by Maggie Hill | September 21, 2020
Humans are complex creatures. We are not singular identities confined to one aspect of our personalities. We are like puzzles — whole pictures pieced together by hundreds of facets and intricacies. But how do we start this puzzle? How do we, as young people, find ourselves? I think a large part of that process spawns from the important act of representation.
Seeing yourself on screen, recognizing something within a character and then within yourself, is a massively important part of self-discovery. It’s a connection, albeit fictional, that allows us to comprehend our complexities in a simpler way. It’s what passes through our minds every time we think “hey, I do that!” And for young, queer people who so often feel “other” in comparison to their peers, this on-screen representation is a chance to see people like themselves. It’s an opportunity to recognize they’re not alone. And when it comes to queer representation, I have never seen myself on screen more clearly than in Booksmart (2019).
Booksmart follows two high school seniors, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), when they decide to attend their first high-school party on the night before graduation. The pair had spent their entire high school careers studying, not allowing themselves to do anything that wouldn’t fit on their college resumes. But, when Molly finds out the “bad kids” got into the same schools they did, she decides they need to prove they’re more than one-note. What ensues is a night of female friendship, sexual revelation, and the realization that people are much more complex than what we see on the surface.
Booksmart is an example of what I like to call “casual queer representation.” It’s a film where one of its main characters is part of the LGBTQ+ community, but the crux of the entire plot does not rely on their sexual or gender identity. In this case, Amy is a lesbian, but the conflict of the film is not centered on that fact. It’s a movie where the plot could happen whether or not her character was queer. Yes, there are nuanced moments and plenty of gay jokes that wouldn’t make the cut, but the basic structure itself would stay the same. I’ve always found this type of representation exceedingly valuable, especially in the coming-of-age genre. The audience of these films is primarily young people trying to figure out who they are. It is terrifying, and having films where queerness isn’t depicted as an earth-shattering event, but rather, as another piece of the puzzle, allows its audience to better find their actual selves within the work.
This form of representation is in contrast to two others. I like to call them “Hey, I’m Gay” movies and “too-casual” representation. Both are beneficial in their own way, but each lack something that Booksmart has. They’re opposite sides of the spectrum, and movies like Booksmart are right in the middle.
On one hand we have “Hey, I’m Gay” films like Love, Simon (2018). This movie follows the titular high schooler Simon (Nick Robinson) on his journey to coming out as gay. In the beginning of the film, his sexuality is a secret to his classmates, friends, and family. In fact, all major conflicts in the story are derived from the fact that Simon is gay. It’s used to blackmail him, held against him by angry friends, and all-around messes up his life until he finally feels accepted at the end of the film. Now, films like these are hugely important. I’ve known many queer people who find them comforting — that, even though all hardships this piece of themselves may cause, happiness will find them again. But there’s a hidden, detrimental quality to stories like these. Films like Love, Simon can make problems caused by one’s identity feel very big. Representation sets up what its viewers see as “normal,” and only seeing LGBTQ+ stories where all of the main character’s problems come from this one piece of their identities makes those troubles seem inevitable. Of course, these are situations a lot of people have gone through. It’s important to mirror these events on film as a way to better understand others’ experiences and come to terms with them ourselves. But only seeing your queerness represented as a source of frustration for its character can cause you to reflect that frustration back onto yourself. It’s important to have LGBTQ+ characters that exist outside of LGBTQ+ centric stories. We exist outside of our queerness, and the diversity in coming-of-age films should reflect that. When all media has given you is a world that does not represent your own, that reality can often become how you see the world.
On the other side of our spectrum, “too-casual”, are projects that don’t outright state their characters are part of the LGBTQ+ community but use moments a queer audience can relate to as a tool to keep them watching. This is called queerbaiting. One example of this practice in the teen media sphere is the show Teen Wolf (2011-2017). Within the show, there are a number of small moments with accidental sexual tension shared between two male characters, Stiles (Dylan O’Brien) and Derek (Tyler Hoechlin). The Teen Wolf fandom latched onto these moments, claiming the two characters were meant to be a couple. Seeing that these few instances of suspected bisexuality were causing viewers to tune in each week, the writers of the show began to include more scenes that brought the pair’s relationship into question. The first scene that comes to mind occurs when Stiles is asked if he likes guys, causing him to go silent and not give a definite yes or no answer. This occurs in season 3, episode 16 and is not an isolated thing for this character. Having Stiles admit his feelings would be a great example of buildup and pay off in terms of representation, but his previous ambiguity pretty much explains the rest of that storyline. There is never an explicit yes or no to whether or not these characters were gay or bisexual. Now, situations like these aren’t always a negative thing. As I mentioned, these small moments of suspected bisexuality caused a large part of the Teen Wolf fandom to find a relatable character within a show they enjoyed. Placing pieces of yourself onto a character can be just as important as seeing them fully represented in the first place. But when a studio attempts to use this relatability—granted to the show by its audience and not through authorial intent—as a marketing ploy, that’s when we enter the territory of “too casual.” It’s a practice that brings in viewership but can leave those new viewers with a sense of distrust and uncertainty — an uncertainty that can easily turn inwards.
Booksmart’s Amy is, in my opinion, a perfect middle to these two options and a form of representation we should be consciously creating. Amy’s queerness is explicitly stated from the beginning of the film. She has a crush on a girl named Ryan and fails to flirt with her like the disaster lesbian she is. She even has sex with a woman on screen. But, when the climax of the story hits and she has a terrible fight with Molly, it’s not about her sexuality. It’s about feeling used by her friend. The resolution of her character development is shown by her willingness to step out of her comfort zone, as well as her sexual experience. None of these major story beats are because of her queerness, merely influenced by them. Being a lesbian is an important part of her story, but it’s not the only thing that influences her trajectory. It’s a representation of queerness that exists closest to how queer people exist in real life. Her character is a reflection of a fully rounded, queer person with goals, ideas, and actions determined outside of her sexuality. It provides an idea for young LGBTQ+ people of who they can be and how this piece of themselves can fit into their puzzle.
Amy is a person — not a marketing tool or a one-note character. She is kind. She is loyal. She is intelligent. She’s even a little awkward. She is a whole-ass, queer person, and that’s beautiful.