«Love, Victor»: the gay TV show Disney doesn’t want
First off: this review contains no spoilers. I’m not going to mention anything that hasn’t already been revealed in the trailers.
When it comes to accusations of being an overly conservative media company, Disney takes the cake. What «Love, Victor» could have been – what it should have been – was a statement.
«You think we’re behind the times? Watch and learn. We can be more open. We can be bold.»
Alas, Disney missed this opportunity. Not because «Love, Victor» isn't allowed to tell its story boldly enough, but because «Love, Victor» isn’t allowed to tell its story on Disney+. At least not in the United States – it’s on Hulu there. Granted, that’s not the case here in Switzerland. But Disney+ is «hiding» the series in its Star section – where the not-so-family-friendly adult content is at home, like «Deadpool» and «Terminator».
And that right there is the crux of the matter: «Love, Victor» doesn’t belong in the Star section. The series is too important, too good. And it’s frankly too family-friendly to be labelled as something scandalous and indecent that younger people shouldn’t be exposed to. The TV show’s subject matter doesn’t change that.
On the contrary.
Discovering your sexuality
Who am I? Most of us have asked ourselves this question, especially back in our teenage years. Sixteen-year-old Victor (Michael Cimino) could write novels about it. For him, the question is far more existential than for many others his age. Because answering it openly and honestly also means accepting his own self. Liking himself. Standing up for himself – and facing any prejudices that come his way.
Because Victor is gay.
Him being the new kid at Creekwood High School doesn't help. Neither does the fact that he’s actually not yet totally sure of his sexual orientation. Is he into boys? Girls? Or both? In any case, he finds talking about it difficult. He hasn’t made any friends yet at his new school, and his religious parents make things all the more complicated – you know, Jesus and stuff. They have their own marital problems to deal with, anyway.
Then, Victor learns about Simon (Nick Robinson), who was a student at Creekwood High School just last year. Simon came out to everyone in front of the entire school. And everyone thought it was great. Even his parents. The lucky bastard. Victor reaches for his cell phone, finds Simon's Instagram account and writes to him:
The spin-off that calls the original into question
Here’s the great thing about «Love, Victor»: I don’t expect any surprises. Or twists. But should there be any, they’re bound to be so clichéd my eyes would roll themselves. Or so I thought. I really expected it to be like «Stargirl», which is also on Disney+. Have you seen «Stargirl»? If not, you’re not missing anything.
But «Love, Victor» is different. Not completely different, mind you. Just different enough to have earned my attention. It started with, «Screw you.» That’s meta. Because the «screw you» is not only directed at Simon, the character, but also at «Love, Simon» – the movie.
The 2018 romantic comedy, «Love, Simon», was created by Fox Studios, which has since been bought by Disney. The main character is a teenager named Simon. And Simon’s gay. No one at Creekwood High School knows his secret until another student anonymously outs himself using the alias Blue. Simon begins an e-mail friendship with Blue, which then transforms into a romance. Simon ultimately has his big coming out on the Ferris wheel. Everyone’s thrilled – and they lived happily ever after. The end.
This is precisely what garnered so much criticism. No one would dispute the fact that «Love, Simon» was a pleasant movie and that it was important for the gay community. But that doesn’t change the fact that the story is told from the point of view of a privileged, white and wealthy boy whose entire environment is eerily accepting of his sexual orientation.
Does that make the movie suitable for the masses? Yes. Does it also make it out of touch with reality? Probably.
«I just need you to know that you’re very lucky, Simon,» Victor writes in his Instagram message to Simon.
In doing so, Victor, who’s also Latino, sides with the critics. It’s an exciting trick by series creators Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker – it’s how they give «Love, Victor» the raison d'être that spin-offs often lack.
And it doesn’t feel forced, either. Simon knows he’s gay from the start of the movie, which is why he’s «only» concerned about the consequences of coming out. Victor, on the other hand, first has to come to terms with his sexual orientation before he can even think about coming out.
And that’s quite a tough thing to do.
Of inner conflict and youth
I like the inner conflict Victor has to deal with – his struggles, fears, hopes and disappointments. Take Rachel (Mia Brooks), a girl he meets. When he kisses her, he has butterflies in his stomach. That’s normal. So Victor’s normal. Normal’s good.
But then... Victor thinks of Benji (George Sear), an openly gay boy at his school. Suddenly, there are no more butterflies in Victor’s stomach. There are fireworks. Fireworks like those on the Fourth of July that make the whole world tremble. Including his world. Victor’s world. Well, damn it.
Victor could at least admit to being bisexual. That wouldn’t be as bad as being exclusively into men, right? After all, as a bisexual, he would like girls, too. So, he would be a at least a little bit normal.
That’s a little bit normal, isn’t it?
Unless... what if, as a newcomer, he had something like a carte blanche to define himself without being condemned for it? That would be nice. Doesn’t the new kid in school get some sort of newbie bonus? Hey, Simon didn’t mind coming out of the closet either. And he wasn’t new. On the contrary.
