Edited by Ananya Khandelwal
For the last two or three years, Netflix and other streaming services have been coming up with a certain kind of 90s/ early 2000s slightly cringey, indulgent, ‘coming-of-age’ teen movies that simply don’t seem to merit theatrical releases anymore. From To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before to The Kissing Booth and Sierra Burgess is a Loser, the list could go on and on. Most of these are not ‘good’ movies or intelligent films by any parameter, but they do serve a purpose. Most of us have watched these movies, however secretively and self-reflexively, we choose to interact with them.
What is apparent in a lot (though not all) of these movies is the levels of privilege and toxicity that shape the functioning of these storylines. In The Kissing Booth, we are presented with the character of Noah, a bad boy with anger issues who seems to just almost threaten Elle multiple times, but we’re supposed to forgive him and love him why? Because he’s a bad boy with a heart of gold? A misunderstood person who’s attempted to fit into stereotypes his whole life without truly questioning them? Because he has the ability to occasionally say please? The Kissing Booth utilises the ‘bad-boy’ trope from popular, well-loved movies like 10 Things I Hate About You without truly reflecting on why people (mostly cis het women) are attracted to characters like Heath Ledger’s 1999 classic Patrick Verona in the first place. It’s all of the bad with none of the good. There is no redemption arc, no likability, just stock character traits and a decently attractive white boy who we are supposed to like precisely because he has these stock character traits we — as an audience — have enjoyed in the past. The main character, too, is entitled and privileged. She breaks one of the (admittedly juvenile) basic tenets of her relationship with her best friend and then expects him to forgive her instantaneously. She looks down on the ‘popular’ girls because she’s ‘not like them’. Her character is built entirely out of stock traits, entitlement, and a sense of internalised misogyny.
Where in The Kissing Booth, the toxic traits of the main characters are most visible in the needlessly violent love interest; in Sierra Burgess is a Loser, these traits are most evident in the titular main character. She, too, is entirely wrapped up in a sense of false entitlement simply because she feels she’s better than other people (like popular girl Veronica) since she reads college-level philosophy and literature. I hate to break it to every girl with internalised misogyny, but a big vocabulary and the ability to read don’t make you better than or different from anyone else. In this vain, she completely humiliates Veronica and then expects to be forgiven just because she’s a girl who was bullies, and hence thinks Veronica (a conventionally attractive character) should feel sorry for her because Sierra is not conventionally attractive. Sorry Netflix, but if you were aiming for representation then this really ain’t it. Similarly, her best friend is completely forgotten the moment she’s invited to parties and, again, she expects to be forgiven without even a real apology. I doubt Sierra Burgess has said the words “I’m sorry” without a qualifier more than 10 times in her entire life. The crux of this entitlement is seen in her treatment of the love interest, Jamey. She catfishes him, lies to him, pretends to be deaf, and then she calls him shallow for being angry and not instantly falling in love with her. Just because she does not fit society's definition of 'beauty' doesn’t mean that she’s not attractive, of course, but more importantly, a lack of conventional attractiveness should not result in a lack of repercussions for her terrible actions.
One of the latest films in this series is Work It, a Step Up style teen dance movie about Quinn, a high school senior who lies in her college interview and says she’s part of her school dance team. When she doesn’t get into said dance team because she’s absolutely terrible, she decides to set up her own. We all know how this will end. First off, Work It is a movie that felt like it should have been better from the very beginning. It had a promising premise, a great cast of actors, and essentially everything that a dance movie needs — a little terrible, a little easily resolved, very angsty, and chock full of unnecessary but absolutely wonderful dance numbers. I was wrong. The dances were okay, the characters were interesting but Quinn was honestly the least interesting out of them (I’d watch a movie about one of the side characters over the actual movie any day of the week), and while the movie has great representation, the POC side characters are little more than props and scenery in the great saga that is Quinn’s life story. She lies in her interview, of her own accord and then is mad at the interviewer when she finds out she may have ruined her own chances of getting into Dartmouth. She acts like she is supposed to be there, like she is entitled to admission in one of the best private universities simply because her father went there too and she’s built an entire personality simply around wanting to get in there.
This isn’t the only case of entitlement, however. Far from it. When she fails to get into the school dance team, she decides unanimously that she and her best friend, Jasmine, will make their own. Jasmine has been working with and for people she detests on the dance team for the past four years (and working to get on for far longer) because she wants to go to New York Dance Academy, one of the very few prestigious dance schools in USA. Quinn nearly sacrifices Jasmine’s chances of getting in simply because this could make her own college application look a little better and she doesn’t even think twice about it. Later, when she realises that she doesn’t need the dance team to get into college, she quits and leaves all these dancers who she has cajoled and gathered together. She does come back later, but it doesn’t change the fact that she used them to get where she wanted to go and left the moment she no longer needed them.
Jake Taylor, their choreographer and her love interest, also falls victim to Quinn’s quest to get everything she wants without any personal repercussions. He offers them his studio space for practice — admittedly unprompted — and then gets fired as a result of Quinn’s petty rivalry with the school’s original dance team. She bears no blame for any of this and the consequences are, once again, not hers to suffer.
The reason that this movie felt like a parody, however, is that everything is too simply resolved, too easily done. It’s missing the angst so essential to most of these Netflix teen movies and, and has the potential to be so much better. At some point you have to start wondering, is it bad on purpose, so that it can make a point? Or did Netflix simply go too far with their trope bingo attempt at regenerating the theatrically dead genre of the teen movie?