This story includes plot details for “Sierra Burgess is a Loser.”
The jock wants to date the cheerleader, but in the end, he realizes that it’s actually the girl in the marching band, the one that charmed him over the phone, who’s his real heart’s desire. The story seems to be pretty standard heartwarming teen romance fare, but beneath the heteronormative clichés of Netflix’s latest romantic comedy, Sierra Burgess is a Loser, there are some significant problems.
The film features Shannon Purser (best known as Barb, the much-memeified character from Stranger Things) as the titular Sierra Burgess, and Noah Centineo (from To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before) as the love interest, Jamey. For most of the film, Sierra pretends to be Veronica (Kristine Froseth), the pretty but mean cheerleader, to maintain an online relationship with Jamey. (Veronica is eventually complicit in the deception.)
Purser plays a complex character who appears convinced of her own self-worth, but acts out disturbingly when that worth is thrown into doubt, including catfishing, slut-shaming a friend, and tricking a boy into non-consensual kissing.
Sierra Burgess can be commended for avoiding some rom-com pitfalls. For instance, there is no makeover scene to suggest that changing your appearance to be more desirable is the key to true love. The growing friendship between Sierra and Veronica also makes a good case for female friendship, and is probably the most touching relationship in the film.
But that’s not enough to make up for the many things that are far from ideal in this depiction of teen romance.
The Netflix film is a modern adaption of Cyrano de Bergerac, a play written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand. In the play, a large-nosed man named Cyrano writes romantic letters to the woman he loves, Roxane, but under the guise of his handsome cousin. (Roxanne, a 1987 movie starring Steve Martin, is another version.)
The issue is not so much Cyrano itself, in which two men creepily conspire to seduce a woman—it’s far from the only 19th century story with a questionable premise—but in the choice to adapt it for today. In Sierra Burgess, the play’s central deception is normalized, and then rewarded. Spoiler: In Cyrano, the catfisher does not meet a happy end. But Sierra does, showing us all that lying is a great way to start a relationship.
In one of the early scenes, when a poetry writing assignment is announced, one student sarcastically remarks that Sierra should write about her own “trans experience, super topical.” While the teacher does chastise the student (Sierra is not trans), the initial comment is also full of sarcasm at the expense of actual trans teenagers, and conflates the “trans experience” with Sierra’s “loser” quality.
Later in the film, Sierra’s perceived unattractiveness is also linked with resembling a lesbian or possibly being a hermaphrodite. These comments have already received significant online backlash. And all these body-shaming comments seem particularly ill placed because Netflix has recently come under fire for the blatant fat-shaming in Insatiable, a new series about body image and revenge.
When Sierra meets Jamey for the first time in a chance encounter, she fears that he will recognize her voice because they’ve spoken extensively on her phone. So she pretends to be deaf and unable to speak. The twist, to awkward comic affect, is that Jamey’s younger brother is truly deaf, so Sierra’s mindless butchering of sign language is called out. De Elizabeth points out in Teen Vogue that the overall effect is pretty blatantly ableist, and would be in any context.
There is a particularly unsettling scene where Sierra and Veronica scheme for Jamey to kiss Sierra, believing her to be Veronica (there is a similar scene in Cyrano). Veronica closes Jamey’s eyes, Sierra crawls out from beneath the car where she was hiding and eavesdropping (creepy, yes), and then Sierra kisses Jamey in Veronica’s place.
Firstly, this is a violation of Jamey’s trust and disregards his right to consent. If you don’t see what’s wrong with this in the age of #MeToo, just imagine if the gender roles were reversed.
Katie Stow in Cosmopolitan offers a more extreme analogy, comparing it to a sexual violation she describes as “the Houdini.”
Towards the end, angered by seeing Veronica and Jamey briefly kiss (Veronica obliged to maintain the ruse), Sierra hacks into Veronica’s Instagram and posts a picture of Veronica sensually kissing her ex-boyfriend, which soon gets spread around the entire school, along with the information that Veronica, the popular cheerleader, was embarrassingly dumped over online messaging. It’s a millennial cocktail of slut-shaming and revenge photos (short of porn, but still). Sierra doesn’t face any real retribution for this outrageous act.
In typical happily-ever-after style, Sierra still gets the guy, keeps her friends, and is admitted to the college of her choice. The impression is that the audience should excuse Sierra’s problematic choices because she suffers from being less popular, or is not the conventional pretty girl.
The movie’s ending also implies that Sierra finds love in spite of her looks, which is unfortunate, to say the least. It’s not a narrative that teenagers—or anyone—should be told is normal.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the title of the film.