‘The Prom’ Mixes Music and LGBTQ+ Issues in a High School Setting

Based on a Broadway musical, the film promotes an important message of acceptance. However, it still has a few controversies.
December 31, 2020
12 mins read

Warning! The article is filled with spoilers for the film “The Prom.”

Sequins? Flamboyancy? Impressive singing? All that combined with a toothachingly sweet ending makes a wonderful musical. In my opinion, “The Prom” certainly delivers all of that and more in its recent debut on Netflix. With an impressive cast that includes Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key and James Corden, the movie is able to touch upon issues faced by LGBTQ+ youths and still remain humorous and entertaining.

Loosely based on the 2010 Itawamba County School District prom controversy, high school student Emma Nolan faces discrimination for being a lesbian in Edgewater, Indiana. The PTA cancels prom because Nolan wants to bring her girlfriend. Four narcissistic theater actors — Dee Dee Allen, Barry Glickman, Trent Oliver and Angie Dickinson — catch wind of these events and in an attempt to improve their reputation, they go to save Nolan as a PR stunt. Upon arriving in Indiana, they barge into the next PTA meeting with a flair-filled performance. Principal Tom Hawkins, a supporter of Nolan and a theater fan, is ecstatic that Dee Dee Allen and her entourage are there. In contrast, Mrs. Greene, the head of the PTA, is angry and rants about how they do not understand the community’s anti-LGBTQ+ values. Unbeknownst to Greene, her daughter Alyssa Greene is Nolan’s closeted girlfriend. Alyssa can be seen cringing in her mother’s shadow.

The Indiana Supreme Court soon comes to Nolan’s rescue and forces the school to hold a prom for Nolan. The actors then help Nolan with preparing for the prom. However, when they arrive at the school gym, they find out that the PTA planned two proms: one for Nolan’s “homosexual” prom and one for the rest of the students. Heartbroken, Nolan calls Greene, who went to the real prom but did not realize that Nolan was sent to another. Greene refuses to out herself by joining Nolan, leaving her alone and worn-down. Instead of giving up, Nolan decides to sing a song on livestream — which goes viral — and hosts an inclusive prom that celebrates everyone.

Relevance to Current Society

The story is certainly important to today’s conversations on LGBTQ+ rights. The most obvious connection to current events is the fact that the movie is inspired by an actual prom controversy. In 2010, an LGBTQ+ teen was actually excluded from her school’s prom for wanting to wear a tuxedo and bring her girlfriend to prom. This story is hardly a rarity. Just take a look at this list of students’ experiences that span across all 50 states. The prom discrimination issue is so widespread that the ACLU has a prom guide for LGBTQ+ high school students.

The movie also takes aim at the hypocrisy of anti-gay arguments that are fueled by supposedly Christian values. In the musical, Oliver finds the group of students that are primarily responsible for planning the prom and excluding Nolan. Instead of writing them off as evil, he shows how hypocritical they are being. Oliver points out that one girl has a tattoo, another student lost her virginity before marriage, a boy has divorced parents and another teen boy probably masturbates — all of which are against the Bible. If they are discriminating against Nolan for supposedly violating the Bible, why are their transgressions excused, but not Nolan’s? This blatant exposure of the fraud that is the anti-LGBTQ+ Christian argument is hardly absent from the real world.

Back in 2015, when Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, I remember seeing her religious hypocrisy splashed everywhere. People on social media tore into Davis’ personal life. Despite saying that same-sex marriage violates her Christian beliefs, Davis had children out of wedlock, was divorced twice and married three times. Memes were made from her hypocrisy. For example, this meme reads, “Same-sex unions destroy the sanctity of marriage. My three ex-husbands say they agree with me.” Another reads, “Sorry we can’t give out marriage licenses… I used them all myself.” Most notably, a billboard put up in Davis’ hometown mocks her: “Dear Kim Davis, The fact that you can’t sell your daughter for three goats and a cow means we’ve already redefined marriage.”

