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The Prom and the Need for Good Representation

by Lila Katch and Ruby Arthur

In a post Love Simon society where homophobia is dead and even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a speaking gay character (if only on screen for 10 seconds), it’s of course time for Hollywood to capitalize on the new hot fad that is queerness. From Call Me By Your Name to Happiest Season, a myriad of works following queer characters, varying greatly in their critical acclaim, have been churned out and released to the screens of the American masses.

Ryan Murphy’s, The Prom, is no exception. With it’s neon color palette and star-studded cast, Netflix’s newest forgettable teen rom-com takes a fun queer musical and transports it to a more mainstream audience. The movie follows Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), a lesbian senior in your average Indiana High School, who dreams only of being allowed to go to the prom with her girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose). However, when the town and PTA of her school deny her such a right, despite the wishes of her gay-ally principal Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), she finds hope only in four saviors sent straight from Broadway.

The flamingly homosexual Barry Glickman (James Corden) and his straight best friend Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) come to Indiana in hopes that helping make Emma’s dreams come true will repair their damaged careers, and with them comes two other actors down on their luck, Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannels) and Angie Dickenson (Nicole Kidman). However, despite a promisingly wacky plot and a plethora of gay characters, The Prom simply falls flat in terms of representation.

Instead of giving us a look into the lives of queer characters, The Prom submits to tropes and characutures, pushing its queer leads to the role of secondary characters in their own movie. The age of praising movies simply for having queer characters is over. It is time to critique, and it is time to change.

The main issue with the movie is that it fails to deliver on the promise it made, that of a lesbian romance. For while the basis of the movie is that of a lesbian couple wanting to go to prom, the amount of scenes with the two of them in it is minimal to say the least. They have about three actual scenes together before they have the obligatory second act fight and third act make-up, and in those scenes talk to each other as if they barely know each other. No laughter is shared, no actual chemistry, simply a hand holding and a singular kiss at the very end of the movie.

Instead, the screen time is taken up by the former Broadway stars, which would be fine if they weren’t the definition of gay stereotypes. Barry Glickman likes fashion, and glitter, and has a tragic backstory about his parents rejecting his sexuality (which seems to be the only defining character struggle he’s gone through). Trent Oliver is sassy, and Angie Dickenson is some strange melting pot of lesbian fashion and faded youth. And then there is Dee Dee Allen, the only straight of the group and the only one that gets an actual character arc, that of her becoming a more compassionate person, as well as a lovely romance with Mr. Hawkins tacked on just for the fun of it. If one’s blood was not quite at the boiling point yet, the straight couple shares a kiss before the lesbians.

Media like this doesn’t bring sympathy to queer people, it reinforces age old stereotypes with a splash of rainbow glitter in an attempt to cover up the obvious straight-washing of sexuality. When a movie priding itself of gay representation has the straight couple kiss before the lesbian one, you have to ask yourself, what is the point? The movie is premised on a gay romance, I think it’s safe to assume the Westboro Bapist Church did not pick this film for movie night. So why chicken out of real representation?

Gay representation has come a long way in Hollywood, the existence of this movie proves such. But Hollywood does not care about gay people, for just as much as it panders to the pockets of gay consumers so does it to straight ones. And, not just your average ally, but those uncomfortable with queer love and those who shuffle their feet at the sight of a gay couple showing each other any physical affection. Love is love, but not physical love. One is allowed to love another of the same sex, but to be physically attracted to them, and to show it, crosses the line of obscenity.

A Disney Channel Original Movie like High School Musical is allowed to have it’s straight leads make out several times in close up shots, but a PG-13 movie released on Netflix refrains from showing even a pec on the lips between its leading couple until the last minute of the movie. Meanwhile, just minutes before, side characters Dee Dee Allen and Tom Hawkins, both heterosexual of course, are allowed a close up for their kiss. The whole thing reeks of desperation, an industry not trying to make a good movie, but instead cash in on a market starved for representation, of course bleaching the movie of it’s more criminally queer material for it’s straight audience as well.

