Popular Gay Media Is Still Focusing On Straight Acceptance, Rather Than Celebrating Queer Difference

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.

Love, Simon was released on the heels of Netflix’s reboot of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (now shortened to just Queer Eye), which invoked a similar “we’re just like you!” message in order to hold the attention of the widest (read: straightest) possible audience.

The clearest success of the reboot is an episode titled “To Gay or Not Too Gay,” the subject of which is a semi-closeted gay man, in a relationship and out to his close friends but not to his stepmother. His week with the Fab Five seems to be the first significant amount of time he’s spent with other gay men outside his immediate circle, talking openly about femininity, masculinity, queerness, and the challenge of living authentically, however that may look. For as eyeroll-inducing as much of the rest of the season is (what, truly, is the point of teaching a 36-year-old man not to wear gym shorts to a restaurant?), this episode is a touching example of the power of queer community and gay role models in the process of coming out, to others and to oneself.

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.

But the queer guy’s queer eye begins and ends with this episode, the rest having the tone of an alien abduction: five gay men descending on an unsuspecting, middle-aged hetero to change the way he sees the world forever. This ambush is some of the fun of the show, which leans into it — the Fab Five gently ransacking every room in the house for missteps to be corrected in the ensuing half hour. The show’s reception has been fervid across the demographic board, earning glowing reviews from my queer contemporaries as well as their parents and straight roommates. It was announced that the show will have a second season, and though Netflix notably does not make its ratings information public, the volume of coverage Queer Eye has received speaks to its cultural impact.

An interesting change from the show’s original run, in addition to dropping “for the Straight Guy” from its title, is that the Fab Five are no longer based in New York City, but Atlanta, a locale perhaps more in need of changed hearts and minds in 2018 than New York. Makeover recipients ranged, controversially, from a cop to a Trump voter. And like Love, Simon, the new Queer Eye often takes pains to highlight the similarity of its Fab Five hosts to their mostly straight subjects, by demonstrating, as interior designer Bobby puts it, that “it doesn’t matter if it’s gay or straight — the common thread that holds every human together is that we just wanna be loved.”

Bryan Lowder at Slate notes this line from Bobby, as well as one from “culinary maven” Antoni: “The mission here is to ‘figure out how we’re similar, as opposed to how different we are.’” But in fact, Lowder, argues, Queer Eye “shows exactly the opposite: that these gays are very different from their patients, and that it is precisely that difference that’s so valuable to the show’s project.”

Like Queer Eye, Love, Simon is ultimately too focused on straight people’s relationship to queerness, rather than queer people’s relationship to their own experience of being queer.

Coming out has two sides: telling the people around you, and coming to terms with yourself as a queer person. Love, Simon portrays the latter experience in a brief montage in which Simon googles “how to dress like a gay guy” and tries on a few new outfits from what I imagine is Gap, if my own gay suburban experience is any indication. The former stage, talking to straight people about it, makes up much of the film’s third act, in which each of Simon’s family members and close friends takes center stage to deliver a monologue of their own thoughts on his gayness, and how okay they are with it.

Jennifer Garner’s speech is the most touching of the sequence; she says she could tell he’d been living with a secret, and tells him, “You get to exhale now.” It’s a beautiful moment between mother and son, and one that’s been compared to the speech Michael Stuhlbarg gives to Timothée Chalamet toward the end of Call Me by Your Name. But it’s also ultimately a straight person giving a queer person permission to be queer. Despite the gay figurehead of Love, Simon, the film’s heroes are the straight people in Simon’s life who accept him and celebrate the opportunity to demonstrate their generosity and open-mindedness.

Compare the straight vacuum of Love, Simon to something like Fun Home. Writer and artist Alison Bechdel recalls the first time she saw an adult lesbian when she was just a child, and feeling ineffably drawn to her presence — the way the other woman carried herself in dungarees and lace-up boots, with a large ring of keys at her waist. “It was like I was a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home,” adult Alison intones in a narration. “Someone they’ve never met before but somehow just recognizes.” The detail and private shock of “Ring of Keys” gives me chills, and reveals the deep darkness of the closet as not merely sexual, or on the level of romantic involvement, but in the way one seems to oneself, as compared to others. The fear that prevents people from coming out is not as simple as wondering whether one's family or friends will treat one differently, or will understand. That’s all part of the process, certainly. But the deeper cut of acceptance is self-acceptance and self-identification: What does it mean to be a gay person?

Popular queer media of the past few years has been unusually recursive, from the return of Will & Grace, which originally ran from 1998 to 2006, to the Netflix reboot of Queer Eye, which originally ran for four years beginning in 2003, the year the American Dialect Society declared “metrosexual” its word of the year. The intervening decade-plus has presented an increasingly textured landscape of queer-centric media, from Transparent to Moonlight to RuPaul’s Drag Race, which only makes the glassy agreeability of Love, Simon feel somehow antique, a product that might have felt like a sensible stair-step a decade ago but now seems like passed hors d’oeuvres after the entree course.

The notion that audiences, queer, teenage, or otherwise, might benefit from what amounts to a media reenactment of the year 2005 is bizarre, and dispiriting to the progress that seems to have been made since then. Products like Will & Grace and Queer Eye were boundary-pushing in their time, and achieved, in their own ways, the kind of mainstream eye-opening that their re-creations now claim to want to push for anew. It was less of a risk in 2017 than it was in 1998 for NBC to greenlight a sitcom about a gay lawyer and his only gay friend — particularly if it’s the exact same sitcom, now with a built-in audience, hungry for nostalgia. Compare the level of risk in a Will & Grace reboot with the risk Fox has taken in the story of a white, straight-passing, conventionally attractive bro type like Simon, and the big-hearted studio heroics seem to shrivel a bit.

The love and acceptance Simon receives is inconceivable still for many queer teens without the buffers of whiteness, wealth, or traditional masculinity.

There is something snobbish, perhaps, in asking more of Love, Simon from a longer view of queer culture, when there’s such uncomplicated joy to be had in accessing something that never existed previously, however flawed. For a generation that didn’t see Brokeback Mountain in theaters, and never had to suffer Brüno (2009), why should the banal tenderness of Love, Simon be something worthy of criticism?

I have to believe criticism is a worthwhile endeavor — one that leads to pushed boundaries and calls for broader representation in queer media — but it is also exhausting to qualify enjoyment so thoroughly. For a generation of queer people, the nostalgia of Will & Grace or a new Queer Eye may be the memory of not having to think so hard about what’s in the media you consume, and whether it’s Good or Bad for the cause. It seems a shameful wish to cop to in 2018, when there is so much still to fight for. But simplicity for its own sake, appreciated for its lack of challenging complexity, is empty cultural calories. Love, Simon may be a fine snack, but must we call it a meal?

Like Simon’s dressed-down hunkiness, lazy nostalgia is a privilege afforded those for whom it has indeed gotten better, like YouTube promised it would. More Will & Grace will not likely broaden queer acceptance more than Will & Grace already has. The same more or less goes for Queer Eye, even though the reboot is conquering new ground, at least geographically. Love, Simon is aimed at a younger audience than either show, and much of its positive coverage has focused on what it will mean for queer teens to see an approximation of their experience on a movie screen. By all accounts it seems to mean a great deal to a great many. But the love and acceptance Simon receives, from his family, his friends, and dozens of high school extras, is inconceivable still for many queer teens without the buffers of whiteness, wealth, or traditional masculinity — a fact that makes Love, Simon either an empowering aspirational fantasy or a gross oversimplification of young queer experience in America. Or, likelier, both. ●

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