Moving Backwards: Silver Screen Portrayal of Teen Sexuality

Rosie Wang, Resident Blogger (’14, Columbia Law School)

A week or so ago, my classmates and I were arguing one of the most pressing questions of our nostalgia-obsessed generation: What is ultimate high school movie – Clueless or Mean Girls? (Answer: Neither, it’s obviously Heathers.) Amid the heady discussion and subsequent teen movie marathon planning, I started thinking about how high school movies have portrayed teen sexuality, contraception, and pregnancy over the years. In so many of the teen movies I grew up watching, sex was something that characters are obsessed with and defined by, and pregnancy is the ultimate horror. But is this moralizing cast on teen movies a modern thing? Maybe so.

One of my favorite teen movies is the cult classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (FTaRH). For a film that came out in 1982 – smack dab between two landslide election wins for Reagan – it’s shockingly open-minded. One of the main characters, Stacy, is a 15 year old freshman. She has sex for the first time with a 26 year old man and then initiates an encounter with a classmate, Mike Damone, from which she gets pregnant. She decides to get an abortion and tells Damone that he owes her half of the fee and a ride to the clinic. When Damone turns out to be a flake, Stacy’s brother deduces what has happened. He picks her up from the clinic, agrees to keep it a secret from their parents, and takes her out for lunch. Her best friend get revenge by vandalizing Damone’s car and locker in a classic act of high school public humiliation. Stacy, rather than being ostracized or shamed, is shown as being supported by her social circle and loved ones. It is Damone who is ridiculed for shirking his responsibilities, not Stacy for being sexually active. Stacy shows no signs of trauma and the abortion is never brought up again. Instead her narrative becomes one of her blossoming romance with Rat, a boy who has long harbored a crush on her. Rat angrily brushes aside Damone’s veiled insult that Stacy is “a very aggressive girl” (undertones of slut-shaming fully in force). Stacy continues to be assertive by giving Rat a picture of herself with her phone number on it and kissing him. Her reputation, as well as her confidence in herself and her sexuality is unshaken and unpunished.

I can only imagine the outcry such a story line would cause now. It’s a testament to how much we’ve gone backwards to imagine the complaints that would hound FTaRH for giving teens license to have wild, unprotected sex because the movies told them there’d be no penalties! The climate we live in today even mistakenly accused Juno, a movie in which the young woman chooses adoption rather than abortion, of glamorizing teen sex without consequences. In reality, teen pregnancy and teen moms face a great deal of stigma that is racially charged and makes it difficult to continue their education.

Turning to a classic of the aughts, Mean Girls is a film that has people endlessly quoting and referencing it eight years later. It was written by Tina Fey who promisingly said last week, “If I have to listen to one more gray-faced man with a two-dollar haircut explain to me what rape is, I’m going lose my mind.” And Mean Girls does have some golden reproductive justice moments. For example, it makes fun of a health curriculum that tells students that they’ll die if they have sex (taught by a teacher later revealed to be in a relationship with an underage student no less). And yet it leaves some things to be desired. When arch-Mean Girl Regina is in her bedroom with her boyfriend, her mother pops in and asks, “You guys need anything? Some snacks? A condom? Let me know!” It’s part of a larger characterization of Regina’s cold personality resulting from a dysfunctional family in which her mother sets no boundaries because she wants to be a “cool mom.” But is it really being a bad mother to make sure your daughter is equipped to deal with her sexual decisions rather than trying to control her sexuality? Not according to the way many families treat teen sexuality in the Netherlands. Apparently acknowledging that teens have sex, having open communication about contraceptives, and allowing sleepovers actually encourages trust and responsibility rather than the opposite.

Even if Hollywood is unlikely to portray teen sexuality in this way anytime soon (because of both conservative backlash and the lack of narrative drama), hopefully the actual experiences of American teenagers can begin to approach it.