«That is so gay,» Victor hears the guys in the locker room say. «You had the whole house to yourselves, and you only got to second?» Seemingly normal, harmless sayings – the kind that come up in any conversation among boys. «You might as well have had sex with a dude.»
That’s just locker-room talk, right?
Not for Victor.
His sister, Pilar (Isabella Ferreira), is no better off. Her Latino background gets pushed into the foreground. The other kids tease her, calling her «Dora» – like the little girl from the children’s TV show. Add to that the fact that she already rubs people the wrong way with her off-putting personality – even at home, where her and Victor’s parents are struggling with marital problems.
«At least I never have to worry about you,» the devoted mother (Ana Ortiz) tells Victor.
Victor smiles. It tortures him inside.
I can literally hear Victor's thoughts: why does this Simon guy get the perfect parents, the perfect friends – the perfect happy end? And why does everything have to be so damn complicated for me?
That’s when Victor picks up his phone: «Screw you.»
Disney’s controversial decision
Jealousy – a small but great addition to Victor’s character. It makes him more real and relatable. Without it, Victor’s kindness of heart seems uncanny. Sure, his good nature allows us to first build sympathy for him, the main character. The series’ creators, Berger and Aptaker, are doing it right overall. But it wouldn’t have hurt to give Victor a couple more rough edges instead of just honing the few he has. There was certainly time to do so over the span of ten whole episodes lasting 30 minutes each.
The same goes for the friends and enemies he makes throughout the series. For example, there’s the mean star athlete, the rebellious sister, the overexcited best friend/outsider, and the crush with perfect hair. They all come across as unduly clichéd. Without giving anything away: it’s the secondary characters of all people who get more depth over the course of the series – not Victor.
But where «Love, Victor» falters in character development, it scores with its appropriate-for-Disney representation of taboo issues. These taboo issues include homophobia and sexual feelings, which in turn raise questions about love and lust. Brave – for Disney. I like it.
So, why is «Love, Victor» hidden in the password-protected Star section?
I have no clue. According to Entertainment Weekly, the depiction of alcohol use, marital problems and sexual exploration is supposed to have led to Disney’s controversial decision not to launch «Love, Victor» as a Disney+ Original after all, shortly before release.
That doesn’t really make sense to me. «Love, Victor» is definitely no «Euphoria», where ex-Disney child star Zendaya explains the ins and outs of dick pics. All the while, she’s headed to total self-destruction using all sorts of pills and drugs – it’s so blatant that I kept thinking: thank God I’ve got the depressing teenage phase behind me.
By comparison, «Love, Victor» is harmless. Yes, teenagers drink alcohol. But it’s never explicitly shown. When the teenagers drink at a home party, they do so from red paper cups. The only visibly drunk guy makes a complete fool of himself and has to deal with a nasty hangover the next day. Sounds like a reasonable representation of underage drinking to me.
What else is there?
Well, the girls talk about their breasts. Boys say the word «sex». There’s the skimpy outfit here and there, but never in a way I’d deem salacious. The scene that goes the furthest is the one in the coffee shop. Benji shows Victor how to froth milk using a barista coffee machine. Two men. Standing face to face. And frothy milk that suddenly squirts out. My word! Obscene!
In fact, nothing about «Love, Victor» seems offensive enough to warrant describing it as scandalous, indecent or even vulgar. Not even when the teens talk about sex or express something more physical than just «I like you» to their crushes.
But I don’t want to paint Disney quite so black. After all, the series is there, on Disney+, albeit in a roundabout way. Still, the House of the Mouse is paradoxical in its actions. On the one hand, Disney wants a coming-of-age series – with all the complicated and confusing feelings that drove us crazy in our youth, but that no one ever talks about. And Disney wants it in a form that’s tailored to its younger audience, which is not yet allowed to watch «Euphoria», but still needs an outlet for these topics.
Great. Really great. And I don’t mean that sarcastically.
But then, on the other hand, Disney banishes the series to a place requiring a password to watch it. Why? In doing so, Disney labels «Love, Victor» just a little too racy – and makes the series that wants to break down taboos just that. Taboo. I don’t get it.
An incredibly counterproductive and, like I said, paradoxical move.
I don’t pretend to know what it must be like for Victor to live with – and to even have to battle – this inner conflict. But «Love, Victor» does do a damn good job of making me understand the fear involved. Especially since it shows that while today’s society is much more liberal than it used to be, it’s still far from being free of taboos.
By the way, if you’re interested in this topic combined with racism, I recommend «Moonlight», which won an Oscar for best picture. There’s also «Call Me by Your Name», which is roughly the same story as Victor’s, but tailored to an adult audience.
Anyway, «Love, Victor» has made me pay more attention to my own language. There are sayings, expressions and gestures that seem harmless to me, even normal, and that I would never mean to be discriminatory. But my counterpart doesn’t know my intentions.
So, I want to do better. That’s something «Love, Victor» did well. It’s just a shame that the series wasn’t allowed to launch together with Disney+. Instead, it’s now being released months later without too much attention.
The first two episodes of «Love, Victor» are available to watch on Disney+ starting 23 February 2021. The following episodes will be published every Friday.