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‘Sierra Burgess Is a Loser’ Wasn’t the Woke Teen Romance We Needed

It earned praise for a non-skinny lead actress, but the Netflix release didn’t live up to all the hype.

by Shailee Koranne
Sep 11 2018, 2:54pm

Images courtesy Netflix

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Sierra Burgess Is a Loser premiered on Netflix on Friday, September 7 to mixed reviews. It stars Shannon Purser as Sierra, an intelligent high school girl who isn’t conventionally attractive, yet confident enough to not care about her looks. She is sometimes bullied by Veronica (played by Kristine Froseth), her high school’s resident mean girl. After Veronica gives a boy from another school Sierra’s number as a prank, the boy starts texting Sierra, and thus begins the romance between Sierra and Jamey (Noah Centineo).

The trailer for Sierra Burgess dropped just as controversy built around Insatiable, Netflix’s other recent stab at a high school body image story that was heavily criticized for its offensive portrayals of fatness and weight loss. Compared to Insatiable and thanks to its well-liked lead, Sierra Burgess seemed like it was going to be a refreshing representation of teenage girls’ body image struggles. We were hoping to see a story about a girl who isn’t conventionally attractive actually ending up with the Peter Kavinksy-type she wanted to be with, instead of being the thin heroine’s funny sidekick (like Purser was as Barb in Stranger Things).

The responsibility to be innocent and perfect and have never-ending patience for messy men who need to be fixed is usually left up to women in rom coms. Sierra Burgess Is a Loser flips the script, as Sierra is a complex character who makes mistakes while Jamey is seen to be a charming and kind quarterback who talks about football like it’s poetry and has a loving relationship with his younger brother. As much as Sierra Burgess could have been a rare depiction of a more three-dimensional rom com heroine, the show ultimately didn’t live up to the body positive hype.

As noted by Sophia Carter-Kahn on Twitter, the only fat character in Sierra Burgess is a Loser, a story about body positivity, is Veronica’s mom (played by Chrissy Metz). She is shown to be a terrible, self-hating bully who controls Veronica’s diet and is rude to everyone around her. Critics like Carter-Kahn also pointed to hurtful transphobic jokes in the film. A bully quips that Sierra should write about the trans experience for their English project—as noted by writer Gwen Benaway, the essence of this comment is that Sierra’s unattractiveness makes her classmates think she’s trans. The same joke format that makes trans teens the punchline pops up more than once, and is repackaged to also make fun of lesbians, as many people in the film question Sierra’s sexuality because of her outward appearance.

While the insensitive jokes are uncomfortable aspects of the story itself, Sierra’s character moves from complex to generally unlikeable. Teenagers can be mean and impulsive, so we shouldn’t expect perfection or entirely mature behavior from young characters if we want them to be more true-to-life. However, Sierra makes a lot of inexplicably bad decisions that her character should have been held accountable for, and isn’t.

For example, Jamey’s brother is deaf, so he knows sign language. When Sierra’s best friend Dan forces her to interact with Jamey in person, she is afraid to speak because she knows Jamey would recognize her voice from their phone conversations, so… she pretends to be deaf. After she makes some loose gestures that are supposed to buy her an out from the conversation, Jamey tries to get Sierra to talk to his brother and she stands there, awkward and still, until she and Dan walk away. After the first scene with Jamey and his brother in which they communicate in sign language while playing video games, I thought this movie might be trying to normalize the representation of deaf people in film, but deafness soon becomes a joke in Sierra Burgess. Sierra is never confronted for pretending to be deaf.

Many people have also taken issue with how catfishing is shown as romantic in the movie when in reality, it’s deceitful and harmful. Critics especially latched on to a scene in which Sierra kisses Jamey without his expressly stated consent.

halfway into the film after Sierra has befriended Veronica to keep up her catfishing game, Veronica and Jamey go to the movies while Sierra watches them from the seats directly behind them. Jamey is overjoyed to be on a date with a girl he really likes, Veronica nervously leads him on while trying to convince Sierra to tell Jamey the truth, and Sierra watches them watch the movie. The scene is low-key pathetic, and if you hadn’t yet questioned the consent issues throughout the film, this might be where you start.

After this, Veronica and Jamey talk in the parking lot while Sierra literally spies on them from underneath Jamey’s car. As Jamey leans in to kiss Veronica, she covers his eyes. The music swells as Sierra emerges from her hiding spot and plants her lips on Jamey, and Veronica watches from beside them in glee.

It doesn’t matter that Jamey has been talking to Sierra throughout the film and that it’s her personality that he likes. He does not know this, it’s not what he signed up for. Consent comes up again when Sierra believes that Veronica is also interested in Jamey, and in a moment of rage Sierra logs into Veronica’s Instagram to post a photo of Veronica kissing her ex-boyfriend. Veronica is already vulnerable after being manipulated and used by her ex—something Sierra knew was happening before Veronica did, and didn’t tell her. Knowing nothing would humiliate her more in that moment, Sierra broadcasts the photo of Veronica with her ex to their entire school.

As the viewer, you are supposed to feel sympathy for Sierra’s situation, but regardless of the fact that Sierra has body image issues that are keeping her from telling Jamey the truth and contributing to her bullying of Veronica, what she did kind of sucks.

Unfortunately, the film never quite reconciles the creepiness of Sierra catfishing Jamey, aside from some remarks from Dan, who is one of the only people of color in the film, and seemingly only exists to give her advice. Veronica also forgives Sierra for all the deception way too quickly after Sierra sends her a song she wrote about feeling different and alone. At the end of the film when Sierra and Jamey have their requisite happy ending moment, they kiss again and Jamey says “Have we done that before?” Was I supposed to laugh? I didn’t! Someone tell Sierra she was wrong for kissing Jamey without his permission!

Sierra tries her best to be OK with what she looks like, but loving yourself is hard. Believing that someone else could love you for who you are is even harder. This is an important and difficult topic that Sierra Burgess tries to dissect but completely fumbles because of its unlikeable main character, insensitive jokes, and the obvious disregard for consent we see throughout the story. By the end of Sierra Burgess is a Loser, I wasn’t even rooting for Sierra anymore. So clearly, the film missed its mark in trying to create a modern story about love and body positivity.

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