What has happened to teen angst movies? When did they become so saccharine, coating the protagonist with dreamy pink goo? And why do they have to rely on slut tropes to carry them along?
During a bout of amnesia the other night, I clicked on Netflix and landed on Easy A, a teen comedy from 2010 where Emma Stone plays a witty high school senior trying to alter her sexual reputation for the worst via the rumour mill in order to help other less popular students feel better about themselves (because, you know, everyone wants to be known as the ‘school slut’). She loses the semblance of control she has over the situation when the boys around school realize they don’t need her permission to spread the rumours. Not much hilarity ensues, and despite her reputation torn to shreds without her touching one guy, she manages to clear things up to a captive audience and rides off into the sunset.
I truly couldn’t figure out the message of this film. Is it OK to be a slut? Not OK? Only OK if you’ve got above-average intelligence and cool parents? (Who, despite their cool factor, did nothing to support their daughter when things got too hot to handle). Do the slut-shaming comments from students and teachers help move the story line forward or are they just there for humour value?
“If you say you haven’t, you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut. It’s a trap. You want to, and you can’t. And when you do, you wish you didn’t.” — Allison Reynolds, The Breakfast Club
Granted, blissful ignorance has been obliterated for me since I started watching everything through a ‘feminist lens.’ As a teen I might have laughed at sexist jokes, not realizing the impact of death by a thousand cuts. But now that those cuts have been adding up via years of movies that bank on this type of humour, things are starting to sting more than a little. So no, ‘dumb whore’ jokes aren’t that funny.
Easy A ends with Stone’s character Olive coming clean via webcam and hand-written notes (scary reminder of Amanda Todd), making off with a scrubbed reputation and her new ‘good guy’ beau. So, a smart witty white girl experiments, regrets, gets to explain to whole school just how much of a good person she really is by not being a slut, and wins cute guy. Blech.
A sad irony in Easy A was Olive referencing John Hughes and The Breakfast Club, as if the writer, Bert V. Royal, knew that his skills would never come close to Hughes’, and this was just his way of paying sad tribute. The Breakfast Club wasn’t a sickly sweet fairly tale of experimentation gone right, where reputations were fixed by a few carefully selected words. Those kids in detention went back to broken homes, abusive parents and the stresses of high school hallways. That is high school. Not reveling in text message rumour mills and “Expel the Slut” protests.
Movies like Easy A rely on the trope that being a slut or being called a slut is one of the worst things that could happen to a girl – all fodder for humour and all completely fixable. You merely have to apologize and everything will work out. Tell that to the parents of Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons, Phoebe Prince, Audrie Pott and the countless other young women that face the onslaught of slut-shaming from peers and adults.
A good teen angst comedy is more reflective of what actually happens in our schools. The Breakfast Club and Fast Times at Ridgemont High showed us that domestic abuse, abortion, geekdom, sex, and puberty are par for the course, not things that can be easily overcome, nor things that are absolutely life ruining. High school wasn’t something that was ‘winnable.’ We all just wanted to get through it with as few scars as possible.
We’re not going to get away from slut-shaming in pop culture in my lifetime. Almost every teen movie has at least one typical slut reference, and if all the hate surrounding cases like Amanda’s or Rehtaeh’s or Steubenville’s Jane Doe are any indication of how kids are still taught how to treats sluts (and women in general), then we’re just in for more bullshit. Bert V Royal was probably one of those people who liked high school, and maybe even felt bad for the school slut. Easy A is his pathetic way to redeem her, because apparently according to him, she needed it. If he truly wanted to see what it’s like to be labeled the school slut, he should have watched this documentary to get a clearer picture.
When someone writes a character that’s not convinced sleeping around is the devil’s work, call me.
Apologies, webcams, and even criminal convictions don’t save us from the realities of high school, so for the growing crop of screenwriters who think they’re the new John Hughes or Cameron Crowe, they need to search deep, deep down for what real angst is. Then, maybe, we’ll be treated to something of real worth.
Got a question about sex in art, relationships, parenting? Send Sonya a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anonymity assured.