Booksmart Puts Lesbian Narratives Front and Center of the High School Comedy
Warning: Minor spoilers for the film Booksmart appear throughout the piece.
Although I escaped high school three years ago, I have a weird obsession for media that encapsulates the High School Experience™. In reality, high school was a very frightening time for me that I never wish to relive, but when splayed across a screen through a beautiful, picture-perfect narrative, it almost makes me long for what I could have had, even when the characters aren’t as glamorous as their popular counterparts that breezed through adolescence with little to no issue. Because to be honest, I was always a sucker (and still am!) for those flicks that feature the outsiders of high school. 10 Things I Hate About You will always, to this day, be my favorite high school-based rom-com that features a teenage girl that obviously doesn’t fit in with the in-crowd, and movies like The DUFF, Edge of Seventeen, and Lady Bird continue to be at the top of my not-so-guilty pleasures for teen movies—it’s difficult to be guilty for loving films that perfectly capture the awkward teenage female-identifying experience (thanks, Greta Gerwig).
Yet, everytime I watch films such as these, which continue to progress in terms of decreasing heteronormativity, I still have to ask myself: Where are the lesbians?
While 10 Things I Hate About You was very anti-patriarchy through Kat’s love for “feminist prose and angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion,” she was still undeniably straight through her inevitable relationship with Patrick. Fast forward nearly two decades—in Lady Bird, the main character’s sexuality is never entirely defined and she doesn’t end up with a romantic interest, yet only heterosexual crushes and desire are shown.
There may be films that include teenage lesbians and/or queer womxn, and surprisingly, some of them hold actual quality—movies like But I’m A Cheerleader, the ‘90s Swedish film Show Me Love, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post include excellent queer girl representation through the tricky lens of adolescence and high school. Even Dee Rees’s film Pariah brilliantly intersects the intricacies of being 17, Black, and a lesbian, straying away from the white-washed narrative that many queer films follow.
Yet, all of these queer coming-of-age narratives are only about their queerness, typically shown through some sort of coming out story, or more accurately, through the confusing and complicated feelings any closeted teen would be going through. But I’m A Cheerleader is funny and satirical in its narrative, adding a breath of fresh air to the sea of downright depressing lesbian films. Still, it would never fit into the trope of “coming-of-age comedy,” like the ones I listed previously. Rather, it would be categorized under “LGBTQ+ movies.” It’s literally about conversion therapy!
So I ask myself again: where are the lesbians? There are (few) good lesbian movies, and there are (a bit more) good coming-of-age comedies. But why is it so difficult to combine the two into a single film?
Finally, the box office somehow knew that I’ve been waiting for a film like this my entire life and released Booksmart, the movie I practically ran to the theater on its opening night to watch. If you’re unfamiliar with the synopsis, the Olivia Wilde-directed film features two female best friends about to graduate high school—one being Molly, the Yale-bound perfectionist who is probably going to run for office in the near future, and the other being Amy, the out lesbian whose near plans consist of living in Botswana to make tampons and finally having her first kiss with a girl. The two have spent the majority of high school focusing on academics, categorizing them as the outcasts of school who have never been invited to a party and have fake IDs that can get them into college libraries, not bars.
Upon finding out that their classmates who spend their free time drinking are also going to top-tier schools, they decide to spend their last night of graduation attempting to break loose and have fun, whatever that may mean for two best friends who have never entered the bounds of a real-life high school party.
Even before watching the trailer, I knew this would be the movie that I wish I had when I was still in high school. But upon seeing the full-length film, I realized that it was so much more. Most importantly, Booksmart is both explicitly queer but not in-your-face queer at the same time. While Amy’s sexuality is not used as a trope but rather as a fully-developed characterization to give the accurate, much-needed lesbian teen representation, the film still fits several of the traditional coming-of-age comedy tropes. Amy’s queerness is normalized through these tropes, which revolve around a classic high school party that includes skinny dipping with strangers, a first-time hookup, and sharing an emotionally-brutal fight with a best friend, all on the night before graduation. These are the things I’ve always loved about teen movies that Booksmart includes instead of presenting another tragic lesbian story of a girl’s coming out experience going awry or even worse, having the “bury your gays” trope come in full swing.
I want lesbians to simultaneously be front-and-center of the narrative and also live these very real, very messy experiences through the lens of the coming-of-age comedy. Booksmart is more than perfect at achieving that, both through its obvious scenes and the subtlest of details that maybe only other queer womxn would catch. It makes me long for more teen comedies, or really any genre that focuses on teens, to include these kinds of stories that are so essential to giving queer kids the representation they deserve. While we may be going uphill in this realm, I know it will take time—at least I’ll have this brilliant film to rely on.
Will I be seeing Booksmart again in theaters? You bet.
About the Author
Natalie Geisel is in her third year at The George Washington University studying women’s, gender, and sexuality studies with a minor in communication. Her love of writing sprouted from starting her fashion blog in high school, and her current written work spans from topics such as style, LGBTQ+ content, and music. She is interested in intersecting gender and sexuality into the world of wellness, hoping to add a queer voice to its editorial side. When she’s not writing, she spends her spare time at dance rehearsal, attending local indie shows in the DC area, or finding the best cafes that serve oat milk. She’s passionate about inclusive sex education and sustainable fashion and thinks everyone should be, too.