Sierra Burgess IS a Loser: but it has nothing to do with her appearance
After the success of the Netflix-original film To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, it seemed that the teenage rom-com genre was making a sensational comeback. The film was not only light-hearted and funny but it engaged with the genre’s tropes in a nostalgic yet challenging way- and was highly entertaining.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the latest teen drama added to the site – Sierra Burgess Is a Loser. With Stranger Things’ Shannon Purser in the role of Sierra, the film was highly anticipated, yet many viewers were left feeling thoroughly disappointed, with Vox reviewing the film as ‘a cold and clumsy mess.’
The premise of the film is~almost~a good one. A heavier and less stereotypically ‘beautiful’ leading lady learns to love herself in the midst of a teenage romance? Wonderful stuff.
Yet Sierra Burgess' character failed to engage the audience; it becomes evident early on that not only is Sierra neither a loveable nor relatable character, but that the film itself perpetuates the exact stereotypes that viewers expected it to challenge.
The film opens with Sierra assessing herself in the mirror after a shower, as she tells herself ‘you are a magnificent beast.’ This scene is immediately refreshing, after decades of seeing women on screen being shown as repulsed by their reflections. Unfortunately, this was both the first and last inspiring line in the film.
To mass confusion, the movie morphs from a potential body positive teen-romance into a disturbing display of behaviour from a young, mildly overweight, girl attempting to prove herself worthy of a hot jock. In 2018, this is hardly a revolutionary narrative, nor is it a welcome one.
However, what is unique about this film are the lengths that Sierra is willing to go to in order to escape her ‘loser’ status – a status that is entirely founded on the fact that she is slightly larger than her peers and does well in school.
Despite Sierra’s apparent confidence at the beginning of the film, when high school mean-girl Veronica gives her number to footballer Jamey (Noah Centineo) and they begin texting, she starts to lose sight of her self-worth. She chooses to pretend to be Veronica, rather than admit her true ‘loser’ identity. Her sudden lack of self-esteem is used as an excuse for her deceit and manipulation of Jamey: an extremely toxic message to deliver to a teen demographic.
Eventually, Veronica agrees that in turn for some tutoring (to impress her boyfriend, obviously) she will help Sierra continue the pretence online. And as if ‘catfishing’ wasn’t illegal and immoral enough, the pair furthers their deceit with a completely non-consensual kissing scene. They place a hand over Jamey’s eyes and Sierra kisses him, whilst he believes he’s kissing Veronica. What another fantastic behaviour to romanticise in a teen movie. Sierra then runs off smiling to herself as some romantic music plays in the background. This scene is clearly a last-ditch attempt to make the audience root for Sierra and Jamey as a ‘couple.’ It fails spectacularly and only succeeds in making viewers extremely uncomfortable.
Naturally, when Jamey finds out that he has been manipulated, he is angry and does not want to speak to either Veronica or Sierra. Sierra cries, for one minute and twenty seconds to be precise, then writes a song about being a sunflower. This is supposed to be her entire redemption arc. Sierra eventually gets the guy.
The redemption of Veronica, however, manages to make more of an impact, with viewers witnessing how a dysfunctional home life caused her to bully those in school, and how she changes the way she views things once becoming friends with Sierra.
[Whilst this is, of course, no excuse for her previous bullying, Veronica goes on to attempt to atone for her behaviour – something that Sierra herself never does.]
Veronica's depth of character would pack more of a punch if it had not been accompanied by the harmful, and frankly overdone, stereotyping of a slim, blonde cheerleader as the mean-girl who’s failing in class. This, in addition to the clichéd idea that girls who aren’t the slim, blonde cheerleaders must be unhappy and crave a relationship to validate themselves, makes for a huge disappointment to previously hopeful viewers.
As a review from the website Mashable states, the danger of such a film is that ‘this movie thinks it’s accomplished something. In reality, it’s created more work for the next film that follows.’
Alongside this, JoyScribe revealed earlier this week that there has already been a petition to remove the film from Netflix, with a goal of 10,000 signatures. In the petition, JoyScribe included a quotation from the creator of the recent Netflix show Insatiable, which contains similar themes as Sierra Burgess: body shaming and a heavy emphasis on appearance. He claims that ‘we’re in a real danger of censorship if we decide that we all have to tell stories in a certain way so that everybody else feels safe.’
Whilst there is indeed validity to his point, I would argue that there is a place for such experimentation. And this kind of toxic representation should not be present in a film directed at impressionable teenagers.
[Photo Credits: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0]