Whenever Netflix releases a new film or series, the internet usually erupts with promos and discussions and hot takes. Earlier this month, they released a film called Sierra Burgess is a Loser, staring Shannon Purser of Stranger Things fame.
Rotten Tomatoes describes the movie as “a modern rom-com retelling of the Cyrano de Bergerac story set in high school. The story centers on Sierra, an intelligent teen who does not fall into the shallow definition of high school pretty but, in a case of mistaken identity that results in unexpected romance, must team with the popular girl in order to win her crush.”
The preview looked promising for the topics it would explore. As someone who has struggled a lot with feeling “too big” and “not pretty enough” and worrying too much about my appearance, the premise of the show intrigued me. I love the idea that our female protagonists don’t all have to fit our culture’s rigid standard of beauty.
But the movie left me disappointed. I tried to like it; when I first finished it thought, “Okay, that wasn’t bad.” The more I thought about it though, I realised the writing was not only weak, but in some places troubling.
There will be lots of spoilers ahead.
It suggests catfishing is okay if you have good intentions
The whole premise of the movie is essentially a catfishing situation.
Veronica, the popular girl, doesn’t like Sierra. When Jamey – a boy from another school – asks Veronica for her number, she gives him Sierra’s number instead. When Jamey texts Sierra, she doesn’t tell him who she really is – she keeps pretending to be Veronica. Jamey and Sierra really like each other. Eventually Veronica and Sierra make an agreement to help each other and Veronica goes on a date with him to keep it going.
It’s weird, dishonest, and not okay.
But it’s played off as a cute thing because “Sierra deserves to find love!”
Is the message that the only way she could get someone to love her is by tricking them?
And it’s extremely unfair to Jamey. What if it was a movie about two boys doing the same thing to a girl? I doubt anyone would find that as “cute.”
The movie was portrayed as if it was a “woke” film but unfortunately it was not.
Sierra Burgess was released a month after Insatiable, a Netflix series which was heavily criticized for being fat-shaming. (I haven’t seen the series yet so I can’t say for myself.) Sierra Burgess was made out to be a better, more-woke story.
And sure, the whole movie wasn’t centered on Sierra’s size; it wasn’t about her trying to lose weight or trying to fix her appearance.
But the portrayal of an overweight woman – Veronica’s mom, Trish – felt very jokey and demeaning. Her character is meant to give context to Veronica, with her constantly reminding Veronica to look after her appearance at all costs. I understand that it shows the way many women are affected by their mothers’ (or other women’s) body image and self-esteem struggles.
But the jokes around her character undermined the seriousness of the issue the film was trying to address.
Problematic jokes seem to undermine the message throughout the whole movie. At one point Sierra pretends to be deaf so Jamey won’t hear her voice and realize he’s been talking to her instead of Veronica. When it turns out that he knows sign language because his brother is deaf, the whole scene is used comedically instead of teaching Sierra that hey, it’s not cool to pretend you have a disability.
There were several comments about whether Sierra was a lesbian, which she seems almost offended by, and a comment from Veronica that she “just has bad taste.” Gross. Shouldn’t we be past that stereotype in 2018? Another character made a transphobic joke, and while she was called out on it, there are arguably other ways to vilify a character than using that kind of harmful joke.
No doubt the insensitive jokes in the movie are ones that are made everyday in high schools, and some might say it’s realistic. I assume the film was trying to portray these jokes as problematic, but it just felt inappropriate and unnecessary.
Problematic Issues of Consent
One of the most uncomfortable moments of the film is when Veronica goes on the date for Sierra, to keep the lie going. Jamey goes to kiss her, so she has him close his eyes and Sierra kisses him instead.
It’s so inappropriate.
It’s especially shocking considering all of the conversations about consent that have been prominent recently. Tricking someone into kissing you is not consent.
Once again, I found myself thinking that if the roles were reversed and he had tricked her into kissing him, there would be a lot of outrage about it.
Sierra isn’t actually very likable.
I tried my best to like her. I told myself that it was my biases at work – that I’ve been conditioned to expect a certain kind of female protagonist. Or that my own struggles with caring too much about appearance made it harder for me to relate to her. But I don’t think it was that.
The premise of the story appeared to be a girl who placed her worth in her intelligence and accomplishments, rather than her appearance. I love that idea.
But in the end, it didn’t feel believable. It seemed like she just felt sorry for herself for not being “pretty enough,” even though she never tried to be pretty and judged everyone else for trying so hard.
On top of lying to Jamey, she publicly humiliates Veronica by hacking her instagram. She never truly apologises, admits she was wrong, or faces any real consequences. Instead she writes a song and sends it to Veronica, and once again everything is played off because she’s “not a pretty girl” and “just wants to find love.”
When Jamey and Sierra ended up together in the end, it felt forced.
Their “connection” never felt that deep anyway. They mostly sent animal pics to each other and talked about silly things – not exactly a compelling love story. To be honest, Sierra had more chemistry with Veronica than she did with Jamey.
When he showed up at the end and forgave Sierra, it felt awkward. I didn’t feel like she deserved to get the guy.
Being unpopular or an underdog isn’t an excuse to treat people badly.
Many movies show an imperfect protagonist, who makes mistakes but learns a lesson along the way. Unfortunately, in this movie it didn’t feel like Sierra learned a lesson. Instead it felt like a story about an unsociable, judgmental girl who manipulated people to get what she wanted.