Spring flings & ferris wheels: the politics of coming out in teen film

A droning, moody guitar opens Stevie Nicks’ ‘Edge of Seventeen’, a meditation on memory and spirituality in light of her uncle’s passing. The guitar does something the lyrics cannot – each repetitive riff drives a thunderous tension into the listener’s ear, like a pulsing, anxious reminder of the inevitability of death.

Another death occurs in its namesake Edge of Seventeen – a 1998 coming-of-age film – albeit an internal one. It’s the slow death of a young queer man’s former, ‘straighter’ identity in favour of a more authentic one, as he embarks on a journey of self-actualisation spanning darkened bedrooms and darker dance floors. Like its musical predecessor, the death in Edge of Seventeen is inextricable from an insidious sense of anxiety. As its protagonist Eric comes to terms with his queerness, framed by a rotating cast of fleeting crushes and backseat hook-ups, he is no less uncertain about what his eventual coming out will entail.

Such uncertainty is a welcome surprise in a cinema landscape that languishes in sureties – in fixed tropes and generic conventions designed for mass-market appeal. Playing it safe means playing it straight, and as a result, queer characters are frequently destined for either the arthouse or the slush pile. In the rare occasion queerness makes it into the mainstream box office, it’s pigeonholed, forced into physical taxonomies (is it sassy and femme or masculine and closeted?), and – more often than not – placed adjacent to heartbreak and death.

All of this proves problematic in teen film, a format where the happy ending is more of an inevitability than a starry-eyed hope. Just as quickly as angst besets the adolescent lead, it must be resolved with a wave of the proverbial wand, often with the help of a misfit motley crew armed with maxims of inspiration and self-help. The difficulty in queering the teen film is that, in lieu of their adult contemporaries’ doom and gloom, they adopt an excessive optimism that doesn’t quite ring true to the coming out experience: a sugary shell that leaves a sour taste in a queer viewer’s mouth.

Part of what makes a film like Edge of Seventeen so refreshing (even two decades after its release) is its refusal to submit to such sanguine standards; nor does it stoop to the kind of trite moralising that teen films are sometimes wont to do. The film is deceiving in its depth, initially providing little more than a handful of forlorn glances traded between Eric and his openly gay co-worker Rod at his summer job while he navigates a tense relationship with his girlfriend.

But what begins as a hastily dismissed B-grade flick quickly transitions into something else entirely: a tender exploration of teenage sexuality comprised of equal parts hope and melancholy as Eric comes out to himself, and later, his mother. In Edge of Seventeen, coming out is fraught – as it is in life – with both risk and potentiality. The fear of backlash and the wish for a more truthful self, which are inherent to revelations of queerness, are not isolated properties.

Yet nor do they exist in a causal link. The potential for a better future isn’t necessarily fulfilled by overcoming the risk of coming out, as many films tend to imply. Gilad Padva, in his work on New Queer Cinema (the movement to which Edge of Seventeen belongs), summarises this well:

The melodramatic and enthusiastic campaign for coming out during one’s teen years … does not confront sufficiently the difficulties of coming out, treating coming out as healing, therapeutic, or at least better than not coming out, and thus romanticizing an extremely dichotomized choice.

One needs to look no further than recent teen blockbuster Love, Simon to see this idealisation of coming out in action. By now, the premise of the film is well known: high schooler Simon Spier, owner of a seemingly perfect life, has a secret – he’s gay, and begins a covert email exchange with an anonymous love interest named Blue. It’s rife with typical teen movie fare, complete with pool party, school musical, a big smooch at the end, and an appropriately sunny soundtrack assembled by pop heavyweight Jack Antonoff. It’s not that any of these things are done badly. Quite the opposite – only a director like Greg Berlanti (producer of Dawson’s Creek and Riverdale, among others) could execute Love, Simon’s teen tropes with such precision.

But therein lies the problem. Love, Simon is so precisely designed to maximise universal appeal that it ends up lacking the guts to truly satisfy its promise as a watershed for Hollywood queerness. This is a film that tries to teach young queer audiences to own their identities, but does so by portraying coming out as the be-all-and-end-all, as the magical remedy to all previous angst. After spending most of the film hiding his sexuality, Simon is outed by a vengeful classmate online. What ensues is a cheap grab at inspiration – Love, Simon turns the incident into a pedagogical moment as Simon decides to embrace his newfound public identity and declare his love for his secret email suitor on the same forum where he was outed. The moral of the story is clear: coming out, no matter the circumstances under which it occurs, invariably leads to romantic and personal fulfilment.

Of course, this isn’t true. Coming out rarely occurs so smoothly. Mine certainly didn’t – met more with intrusive fascination than genuine support – and the assumption that the safety of coming out is all but assured in modern society is wishful thinking, especially where moral panic surrounding teen queerness (remember Safe Schools?) still abounds.

In a way, I acknowledge the fantasy element involved in a movie like Love, Simon – Simon’s perfectly ‘woke’ parents are the ones I wish I had, and it’s hard not to be at least a little charmed by the film’s Hughesian sensitivities. But to gush over it as ‘reassuring’, or ‘sentimental’, or ‘exuberant’, like many reviewers have done, is to gloss over its depiction of coming out – one that’s, at best, flawed and, at worst, dangerous. Queer teenagers do deserve an idealised cinematic space in the same vein that, say, a straight rom-com allows us to engage in a purely entertaining, unrealistic narrative. But they also deserve a film better than Love, Simon – a film that doesn’t turn coming out into a hyperbolic spectacle.

