Chasing Amy: The Unexpected, Ahead-Of-Its-Time Queer Cult Classic 21 Years Later

*This article is intended as a thematic deep-dive rather than a typical review, and as such it contains some SPOILERS.

Twenty-one years ago this Spring, Kevin Smith's third film, Chasing Amy, debuted in theaters. Almost immediately it became an indie favorite, and solidified his post-Clerks reputation as an important new writer/director. However, it also caused a certain amount of controversy, sparking an argument which continues to this day about the film's relationship to LGBT viewers and queer cinema, and whether its treatment of its ostensibly-lesbian main character's sexuality is progressive or offensive. Two decades later, Chasing Amy's status as a beloved cult favorite of the '90s indie film scene is unquestionable – it has the distinction of being the one Kevin Smith film to earn a Criterion Collection release – but what of its sexual politics? With Pride Month coming to a close, and with the film having recently celebrated its 21st birthday (buy it a beer and some Archie comics), this seems like a perfect time to revisit it and see how it has aged. As it turns out, it has aged remarkably well: while its look, sound, and pop-cultural humor very much wear their '90s-ness on their sleeve in a thoroughly enjoyable way, its frank, honest, and unexpectedly deep discussion of the philosophy and complexity of sexuality is way ahead of its time. It sometimes gets dismissed (especially by those who haven't seen it in a while, or have just seen in passing, or not at all) as an example of the offensive trope of a lesbian being “turned” by a straight guy, but if you look a little deeper, that isn't what's going on in this film at all; there is so much more beyond that admittedly dubious first impression. Years before these concepts were anywhere near the mainstream of our cultural conversation, Chasing Amy tells a story about how sexuality is a complex and fluid spectrum, how the binary concept of gay and straight is an imaginary construct, and how society's need to fit people with reductive labels and definitions is ultimately destructive to our ability to be honest with not only each other, but with ourselves. With an ensemble of characters who represent a host of dilemmas related not only to sexual identity, but to the societal language and assumptions surrounding sexual identity, Chasing Amy is a deceptively deep conversation on the subject which 1997 might not have been ready for, but which our cultural discourse has certainly caught up to in the intervening years. While it may not be the first label one would associate with Kevin Smith, I would argue that Chasing Amy very much qualifies as a queer film; not in the sense that it just deals with LGBT themes, but in how well it deals with the concept of queer, as in the non-binary sexual identity banner used by those for whom the more socially-defined gay, straight, lesbian, or bisexual don't quite fit. It embraces and explores the fluidity and gray areas of sexuality in a way that not that many films do; certainly not in the mainstream, and even more certainly not in the 1990s. The result is not only far and away Kevin Smith's best, most mature, and most personal film, but one that is just as relevant – and just as great – as ever, now that the mainstream conversation has caught up to what it was trying to say.

The film is, broadly speaking, about a group of friends and fellow comic book authors, all of whom are dealing with various hangups and repressed feelings related to sexuality. At the center of the group is an unlikely love triangle: Holden (Ben Affleck) is in love with Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), who despite identifying as a lesbian feels unexpectedly drawn to him as well, while Holden's best friend/co-writer/roommate Banky (Jason Lee) harbors ever-mounting feelings of jealousy that may stem from his own sexuality being more complicated than he's ready to deal with. Add in a subplot about a black comic book author who is openly gay in his personal life, but feels the need to put on a macho, straight-guy persona in his public life because it's hard enough dealing with the racism aimed at black men in America without also having to navigate homophobia on top of it, and Chasing Amy presents a pretty thorough cross-section of perspectives regarding society's reductive, judgmental, and ultimately self-destructive baggage regarding sexuality. Of course, the perspective through which we are initially introduced to this group of characters is that of Ben Affleck's Holden McNeil, a pretty naïve/ignorant, thoroughly heteronormative prototypical straight guy. Criticisms of the film, and accusations that it is essentially a straight man's fantasy about a lesbian, tend to center in part on the fact that he is our main character, taking that to mean that he is the one the audience is supposed to be aligned with, and arguably agree with; I would argue that to a significant degree the opposite is true. Yes, he is a surrogate character for much of the audience in that he, like a majority of mainstream viewers of the film (especially in the 1990s), begins the film with an assumption that sexuality is a binary and heterosexual is the default. But the whole crux of his character arc is that he is wrong, and that he has internalized a whole bunch of social assumptions about sexuality which are directly harmful to his understanding of his partner, himself, and the world at large. He is not the hero of the story, but a representation of the cluelessness that many people have regarding the complexity of sexuality; the movie is very clear about what a colossal jackass he can be as a result, and does not give him any slack for his obliviousness or closed mind, to the point that he often feels like a foil. His position as a usually likable, sometimes really cringey, and pretty realistic surrogate for straight people in the audience exists to demonstrate how much that audience, and society at large, still has to learn in order to not be like him. The real hero of the movie – certainly the most sympathetic character, and the one to whom the film and audience ultimately has the most sympathy and allegiance – is Joey Lauren Adams' Alyssa Jones.

