by Katherine Sinkovics
The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinion of Byte or Byte’s editorial board.
In an era where media has made great leaps and bounds with positive representation of social minorities and making sure sensitive subjects are handled tactfully, it can be really frustrating to see ignorant writers producing problematic content despite the strides toward a more progressive media landscape. No film encapsulates this frustration better than Netflix’s Sierra Burgess is a Loser. To give a quick synopsis, the film centers around high school student Sierra Burgess, an unpopular student who is constantly bullied for her appearance and social awkwardness. One of Sierra’s bullies, Veronica, decides to give Sierra’s number out to a guy named Jamey, telling him that it’s actually her number. Once Sierra and Jamey start talking, they start to hit it off and Sierra has to keep Jamey convinced that he’s dating Veronica in order to keep the relationship afloat.
When the film was released, a lot of people were upset with the movie’s insensitivity towards LGBT and disabled communities, romanticism of catfishing, and the overall poor quality of the film’s writing—to the point where a petition to get the film removed from Netflix has gained over 6000 signatures. While I do consider myself to be anti-censorship and believe that online petitions are easily one of the most egregious forms of online slacktivism, the film itself is still extremely problematic and, even if it’s too late to remove the film, it still deserves of all the criticism it’s received.
How insensitive it?
If I’m being quite honest, Sierra Burgess is a Loser’s tasteless sense of humor is among the least of the film’s problems. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still extremely unfunny and cringeworthy, but it pales in comparison to the film’s main and glaring fault—though that still doesn’t forgive its incompetent comedy.
The film’s sense of humor is akin to that of a bad stand-up comedian who is only known for lukewarm shock comedy; it’s offensive enough to upset a sizable amount of people and anyone who isn’t offended is just unimpressed with the comedian’s lazy attempts at comedy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with racy humor as long as there’s more substance to it beyond simply mocking minorities. Sierra Burgess, however, goes for the low-hanging fruit for no reason other than the for shock value. The film frequently and casually conflates Sierra’s unattractiveness with her being gay or transgender. As a person who identifies as both and has received similar vitriol in the past because of it, those moments kind of made me cringe. Personal experiences aside, these problematic moments pretty much amount to minor throwaway lines that, while not too substantial, leave a bad taste in my mouth.
The catfish in the room
By far the most abhorrent aspect of this film is how it handles the issue of catfishing. On paper, a film about a socially awkward teenager entering a non-consensual relationship via catfishing, then taking advantage of the people around her for personal gain, and refusing to take accountability for her actions until they catch up to her actually does sound like a pretty interesting concept… for a psychological horror film. This is not fit for a cutesy romcom that acts like a slightly edgier Disney Channel original movie. If you sit down and think about the implications of this narrative, it doesn’t take long to understand how disturbing this whole scenario actually is and how awful a person Sierra is for indulging in this behavior.
If you’re even the tiniest bit familiar with the MTV series Catfished, you know how most of these scenarios play out. Someone starts dating a catfish (someone who assumes another identity in an online relationship) and eventually finds out that the catfish is somebody else. They stop dating because that person felt betrayed by the catfish. Hardly any of these instances have resulted in a lasting, healthy relationship due to the fact that trust is an incredibly important aspect of any romantic relationship and it’s hard to maintain trust when someone’s been lying about their entire persona. Even when the film tries to play off the whole catfishing thing as romantic, the relationship still comes across as creepy and unsettling. It even gets to a point where Sierra kisses Jamey without his consent, tricking him into thinking he’s kissing Veronica. Even if you can look past the implications of the catfishing plot line, there’s no way anyone can justify a relationship where one party has committed sexual battery against the other. The worst part is that Sierra doesn’t get any comeuppance for her actions. She gets off scot-free and has her happy ending with Jamey despite the fact that she’s been lying to him throughout their entire relationship. The film tries to spin this as an “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” message, but that really doesn’t work when your protagonist is a lying, manipulative sociopath who would not feel out of place as a Stephen King antagonist. Given that Jamey’s actor, Noah Centineo, was actually a victim of catfishing, you’d think that the film would’ve handled the issue with a lot more tact, but instead they were too concerned about trying to make this gross relationship romantic to worry about any unfortunate implications the film might have.
Unless keeping the film up harms them enough financially, the film will likely remain on Netflix for the rest of the platform’s existence, regardless of outcry from detractors. The film’s presence has not affected Netflix’s performance at all and even if the film’s quality is questionable, that hasn’t stopped them from producing poorly made films before (these are the guys that keep approving terrible live-action anime adaptations, after all). The only Netflix original that was removed due to controversy was How to Get Away With Any Crime, and that’s only because the stuff going on in that show was extremely shady, so I doubt Netflix would remove Sierra Burgess for being too problematic.
That said, the outrage surrounding this movie is understandable and I would not recommend supporting it in any capacity. Even if the film has a right to exist, that doesn’t exempt it from criticism for being completely tone-deaf in regards to the consequences of catfishing and it’s deeply problematic content.
Featured Image: Malia Hutton