One of the things I’ve been trying to do this summer is catch up on contemporary YA pop culture. It sounds silly, but truthfully, when you have been immersed in a specific historical era for academic study and realize you haven’t read a fiction book published post-Eisenhower Era in a couple years, you find you’ve missed out on some important current things. K-Pop and BTS. “Normcore” as an aesthetic. Hell, aesthetics in general. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. Something about Cardi B (whoever she is) and some songs by Ariana Grande (who is the one who does the hysterical Celine Dion imitation, right?). Hell, I’m so out of it that it was a shock to me to discover that John Green does, like, history and lit discussion vlogs on YouTube!
This means I’ve also binged a few of the hit Netflix movies. But to my surprise, for a number of reasons, and despite — or maybe in spite of? — its problems, I ended up liking Sierra Burgess is a Loser more than To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
There are weak spots in the flick, I won’t lie, and I, too, will join the chorus that is shouting “Catfishing is not okay!” I certainly have major problems with the NBD tone of the ending. That kiss scene was all kinds of problematic re: consent
But that might actually be the point.
After all, if it was a guy in Sierra’s role, the reaction would be and has been markedly different. Maybe less so, but nevertheless, there isn’t the same level of apologism re: “Just give her a chance!” We’ve seen it in decades of popular (teen) media and fiction, from Gone With the Wind to Say Anything and Revenge of the Nerds, from episodes of The Brady Bunch and Friends to Gossip Girl and Twilight. When a guy pretends to be someone different, or lies, or hides his identity, or even does abusive/illegal things, in order to connect with a hot, popular girl, it’s portrayed as endearing. Cute. Him really making an effort, taking a big, daring leap of bravery. It’s sometimes played as even kinda her fault for being such, like, a judgemental bitch about shallow things like looks and popularity, and not giving that less-than-spectacular nerdy guy a chance.
OTOH, the few times we’ve seen the situation gender-flipped, the woman is just a full-on balls-out psycho-villain-whore. (Even the TV show Catfish has done this in the few episodes I’ve seen, which creeped me out. If it’s the girl catfishing the guy, she’s shamed by the hosts. But if it’s a guy catfishing a girl, the hosts sometimes even implore her to “give him a chance!” or get to know him.)
Quite a few people seem to have missed that this is a gender-swapped version of Cyrano de Bergerac, down to all of the problems with consent and kissing (and, in the source material, marriage and life and death). As I’ve been arguing, and am demonstrating firsthand with My Beautiful Obsession, gender-flipping a story or plot makes obvious a lot of the abusive behaviors we like to call romance.
So when Sierra Burgess is a Loser engages with that dynamic…? Gee.
I’d heard a bit of “Ugh, the Sierra Burgess movie is awful!” before I watched it. But I still liked the flick way more than I expected to. Possibly, yes, in some ways, more than its inevitable comparison, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
It raises a number of questions, including one of my favorites from Roxane Gay in Bad Feminist: Does a female main character HAVE to be “likeable”? Why is that the main criticism of many female characters — “Oh, I didn’t like her!” “She’s not a good person!” — when fiction is flooded with unlikeable, even hateable and criminal, male characters that are celebrated? Beloved? Held up as ideal male heroes and romantic interests.
Sierra is sometimes unlikeable. She does some truly shitty, immoral things. However, many of the responses to her catfishing and lying deny her the same excuses (“But she redeems herself!” “She grows and changes!”) that are used with male characters who do this and far worse.
Sierra is different in important ways, in ways that are still woefully underrepresented in fiction. She’s big. Fat. Not conventionally attractive. Awkward. (Google the movie title, and see how many times it’s misquoted as “Sierra Burgess is a Big Fat Loser” or “Sierra Burgess is a Big Loser” if you need to see how size, shame, and lack of human value are intrinsically linked) And yet Sierra is entirely confident for the most part. Secure in who she is. In fact, her lies to Jamey and Veronica challenge her central identity and leave her foundering.
I can’t overstate how important this kind of representation is. Yes, seeing a fat-ish, normal looking girl as the romantic lead, not the weird sidekick with six lines, is just as important as seeing an Asian-American romantic lead in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The fact that reviews both formal and informal only highlight the same stereotypes and scripts in effect, and an element of intersectionality that is important: sometimes, race matters less if you are attractive and thin. It’s okay to be a little quirky, as long as you are physically attractive. Once you’re fat or not cute/pretty? Fuck you. You’re disgusting. No one likes you. At best, you’re a joke (that maybe, if you’re lucky, you get to be in on). But generally speaking, if you are not thin and pretty, your stories, opinions, ideas, wants, needs, or heartbreaks don’t matter. No one cares.
Very few things in the last generations have even acknowledged, much less challenged, this prejudice.
