Thursday, July 30, 2015

'Easy A', Slut-Shaming, Virgin-Shaming, and Sexual Politics


Do you ever stop for a minute and think that there was a time before we all knew who Emma Stone was? That messes me up. Every once in a while I happen to think, "What was Emma Stone doing in 2005?" and then I have to realize that I don't know. Not just because she's actually slightly younger than me which means she was still in high school then - and that makes me feel weird and old because I always think of actors and actresses as being my age at the minimum. But also because it sort of feels like she's been around forever. Thinking back to Emma Stone's breakout role is honestly a little bit distressing.

Why?

Because her breakout role was in Superbad, a movie whose popularity I genuinely still don't understand. Like, I don't get it. Why. Why this whole movie? The jokes aren't that funny, the premise is mediocre at best, and it's really just an entire film of watching Jonah Hill and Michael Cera declare how much they love each other then yell "No homo!" Plus, there's something really unsettling about realizing that Emma Stone's big breakout role, the one that put her on the map, was playing Jonah Hill's love interest in a subpar high school comedy.

But I'm not here to talk about Superbad, thank goodness. I'm here to talk about Easy A, the first movie built around Stone as a vehicle for her comedy. I was thinking about Easy A the other day and just contemplating that in the canon of movies about high school, there aren't many films that better show the double standards and tricky sexual maneuvering of an American culture obsessed with sex and purity. 

It's a movie about slut-shaming whose heroine is a virgin, and somehow the movie manages to avoid having that be her saving grace. It's a movie where the likable heroine does some incredibly unlikable things. And it's a movie that very intentionally examines whether or not women can take control of their own objectification or if there really is no good solution here. Is it any surprise I kind of love this film?

The basic plot of Easy A is, well, sort of the plot of The Scarlet Letter. But not really. Basically, Olive (Stone) is a straight-laced high school senior who is pretty comfortable with her boring life. Her parents are rad (played by Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci and exactly who I want to be as a parent), her best friend is kind of crazy but all right (Aly Michalka), and her high school crush at least vaguely knows her name (Penn Badgely). So it's not great, but it's not terrible either.

All that changes when Olive, in a fit of frustration, claims to have a college boyfriend. She then claims that she and said college boyfriend had sex, which means she's no longer a virgin and people should stop making fun of her for it. All of it would probably have blown over if one of her classmates, Brandon (Dan Byrd), didn't ask Olive on a date. Not because he likes her, though, but because he's gay.

He's gay and he gets bullied for it a lot, so he asks Olive out on a date so that he'll look straight. With her new reputation as a not-virginity-haver, Olive is a great date for him to have. And, the thing is, she's not unsympathetic to his plight. Brandon just wants to get through high school, and Olive knows that it's not hard to pretend to date him, even to pretend to have sex with him, so that he'll get through it alive. So she does. Loudly.

Unfortunately, that sets into motion a spiral of events that Olive can't control. The rumor mill of the school has Olive suddenly becoming more and more of a slut, while the rumor mill of the unpopular guys at school is explaining that you can pay nice-girl Olive to pretend to have sex with you so that your popularity goes up. Olive becomes the school slut without even getting kissed, and the boys she pretends to sleep with become very popular indeed. Sexual double standards abound.

And then it gets even worse when Olive's best friend deserts her, horrified by what a "slut" she's becoming, and teams up with the conservative Christian purity group on campus, led by Marianne (Amanda Bynes). Said purity group actually protests Olive's presence at the school, insisting that such a harlot shouldn't be allowed to go to school with the rest of them. And then Olive goes nuclear.

She buys a bunch of high end lingerie and starts wearing it to school. She makes little red A-s and pins them to all of her clothes. She starts dressing like a stripper, though, as her parents point out, "A high-end stripper, for governors or athletes." And this is why her parents are amazing.

Anyway, Olive quickly finds that her reputation is a lot more trouble than it's worth. The guys she's "helping" don't respect her at all, even pointing out that they don't actually need her consent to say they slept with her, because everyone will believe them. Olive officially no longer has agency in her story. And things get worse when Olive tries to go on a nice normal date with a boy, only to find that he expected her to put out in the car afterwards. So that sucks.

