Surviving High School Sexual Politics: Slut-Shaming and Reputation Management in Easy A (2/2)

This post uses Easy A as a jumping off point. The movie is relevant to frame the discussion, but if you haven’t seen the movie, I still encourage you to participate. In addition, I am going to spoil the plot of Juno for you right now: a teenage girl gets pregnant by accident and has the baby. Also, Snape killed Dumbledore.

I am hereby restricting this discussion to American public high schools. If you can make a case that private/charter schools* are different/the same, please do so! But also leave all religious/parochial schools off the table: unless you were raised Catholic, I probably have more friends who went to Catholic school than you do. And Jewish day schools are an entirely separate can of taboo worms.

*If you’re interested in prep school as reflected in pop culture, check out the new music video for T-Swizzle’s single “Story of Us.” It might as well be subtitled “Taylor Swift Goes To Hogwarts”. The production value is amazing and everyone is beautiful, no matter what you think of the song.

If you are interested in adult sexual politics and etiquette, Marie Claire has an interesting article this month asking six five women, “what’s your number?” Because it is actually well edited, thoughtful, and diverse, I am including the link here. Ask me later what I think about their responses, especially the Asian chick’s.

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OLIVE’S SEXUAL COMING-OF-AGE (AND JUNO’S TOO)

GK (who you might remember only saw the second half of this movie) suggested, incorrectly, that Olive (Emma Stone) doesn’t have any principles. This is absolutely wrong. She certainly lacks the morals asserted by the compassionate conservative movement, but it is this social institution that she defiantly challenges by flaunting her red A on those Victoria’s Secret corset-tops. As a side note, I really don’t understand how those passed the dress code; every legit administration tells girls that their chest-coverers need straps if not sleeves, especially in the late spring/early summer.

What is fascinating about Easy A is that it is the story of a female-centered teenage bildungsroman  that treats Olive like a true protagonist, not a feminine object. (I would argue that the difference between a romantic comedy and a chick flick is that the former develops relatable protagonists and the latter just wants to talk about pretty clothes and boys.) Juno also does this very well.

The reason I think a lot of reviewers and viewers have missed out on this element of the films is that sex sells and is also really distracting. Easy A and Juno are commendable because they don’t just use the sex for attention but actually raise concerns about teenage sexuality. Do Olive and Juno make bad choices at the start of the movie? How about at the middle and at the end? If you think they do, does “bad” mean “immoral”, “unethical”, or “inadvisable” to you? Do you think these movies are sex-positive or sex-negative? Are they actually feminist? Are the protagonists themselves feminists?

My take: I think Olive and Juno behave like realistic teenage girls. Each of them makes an inadvisable decision at the start of the film (Olive lies about losing her virginity to a fictional college boy; Juno has sex without protection) and the consequences are far, far greater than either imagined, particularly for their reputations at school. Due to the fact that feminism is largely associated with “man-hating” in most teenagers’ minds (thank you, third wave; see Christina’s Monday post for more), I would argue that neither girl starts out viewing herself as a feminist but that the movies and the filmmakers definitely are. I’m not sure whether these movies are sex-positive or not.

I actually think the most heartbreaking scene in Juno has nothing to do with the baby or the adoption-plotline. This is when she and Michael Cera are talking in the hallway about prom, and he tells her that he’s taking Katrina instead of her, a girl Juno thought they both disliked. Ellen Page is amazing in this scene: watching Juno’s face fall gets me every time. This is the moment when Juno realizes that not using protection has not only jeopardized her reputation, her future, and her waistline, but also her friendship with the boy she is starting to fall for (and previously barely cared about). Because Juno is ultimately a high school flick, they get a happily-ever-after, but at that moment you realize along with Juno that it is by no means a sure thing. (16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom prove that incredible amounts of money and celebrity are not sufficient to make hormonal teenage relationships last, even when there’s a baby in question.)