Jamey is almost as endearing. While I like Noah Centineo better as Peter Kavinsky (like most of the known Western universe), in Sierra Burgess is a Loser he walks the “I’m a dork/I’m cool” “This is cool/This is icky” line. He’s often just as awkward in a truly unsettling way as Sierra, and I’d argue that the shirtless selfie scene is him questioning all that b.s. about “what you’re supposed to do” v. what feels right, natural, normal, authentic.
Even the fact that Teh Intertubes are squeeing over Noah + Lana, not Noah + Shannon, backs up a lot of the fat-phobia. In a bunch of interviews, Noah’s talked about the connection he felt with Shannon, but since he didn’t make out with her in a hot tub, I’m sure it’s seen as different.
I loved, fucking LOVED, that the story’s emphasis was on Sierra’s and Veronica’s friendship, not the romance. Sierra’s ethical quandaries were as much about betraying Veronica as Jamey. The song Sierra wrote was for and about Veronica and their friendship, not about the guy.
And it doesn’t turn out that one of them is secretly in love with the other, either. That’s another YA trope, inverted.
I also adored seeing all of the popular teen 80s tropes upended, confronted, or repositioned. (That Sierra’s mom and dad were Lorraine McFly and Cameron Frye was an added bonus!)
The black best friend wasn’t a sassy, emasculated gay black male. The beauty queen mom was a has-been, projecting her own past-her-prime realities and insecurities. (You wouldn’t be surprised if you found out that she used to date Jake Ryan or Ferris Bueller or any number of Billy-Zabka-portrayed characters in high school.) The teachers weren’t complete morons and/or quirky yet shining beacons of wisdom.
There was no big makeover scene that transforms Sierra into someone completely different, suddenly makes Sierra feel valued or accepted or like her true/ideal self or attractive to the MMC.
The big party doesn’t involve a trashed house, a loss of virginity, or comically hysterical parents, but, rather, real, human consequences about limits, and a new angle on the “Who am I, really?” thing.
The issues weren’t the characters’ self-respect via their popularity and romances, but their actions.
Especially, so much, Sierra Burgess beautifully and tragically enacts the question that caused the biggest breakdown in The Breakfast Club, the pivotal scene when, after all five have connected, Brian asks Claire, Andy, Bender, and Allison if they’ll still be friends on Monday in school.
The question comes after they’ve made their dark, painful observation about their own parents, and the others are emphatic that they won’t be like that. Allison says, brokenly,
Allison: It’s unavoidable; it just happens.
Claire: What happens?
Allison: When you grow up, your heart dies.
John: So, who cares?
Allison: I care.
After that, Brian asks “what is gonna happen to us on Monday? When we’re all together again? I mean I consider you guys my friends, I’m not wrong, am I?”
Claire admits truthfully that she doesn’t think so, and, when he confronts her and calls her a bitch, she calls Bender on his hypocrisy about it:
“Okay, what about you, you hypocrite! Why don’t you take Allison to one of your heavy metal vomit parties? Or take Brian out to the parking lot at lunch to get high? What about Andy for that matter, what about me? What would your friends say if we were walking down the hall together. They’d laugh their asses off and you’d probably tell them you were doing it with me so they’d forgive you for being seen with me.”
It’s one of the most memorable moments in a memorable movie, one of the most profound exchanges in films from the 80s for those of us who grew up with these as our primary texts of navigating teenagehood, relationships, and identity.
In Sierra Burgess is a Loser, that hypothetical actually plays out for us to see with Sierra and Veronica, and, much like bitchy popular snob Claire in The Breakfast Club, it’s Veronica who shows herself to be more generous and kind than Sierra in the long run. The nerds aren’t automatically always right, the popular kids aren’t always the ones who do mean things or bully others, and maybe it’s all a lot more complicated than nerds v. jocks, smart girls v. cheerleaders. Maybe “good” and “bad” isn’t clearly demarcated IRL.
Along with the leads and the plot, I saw a lot of trope-upending with the supporting characters, too. The English teacher, Ms. Thomson, normally would be described as the “sassy black woman,” and she’d snap witty quips, and then drop one big, awesome, insightful truth-bomb for the white main character. Here, she wasn’t just token “sassy,” nor token “inspirational” (although she’s inspirational, too). Her dialogue has purpose, it’s not just for laughs. Ms. Tompson defines other characters’ behavior. She enforces punishments, too. She has real power, not just save-the-white-character inspo.
Sierra’s best friend Dan is not any sort of black stereotype or stock figure, either. He’s not gay and quirky, or a super-sciencey overachiever, or a big jock, nor a playa. He doesn’t rap or talk in laughable ghetto slang. He doesn’t have a stereotypical “black” name, for that matter. And, most important, he’s not secretly in love with Sierra… either to bolster her ego or existing as a back-up. The scene of the two of them studying is a nice paralleled inversion with a similar one in Pretty in Pink, Duckie and Andie.
