About a week ago, a new film called "The Half of It" was released on Netflix. Written and directed by Alice Wu, the coming-of-age film tells the story of high school student Ellie Chu as she helps a classmate write love letters to Aster, the girl he has a crush on.
The problem? Ellie just so happens to have a crush on Aster, too. Here's the trailer in case you haven't seen it.
Disclaimer: It's adorable.
Now, before you continue reading, this article will contain spoilers for the plot of the film. If you're at all interested in watching it blindly, do that now and come back when you're ready. All good? Let's dive in.
As mentioned before, the conflict of the film lies within Ellie's blossoming feelings for Aster, which only grows as the two become closer with each letter they write to one another. Though Aster believes it's Paul she's talking to, she still feels a connection to Ellie in the time they spend together in person. Aster is able to show her true self when she is with Ellie, in a way we don't see her with anyone else in the film. This is most evident when she is seen with her boyfriend, Trig, which leads to my main point.
Any lesbian who has endured the process of discovering their sexuality is familiar with the term "compulsory heterosexuality." This refers to the way women who aren't attracted to men often convince themselves that they are due to societal pressures to adhere to the "norm," and as a result, force themselves to pursue relationships with men out of obligation rather than genuine attraction or desire.
Many lesbians struggle with compulsory heterosexuality, and I myself am no stranger to it. In my personal experience, compulsory heterosexuality came in the form of me assigning myself a male crush on the first day of school each year. I would convince myself that I was indeed attracted to these crushes, but as soon as it seemed they had any semblance of interest in me, I would back away.
The reality of being faced with the male gaze was far more daunting and, to me, more repulsive than the seemingly harmless fantasy of it. Heteronormativity is the root of compulsory heterosexuality, and "The Half of It" does not shy away from confronting this prominent issue amongst questioning lesbians.
In the movie, Aster is shown to be dealing with compulsory heterosexuality. This struggle is shown through how she behaves around Trig, and how she talks about her relationship with him. In every scene she shares with Trig, Aster does not speak a single word to him. When he puts his arm around her, she lets him.
When he proposes to her, she nods. She doesn't love Trig. She doesn't want to be with Trig. She feels as though she has to, and so she does. Casting aside her own desires, she plays the part of Trig's girlfriend without question or complaint. Her relationship with Trig is the embodiment of the heteronormative lifestyle she has been pressured to fit into.
As the pastor's daughter, she has even more pressure to be what others expect of her and to not stray too far from what is considered the "norm." She lives her life for the sake of being on the receiving end of the male gaze because she believes that must be what she wants. If that's what everyone else wants, why shouldn't she want the same thing?
Furthermore, when Aster is with Ellie, she never says she loves Trig or feels anything towards him. She states that she "should marry" him, in such a way that it sounds more like a duty than a choice.
Compulsory heterosexuality causes many questioning young lesbians to enter loveless relationships with men in order to appease those around them. With Trig, Aster is a shell of herself, just playing the part she feels she has no choice but to play. She smiles for him, not because of him because she knows that's what she is supposed to do.
With Ellie, however, she shows her inner self. She opens up with her despite hardly knowing her, displaying a level of comfort and intimacy that she doesn't dare to display around Trig. When she smiles at Ellie, she's smiling for herself, because being with Ellie makes her smile. No falsehood, no pretense. That's how the viewer can tell where her true feelings lie.
Even with Paul, Aster's potential attraction to him lied in the idea of him rather than the reality. Her overall attitude is vastly different when she is with him physically from when she is shown writing the letters to him. This calls attention to an especially prevalent manifestation of compulsory heterosexuality, the concept of fantasizing about men you could never have a chance with instead of developing feelings for men who could potentially interact with you. These unattainable men are more appealing because of the fact that they are unattainable. In Aster's case, this can be applied to Paul.
In person, Aster is uncomfortable around Paul and not sure what to say. When communicating with who she believes to be Paul via letters or texting, Aster feels more at ease. Essentially, the idea of being with a man is more appealing to her than being with one in person. She never has this issue with Ellie, of course, because she may not be aware of it yet, but her feelings for Ellie are actually genuine.
At the end of the film, after Ellie confesses her feelings to Aster and Trig is out of the picture, the viewer expects them to end up together right then and there. It's a love story, right? They should just kiss and live happily ever after already! And they do kiss, sure, but Aster isn't quite ready to live happily ever after just yet.
The journey to accepting yourself and your sexuality is a long one that's unique to each individual, and compulsory heterosexuality is one of many obstacles on that journey that must be overcome in order to reach the end. She still has a long road ahead before she is equipped to be in a relationship with another woman, but the kiss she shares with Ellie serves as hope that she - and any other questioning girl out there who relates to her struggles - will get there eventually.
After all, it takes five bold strokes to paint a masterpiece, and Aster has only just made the first one.
In fact, I'd say that's a good message for anyone out there struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. Take it one stroke at a time, just like Aster. "The Half of It" presents to viewers a young woman who breaks free of the heteronormative standards imposed upon her and seeks to find her own way. This is why representation is so important; it allows people to realize that they are not alone in their struggles and that they too can overcome them.
Alice Wu, through the lens of her own lesbian experience, has managed to craft a narrative that beautifully illustrates that love can't and shouldn't be confined to one singular category, one specific image that pops up in everyone's minds at the thought of it.
Love can take on many different forms, so don't limit yourself to what others deem "normal." Make that first stroke, do away with the misconception that you have to be what everyone expects you to be.
It's your heart, not anyone else's, so never be afraid to follow it. Take the time to figure out who you are and who you love, whether it's men or women or all of the above.
You'll find your answer eventually, and once you do, you'll finally be able to smile for real. For yourself. I promise.
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