Let’s talk about The Prom. Specifically, let’s talk about Emma.
Emma’s the main character of Netflix’s 2020 musical special The Prom, a story about a lesbian teen in small town Edgewater, Indiana who just wants to dance with her girlfriend at the prom. Based off a true story, the star-studded production retells Emma’s conflicts with her high school’s PTA and the bigotry of her closed-minded community as four washed-up Broadway actors meddle self-righteously. In the end, of course, she gets to go to a prom (of her own invention) and dance with her girlfriend, partying her little heart out with all her new adult friends. Alyssa, Emma’s girlfriend, resolves the homophobic conflict with her control-freak mother, and the film closes on a kiss between the happy couple. What’s wrong with all that? A whole lot, it turns out.
On the surface, the concept sounds charming, and even a little progressive, considering the current state of the film industry and the film as a Netflix Original special. And while a lot of things went wrong with this movie, the core of the issue sits on Emma, and the film’s treatment of her.
The movie opens on the PTA’s cancellation of the prom, a few lines from the PTA president (who is, spoilers, Alyssa’s mother!) blaming Emma for the decision, and a shot of Emma looking . . . blank. She doesn’t have any look on her face, and while you might chalk it up to shock, it’s one of the most expressive moments we get from Emma throughout the film. It’s also the first time we get to take in Emma’s costuming: this time, mustard pants on black with a knee-length tweed jacket. Do I dig it? Kinda. Is it fashionable? I’m pretty sure it’s not, and the rest of her outfits are only further from the mainstream. It’s neither subtle nor remarkable, but from the very first time we see her, Emma is defined by a stereotyped and kitschy image, shoehorning her into the role of a stock-character lesbian. She’s odd, she’s an outsider, she’s unfamiliar; that’s how the film wants us to understand her situation. Yet when the film calls on caricature to outline its lead, that characterization becomes dangerously predictable.
In fact, Jo Ellen Pellman’s portrayal of Emma falls flat due to the same caricaturization, this time, not in costume, but in expression. Oddly enough, be it an actor’s preference or a directorial decision, Emma smiles straight through the film. A perpetual smile on the face of the girl who is facing her town head-on. The girl who is hated by her peers, not only for her sexuality, but as being to blame for prom’s cancellation. At the end of Act I, Emma (spoilers!) is tricked into attending a sham prom. The event is thrown together by the school’s PTA to avoid a civil rights fiasco and to feign inclusivity, when the real prom is secretly held off-campus. At the climax of realization we see Emma cry and begin to break down, and her smile falters slightly. But one cut away, the misguided and (supposedly) comedic set of actors arrives with ice cream to cheer her up. She tearfully tells the story of her rejection from her parents. She tells of the hurt she’s endured, of the pain and weight of the way the world sees her . . . all through an ironic smile.
In that absurd grin, the film dismisses the hardships and pressures that young queer people go through. There is no display of the hate directed against them and the anguish that can result, no honest insight into the struggle of a young midwestern lesbian. It’s not just light and silly, it denies the queer community of all pain and outrage, invalidating those who can’t just keep smiling. An attempt at representation has failed as soon as it has dismissed the lived experience of those it claims to represent. And what happened with this happy-go-lucky lesbian, complete with a smile plastered straight to her skull? Exactly that. Whether Pellman’s acting was naturally inexpressive or directorial choices restricted her portrayal to a flat caricature is irrelevant; the finished piece should have included a more humanizing and complex expressiveness to the character whose identity was being capitalized on.
We’re starting to see the concerning direction that creative choices took Emma’s character in. From costuming, acting, and even story choices, Emma is robbed of genuine trauma, of indignation and anger, and framed as a character who does not want or need justice beyond the film’s close, and will by no means demand it. At every turn, the narrative frames her passively, where principals and parents and famous Broadway stars step in wanting to make things right and Emma just wants to go to prom and dance with her girlfriend. Emma wants to be normal, but doesn’t care if the people around her change. She wants to be accepted, but never in the film does the audience get the sense that Emma really wants the bigotry in Edgewater to end. It’s a key aspect of Emma’s relationship with viewers, especially white heteronormalized viewers, that she lacks anger towards the hateful people who put her in the position she came to be in.
