This probably isn’t the first Booksmart think piece you’re going to read, and it probably won’t be the last. So let’s start with a quick summary of the basics: Olivia Wilde’s smart, funny directorial debut may not have revolutionized teen movies (or received enough recognition this awards season), but it did give the genre a much-needed update by allowing its two female protagonists to ball out, Superbad-style, in that uniquely millennial way we’ve been seeing from the boys for nearly two decades now. What’s more, one of the movie’s two leading characters is a queer girl. Kaitlyn Dever’s Amy is more than her sexuality, but her identity isn’t a tokenizing afterthought; for the first half of the movie, it’s her crush on a skater girl that drives the action.
Don’t get me wrong—the movie is far from perfect, especially in the way that it sends its white leads on a heartfelt journey to self-discovery while flattening its many supporting characters of color. Even given its failings, though, it represents a meaningful step toward the goal of making movies that make all of us feel seen. Amy’s never-kissed-a-girl arc is sweet and funny, and as a white queer woman who didn’t come out until college, it’s something I wish I could have seen when I was in high school. But it’s the inclusion of Amy’s crush—skinny, masculine-presenting Ryan—that was truly revelatory. Because of Ryan, Booksmart is the first wide-release Hollywood movie in which I’ve seen my bisexuality reflected back at me.
(Be warned: Spoilers for Booksmart follow.)
It’s hard to explain to people why I don’t feel represented by any of the queer characters in movies and TV shows—especially considering this is the closest we’ve come so far to a golden age for LGBTQ representation. From Transparent to Brooklyn 99, from Pariah to Disobedience to The Miseducation of Cameron Post, we’re awash in diverse portrayals of female sexuality. But few of these characterizations reflect my experience. On movies and TV shows marketed to straight audiences, there is often little differentiating queer characters from their straight counterparts. Shay Mitchell, perhaps the patron saint of this genre of LGBTQ representation, has played two such characters in the past decade: Emily Fields in Pretty Little Liars and Peach Salinger in You, both of whom are distinguishable from their straight peers solely because of their romantic storylines.
In this way, Ryan’s portrayal departs from standard mainstream representations of queerness: She’s visibly different from the other girls at school, and that doesn’t seem to bother her one bit. And that rings truer to me than a romantic storyline between two female characters who would’ve otherwise been written as straight. There is more separating me from the heteronormative experience than my attraction to women. I carry and dress myself differently; I have an entire vocabulary of slang and cultural references that exists entirely separately from the straight world; my friendships and social ties look different from those of my straight peers.
Granted, Ryan isn’t the first androgynous or masculine-presenting character we’ve seen on TV or in the movies; thanks to indie distributors and streaming services, stories abound in which queer communities are the explicit focus. But much as I fail to relate to Shay Mitchell–type representation, I also don’t completely identify with queerer-than-thou depictions of LGBTQ culture. Don’t get me wrong; LGBTQ-oriented series like Tales of the City and Showtime’s recent The L Word: Generation Q come closer to representing my social life than anything else. Like the characters on those shows, I have built a life in which I almost exclusively interact with other queer people, and this is something I cherish. But on-screen—as in real life—these spaces allow little room for uncertainty, change, or any expression of female queerness that falls short of Kinsey 6 classification.
The original series of The L Word is infamous for dismissing Alice’s and Tina’s bisexuality, and so far, it’s hard to tell whether Generation Q will do much better. For its part, Tales of the City sees Ellen Page’s Shawna repeatedly hooking up with husband-and-wife couple Eli and Inka, but the series drops the ball on exploring that storyline more deeply. For me, recognizing my attraction to men as legitimate—and making my own decisions about how I wanted to engage with that part of myself—was just as crucial to embracing my bisexuality as realizing I liked women and nonbinary people in the first place. So seeing Victoria Ruesga’s queer-coded Ryan make out with Mason Gooding’s traditional jock character, Nick, in Booksmart, especially after flirting with Amy through the night, hit close to home.
Of course, whether or not Ryan is actually queer is a matter of some debate. Her attraction to women is never explicitly confirmed or denied in the movie, and Booksmart certainly wouldn’t be the first piece of media to cast a butch- or masc-presenting woman as straight. (See: Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones and Glee’s Sue Sylvester.) But in the service of Amy and Ryan’s will-they-won’t-they storyline, the movie drops plenty of hints to that effect. Early on, Molly, played by Beanie Feldstein, reminds Amy that Ryan wore a polo shirt to prom. Shortly thereafter, Ryan invites Amy to a party, even though we’re led to assume that the two have hardly ever spoken before. Later, when Molly and Amy arrive at that party after a night of misadventures, Ryan is all over Amy: She takes Amy by the hand and leads her out to the pool, sprawls out against her during karaoke in the guest room, and even admits that she “always wanted [Amy] to come out” to parties on the weekends. It’s easy to root for Ryan and Amy to end up together, because it’s easy to read Ryan as queer. Is it such a stretch to imagine that she might be a queer character who happens to end up with a guy?
The thing is, Ryan probably wouldn’t care which conclusion I drew from her behavior. And that’s ultimately the key to her character’s appeal: She fully owns who she is. Whether she’s flirting with Amy or making out with Nick in the pool, Ryan doesn’t possess an ounce of self-consciousness—we don’t see her shrinking away from Amy’s obvious affection for her, nor does she make any effort to “femme up” in order to hold Nick’s interest. She defies audiences’ expectations for how a woman should look to attract a man, but also our expectations for how a queer person should behave. Like bisexual people, she doesn’t fit neatly into one box or another, choosing instead to straddle the wall between them.
No need to cry for Amy, though. She ends up getting some action after all with mysterious hot girl Hope (played by Diana Silvers), and their resulting party bathroom sex scene is surprisingly sweet and tender. In fact, between Amy, Hope, and Ryan, Booksmart is one of the queerest high school movies in recent memory, precisely because it showcases the full range of what queerness (albeit white queerness) can look like. And when you’re young, bisexual, and confused, you don’t need to be told that queerness can look or act only a certain way. You just need someone to show you what—and who—you can be.
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