2018 is becoming the year of the hit or miss Netflix rom-com. The streaming sensation’s most recent success, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, is a charming and mature exploration of identity, family and young love. With emerging teenage heartthrob, Noah Centineo, also appearing as a new love interest in Sierra Burgess Is A Loser just a few weeks later, it’s hard to see how Netflix got this film so wrong.
Netflix’s Stranger Things star, Shannon Purser has been promoted from sidekick to leading lady in Sierra Burgess—what should have been a heartwarming move towards body positivity. With a respectable, talented cast and undeniably positive themes of friendship, it’s a shame that pretty much the rest of the Sierra Burgess plot makes us feel uncomfortable. Indeed, for a film that was supposed to subvert the stereotypes of teenage rom-coms, every joke served to insult its own integrity.
Sierra Burgess is loosely based on the 1897 play, Cyrano de Bergerac, and follows an intelligent misfit who accepts her unpopularity at school with the help of family, friendship and integrity. Sounds good so far, right?
When stereotypical it-girl, Veronica (Kristine Froseth), gives Sierra’s phone number to Jamey (Noah Centineo) as a joke, and he texts the number thinking he’s messaging Veronica, Sierra just goes along with it. Perhaps if Sierra had any incentive to do so—perhaps if she had ever actually met Jamey—we’d sympathize with her character or see this moment as comedic. As it goes, we see Sierra cat fishing Jamey throughout the film by pretending to be Veronica, without her permission.
Luckily for Sierra, Veronica doesn’t seem to mind this, and goes on to help Sierra to continue to deceive Jamey in exchange for tutoring. Notably, the tutoring stems from a guy calling Veronica “dumb” and serves as an attempt—not to prove him wrong—but to impress him. Veronica even allows Sierra to coerce her into face timing Jamey and, at one point, actually goes on a date with him. We’ll forgive you for being such a dreamboat, but come on Jamey; she has a completely different voice!
As this scene comes to a head, Netflix also throws in a huge consent fail. Jamey asks to kiss Veronica, at which point she promptly puts her hands over his eyes and switches places with Sierra, who has been eavesdropping on the date from underneath Jamey’s car. Cringingly similar to ‘The Houdini’ manoeuvre, this PG-13 version is still ringing all of the alarm bells.
Bizarre, cat-fishing scenes aside, this message does not promote body positivity or self-acceptance to its young viewers. Instead, it seems that the only way Sierra can get a guy to kiss her is through force, and by pretending to be someone she’s not—a thin, blonde socialite. Even as Sierra and Veronica become unsuspecting best friends, a scene where Veronica plucks Sierra’s eyebrows reminds us that grooming is still considered a way to fit in to gendered society.
In a more positive light, another casting success for the film was the role of Jamey’s deaf little brother, who is played by the deaf actor, Cochise Zornoza. Unfortunately, a scene where Sierra bumps into Jamey in real life and pretends to be deaf so that he won’t recognise her voice, does not help its cause. Prominent deaf activist and male model, Nyle DiMarco, was one of the first to point out why.
“So one of my close friends’ deaf brother is in Sierra Burgess”, he tweeted.
“When I learned, I was elated. Finally more deaf actors/representation & ASL inclusion in films
“… Only to find out the deaf character was written and used for a terrible joke.
“PS- pretending to be deaf is NOT ok.”
Viewers have also been quick to point out that the slut shaming in Sierra Burgess, as well as a number of LGBT and mental illness jokes, is totally not okay. For a movie with the slogan “Just Be You”, it really just romanticizes cat fishing and manipulation. In a somewhat undeserving resolution, Jamey tells Sierra that “even though she isn’t everyone’s type,” she’s perfect for him—charming.
Whilst I think that the idea of teenage love bringing out unexplored insecurities is relatable—and I did relate to Sierra on a few different levels—this film was just far too problematic to work for me. I’m also definitely on team Veronica—sorry Barb.