Love, Simon’s Ethan Problem
(Yes, there are spoilers ahead.)
Love, Simon is a cute and sweet film about coming of age, and coming out, as a gay teenager. It does things both structurally and visually that I appreciate, and the mother’s monologue in the end was particularly moving. As a gay teen romance, I don’t have many issues with the movie itself. But because it’s the first LGBT movie being released by a major studio, its cultural significance is being grossly overstated and the discourse building up around the film is becoming harmful and, quite frankly, very insulting.
I’ve seen it described as “an important step forward from high-brow, melodramatic LGBT films” and, most egregiously, “possibly the most radically queer film of all time”, all in an effort to amplify its significance, and its ticket sales. I know better than to believe that its success will necessarily translate to more opportunities for queer people of color, but I was okay with just going to see two boys kiss and fall in love. But if we’re going to elevate the movie from a cute little coming-out flick to being a groundbreaking “LGBT” film then fine, let’s have that conversation.
It does a lot of things well, and within it’s subgenre as a gay teen coming out story, it does subvert some of the tropes that we’ve grown tired of. We are not bombarded with queer misery the entire film, nor antagonism (bullying does occur, but it’s not the centerpiece of conflict); we get a happy ending; there is a somewhat diverse group of people in the main roster, all of whom are given a refreshing amount of agency. And The Big Gay Kiss is beyond satisfying. Lemme tell you, watching two boys kiss onscreen while the theater behind me cheered them on was very heartwarming. Overall, it does well as a modern entry in gay films, and I think it will sit comfortably alongside its peers.
But who is the film serving?
The narrative confronts heteronormativity with the question of why straightness is considered the default, and Simon cites his fear of "things changing" as his reason for not coming out. What that translates to is Simon hesitating to put his very comfortable social position at risk, and in that way, the film never truly confronts its own homonormativity. Simon, and the movie itself, are so concerned with his being accepted by his heterosexual peers that it completely misses how Ethan’s presence complicates that.
Ethan is an openly gay, very femme Black student who also attends Simon’s school. Early on, we see Ethan getting harassed by two bullies; he claps back and brushes them off with ease, but it’s Simon who is shook by the encounter and even mutters to himself, "why does Ethan have to make it so easy for them?" And that’s the function Ethan serves for the majority of the film: a source of comedy, the out-and-proud foil to Simon’s own closeted terror, and, to a lesser degree, a target for his own internalized self-hatred.
As Simon is reflecting on his hesitation to come out, there’s a surrealist sequence in which he envisions himself as very out and "very gay" in college. There’s a song-and-dance routine, rainbows everywhere, and at the end, he declares, "ok maybe not that gay" as the punchline to the scene. Maybe in previous generations, that dismissal of flamboyance, outlandishness, and camp (y’know, staples of gay culture) as “too gay” would have been more easily overlooked, but in a movie set rather ostentatiously within a 21st-century cultural landscape, it’s outdated. The conversation has moved so far forward from such an assimilationist perspective that it feels out of place here. A Coca-Cola commercial that played during the previews before the movie acknowledges they/them pronouns, yet here’s this “radically queer” film still quantifying and setting limits to gay expression. And it’s never checked by the narrative. Because the movie itself is rooted in gay assimilation.
Simon is rich, white, and conventionally masculine. The only thing that others him is his attraction to other men, and his hesitance to accept that comes from a fear of possibly losing his social capital, even if he himself acknowledges how unlikely that is. He comes from a close-knit, liberal family, and goes to a liberal school. Very little is at risk for him, and so his coming out is itself inherently less “radical” than even Ethan’s within the same environment.
Their only real interaction occurs outside the Vice-Principal’s office, where Simon tells Ethan that he makes being gay and dealing with antagonism "look so easy." Ethan explains that he’s out to his mother, but she still insists on lying to his grandmother about him dating girls. And that’s all we get from Ethan’s experience.
