Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Fatal Generalizations in the Teen Movie

Teen movies very obviously base themselves on harmless stereotypes: the jock, the bitch, the nerd, etc.-- stereotypes so deeply rooted into our expectations of the genre that we can't be bothered to think about other possibilities. However, after re-watching the awesomely awful Whatever It Takes for the first time in at least four years, I started to see something recognizably offensive that I had not noticed before: it seems that the typical teen movie's female characters are, more often than not, projections of the archetypal male's virgin/whore complex. Characters can only be one or the other, and there is no inbetween.
While teen movies are generally oversexed as a selling point, there's an underlying tone of moral retribution that has been used to the point of becoming cliche. This easily brings to mind the classic horror movie rule of sexually active characters being gruesomely killed off, a tradition less explicitly carried out in the similar rule of the archetypal whore "getting what's hers". This is the case for Jodi Lyn O'Keefe's character in both Whatever It Takes and She's All That, not to mention others in Cruel Intentions, Jawbreakers, Sixteen Candles (to a point). To make matters worse, O'Keefe's desperately sluttish character in the former is so blind in her horniness that she ends up sleeping with the biggest nerd in the school. Meanwhile, the end of the movie suggests that the prototypical, romance-obsessed good girl, Marla Sokoloff, loses her virginity to the boy-next-door. The message beneath it, whether aware of itself or not, seems ridiculous when thought over: sex for anything but love is outlandish.
Notorious screenwriter Diablo "Honest to Blog" Cody shows an awareness of this when discussing her upcoming teen horror movie Jennifer's Body in the August/September issue of BUST. The virgin and the whore are both present in her story, but instead of portraying the former (played by Amanda Seyfried) as naive and consumed with love, Cody gives the character an honest sexuality. "She has sex for pleasure in this movie, and that was important to me. She's this wide-eyed, innocent blonde who's trying to protect the town, but I wanted to show at the same time that she can have an orgasm, she can get excited about having sex."
To be fair, Cody isn't alone in creating female characters who don't suffer from the virgin/whore complex. The golden age of the teen movie brought forth time-tested classics that avoid such cliched characters-- notably in Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, American Pie, Can't Hardly Wait and The Breakfast Club-- instead portrayed as either perfectly normal, virgin teenage girls taking their time or reveal sexually active women as independent and in total control of what they do with their bodies. Not one, nor the other, but both make for good representations of a sexually healthy teenage girl.
But it's almost understandable that these stereotypes are presented to us at such a young age. Teen sex is never a light subject-- it's one of the most obvious portals into adulthood, and the carefree use of young adults as caricatures can take some of the gloom away. Yes, it's a big deal, and yes, it has, on occasion, ruined some lives-- but this doesn't leave sex for sex's sake to the prototypical harlot. Sex for love isn't always perfect (if ever), and sex for pleasure doesn't always make a girl feel sick the morning after. Teen movies, by typecasting women, can promote unrealisitic ideas of what makes a positive sexual experience, of what side a woman is supposed to take. These concerns will follow a sexually insecure woman for a long time, which makes it important to distinguish the utter bullshit of the virgin/whore complex. After all, we're all virgins at some point, all of us riddled with sin. So if we can't take both sides, then who are we?


Lois Lame said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and agree with what you're saying. Unfortunately, we've been conditioned to think of pre-marital/teenage sex as something that'll have us riding the express train to Sinville, next stop: Hell Town.

Lolita Hazed said...

Thank you! And I agree. That's plagued a lot of girls I know, and I've definitely faced it. I feel like that sentiment is pretty latent and probably some of the motivation in killing off horror movie lovebirds. And why else would there have been so much pressure for Bristol Palin to marry? I prefer the gentler Buddhist view of sex: if the goal is positive, have at it. I think the complexity of the female anatomy is proof enough that whoever made us thought sex was more than procreation. Also, lack of sexual compatibility in virgin newlyweds is a good case for premarital sex.

I think Americans want to think sex is wrong, dirty. It makes it more exciting to think about.

Erika said...

this is lovely sarah. i'm always so miffed by the whole "purity or death" ideal held up in movies. a girl sleeps with a guy before marriage. she automatically ends up pregnant and her life is ruined. basically the premise of "secret life of an american teenager," which i hate for it's reliance on stereotyped and stale characters among other things (and the fact that molly ringwald is in it and STILL can't make it great). i also think it's odd how so many movies portray the "sluts" of the school or scene sleeping around and catching nary an STD or finding themselves with child, but like to take the innocent, first-time girls and get them pregnant. what message is that sending? be a whore, you'll be okay. but don't be virgin and have sex because you'll end up with a bun in your oven?

Valentina said...

I tried to write a response to this well written and intelligent piece, ok? I really did. But when I sat here, all of the information I have taken in during my two excellent media studies classes started to tumble out and I ended up with an rambling essay that made no fucking sense whatsoever. And I thank my crack academic system for that.

But I will try and say briefly, that first, everything you've stated in this piece is pretty spot-on. Secondly, what is interesting about all of these stereotypes is that the female is always constructed to be looked AT. Females are almost exclusively defined by their sexuality. Even in the Diablo Cody film, she feels the need to explain her character in sexual terms, although obviously her choice to create a female who subverts this dichotomy is admirable. Men, conversely, are not solely created to be looked at, rather they have the power to exist outside of their sexuality. It's pretty fucked up that I can't really think of too many examples of female characters who manage to subvert this. To be both intelligent (but not in that smart, but totally frigid and bitchy way, another good stereotype), and sexual and not fall victim to all of the stereotypes that come along with traditional gender roles.

Basically, what I'm getting at with all this is that I'm highly suspicious and critical of all the media I subject myself to. It's getting so bad I'm thinking of doing a complete tv/movie fast so I don't have to keep thinking about this shit before school starts again.

Lolita Hazed said...

Ugh, how SAD is it that I didn't even think of that, V? You're COMPLETELY right. Female characters don't GET to exist outside of their sexuality, which is just a skewed version of the highly outdated "women mind the children and stay in the home" mindset of the first half of the 20th Century. We are painted to be the epitome of sex: lips, hips, tits. But not all women are thinking about sex and their views on it all the time-- there are some women our age who are COMPLETELY uninterested in sex, or who only feign interest in it because society tells them it's what they're supposed to be doing. We're so surrounded by it as a culture that it's hard to think of anything else, to think of a life existing outside of sex. Yes, it's an essential part of life, but it is not life itself in the figurative sense. Sex is one of the many things that give us, as people, meaning, but there are so many more wonderful things out there that deserve focus.
And sex, especially in terms of objectification, is not even being FOCUSED on-- it's instead an obsession.

It's been 40 years since a big women's liberation movement and about 15 since riot grrrl. I feel like something new kind of needs to be sparked at this point in time.


Mademoiselle Frou-Frou said...

very insightful, and so true! is there a successful teen movie that defies this?

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