Brow Beat

Blockers Didn’t Market Its Coming-Out Story. Here’s Why That Matters.

The comedy’s stealth gay storyline is reaching an even larger audience than Love, Simon.

The cast of Blockers with Sam’s character circled in red with an arrow pointing to her.
Blockers.
Photo illustration by Slate. Promotional poster by Universal Pictures.

Blockers is not the movie it was marketed to be. The new movie, directed by Pitch Perfect screenwriter Kay Cannon, was advertised as a teen sex comedy in the tradition of Porky’s and American Pie, and it looked every bit as mature and progressive as that description suggests. The first official trailer, released in January, ended with John Cena butt-chugging and then inadvertently reversing the flow into Ike Barinholtz’s face. It didn’t seem to be aimed at audiences’ higher faculties.

Viewers were then pleasantly surprised to learn that the movie is not only hilarious but contains hidden depths. The film, wherein three girls try to lose their virginities on prom night despite their overprotective, cock-blocking parents, is in many ways an exploration of society’s discomfort with female sexual freedom, especially when it comes to parents’ attitudes toward their teenage daughters.

But there was also another layer to it, one that pushed the movie beyond even the surprisingly woke comedy of Neighbors 2. Namely, a touching coming-out arc following one of the trio’s members, Sam (Gideon Adlon), who begins the film as a closeted lesbian. This key plot point was not included in any of the film’s promotional materials. I could find no evidence that distributor Universal’s decision to leave Sam’s sexuality out of Blockers marketing was motivated by any desire to be progressive. It seems probable that it was inspired, like most major studio decisions, by market testing. But whatever the impetus, this stealth reveal is significant because it will likely lead a wider range of viewers—including those who might otherwise avoid such a storyline—to experience Sam’s story.

Just how absent was Sam’s sexuality in the movie’s marketing? It went conspicuously unmentioned not only in both of the film’s trailers but also the two video promos focusing on her character for Blockers’ various social media accounts. If anything, these promos paint Sam as an enthusiastically (if overeagerly) heterosexual nerd. In contrast, this spring’s other mainstream teen comedy featuring a coming-out storyline, Love, Simon, was explicitly marketed as a gay story. The winking posters for the film included the tagline “Everybody deserves a great love story” and a cheeky “coming out” premiere date while the trailers were out and proud, with Simon confessing his “huge-ass secret” that “nobody knows I’m gay” in voice-over. Gay and allied celebrities responded by buying out theaters so people could see it for free.

The films have since followed similar trajectories, but the differences seem revealing. Both sport similar budgets and major studio backing. Both are commercial successes. And yet, Blockers, after just two weeks in theaters, is primed to out–box-office Love, Simon. After a month of screenings, Love, Simon has earned $49.6 million, according to Box Office Mojo, whereas Blockers has already garnered $53.1 million in less than half that time. Love, Simon’s lesser numbers could very well be a reflection of lingering homophobia, but Blockers’ big draw, which has especially outpaced Love, Simon overseas, offers a more encouraging conclusion: Sam’s stealth plotline works.

While it is absolutely groundbreaking and commendable to see Love, Simon get the mainstream treatment, there are certain advantages to Blockers’ closeted marketing. While Sam’s lesbianism is crucial to the Blockers narrative, it’s incidental to the film’s off-screen perception—the movie is a teen movie before it is a gay movie. Actual closeted teenagers could feel more comfortable attending the film on a night out with friends. Seeing a film like Love, Simon, where the gay content is unavoidable, feels like more of a statement. Whereas Love, Simon might scare off homophobic audiences, Blockers self-presentation as just another teen sex comedy means the genre’s longtime target audience—young, straight men—won’t expect its tender-hearted gay subplot.

Sam’s narrative is also notable given that coming-out stories rarely venture out of gay cinema into mainstream genre films—much less into teen sex comedies. Lesbians in raunch-coms are typically objects of the male gaze (as in American Pie 2 or Dodgeball) or butt-of-the-joke gender deviants (as in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates or When We First Met). In big-budget blockbusters, meanwhile, gay characters hardly appear at all, except, recently, in a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments.

In this context, it’s astounding to see a movie like Blockers treat Sam’s character with such tenderness and respect. Her down-on-his-luck father, Hunter (Barinholtz), tries to stop her from having sex with her male date not out of any sense of homophobia or territorialism, but rather because he suspects she is gay and doesn’t want her to traumatize herself. That should be too heavy for a movie that includes an extended vomit montage, but this is Blockers, which also features a feminist analysis of its own premise.

Still, Sam’s serious subplot doesn’t leave her out of the fun. Instead, her awkward-yet-painful storyline is remarkably realistic. Like her friends, Sam is a weird, confused teenager—but she is also fundamentally unlike her friends, and Blockers doesn’t ignore that. Sam’s coming-out narrative manages to set her apart without alienating her. Instead, it normalizes her: Other gay people exist in the Blockers world, including a beloved gay brother mentioned by Mitchell (Cena) and multiple same-sex teen couples featured in the B-roll. Blockers even resists “post-sexuality” ignorance by slyly working homophobia into its narrative: Sam’s dad lambasts her friends’ parents for raising girls around whom she couldn’t feel comfortable, and Sam is hesitant to come out to her straight BFFs.

None of which is to say this don’t-ask-don’t-tell marketing was anything other than a ploy to milk Blockers for as many dollars as possible. But that doesn’t mean it won’t have a positive effect. Indeed, Blockers might have learned one of the smaller lessons of Love, Simon: that straight doesn’t always have to be the default. In Blockers, at least, it isn’t.