It seems so…off. “Hes A black”, you’re “A gay”. It seems so, I don’t know…reductive? Like that’s all the subject is, and to me harkens back to a darker time in history (or continuing history for far too many people unfortunately.)

        Over there is a goat, a horse and a black working in the field…

        As for the “normal gay kid”, while I understand the premise of the OP, and mostly agree, there are a couple things to keep in mind. First, the movie needs to have mass appeal. This is not a hard hitting indie flick, and it’s not fair to judge it as so. This is as hard hitting as any nonsense coming of age Rom Com is, and that’s the point.

        The second point I’d like to make, is that not all gay kids are stereotypically “gay”, and maybe it’s okay that this movie talks to those kids a bit more than the out and “flaming queen” types. I’m about as “straight acting” as you’ll find, but it’s not because I’m some oppressed closeted queen just waiting to burst out onto the burlesque stage. I shouldn’t be made to feel bad about that either – to be made to feel bad that I’m somehow “denying who I am” or “not accepting myself” etc etc.

        I’d honestly wonder, if such a study had ever been done, what percentage of gay people are the stereotypical type, and what percentage “appear normal” (for the lack of a better phrase).

        1. “It’s always a bit cringy to me to see/hear some one use that particular grammatical structure. It seems so…off. “Hes A black”, you’re “A gay”. It seems so, I don’t know…reductive?”

          You mean, the same way you use whites?

          1. The same way I use it? I don’t refer to people that way. What a transparent attempt at ascribing a position to me and then arguing against. Just silly.

        2. “This is not a hard hitting indie flick, and it’s not fair to judge it as so. ”

          Why not ? A major studio has considerably more money, resources and supposedly more talent at their disposals. Why not judge them on their content — story, characters, acting abilities? It makes more sense to judge them even more critically (as I did).

      2. African-European American, more likely. In any case, while I’m sure it’s a great series, why are these teens aged 21-26?…

        1. It’s a movie, rather than a series, and using older actors in place of high school kids is common (at least in the US), I suspect mostly because of the difficulty in working with actual kids.

          1. “I suspect mostly because of the difficulty in working with actual kids.”

            No. They used legal adults for 3 main reasons:
            1) Rating — This one is a PG-13 and NOT the R (which it most definitely would have been a few years ago). That translates into a huge ca$h cow that R-rated films might not get.
            2) SEX — Any minor’s Parents would have had a conniption fit if they had supplied a REAL 15-16-17 year old MALE teen playing a GAY role with PDAs. [I won’t even go into any possible semi-nude scenes!]
            3) Tutors — Their expenses and I’ll include working hours as well for minors.

          2. Okay – so you tell me I’m wrong when I say they don’t use age appropriate kids because of the difficulty in working with kids, and then you list 3 of the reasons it’s difficult to work with kids. lol

            Some people just want to argue, whether there’s something to argue about or not.

            Edit: and boy is this method of replying to posts silly. Is this really the best format they could come up with??

          3. “so you tell me I’m wrong when I say they don’t use age appropriate kids because of the difficulty in working with kids,”

            No, I didn’t. I just pointed out 3 reasons why working with the laws make it “difficult.” And it’s not really “difficult” — it’s just primarily more expensive for them — none of those reasons point to “personality” [which is what I thought you were referring] — it’s just the studios not wanting to spend more money — particularly on legal fees.


            “and boy is this method of replying to posts silly. Is this really the best format they could come up with?”

            I’m in total agreement with that.

      3. “Perhaps you should have said — African American”

        No. I can’t stand that term as applied to the ‘typical’ black in America. Why? Because they’re NOT “African American.” There are very few “African-Americans” in America that are under about 60 years old. The vast majority of blacks here are just American — only. Any number of immigrants from Africa during these last 50 years or so is minuscule compared to the general black population.

        1. Fair enough…
          I’ve always thought that African American was a dumb expression too. Even so, people in the USA of African heritage do use the term to describe themselves as they may wish.

          But, it’s your objection to this particular character on basis of race that’s the puzzle. It can’t be his colour because he’s the same colour as and even more light skinned than so very many Asians, South Asians, Hispanics, Amerindians and Latinos etc.

          So, I assume you really object to his presumably African heritage. I also assume the term of reference you use ‘black’ — just means ‘African’ to you. It’s not a colour thing – it’s race.

          You’ll have a hard time justifying your objection to the actor only because of his race.

