There’s a powerful kind of sweetness that comes with watching Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purser). Unlike the glossy, doll-perfect girls I grew up admiring onscreen, Sierra immediately registers as my people. Painfully aware of her own differences – a sunflower amongst roses – Sierra moves through high school feeling both like she is constantly being followed by a giant spotlight, and invisible to those she most desperately wants to be seen by.
As I watched Sierra Burgess in her pastel, iPhone-centric world, where every text from Jamie is anxiously awaited and punctuated with excited squeals and nervous lip-biting, I was transported back to those wonderful, painful high school moments. Something between nostalgia, contentedness, and sadness swelled inside me.
The beauty in Sierra Burgess isn’t just the fact that a girl who doesn’t embody the typical “pretty girl” gets to soak up the spotlight – though it was very wonderful to see – but also the way Sierra made me and my friends feel: like we’d suddenly found a reflection of ourselves onscreen.
Stretching toward the sky like I don’t care
Wishing you could see me standing there
But I’m a sunflower, a little funny
If I were a rose, maybe you’d want me
So often are the portraits we paint (in movies) of young girls so restrictive. The teenage girl character we’ve come to love is something of an amalgamation of Hermione Granger, Nancy Wheeler, Hazel Grace, Katniss Everdeen … you get the picture. The portrait is suffocating: beautiful, slender, smart, elegant, sharp, sassy. It’s also repetitive. Again and again, the movie heroine is perfect. She considers everyone’s feelings. When she wrongs someone, it is only because she had no other choice.
I never considered how negatively these ideations of who teenage girls are supposed to be until my sister was born. Now I look at her and I wonder – when she turns 16, who is going to be on her screen?
I hope it’s someone who isn’t perfect. Who is a POC, who eats a cheeseburger and french fries, who hurts her friend’s feelings and has to make it right. I hope she is flawed. I hope that there are many more Sierra Burgesses to come, who teach her that it’s okay not to be perfect, that perfect isn’t even the goal. I hope they remind her to stretch on towards the sky, the tallest and brightest flower of the bunch.
Sierra Burgess certainly gave me hope that those girls are on their way to the big screen. It felt nice to root for someone who felt so familiar – like the film had tricked me into rooting for myself. It was a wonderful sort of elation to see the awkward, freckle-faced, flaming-haired girl with a sweet smile win. And it was also wonderful to see the pretty girl help her, without any makeovers whatsoever.
I’ll continue to root for the Sierra Burgesses of the world, and I hope to find more of them along the way.
Because sunflower to sunflower – I never wanted to be a rose anyway.
Madi and The Gilded Twenties Team
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