On Sin, Pride, and Hulu's Love, Victor
Stop relying on Capitalist media for personal validation.
Hey there. Happy Pride, I guess?
Kinda slept through that one this year. How are you doing? I know it’s been a minute; I’ve been learning how to take care of myself. This is piece is long (thank you very much for taking the time) and has a few rabbit holes, but I hear that’s part of why some like my stuff.
Ok, let’s get into it:
I’ve been reading this book called How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. It explains how making time to do nothing, or intentionally carving time for unproductive activities is a politically conscious endeavor and itself an act of resistance in the attention economy in which we live. In a world where social media feeds and goofy influencers with blogs and music are constantly vying for your ears and eyeballs, it falls upon you, ultimately, the individual, to prioritize one’s own health and wellbeing in a rapidly accelerating media and economic landscape that may not have those things in mind for you. Or for humans in general or the planet, even. Don’t feel singled out.
There’s this concept in the book about positive liberty (or freedom) versus negative liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom not to be bothered by external people or forces, like your government, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc. Whereas positive liberty is the freedom to affect change in the world around you and act upon your free will. It's the freedom to have a blog online or build a church. This freedom is what most are talking about when we talk about freedom from government oppression, especially in America, where it mostly feels like we’re free. Although we realize increasingly lately, there’s plenty of negative liberty violations that exist in America, too.
Sure, you may not live under direct authoritarian rule (for now), but are you truly free to change your circumstances or even your community? To remain alive in America necessitates participation in capitalism. Again, you may not be locked in a bunker, but to reach the positive liberty to change the world around you, right now, you need a lot of capital in the form of money, attention, or resources, but especially the time to think through and execute those things.
In other words, we live in a society.
When every moment of your life is optimized to maximize productivity and capital (or at minimum survive), combined with a social climate that necessitates hot takes and pleads for reactionary opinion to continue other businesses’ ability to survive; stopping to smell the roses, fall in love, responsibly address a global pandemic, or even think critically doesn’t just seem frivolous, it’s a threat to your lifelines -- your personal securities and positive freedoms come under threat.
But like freedom, there’s a two-sided coin to pride. Did you know that pride is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins in Christianity and Judaism? The Latin word superbia means the perversion of faculties that make humans god-like such as dignity and holiness or the Greek ὕβρις meaning hubris or futility. It’s the sin that begets other sins, so they say.
Wikipedia’s Seven Deadly Sins article continues (check the sources if you care that much):
In even more destructive cases, it is irrationally believing that one is essentially and necessarily better, superior, or more important than others, failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, and excessive admiration of the personal image or self (especially forgetting one's own lack of divinity, and refusing to acknowledge one's own limits, faults, or wrongs as a human being).
In more healthy forms, pride is a content sense of attachment to one’s own or another’s choices and actions, or towards a whole group of people, and is a product of praise, independent self-reflection, and a fulfilled feeling of belonging.
When you’re part of a marginalized or minority group, praise and a fulfilled feeling of belonging can be scarce. If the media available that you consume offers that praise or sense of belonging you may not be experiencing in your immediate community, especially offline, those resources can end up proving vital.
However, if we as individuals fail to carve out time and space for independent self-reflection, the one aspect of pride an external community can’t really provide, we can fall victim to that sinful hubris kind of pride, especially in the un-human attention-sucking capitalist hell world we're in. It’s easier than ever to self-aggrandize, boast over one’s own life, looks and accomplishments, and the immediate reward is that it makes surviving easier for some, and in effect not for others.
Anyway, Love, Simon is a 2018 film directed by Greg Berlanti, written by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, and is based on the young adult novel Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertallie. It stars Nick Robinson as Simon Spier, a closeted gay high school boy who is forced to balance his friends, his family, and the blackmailer threatening to out him to the entire school, while simultaneously attempting to discover the identity of the anonymous classmate with whom he has fallen in love online.
It went on to be a mainstream box office success, has a pretty great soundtrack, and was actually the first film by a major studio to focus on a gay teen romance. It took until 2018 for that to happen. And while it’s definitely a decent and mostly harmless movie, it’s awfully… heteronormative; in sociology, meaning denoting or relating to a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.
Simon is deeply ashamed of being gay, even with liberal accepting parents, mostly because of how perceptions of him would change in his community. It’s not just his family; it’s his friends, school faculty, as well as everyone else. When Simon’s hot dad makes homophobic remarks and criticizes femininity, it doesn’t foster an environment for self-exploration as a son of what, through our culture and media, is perceived to be gay or feminine.
Because being gay and coming out are declarative, permanent assertions of one’s fluid identity and those assertions and freedoms appear easier to those in power or a majority class because everything appears easier for those in power or part of a majority class. Simon, rejecting the queer and flamboyant media representation of homosexuality, repeats over and over that he just wants to be normal. Coming out and being known publically as gay is a threat to that, and so are its cultural signifiers, be it music, clothing, or behavior. The drama of the film hinges on this reality.