When I talk to my friend Theo, who earlier this year wrote on his disappointment at Love, Simon, he notes that the spectacle of coming out in the film is premised on a need for validation from straight audiences. We see this most clearly in the movie’s denouement, where Simon and Blue kiss atop a ferris wheel to the adoring shouts of a throng of schoolmates below – a scene that also represents Blue’s coming out.

‘It’s just so patronising,’ says Theo. ‘It’s validating a very lacklustre sense of alliance and support for queer people. It feels more for the audience than it is for the story of Simon.’

Theo is right – both Simon and Blue’s coming out force them to exhibit their sexualities in a highly public manner to be evaluated and approved by straight peers. It’s almost reminiscent of G.B.F., a notorious 2013 film where three high school queen bees immediately pounce on a recently outed classmate to transform him into the object of their Gay Best Friend fantasies. Love, Simon is decidedly less schlocky, but in both films, coming out engenders immediate heterosexual interest (even fetishisation).

But this tokenistic, self-serving form of queer acknowledgement extends beyond the screen –­ the crowd of cheering allies at the foot of Love, Simon’s ferris wheel becomes a mirror for the straight spectators towards whom the film panders in a bid for box office success. To reach a larger audience (and, so the justification goes, a larger queer audience), films must straight-wash and exaggerate; yet by doing so, they also inevitably lose integrity as a queer film.

There’s no easy solution to this dilemma. Just as mainstream teen films sacrifice nuance for numbers, low-budget productions like Edge of Seventeen trade off audience viewership for more creative freedom. Unlike Love, Simon, which – tellingly – excised a scene set in a gay bar, Edge of Seventeen lingers on the bar as the site of queer discovery and queer eroticism, both of which become integral to Eric’s coming out. The latter in particular is still taboo territory to a Hollywood obsessively averse to queer penetration (so much so that cameras will literally pan away to a view of trees as the act occurs), but Edge of Seventeen’s unabashed discussion of sex makes it all the better. It’s in The Universal – Eric’s local gay bar – that he is first introduced to the beauty of the queer community and the callousness of its hook-up culture; it’s The Universal that gives him the courage to model himself after the gender-bending popstars he idolises, dying his hair a shock of Annie Lennox-red and wearing increasingly queer-coded outfits. After one of these nights out in the latter half of the film, we hear Eric whisper into his companion’s ear: ‘I wanna fuck you.’ Such a direct, explicit command constitutes a sexual coming out of sorts for Eric – a reclamation of a sexuality he is now ready to express without repression.

Edge of Seventeen is built on quiet moments like these. It knows, inherently, the value of silence and reflection in a coming-out/coming-of-age narrative – qualities that Love, Simon, in all its glossy bombast, lacks.

In her seminal book aptly titled Teen Film, Catherine Driscoll categorises the form as an amalgamation of other genres, among them melodrama – a relic of Old Hollywood where the domestic setting became a place of anguish, tugging at audience heartstrings with exaggerated emotional plots. It’s not difficult to detect the hangover of melodrama in Love, Simon, a film that deals in extremes, with a narrative arc that careens through a never-ending series of climaxes and Hallmark moments. Ecstatic highs and crushing lows punctuate the movie, among which the sensitivity of the quotidian is lost.

Such sensationalism is absolutely a hindrance to a measured, nuanced depiction of coming out, but perhaps melodrama is inescapable when telling queer stories. By their very nature, they’re prone to becoming what gender studies academic Grace Sharkey terms the ‘feeling machine’ – films designed solely to elicit emotion.

‘The coming out narrative really works as a piece of cinema, because you have this secret, this tension. The moment – coming out – has to happen. It’s this perfect cinematic narrative,’ Sharkey says.

‘The way to make things less melodramatic would be to have gayness “incidental” to the narrative, but I would kind of hate that.’

To Love, Simon’s credit, its queerness is never incidental, no matter how sanitised or sexless Simon himself is. His homosexuality is still crucial to the story’s premise, and behind layers and layers of carefully curated artifice, there’s a single scene where one might find some fleeting evidence of the film’s initial intentions. Simon and his friend Abby are driving home from a night spent rehearsing lines to their school musical, musing adolescent musings on life and love, when Simon grinds the car to a halt. The Troye Sivan track playing in the background fades out, replaced with only a few sparse piano notes. A beat passes, then Simon says: ‘I’m gay.’

Unlike the rest of Love, Simon, the scene isn’t fussy, or reliant on gimmicks and platitudes to provide a false sense of depth. What we see is the simplest construction of coming out, and yet the most emotionally resonant in the entire film. A similar simplicity underscores Eric’s coming out to his mother in the last minutes of Edge of Seventeen as she offers a wordless hug.

In both scenes, coming out feels like an exhalation: of breath, of tension, of anxiety. In the quiet religiosity of Simon’s car, and the musky dimness of Eric’s living room, we might allow ourselves to imagine a future for the characters ungoverned by the confines of teen film, even if just for a moment.


Image: crop from Edge of Seventeen poster

Michael Sun

Michael Sun is a Sydney-based writer and designer who loves beautiful dogs and ugly fonts. His work deals predominantly with the intersections between pop culture, race and queerness, and he’s been published in JunkeeVice, and Hello Mr. He tweets at @MlCHAELSUN.

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