The Closet and Voyeurism in ‘Love, Simon’

When I left the cinema after watching Love, Simon, I was confused. A vast majority of the audience was crying and praising it as though it had changed their lives, and I just didn’t get that. I wasn’t crying, and I didn’t know how to process this film. It was fun, the characters were for the most part great (the drama teacher felt like comic relief, and was too shallow to be anything other than entertaining, but as a white guy, I don’t feel comfortable in discussing the portrayals of POC in this film, but I hope that someone does), but it also had me double-guessing myself about the ways in which Queerness was portrayed. I’ve had some time, and I’ve been able to put my thoughts into some sort of order, and I’ve concluded that I Like Simon, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to Love Simon.

Simon’s emotional journey throughout this film is not him coming to terms with his own sexuality; he is in tune with his homosexual desire, awkwardly flirting with a male neighbour early in the film. Rather, his journey is about falling in love with another gay closeted person (always assumed to be male) via email, and trying to put the clues together to find out who this dream guy actually is.

In a world run by Straights, looking and eye-contact become a valuable, but also dangerous, act for the gay community. In the past, gay and bisexual men in particular have had to cultivate spaces in which to meet other men of a similar sexual persuasion, but because these spaces are very often public – public toilets, wooded areas – the danger is still present. Are you making contact with someone who understands what you want, or are you looking at someone who would sooner break your nose than have a queer thought?

While these cruising areas still exist, changes in technology have made contact (sexual or otherwise) between men easier, and safer – though it would be ignorant to suggest that dangers don’t still exist, especially for the trans community – Love, Simon is set in a world in which Heteronormativity is rife. Prolonged eye-contact becomes enough to create hope, a sense of Queer kinship, before a person’s attraction to women is mentioned, in which case their heterosexuality becomes solidified.

This is a film that deals solely with binaries, nothing comes of a jealous and sad glance from one female character towards another, in a later conversation in the film the notion of a Simon that is attracted to women is verbally murdered. These binaries allow the film to use a kiss between a male and female character as a red herring – of course, that wasn’t fooling me, I’ve seen my fair share of Gay cinema, and if a gay character doesn’t have some sort of sexual encounter with a woman, are they actually a gay character in a gay film?

Throughout the film, Simon struggles to come to terms with what it means to be gay, and we see as a character he has these pre-conceived notions of what it means to be a good or bad gay, and these are inextricably linked to his passing privilege and his desire for assimilation. In one fantasy dance number, Simon pictures himself in university, a time he feels would be the perfect opportunity to come out and live his best gay life. This gay life is garishly coloured, filled with dancing and rainbow flags, ending with Fantasy Simon addressing the audience, saying maybe he wouldn’t be ‘that gay’. Early in the film, Simon witnesses Ethan, an out gay student being verbally harassed by The Bullies and feeling confident enough in himself to retort, and rather than cheering Ethan’s bravery, Simon snidely asks his friends why he [Ethan] makes it so easy for them.

At the end of the film, we see Simon has come to terms with being an out gay man, but the film never addresses these problematic attitudes that Simon has closely held to his chest, and how these prejudices and self-hatred led to his attitudes towards the closet and his ideas about gay men. It is a gay love story about romantic assimilation.

In another fantasy sequence, Simon ruminates on what it would be like if Queerness was the norm, and sees the Straight characters coming out to their parents as Straight. While this scene is undeniably comedic thanks to some scenery chewing, it ultimately doesn’t add much to the conversation – and rings hollow when two out of three of these scenarios involve the character coming out to Straight-presenting couples. Even in this comic interlude, heteronormativity reigns supreme.

Above, I mentioned Ethan, a character who doesn’t have passing privilege: he has Gay Voice, he surrounds himself with women, and what we see is a gay black man who is extremely proud of who he is, and refuses to hide that from the world. He is also completely unsexed, and there is no possibility of him becoming a romantic partner for Simon. Much like Damien from Mean Girls, Ethan is ‘too gay to function’ but not even once do we see him show any signs of romantic interest for another male character. He is there to stand-up for himself with pithy one-liners, and to tell Simon to pull his head out of his ass towards the end of the film. It is in this scene with Simon – something which every character has to show how they respond to queerness, though this always circles back to Simon’s experience – in which he tells him that he wasn’t granted the opportunity to be straight-acting, something we see in flashback scene, with Ethan coming out to three of his best female friends; their feigning surprise is a punchline, they already know. Therefore, he has always had to maturely deal with his sexuality and wear it unashamedly.

This led to a feeling of disappointment that I wasn’t seeing Ethan’s version of this film, as long as we’re dealing with the struggles of gay white teenagers who are monied, middle-class, supported, attractive, and seen as Straight, for the Queer community these films will and should always be seen as made to appease Straights. That’s not to say they don’t have merit as gay cinema, but they will never push the conversation forward.

Which leads me to what I suspected, but had confirmed for me during the film’s final scene – this film is not for the Queer, or even the gay, community.

The film’s climax involves Simon taking an endless number of rides on a Ferris Wheel, waiting for Blue (the film’s unknown love interest) to make his true self known. This sees all of Simon’s friends and classmates watching and waiting for this love story to have a happy conclusion. By this point in the film, Simon has been outed by an angry classmate, argued and reconciled with his friends, and his emotional journey is coming to an end. Simon has a fantastic speech when confronting the person who outed him about the importance of Queer people having control of their own narrative. Truly empowering stuff, though again the film doesn’t concern itself with Queer people who aren’t able to cultivate their own image because they have prominent physical, emotional, or mental characteristics that read as Queer.

While the film attempts to set up the resolution of this mystery as something romantic, what we actually have is a situation in which Blue has to make a grand public ceremony of his coming out, or risk being villanised. The support that everyone throws behind Simon leaves me in no doubt that if this person doesn’t make himself known, he would be demonised by the school, adding an extra layer of complexity to Blue’s own coming out story, and giving him even less agency in the matter.

Of course, Blue makes himself known, and the crowd in the film cheers, the cinema audience cheers – primarily Straight-presenting couples and groups of women – and the mystery is solved and everyone is happy and crying. In this scene, the film goes from being about the gay experience of sussing out if it’s safe to make a move on another man, to a story about Straight people finding out the gossip about who is and is not gay in their school, and the cheering of the audience confirmed that people wanted to know the mystery of who was gay, and not to experience or understand what teenaged Queers can and do go through.

Yes, obviously Blue turns out to be the guy who was seen kissing a girl earlier on in the film, but we are assured this act that could be read as bisexual was totally gay and Blue was immediately put off by the idea of kissing a girl, it was all a big misunderstanding, aren’t binaries hilarious? When I began writing this essay, I went back on forth on whether I was going to add a spoiler warning at the start of this piece, but I decided screw it, if you haven’t seen it yet, I want you going in having some idea of who Blue is, so you’re not watching this film as a mystery, but as a film about one potential gay experience.

In many ways, Love, Simon is a film that does many things right, and I’m happy that it has been made and is so well-received, I am also wary of heaping much praise on it, because it doesn’t go far enough. It’s extremely safe, and I am bored with safe.

The creators of this film clearly understand the Queer experience, and how it is often made as a voyeuristic experience for the Straights; I was particularly impressed in the Ferris Wheel scene when a girl is chastised by her friend for trying to film the encounter between Simon and Blue. This is great, but when taken holistically it seems like a hollow and futile gesture.

As a film for gay cinema, it’s a great start, but it’s only a start.

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