Love, Simon puts all of the weight of femininity, minority identity, and non-conforming gender expression on Ethan, the other gay kid at school who is black, feminine, and has been out since he was 16 (but everyone knew anyway). He’s bullied and mocked at school, which Simon witnesses, but the behavior and the fear of being “too gay” drove Simon away from Ethan the entire film.
We see the problem here already, right? The 2018 discourse has been had, but the issue is simple; when you make your white, cis male, upper-middle-class protagonist’s goal to be normal, it’s problematic to epitomize the opposite of that with a feminine black queer person. Simon ends up with a man of color at the end, which somewhat dodges the racial elements, but really just makes the femmephobia that much more apparent.
The goal of the film becomes not to upset the oppressive powers that made Simon define his sexuality as “not normal,” it’s to find a way to integrate and accommodate one’s queer identity in a heteronormative world.
Contrast that Whitney Houston scene in Love, Simon with this one from 500 Days of Summer (2007). It’s somehow way gayer and full of positive, heterosexual, pride. It’s a scene where all of society literally celebrates with Joseph Gordon-Levitt through camp, music, and dance, all to validate the love he has for Zooey Deschanel.
Media depictions of queerness and sexual exploration, especially in big-budget studio films, force the essentialization of lived experience for the consumption of its oppressive class -- not dissimilar from pretty much every other progressive social concept. You don’t need to look much further for examples than The Help or Green Book. If films are an empathy machine, according to Roger Ebert, then it’s important that the people being represented in the film feel represented by the work, since it's their issues being highlighted. This isn’t an easy thing to accomplish, but it’s not impossible. The priority can’t be to appease the people consciously or unconsciously causing the harm. That doesn’t make any sense.
However, when you’re vying for Academy Awards and box office success in place of reflecting minorities’ lived experiences or their current pressing needs, how exactly can capitalism, homophobia, religious bigotry, or White Supremacy step out… Love, Simon’s way? Does it matter when Jennifer Garner tells you that you’re loved?
When The Walt Disney Company bought 20th Century Fox (Love, Simon’s original studio) last year, they soon announced spin-off shows based on Fox properties for their then-upcoming Disney+ streaming services. However, both Love, Victor (which I’m getting to, thanks for sticking with me) and the similarly queer minority-led reinterpretation of High Fidelity, which debuted earlier this year (I highly recommend it), moved from Disney+ to Hulu, claiming the themes were too adult-oriented for the squeaky clean Disney brand.
This upset a lot of people, with the implication being that a half-hour dramedy centered around a Latino kid in high school trying to figure out if he’s gay or not shouldn’t be considered an adult-oriented theme. Upon watching the series, which I did spend ten half-hours doing a few weeks ago, there are some non-sexual reasons that make Love, Victor a Hulu brand, and not a Disney brand. I’d be remised though not to bring up the fact that the Disney+ original series High School Musical The Musical: The Series (yes, it’s called that) indeed feature a gay romance between teens. But one thing I’m not doing in 2020 is coming to Disney’s defense for every little thing just because Twitter is mad. They have a right to be mad; everyone has a right to be mad in 2020.
In summary, Love, Victor is about a teenager named Victor whose family moves to Atlanta from Texas for dramatic reasons that definitely unfold over the subsequent ten episodes. He has crushes on both guys and girls. Still, because of his parents’ religious beliefs and the destabilization his family is feeling in general from moving in the first place, he remains closeted. It turns out that Victor is starting at the same high school Simon Spier graduated from and who has since become something of a local legend. The entire first season is centered around a melodramatic set of love triangles and secrets. And, in lieu of a personality, Victor is left with the responsibility of finding his way in the world while rocking the boat him, his classmates, and his family are in as little as possible.
Frustrated Victor then vents to the only person he can, which for whatever reason is Simon himself over an Instagram DM rant about how Simon had the “perfect life” and the “perfect parents” that accepted his sexuality without knowing the interpersonal events we as the audience do.
Now, I’m gonna spoil the first season of Love, Victor, the only season I’ll probably watch of this show, and tell you what I liked about its finale, but I need you to not be a giant baby about it. K? I know I’m picking apart the themes of this dumb TV show. I’m the one writing 3000 words that I think are important on it so that you kinda don’t have to watch this show. I don’t think it’s well written, directed, or acted either. These thematic inconsistencies and underhanded character developments are not ultimately worth your time, even under quarantine. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something to take away from it.
Anyway, Victor spends the entire first season in a straight relationship with a girl he likes, but the tension snaps when he shamefully and instinctively kisses his male crush Benji and spends the rest of the season regretting it. He even travels to New York City to get away from it all, where Simon and his boyfriend Bram move to after the events of Love, Simon, to find his identity in the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. Instead, Victor meets Simon’s boyfriend (again, named Bram) and his other friends while Simon is actually busy somewhere, but it’s okay cause all his friends have different backgrounds themselves and advice to give Victor.