      4. “But, it’s your objection to this particular character on basis of race that’s the puzzle. … So, I assume you really object to his presumably African heritage.”

        First, I need to ask: Did you watch this movie?

        Secondly, you bring up some good points. My objection to him is on 2 levels: psychologically and the politics of it.

        This is not the platform to go into lengthy discussions on psychology about how I feel about this — but, suffice to say, it isn’t “blatant racism” which is what you’re implying about me. Simply, when I watch a movie, I delve myself into the characters as much as possible within the context of their personalities and the stories [not necessarily the scripts — and they can be different interpretations]. And the character of ‘Simon’, and as well, the person of ‘Nick’ (as I interpret it) simply would not have a black romantic partner. A particular type of Latin [for want of a better ‘description,’ I’ll call it “soft” — and this doesn’t mean “feminine,” either — I would classify it as more “boyish” {this IS high school, after all}] or an East-Asian type. You can disagree or not, it doesn’t matter to me.

        But, primarily, it’s the politics of nearly always inserting a black person into the cast just to provide “diversity” (as I described earlier). They use this “diversity reasoning” to justify getting a black into a character roll even when it simply wouldn’t be right for the story and characters (the actual actors) — thereby pushing out any chances of hiring and highlighting otherwise excellent Asian actors and providing real diversity, not to mention also providing a more correct psychology to certain actors/characters.

        The blacks constantly complain [with lawsuits, no less] about not being in enough movie, TV roles. Their complaints are ridiculous compared to what Asians have suffered in these arts.

        Lastly (and this will be ‘controversial’ in here, I’m sure), on a pure percentage basis [we’ll go with that for now], Asians have been and are proven to be more attractive to whites (generally) than blacks are. Sorry about that, but it’s the truth. You (and others) may not like this assessment, but it’s factual. Check inter-race marriages and general couples to see the facts.

        1. On the Asian greater attractiveness thing ….. probably right.

          Thailand has a major industry based on that.
          And, as mentioned, I’m married to an Asian plus had more Asian BFs than White before eventually getting tied down.

          YAY ! :)

          1. “Thailand has a major industry based on that.”

            Hardly just Thailand. You can’t go into any of the East-SoEast-Pacific Asian countries/islands and not see “industry” based on their attractiveness to Caucasians — and as well, quite a number of blacks. Philippines had nearly as large an industry as Thailand — less so now (because of the likes of Duterte and others before him) but it’s still strong under the waves of tourism.

    2. First, I apologize for not going into more detail or more accurately clarifing what I said:
      “… but the combination of him and the director (and possibly the producers as well) simply don’t have any idea of what, how a gay teen is ‘supposed’ to be like (in their minds, anyway).”

      By “how a gay teen is ‘supposed’ to be like,” I did NOT mean what others said: being a “flaming queen” type or any other “feminized” role. What I meant (and should have said, sorry about that) was that he didn’t demonstrate any real empathy and emotion[al distress] that gays have and show in places where they have been bullied or worse — particularly in “religious” communities. Even “thoughtfully” reading a script in any serious tone doesn’t accomplish this if you haven’t been through the experience yourself. And I say that from experience — I was very “straight-acting” during my high school years and it was at a very private religious [so. baptist] boarding school in Texas, no less but I blended in very well with my mannerisms. For me, it wasn’t an option. It would have been an emotional ‘hell’ if I didn’t — at this school.

  3. Great review Penboy, you comments ring true so I won’t bother seeing this one. I have seen a lot of gay films this last 12 ms and they were all really good, and completely different. I guess Hollywood are starting very tentatively.
    African American is a silly term, its not used anywhere else to name peoples’ ethical geographical origin. What should black Brits call themselves, Caribbean british, african british, Black was a term chosen by the ethnic group once, the term is forever changing, bit like homo, queer, bent, gay used to.

    1. “Great review Penboy, you comments ring true so I won’t bother seeing this one. ”

      Thank you, but I honestly think you SHOULD see it if you can and can spare the cost of a movie. Compare it to what I said, in your own mind. You might think it’s better than I described. [I was drawn into it by the incredibly good looks of Nick Robinson, who I think will bring in MOST viewers.] One thing about gay-themed movies, everyone will leave with their own interpretation of how it was and compare it to their own experiences.

  4. Penboy, I saw the preview and did look easy on the eye.. and like a nice feel good movie, maybe I’ll download and watch at home for this one.

