An ‘80s Nostalgia Disaster: A Review of Netflix Original Movie “Sierra Burgess is a Loser”


A few months ago, the trailers for both Insatiable and Sierra Burgess is a Loser dropped. What is colloquially known as Woke Twitter immediately denounced Insatiable, instead encouraging people to watch other Netflix project Sierra Burgess. Both projects tell the story of a fat girl, though take different approaches. Patty, the protagonist of Insatiable, is viciously bullied until one day she is punched in the face by a homeless man. She has her jaw wired shut and loses tons of weight. Suddenly, her classmates are treating her well. She snaps and becomes hellbent on revenge.

Sierra Burgess is a Loser, on the other hand, is the story of a fat girl who mistakenly receives a text from a boy who thinks she’s popular girl Veronica. She pretends to be Veronica, eventually recruiting the girl herself to help her fool the boy she’s falling for. Veronica, in turn, slowly becomes friends with Sierra.

Woke Twitter immediately demonized Insatiable, saying it’s problematic. Patty suddenly becomes popular when she’s skinny, a hugely fatphobic notion. Of course, that’s not really what happens on the show. In fact, the show isn’t bad because it’s problematic— it’s bad because it’s poorly written and unfocused. Sierra Burgess is a Loser, said Woke Twitter, is a much better, unproblematic project to support.

But what does all this have to do with Sierra Burgess is a Loser now? Well, as it turns out, it’s an incredibly problematic film. Peppered with transphobic and homophobic jokes, this movie is far from the unproblematic feature with positive fat representation. However, I disagree as to why. The LGBTphobic jokes, the catfishing, the nonconsensual kiss, the borderline mocking of disabilities, the cyberbullying— none of these are the crux of the problem. This movie fails because it tries its darnedest to exemplify an ‘80s teen film.

I mean, consider the tropes: an unattractive, unpopular high school student utilizes deception in order to facilitate a relationship with an attractive, popular student. Sound familiar? So many ‘80s teen films feature nerd boys intentionally deceiving the pretty, popular girl in order to form a relationship with her. And, in the end, he always wins. However, from our wiser place in 2018, we’ve dissected and discussed the fundamental problems with this trope. No matter what he does to the girl or anyone, everything is forgiven in the end because, well gosh, he’s just a well-meaning nerd. He couldn’t really hurt a fly. He just wanted the pretty girl to notice him. He rarely, if ever, deserves the forgiveness he inevitably receives. This doesn’t change just because you make the protagonist a girl.

In fact, I’d argue that this makes it worse. Because so much discussion has gone into discussing the problematic tropes ‘80s films were rife with, it’s baffling that anyone would make a movie using them now. It says the writers and producers either didn’t understand the criticism or decided it didn’t matter. This movie isn’t the step forward it was intended to be— it’s a giant step back.

This comes to a head with the scene where Veronica asks Jamey to close his eyes so Sierra can kiss him. Jamey, of course, thinks it’s Veronica. This scene reminded me so much of that horrifying scene in Revenge of the Nerds where unpopular nerd Lewis steals popular jock Stan’s costume so that popular Betty has sex with him. Betty, of course, thinks she’s having sex with her boyfriend Stan. Though the scene in Sierra Burgess is less intense and invasive, there are some shocking similarities that can’t be ignored. And, once again, the Revenge scene has been dissected and condemned. And the people who worked on Sierra Burgess ignored it.

The emulation of ‘80s teen films extends to the humor. Because we’re much more aware of how marginalized groups are silenced and sidelined, many films and television shows are making efforts to not use them as the butt of jokes. This movie, however, does not. Its humor is antiquated, the kind of tone-deaf humor that belongs in the ‘80s. Why is being mistaken for a lesbian the worst insult you can bestow on a girl? Because lesbians are weird and different! The entire basis for the joke betrays the out-of-touch nature of the writers and producers. This simply doesn’t reflect the overall ideals of the Western world today.

The same goes for the scene where Sierra pretends to be deaf so the boy she’s been catfishing, Jamey, doesn’t recognize her voice. Jamey immediately reveals his little brother is deaf and, oh wow, isn’t it a small world?! It’s clearly meant to be a funny bit where Sierra’s gotten herself in too deep, but instead comes across as insulting. What would’ve been silly shenanigans in the ‘80s is now seen as the careless ableism it is.

Another insidious trope of ‘80s teen movies is the “ugly” girl getting a makeover and suddenly becoming hot. Once again, this trope has been discussed and condemned. Sierra Burgess, however, doesn’t care. That said, they don’t use the trope in the traditional way. In my opinion, they invert this trope. Instead of having Sierra get a makeover, she stays the same and our love interest delivers the work around. He says, “Honestly, had we not met the way we had, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed you. I mean, you’re not exactly everybody’s type. But you’re my type.” In essence, instead of making her change, the narrative says Sierra specifically is his type and no one else’s. Never mind this being a horribly ugly thing to say, it’s just an inversion of the ugly girl gets a makeover trope.

Let’s talk about the scene where Sierra humiliates Veronica. She hacks Veronica’s Instagram account and reveals that Veronica got dumped over DM. In true ‘80s movie fashion, this is huge news. Another student hooks his phone up to the teacher’s computer and projects it onto the scoreboard. Is there anything more ‘80s than that? Maybe the fact that Sierra writes a song that magically solves everything. Seriously, both of these tropes are lifted directly from at least ten ‘80s teen films.

Because this movie is so determined to resemble an ‘80s film, Sierra has no character development whatsoever. The film is more concerned with feeling like an ‘80s film than telling Sierra’s story. She doesn’t learn anything— on the contrary, she knows the entire time that what she’s doing to Jamey is wrong. She suffers no consequences, getting both the guy and the new friend. In fact, Veronica has the best character development out of anyone. She starts the story as a popular mean girl obsessed with her image. By the end, she’s a genuine friend who loves philosophy. She wound up my favorite character because of the fact that she actually has an arc. Sierra, on the other hand, is the same person she is at the end of the movie as she is at the beginning.

In fact, Sierra actively doesn’t understand the true issue when everything goes wrong. Jamey is upset with her because she catfished him and Veronica is upset because Sierra humiliated her. Sierra goes home and cries to her parents about how hard it is to be in high school and “look like this.” While this is true and a very serious issue many teenage girls face, the scene isn’t anywhere near as powerful as it should’ve been because it comes on the heels of Sierra being exposed for the bad things she’d done. How are we supposed to feel empathy for her on this front when she hadn’t expressed any negativity toward her looks up until that point? When the only reason she suddenly does is because she rightfully lost the people she hurt?

The final nail in the this-is-an-‘80s-movie-in-2018 coffin is the opening and ending credits. The style of the opening credits is stylistically very ‘80s. The ending credits are an obvious homage. It does that freeze-frame “Where are They Now” trope, telling us what’s become of all the main characters. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it really betrays the fact that it was more important to the people behind this film to make it nostalgic rather than good.

Ultimately, this movie is average. A couple scenes made me smile, but not the ending. It didn’t feel earned. This movie ultimately does not have a positive impact because it’s more concerned with resembling an ‘80s teen film than telling a story or representing people. As such, the story feels dated and problematic and the humor is out-of-touch. Nothing about this movie is original or genuine. In the end, it’s not just Sierra Burgess who’s a loser— it’s everyone who thought this film was a good idea.

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