I do think there’s a critical difference between Juno and Olive, though. Juno didn’t set out to make a statement about sexuality: she just wanted to hook up with a guy she thought was cute. Olive didn’t think she was going to get slut-shamed so badly, but when she did, she decided to challenge everyone. I think this was a mistake not because sex-positivism is a bad thing but because she didn’t actually have any real friends. Of course, Olive didn’t really know this and didn’t know how bad it was going to get, which is why you hurt for her when she is all alone.

The other big problem with declaring herself a slut is that she unwittingly jeopardized all of her future sexual relationships with boys at her high school. I’m not talking about the sexist losers (minus Brandon) who paid her and then insulted her. I’m talking about the two boys the movie presents as potential Love Interests: the Horndog and Todd-The-Perfect. I am really glad the screenwriters included the subplot with the Horndog not because I wanted to see Olive get tormented or because I wanted a roadblock before the inevitable happily-ever-after with Todd but because the Horndog’s reaction was far more realistic than Todd’s. If you act like a slut (in dress, body language, and reputation), boys will assume you are one. And the ones who are confident enough to approach you will expect you to put out. Olive wasn’t ready to handle that, and that was her huge moral lesson. (The one that no one focuses on but me, of course.)

IN CONCLUSION:

The morals I take from Juno are as follows: never have [heterosexual, vaginal] sex without protection unless you’re prepared for a baby and be very careful in your relationships with older men, even married ones.

The morals I take from Easy A are: don’t start a one-girl sexual revolution unless you’re willing to risk all of your future sexual relationships and always nail down your support group before you start a public campaign.

 

BRANDON’S PLOTLINE (IT SUCKS TO BE GAY)

This is like Ryan Murphy writing Kurt’s coming out narrative in Glee (hat tip to JS for saying it so succinctly on Sunday) – these fantasies are unhelpful and potentially dangerous for the queer teens who are really in trouble, not just lonely and sexually frustrated. Olive’s plotline was melodramatic, but her decisions are actually in line with what a teenage girl in 2011 might think and do, given the improbable situation. I don’t think Brandon’s plotline is as realistic. At best, it’s designed as a fantasy or a method to give gay teens a plan for escape. At worst, he’s just a prop for Olive’s exploits. (See Tina Fey’s Bossypants for an excellent reflection on being a straight teenager with gay friends; she eloquently describes her embarrassingly late realization that The Gays are not objects but actual people with actual feelings and actual sexual desires.)

Gay ex-teens and allies, feel free to challenge me on this one, but I really don’t believe that the average gay teenager in 2011 – with Internet access to Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign, anonymous support groups, porn, and yes, Glee – would choose to run away from home. Brandon’s decision to fake being straight is COMPLETELY realistic, even if his method of doing so is melodramatic. But when he chooses to run away, he abandons 2011 reality. Running away to urban safe havens is what most gay men did over the past several decades, but as our generation grows up, votes, and influences pop culture, this is becoming less of a default option, thankfully. Running away from home can be emotionally and physically dangerous, even if it might also be a rite of passage in gay male culture. (And I don’t know if it actually is.)

Although the Jesus freaks are very vocal at Olive’s school, we are given no indication that any of Brandon’s tormentors are specifically Christian in their homophobia. In fact, it’s as if the Jesus freaks don’t see him at all – it’s the straight dudebros who make his life miserable. This makes his decision to escape even weirder/less acceptable, because he has successfully addressed these concerns by allegedly sleeping with Olive. It’s not that I support living a lie (especially one that hurts Olive’s reputation) – Brandon’s decision to leave is very rushed and feels almost like an oversight; a “neat” way to tie up his storyline. Since the attitudes of his parents are never once mentioned, his skipping town looks more like sexual irresponsibility (lust over education) than a necessary escape. Way to promote unthinking promiscuity, you jerks.

Also, that Mark Twain joke was lazy. And since there are no black people anywhere else in the film, I’m calling it out as unintentionally racist. You couldn’t have picked another high school required text to satirize in two lines?

