Does Netflix have a lesbian problem?
I have never outgrown my love of teen movies. With my formative years taking place in the 1990s I was spoilt by classics such as Clueless, Ten Things I Hate About You, Cruel Intentions and American Pie. So now as a thirty-something year old, I realise I’m no longer the target audience for Netflix’s recent influx of teen flicks, but I couldn’t help take a look.
The latest, Sierra Burgess is a Loser was released in the UK on 7 September and stars a great cast including Shannon Purser (Stranger Things), Noah Centineo (star of other recent Netflix teen smash To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before) and Kristine Froseth. The movie is a modern retelling of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, or for a pop culture comparison that fellow 90s nuts might be more familiar with, it is a teen version of The Truth About Cats and Dogs.
So let’s take a look at what we’ve got so far; great cast, strong story, backed by Netflix. This film should be a winner. Sadly it is not. I’ll let other reviews deal with the awkwardness of the catfishing, the serious consent issues and the problem of Sierra posing as deaf (to name but a few off moments in this movie), because what I found most disturbing, and what compelled me to write this review, is the nonchalant homophobic undertones of the film alongside transphobic insults thrown at Sierra.
To be clear, the character of Sierra is neither trans nor a lesbian. In fact she makes the latter very clear, “Why does everyone think I’m a lesbian?” she laments at least once.
It isn’t the fact that Sierra is constantly wearing rainbow jumpers and has rainbow stickers all over her notebooks (it’s hard to explain why the filmmakers made this conscious style choice) that makes people question Sierra’s sexuality. Nope. Rather the fact that Sierra lacks conventional attractiveness and is deemed unfashionable means that she’s probably a lesbian. So far, so problematic. But wait, there’s more. Is Sierra actually trans? Early in the movie, one of the mean, popular characters suggests that Sierra’s class assignment “can be about your trans experience. Super topical.” Later on Sierra is jibed about taking hormones and told not to touch something with her “man hands”. Eh?! Are teens really throwing “witty” transphobic insults at each other? These screenwriters seem to think so.
What’s going on here? While this a hetero teen romcom, pretty much every review I’ve read focuses on the fact that the relationship between the two girls is far more interesting than the romance. Maybe the film’s writers worried that viewers wouldn’t be able to understand deep female friendship without wanting to ship the women involved. So worried in fact that they built multiple reassurances into the script, as if to shout: NOTHING QUEER IS HAPPENING HERE. Take for instance this bizarre interaction:
Sierra: “Can I ask you something?”
Veronica: “I’m not going to lez out with you and Jamey if that’s what you’re asking!”
Sierra: “What? Eww, no!”
Veronica: “I only do that at parties.”
How very charming.
But hasn’t Netflix proved itself to be a champion of LGBTQ+ visibility? Didn’t it bring us heartwarming gayness in the shape of the Queer Eye reboot (albeit rightly criticised for not really being queer) and wasn’t it (in part) responsible for the huge global success of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. But then, who could deny the highly marketable cuddly cosiness of Queer Eye or the fabulous campiness of Drag Race. So does Netflix prefer its queerness to come in pretty, consumable packages? Worse, does Netflix have a lesbian problem? In this instance, the only explanation for an unattractive girl who is frumpily dressed is that she’s a lesbian (or maybe she's trans), right? What a tired trope Netflix is peddling.
The thing is, this isn’t their usual style. After all, Netflix is the programmer who boldly brought Orange is the New Black, Sense8 and Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette to our screens. As such, we’ve come to expect more from Netflix than the bizarrely casual and jarring bigotry of Sierra Burgess is a Loser.
Ever since Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club introduced characters to the silver-screen that teens of the time could actually relate to, teen movies have had major influence on teen culture. In the 1990s when I was a teenager, at my High School the word lesbian was a dirty word, It took years to unravel the negative impact of these microaggressions, so subtle that few would have dreamed of calling them out at the time. But these days our young people are so much wiser about sexuality and gender than ever before. So this teen movie’s transphobic/homophobic jibes are not only uncomfortable, but feel really out of touch. Let’s not drag our teens back to those less enlightened times please Netflix.
Classic teen movies should be bursting with fun, angst and romance. And Sierra Burgess is a Loser promised so much. Whatsmore, it is a teen flick that backs the “plus-size”, geeky girl and offers a window to the beauty of female friendship; for that, I really wanted to love this movie. But it’s senseless and harmful lesbophobic and transpobic slurs showed this film up for what it really is: a loser.