Love, Simon: A Love Letter to Homonormativity
Your ideas about who you are don't just come from inside you, they come from the culture and in this culture, they come especially from the movies. So, we learn from the movies what it means to be a man or a woman, what it means to have sexuality.” - Richard Dyer, The Celluloid Closet, 1995.
“[Homonormativity is] a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them while promising the possibility of a demobilised […] privatised, depoliticised gay culture” – Lisa Duggan, The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism, 2002.
When I was 14, I went through a phase of doing everything to look gay. To blare it, gargle it, crank it out through my dress-sense, my animated way of walking, and lilted voice. I wanted people - my classmates, my teachers - to know I was gay. I was a living Stonewall promotional poster.
Googling the screen times, I caught a viewing of director Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon in my hometown; six years after I finished high school. Donned in a black leather jacket, I was more Grease extra now than Kurt Hummel. It had been four days since its release and three years since the book it was based on, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, came out. The theatre was moderately packed, catching the 5:15pm showing on a sleepy Sunday evening. All young teens. No surprise considering Berlanti has helmed YA staples Dawson’s Creek and Riverdale,
“I’m just like you,” Simon Spier, played by Nick Robinson, says. With his Banana Republic face and tol frame, Simon is decidedly normal. In his landscaped home and manicured family, the first thing we see is his family buying him a minivan complete with over-sized red bow. Immediately, we know two things, Simon comes from a wealthy and dizzyingly attractive family (just look at Josh Duhamel’s arms?) and has a face like a squinting DiCaprio. But he has a "huge-ass" secret; he’s gay.
With parents who follow the Danny Tanner Guide to Raising Children, Simon is surrounded by suburban support. At school, the sole reference to an openly gay person Simon encounters is Ethan (Clark Moore); a femme and black individual with a Michelle Obama blowout. When first introduced, cutting after a short montage of typical high-school motifs (think hyper-PDA couples and Lego mini-fig cheerleaders) is Ethan being bullied by two jockey seniors. The two streamline together into a familiar Ryan Murphy tragicomic of the effeminate gay kid being bashed but, no worries, he can throw a rosey rejoinder back.
“None of this ever happened when it was just you out,” Simon says to Ethan. But it did. It has always happened. Simon sputters this following a bullying incident in the school cafeteria and the two character’s reactions caustically characterise them; Simon is ready and rearing to fight, while Ethan sharply eye-rolls in the background. This is new territory to Simon who, while never a popular jock, seemingly had no trouble in smoothly navigating the hallways undetected. Kinda like the Netflix original Girl Boss.
Now suddenly an outsider too, the two talk sitting outside the Principal’s office. Ethan delivers a short monologue on his mother’s disappointment in who he is, offering an acrid contrast to Simon’s own plastic experiences. The scene offers a brief view into an axis of queerness regularly ignored and as much as Ethan’s mere presence works to flout that, it in proxy to Simon strengthens just how palatably masculine Simon is.
The movie, though a relatively low-key affair visually, opens some big questions about gay representation in movies - what is the right way to depict the gay experience nowadays? Is there even a right way, and thus a wrong way? It’s undoubtedly a sign of progress that we’re not having the same exasperating conversation we used to have about side-lined queer characters, often stereotyped or desexualized. But as the conversation has changed overtime, in these inflections we only find limitations. The further we get from the collective frustration of the past, the narrower our sense of ‘authentic’ has become.
Love, Simon with its iced coffees and denim, depicts a decidedly post-gay vibe. It is, in a sense, looking to stress a safe normalcy, a homonormativity. The concept rethinks the ideas of rights-based activism, saying that some strives towards equality – marriage, adoption, health care – are steps taken towards flattening our colourful, sequinned history. ‘Normal’ is thrown in abandon by Simon, stressing that he can still have a “totally, perfectly normal life” despite being gay. He’s even nicknamed ‘Simple Simon’. But even if a gay person does hold such a limited review of themselves, this soapy glimpse into gay lives amounts to nothing more than a press release on homosexuality for straights.
Critics have focused on this, kicking off the tried-and-true practice of tearing it down for not being representative enough, or not correctly representative in some crucial way. These critics act as lodestars of an eternally mispresented and erased community trying to forge a gay mainstream.
Indeed, there is a conversation to be had about the media’s approach to, or lack of rather, to how we imagine race, gender, age, and socioeconomic status in and of queer peoples. As much as Love, Simon invites its audience to question being gay in a heteronormative world, we’re left knowing that the complexities of being a queer individual is something the film won’t touch on. Leaving it destined, as David Sims of The Atlantic opined, the “…kind of movie you could easily catch up with on cable TV years later and forget just as quickly.”
What Love, Simon does is show the world that yes, gay people too can be boring. They (just like you!) can lead dull, prosaic lives. Simon’s headline is that he’s gay, but apart from that, what can you distil about him that’s vaguely interesting? I could imagine Simon’s Tinder bio would just read “I don’t know why I’m on here. Guess I’ll try it out.” A bio similar to my thoughts before watching the film.
There was a time when such an obvious truth of the ordinariness of gay folk may have needed stating. When decreeing it on a major studio release film not pitched at niche, arthouse audiences, would have been a pioneering one. In attempting to appeal to the biggest possible crowd, Greg Berlanti’s film is ground-breaking in the same way a Will and Grace reboot is; not necessarily needed, but welcomed nevertheless.
The night before coming out to my mother, my father side-barred me having just come home from working late at a conference. He told me, in post-watershed detail, all about the female burlesque group the company hired during the intermission. I never came out to my father, instead relying on my mother to tell him on my behalf. Simon, speaking to his father, breaks down. The tender conversation between the two is something I never had with my father and reminded me that for a generation too young for Brokeback Mountain and too old Glee, a movie like this when I was 16 could have been potentially life-changing.
As I left the screening and trailed a group of 13-year olds squealing about how amazing the film was, I texted my mother if she knew; a question that Simon asks his mother (Jenifer Garner) too in a climactic scene. She replies almost instantly with a terse yes, detailing how she knew the day I came home with a bejewelled paper handbag I had made. It was then that I realised that if I were a character in Love, Simon, I would be nothing more than a punchline. The film, as truly ground-breaking and endearingly beautiful as it is, remains a coda to a homonormativity of Old Navy plaid shirts and straight-cut denim jeans.