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Note to Self: Don’t be Gay in Indiana or why metronormativity tarnishes ‘The Prom’

A small town gay girl being helped by four egomaniacs.

Alright, I live in a small town. I am A Gay so therefore, I am A Small Town Gay. The Prom is about a small town gay girl being helped by four egomaniacs down on their Broadway luck in pursuit of quick fame from their “activism.” However, boy, does it reek of white liberal metronormativity! Full context: I am a leftist so please if you thought I was on your side, please click back! However, what exactly is metronormativity and why is it just doused on in Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of the Broadway hit The Prom?

Queer scholar and author Jack Halberstam defines queer metronormativity to the common narrative of “story of migration from ‘country’ to ‘town’… a spatial narrative within which the subject moves to a place of tolerance after enduring life in a place of suspicion, persecution, and secrecy.” In so many words, rural LGBTQ people are forced with violence, oppression, and restriction in their small towns or blood red states and the only way where they can feel whole is if they move to a usually urban area where they will receive never-ending acceptance and finally find community.

Some LGBTQ people do find acceptance in larger urban areas and some like myself find that they can’t rip themselves from their cultural roots and continue to work and advocate so that one day, it will get better for queer and trans people in our hometowns. Both decisions are perfectly acceptable and the nuances surrounding each decision can contribute to a larger discussion about how urban cities contribute to queer existence. However, I realize I’m giving Ryan Murphy and a musical with lyrics that talk about Indiana being filled with cousin lovers with inbred wives far, FAR too much credit.

So how does this very heady topic apply to The Prom and its handling of a traditionally red state like Indiana? Well, the Broadway actors coming to the rescue of our plucky young lesbian heroine Emma represent metronormativity at its worst. As mentioned before,  “Changing Lives (Reprise)” is filled with the most finger wagging bullshit with the four actors going about how they’re going to get famous again after they help poor Emma have a prom in this backwaters town that is so backwaters that it has a massive mall with a Forever 21 and Sephora and a high school that looks like they have at least a 1,000 students max. 

Note to Self: Don't be Gay in Indiana or why metronormativity tarnishes 'The Prom'
Let me tell you: These four were the bane of my existence.

Even our beloved plucky lesbian Emma makes mention that there’s places made for gay people like San Francisco in her first solo song, “Just Breathe.” No mention of Midwestern, Southerner, or Northern gay havens like Chicago, Nashville, and even St. Louis. Just San Francisco, The Only Gay Mecca Hollywood seems to know outside of New York City.

The Broadway actors are supposed to be delusional, self involved, and woefully out of touch, but they’re the only “activists” that are present through the movie. Their get famous scheme hinges on pulling a To Wong Foo and make this bigoted town stuck in the past to be driven into the new age where girls can take other girls to the prom! Yes, suspension of disbelief is needed when the primary villain is a homophobic, tyrannical PTA president played by Kerry Washington, but this is set in the 2010s where the children of this homophobic town have not only worked with openly queer actors, but the idea that four washed up Broadway stars coming in to help them not be violently homophobic to the one lesbian in town is beyond delusional.

Note to Self: Don't be Gay in Indiana or why metronormativity tarnishes 'The Prom'
Emma (left, played by newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) and her closeted girlfriend, Alyssa (played by Ariana DeBose)

Of the Broadway actors’ songs, one particularly drives me up the wall: Trent, played by Andrew Rannells, and his showstopping song near the end of the film: “Love Thy Neighbor”. What is supposed to be a humorous song that points out the hypocrisy of Emma’s bullies by pointing out that they live their lives opposite of what is told in the Bible, ends up being a showstopping piece of nonsense because the composition only goes after homophobia being completely of their faith. It’s supposed to be a humorous take that that undresses how Christianity seems to control certain youth populations in these sort of cities, but it’s ultimately a finger wag that does not explore that sometimes the Word of God can be used as a scapegoat method towards their already learned and thought homophobia. Once again, presenting the narrative that queer and trans people living in such states are being held back by religious persecution. However, other than the homophobic rants of Mrs. Greene (Washington) and Trent telling us that the teens are controlled by their religion, the movie ironically does not have depictions of violently homophobic Christianity a la Westboro Baptist Church!

Removing the movie and its original source material from its current state, it should be noted that the musical is a fictionalized ripped from the headlines take on the 2010 Itawamba County School District prom scandal in Mississippi where the musical derives its plot from heavily. More or less the same happens in real life as it does in The Prom. A young lady wishes to take her girlfriend to the prom, the parents are vehemently against it, the prom is canceled and civil liberties organizations swoop in. However, The Prom truly Disney-fies a young woman’s harrowing ordeal by turning the pain she encountered at her school into a sugary, mealy mouthed take against red states and intolerance.

Note to Self: Don't be Gay in Indiana or why metronormativity tarnishes 'The Prom'
. Cr. MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX © 2020

My feelings towards the movie itself are already strong, but the fact they remove the human pain and struggle of the young lady at the center of the Itawamba County prom debacle hits hard for me. A quick Google search informs me that I live roughly two hours away from Itawamba County and I remember being deeply closeted and hearing about what was going down in Mississippi. What I wasn’t expecting was to experience this clumsy, Frankensteined facts and fiction, glittery debacle to cause such a reaction in me.

Essentially, The Prom doesn’t have to inform me of small town or red state bigotry. I know it. The people they turn their noses up to in their songs and badly acted dialogue do not need to be pointed out. Something that could have saved The Prom would have been to introduce a group of queer activists from other parts of Indiana, coming to assist the four actors and Emma and showing that there are people out in these “lost cause” states doing the work and ensuring that someone like Emma will never experience such an injustice.

However, that would require nuance and we ain’t getting it from a movie where our heroine is demanding her closeted girlfriend to come out to her mom, the aforementioned tyrannical PTA president, so they can be together at prom. Yes. Risking safety and even shelter so you can publicly be girlfriends at one dance. 

Nevertheless, The Prom will mean or already does mean a lot to younger WLW (women loving women), but while the movie prides itself about being about acceptance, tolerance, and celebration, it prides itself on standing high on their pedestal, singing diatribes about how gross and inbred those who live in intolerant places are, and not affirming those who currently live in those cities and states. Metronormativity doesn’t save queer kids. It ignores the queer kids in those “backwoods” towns. Alas, it seems that it’s all about the big city, y’know!

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