When Looking first premiered in HBO in 2014, it promised to be a series that would explore, with some rainbow thoroughness, the ferris wheel of gay lives, at least that which can be found in and around San Francisco. Created with intimate care by Michael Lannan, it was also a television show shaped from the creative genius of Andrew Haigh, its director, someone who had previously given us Weekend in 2011, a now iconic gay drama about two men hitting it up for a one-night stand, but find themselves incredibly drawn to each other’s lives.
I loved Looking; it was a well-written, well-directed, well-acted series that was both romantic and realistic, with characters that were complex, in equal measure infuriating and relatable. I loved it the most for what it promised: gay lives in mainstream culture, necessary representation in the checkered history of the LGBT in television.
But what was surprising for me were the criticisms lobbied at it from the most unlikely source: gay men. What was wrong with Looking, according to them? It was too white. It was not diverse enough. It was too sexy. It was too vanilla. There were no lesbians. It was too romantic. It was not romantic enough. Et cetera, et cetera—and at the end of it all, the show lasted only two seasons and a movie, eventually cancelled.
And so we are largely back to live in a world where television is predominantly heterosexual. The Real O’Neals was uproarious and promising—but that got cancelled, too. Thank God at least for the revival of Will and Grace and Queer Eye, and the juggernaut of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has become such a mainstream pleasure, it’s incredible how much cache it has come to carry.
In the movies, at least in American cinema, we’ve had a breakthrough of sorts with Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight surprising everyone for exceeding its indie roots, and came to be the cinematic critical darling of 2016, eventually winning the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017—and fulfilling the promise denied Ang Lee’s seminal Brokeback Mountain which lost that same accolade to the bewildering bleeding heart that is now the much-maligned film Crash. Moonlight may have won film’s top prize in recent memory—but it is still largely a product of independent efforts; it didn’t start as a mainstream studio offering, embraced only by everyone else when it proved too big to ignore.
Can there be a film about gay and queer people from a studio with a mainstream sensibility, essentially constituting an effort at cracking this particular glass ceiling? The conventional wisdom has always been that gay lives could never be embraced by mainstream cinema; films of that sensibility could never turn a profit—because apparently there is only a miniscule audience for such—hence, gay lives could never be taken seriously as a subject matter fit enough for multiplexes. They tried in 1982, when 20th Century Fox made Making Love, directed by Arthur Hiller. It proved to be a box office disappointment, and the reviews were withering—although it has of late garnered a cult following, making it a mainstream film truly ahead of its time. The traditional home for gay-centric films has always been the independent cinema scene, where the taboos—because the distribution is niche—are often broken, and sincere filmmaking has always been the vanguard. To list all the gay films made from this side of world cinema is to risk overindulgence. There has been hundreds, a lot of them good, and many of them fantastic—Moonlight is only one of the most recent efforts. In 2017 alone, there has been Call Me By Your Name, Beach Rats, Princess Cyd, BPM, Thelma, God’s Own Country, Patay na si Hesus, 4 Days in France, A Fantastic Woman, Strong Island, Paris 05:59: Théo and Hugo, 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten, Battle of the Sexes, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and The Ornithologist.
Here comes Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon—a film from Fox 2000 Pictures, essentially from the same studio that gave us Making Love. (You have to hand it to Fox for trying.) The film, about a teenager who feels compelled to confront his own gayness when an anonymous persona starts posting about being gay in an online school forum, is based on the popular YA novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. I expected to like Berlanti’s heart-fluttering adaptation of the book—given that he directed The Broken Hearts Club in 2001, a film that was quite impactful for me when I was a much younger man.
I did not expect myself, however, to tear up near the end, to see a gay version of the pivotal moment in Never Been Kissed. And it occurred to me that representation indeed counts, and in the movies much more so.
But this one had a bit more gravity that it purports to be about an ordinary boy perfectly accepting of the fact that he’s gay. No self-hating angst here, no terrors of the closet; the landslide that he has to navigate through is not even about the usual self-pitying refrains about having to hide; it’s about the repercussions of having to lose love.
During one dramatic highlight in the film, Nick Robinson as the titular hero, upon being outed online to the rest of the school, tells his sister matter-of-factly: “Why should I deny [being gay]? It’s not something I’m ashamed of.” And that statement felt very revolutionary, indeed, to be uttered in a mainstream teen romantic comedy.
Most older gay people I know who have seen this movie has said variations of the same sentence: they wished this movie came out when they were teenagers. I completely understand that sentiment. I wished I saw this when I was younger.
But still the criticisms of the film from a gay men—particularly of an older generation who just cannot buy the romantic premise of the movie. A friend of mine commented: “I heard this joke before, maybe it was a punchline in a sitcom, or perhaps a stand-up comic’s schtick. Anyway, I’m paraphrasing here: ‘I’m for same-sex marriage. After all, why should heteros have all the misery?’ I was reminded of that while watching Love, Simon. Its movie poster repeats a line that Simon says in the film: ‘Everyone deserves a great love story.’ Sadly, this isn’t it. Sure, the actors were appealing, the performances heartfelt, and I actually allowed myself to be taken in by the movie. But then I also realized, so this is what it’s like to be normalized. This is what it’s like to get our own Hollywood-style romantic comedy full of well-worn tropes, unrealistic clichés, and familiar beats—just with a gay lead. Well, okay fine, the film does tackle the difficulties of coming out, a topic unheard of in hetero romances. But the quirky vice principal? Check. The sassy black teacher? Check. Friend with unrequited feelings? Check. Grand romantic gesture? Check and check. Yes, I’d love for homosexuality to be normalized. What I don’t like are films, gay or straight, that further fuel the stupid Hollywood fantasy of Happy Ever After. Gay viewers deserve something better. Heck, gay and straight viewers deserve a great movie. Period. As the Timeless (yes, really) Gay Icon Cher says: ‘Snap out of it.’”