The breaking point is when Marianne's boyfriend, and co-leader of the purity group, comes down with chlamydia and blames Olive. Which is horrible for Olive, but arguably even worse considering that he must have actually gotten it somewhere. And that's when the whole house of cards starts tumbling down. Olive, frustrated that she's been used and blamed and scapegoated this whole time, lashes out at people, eventually causing damage to her favorite teacher and some other people she really cares about. So she finally decides to take back her agency the old fashioned way: by telling the truth and making sure everyone hears.

Which, admittedly, means promising to do a striptease on a webcam show. But, you know, whatever works.

The ending of the film is pretty Hollywood happy. Olive finally gets the guy, Todd (Badgely), the one she had a crush on since the beginning, and he doesn't care about her reputation or lack thereof. In fact, he was pretty sure it was all lies anyway, since she did the same thing with him when they were in middle school. They told everyone they'd kissed once when they hadn't and Todd had a sneaking suspicion that was what happened here. Olive gets to go on with her life and it's sweet that there's a boy for her to go on with, but that's not the point of the movie. The point of the movie is actually a bit sadder than that. But still good.

I mean, ultimately the point is that it doesn't actually matter, or it shouldn't matter, whether you've had sex or not. That is no one's business but your own. And that's very true. As a Christian feminist, I frequently find myself frustrated by how many people care about whether or not I've been having sex. There's so much pressure either way, you can understand why Olive felt the need to lie. I've certainly been guilty of letting people assume I've had sex just so I don't have to explain why I haven't. I'm not proud of that, but I have definitely done it.

It shouldn't matter whether or not you've had sex, but it does. That's the sad part of this movie's message. Olive's victory comes when she decides she doesn't care whether or not people believe her. Her parents still love and respect her and she has a true friend and romantic partner in Todd, so none of the rest is really important. But it sucks that her victory is essentially her deciding that she shouldn't care what people think, not that everyone else in the story realizes they shouldn't be judging her.

It's a happy ending, sure, but not a particularly optimistic one. Unfortunately, I think that conclusion, that you have to change your own attitude because society is unlikely to change at all, is the best option. It still sucks, though.

Moreover, it's genuinely awful how a woman's reputation is largely construed by people who are not her. It's based on word of mouth and rumor. The scene where a guy tells Olive that he doesn't actually need her permission to say she slept with him is horrifying. Mostly because it's true. 

It's horrifying that the people most vicious to Olive in this movie are other girls, because everyone is confused and hurt by the weird standards women are supposed to live up to. Is Olive supposed to be a feminist hero to her classmates for having lots of sex or it she supposed to be a women who doesn't respect herself? And, furthermore, how awful must it have been for people to think she was a virgin if she was so willing to lie about it? We all know slut-shaming is a huge problem, but so too is virgin-shaming. 

It is also worth pointing out that this whole story is cast in a very privileged place. Olive is upper middle class, her school is a very pretty, very well off public school that honestly looks nicer than most private schools I've seen, and none of the issue here is about money or race or class. If it were, it would actually probably be a more interesting story. I mean, what if Olive were doing this because she actually needed the money? What if her race had people already predisposed to assume she was sexually active, like how young women of color face an increased level of sexual harassment and assault? What if her parents couldn't afford to just laugh it off?

So we have to remember that this story is really set in its privilege and that for all that it's progressive, it does rather skip past the larger issues. Still, it's a good movie and it's a good thing to talk about. 

Olive's attitude at the end, though great, is really not what we want for young women. We don't want women to have to say, "Screw the world!" Nor do we want a culture so toxic about sex that it encourages young men to have it, saying that they're outcasts and not real men if they don't, while castigating the young women they're supposedly having sex with. It's a horrific sexual double standard and it's bad for everyone involved.

But I think, ultimately, Olive herself says it best at the end: "I might even lose my virginity to him. I don't know when it will happen. You know, maybe in five minutes, or tonight, or six months from now, or maybe on the night of our wedding. But the really amazing thing is, it is nobody's goddamn business."

Word.


2 comments:

  1. I love Easy A, largely because I love Emma Stone. You've really broken down the prude/slut dichotomy and the double standards demonstrated in this film. LOVE this analysis!

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