Teenage Fever “Everything, Everything” Subverts the Whiteness of Teen Romance Movies

Editor’s Note: After I ran a review of Everything, Everything, Bitch was rightfully criticized for not acknowledging how the film erases people are chronically ill. I completely hear that criticism. I am committed to publishing more stories about the intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality, and disability in the future, and welcome any story that explicitly calls attention to the ways that any film, including Everything, Everything, mishandles disability. Intersectionality calls for all of us to acknowledge our blind-spots, call attention to them, and work toward being more inclusive. What I know is that no criticism is absolute. Media texts can be interpreted in a number of ways. What Vanessa has done here is center Black women, who are rarely, if ever, afforded the opportunity to be the focal point of teen romance dramas. Every person involved in this story is a Black woman: I’m a Black woman editor, Vanessa is a Black woman writer, Amandla Stenberg is a Black queer actress, and Stella Meghie is a Black woman director—one of 11 who has been afforded the opportunity to bring a movie to a national audience. That’s worth celebrating. For those who want to read more about Everything, Everything and ability, there are stories linked in this sentence that are worth your time. — Evette 


Teen romance films typically follow a standard narrative: Girl meets boy; girl and boy furiously deny their initial attraction; girl and boy can no longer deny their chemistry and give into their feelings; and then girl and boy are separated due to a seemingly monumental obstacle, but eventually find their way back to each other. On the surface, Everything, Everything, based on the young adult novel by Nicola Yoon, isn’t so different from the many teen films that predate its release. Maddy (Amandla Stenberg) was born with a rare autoimmune disease that prevents her from going outside. For the past 18 years, she’s been confined to her house in fear of catching a fatal illness. When a cute boy named Olly (Nick Robinson) moves into the house next door, Maddy’s life is instantly changed. She falls in love with Olly and begins to question the predictable, rigid existence she’s been forced to endure. Although prolonged exposure to the outside world could potentially kill Maddy, the two teens are desperate to be together. 

Everything, Everything may borrow the trappings of a standard teen romance, but the film has defied a key detail: It’s romance doesn’t revolve around whiteness. From Say Anything… to A Walk to Remember, these films are usually populated by white people. The female protagonist rarely deviates from a thin, white, “all-American” blond girl, who pines after a white boy in a racially monolithic town where people of color are regulated to background scenery. Instead Everything, Everything casts a black girl as the main character and the romantic interest. Although the film features an interracial romance, it is not a determining factor in the direction of the narrative. Maddy and Olly never view race as an obstacle or a conflict that needs to be painstakingly discussed at great length. By not addressing race, Maddy and Olly’s romance rejects whiteness as a narrative focal point. Maddy’s race isn’t necessarily downplayed or ignored, but it doesn’t constitute the whole of her identity. She’s defined by her disconnect from the outside world rather than her race.

A casual reviewer could argue that the choice to ignore race advocates for colorblindness. If this were true, Olly certainly would have used Maddy’s Blackness as a way to prove he wasn’t racist. People who follow colorblind ideology often emphasize how they “don’t see color,” therefore invalidating their claims. Olly shows his interest in Maddy long before he meets her by talking to her online and via text. His attraction to her increases significantly after they begin a virtual friendship. Thus, it can be assumed that Olly obviously does see color; it’s just not a consequential factor in his pursuit of Maddy. Overall, the film treats interracial romance as a footnote rather than an unexpected taboo. Olly calls Maddy “beautiful” without fetishizing features such as her lips or her hair. His attraction to Maddy isn’t founded upon a sense of illicit or forbidden compulsion.

Growing up as one of the few Black girls in a very white suburb, I rarely saw faces that mirrored mine in real life, let alone on the cinema screen. The teen movies I’ve consumed rarely allowed Black girls to be the heroines of their own love stories, let alone function as nuanced characters. They were regulated to the role of the sassy Black friend, like Dionne (Stacey Dash) in Clueless, or the uptight sidekick, like Chastity (Gabrielle Union) in 10 Things I Hate About You. Black girls in teen movies are never allowed to forget that they are Black; their actions and behaviors are written to enforce the fact that Blackness is the only memorable trait about them. On the contrary, Maddy’s voice drives Everything, Everything, and therefore the film focuses on the isolation and alienation explicitly connected to her illness. Olly could easily have fallen into the White Savior stereotype, but the film makes it clear that Maddy has her own agency. At one point Olly confesses, “I’m no prince.” Fortunately, Maddy isn’t necessarily looking to be saved. Her decisions may be influenced by Olly, but are ultimately attempts to gain visibility.

In the beginning of the film, Maddy mentions that no one really knows she’s alive, with the exception of her mother and full-time nurse. Throughout the movie, it’s made clear that Maddy is an avid reader. There are numerous shots of books on her nightstand and desk, most notably Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Both are fitting for someone like Maddy, who is tired of simply existing and yearns to actually live. By embracing new experiences, Maddy is attempting to write herself into existence, to carve out an identity that is free of her illness.

Everything, Everything proves that teen romance movies don’t have to revolve around whiteness. An interracial romance doesn’t have to serve as an overarching metaphor for the narrative nor does the relationship have to justify its authenticity through a laborious process of trials and tribulations. By placing race on the back burner, Everything, Everything isn’t perpetuating the idea that love conquers all. Instead, love can be a catalyst for personal enlightenment.

 

Everything, Everything
Director: Stella Meghie
{ Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Alloy Entertainment }
Released: May 19, 2017

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by Vanessa Willoughby
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Vanessa Willoughby is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared on but is not limited to: The Toast, The Hairpin, Vice, Hello Giggles, and The Establishment. She is also a Fiction Editor at Brain Mill Press.

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