Film and TV Editor Christina Riley offers her thoughts on Sierra Burgess is a Loser, a controversial new flick from Netflix.
This summer has seen a string of Netflix releases featuring a strong female lead who is not the typical ‘it’ girl of high school. Insatiable, To all the Boys I’ve Loved Before and the brand new release Sierra Burgess is a Loser feature young women who have been ignored and picked on, and the story follows them as they try to overcome their insecurities. Teen romance films have long since been played out and original screenplays are few and far between. Sierra Burgess is a Loser is no different in that it is steeped in clichés, but what sets it apart from the stock may not be worth commending.
Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purser) describes herself as a teenager who is not obsessed about how she looks. Drawing on similar issues from Insatiable, Sierra’s bully Veronica (Kristine Froseth) makes derogatory comments regarding body image, with weight being the primary topic of disdain. With the backlash Insatiable received for its depiction of the vengeful “Fatty Patty,” Sierra at first appears to be someone who defends herself against bullies by utilising her intelligence and grace. However, it is soon apparent that Sierra adopts the attitude of her Netflix counterpart at times, for example when she intentionally humiliates her new friend who has issues at home. Bullying is thus exposed as a defence mechanism for people who suffer from insecurity and lack of self-esteem; Sierra’s relationship with Jamey (Noah Centineo) highlights the harmful effects of unrealistic body standards not only on those who look up to them, but also on the people in their lives.
Love interest Jamey straddles two worlds, one which he lives in briefly as his football team’s quarterback, and the other as a “loser who hangs about with losers.” Feeling unable to be viewed as beautiful from either the quarterback or loser, Sierra decides she has no other choice but to dupe the boy she likes by using Veronica’s appearance when interacting with him online, so-called catfishing. Veronica’s brutal statement that Sierra would be alone forever without the stereotypical pretty girl acting as her face, suggests that there is only one type of beauty and deviating from the norm equates to being less entitled to happiness. In this way, harmful stereotypes about women’s body image propagated in media and fashion are prevalent in this film. We can assume that the media, which is still littered with photoshopped and distorted images, is one reason Sierra is told and believes she does not fit into the category of being beautiful. With the single exception of telling herself she is a “magnificent beast” in her first appearance in the film, Sierra is complicit in putting herself down. Living vicariously through Veronica may give Sierra the confidence to build a relationship via texts and phone calls, but the issue with this favour between two budding friends is Sierra’s subsequent belief that she is incapable of being viewed as beautiful, and the confirmation of this through Veronica’s agreement. Sierra as a character is plagued with contradictions and her looks are referred to in one instance as the “least ugly thing about [her].” The characters’ obsession with superficiality relates to an image problem within our society that creates a host of other emotional and mental health issues.
Despite the sympathy viewers feel for Sierra and her struggle with self-image, the controversy of her catfishing cannot be ignored. Entering a relationship under false pretences in any circumstances is wrong, and potentially dangerous. The first kiss between Sierra and Jamey occurs under false pretences in which his eyes are literally covered by Sierra’s hands while he is under the impression she is actually Veronica. Sierra’s first kiss with Jamey is disturbing; while on-screen it is portrayed as harmless fun among friends, their kiss highlights a growing concern of a plethora of individuals who are involved with online dating websites. Jamey is taken advantage of both physically and emotionally, and despite the happy ending, is involved in an abusive relationship. The true identity of Sierra is kept hidden throughout most of the film while he gets to know her through phone calls and texts; in the end, is his choice one that he makes for himself, or is it the product of weeks of emotional manipulation that has led him to fall in love with this girl? The culminating scene which sees Sierra repairing her relationships with Jamey and her friends creates its warped fairy-tale ending. Mixed messages are received throughout the film, and even in Jamey’s own reasoning he admits Sierra is “not everyone’s type” and that had he not met her in the way he had, the outcome of their relationship would most likely have differed; this then begs the question, does he agree with Sierra and Veronica’s methods? As aforementioned, the media and fashion industry are instrumental in cultivating anxieties concerning looks, and thus, in cases such as this, at large to blame for the toxicity of social media.
Sierra Burgess is a Loser treads a path shrouded by a moral grey area. On the one hand, the people around her confirm she cannot find a romantic relationship because of her looks which leads her to drastic measures, and on the other, she commits a problematic act which wins her the boy. The age certificate is rated for ages 12 and above, thus the target audience are influential young persons who are being fed morally ambiguous information, fostering ill attitudes toward self-confidence and regard for others. An innocent perspective of Sierra Burgess would see it as a usual rom-com with slight tweaks to make it stand out, but from a critical viewpoint, the film does this for all the wrong reasons, making it extremely uncomfortable to watch.