With more and more films being hailed as icons and milestones of diversity, it is difficult to shake the feeling that the on-screen depiction of marginalized groups is little more than Hollywood finding new cash cows to exploit. However, with diverse films gaining a bigger audience, and the target audience becoming younger and younger as the moral panic of multiculturalism and LGBT influences is dying down (“but what about the children?”), I want to make the case that there is value in Hollywood reinventing itself through diversity, exactly because diverse films have been held (and continue to be held) at a higher standard of attaining ‘quality’ than their less-diverse predecessors.
Firstly, the film Love, Simon (2018, Berlanti) is one of the biggest mainstream releases ever to feature a gay teen, its coming-out narrative being very likely to reach audiences consisting of gay, straight and questioning young adults. However, a lot of criticism has come its way for portraying a story that shows a character having too simple and uncomplicated a relation to his coming-out – in other words, a story that is too happy. Not realistic. Even the mostly-positive review by Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian comes with the caveat that not everyone will be able to relate to Simon’s happy story towards acceptance, because ‘in real life, things are a bit more muddled.’
It is a difficult debate. Bradshaw in particular was referring to the whiteness, middle-classness, and (in the film’s own words) ‘normal’-ness of Simon’s immediate surroundings, allowing audiences that might be reluctant to watch a gay film the peace of mind that Simon is just like us! Obviously this doesn’t necessarily help all gay people, there are a lot of gay people, especially gay people who also belong to another marginalised group, who will still be treated as uncomfortable realities by some people who consider themselves open-minded enough to accept a character like Simon. This is a fact that needs to be addressed.
However, all too often debates about whether a depiction of a minority is true to life, seem to devolve into arguments that oppose any kind of depiction of minority characters that are happy, for the sake of either realism, complexity, or an obligation towards activism – realism, complexity and activism in this context always meaning tragedy, loss, isolation, existence on the fringes. The controversial Time critique of Love, Simon (written by Daniel D’Addario) had the following to say about the film:
“Kids like Simon, in 2018, already have a good shot of fitting in. They don’t need this movie. […] Love, Simon feels like a film responding to an entirely different culture, like one in which gay marriage was never legalized. That decision both acknowledged that equality for gays had won the day and opened the door for far more interesting and challenging fights, ones the next generation will lead. Movies that integrate those stories are ones worth anticipating with relish.”
What D’Addario fails to attend to in this review, is the fact that Love, Simon never proclaimed to be a revolutionary story. There is a reason that it doesn’t deal with ‘challenging fights’, and that is because it is a YA film, a YA fairytale if you wish, which generally tends towards escapism and is aimed at a teen audience. Forgive it for not wanting to introduce young, scared, and/or closeted children to violent homophobia.
Instead it explores how even left-wing people, even well-meaning people, even our closest friends and relatives can make it harder for us to accept ourselves. It shows that even for a generation that ‘has a good shot of fitting in’ – a massive generalization in itself that completely overlooks how much young LGBT people still suffer – there continue to be obstacles to be overcome, and (self-)acceptance is anything but self-evident.
Most importantly, it does all of this without painting gay life as being one of inevitable and perpetual tragedy. Explain to me how that is not an interesting and refreshing story to tell in an age where we are told that homophobia is a thing of the past, a thing of the working-class, a thing of immigrants, a thing that doesn’t happen in well-adjusted ‘woke’ white middle-class suburbia.
Similarly, white critic Amy Nicholson wrote a scathing review of A Wrinkle in Time (2018, DuVernay) for the Guardian, in which she argued that the film falls flat as an adaptation, because it is too ridiculous, too flashy, and too sugary sweet:
“The film has the feel of an iPad video pawned off on a toddler so Dad can make comforting mac and cheese – here’s a bite-sized lesson about loving yourself and a jumble of pretty colors.”
I cannot comment too extensively on the film as an adaptation as I haven’t read the book, but I know that the book’s protagonist Meg is white, whereas in the film she is mixed race– and it is this difference exactly that makes me disagree with the view that a story about loving yourself is simple.
How many films about mixed girls learning to love themselves after abandonment has Nicholson seen in the past few years? How many allowed the main character to be a trouble maker? How many allowed her to come to terms with her various flaws? How many allowed her to come to this conclusion with the help and mentorship of several other women, the majority of which were Women of Colour? How many films pointed out the ways in which girls of Colour with mental health issues are being left behind by official institutions and mocked for their trauma, rather than being guided through it?
Maybe Nicholson found the film bite-size and moralistic because she is looking at it from a white, adult female perspective, in which these stories are indeed abundant. However, knowing that this film was made by a Woman of Colour and features multiple varied and rounded Women of Colour, makes it clear that it is meant for Women of Colour. You can tell young Brown and Black girls that they should love themselves all you want, but until you show it through addressing them in their specifications and societal complexities, it won’t work. It can be debated how well A Wrinkle in Time shows this, but the fact that it shows at all is anything but simple, and nothing short of revolutionary.
A Wrinkle in Time and Love, Simon are both fairytales, and should be treated and critiqued as such. It is exactly a feature of homophobia and racism that views racialized and gay bodies as uncomfortable because of the historical politicization inherent to these bodies. It is a relief to finally see these bodies outside of a politicized struggle (which is not to mean outside of politics – we are of course never outside politics) and watch them in a dreamlike version of society that is simply cooler, more magical and more fun than the everyday.
Nobody re-tells Snow White as the story where the princess runs into the woods and survives for three days on berries and mushrooms before perishing under the harsh weather conditions ‘because that’s what would happen in real life’. Harry Potter isn’t seven books and eight films about a boy growing up in England and being entirely uninteresting because wizards don’t exist and magic isn’t real. Star Trek isn’t the story of an accountant for Starfleet who is far removed from all of the space battles because hey, we can’t all be Captain Kirk, right? We understand that ‘normal’ people (read: white, cisgender, able-bodied, straight Westerners) need their heroes and their escapism, and can still enjoy these stories while knowing that they aren’t true to life, so why are we denying that to young people who may be gay, or mixed race, or both?
Fairytales exist for a myriad of reasons, but they can hold specific significance for young people with marginalized identities. They are essentially mini-conversations about justice versus injustice, and in that respect they do not just have the ability to give young people a language through which to describe the oppression that they face, but they also allow for the conception of a reality in which this oppression is undone. This can be a powerful tool of escapism, as well as laying the groundwork for activism, when young people start demanding that they be treated in the way that they deserve, rather than the way they are now.
Films can carry out an activist message exactly because they show a Utopian image rather than the real world. Sure, we can and we should discuss what these Utopias look like and who they serve: are they centered around a white middle-class Westerner likeLove, Simon? Around a child of professors, like in A Wrinkle in Time? These are still important questions. However, it does not mean that fairytales are bad, regressive or anti-feminist because they are Utopian – if we don’t have a vision of the world we are fighting for, how can we ever begin to secure it?
This Article was written by Pippa Sterk.
Pippa Sterk, LFFF Coordinator and Programmer, is a London-based writer from the Netherlands. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths and a BA in Film Studies from Sussex University. She writes articles about media and activism, with a particular focus on LGBT+ film, and she is currently working on her first novel.