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Fighting to Be Seen: On Emma Seligman's Bottoms

As a teenager, how often did you want to be someone else? Do you still wish for it now?

As a closeted, queer teenager, the need to be anywhere other than where I was and to be anyone but me  was always at the forefront. I had lived with the feeling for so long that I honestly couldn’t tell you when it began. It felt as if I was born with the knowledge that if I were someone else, I wouldn’t have so much to figure out, that things would be simple. If I were somewhere else, I would be miraculously accepted by more open-minded, equally questioning new peers that weren’t the cookie-cutter, passively prejudiced white kids I was being subjected to. I frequently escaped into other universes, whether on paper or on screen, where those that were different found their way, even if after some hard lessons.

As a millennial on the younger side, I was able to relish in a consistent flow of the coming-of-age, rom-com cinema and television from which Emma Seligman’s “Bottoms” was born. Weekly, I would rent everything from the classics of “Never Been Kissed” and “Now and Then” to “How to Deal” and the entire Mary-Kate and Ashley cinematic universe. I’d scour the plot for lessons on how to act and how to feel, for how to do this thing called life. So many installments in the genre include an element of hiding in order to be accepted: hiding your feelings, hiding your intelligence, hiding your true identity. Young people, especially queer young people, have this innate belief that they are not good enough. Everything around us pumps that belief into our brains. The Pantene commercials for how to make your hair soft and long and perfect, the advertisements for how to lose weight fast and what exercises you need to get done before summer comes, all of it quietly nitpicking away at what you need to change to be your optimal self.

And for queer kids, it’s more than that. Sometimes you think the only way to survive is to change, and if not, to keep your head down and out of the line of fire (we see this in “Bottoms” through Hazel, played charmingly by Ruby Cruz). It’s a strange push and pull, the need to be seen and accepted and the deep fear that when you are finally seen, so too will everything that’s wrong with you. In real life, your exclusion is all obsessive conjecture. You get a nagging feeling that certain kids are being treated better than others, but are quickly told it’s in your head and actually it’s just that they’re trying harder than you. You see the allowances given to them when you and your fellow bottom feeders aren’t given an inch. All the while, you are being gaslighted by society and by authority figures into believing that you are the ones that need fixing and that you too can be treated with dignity and compassion if only you’d try harder, if you’d just get into this little box.

The absurdity of “Bottoms” is key because it’s saying the quiet part out loud. They’re screaming “we don’t care about you” with the posters covering the school walls of Jeff, the beloved and deeply stupid quarterback. PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) are reminded they don’t matter by their principal not even a half hour into the film. They’re surrounded by that knowledge and the evidence of it. 

Though PJ and Josie have leaned into their outsider status, they still clamor for attention and try their best to be noticed by the beautiful cheerleaders they pine for. Naturally, when given the opportunity to speed up the process of their acceptance they take it, PJ gleefully and Josie more reluctantly. The best way to be accepted is to make yourself useful, and if they can provide the security of a self-defense fight club while also gaining proximity to the cool kids, then so be it. A problem becomes apparent immediately as the plan takes form, a problem that is for the audience to see coming and for PJ and Josie to sort out: building relationships on lies never ends well, whether it’s building a community or a romance. As much as we want to be someone else, we are who we are, and running from that, or burying it in white lies, isn’t going to change that. 

The way the duo expresses their particular brand of outsider status is “ugly and untalented” and, unfortunately, as I watched “Bottoms,” it was a sentiment that cut deeper than I expected. Like the fight club members, I was always on an island of misfit toys. I think a lot of queer kids end up there. The good thing about the island is that everyone understands. You don’t have to explain your feelings about your circumstances because, in one way or another, all of your circumstances are similar. Quickly, that’s what the fight club becomes. They may have snagged a few of their desired targets, two cheerleaders that PJ and Josie have slapped onto matching pedestals, but the majority of the fight club is inhabited by fellow misfits. Everyone has at most one friend and that’s if they’re lucky; they’ve all been cast aside by the school and by their classmates simply for not being easily digestible. But the more they talk and frankly the more they beat the shit out of each other, the more they build a strange little community with each other, and eventually they stop caring as much about who’s outside of them because they have each other. Josie and PJ even get closer to Isabel and Brittany, their desired cheerleader targets who started all of this in the first place.

But as the lies they’ve told get them everything they want, we see that the lies won’t be enough for them to keep it. That newfound sisterhood and Josie and Isabel’s budding relationship are shattered when everyone realizes it was built on lies and nefarious intent.