Well, it turns out all of the advice Simon gave to Victor the whole season was an amalgamation of advice he acquired and shared with the help from his queer, femme friends of color, with whom Simon has shared all of Victor’s life details.
With Victor mortified, he and Simon finally meet so Simon can explain himself. It’s the best three minutes of the series, and here it is so you can watch it and maybe feel something.
The entire season is Victor wrestling with not just what he wants, but how he can get what he wants — who’s affected in the pursuit of what he wants, the consequences of coming out, and the understandable feeling that ‘gay’ doesn’t quite define who he is. The majority of the reason Victor is reluctant to come out to his parents is not just because he’s unsure himself, but because he’s conscientious of his extremely emotionally fragile family.
These are all worthy themes to explore, and there’s plenty of TV drama to be wrung out with this premise. So tell me:
Why the fuck does season one end with a cliffhanger in which Victor tells his parents “I’m Gay”? Cut to black, Love, Victor Season 2 coming 2022. How satisfying. You could chalk it up to impulse, but Victor spent most of the runtime aware of his impulses and resisting. Not only that, even though Victor does end up “with” Benji, he still breaks his girlfriend Mia’s heart. He still lied to her. Does that matter?
Is there not a better point you could make about identity and code-switching, or at least give Mia some autonomy to not get over it so quickly? They were together for like, 8 out 10 of the episodes! It’s something we’re supposed to be interested in all season long, even though the show is clearly being watched with the promise of underrepresented queer romance.
It’s literally queerbaiting, but it’s just to guarantee the existence and success of the eventual second season. So be sure to keep subscribed to Hulu for another year cause at some point you might find gay people on TV who are proud of being gay! They might even kiss! Keep paying attention to Hulu!!!
This is a fact about me that I don’t often share online, but I’m half-Mexican. It's not something I often share because it's not usually relevant. That’s a privilege and a half, ain’t it? My grandparents immigrated from Mexico, settled a quarter of a mile north of the border in Arizona, and never left. Mexican-American culture was an environment I grew up around and was surrounded by. But I’m quite light-skinned and was often reminded of the fact (even within the family) so the culture never felt mine, even if my 23andMe said biologically otherwise.
My apparent whiteness superseded my actual ethnic background, which is something I kinda had to come to terms with, especially in regards to positioning myself and my identity online in the discourse. I’m not interested in speaking for Mexican-Americans because they’re not a monolith, and I especially don’t speak for them. The message either way is still to Abolish ICE, though. My grandparents didn’t speak Spanish to me even though I called them Nana and Tata, and everyone in my family is devoutly Catholic. Hell, Catholicism vs Protestant Christianity was the big controversial topic in my family.
I deeply empathize with both Simon and Victor. I know I look like Simon. I relate to him when he laments over what he’s willing to identify. The absurd internal questions like whether it’s gay to wear a scarf or simply be Panic! At The Disco fan. I get it, and it’s incredibly heartening to see part of an experience I went through play out on the big screen in something other than an explicit tragedy. Gotta love that empathy machine.
But I don’t have bleeding blue liberal parents or a middle-class income. My family looked a lot more like Victor’s. Even more, I empathize with his unwillingness to rock the boat or stoke controversy within a fragile family. I didn’t have a coming out story. I was outed by a cousin I trusted, and by the evening my Tata was buried, and the extended family knew everything before I could say a word -- before I could even find the words for how I felt and still feel. It’s stupid to expect a movie or a television show to process that pain for me and turn it into pride.
These queer TV shows and movies do such a great job highlighting the shame that comes from being closeted. They tease you with the promise of a satisfying and realistic queer love formula that is so rarely displayed that conversely, heterosexuals can simply point to any romantic comedy for validation. What more straight pride could anyone sensibly ask for? In what way do domineering classes of people need a collective sense of pride? Why? And why do I always have to wait for Season 2?
No time is made in Love, Victor in all its ten episodes for independent self-reflection. Admittedly, it doesn’t often make great television. The Attention Economy wants us to do it as little as possible because it gets in the way of us buying its hollow attempts at validation. Chosen queer families like Simon’s and like mine are important for that fulfilled sense of belonging. It doesn’t exist to address any of the systems that reinforce our bigoted environments. How could it? It’s a product of them.
All of the numerous crises we’ve witnessed this year has forced people and whole industries to independently self-reflect while under quarantine. In some ways, circumstances have massively accelerated in both just and horrifically unjust ways. During this time, the void that is left in a year with movies, concerts, communities, and Pride has individually affected me forever. I didn’t realize how much of my identity was contingent on what I cultivated; what I bought because I believed. It wasn’t until everything stopped did I realize how much and how hard I was actually running, and in no certain direction. I’m sure I have more personality than Simon or Victor, but by how much I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe we’re exactly the same. Perhaps I’m just being too prideful. I’m logging off.
Tyler Scruggs is a writer, musician, and millennial swashbuckler navigating the digital frontier through internet content like this and love songs for your Zune. He brews his own coffee now and doesn’t feel it’s safe enough to go to the movies as much as he might like.
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