But I honestly found the film—and its banking on formula—very refreshing. In all my years of watching films, I’ve come to see a lot of gay, non-mainstream, very independent cinema which has treated homosexuality with more nuance and better representation than Love, Simon. These films were able to do that because they weren’t compelled by the expectations of mainstream market forces, and thus were freer to do what they wanted—but they had to stay “niche,” which is both a positive and a negative.
Love, Simon is an experiment at doing the mainstream with a gay lead—and in this, it is actually both revolutionary and “normalized.” For that, I applaud it. I felt a lump in my throat when I first saw the scene I’ve illustrated above—because I am 42 years old, and it took this long for me to see and hear something like that in my neighborhood cinema. Of course it’s a Hollywood fantasy, and it was designed like that. It’s the first step, a necessary one. One day, we will get our gay version of Moonstruck, with a gay version of Cher.
Love, Simon was clearly not made for us older gay men who are perhaps a little too jaded, because we’ve seen so much already, and consequently have experienced so much as well, given society’s slow evolution in mores. (It is changing though.) This is a film for the gay boy [and girl] of today. I was with my 23-year-old boyfriend when I saw this, and his face was the very picture of rapt attention, especially that scene between the lead and his mother. Afterwards, he said, “This is the first time I’ve seen a real gay kiss in a regular movie.”
My friend remarked to this: “True, I am not the audience. Which brings me back to what really irks me now that I’m older: are fairy tales really necessary? Kids need simplified tales growing up, but I think, in this day and age, teens (and even tweens) should be given more complex tales. Or if not complex, at least more grounded.” But most of us—and truer still for the heterosexual majority—started with simple happy ending romantic comedies [starring straight people] when we were younger, and we swooned over them. And then we graduated level by level to demand more complexity. Of course fairy tales are necessary, as any fairy tale expert would tell us. They may seem “simple,” but they are in fact complex mirrors to human psychology. Love, Simon is not that simple: it tackles blackmail, coming out, coming out to a society deep in social media shenanigans, bullying, the complexity of friendship, and others. But these issues were treated with a light touch, which does not necessarily mean shallow.
The ending with a Ferris wheel struck a lot of people as being needlessly romantic and unreal, but for me, it was a throwback to Drew Barrymore’s ending in Never Been Kissed. Why did we cheer for that, and can’t cheer for Simon? I applaud both happy endings. If you have seen The Celluloid Closet, you will learn that in all of Hollywood’s history of gay stories, gay and lesbian characters—either overt or obscure—always ended up with these LGBT characters being dead or depressed, “punished” for being deviants. It took many decades, until 1968’s The Boys in the Band, to have a movie with gay characters who would all survive the ending of the movie, and actually get to have a party! The regular trope for endings for gay boys and girls in Hollywood movies is a sad ending. Recall the latest: Brokeback Mountain, sad. Call Me By Your Name, sad. A happy ending is very, very rare.
Clip from the iconic 1968 film The Boys in the Band, directed by William Friedkin from the play by Mart Crowley: "It's not always as it happens in plays. Not all faggots bump themselves off at the end of the story."
Most teenage movies involving a coming-of-age arc that also has romance thrown in for good measure, strive for a bittersweet feel, still happy but with a certain knowingness that adds texture to that optimism. John Hughes was the perfect storyteller for that kind of teenage film. But ultimately, Samantha Baker got her cake, candles, and kiss from Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles, Claire Standish and John Bender exchanged kisses and earrings in The Breakfast Club, Andie Walsh got her Blane in Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller got his ultimate day off from school, with his girl and his best friend. I like happy endings, and I like them more in gay films for teenagers. Because is sadness what we want to model for gay boys and girls to learn from their formative movies? “Be gay, and be miserable for the rest of your life,” is not the tagline I want to foster. I want some happy endings, too, along with the sad endings.
I’m not suggesting that all films have happy endings. Have a movie with a sad ending? Applaud that. Have a movie with a happy ending? Applaud that as well. It’s all about the intent, and if the intent has been earned. Love Simon is intended to be a happy gay romance. Why hate it for what it sets out to do? But movies are really Rorschach tests: our reactions to them illustrate so much the murk of our hidden psychology. I like diverse endings—happy and sad—because I’ve had both in my own life, and I believe in the possibility that both can happen in equal measure.
Films can only do so much to “accommodate” our expectations of them, and I’ve always tried to appreciate narrative that triy to do its best given the limitations of the form it chooses to tell its story. Ultimately though, I am a romantic and also a realist, both in equal measure, and I appreciate happy endings in a romantic comedy, because the genre demands a happy ending. I remember romance novelist Mina Esguerra insisting all the time that if it does not have a happy ending, it is not a romance novel. [The genre is strict about that.]
Movies, especially the mainstream ones, are our fantasy lives unfolding in a magic mirror, film critic Edward Behr once said. Love, Simon is wonderful fantasy rooted in realistic problems. I do feel that the romantic ending was earned, although I’m aware that for some people it isn’t. Which is the great thing about art, it is always different to different people. I will always remember this workshop admonition in creative writing I’ve once gotten from an esteemed writer: “Never crucify someone’s story for what you want it to be instead.”
All stories have a place. All of these is a gamut, a range. Love, Simon is a step—one step hopefully among many others still to come—taken in the right direction.