This is the age of #MeToo. This is the age of #TimesUp. This is the age of #BlackLivesMatter, and of social movements that are international, intersectional, transversal and that are not afraid of complexity. What is more, those movements are vocal: if they’re not happy, they’ll make sure you’re aware of it, and fast. They’re asking for more and better representation. If social media was seen as a way for filmmakers to speak to their audiences, they didn’t necessarily anticipate that the audience would talk back.
Social media has changed filmmaking
It’s not uncommon for films to now be at the heart of social media conversations, for issues ranging from how it’s absolutely unrealistic for Thor to just be taking the Jubilee line to get to Greenwich (I mean, come on) qualitative and quantitative improvement of representation of minorities. Social media has actually been a massive factor in hastening better representation on screen.
One film that has tried to use that phenomenon to its advantage is Love, Simon. The film already had a number of advantages on its side: it was adapted from a young adult novel with a substantial following, is the first mainstream American studio coming of age film with a gay lead, and its title can easily be turned into a handy hashtag. #LoveSimon
The film’s deft handling of the early milestones of the gay coming-of-age experience combined with the generic backdrop of American suburbia has made it instantly relatable for gay audiences -both for those in the target age range as well as for those who wish they’d had that film when they were in that age bracket. The fact that a gay story is told on a mainstream scale has spurred a very timely conversation on the virtues of representation for minorities.
It was about time such a story was told in the mainstream, when independent film has been tackling same-sex love since time immemorial with movies such as Call Me By Your Name and the BIFA winning God’s Own Country last year all the way back to My Beautiful Laundrette and Maurice only going back to the 80s.
Love, Simon and representation
For all its undeniable virtues, Love Simon has also been constructively criticised for its politics and tame representation. The eponymous character hammers out to the audience “I’m just like you”, as though the picture-perfect American family we’ve seen so far didn’t show the wide appeal the movie is aiming for. Crucially, Simon is just like us to the point of being borderline bland. Granted, it sort of comes with the territory of the young adult genre. But while the gay lead character struggles with being different, he also shows very little difference.
When he contemplates being out and proud, at some point the future, Simon goes into an imagined song and dance number to a Whitney song (i wanna dance with somebody who loves me) which concludes on him staring into the camera and saying “maybe not that gay”. Just when the movie starts exploring the cultural markers of gay identity, it pushes them away to the margins once again. Let’s not go into the fact that the movie doesn’t explore physical attraction either. Maybe they’re kids, and maybe kids in America don’t do such things. Maybe. Where the film may actually be more successful is in its strategically diverse supporting cast.
In other words, Simon is an incidentally gay character. A 2017 article in Moviemaker magazine argued that incidentally gay characters, i.e. characters whose sexual orientation isn’t a plot point in the story, should have a place being represented by now to normalise representation, and that LGBT+ stories belong in the mainstream as well as in the margins. In that sense, an incidentally gay character who is in the lead of a mainstream movie is right where they should be. And that is where they should have been a long time ago, which is what accounts for a lot of Love, Simon‘s success.
Characters who just happen to be good at representation
I tend to get annoyed at the expression “just happen to”, as in “the character just happens to be gay” or “just happens to be a woman”. Yes, in real life, someone just happens to be this or that, because it doesn’t change anything fundamental about them. However, under the magnifying glass that is a movie camera no one “just happens” to be anything. As the aforementioned article in Moviemaker argued, even if an incidentally this-or-other character causes conversation, it means they’re doing their job.
So how to improve representation on screen? The go-to advice is to take a script that exists, and change the feature of the lead character, to make them incidentally just happen to be good at representation. At age 60, Sharon Stone was asked to play the mother of a romantic lead. She asked to play the romantic lead instead, written as a 25-year-old, thus got an older actress, from the even more underrepresented demographic of women over 80, living legend Ellen Burstyn.
This is a great example of a character who is incidentally played by a great actor, and incidentally lifts everyone in the process.