    Racist on this forum strand? where & who??

  5. What’s ironic about the two movies this year (so far), Call Me by Your Name and Love, Simon is that the much smaller, cheaper, and Independent Studio movie has already won so many awards (and even more nominations for awards) compared to what I predict the larger, big-budget, mainline studio will receive. I think that just about the only award Love, Simon will receive is along the line of “Best Screenplay” (if that).

    Also, the majority of positive public reaction for Call Me by Your Name hasn’t been this positive and huge for a gay-themed movie since Brokeback Mountain in 2005 (in religious-infested America).

    Also, what tickles me ‘pink’ and the best of ironies is that the smaller, Independent gay movie was made quite literally in the “back yard” of the homophobic Vatican and that so many people love this film. Kind of tells you something about general populations of societies (in the West, of course). And the larger, mainstream movie made in (supposedly) secular America won’t do nearly as well.

    A partial list of Awards for Call Me by Your Name:

    Oscar Best Adapted Screenplay
    BAFTA Film Award Best Screenplay (Adapted)
    AWFJ EDA Award Best Screenplay, Adapted
    AAFCA Award Top 10 Films
    Austin Film Critics Award Best Actor, Timothée Chalamet
    Austin Film Critics Award Best Adapted Screenplay
    Breakthrough Artist Award Timothée Chalamet

    Nominees for awards: 21

  6. 1. There is only one race. It is the human race.
    2. Slavery is as old as human. Does any one actually believe the thirteen, or so, Walls Of China were a building by volunteers ? Are the Egyptian Pyramids get got by volunteers ? Do the Arabic conquerers in Africa do not sell humans as slaves to the various tribes as such tribes do so already ? How do the Portuguese figure out how to sell to the Spanish to sell to the British to sell to Americans ? They learn also from the Islamic slave dealers as well as from the other African slave dealers. DUH. The Japanese do not have geisha slaves as any different from the Koreans, who always have a similar, as do the Chinese. Who builds palaces and temples all over the world ? NOT volunteers. SLAVERY aint anything newer than other than humans are new. The individual particulars are as various as humans can be. Slaves are slaves, whatever the personal.
    3. Faggotry is as old as human. Male fucking yields no babies to have to work with (or, kill). Kings want slaves, not challengers. Oedipus Rex is a story about lions killing their enemy. NEW ? UNUSUAL ? As old as the Greeks making Greece by enslaving the original occupants.
    4. Horny men want something to fuck. Please understand the military.
    4.a FUCK is NOT a sexual word … except as it is in such use. The word comes from USE or GET BY FORCE. ha ha ha. As old as faggotry. Boy fuck victims are as old as male horny.
    5. NORMAL versus DEVIENT is a power struggle. A deviant normal is as real as the struggle. WHY is homosexuality a deviance ? Saint Augustin is an obvious atheist as well as clearly a faggot. Deviant ? DUH.
    6. GAY, HOMO, QUEER, BENT, or ”deviant” places to go for ”alternative” sex are as old as alcohol, poppy seeds, and sex. The Chinese Secret Palace has its private sex area as does Emperor Constantine in his time.
    7. Why is NORMAL versus HOMO different ? Since when ? ha ha ha

    1. The pyramids were not built by slaves or volunteers, but by paid workers. They were actually employees in the service either of Pharaoh or the priests of the Temples (depending on the specific nature of their work).

      Oh, and lay off the firewater.

      1. “They were actually employees in the service either of Pharaoh or the priests of the Temples …”

        And you say this, because ……., you’ve been privy to their contract …. on papyrus?

        1. Wut? Really?
          Google (“who built the pyramids”) is your friend. But surely you know that.

  7. The PYRAMIDS of Egypt are not a result of workers getting ‘pay’. Nor are the various Chinese Walls builders receiving ‘pay’. Nor do the blacks who go shopping for their white owners get ‘pay’. Money changes hands and some slaves steal enough for their freedom. ‘PAY’ for slavery is as old as whores getting it. FREEDOM is a very real thing. The Phoenicians keep books of accounts … and slavery is accountable. Equaling the Aztec accounts payables, alphabet irrelevant. ‘PAY’ for a slave is as old as boys and girls getting ‘pay’ to do it, today, as, well, as when ever. Slavery is slavery, ‘pay’ or no … refuse the ‘pay’ and see what happens. The modern terrorists ‘pay’ the families for their killer and suicide people. SLAVERY aint new.

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