Alyssa is a character with very complex sexuality, and an even more complex relationship with how society views and judges sexuality. While at a glance it is easy to think that since she identifies herself as a lesbian, the movie must be falling into the tired and offensive "she just needs the right man" myth, to think that not only sells her character far short, but entirely misunderstands her and her story. That story is all about the toxicity of society's insistence that sexuality is a gay/straight binary, and how harmful and reductive it is that our social views force people into narrowly defined boxes which usually don't quite fit them. It is the story of someone whose identity is outside of those boundaries struggling with the angst and frustration of being made to live inside them. Bear in mind that in 1997, American culture's view of sexuality was far more reductive than it is now; it largely was viewed as a binary where gay and straight were the options, and a large amount of people were skeptical that bisexuality was even real, let alone a whole spectrum of fluid identities (all these things are still too often true, but in 1997 even more so). Alyssa's monologues and dialogues about her sexuality paint an unexpectedly nuanced picture of someone who has never felt comfortable in either of those socially-prescribed boxes (even bisexual would probably be too simple and reductive a label for her, even if the world of 1997 had a consensus that it actually exists), and has struggled to reconcile what she knows and learns about herself with society's insistence that she has to pick a side and stick with it. She clearly leans towards preferring women, but just as clearly doesn't feel entirely at home in the label of lesbian; that label itself erases too much of her experience of sexuality and attraction, and there are aspects of herself that she feels the need to hide from both her friends and the people she meets, lest she be judged by them as not a "real" lesbian, and shamed for not being "properly" gay. The central tension that makes her reluctant to pursue a relationship with Holden isn't that she isn't attracted to him, but that she's terrified that she'll lose her friends, and her world will be thrown into upheaval if she reveals herself to not be a "pure" lesbian; she is afraid that she'll run afoul of biphobia and bigotry against non-binary sexualities in the gay community (again, still a thing that exists, although not nearly as much as in the '90s), and that is exactly what happens. She isn't a lesbian who falls in love with a man so much as she is a queer or sexually fluid woman who has adopted the label of lesbian because, of the few reductive labels available to her, it was the one that fit best, but still didn't fit entirely. If Chasing Amy took place today she almost certainly would not identify as a lesbian, but as queer, fluid, or pansexual; but then again, if Chasing Amy took place today, that central tension in her attraction to Holden probably wouldn't be there, since she would now be able to articulate the complexity of her sexuality in a way that would be much more culturally understood.

In a few key scenes when she really discusses her sexuality, Alyssa describes queerness as a concept and an identity in a way that is still a fairly useful reference point for educating those who don't understand the idea. “The way the world is - how seldom it is that you meet that one person who just… gets you - it’s so rare,” she says. “And to cut one’s self off from finding that person, to immediately halve your options by eliminating the possibility of finding that person within your own gender… that just seems stupid to me.” She ends that speech by saying, “I’ve come here on my own terms, and I feel justified.” She also gets easily the film’s best, most powerful monologue, in which she shoves back against slut-shaming related to her sexual history, defending her experiences as important points on her journey of self-discovery that she shouldn’t have to justify: “maybe you knew early on that your track was from A to B, but unlike you I wasn’t given a f**king road map at birth.” In both this scene and Silent Bob’s famous monologue which provides the film’s title, Chasing Amy also tackles the sexist double-standards about how society judges men’s and women’s sexual experiences very differently, the former with pride and the latter with shame and judgment. The film does an unexpectedly eloquent job of calling out this hypocrisy and its root causes in patriarchal social views and the fragility and pig-headedness of the male ego, and arrives at a pretty sex-positive, feminist place; not something you would necessarily expect to hear from Silent Bob, especially when Jay is sitting next to him cracking dick jokes. For both its queer view of sexuality and its sex-positivity, Chasing Amy is a refreshing rebuttal of the heteronormative and male-gaze-focused relationship/sex comedies that were the 1990s’ specialty; a very unique beast in this genre at this time. I first saw it as a fairly young teenager just getting into Smith’s work with Clerks and Mallrats, and its view of sexuality wasn’t one that I had encountered before; it certainly challenged my perspective and encouraged me to really think critically about sexuality, and social assumptions about it versus reality, in a way that I hadn’t yet been prompted to in my youthful naiveté, but certainly would continue to do. Seeing this film at a pretty formative time during my coming-of-age absolutely informed my understanding of sexuality as something fluid and complex that shouldn’t be dominated by heteronormative or patriarchal standards; it opened the door to more sophisticated conversations about queerness and feminism as I got older, and remains a film that I go back to and see different things in as my own life and experiences progress.