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION (ARE THERE REALLY STILL VIRGINS IN OJAI?)

A. O. Scott at the New York Times doesn’t think so. [insert quote]. I personally have no idea, so I’d like to ask our resident Southern California (I think?) expert to comment here. Laz?

Even if every teenager in the Ojai region is completely promiscuous and completely public about it – which is impossible – these kinds of comments from media pundits always annoy me. We have the conservative and sensationalist lamestream media (the one phrase I’ll give S. Palin credit for) to blame for baby boomer hysteria about this, of course, but movies like Thirteen don’t help, either. (I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard it’s excellent.)

Trend journalists,PLEASE try asking real teenagers not just about their friends’ sexual exploits, but also about their enemy clique’s exploits and about the exploits of that clique they don’t even pay attention to most the time. I guarantee you will thus get a different, more complete story. Also, race and class are critically important here and the lamestream media never, ever brings this up unless they’re relevant in a sexual crime (in which case it ends up on Law & Order SVU within nine months, and Detective Stabler beats the shit out of the patriarchal character).

RE: THOSE JESUS FREAKS

I just wanted to reiterate how appreciative I am of the filmmakers’ sensitivity in their portrayal. They obviously don’t agree with the Christian abstinence movement, but the ringleader (Amanda Bynes) is given a scene or two of humanization. Thank you.

Also, Micah’s plotline (Amanda Bynes’ boyfriend) is amazing not only because it is unexpected and sensitively portrayed but because it also reminds viewers that religious abstinence is really, really hard for heteronormative teenage boys, even the ones who are technically over the age of consent.

DON’T BLUEBALL YOUR MAN

CH asked me to say more about this, but I don’t actually have that much more to say. I am still seriously annoyed about how Olive treated Todd-The-Perfect in the car, because I see it as symptomatic of societal expectations regarding “being a good girl”. I am more disappointed in Easy A than I am in all those stupid chick flicks starring Katherine Heigl and her wedding disasters because Easy A is so solidly feminist in all other respects.

I’ll say it again for emphasis: don’t blueball your relationship partner. If you’re not ready to discuss having sex with your significant other, you’re not ready to have it. (Hat tip to my 8th grade homeroom teacher for pointing that out during an “advisory session”, however awkward it was for us kids.) Heteronormative males in America are programmed biologically and culturally to want lots of sex. Your winning personality cannot counteract both of those unless he is deeply in love and also seriously committed to your relationship’s future.

I put the burden on straight girls here because that is where the cultural stereotype rests, but obviously all other genders/sexes/orientations should be wary of this too.
At best, you make him physically and emotionally uncomfortable during your relationship. At worst, you trigger his descent into misogyny and ruin him for the rest of us. For the love of vaginas, stop it.

SO, LADYG, SHOULD YOU PROTECT YOUR REPUTATION OR FIGHT FIRE WITH FIREBOMBS?

First of all, it obviously depends on the circumstances. It is probably not a surprise to you that I would never have acted like Olive at any step of the way, nor that I would advise my close friends against making similar decisions. That being said, I don’t condemn her choices either. She made mistakes and learned from them, and isn’t that what adolescence is all about?

I do think Olive’s actions would have been more successful at a small liberal arts college than at a small regional high school where parental/religious authority hold serious sway. You only have to look at Marie Claire’s article or at the rape case at Duke a few years ago to see that Olive would probably not be successful at a larger university, where she could not control the message sent to the student population as easily.

Tell me below, what do you think?

I love all comments, even trolling ones, and hereby promise to respond to them before I post my next analysis. It will focus specifically on the love triangle in The Hunger Games, since “heteronormativity is my jam”, as AR would say. Spoiler alert: I’m Team Peeta all the way. Reread the books if you need to so you can be prepared to come fight me. :p

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18 thoughts on “Surviving High School Sexual Politics: Slut-Shaming and Reputation Management in Easy A (2/2)

  1. Colette, woman writer says:

    re:

    don’t start a one-girl sexual revolution unless you’re willing to risk all of your future sexual relationships

    Not inclined to agree – most people here will move a number of times in their 20s, and their social circles should have switched dramatically every 7 years.
    I think what you may want to be implying – we need more safe space to accept sexual risk across gender and sex boundaries. Don’t do something you feel is a risk you can’t recover from. (that’s true in general of all risks)

    • LadyG says:

      Fair enough. I definitely agree with your final sentence.

