LOVE, SIMON Vs. The Heterosexual Agenda

Is Simon's story a form of queer erasure?

It's no secret that I love Love, Simon, and I've eagerly awaited the Blu-ray release so that I might revisit its pleasures. The film is a smart, funny teen comedy with a tremendous amount of heart that understands the internal conflicts of coming out as gay in America today, at least so far as those experiences relate to a white suburban teenager.  But not everyone thinks so, and a surprising amount of criticism I have seen comes from within the queer community, pointing to this film as a milquetoast attempt at normalization that sands away the rough edges of key aspects of queer expression and experience, with some opinions going so far as to say that Simon is a character reductively presented to be the safest gay protagonist for straight audiences.

And those aren't perspectives without merit or support within the film's text. Simon spends a large portion of the film's opening monologue reassuring the audience that he is just like them, i.e., the nominally straight moviegoers that would need to turn out to support a wide-release studio film such as this one. Simon is a normal kid as seen in any other teen movie, with relatable friends, a healthy relationship with his family, and with priorities focused on getting through senior year before the expanded worldview of college. In other words, the film supposedly presents him as coded straight, but his gayness drives the plot in ways completely divorced from his outwardly manifested attitude and mannerisms; he's the every-kid hero of any high school movie.

This has been cause for concern for some because the notion that gay folks and straight folks are fundamentally the same carries the risk of gay culture being sublimated into the straight hegemony, with forms of traditionally gay expression integrated into the dominant straight culture while gay identity is scrubbed of unique artistry, even as gay rights and freedoms are still under constant attack. To some queer viewers, Love, Simon represents a step in the wrong direction, a proclamation that queer identity needs to make itself more palatable to straight sensibilities in order to be accepted and fully integrated into straight society-at-large.

However, I think there are some fundamental flaws with how that reasoning is applied to Love, Simon, particularly concerning how much of the criticism seems to be levied at Simon as a character. Despite what many caricaturists have tried to portray for decades, there are no such thing as universal signifiers that someone is gay. Simon does not display a feminine affect, but neither is he a bastion of hypermasculinity; he's fairly average as far as teenage eccentricities are concerned, a cisgender young man who hasn't found much cause to explore variant forms of gender expression. He's behaved as he has for all his life, and that normalcy informs his development into adulthood just as it would for any teenager. In other words, he approaches the performative aspects of his personality like many other teenagers, with trepidation but ultimately with a sense that he's just trying to be himself.

And there's nothing wrong with being gay and not necessarily identifying with the rainbow flamboyance of Pride parades or placing one's sexuality at the forefront of one's daily interactions, just as there's absolutely nothing wrong with doing just that. Queer identity is not a monolith of tropes and behaviors, but a spectrum of characteristics historically deemed worthy of ostracizing. The people embodying the conflated characteristics of sexual and gender-expressive deviancy, as defined by a straight hegemony, banded together to stand in solidarity as queer. But those expressions that are generally portrayed as queer culture are not exactly representative of queer experience as a whole, and particularly for someone in Simon's shoes, without queer friendships informing his self-perception or influencing him except through the lens of straight suburbia, it's entirely reasonable for him to develop as a relatively straight-presenting individual. And to invalidate his gay identity for that would invalidate the identities of all the gay kids who feel similarly to him, unattracted or unexposed to popular queer culture regardless of whether or not they had the opportunities for exposure or the inclination to integrate decidedly queer presentation into their daily lives.

But even as Simon's monologue at the start of the film is used to justify a dismissal of Love, Simon as straight-baiting faux liberalism, doing so ignores a major part of Simon's character arc (as well as the fact that this monologue also serves as the first message to fellow gay love interest Blue). I made a point in my review of pointing out that Simon approaches his sexuality without shame, that he is not ashamed of being gay but instead worries that the way he is perceived by his friends and family will change in ways that he is not ready for. And while that isn't shame of himself, it doesn't mean that Simon doesn't have his own kind of internalized homophobia, a shame in the way gay identity diverges from his self-perception.

Enter Ethan, an openly gay and decidedly effeminate classmate whom Simon, at least at the film's beginning, looks to with a mixture of envy, for being so much of a gay cliché that Ethan is out of the closet from obvious necessity, and disappointment, that Ethan represents the expectation of who Simon should be should he decide to come out. Ethan isn't a large player in Simon's story, but he's an outward manifestation of Simon's internal conflict, an unwillingness on Simon's part to let his sexuality, a defining part of who he is, dictate the entirety of his public perception. But after Simon is forcibly outed and Ethan and Simon become the targets of a homophobic bullying stunt, the two share a moment of empathy as they wait outside the vice principal's office. Ethan expresses to Simon that being true to himself is difficult not because of the world's assholes, but because his own family tries to hide his queerness, yet he is out and proud because it's better than pretending to be someone he isn't. Simon's behavior isn't coded as recognizably gay, but the film demonstrates that being a person with a stereotypically gay personality doesn't make grappling with gay identity any easier, nor is it an experience that has to define Simon's own queerness.

The emotional centerpiece of the whole film comes when Simon speaks one-on-one with his mom after coming out. She says that the past few years he's seemed like he was holding his breath, rigidly holding something inside himself that he was afraid of letting out. But she tells him something so simple and affirming: he can exhale. Now that he's out, he can be more himself than he has in a long time. Simon's story is one of queer coming-of-age, and though the film doesn't show us how he'll develop and integrate queerness into his public face, it's made clear that the potential to do so is there. He's no longer afraid of being open, and that opens up new avenues for him to define his queerness however he chooses.

It's fine to not like Love, Simon. If you're queer and didn't find that this story spoke to your experiences, that's more than fine. Not all films are for all people, and even films that appeal to the queer community don't need to appeal universally, as the queer community itself isn't beholden to a universal hierarchy of priorities and preferences. You might not find the film particularly funny, or you may not think it well performed, and I will vehemently disagree with you on those points but I will respect that the film didn't work for you. But there's something disingenuous in the assertion that Love, Simon isn't queer enough. It's a queer teen comedy marketed for mass appeal, and its success is a testament to the social progress that brought us to this point. To deny Simon his queerness is to deny the queerness of the closeted teens in similar positions, unsure of their place in the world and unable to explore those repressed facets of themselves. And with its CW teen comedy-drama sensibilities, this is clearly a film made for them. Let's let the teens have their movie, and maybe that will mean that more folks who relate to Simon's conflict will find the courage to show themselves to the world, in whatever form they choose.

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