That’s the problem with taking a wonderfully gay show from Broadway, a cultural hub for queer celebration, and translating it to mainstream America. Unless you are ready to commit to a real out and proud movie, you are going to do the piece a disservice, especially if in said piece your straight romance seems to outshine all other aspects in terms of development, chemistry, and just general screen time.

But of course, the silencing of gay voices in their own media is nothing new. What is the gay best friend if not a way to reconcile with gay existence without actually facing it? The stereotype itself is one of an interesting history, once empowering to a group of people who had never before seen themselves represented positively in cinema, it is now a tiring trope based on a narrative created exclusively by straight people. Why, in an age where an openly gay man can run for president, do we still so often relegate gay people as nothing but side characters, a sassy remark or two to inspire our confidence once more?

The basis of The Prom as a whole is just one big gay best friend narrative. The flamboyant, gay, Broadway stars of New York come to help a young girl get the prom she’s always dreamed of. Of course, the girl they’re helping is a lesbian, but the trope remains nonetheless. And here comes the true sin of the movie, the character of Barry Glickman, arguably the protagonist of the movie, is still the most stereotypical gay man one could imagine. He ping pongs from one person’s problems to the next, offering a campy retort and moving on. And as for his arc? Reconciling with his homophobic family of course, because who ever heard of a gay man who had problems outside of his sexuality?

The greatest crime of the gay best friend trope, and of most gay tropes out there, is the trivialization of gay culture. The reinforcement that the gays are there to serve you, to give you a silly makeover, make you giggle at their jokes, and then disappear into the void of forgotten characters as you make your way to the next stage of your life. The Prom does nothing to fix this. The gay people of Broadway are of course obsessed with fashion, theatre, and all such feminine things. Bad enough a stereotype, but it could be redeemed if the movie didn’t seem to mock it’s own protagonists for their interests.

In truth, part of the reason we refuse to take gay people seriously is because we refuse to take women seriously, and in the eyes of society, the two are the same. Fashion, gossip, all of the sort is trivial because it’s feminine, there is no way around it. And much of gay culture is centered around feminine society because gay men were for so long treated like counterfeit women. When the movie somewhat mockingly depicts Barry Glickman demanding Emma to go shopping with him, it reinforces the idea that not only are gay interests inherently feminine, but are also insignificant.

Moral qualms aside, the movie remains less than Oscar-worthy. Ryan Murphy should have stuck to teenaged covers of already appreciated hits. His recent renditions of musical numbers written for Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin’s Broadway show are an unfortunate sight to see in major motion form. Complete with unmemorable choruses, the songs are a shoddy attempt at modernity. A thin veil of impressive notes guise what are as a whole, bland and unobtrusive musical numbers.

One I’d like to mention is “Love Thy Neighbor.” Like Nicole Kidmasn’s performance of a Chicago-esque-almost-strip-tease, “Love Thy Neighbor” is a deeply uncomfortable experience. Performed by Andrew Rannells, who, like Meryl Streep, does not deserve to be in a movie such as this, the song is meant to convince the inexplicably religious student body to appreciate their lesbian peers. Verses leading up to the chorus highlight the individual sins that mall-goers have committed despite their devotion to the lord. Andrew points out stick and pokes, divorced parents, and pre-marital sex, which crescendo at “Love thy neighbor, love thy neighbor, love thy neighbor trumps them all.” Slowly but surely, he convinces the cool popular jocks and their girlfriends that Emma isn’t so bad after all, at least not under the eyes of God.

Suffice it to say, none of this is in any way an attack on the musical itself. The show was nominated for seven Tony Awards, and I am in no place to say that is undeserved. In fact, it seems most of the issues with representation in the film seem to stem from this disconnect with the Broadway show, the removal of a queer story from a queer space.

In an interview with Haley Pessin, a family friend and someone who herself got to see the show, it became more and more clear how the story got to be in it’s altered state. The most obvious change is that, with big names like James Cordon and Meryl Streep in the movie, it seems Murphy got caught up in the glamour of these movie stars and forgot the fact that neither of them actually play the main character. While Pessin tells me the show had a strong focus on the lesbian characters, the movie seems bored with its own main romance if it goes five minutes without returning to Meryl Streep.