      I still think heterosexual girls should be careful (or decide that they don’t want to be careful) in today’s society, regardless of how many times you change your social circles. If you go from an environment with more sexual fluidity to less, your romantic prospects drop dramatically, and this is often something that straight women in particular rarely consider.

      I don’t like that this is the way it is, but it is. I’d be totally behind a five-girl revolution to change it, though. 🙂 I’m very curious to see what effect the Marie Claire article and the upcoming Anna Faris movie have on the discussion in general society.

      • Emmy says:

        Why the distinction between heterosexual/homosexual?
        I’d really like to know more about this rationale you’re using for having to qualify all of this as heterosexual/heteronormative.

      • LadyG says:

        belatedly — I don’t think I have the authority to speak on behalf of the homosexual perspective here. My specfics are meant not to exclude but to clarify my perspective. Apologies if it comes off as hurtful.

  2. PK says:

    I’m kind of confused and worried by your “don’t blueball your man” segment. I first must add the disclaimer that I haven’t seen the movie, and instead read the plot summary on Wikipedia, so I’m probably missing some context. I understand blueballing as getting a guy (can it be applied to women?) turned on, and then not having sex with him. Then you say that discussing sex is a prerequisite for sex (with which I wholeheartedly agree). But then you wrote that most guys expect sex, and the implication I take away from that statement is that you need to give it to them. Wikipedia says that Olive tells Todd she’s not ready to kiss him. If she’s not ready, then he needs to accept that. She can thank him in other ways–chocolate, a card, whatever–but the decision to kiss needs to be mutual, without pressure, so if she didn’t want to, she’s well within her rights not to. In a relationship, there definitely needs to be discussion of what kinds of feelings the parties are experiencing, how to manage that, how far they’re willing to go, etc. But pressuring someone to go further sexually than they feel comfortable because their partner is turned on is bad, bad, bad… for the psyche of the pressured person, for the relationship, and if the turned-on person is halfway decent, they’ll feel really guilty. If they need to relieve sexual tension, and their partner isn’t comfortable with helping, they can go to their room and jack off.

    • M Marian says:

      I am with PK on this one, and I still haven’t seen Lady G address this comment. If the response is somewhere else please tell me.

      Lady G: I wonder if you are giving too much weight to the male sex drive, and not enough weight to their self control.

    • LadyG says:

      PK — I haven’t forgotten about your thoughtful and rightfully challenging reply. I promise to answer you ASAP.

  3. PK says:

    Err… I just discovered that Emmy kind of addressed what I’m talking about here in your previous post. But I’m still confused by what you wrote in this post, so I’ll let it stand.

    I’m also bothered by the notion of blaming a person’s descent into misogyny on their partner, especially if it’s not because the partner spent lots of time intentionally working to convince the person to have misogynistic views. If you’re a misogynist, it’s your own darn fault (with some leeway for kids growing up under misogynist parents’ influence).

  4. Emmy says:

    “…religious abstinence is really, really hard for heteronormative teenage boys”
    “Heteronormative males in America are programmed biologically and culturally to want lots of sex.”

    gay teenage boys/men experience this too, the i’d argue that the former is felt much more than “heteronormative” teenage boys, since at least the “heteronormative” boys are promised that if they wait they’ll get to have lots and lots of good, virtuous sex later on.

  5. Queer Jewish Dandy says:

    First off, thanks either being transgressive by tipping your hat or making it a much less gendered activity. To clarify my comments for the readers who may not been present for our conversation, I do not think it is bad that Ryan Murphy writes Kurt the way he does, just that Kurt has a confidence in himself that no teenager has, let alone a gay boy in a small town. Kurt is the gay boy that many gay men would have liked to have been wise enough to be in high school.

