'Booksmart,' empathy, and the joy of representation

the voice and vision of a new generation
Image credit: Annapurna Pictures

'Booksmart,' empathy, and the joy of representation

May 30, 2019

There is a moment in Booksmart where co-lead Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) jumps headlong into a swimming pool and experiences the whole spectrum of teenage lesbian emotions. The audience lives with her in joy for a few moments, before the moment is cut off when she witnesses something that sucks all that joy right out of her. I felt the whole theater gasp around me as it happened—a few “oh no’s” scattering around the packed theater.

I’ve thought about that scene every day since I saw Booksmart; that rapid pivot from pure joy to crushing defeat, which was integral to my high school experience. As someone who, like Amy, was out for the majority of high school, yet didn’t have a girlfriend or even a first kiss until much later, her scenes felt like someone had looked directly into my life and put it on screen. Finally, here was a movie speaking directly to the “straight-A teen lesbian who was comfortable in her sexuality but also not good at talking to girls she has a crush on” experience.

There is something utterly powerful in that. There is something compelling about finally seeing your experiences reflected on-screen, in a room full of people rooting for you. What’s really exceptional about Booksmart is that it wasn’t just me who felt every emotion along with Amy; it was the whole theater.

For years, I’ve found ways to relate to and identify with the stories of straight leads in teen comedies. When Cher Horowitz was dubbed “a virgin who can’t drive” in Clueless, I felt the sting; when Cameron Frye crashed his dad’s car in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I felt all of the rage and empowerment. In fact, over the years I’ve felt just about every emotion felt by hundreds of heterosexual teens I’ve watched fall in love endlessly.

Now, people were feeling that about me. (Well, technically Amy, not me. She’s much cooler.) Booksmart and its director, Olivia Wilde, excel at painting a world of teenagers that people want to root for, and several of them are queer. As the out star of the film Beanie Feldstein told Entertainment Weekly, “The only love scene in the film is a queer love scene, and that’s so radical... By showing queer sexuality, and making heterosexual people relate to it, is actually really deeply meaningful.”

In the seminal documentary The Celluloid Closet, based on the book of the same name by GLAAD co-founder Vito Russo, iconic out writer and actor Harvey Fierstein says, "The hunger I felt as a kid looking for gay images was not to be alone."

That hunger is still real—it presents itself whenever I go see a movie, fingers crossed for something queer. Movies like Booksmart show that it's possible to satisfy that hunger, but the numbers on LGBTQ inclusion show that there is still a long way to go before we are fully seen on the big screen.  

Last week, GLAAD released its annual Studio Responsibility Index (SRI), which tracks LGBTQ inclusion in films from the seven highest grossing studios. Of the 45 LGBTQ characters counted in major studio films in GLAAD's 2019 SRI, 26 of them had under three minutes of screentime and 16 of those didn’t even get one full minute. We need more than that.

Watching Booksmart, I found myself surprised at how the film repeatedly prioritized Amy’s story. Her imperfect, messy, and beautiful queer experiences were right at the heart of the movie. Even after last year’s Blockers and Love, Simon, queer people given priority are the exception, not the rule. These three movies show that putting queer characters front and center makes for great movies that people want to watch over and over again.

Audiences are already empathizing worldwide with the queer teenagers in Booksmart, and just as importantly, queer teenagers are seeing that they can be the heroes that audiences will fall in love with. Major studios should take note,to step up, and green light more films like Booksmart, films where audiences can’t wait to fall in love with queer people and our stories.

Raina Deerwater serves as the Entertainment Research and Analysis Associate for GLAAD Media Institute. In this capacity, she provides research and assists in writing GLAAD’s Where We Are On TV and Studio Responsibility Index, our two annual reports examining the quality and quantity of LGBTQ representation in television and Hollywood film. In addition, Raina authors regular posts for GLAAD’s website.

the voice and vision of a new generation