Riverdale’s Shannon Purser Wants to Redefine Who Gets to be a Leading Lady 

Barb would be proud

Ishani Nath
Shannon Purser as Sierra Burgess in Netflix's rom com Sierra Burgess is a Loser, she is sitting behind a couch with her arms folded on the top of the couch and smiling

(Photo: Aaron Epstein / Netflix)

Netflix has had a string of movies this summer that have redefined, and frankly updated, conventional expectations of the romcom—and their latest offering is no exception.

Sierra Burgess is a Loser stars Netflix regular Shannon Purser, who shot to stardom in side roles as Barb on Stranger Things (#JusticeForBarb) and Ethel in Riverdale. Now stepping into the title role of a feature film, Purser is not only a protagonist for the first time, but in the process, she’s also pushing Hollywood to evolve its idea of who gets to be a leading lady.

“In terms of seeing like a curvier woman as the lead, I never really experienced that growing up,” says Purser, who has spoken openly about her longtime struggles with body image. “So, I am very excited to have that opportunity to redefine people’s notions of who a leading lady is, and whose stories have value and need to be told.”

Sierra Burgess is a Loser, which starts streaming this Friday September 7, is a modern retelling of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac about a nobleman with a large nose. Though the OG is a 17th century story, Rostand’s plot still resonates today. Boy meets girl, boy cannot be with girl because of personal struggle, boy tricks girl into thinking he’s hot by getting local stud to read out love letters and poems and, well I won’t spoil the ending, but I’m sure you can guess what comes next. The Netflix take follows the same structure, but swaps 17th century nobility for high school, Cyrano De Bergerac for Sierra Burgess and insecurity about a large nose for a teen who doesn’t fit narrow beauty standards. Oh, and instead of love letters and poems, Sierra Burgess catfishes cuter-than-cute quarterback Jamey (breakout star Noah Centineo), with the help of stereotypically hot cheerleader Veronica (Kristine Froseth).

“Even though it’s a take on the Cyrano de Bergerac story, it’s fresh and I feel like it’s pretty timely to what teens are going through right now and what it’s like to have social media growing up,” Purser told FLARE.

And it’s not just the addition of Instagram that makes this romcom different—but how it approaches insecurity. In the classic morning-routine montage that opens the film, Burgess steps out of the shower, wipes off the mirror and tells her reflection, “You are a magnificent beast.” It’s all in her tone; she’s not saying this to convince herself, but instead as a reminder of something that she already knows to be true. (Also, nowhere in this opening scene does she step on a scale and turn the focus to her size, a trope that I am seriously over.)

The idea of an “outcast lead” who doesn’t exactly fit the constrictive high school mould is something that drew Purser to the role, and reminded her of another classic romcom heroine.

“I love like Julia Stiles [in 10 Things I Hate About You],” says Purser. “She was smart and progressive and like didn’t really fit in very well, and I connected with that.”

A GIF from 10 Things I hate About with Julia Stiles saying "You Don't always have to be what they want you to be, you know?"

(Photo: Giphy)

Just like 10 Things, Sierra Burgess is a Loser has all the hallmarks of a classic romcom: cheesy music, a serendipitous meet-cute, conflict, drama, all leading up to—of course—prom. What’s different is Shannon Purser as Sierra Burgess. This isn’t a Cinderella story where a supermodel-in-hiding removes her glasses, gets a haircut and gets the guy. Instead, Sierra Burgess characterizes herself as “the one teenager who doesn’t obsess over her looks,” and yet, as the film progresses, we see how she still struggles with insecurities. In short: Sierra Burgess loves herself, doesn’t care about her “loser” label, and yet, at the same time isn’t immune to it—and that feels refreshingly real.

Towards the end of the film, a frustrated Sierra Burgess says “Do you ever feel sometimes like the world is conspiring against you to tell you that you’re not good enough?”

Um, all the freaking time—but thankfully, actors like Purser are hoping to change that narrative.

With files from Sarah Trumbley 

Related:

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