The greatest example of this is the love story between Dee Dee Allen and Principal Hawkins, who together have nearly as much screen time in the movie as the lesbian characters. “I can guarantee you that has everything to do with Meryl Streep playing that role.” Pessin stated, “Of course they’re going to give her a lot of screen time because she’s great. But in the musical I got more of the impression that it was kind of like a funny gag.”

The inevitable result of giving the Broadway thespians greater screen time was the erasal of our main queer characters. While Emma, the main character, seems to have entered the movie with her character intact, her girlfriend, Alyssa, who also happens to be a woman of color, has had most of her personality stripped. “[Alyssa]- has a lot more development in the musical, she’s a lot more outgoing, she seems like she’s more someone who stands up for herself,” Pessin stated. “That is totally taken out of the movie.... she comes off as much more of a quiet and intimidated character who’s maybe being led a bit more by her girlfriend. There’s much more balance in the musical. You can be a strong person and still have conflict about your sexuality or about how you’ll be received.”

Yet it seems the movie’s changes go beyond simply the natural results of a star studded cast, and lie more in regular Hollywood censorship. Pessin found there to be an obvious disconnect between the lesbian relationship in the musical and in the show. “I recall in the musical [the lesbians] being much more affectionate to each other, even if it was still closeted. We’re just really waiting into the movie for them to even hold hands.”

This is not to mention Barry Glickman’s character, who in the show is celebrated for all sides of him, and in the movie is played in the most stereotypical way possible, and by a straight actor nonetheless. “The musical is trying to complicate the narrative about these people who come in thinking they know what it’s like to be a young gay person in the South and find out that’s it’s a lot different and that person has more to teach them, I feel that that’s undermined by having them be so stereotypical,” Pessin expressed.

It’s not as if gay representation is easy. It sounds easy, but the truth is, America is a tough audience. It shouldn’t be, but we live in a society that values quantity over quality, and another Noah Centineo movie over a French indie film doused in longing stares and languorous seaside imagery. The Prom is by no means good gay representation though. Love Simon was a tough act to follow, but it could’ve been done better than this. Movies portraying lesbians have been criticized by many for their mostly taking place in the eighteenth and nineteenth century (lesbians have gone extinct since). But movies like Carol and Portrait of A Lady on Fire are examples of historical lesbians that are well written, intense, and undoubtedly the protagonists are less fraught by gaudy stereotypes of the gay agenda.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post and But I’m A Cheerleader are modern examples of young lesbians. Like The Prom, these high school sweetheart’s stories are of complicated parental relationships but also the more general struggles of teenhood. Somehow they still manage to remain compelling, their relationships are poignant, and they are at heart, the epitome of what a young adult film should be.

If The Prom left you craving Ryan Murphy’s better works, by all means, Pose and The Politician are completely worthy works of gay representation directed entirely by Murphy himself. Murphy is responsible for some of the best diversification and gay representation that Hollywood has done in the past ten years, even more reason for why The Prom was so detrimentally disappointing. Critically acclaimed and rightfully so, Pose is as aesthetically pleasing to watch as it is heart wrenchingly intense and melancholy. As depictions of the drag ball scene in New York during and after the AIDS epidemic go, Pose is truly worth the watch. The Politician is as aesthetically pleasing but with more of the telenovela-esque drama that Murphy has sharpened since Glee. An ensemble of determined and malevolent high school politicians are further dramatized by artful colour schemes and the sunny setting of California. Both shows are examples of Ryan Murphy’s better half, as well as gay representation that even the gays stand by.

At the end of the day, The Prom is still significant in terms of the progress of representation. The fact that Netflix felt comfortable making it speaks volumes to the decades of activism by the LGBT community. But I think the existence of this movie is more important than its contents in that regard. Despite flaunting its gayness proudly, The Prom highlights so much of what is wrong with queer representation.

To anyone who saw the movie and felt seen, know you do not need this movie. You deserve a movie that takes its own cast seriously, that shows three-dimensional gay characters, and that allows its own main couple to kiss more than once. If you feel in need of representation, please refer to any of the movies or TV shows listed above because gay representation is no longer about being seen. It’s about being understood. It’s about being loved.

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