The Straightwashing of “Edge of Seventeen”

The indifference of Hollywood continues

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The 2016 film Edge of Seventeen debuted on Netflix on February 1st, 2019. It stars a 17-year-old girl named Nadine Franklin (played by Hailee Steinfeld of Pitch Perfect 2 fame) as she navigates fighting with her best friend Krista (played by Haley Lu Richardson), a tumultuous love life, and a strained relationship with her mother following her father’s untimely death. It’s a good film that has well-written, 3-dimensional characters— a refreshing change for a genre often starring rude and popular Mean Girls.

This coming-of-age story received critical acclaim at the New York and Detroit Film Circles and will be adapted into a YouTube original series sometime in 2020. We will be seeing this story for years to come, which is sad, given how it erases a queer cult classic that aired in the 90s at a time when there wasn’t much queer representation to start with.

The 1998 Edge of Seventeen is also a coming-of-age story. Written by Todd Stephens, this tale is set in the 1980s, and stars Eric Hunter (played by Chris Stafford) as he navigates his queer identity in Sandusky, Ohio. Eric has a series of sexual relationships that leave him to doubt his self-worth. The movie ends with Eric embracing his queer friends at a gay bar. There are also implied plans to go to college in NYC to study music. It’s a well-worn trope at this point, but at the time, the message of the film was refreshing.

The 90s were not the best time to be a queer character in media. The nation was still processing the AIDS crisis of the 80s — a disease initially ignored by the US government. This neglect led to the death of millions, and it has shaken the LGBTQIA+ community to this day.

Many of our most famous queer characters during the 90s were victims of the AIDS crisis. This included Tom Hank’s character Andrew Beckett in 1993’s Philadelphia, the murderous duo in The Living End, and of course Angel in the Tony-award-winning musical RENT. These characters were tragic, yet defiant victims railing against a system that had failed them.

The characters that didn’t fall into this pattern were often depicted as malicious due to norms in the industry that originated from the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code (informally referred to as the Hay’s code). The code makes no direct references to queer people, but it did 1.) forbid sexual perversions of any kind, and 2.) demand that all criminal activity in films be portrayed in a way that does not provide sympathy for the criminal.

Since homosexuality was illegal for a large portion of US history, queer-coded people had to be portrayed in a way that made them seem evil. Queer characters like the Maltese Falcon’s Joel Cairo (played by Peter Lorre) and Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) were depicted as duplicitous to the core.

Even though the code only remained in effect until 1967, the legacy of the “depraved homosexual,” unsurprisingly, continued into the 90s, and arguably, to this day. In the 90s, one of the most famous examples is the depraved serial killer “Buffalo Bill,” a notable transexual, in the 1991 film Silence of The Lambs who killed women so he could create the perfect skin suit.

The exception to this rule was camp, which is now considered a style in film where something is so over-the-top in how bad it is that it becomes enjoyable (Think The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Camp has its own history stemming back to how queer people needed a way to communicate with each other without arousing suspicion from their straight peers. Queer, campy portrayals in the 90s included films such as the 1994 Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and the 1995 US film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. Both movies were about drag queens traveling across their respective countries via cars.

It was rare in the 90s to have a character that was not a caricature or a “bury your gays” trope. In Edge of Seventeen, Eric is a teenager struggling with his queer identity. He was a human, albeit an extremely privileged one, who you could imagine growing up into a well-adjusted adult. As writer Rob Blackwelder remarked in Splice Wire on January 1, 2000:

In queer circles, this movie is well-known. For example, it’s referenced several times in the 2006 campfest Another Gay Film also written by Todd Stephens. You can see the movie poster hanging in one of the main character’s rooms and Eric’s coming-out scene with his mother is parodied directly in this film as well (see the side-by-side comparison here). Even years later, the movie remains a favorite among fans. In the words of writer Michael D. Klemm in May of 2009 for CinemaQueer.com:

When I saw 2016’s Edge of Seventeen pop up on my feed, I was excited about it. I naively assumed that it would be retelling the original film’s story from the perspective of a queer woman. Such retellings are badly needed because queer media continues to privilege gay men, and the 1998 Edge of Seventeen fell into that category.

But naw, the 2016 movie is about an attractive straight woman finding love in High School. That’s not valueless — straight, cisgendered women, especially depressed women like Nadine, need stories that tell them they are okay too — but I don’t understand why the creators of this film needed to paint over a gay classic to achieve that end.

1998’s Edge of Seventeen meant something to a generation of queer, mostly gay men, who craved depictions that told them that they too could be “normal.” It was a popular first in a genre that has since spawned Dorian Blues, Pariah, and Love, Simon.

Personally, Edge of Seventeen was one of the first depictions of queer characters that I consumed that made me think I could be okay. The 2016 remake picks at an old wound, and it doesn’t seem like the producers and financiers of the film really care.

If you look at the production companies behind this film, they include The Huayi Brothers (financers behind such gems as Warcraft and The Happytime Murders), Tang Media Partners (whose most recent media venture, Global Road Entertainment, has filed for bankruptcy), and the production company behind the Simpsons. To put it bluntly, they don't seem to be the type of people who care much about the integrity of queer history. It’s mainly about the money.

I like to stress that I hold no animosity towards the film’s lead, Hailee Steinfeld, whose career I have watched closely since Pitch Perfect 2. She is a talented actor, and I wish her well in her future projects.

I also don’t think the screenwriter, Kelly Fremon, who originally titled her script Besties, holds much blame here with the title either.

It’s the financiers and producers of the film who callously shifted the title from Besties to Edge of Seventeen. They did this, perhaps, because it was too close in time to the 2012 horror film of the same name. Or maybe they just thought that no one would care if the title of an indie gay film was used? Well, I care. Whatever their reason, it was a change made without any respect to the original title and the history that film represented.

The thing that pains me is that the straight adaptation is the thing that will live on. The 1998 Edge of Seventeen was removed from Netflix on April, 15th 2016 — 7 months before the “remake” was released in theaters, and with the YouTube series coming up, I don’t see much interest ever coming from the original. If a lesbian incarnation of this story ever does come up — something that seems unlikely given who now controls the purse strings for this story — her name will be Nadine, and she will come after several more straight retellings.

This remake is offensive because it denies our community the ability to adapt one of the few positive portrayals we have to moderns sensibilities. We are denied the ability to use this property as a vehicle to talk about contemporary issues.

We are denied the ability to grow, and instead, our story is painted over with the same straight coming-of-age story that we have seen thousands of times already.

We lose another avenue of expression, and that’s dangerous because mainstream society is telling so many damaging stories about us already.

The Edge of Seventeen is a lost opportunity, and that’s a feeling our community knows all too well.

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I write about pop culture, politics, and every in between.

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