REPRESENTATION: "Love, Simon" and Acceptance
I, like many others, have taken for granted how represented I am in the media. Growing up, my frustration with lack of representation was negligible. At most, I was annoyed at the absence of leading female superheroes in Marvel movies and in the other traditionally “masculine” content to which I gravitated. Still, I could almost always find characters who looked like me in tv shows or movies. Admittedly, I didn’t understand why representation for a variety of identities, ethnicities and personalities was so important. I viewed the movement for diversity in film and other areas as a push for equal employment opportunities for actors, writers and directors. While that issue is certainly an important part of the fight for diversity in media, I was ignorant to the true value of representation.
It wasn’t until I realized and accepted my attraction to girls that I recognized the true value of feeling represented in the media and discovered how surprisingly hard it was to find media figures that reflected my identity in a thoughtful and authentic way.
When I first had a crush on a girl, I did my best to repress it. I am fortunate to have a nuclear family that is supportive of the LGBTQ+ community and to have lived in some of the most progressive cities in terms of gay rights. That said, in my family, anyone who wasn’t straight was assigned as an “other,” and homophobic comments and actions were common in every social circle of which I was a part. Like many people who were raised in hetero-normative, religious settings, I found myself secretly disgusted by my crushes on girls and became anxious whenever anyone mentioned LGBTQ+ topics.
The same-sex relationships I saw on television reinforced this idea. Whenever I saw two females together on screen, the scene was always overtly sexual or framed to be an act of revenge on a male ex (whom the leading actress would inevitably marry before the credits rolled). Same-sex relationships on television were rarely treated with the same respect and normalcy as straight relationships. It didn’t help that LGBTQ+ characters were usually underdeveloped or stereotypical. For years, I thought that if I were to come out to my community I would be defined solely as a label and that the identity that I worked so diligently to build would be obscured by the looming title of “bisexual” and all of the narrow-minded assumptions that came with it. Because of my lack of exposure to the LGBTQ+ community outside of the media, I seriously believed that I would lose the right to have a developed and varied personality if I came out. Could you blame me for not wanting to become some variation of the “gay best friend” or the evil, bisexual temptress?
When my friend recommended that I watch “Love, Simon,” I was immediately panicked. While she hadn’t suggested that I would identify with the material in some way, the idea of someone watching a gay teen rom-com and relating it to me made me feel sick. I was so deeply afraid of someone discovering my attraction to girls that I said, “That stuff doesn’t really interest me” and tried my best to come off as straight as possible without seeming homophobic. Surprise! I probably did sound homophobic because I had internalized a great amount of anti-gay rhetoric and developed a toxic internal monologue.
Despite my effort to suppress my interest, part of me really wanted to see the movie, at the very least to be included in something, as the movie was popular amongst my friend group at the time. So, when my neighbor wanted to watch it at a sleepover, I didn’t protest.
By the end of the movie, we both were in tears. My friend was crying because of how sweet the love story was, and I was crying because I had never seen a movie that captured a gay character with so much depth before. I was confused by how conflicted I was about liking the movie and that I had related so deeply to the character.
“Love, Simon” isn’t groundbreaking by any Academy standards; in fact, the movie is as delightfully cheesy and full of tropes as you’d expect any rom-com to be. In its most basic form, “Love, Simon” is the same cotton-candy love story as any other heavily marketed teen movie, but that is exactly what made it so revolutionary. I had never seen a movie that wasn’t praised as “brave” for including a same-sex relationship or wasn’t written to serve some misguided fantasy of what a gay relationship was. No, “Love, Simon” is just as wonderfully predictable as any other movie in its category, a fact that moved me to tears.
Simon, the main character, is a gay boy who hasn’t come out to his family yet, even though he can’t find a good reason not to. He isn’t the “gay best friend” or a sex figure; he is a normal teenage boy who cares about his friends and has real interests and hobbies. He is a full person first, and his crush on Blue, the love interest, is treated with the same respect and innocence as any other straight relationship, instead of being perverted or twisted for entertainment. I identified so deeply with Simon’s struggles as a repressed LGBTQ+ teen, and I understood the turmoil that hiding a part of yourself brings. His experience with his sexuality was relatable because it was so common amongst closeted teens, but this was the first time I realized that others shared my emotions. Simon was also outed prematurely, an event I would have to deal with a year later and is unfortunately common amongst non-straight teens.
Seeing Simon on the tv screen in my living room began to unravel my idea of what it meant to be attracted to the same gender and gave me the tools to start to accept myself. After having felt represented in this honest telling of a queer character’s story, I started to face my identity as bisexual. I rewatched “Love, Simon” in secret a few more times, whenever I had crushes on girls, learning to leave behind the disgust I felt. I watched the movie once again after I was outed to my school and then another time after I stood up to identify as “questioning” at the Diversity Conference. I slowly approached other milestones in accepting and exploring my identity with the sureness that seeing myself represented in a piece of media afforded me. Gradually, I found people with whom I shared those same experiences, and I feel the same rush of relief when I talk to them as when I first watched “Love, Simon.”
Movies and shows that represent LGBTQ+ characters in meaningful and authentic ways are becoming more accessible, and queer characters are becoming increasingly diverse in backstory and appearance. Representation in media is so much more than adding a gay supporting character to inject the content with diversity. True representation is telling candid stories that are determined and informed by a diversity of personalities, ethnicities, gender identities, sexualities and so much more. The value of representation is immeasurable and weighty because representation makes people feel validated as human beings. Seeing myself in the characters of “Love, Simon” granted me the security and reassurance I was lacking and gave me the example I needed to accept myself and my sexuality.