The Unicorn Scale: Leah on the Offbeat
May 16, 2019
Leah is a drummer, a fangirl, an artist, and the protagonist of Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat, a sequel/spin-off to Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.
Albertalli was praised for her authentic representation of male homosexuality in Simon. In fact, the film adaptation was the first time a major Hollywood studio focused on a gay teenage romance. However, though it also gives voice to the underrepresented experience of a queer teenager, sometimes Leah on the Offbeat strikes the wrong note. (P.S. Major spoilers ahead.)
If you want to know more about how the Unicorn Scale works, there’s a quick guide over here.
What I Liked:
I liked Leah a lot. Although some readers have criticized her abrasive personality, particularly towards her mum and her friends, I think this strengthens her authenticity as a flawed teenager. Leah’s character is also often underrepresented in literature. Not only is she bi, but she’s fat, female, and socio-economically disadvantaged. And her weight and wealth, particularly when she compares herself to her peers, bring about relatable anxiety.
What Leah is confident about is her sexuality, which again is a reason to love this novel. Offbeat is not a coming-out story in the same vein as Simon. Leah has known she is bi since she was eleven and she came out to her mum almost immediately (who throughout the novel is nothing but supportive). Leah also has no doubt of her bisexuality despite the very common situation of never having been with a girl. However, Offbeat’s plot still focuses on a key element of Leah’s growth regarding her bisexuality: her struggles to express it to her friends and her love interest, Abby.
Abby is the other bi female in Offbeat, which is pretty awesome in itself. For a novel to have not one, but two fleshed-out bi characters is nailing representation. Abby also represents a different experience of bisexuality: while Leah is a dab-hand, Abby is a newbie. In Simon, she presents as heterosexual, as she does throughout most of Offbeat until she kisses Leah. Even then, Abby admits she “thought we were just two straight girls experimenting” and doesn’t commit to a label, preferring instead to describe herself as “low-key bi”.
While readers have criticized Abby’s non-committal attitude as perpetuating a harmful stereotype of bisexuality as a phase, in reality, her experience of bisexuality is just as valid as Leah’s. While Leah is the bi ideal, Abby is the bi reality for many. She represents that often long and, for some, permanent, stage of confusion and denial that will be relatable for many readers.
What I Didn’t Like:
Although our bi heroines get their happy ending, there aren’t as many cute or romantic moments like in Simon. The love between Leah and Abby is either unrequited or tumultuous right until the very last pages with a rushed and inconsequential ending.
There are also some problematic moments throughout the novel. When Leah insists that there’s no such thing as a “low-key bi… you’re either bi or you’re not”, she’s essentially policing Abby’s bisexuality. Although this is a realistic scenario, and it’s natural that Leah gets defensive when Abby won’t "fully commit" to her sexuality, Leah never apologizes nor is her comment ever narratively criticized. Pitting two bi girls against each other, rather than having them support one another, doesn’t capture the message of the novel.
Leah’s treatment of her male interest in the story is also uncomfortable. Garrett, the high school jock, undergoes a character transformation when he becomes smitten with Leah. Her reaction to this is to lead him on (because she “liked the idea of being pursued”), take him to prom, and then cheat on him with Abby. Not only does this strengthen the stereotype of the promiscuous, unfaithful bi person, but it puts more emotional investment in Leah’s female romance. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, and bisexuality is a sliding scale of attraction and not a 50/50 split, but it would have been nice to read about Leah’s attraction to both women and men.
Leah of the Offbeat is progressive, diverse, authentic, and has two bi characters that you’ll fall in love with. However, there are certain points in the novel that struck a sour note. Albertalli could have solved some of these problems by making the novel more introspective. Although it’s from Leah’s point of view, there’s more external dialogue than internal thought. If we had greater access into Leah’s mind — and the mind of an underrepresented character in literature at that — we’d have an understanding of the motivations behind her words and actions, which would not only have added depth but would have brought the complexities and nuances of bisexuality to life.