Instead of the girl rescuing/saving the guy, who’s madly in love with her (and who will then turn around and rescue her when the Real Romantic Interest Guy dumps her), like with Andie and Duckie, here, there’s no romantic tension. Both teens are on equal footing (generally), and Dan is the one who raises important moral questions to Sierra about her deceptions with Jamey… and Victoria. But he’s also a bit of a dick sometimes, especially when he sets up Sierra to meet Jamey in person. Later, Dan’s rejection of Sierra, the loss of his friendship, is almost as painful to her as Victoria’s. Maybe even moreso. Dan’s never 100% ethically correct or 100% sidekick; he’s as real and complicated, even awkward, as the others in the movie. Dan is a moral arbiter and a good friend, but not a “magical negro” character, and that’s a significant distinction.
One of the controversial elements I’ve seen in conversation is about the “tasteless jokes” in the movie, namely 1) that Sierra is called a lesbian and transgender, and 2) she pretends to be deaf. But… are those just throw-aways? Played for laughs? Punching down? Or are they interrogated? I’d argue the latter.
It feels like the film WANTS us to ask these questions, and, especially, to hold Sierra herself up to standards of behavior and say “No, dammit, that is NOT okay!”
Sierra’s relationship with Veronica is important and life-changing and central to the whole story… and she doesn’t have to be a lesbian for it to be that way. The assumption made by her classmates that she is only reflects how uncomfortable people can be with acknowledging friendships without a romantic component, or insisting on an either/or why two people might be drawn to each other… and denying fat, non-pretty girls heterosexual attraction.
Jamey’s little brother Ty, who is deaf, was another example of representation in new and engaging ways. First of all, the actor playing him is also deaf, meeting a real need and demand for representation of diversity by actors who are, in fact, diverse. For the most part, Ty is just every typical kid brother, sometimes bratty, sometimes cute, and Jamey’s relationship with him is that kind of ordinary banality. (Especially, even though Sierra tries to play like Jamey is the trope, he is in no way ideal or a truly good person solely because he has a deaf brother who he’s nice to.) Ty’s just part of the world… until Sierra fucks it up.
It’s not okay that she pretends to be deaf. It’s not cute or funny, not in the movie or out of it. No one pretends it is*. THAT is a key point.
We-the-TV-audience — who include teens/young girls — are MEANT to see these things and go “Wait. That’s not right!”
(*Except for the HEA ending, but that’s worth questioning.)
The movie in many important ways challenges ideologies, and asks tough, even painful questions. Even the ultimate “truth” at the core of it, that Sierra and Jamey are “meant to be” because, as she dreamily points out, “Out of all the numbers, he texted mine!”
I mean, HOW MANY TIMES HAVE WE HEARD THAT IN ROMANCES AND ROM-COMS, HUH?
But it wasn’t “meant to be.” It wasn’t magic, or strange serendipity that lead to Jamey texting Sierra’s number. It was a prank. A lie. A deception, from the beginning. There was no fate, so it wasn’t really “meant to be.”
Furthermore, at the beginning of the movie, unlike typical teen romances, or rom coms, or any of these overlapping genres, Sierra doesn’t have to change who she is, inside or outside. She’s not unhappy with herself in the least. SHE’S FUCKING AWESOME, and feels it. She is secure with herself and her place in the world, even when others try to make her feel otherwise. THAT IS FUCKING RAD TO SEE.
When Sierra tries to change who she is or be something she’s not, it’s not just wrong, it’s MORALLY abhorrent. She becomes as awful and cruel as Veronica was… and Veronica can recognize it, and drops the movie’s central truth-bomb on Sierra:
Doing the same thing to the bitchy popular girl that she’s done to her isn’t “empowering” or “flipping the script” or anything like that. It’s just shitty. Sierra learns that the hard way, too.
The fact that Sierra is not conventionally pretty doesn’t get her off the hook, either (although I admit, I wish the flick had pointed this out a wee bit more forcefully, esp. with the problematic ending). “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be a teenage girl and look like this?” isn’t just Sierra cry, it’s Veronica’s. It’s everyone’s. In some way, almost everyone in the movie — but especially if you’re a teen girl — is put into boxes or feels like they have to act a certain way or be unhappy with themselves because of what they look like and how others see them, and it’s even beyond “pretty” or “not pretty.” If you are a woman, if you are a teen girl, no matter how you look, it’s never, ever good enough.
Even if you’re the most beautiful, popular girl in school. Veronica’s mother makes that point clear.
The ending is imperfect, but that might be an 80s throwback of its own. Look back at Claire and Bender. Gilbert and Betty. Andie and Blaine. Ferris being an entitled dick.
Those are actually really problematic endings in which the MALE characters aren’t held accountable for their shitty-ass misdeeds, and but they get the girl anyway.
Funny how when we gender-flip it, suddenly all of the grossness and problematic shit becomes obvious. So I’m curious how Sierra Burgess will look to us in five years’ time.
But writer Lindsey Beer’s hints that there might be a sequel means, oh, please, that perhaps she’s planned to confront a lot of these questions, too.
She certainly has the capabilities. She’s a magnificent beast.