Does the film articulate all of these things perfectly? Certainly not. It's a bit clumsy and awkward, and (not unlike Holden) sometimes feels like it's fumbling around trying to figure out something that it doesn't fully understand. But that's certainly not for lack of trying, and it really isn't anything that Kevin Smith is doing wrong; just as Alyssa herself has a sexuality that is more complex than the socially-accepted labels she is made to choose from, the film is trying to have a conversation that mainstream America really didn't have the vocabulary for in 1997. Here in 2018 I can discuss sexual fluidity and use terms like queer and pansexual and feel pretty certain that most readers will know what I mean; in the mid-90s, outside of some parts of the LGBT community, those terms weren't widely used (and queer was still a slur, rather than a self-described identity with a sense of pride), and wouldn't have been widely understood. Yes, the film uses the wrong terms, but that is mostly because it couldn't really have been expected to know the right ones, and neither could most of its viewers. That it was so controversial among LGBT viewers at the time, with some lesbians seeing it as an offensive perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, but plenty of bisexual or queer (in the modern sense) viewers finding it truthful and empowering, is very telling indeed about the tension within the community about whether sexuality was a binary or a spectrum. I think that upon revisitation today, after our collective understanding of sexuality has changed over the years, the film now appears much more decisively progressive, and much less controversial. While there is no doubt that it doesn't articulate these ideas perfectly, it is making an argument for sexuality as a fluid spectrum that is years ahead of its time, and one that somewhat ironically probably comes across better in recent times than it did upon its release.

Of course, in addition to the substance of its content holding up unexpectedly strongly, it is Kevin Smith’s best film by pretty much every other standard as well. It is his writing at its absolute best, striking a near-perfect balancing act between his characteristically crass humor and genuinely thoughtful and observant philosophy; to paraphrase Holden himself, this is a film where (even more so than Clerks) he really has something personal to say, and the heartfelt genuineness of it makes all the difference. The acting is likewise spot-on: Joey Lauren Adams gives the performance of her career as Alyssa, in equal turns hilarious and emotionally affecting, Ben Affleck gives one of the earliest indications that he genuinely can be a good actor with the right material, and even Smith himself shows some unexpected dramatic chops with that monologue about “chasing Amy.”  The film also has two of Smith’s best comedic supporting characters in Jason Lee’s Banky and Dwight Ewell’s Hooper X: no one plays a hilariously abrasive asshole like Lee, and Ewell gives a brilliantly larger-than-life commentary on the intersection of racism and homophobia, not to mention his monologue about racism and Star Wars, which has got to be one of the funniest in the entire View Askewniverse. Even the ways in which the film is firmly rooted in the 1990s have become some of its most charming qualities: its very-90s, way-before-it-was-cool vision of geek culture, its music cues featuring bands like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, its pre-ubiquitous-internet world where comics are drawn on paper rather than digitally.  Its odd ability to be way ahead of its time in its view of sexuality while also being quintessentially of its time in its pop-cultural landscape just adds to what a thoroughly enjoyable experience it is to revisit.

While I’m sure it will always remain somewhat controversial, and what it gets right versus what it gets wrong will always be somewhat up for debate, it is hard to deny that Chasing Amy is much stronger and more true to life in its treatment of queer sexuality than it was once given credit for. It certainly does an excellent job of introducing these topics to audiences that may not have personally faced them, in a way that is deeply empathetic and easy to feel the impact of. The way that the film starts out aligned with Holden before shifting perspectives to align with Alyssa and Hooper (and the surprisingly woke Silent Bob) quite effectively introduces straight male viewers to queer and feminist perspectives and challenges them to change their perspectives and see relationships and sexuality in a different light. Alyssa, meanwhile, is a strong, complex, well-developed protagonist in whom many queer viewers will be able to see aspects of themselves and their own journeys. In both the thoughtfulness and emotional honesty of its queer perspectives and the readiness with which it challenges heteronormative male perspectives, it really does seem worthy of joining the category of queer cinema, although that isn’t a category which you would normally think of Kevin Smith as remotely belonging in. 21 years later, not only is its status as a cult classic of indie cinema still very well-deserved, but the film is more than ever ready to be the topic of serious discussion.

- Christopher S. Jordan

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