The only pitfall about deciding to be someone you’re not is the very real people thinking that is who you are and the very real you right beneath the surface. Even when we mask it, we all have tells and any secret identity whether it’s your pen name or an undercover identity, pieces of ourselves slip through. For Josie, her earnestness betrays her even when she’s telling her biggest lie about killing a girl. She puts her own loneliness and desperation into the story and that’s what Isabel latches onto. PJ’s brashness never leaves her, whether she has on her aggressive, ex-juvie identity or the horny, lovelorn teenager she actually is. There are little signatures we have whether we like them or not and, for some godawful reason, they demand to be seen. The community and connection that we’re seeking as people in general but especially as queer people can’t be achieved through hiding. Tim Kreider said that “if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known,” and he was unfortunately correct. We want love and respect, but we have to be known to achieve it; deception is truly the antithesis of connection. You put up a different personality with an intention to forge connection and the person you’re so eager to be in community with is taking you at your word and they’re putting trust into you as they also reveal more about themselves. The only difference is that they’re actually revealing themselves and their thoughts, which is exactly what you’d want, right? While it’s daunting to be trusted, the people we want to forge relationships with are looking for the same thing.

The thing about being your honest self is that there’s always risk. And that’s the scary part that the diversion of being someone else helps us avoid. Thus we’re met with the classic existential crisis that “Bottoms” puts on full display. The impossibility of human connection springs from the fact that we must bare the most undesirable and uncomfortable parts of ourselves in relationships, even when we don’t mean or want to. I’m sure we can all remember a time when the thing we were thinking and feeling sprung to the surface without our permission, revealing our true thoughts and emotions. Most of us lean heavily away from that, preferring to be an easier, more palatable version of ourselves that gives us cover to not reveal and gives the other person cover to feel validated and supported. We avoid the clash of our personalities like the plague, hoping to be as easy to take as possible because for some reason that is what we as a society have decided is the social contract for engagement and intimacy.

The only cure for the sickness of loneliness is our mortification. Josie didn’t think Isabel would ever like her for just being her, so she decided to pretend to be a stronger, braver version of herself, but metaphorically and, eventually, literally when she becomes a trusted leader for the group and the physicality of the fight club gives her a confidence she’s never had. Always the timid and awkward sidekick, she steps up and starts come into her own through this alter ego. She finally is granted an up close look at the girl who has been high up on a pedestal Josie couldn’t reach before. What Josie doesn’t realize, in the self centeredness of teenhood and personhood in general, is that while she can get a closer look at Isabel, Isabel can also get a closer look at her. And to Josie’s shock, Isabel likes what she sees and Josie allows herself to let more of her real self out to the surface. Josie started off wanting Isabel’s trust but dashed it away before she needed it by betraying Isabel’s trust from the start. Trust for many of us is slowly given and quickly taken away. It’s scary to open oneself up. That’s the truth that every coming-of-age movie confronts. PJ and Josie would never admit that—too cooly detached from their own isolation to let on.

And just like that, the lives they’ve always wanted, where they’re liked and admired by those around them and seen as desirable, come swiftly crumbling down. We can’t covet someone being close to us then act like trust is a one-way street. It’s not just our risk we’re taking. So, can one really be someone they’re not and then expect the other person not to feel betrayed? To not feel like the relationship we’ve built with them is still sturdy when the foundations have just vanished?

When you boil down one of the biggest teen movie tropes, it all comes down to getting over yourself. We stand in our own way when we settle into our own insecurities and society-planted narratives. Maybe it’s us who’re wrong; maybe we’re not as bad or as weak as we think we are. Or maybe we should bite the bullet and simply let people find out who we are regardless of the little voice in our head. It’s a human risk, but a heightened one for queer kids. When we open up or question the narratives being pushed on us, all we can see is ourselves ebing alone just like we feared. But on the other side of that fear is one of the greatest gifts we could possibly receive, which is exactly the thing we want: connection. It’s a huge gamble, doing something that could give you either exactly what you’re wishing for or your worst nightmare. Building relationships with integrity and honesty is how we allow the people in our lives to open themselves up to us and how we make it safe for us to do the same.

Being truly known is a trust fall into oblivion. Will I be too much? Will I be too weird? Will I be too gay? For the right people, the answer with always be no; you’ll always be enough. The only thing left to do is get out of our own way.

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