What makes this particularly frustrating is that the scene sits within a sequence of scenes in which Simon is being rightfully confronted about all the harm he’s caused to others in his desperation to remain closeted. This was the film’s opportunity to confront Simon with his comfort and safety in relation to other queer folks, as well as his complicity in Ethan’s bullying for his own safety. Yes, Ethan claps back, but being constantly harassed still takes its emotional toll, and it would’ve done Ethan justice as a character to explore that. In “Why We Stan Ethan”, Naveen Kumar explains that "using humor as a defense mechanism in that way is exactly the sort of coping strategy you hone when there’s no disguising your difference — and speaks far truer to the experience of many queer kids." It’s an important distinction that Ethan could have pointed out, or he could even have just smooth cussed Simon out for never doing or saying anything, and he would have been justified. Simon keeps himself safe by doing nothing, but leaves more vulnerable members of the community to face, alone, even greater violence than he will ever experience, while he himself has very little to lose.
Because that’s something else I noticed about the disparity between them; when Ethan is getting harassed, nobody else really says anything. Certainly not any of the school’s staff or admin. He’s left to fend for himself. But when Simon gets dragged into the harassment, that’s when Ms. Albright steps in and (rightfully; hilariously) tears the two bullies a new one. But the film doesn’t explore the preferential treatment Simon receives because, even if he is gay, at least he’s not "making it easy" like Ethan is.
Personally, given how homonormative the film is, I find it insulting to the history of queer liberation efforts to refer to this movie as “radical” (or even “queer”, whose recent reclamation is rooted in that history). Its values and themes fall right in line with the droves of rich white gay men who historically not only centered their “activism” around being accepted by straight people, but actively excluded the “queerer” elements of the community from those endeavors. Namely, femme gay men, gender non-conforming folks, and trans folks. Folks like Ethan. Folks they feared made straight people too uncomfortable to accept. Lest we forget Sylvia Rivera’s notorious 1973 speech, in which she rips into white middle class gays who do nothing for the rest of the community. And Simon, with his concerns about not being “too gay”, is representative of that very demographic she’s calling out.
Even the film’s treatment of coming out itself is outdated. During the climax, Simon confronts Martin about essentially robbing him of his agency by outing him to the school. He shouts that it’s supposed to be him who decides when that happens, and nobody else. And it’s true, of course; outing another person is an act of violence, plain and simple.
But what about queer folks who can’t hide in the closet as easily as Simon? People like Ethan who very likely had to endure anti-queer slurs, harassment, and violence long before he came out at 16 because his queerness is that much more visible? Or, on the flip side, people for whom it’s simply not safe to come out? For Simon, only his social capital is at risk, and not by much; for many others, coming out is a risk to their lives and access to resources. That conversation, too, requires a lot more nuance than Love, Simon provides.
What Love, Simon provides is something that many gay films do not: a happy ending for the gay protagonist. But beyond that, it still feels stuck in the conversations of a bygone era, way behind the world it’s trying to convince us it’s a part of. Today’s teens, the movie’s target audience, are far more informed on the complexities of gender and sexuality, yet the characters and the narrative do not reflect that at all. So if the movie’s concern is not intracommunal issues (and violence), or even liberation, but merely straight acceptance, again I ask: who is this film truly serving? Who is its audience? And I think the answer is clearly masc gay white men and straight people. The rest of us can find things that resonate with us or our experience, but the film isn’t really for us.
And that’s perfectly fine! Because again, among its own peers of masc-centered gay films, it does a lot of work in modernizing the genre. There’s certainly a discussion to be had about films centered around masc gay white men taking up a lot of space within queer cinema, but even that has less to do with this movie and more to do with the industry. This one movie certainly doesn’t need to be everything for everybody. But if people are going to try and make it more than what it is, then that means acknowledging and critiquing the harm its assimilationist approach does to the communities they claim it represents. It’s a cute gay film, but it’s really not that groundbreaking. And it’s certainly not "radically queer."