As I type these very words to you, I am surrounded by the relics of what I would classify as a highly successful semester of college teaching: masses of blue books, stacks of multiple choice exams, and a pile of essays on colonialism that would make even the toughest metalhead terrified at the amount of red ink about to be epically spilled in the name of knowledge.
However, as I simultaneously dash and slog through these materials in an attempt to churn out my final grades, my mind keeps marvelling at the fact that for the first time in my nearly half decade of teaching I feel a noticeable age gap with my students. When I first hit the ground running I was the same age as some of them, a pint sized faux hawked reminder of what nerdiness and nights spent in the library and not at the keg can buy you: some dry erase markers and a scary realization that students are paying thousands of dollars (in America, at least) to hear you talk about some topic with some (hopefully) authority. The movement from student to teacher is jarring—you start to realize all the secrets professors and teachers never want you to know (not telling!) and most importantly, you quickly learn that your time in the classroom is always a negotiation. There is a negotiation between fairness and your personal opinions on your students, a negotiation between your own belief structures about the world and those of your students, and lastly (and most challenging, at least to me) there is a negotiation between how many details of your personal life you volunteer to them in an effort to be accessible, but not accessible enough to be (gasp) their friend. I usually volunteer very little about myself to them solely because if they knew what I did on the weekends they would never respect me, or my grading, ever again. As I reflect on this age difference and the creeping realization that I am getting older despite still looking and dressing the same age or younger than my students (teaching in cowboy shirts and skinny ties is the way to go, Amici), I am reminded of the huge differences and gaps in life experience between myself and those of 18 year old college variety. I can legally drink; they cannot. I went to high school without Facebook and texting; they’ve had both since they essentially crossed the educational threshold. I especially notice this difference when I see them interact in their romantic relationships (we teachers see more than you think, dudes). Every time I greet my students I feel the ache of first love around me. It’s half adorable, half horrifying. I am grateful to be beyond that stage of life, where everything feels so scary, yet new and exciting. Plus, the thought of me and another person in a tiny dorm bed is no longer thrilling for me. I’m fairly convinced adulthood means space and a reclamation of all types of space. For me space means that my Yoda comforter no longer lies on a dorm bed (and yes, I actually do have a Yoda blanket).
All of these swirling thoughts led to me to consider what this age difference means to me as I approach certain cinematic themes and elements as a viewer, consumer, and beginning scholar of film and literature. Given my research focus, my considerations of filmic texts and their thematic elements will always turn into a reflection on sexuality, and this time is no different as I began to wonder how certain directors choose to craft, shape, and build loss of virginity on screen. This commentary is quite dissimilar from the one I had last week regarding compulsory heterosexuality and American Horror Story, because here I am not concerned with the political implications of such scenes, here I am largely focused on the idea of cinema as art, and the possibilities for it as an art form that can succeed in giving us clues for the subtle eroticism (and even other affective responses) of first sexual experience. Capturing subtle nuances of shifts in perspective is always the director’s biggest challenge and perhaps the biggest challenge with regard to any depiction of cinematic sexuality, particularly when those depicted are young and for whom sexual experiences are written into the narrative as life-changing (good or bad, it does not matter). This attention to detail and characterization is just as large of a feat for the actors, screenwriters, and cinematographers as it is for the director, a shaky testament to both technical ability and creativity. Due to this challenge we see directors either shy away from such scenes or flip to the other side to make the experiences a joke, thus rendering the standards to those that are fundamentally lower.
I’m not saying comedy does not have to ability to be art. I’m saying that in certain instances comedy can be used to hide a director’s anxiety about capturing what many deem to be impossible, the affect of tiny, yet momentous change within a narrative and the character(s) within it.
Think of the more recent popular loss of virginity narratives we have. Most of them show this extremely well. American Pie (1999), for example, relies on this comic relief throughout the film, and when the moment comes to show loss of virginity within the actual frame, (aside from the only more serious coupling of the group, Oz and Heather), is punctuated with the slapstick humour that defines the first time experiences of both Finch (who ends up with the now iconic Stifler’s Mom) and Jim who beds Michelle, the sexually open and less innocent than originally expected band geek Michelle.
In American Pie hilarity ensues when Jim’s Dad buys him Hustler and gives him the most well meaning, yet awkward sex talk in the history of cinema
Similarly, we see other types of deflection on television. In the pilot of Mad Men, Peggy’s loss of virginity to Pete takes place off screen, thus effectively alleviating the burden of all involved in terms of showing the actual shift in perspective to the audience. Later in the show we learn the night the two spent together was not simply a fun roll in the sheets, but a complex and highly charged circumstance for both characters that affects them both deeply. It is only after Peggy has sex with Pete off screen where we start to see her have sex on screen, starting with Pete (again, on his couch in the office) and later with a series of other boyfriends. The perspective I bring to both of these texts is distinctive of both my own positionality and age, and I am left to wonder what such narratives look like to younger viewers from an aesthetic and affective perspective. I remember seeing American Pie as a teen and coming away from the film horrified that all early sexual experiences are divided into two categories: romantic and good or funny and bad. But what if we do not want to exist within that binary? What if we want good and funny, but not romantic? Does that possibility exist within a cinema that seems to have a very particular loss of virginity in mind as ideal? That ideal being heterosexual, while in a monogamous relationship, and full of discomfort for the young woman, yet ultimately good idea…most of the time. Now when I watch the film I see its warm humour and the director’s attempts to capture the awkwardness of being a teenager and clueless about a lot of things. However, it is only when I returned to it as an adult that I was able to accept that reading of the film. I wonder, what are my students thinking when they watch this type of narrative? When I think about the topics I wrote about last week, I can guess what they would think politically or personally, but artistically, what does it do for them? How do a director’s choices of what to cut to and from, focus on, and put in a frame change our perceptions of sex on screen as artistic practice? As cinemagoers in our own demographics, what does the difference in age and life experience do when we approach loss of virginity on screen? The obvious answer is that those with experience reflect and those without it dream, but that does not satisfy me, both as someone who enjoys cinema and as someone who teaches cinema to people in the very age group I am discussing here. I would like to think I view adolescents as more advanced than to assume that all they do is fantasize about what sex could be like for them once they see it on screen, but curiosity is certainly a big part of cinematic draw and excitement. How many of us see provocative films solely for the reason we like to explore the controversy surrounding them, no matter how small or if the location of that provocation is daily life for other people?
