My friends and I have this game. Take an object, any object – what pronouns would it have? Give it a try. A camping chair: they/them. A hot pink bicycle: she/her. Bottoms, the new teen sex comedy about a sapphic fight club: deeeeeefinitely she/they.
The second feature film from Shiva Baby director Emma Seligman explores “ugly, untalented gays” PJ (Sennott) and Josie (Edebiri), as this BFF duo plot to a) hook-up with cheerleaders and b) escape their existence at the bottom rung of the high school food chain. After making up a rumour that they spent the summer in juvie, they decide to reinvent themselves in classic incel fashion: by starting a fight club. Slapstick fight sequences, teenage betrayals and run-ins with a homoerotic American football team all quickly ensue – as well as moments of heart, tenderness and true loyalty.
Below, we catch up with Seligman to discuss rewriting the teen comedy rulebook, representing she/they aesthetics on screen and giving horny queer teenagers the representation they deserve.
I was going to start by saying something shady about film journalists and how boring they are. But then I read that you used to have a blog about film, right?
Yes, I did but I wouldn’t call myself a journalist
Were you on the Tumblr film hype?
No, I wish I was that cool. No one around me was on Tumblr. I just missed it. It never got popular in my weird friend group in Toronto. So I wrote a film blog literally mostly for myself and no one else.
If you weren’t holed up on Tumblr, what were you like in high school then?
I was nerdy, intense, dramatic and very insecure. And, you know, hormonal and shallow. But I’m very lucky, I loved my high school. I grew up in Toronto, I had it pretty good.
Let’s talk about Bottoms. Who is it for? If this came out when I was 19 I would have been completely feral, obsessed. But now the landscape is like, straight people like these things, too.
This is for a younger version of myself. I would like to say that it’s for queer teens now but that’s a very confident thing to say when I’m not a teen myself. I’m sure they could make something which speaks to them more. When straight people like it, that’s also good. Comedy is needed right now.
When I think back to being queer in high school, it was kind of like the teenage Well of Loneliness so it was super interesting to see the attention Bottoms puts on queer sex.
I really just wanted to show and say that queer teens also want to have sex. That’s the bare minimum that I was trying to achieve. What I would love to ask for from the straight establishment is to showcase that we also have sexual desire. If we achieve more than that, that’s awesome but my approach was just to be like; ‘We have horny thoughts too, we can be shallow as well, especially as teens.” I think that always what ends up sort of happening is that your POV will hopefully enter the movie sort of unfiltered. In terms of that loneliness and sense of longing that feels so specific to being queer that entered that movie. It was sort of unintentional but I’m glad it resonated or was seen in that way, by you at least.
Over the weekend, I rewatched the Miss Congeniality films which I saw as having some parallels to Bottoms – not just with the fighting aspect, but with the fact that Sandra Bullock’s character is kind of struggling against this cookie cutter version of femininity and her right to exist outside of this hyper-femme aesthetic. For me, Josie and PJ are so she/they coded and it’s just so rare to see female or non-binary experiences where there’s a level of gender fluidity.
I definitely felt like for Josie and PJ, I was excited to show AFAB characters that weren’t that feminine. I had some lovely conversations with our costume designer Eunice [Jera Lee] about what we wanted them to dress like and how PJ isn’t really settled in her identity yet so she wears some more form-fitting stuff, then some baggier stuff and then weird patterns, then solids. I think Josie is a bit more understanding of her identity and how she presents herself. Rachael [Sennott] wasn’t the most excited but it felt kind of liberating to be like; “They’re just going to be in jerseys, they’re just going to be in baggy clothes and it’s going to look awesome”. I didn’t want to go into it being a stereotype but I still think sapphic depiction is often ultra feminine, or has been historically. It felt fun to realise that on screen.
Back to the sex stuff! Obviously PJ and Josie speak about sex in the same way straight guys stereotypically do all the way through the film – that’s the teen sex comedy element of it. But when there actually is a hookup scene between Josie and Isabel, it’s so sweet and tender.
Similar to some teen sex movies with male characters, often the sex scenes end up being really tender or they’re really awkward and teenage. Teenagers talk a really big game about sex and often when it comes down to it, they just want to be liked or are just honoured to be in the presence of their crushes. Josie and PJ are so inexperienced and nerdy that even though they talk about sex in a way that’s mimicking masculinity or a way they think is cool to talk about sex, they’re just losers at the end of the day and honoured to be in the presence of the girls that they like.
I was super intrigued with the comp-het vibes and this worshipping of masculinity in the film’s high school – like with the phallic mascot.
I don’t think we thought too hard about it but we definitely wanted to make fun of the worshipping of masculinity, particularly in American high schools, and American high school movies and football culture. Nick Galitzine put such a wonderful almost queer spin on the character where he was so masculine, that it was gay. I mean there were some straight people who were like, “So Jeff’s gay, right?” or “Tim’s gay” and I don’t know, but we weren’t thinking about that. Those were the only references we had to pull from, like the formula of the jock and the cheerleader, and we just tried to have fun with the formula that was already there.
So, having Charli XCX on the score – that obviously was for the gays, right?
No, I actually didn’t know that queer people liked her, at all. No, yeah, it was.
Obviously your first film Shiva Baby was very different to Bottoms. I remember watching it and being like, “This is a film for all the flopped sugar babies out there” which I loved. It kind of feels like to avoid the sophomore slump, you just did completely the opposite for your second movie.
I hope to never do the same thing twice. If I do then, whatever, that’s future me’s problem. I think because I was writing the films at the same time they balanced each other out in terms of the fantasy of one and the deep realism of the other. It feels really fun and empowering to just do something totally different. I would hate to be pinned down.
To harken back to your film blogger days, if you had to curate a list of sapphic teenage comedies, what would they be?
I don’t think I have anything original to add that hasn’t already been dissected and found by every sapphic or queer on the internet. But like, But I’m a Cheerleader, Jennifer’s Body, D.E.B.S.. I would love to offer sapphic movies that have real intimacy and love in them that actually are between women or AFAB characters but there aren’t a ton in the teen genre. If I had to grasp at straws, I would look towards the late 1990s in terms of the bad girls doing bad things like in Jawbreaker or Sugar and Spice.
Bottoms is in UK and Irish cinemas now.