Movie Mix

"17 Again" Pushes Sexist Abstinence Message

The message of the film is clear -- only bad people use condoms to have sex for pleasure.

Sometimes you see something that makes you run to calendar to make sure that we still live in the 21st century.  No, not the rantings and ravings of fundamentalist Christians who want women to relinquish their shoes and their birth control pills.  That they want to roll the clock back surprises no one.  Rather, it's when you see something like this disclaimer at the bottom of a New York Times movie review.

"17 Again" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Girls are particularly cautioned.

Yes. Girls areparticularly cautioned. Why?  Does the reviewer think that young women have a delicate constitution that prevents them from being able to handle juvenile sex jokes of the sort you find in a PG-13 movie?  Does she assume that girls have too much going on to waste their time with the stupidest movie cliché ever -- the magical-event-causes-boring-adult-to-become-a-teenager storyline?  Or is it that girls will be so soaked in hormones after watching Zac Efron for 90 minutes that they will be unable to conduct themselves like proper young ladies afterwards? It's hard to say, but it seems that the sexism is what really offends Manohla Dargis.  She singles it out as particularly noxious in this film:

Given the story's obnoxious implications - sex, meaning girls, can ruin your life - it's no surprise that Scarlet doesn't get the chance to revisit her past and tell her boyfriend to put on a condom.

Even assuming that Dargis was being cheeky when she said that girls were particularly cautioned, I have to ask, why the double standard?

My curiosity piqued, I dropped the $7 (who knew it cost that much to see a matinee now?) to see "17 Again" and find out if it was just as full of sexist humor as the review implied.  What I found was less "Superbad" with more misogyny and more something that seemed derived from an abstinence-only text, but with injected with some pseudo-hip humor in order to make it seem relevant.  It's a world in which our protagonist makes impassioned speeches about the importance of abstinence, which makes all the girls love him (instead of tuning him out just as they mostly tune out abstinence-only messages coming from adults).  He also delivers a stern lecture about "respecting yourself" to young women who commit the sin of openly displaying sexual desire, because apparently you can have sexual desire or you can be treated like a human being who deserves basic respect, but not both.

We've definitely seen this movie before. Spout lists many of the dozens of movies where adults become teenagers, either by swapping bodies or regression to their younger selves.  In this variation, the hero Michael is an adult pushing 40 and hating his life, which he feels was ruined when he gave up a chance on a basketball scholarship and college to marry his pregnant girlfriend at the age of 17. As Jill at Amplify said, the movie doesn't acknowledge any middle ground where someone can have sex without it turning into a life-altering disaster.  Not that condoms are never mentioned.  They are, in a scene where all the girls reject them as foul and unromantic as the school bully hoards them all for himself.  The message is clear--only bad people use condoms to have sex for pleasure.  In fact, during Efron's impassioned pro-abstinence speech, he openly states that you should wait not just for marriage for sex, but until you are ready to make a baby that very first time.

Like most abstinence-only materials, the movie is incoherent.  On one hand, we're supposed to cheer Michael's successful attempts at preserving his teenage daughter's virginity, on the grounds that she needs to go to college (as if these two goals are mutually exclusive).  But most of the movie is about how the protagonist and his wife made the best decision of their lives in having unprotected sex and forgoing college for marriage before they could vote.  It's not surprising.  Most abstinence-only programs put nominal effort in highlighting the value of avoiding pregnancy in your adolescence, but as the Bristol Palin situation demonstrated, the anti-choice right lines right up to cheer for teenagers who choose pregnancy and marriage over higher education.

As you can imagine when dealing with a movie pushing right wing attitudes about sex, sexism comes right along. Dargis was right about the misogyny.  Even though Leslie Mann's character comes across as much less a harpy as she did in "Knocked Up"  (she has to, or we can't root for their happy ending), the rest of the movie bundles up some ugly assumptions about women.  There are good girls (who are virgins or happy teenage mothers) and every other woman is a horror show, a slut and a monster all rolled into one.  Michael's female coworkers are all bimbos who get promoted over him, because of their sluttiness.  The wife's friend is a slut who has the crazy idea that divorced women should feel free to date, even if they have children.  And of course, you have the "slutty" teenage girls who pursue young men, who are presumed to be broken and stupid besides.  And even though we're told that Michael's daughter is smart and has a future, we see no evidence of this, and only know that she's a bad girl with bad taste in men, and she's only redeemed by keeping her cherry intact.  Even then, her whole performance of sexual desire is treated as grotesque in and of itself, which fits with the rest of the film's horror at assertive female sexuality.

But I must take issue with Dargis's pronouncement that girls particularly are cautioned.  Boys need this kind of vicious stereotyping of women and shaming of female sexual desire even less than girls do.  If they're straight, they're going to have to deal with female sexuality without thinking it turns women into monsters, at least if they want healthy relationships.  In this movie, it seems the only way a woman can have sex and be respectable afterwards is if she gets pregnant right away.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon. She is the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.