Mad Men’s Peggy and Pete are swept into a heart wrenching (sometimes physical) connection that viewers followed for multiple seasons
We know that capturing loss of virginity is a challenge for most directors, but me being the eternal cinematic optimist believes that some directors have managed to get it right. One of the films that comes to mind and is one that I continuously will give my students as an example of this is Cruel Intentions, which I know is not a bastion of Oscar worthy material, but does an excellent job of framing the journey of sexual exploration as fraught with misunderstandings, missteps and confusion. We have two main simultaneous loss of virginity narratives, that of Annette (Reese Witherspoon) who has sex for the first time with cad Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe), who she does not know has bet his sociopathic and jealous stepsister that he will succeed where many other have failed, and that of Sebastian himself as he loses an emotional virginity of sorts, unexpectedly falling in love with the object of his bet. The actual scene is warm and nice, with Counting Crows “Colourblind” playing as the two have sex in Sebastian’s bed. There are lots of extreme close ups on Witherspoon’s face, which is clearly marked with both pain and pleasure, to which Phillippe asks tenderly, “Are you okay?”
Artistically, I love this scene. I find it to be beautifully shot and executed, particularly the lighting and close ups on the couple. I also think it tells us much more than we would assume at first glance. We see some excellent things: consent, first time sex being something that isn’t painful or regrettable, and most notably, after the scene ends and Sebastian is putting Annette in the car to go home, we see increased intimacy and affection between the two. That is something a lot of directors will shy away from when showing first time sexual experience because the implication of sex making someone more mature or changed in someway is a concept that brings many people (particularly parents) fear and an unease that teens and other young people will latch onto and run with.
I will forever stand in solidarity with the directors who assert through their use of the image that loss of virginity is important and while, not maybe as life changing as they (the romantics among us) might like us to believe, is still a significant event. Even though I believe the concept of virginity to be vastly socially constructed (if you want to know more about this concept, read Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth, it’s a user friendly text on the topic that I highly recommend), which means I don’t think it’s a physical condition for either men or women, particularly women, I cannot dispute the sometimes unpredictable affective response that any first time sexual experience can bring. Whether it’s with a new partner, an existing partner who you’ve been geographically separated from, or an ex partner, there is no question that what just happened will get you thinking on some level (whether you want that or not), and that’s totally okay and acceptable in real life, but not as widely accepted within cinema involving this particular topic as we’d expect. And this is what I love about the directors who get this type of narrative correct; that they do not shy away from the good, bad, or disappointing present within sexual experience.
How many of us have seen Fast Times At Ridgemont High and remember Stacy’s first time in the dug out where she is clearly uncomfortable and the next morning when her best friend Linda tells her to keep doing it because that’s the only way it will get better? Director Amy Hecklering is bold in her discussion the disappointment that young sex can bring, and this is particularly notable when she shows Stacy and Damone in the pool house and we get one of the better cinematic portrayals of teenage male ego when Damone’s short endurance clearly surprises an eager Stacy as Damone’s reputation is that of a sexually experienced lady’s man. Afterward, Damone runs away and leaves a stunned Stacy (and viewer) lying on the couch to wonder if he was even there in the first place or if it was a dream. Although this isn’t a loss of virginity, we still see a commitment to some level of emotional honesty, which to me makes it notable in terms of what I’m discussing here. And it does not fail to impress me that the two films I’ve tagged as innovative in their showing of early sexual experiences were marketed as almost throwaway teen flicks (Fast Times now is considered a modern classic, which is great). Perhaps this is the very reason the directors were able to get away with their creative decisions. Hecklering openly states in interviews that the scene between Stacy and Damone was crucial for her and her engineering of the more serious messages of the film and I would 100% agree. Without that scene and Stacy’s subsequence unplanned pregnancy and abortion, we would be missing out on an opportunity to see some of the less talked about but still tremendously affective parts of initial sexual experimentation and experience.
So, where does this reflection on my own growing distance from such narratives leave me (and us)? Perhaps to a position that demands a more honest filmmaking and viewing experience from all of us as we can’t pretend we are the boys in the American Pie narratives after we get to a certain age. Or perhaps to a moment of reflection that allows us to see that moments where we actually see ourselves growing up can take weird and unexpected forms, like revisiting a particular type of storyline and seeing how your reactions have evolved. Either way, Dear Reader’s, I raise my coffee cup to you. Getting older isn’t easy and we all deserve some pats on the back for making it this far. Survival, whether you’re in a post apocalyptic zombie universe or trying to walk down the halls of your high school, takes some hardcore skills, kids.