In ‘Booksmart’ the characters of color are flattened and serve purely as plot devices for the white leads.
By Noor Al-Sibai
If you read reviews in Jezebel, The A.V. Club, or Screen Rant, you’d think Booksmart, actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, was a heartfelt coming-of-age story, an entertaining and empowering romp through a single day in the lives of a pair of teenage best friends replete with a modern sense of diversity. “Booksmart is the first truly evolved high school movie,” Glamour uproariously declared—though that evolution, upon closer inspection, only takes place for white viewers.
The film centers on a pair of Women’s March-ing best friends: the domineering Molly (played by Beanie Feldstein, the younger sister of fellow teen comedy alum, Jonah Hill) and the queer and quiet Amy, played by Beautiful Boy actress Kaitlyn Dever. Their pussy hat politics become clear via a “Warren 2020” bumper sticker and an enamel pin-clad denim coat. On its surface, Booksmart is a fun inversion of the classic “one last party” teen movie trope. Molly and Amy, both as bookish as they are strident and both attending Ivy League schools, learn after a ban on discussions of college admissions that their hard-partying classmates are set to attend universities or go on adventures just as prestigious as theirs. And thus the chubby/lesbian duo sets off to get four years of partying done in one night before they graduate high school—and in their quest, encounter and engage with a ragtag ensemble of classmates from their suburban Los Angeles high school who they’re now seeing with fresh eyes.
The portrayals of Amy and Molly fall within the tried-and-true 30 Rock and Parks and Rec formula by taking two stereotypical third-wave feminists and humanizing them, showing their weaknesses and ultimately portraying them evolving past their one-dimensional personas into nuanced, fleshed-out heroines. It’s too bad Wilde and the team behind Booksmart didn’t afford that same sensitivity to the rest of the cast. Of all the primary supporting characters of color—student government VP and jock-turned-love-interest Nick (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.’s son, Mason Gooding), Jessica Williams’ fantastic turn as the cool teacher, Ms. Fine, and Theo, a stoner-coded Latinx skater who openly pines for Williams’ character played by Eduardo Franco—only Ms. Fine never gets anything close to a thought-provoking character arc. Rather than going the route of Broad City, which attempted (and on multiple occasions failed) to incorporate sensitive and realistic characters of color that complicated rather than complimented the show’s stars, Booksmart takes after Girls by paying lip service to “diversity” via the desires of the white women with whom the audience is meant to identify.
In this film, as with Lena Dunham’s would-be magnum opus, people of color are shown for two reasons: to make the film seem more within terms of “diverse” casting in theory and to uncritically extend the storylines of the white women main characters in practice.
Take, for instance, Booksmart’s usage of Malala Yousafzai. When arguing about whether or not to go to Nick’s epic high school rager; Molly invokes the name “Malala,” an apparent get-out-of-jail-free card from a pact she has with Amy so they can attend the soirée being thrown by her oh-so-surprising crush. After arriving at said party, Amy invokes “Malala” right back, causing a massive fight that leads her to a bathroom where she has her first sexual encounter
The Malala plot device is, ironically, one of the most blatant representations of white feminist racism in recent media. White women love to put Black women and non-Black women of color like Beyoncé, Frida Kahlo, and Oprah on pedestals, going so far as to emblazon their likenesses on mugs, votive candles, t-shirts, tote bags and Women’s March signs.
As many brilliant Black women have written, white women are all too happy to “celebrate” (read: commodify) celebrities like Beyoncé and Yousafzai—but when it comes to including them in real, meaningful ways in their social circles, their activist scenes, their creative endeavors and their films and TV shows, they still can’t get it right. If Booksmart’s creators had left the characters of color as tokens, it would have been one thing—but those characters’ trajectories by the end of the film turn the filmmakers’ carelessness into cruelty.
Ms. Fine, as the girls’ naughty voice of reason, not only encourages them to party as hard as they want so they don’t end up going too hard in their 20’s like she did—she also hooks up with Theo (after confirming that he’d been held back a few grades, thus making him 20 years old). Meanwhile, after flirting heavily with Molly over a game of beer pong and appearing to almost make her “forbidden” desire for the jock-party boy come true, Nick tells our heroine to stay where she is—and is next seen making out with Ryan, Amy’s masculine skater-girl crush who (gotcha!) apparently isn’t gay after all. It’s a tidy way to lead both main characters to the people they end up with, and the differences of those two characters—one Black, one gender nonconforming—are summarily ignored after serving their purposes. Molly’s eventual main squeeze turns out to be Jared, a rich white tryhard who rents out a yacht and attempts to buy his classmates’ friendship with iPad goodie bags while wearing a heavy gold chain and a sweatshirt that reads “Fairfax,” the name of one of the main thoroughfares in LA’s Compton neighborhood.
Following in the footsteps of British films and television shows, American entertainment has finally figured out that increasingly brown and Black audiences want to see themselves represented on screen. And as with their British counterparts, movies like Booksmart forego nuanced portrayals of race relations in American schools and instead try to level the playing field by leaving conversations about race out entirely. As a result, they put forth flattened characters played by otherwise excellent actors.
Noor Al-Sibai is a journalist, part-time fascist hunter and cat mom. She previously worked at Bustle, Raw Story, and Feminspire. When she’s not cuddling or accosting her cat, she can often be found discussing sexuality or politics on Twitter, where she uses the handle @nooralsibai.
JOIN WEAR YOUR VOICE ON PATREON — Every single dollar matters to us—especially now when media is under constant threat. Your support is essential and your generosity is why Wear Your Voice keeps going! You are a part of the resistance that is needed—uplifting Black and brown feminists through your pledges is the direct community support that allows us to make more space for marginalized voices. For as little as $1 every month you can be a part of this journey with us. This platform is our way of making necessary and positive change, and together we can keep growing.