As the camera slowly pans over piled up moving boxes filled with scuffed up shoes, a Puerto Rican flag, trophies, and a drawing of the state of Texas, the premiere of Love, Victor, a 10-episode Hulu spin-off of the 2018 film Love Simon, establishes who Victor (Michael Cimino) thinks he is and who he has known himself to be. That is to say, contrary to Simon (Nick Robinson), Victor is not “just like you,” and that’s a good thing. There are more details, nuances, and specificities to his character and his background — his race, his class background, his family’s relationship to religion, etc. — that exist somewhat in opposition to Simon’s conventional “All-American Boy” archetype.
Victor is going through a similar crisis of personal and sexual identity: Though moving to a new town suggests he will be free to explore his attraction to men, the casual homophobia he experiences at school, at home with his family reeling from the move, and by his awkward only friend Felix (Anthony Turpel); the confrontations with the popular bully on the basketball team Andrew (Mason Gooding), and the social pressure (mixed with internalized homophobia) to date a popular girl, Mia (Rachel Naomi Hilson), all make his coming of queerness slightly messier than many on screen representations. But over the season, Victor and Simon develop a correspondence over Instagram DM, turning the character from the first movie into a gay mentor for the frustrated, scared, and confused Victor. Curiously, by doing so, Love, Victor complicates its own intentions regarding representation, creating and contributing to a mythology of white gayness.
One has to be very specific when describing the milestone that Love, Simon, directed by Greg Berlanti and based on Becky Albertalli’s YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, made: to simply state that it was the first coming out movie, or the first gay teen movie, or the first gay movie without a tragic ending would be an erasure of the queer media that came before, like The Edge of Seventeen, But I’m a Cheerleader, and The Wise Kids. It was the first major, studio-released gay teen movie, and one that was, for all its merits, subject to thoughtful and valid criticism regarding the insularity of its queer perspectives: its wealthy, white, masculine presenting lead (played by a straight actor) whose primary goal was to assure the (possibly straight) audience that he was just like them. Harmless and ready to blend in. Less “homo sapiens agenda”, and more “homonormative agenda”.
Love, Victor feels built upon the film’s emotional potential to provide teens and young people a pleasant and accessible coming out movie, but also reactive to the critiques of the original: the Atlanta of the show is more diverse, Victor’s class background initially shapes his relationship with how he wants to negotiate his sexual identity, and his process of sorting through his feelings and erotic impulses is messier. Yet, through this process, Simon, whose public proclamation of love on the ferris wheel (seen in the movie) has been turned into a hallway folk tale at his high school, is a guiding light. Victor pines to be what Simon is and has become. As he doles out advice on getting used to high school in a new place, negotiating conservative parents, and figuring out feelings for a guy at school (Benji, also white), Simon becomes one of the primary reference points for Victor’s idea of gayness.
In spite of the varied histories of the irreparable contributions of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color to queer liberation and artistic production, whiteness continues to be the implied standard for LGBTQ people in film and media. Such a bar begins to coalesce into a potentially poisonous political project of homonormativity, an ideal of queerness that still subscribes to systems and institutions that privilege white, cisgender, middle class, heterosexual presenting queer people at the expense of queer and trans people who are not afforded the same liberties due to institutional and systemic injustices (coined by scholar Lisa Duggan). White gays, whatever their occasional usefulness, have long been inclined to throw others under the bus.
The concept is worth explicating because of how pervasive it is in mainstream media. It shows that narratives of difference can still have proximity to power, and those narratives can overlook or erase the struggles of people within those same communities. It may be a lot of unintentional baggage to sling around Love, Simon or Love, Victor, but given the complex history of creation, distribution, and access of these stories, it’s a necessary asterisk on the praise they receive (the film was lauded for its portrayal of a gay youth) and criticisms they garner. And the show seems aware of this fact; in a scene featuring Benji and his boyfriend Derek, also white, Derek rails against “conform[ing] to that heteronormative rom-com bullshit that is dreamt up by corporations to sell greeting cards to morons.” But Derek is written off as a wet-blanket jerk, whose observations about ways to be queer are churlish and insensitive compared to to Benji’s tendency towards romanticism.
However much detail is in Victor’s background, he is somewhat intentionally a slate on which to be written, a whole history of love and desire to be scrawled on. Simon delivers PSA-like lessons to Victor throughout the show, each episode fairly pat in its summation of “what was learned from this experience”, shying away from more challenging and intricate emotional turmoil. In Love, Simon, there was room for projection, writing into the ether, but with the identities laid out on the table in Love, Victor, the mystery is gone and the digital pen-palling devoid of room for mystery, unknowingness, and gradation of feeling. (For that, see: Alice Wu’s love letter The Half of It.) So, Simon has all the answers, right?
[Ed. note: The rest of this review contains spoilers for episode 8 of the series]
Love, Victor presents a compelling, but ultimately unsatisfying twist in its eighth episode, revealing that, during Victor’s impromptu visit to New York, the “Simon” he thought he knew was actually a found family and queer community. Simon’s answers have been taken from his queer and trans roommates and his Black boyfriend. The shared experiences and mutual embrace of another in the queer family paints a more progressive, interesting, and touching portrait of what this series could have been, Victor’s situational caveats notwithstanding. Rather than one mentor teaching him of the different visions queerness can take, a queer family raises a child.
But these voices remain subsumed into one person after the episode ends; Simon reverts back to a gay sage, and the acknowledgment of what his diverse roommates had to offer is forgotten. How easy it is for white gay people to forget the contribution of other queers of color. Love, Simon features another character, ever so briefly, one whose presentation of queerness was explicitly dichotomized between Simon’s gayness. Ethan (Clark Moore), an open, gay, Black femme character whose self-assurance and lived-in performance compensated for their minimal screentime. Simon is sure, in the film, to separate himself from Ethan and the kind of gay that dances to Whitney Houston, but — cue sentimental music — in the end, he learns from Ethan.
Where did Ethan go? Would he not have been just as helpful, if not more so, to Victor? Or even Simon’s boyfriend Bram, who briefly shepherds him in the eighth episode? Simon admits himself that his and Victor’s experiences are almost fundamentally different, a tacit self-awareness on the show’s part as far as the limit of white gayness being “one size fits all.” And while there’s sure to be difference of experience with the other characters of color (who I think would be quicker to admit their own fallibility), imagine the sense of interiority they could have, a psychological depth afforded to them less frequently than their white gay counterparts. If there were a queer of color leading Victor to a gay promised land, as it were, at least there’d be an understanding that queerness exists beyond what’s white in front of us.