Overall Feel and Actors’ Contributions

Though the subject matter is certainly relevant to the problems that still riddle our society, and though there are several tear-jerking moments, I found that the overall musical movie came off as humorous, sweet and triumphant. The PTA performance is giggle-inducing with Allen’s apparent self-infatuation as she forgets Emma’s name and does not know which girl is Emma. The actors’ disbelief at the small offerings in a little Midwest town and their futile trophy flashing is another humor high point. Allen’s near homicidal anger at having to give up her Hampton house mitigates the anxiety that has gripped the plot.

For the parts that went dark, songs and sass from various actors were able to lighten up the scenes. For example, in one of my favorite scenes, Dickinson tries to convince Nolan to go on TV and share her story after the disaster of the two proms. When Nolan refuses, obviously downtrodden, Dickinson bursts into song, story and dance, determined to bring out Nolan’s “zazz.” Her sassy looks and dance moves, paired with Nolan’s mostly awkward ones, soften the impact of Nolan’s deliberate exclusion, providing some cheer for viewers.

James Corden and Other Controversies

Though the movie has done a good job of telling an important LGBTQ+ story, it still has its controversies. The casting and acting of Corden is one of them. Corden plays Glickman, a gay Broadway actor who ran away from home at 16 after his parents planned to send him to conversion therapy. In real life, Corden is straight, having a wife and two children. Yet, this is not the main source of controversy, since even the LGBTQ+ community cannot agree on whether straight actors should play gay characters.

The main issue stems from Corden’s portrayal of Glickman. The character is written to be “flamboyant and [an] openly gay Broadway diva.”  However, Corden’s Glickman is inconsistent with the flamboyancy and diva-ness. This foundational character trait peeps out once or twice throughout the movie: at the beginning when Glickman is giving an interview on the red carpet and when he gives Nolan a makeover. Overall, his performance fell flat. Critics and angry viewers called Corden’s acting offensive. Newsweek critic Samuel Spencer writes that that “few straight actors could get away with a gay character like this, a role that would feel stereotypical in an ‘80s sitcom and here feels offensive.” Critic Tim Robey agrees in his review published in The Telegraph: “It’s an insult the film doesn’t even consider, stereotyping the young lesbian as fashion-clueless and the gay man as a bustling Queer Eye nightmare who made this reviewer embarrassed to be batting for the same team.” Reviews after reviews criticize Corden’s performance.

The controversy over Corden is further exacerbated and linked to another controversy: Hollywood shutting out stage actors. “The Prom” is actually a film adaptation of the 2018 “The Prom” Broadway show. Like many Broadway shows, parts were written for and adapted to the actors. Corden’s part was originally written for Brooks Ashmanskas, an out gay actor — in fact, the  character Glickman has been “described as a heightened version of [him].” Because Ashmanskas played an important role in the creation of Glickman, Corden’s version is now seemingly offensive to both general viewers and the creators’ original intent and characterization.

Additionally, unlike other film adaptations, “The Prom” movie and Broadway show did not have a profit-sharing agreement. Broadway actors who helped craft the songs, the characters, the plot, the whole fabric of the story were not only given little credit, but they were also not given monetary compensation. Shouldn’t the original actors who are part of and integral to the development of the characters and script be given credit and pay?

Overall Review

Even though the film has not come out unscathed, I would still recommend the movie to others. Meryl Streep is a powerhouse in the movie, belting out impressive runs and breathing life into her character. Nicole Kidman is bold but supportive. Keegan-Michael Key and Andrew Rannells play lovable and authentic characters. It is flashy, loud and has a happy ending, a perfect casual romance movie to watch in quarantine. I should mention that I am a straight, cis-gendered woman. So, perhaps, the controversies that mar the movie is a deal-breaker for others, but for me, though they do take away from the magic and the message in the movie, they are not. I would just recommend viewers to go in with eyes wide open.

Aimi Wen, Duke University

Writer Profile

Aimi Wen

Duke University
Mechanical Engineering

Aimi is a mechanical engineering major at Duke University. She loves reading, hiking and baking.

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