    (Also, let the record note I probably know many more people who went to Catholic school than LadyG, at least proportionally.)

    I agree that leaving home is becoming less prevalent among queer youth, I do not think running away has ever been seen as a desirable option for queer youth, only a necessary one. That said, I haven’t seen Easy A, so I do not know whether Brandon exhausted all other options before running away, which still happens. Keep in mind that staying at home can also be physically and emotionally dangerous for queer youth. Just look at the suicide rate for LGBTQQ teenagers, and I don’t just mean the handful of cases that grabbed Dan Savage’s attention.

    And while I agree that people should wait until they are ready to have sex to have it, I think that no one metric can judge that solely. This is why we humans have such complex brains. I maintain though that consent for any sexual activity can be withdrawn by any involved party at any time for any reason. I trust that LadyG agrees with that statement (correct me if I’m wrong), and I think that that should be made a clear contrast to the blueballing remarks. I’m not say that a person should seek to blueball a partner, but rather that ze should not feel any pressure to continue to consent simply because withdrawing consent would result in that.

  6. MZ says:

    Oh boy. Here we go. Btw, I just want to start by saying I love your blog. Seriously. Can I write for you? 😀

    Anyways. On to the nitty gritty.

    “If you act like a slut, boys are going to treat you like one”

    This line made me reminiscent of Dave Chappelle’s “You may not be a prostitute, but you dress like one.” Just a random anecdote.

    This is a very bold statement to make, especially in a blog about feminism, but it is definitely something worth addressing. In Easy A, the line between “dressing like a slut” and not dressing like one was very obvious and put in a clear dichotomy. I think the problem in today’s society is that line is very blurred. Take for example, I just showed my friend the “My Moment” video for Rebecca Black. She’s fully dressed in that video. My friend immediately says “She looks like a slut.” He couldn’t explain to me why but that was his reaction. So what does make someone look and dress like a slut?

    I think this is the true danger of slut-slamming today. That there is no clear line. A girl can be seen as a slut for just about anything and that movie really addressed this. “Omg, she had sex. she’s a slut.”

    As for Juno, I think the biggest danger today isn’t the “if you don’t want to get pregnant use protection” line. I can’t tell you HOW many people I know who got pregnant on protection. It really should be, “don’t have sex unless you are ready for the possibility for pregnancy” but Juno doesn’t really address that I suppose.

    I know. I’m all over the place. Sorry.

    For Brandon’s plotline I kind of agree with you. People no longer really HAVE to run away, but you do see a sort of “running away” More like growing up and leaving your town for a more accepting town. And I think the movie was sort of addressing that, without having to make all the characters way older at the end.

    I have so much more to say but my comment is getting long so I’ll end it here.

    • M Marian says:

      Slut-comment critique seconded.

      Shouldn’t part of the feminist project be to ensure respect for all women, no matter what they dress/act/talk/look like? Including and especially the sluts/prostitutes/sex workers/what have you?

      • MZ says:

        It’s tricky. I don’t think Feminism should be “i should respect you because you are female” I think it is more about “I shouldn’t disrespect you for being female.”

        I don’t have to respect all the choices a woman makes. Especially when it comes to some industries that are known to be misogynistic and can actually be more harmful than good to women.

        I also think part of respect also comes with respect for yourself. So it’s not really a clear line.

  7. JS says:

    First off, love the blog, think it’s all interesting. I Just want to second that I found the .”If you act like a slut … boys will assume you are one.” comment problematic. I have to say that I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m making guesses as to what you’re getting at. I think that I can see where you’re coming from–a girl who is promiscuous in high school unfortunately gets a lot of disrespect from boys. To have that happen in the movie is realistic, although unfortunate.