She is safe. She is safe for passive people who are “cool with the gays” but not enough to stand up for gay rights. She is safe for conservative straight people who aren’t sure if it’s okay to be gay but “her life choices aren’t my business” and they’ll watch the movie anyway for James Corden. She is safe for anyone who identifies with the oppressors in the film, because the moment she has rage towards those people, the viewers will be uncomfortable. Nobody has to feel threatened, because Emma very clearly states in “Dance with You,” “I don’t want to start a riot, I don’t want to blaze a trail.” The viewers won’t have to deal with their own identity, and their role in the system of oppression. Viewers won’t begin to apply fiction to real life. That’d a painful realization and it’s not easy to market. It’d even harder to pretend that it’s just a minor player in what’s meant to be a comedic, goofy, family-friendly film.
Emma even refused a national-level opportunity to fight for justice in her community; she chose to sing into her webcam and focus on grassroots instead. Emma the fictional character is not required to take on that burden of national activism, but from the viewer’s perspective, it’s important to see that she does not challenge the status quo. She doesn’t even challenge the PTA (that was the principal’s idea), she refuses to go on the news, she simply organizes her own queer prom with famous people’s money. The audience is meant to see this as a victory, but in the end, the oppressors won. They kept her out of straight people prom and marginalized her, and she didn’t fight back. And that’s the core of the issue: our idealized lesbian hero is heroic not by the standards of those she stands for, but by the standards of those she stands opposed to.
Let’s look again at the end of Act 1: she’s having a dramatic phone conversation with her girlfriend Alyssa. She’s realized that there are two proms, realized she’s been excluded and that her girlfriend is with the straight people. There’s anger, but it’s barely there, and it’s all directed at Alyssa in this scene. It’s this same issue again, she is angry but not enough to feel dangerous. And, she’s not angry with straight oppressors, only with her lover and fellow queer person. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, when it comes to showing love, she has her hands tied by the film. In the entirety of the teen romance film, she gets one kiss, which is lackluster enough (but maybe not so remarkable, some movies do it that way already). The kiss is lost in a series of medium shots thrown into a frantic ensemble dance, the grand finale number.
Compare that with the long close-up of the two middle-aged (? Meryl Streep is 72 and Keegan-Michael Key is 50, where does that put their characters?) straight adults, and their kiss before the finale number begins. They allow the audience to glean greater emotional significance from their kiss than even the central romance. In fact, the entire straight romance is given similar presence in the film to Emma and Alyssa’s relationship. Emma and Alyssa are, of course, hiding their love from the world for the majority of the film, and with conflict between the pair for a large extent of the movie, we get most of our sense of their romance through “Dance with You,” their duet. This is the song that introduces Alyssa as Emma’s lover, and I have to say I was disappointed. This song emphasizes the message continued through the remainder of the film: Emma and Alyssa can love one another, but their sexuality is insignificant. They don’t kiss, or sway, or hold each other closely besides a quick glomp from Emma. They’re not horny teens, they’re infantilized gal pals. Yes, it’s meant to be a family-friendly film, so it’s going to be somewhat sex-free, but in a film about these women’s sexuality, there’s remarkably little sexual presence.
The Prom is a film adaptation of a stage musical, and in the end some of the criticism I’ve levied might not apply to a live production. This play is satirical and on the Broadway stage that can come through in a way that the film version could not capture. Perhaps some of my criticism is less that The Prom should have been better written than that it should never have been adapted, or should have been better adapted. Either way, when it comes to the film, it’s clear that director Ryan Murphy and the rest of the creative team really missed the mark when it came to Emma. She was meant to be a queer hero for teens across the nation. We got a bland smiley-face sticker instead.