How young queer people figure out what they want, who they are and what desire means to them has changed a lot in the two decades since David Moreton’s Edge of Seventeen and Jaime Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader. Even after films like Todd Stephens’ Another Gay Movie (2006) and Darren Stein’s GBF (2013), teens have a growing world they can explore online, from blogs, apps and sites to heightened visibility (however middling) in mainstream film and television. Greg Berlanti’s new film, Love, Simon, likely intends to be another entry, and another option, in the fairly miniscule collection of movies geared towards young LGBTQ people, but it’s in how main character Simon (Nick Robinson) self-actualizes which seems to establish the film firmly in the present.
The ironies of Simon’s very liberal family, accepting friends, etc. are no match for deeply rooted anxiety and a proclivity to want to create some sort of identity online, a version of himself only he and one other, his anonymous pen pal Blue, can know. Love, Simon is not the first queer teen movie (though it’s being touted as if it is), and it’s not even the first queer film to explore digital identities, but the film is nonetheless of interest because of the way that it uses digital spaces to project who Simon wants to be and and what Simon wants gay desire to look like.
Simon, brusquely masc-performing and part of a dream middle class family, can exist as an ostensibly more honest version of himself in the digital realm, while writing to an anonymous person named Blue, whom he found by way of a “confessions”-like blog. Simon sets up a new email account and assumes the nom de plume Jacques, able to find another person like himself, not someone who is gay, but someone who is gay and closeted. (The other out person in school, Ethan [Clark Moore], is decidedly black and femme and plays the role of comic relief. Simon’s gayness is serious, while Ethan’s is mostly a prop.) The world of Twitter, Gmail inboxes and Gossip Girl-like online blogs are no longer escapes from reality, exactly, as they are augmented permutations of it. The world that these landscapes exist in is adjacent, like the house across the street, where reading another person’s email with a secret tucked into it is like walking in on two people making out at a party.
Simon’s world is punctuated by texts, FaceTime calls, blog posts and, once he learns of Blue’s existence, email notifications. In emails that he feels he can “be himself,” but what does that mean? What has been pushed throughout the ad campaign begins the film: “I’m just like you.”
Such a statement, and its actual function in the film—a rehearsal for how Simon introduces himself to Blue, as also closeted—splits the difference between wrangling the film into an assimilationist rhetoric (“just like you,” as in “you,” the straights) and offering a not-unclever maneuvering representing how a young person may write their identity out for perhaps the first time. For the audience, watching Nick write these emails and reading the ones he receives from Blue—while Berlanti’s camera needlessly swoops in and out of extreme close-ups of the text—posits Love, Simon and its identity play as a younger, simultaneously more basic and more literal (maybe more ambitious) You’ve Got Mail. It means that not only is Simon writing out who he is, or who he could be, he is writing out and responding to who he thinks his e-amour might be, whom he wants them to be.
Berlanti does this by literalizing Blue’s identity, inserting different characters to play the role of the anonymous emailer, in asides—not flashbacks exactly, but alternate realities that only exist in Simon’s head, his own personal rendition of the internet. He shuffles through a half a dozen boys who could be Blue, all of them sitting at their laptops describing their lives to him. A fantasy, digitally catalyzed.
It could be curly haired Lyle, whom he meets at a Waffle House; or Bram, whose charm seems perfectly attuned for his Obama on Vacation Halloween costume; maybe it’s another theater kid. Simon checks them out at school, carefully dips his toes into the water of possible attraction to see if it could be X person, but no luck putting a face to the name, hoping that one could be the romantic, attractive beast he’s Frankensteined together in his head. In digital space, you can be anyone, and anyone else can be anyone, and one is constantly weighing how much authenticity and honesty matter.
Love, Simon’s connection to You’ve Got Mail is crucial because of how it articulates the line between artifice and authenticity: Simon, and Blue for that matter, are no less honest for carving out an identity online in which they feel safe enough to reveal an “authentic” part of themselves. The internet has evolved rapidly since Nora Ephron’s film, but the same rules apply. Tina Hassannia argues as much, writing about You’ve Got Mail:
”Philosopher Walter Ong argues in Orality and Literacy that the technology of writing has made us more fully realized individuals because of its effects on our consciousness, which is exactly what the two characters inadvertently achieve through their correspondence: ‘To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it,’ writes Ong. ‘Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.’ He also believes that these types of transformations can be uplifting and that ‘writing heightens consciousness. Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for full human life. To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance. This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does.’”
So too does the internet provide, if ever so briefly, a venue where Simon can parse, momentarily, what gay cultural and aesthetic identity might be. It’s a little sad that this is the way the movie conveys what that might mean to someone, and it’s a bit sadder that’s the rhetoric of how to express gayness aesthetically and performatively—but heteronormativity, amiright? Simon Googles “how to dress like a gay guy,” and a bevy of tight shirts pop up, and he tries them on, looking in the mirror, imagining this exterior as a new part of his life. Love, Simon focuses on Simon’s fear of change, fixating on how, should he come out, everything about who he is would be radically altered. Conceptualizing and narrativizing one’s sexual identity requires for some cognitive dissonance on his part: He renounces something being too gay but also wants to be accepted within gay cultural and aesthetic norms. He has the internet to help him work through how much the performance of himself will change.
The internet can also help you become surer of yourself, more assertive of who you want to be or what you desire. Love, Simon is one of a few very recent queer films that has its protagonist use the internet to imagine who they could be, or who they think they should be, following Ingrid Goes West, Beach Rats and Gigi Gorgeous: This is Everything. Our current cultural and digital landscape presents a curious paradox, best articulated in Ingrid Goes West, of all these films: Your online persona can be an established identity, but it’s less concrete than ever. For Simon and Blue, an email thread can be the queer space they need to explore what “being yourself” really means.