    I don’t know, though, if I would describe “If you act like a slut boys will assume you are one [and treat you like one]” as a particularly laudable “moral lesson” for Olive to learn.

    Because, let’s be honest–what is a slut? Is it somebody who enjoys sex with multiple partners? Is it somebody who has sex with multiple partners but doesn’t enjoy it? Somebody who has sex before marriage? Before a certain age? Someone who uses sex to get respect? To get love? To get attention? To get material goods? Is it someone who wears corset tops and short skirts?

    What’s the difference between acting like a slut, and actually being a slut?

    “If you act like a slut … boys will assume you are one.” and while what you said afterwards was that they’ll “expect you to put out” I think you could just as easily say “and boys will treat you like a slut too.” How should sluts be treated? Does it make a difference if you *act* like a slut or if you *are* one?

    Anyway, all of that is why I think that this is a problematic “huge moral lesson” for Olive to learn.

    I am aware, though, that I might have read the comment wrong/I didn’t see the movie so I have no idea how things happened/any number of things, so I hope you don’t think I’m ragging on you too hard! Like I said, I’m a fan of the blog, so keep it up.

  8. caelestis albinus bibaculus says:

    This discussion looks to be long over, so sorry about this.

    Firstly, I totally disagree that Olive communicated badly with Todd-The-Perfect in the car scene. I just rewatched the flick, and she says that she likes him, but that she is not ready for anything right now because of what is going on at school (in fact, he further offers to get involved in what is going on at school by getting involved with her). Now if after he asked her if he could kiss her (which he does in the film, for those who haven’t seen it) and she just said “No” as in the film, but then simply left without explaining herself, that, in my book, would be mean. Not that she doesn’t have a RIGHT to say “no” and just leave, just that seeing as she had been flirting with him, told him she liked him, and took his offer for a ride home, in as much as she indicated to him that she would like to. . . do. . . stuff. . . she owes him an explanation of sorts (an elaboration as in the film definitely suffices, I would say), but certainly not a kiss.

    Secondly, to touch on the “If you act like a slut … boys will assume you are one.” comment, I found it to be not even slightly problematic. Certainly the definition of “slut” is up in the air, but it is kinda irrelevant: if X thinks Y acts like a slut (whatever the fuck that is) X will probably treat Y as a slut, after all, why wouldn’t X? The Horndog thought that Olive had sex for money, and he expected her to (surprise?) have sex for money. He could have and SHOULD have (I mean wow) handled the situation better, but his expectations were not unreasonable, what with her spreading and clearly reveling in the rumor that she had sex “a lot” (she sewed a fuckin’ red A on all of her clothes). His expectations just turned out to be wrong, and I would certainly say that expectations about people can be wrong, and that X should certainly be prepared if Y turns out not to be a slut, (or whatever X THINKS a slut is).

    I agree that there is not (nor could their ever really be) a chart clearly stating that, for example, a skirt above the knee by 2″ and a low-cut top, but not showing any mid-drift means that that particular girl (or guy, whatevs) will go to 2cnd base after 1 hour 18 minutes and 35 seconds into the second date. But it is not unreasonable to assume SOMETHING about a person who wears such things given their dress (or actions, or reputation, or ideally personality traits gleaned from spending time to get to know this person), because unlike the colour of our skin, we choose what we wear (and do), and it means something. Nevertheless it is unreasonable to expect that your assumptions can never be wrong, because the something people infer from our clothing is not necessarily the something we mean to imply.

    • LadyG says:

      1. This discussion will probably never be over and I’ve been meaning to follow up on certain comments for a while.

      2. I need to rewatch the Scene In The Car.

      3. A+ on slut-shaming analysis.

      COMMENT ALL OF THE TIME, PLZ

  9. Achilles says:

    I literally don’t understand what you’re talking about in the paragraph on “blueballing.” I don’t mean that I find your ideas foolish or inaccurate, I just literally cannot tell what you are trying to convey. I have some thoughts on that topic I may share later, but I’d really prefer not to make assumptions about your viewpoint.

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