Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti, 2018)
Stop me if you’ve heard this before – gay films tend to the gay gothic where one or more of the gay characters has to die at the end. For the ‘clean’ gay – the noble heroic one – he or see might be driven to suicide by despair or killed as a result of homophobic society, or succumbing to HIV related conditions; for the ‘unclean’ one – the villain – the sentence is to be killed by the hero, at best to be imprisoned. Even a recent, and reasonably delightful, film such as Love is Strange, kills off one of its leads rather than give us a happy ending.
There are, of course, exceptions.
The romcom is, narratively at least, a conservative form, where two characters answer variants on Brian Henderson’s questions of “how come we never fucked?” (new love/marriage) or “why did we stop fucking?” (old love/remarriage). In the studio era, the Hays Code excused couples delaying getting together, so that the proposal or marriage comes at the end of the narrative, with odd exceptions of the actual consummation then being delayed. The narrative’s ideology may well be undermined by the star – see Katharine Hepburn’s films – or a sense of irony about the hallowed institution. In the post-studio era, perhaps more to the point after the 1960s sexual revolution, the delay is harder to maintain, and so writers have had to work harder to justify the frustration of their protagonists’ delayed desires.
The gay romcom is still rare, although it is twenty years since, say, Go Fish and Chasing Amy, both of which have their political problems. But on the face of it, we have a radical text in the form of a gay romcom in the Young Adult market. We’ve had the YA literary translations (Clueless, Ten Things I Hate About You etc.), some of which have had gay best friends, but relatively few centring on gay characters. (The Perks of Being a Wallflower? Camp? The one about performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream?).
Simon lives in a comfortable, affluent society in what turns out to be Georgia (rather than the west coast I had presumed) with liberal parents – a counsellor and a former quarter back – and a cooking-crazy younger sister and has a wide circle of friends cutting across ethnic grounds. But he knows he is gay and has not come out. This event is triggered by an anonymous post on the school’s message board, in which “Blue” announces he is gay and isn’t sure of his feelings. Simon starts an anonymous conversation and falls in love with the unknown blogger, trying to discover his identity whilst keeping his secrets. Inevitably the messages fall into the wrong hands, and Simon is blackmailed into acting as match maker. It is only a matter of time before he is exposed or outed.
There’s a degree here of conventional morality – it is clear that lies and secrets are only going to cause problems, and coming out to the wrong person can cause problems. But lest we think that coming out is a solution, the obviously, blatantly out kid, admits to all the problems in his life, despite his open status. There is a Principal who tries to be down with the kids, but is clearly misguided. Meanwhile, Simon is looking for the One, who we have no doubt he will find attractive and who will reciprocate the love, and in the process he locates a number of people he finds attractive without quite being able to say anything. Some of these object desires play with our preconceptions and some confirm them – when Simon is finally out and proud (albeit single) he googles how to dress like a gay man as if there is a way.
The widening of human rights to include gay marriage is a significant victory, but at the same time it brackets off inappropriate, “unclean” identities such as multiple partners, serial monogamy and so forth. As Debra A. Moddelmog notes in her discussion of gay romantic comedies:
marriage is a normative institution structured to promote certain kinds of relationships and families at the expense of others. It also allows the state to advance economic and social disparities by making marriage the “private” place where tax benefits, insurance opportunities, health care benefits, hospitalization visitation, inheritance rights, and other benefits are dispensed. Adding same-sex partners to this institution will not in and of itself do anything to disrupt this role of marriage, just as adding gay characters to romantic comedy has not disrupted the conservatism of the genre.
This is a comfortable film. All of the characters, irrespective of race or the marital status of their parents, live in big houses than seem to only have one family in each. Simon’s parents can afford to buy him a car. The different ethnicities get along fine; this is not a racist Georgia. Ethnic difference does not act as a barrier to desire.
The director Greg Berlanti cut his teeth on Dawson’s Creek and the Simon/bestfriend Leah relationship, complete with chaste sleepovers, echo Dawson and Joey, not to mention the then ground-breaking gay teen character of Jack. Like that series, and Buffy the Vampire, all the characters have witty one liners and the film is laugh out loud funny. All of the characters, even the nerds and geeks and the outcasts, are not unattractive. It is all an enjoyable experience. And it might be that the narrative’s consummation – post credits or off-screen – will only yield a short relationship. The film is radical to the extent that we still need a figure like Simon as a role model. But like Wonder Woman before it, it could have gone a lot further.
- Brian Henderson (1978) ‘Romantic comedy today: semi-tough or impossible?’, Film Quarterly, 31(4)
- Debra A. Moddelmog (2009) ‘Can romantic comedy be gay?: Hollywood romance, citizenship, and same-sex marriage panic’, Journal of Popular Film and Television, 36(4)