“I deserve a great love story,” exclaims Simon.
That immortalizable line, which forms the basis of the “Love, Simon” marketing slogan “Everyone deserves a great love story,” is the first time Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) internalizes his mother’s affirmations after he comes out.
It’s hard to ignore the trailblazing nature of “Love, Simon.” It’s the first film by a major U.S. film studio (in this case, 20th Century Fox) aimed at a mass audience that tells the coming-of-age story of a gay teenager. But, as some critics (New Yorker, BuzzFeed, Them, Jacob Tobia in NYT Opinion) have discussed, the queerest part of the film is not Simon, but Ethan (Clark Moore), a queer Black femme student who is the film’s only other notably gay character. (We don’t find out who the anonymous Blue, Simon’s romantic counterpart, is until near the end, but that kiss is magical.)
Yet instead of being a celebration of intersectional identity politics, Simon is the epitome of white homonormalization: “I’m just like you,” Simon proclaims at the beginning of the film, setting the premise that the only thing different about him — and the only non-normative challenge in the 17-year-old’s life — is that he’s gay.
But what does the portrayal of an affluent masculine-performing white gay man mean for the United States as a society increasingly accepting of LGBTQ+ individuals?
To start, the whiteness of gay representation not a new problem: In Looking for My Penis, Richard Fung identifies this whitewashing problem in mass media: “If we look at commercial gay sexual representation,” he wrote, “it appears that the antiracist movements have had little impact: the images of men and male beauty are still of white men and white male beauty” [emphasis original].
“Love, Simon” continues this worrying trend: Even as a pioneering film by a major Hollywood studio, the gay protagonist is clearly and notably white, and the issue of racialized sexuality is never mentioned or explored within the 110-minute film.
Simon does not have to deal with any of the problems associated with coming out: the fear of rejection, the threat of homelessness, the jeopardy of his social safety net of friends and family. His parents are exceedingly progressive; in one memorable scene, Simon’s mother, Emily Spier (Jennifer Garner), paints a sign saying “Down with the Patriachy [sic]” which Simon lovingly points out is spelled incorrectly; in another his father, who cracks a few homophobic jokes during the film, apologises for his behaviour.
And Simon gets to flip between performing social roles in a way that allows him to escape many of the social consequences of being gay, a privilege that the femme Ethan doesn’t enjoy. This contrast is most obvious in the scenes of when each character respectively comes out to their friends. When Simon’s sexuality becomes known to friends, the reactions are a mixture of surprise and shock, while the femme, queenly Ethan’s coming out to his girlfriends is met with feigned surprise.
For a film that barely manages to include Ethan, it’s worrying to imagine how “Love, Simon” might have tried to include an Asian American gay narrative, or imagine how it would have navigated Asian American issues like Orientalism, the perpetual foreigner stereotype, the model minority myth or the notion that Asian Americans are passive or sexually compliant. Asian American-ness doesn’t even make it into “Love, Simon.”
Endearing and bubbly as “Love, Simon” is, the film isn’t about how queer people come to terms with their own identity. Instead, as John Sherman wrote on BuzzFeed, the film “is ultimately too focused on straight people’s relationship to queerness, rather than queer people’s relationship to their own experience of being queer.”
Indeed, the heroes of “Love, Simon” are the (quite literally) “supporting” characters for their affirmations during Simon’s coming out process. “You deserve everything you want,” his mother says, setting up Simon’s later realization.
The worry here is that the portrayal of acceptable and accepted “gayness” as only white removes the stigma of queerness only for masculine-performing white men. “Love, Simon” doesn’t address how racialized sexuality plays a part in the lives of many queer people of color, nor does it fully acknowledge how cultural practices play a part in the production and understanding of individualized identity.
We touch upon a concept identified by Lisa Lowe in “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity,” that “we cannot isolate ‘race’ from ‘gender’ without reproducing the logic of domination.” While Lowe was discussing the multiplicity of Asian American womanhood, I expand the concept to include the relationship between race and the performance of sexuality to highlight the contrast between normatively-performing white Simon and queer-performing Black Ethan.
Abstracting away the experiences of queer people of color — and instead upholding a white, masculine, normatively attractive man like Nick Robinson’s Simon Spier as representing the ideal of the gay man — contributes to a white cisgender heteronormative hegemony by moving society in a direction where only gay men performing (or overperforming) traditional masculinity are considered “acceptable.” This means “everyone deserves a great love story” as long as you’re white, masculine-performing, and can erase your gayness if desired.
For queer-performing people of color, the buzzword of “everyone” still rings as hollow as “all men are created equal.”