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Courtesy of Fox 2000 Pictures

November 4, 2019

SIMS | What Does ‘Love, Simon’ Teach Kids About Empathy?

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While camping by the Delaware River with a gaggle of 13-year-olds, I finally finished the month-long endeavor of rereading my favorite book and found myself searching for a new stack of papers to put my eyes on. I asked the group of scouts around me for a young adult novel that I could finish in the next 72 hours and was handed Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the Becky Albertalli novel which the movie Love, Simon is based on.

As I made my way through the book on a sleepy bus ride across southern New York, I was annoyed by the way the prose discussed social issues. 

I was well acquainted with Love, Simon since I performed a pilgrimage to see the film in a theater with a friend who cried for a good half of the run-time. I thought it was fine, but it didn’t provide me with the self-actualizing validation that a lot of my friends and campers described to me.

Both the film and the book suffer from a plot that pardons unacceptable behavior as character after character fails to act with literally any empathy. I can almost accept the argument that many appreciators of the story explain: “Bad behavior exists, just because they’re portraying people making bad decisions doesn’t mean they approve of it.” Except the whole story is built around social teaching — its agenda is to normalize the images and stories of gay youth, and it was hailed as a victory because representation is a powerful way of normalizing. Why, then, should it get away with doing a poor job of representing other social interactions?

The book tries to tackle other issues by having the characters take short tangents to mention basic facts or critiques about racism and intersectionality. I wish all of the papers I had to read for class would just come out and say the main points like that, but that’s not what you expect from a novel. A novel is all about show, don’t tell. It’s up for interpretation. It teaches by example.

What the book lacks is modeling for how a young person might be anti-racist, or to understand the way that racism pervades their life. Maybe it follows a student who successfully navigates situations in an unfamiliar cultural setting. Maybe it describes a person’s feelings of discomfort because of implicit biases. I’m not sure exactly what it looks like, and many artists aren’t either; it requires imagining anti-racist actions that most people aren’t doing. The work is hard, but it’s part of imagining justice, and I don’t think there’s any way around that.

When you show these examples, young people pick it up. They are so unbelievably perceptive and emulative; anyone who has ever accidentally acted irresponsibly in front of a tween knows that they see it immediately. Reading young adult fiction helped me, and helps a lot of young people, decide where boundaries are — how far they can push the rules of parents, the law and social norms before they’re going to face repercussions.

Furthermore, they are much more interested in following examples than lessons. Has anyone actually ever had success with telling the young person they’re taking care of to “do as I say, not as I do?” Many can and will listen to adults, but the way they decide to act is much more commonly similar to what they see and not what they know.

And the glory of entertainment is that it’s largely in the creators’ hands to decide what happens. While positive examples in our lives are often riddled with unforeseen consequences and other actors which may not help facilitate a certain lesson. But art that is revised and edited and improved has the opportunity to facilitate a full lesson using multiple characters in a way that is simply impossible to show in everyday life. They can encompass much of the complexity of human interaction while maintaining a level of control and sticking to their message.

Art and entertainment is such an exciting way to understand and consider our world, it’s worth our careful imagination and diligent modeling.

Katie Sims is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at ksims@cornellsun.com. Resident Bad Media Critic runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.