Movies and TV shows about the high school experience are popular among youth and influential in constructing cultural notions about what constitutes normal and ideal high school experiences. From John Hughes' popular films such as 16 Candles
(1984), The Breakfast Club
(1985), Ferris Buehler's Day Off
and Pretty in Pink
to more contemporary examples such as Bring it On
(2000), 10 things I Hate About You
the High School Musical
franchise, and the Twilight
saga, these films present scripts and expectations for teen relationships and high school life and represent the concept of "Hollywood High". Popular shows include The O.C., 90210, Gossip Girl,
With few exceptions, these films and TV shows focus exclusively on heterosexual relationships based in suburban schools with predominantly White students. These representations of teens create and perpetuate the notion of suburban White heterosexual experiences as ideal and iconic. As a result, the stories and characters in these films and shows contribute to the lessons on gender
at "Hollywood High."
I've been thinking about this a lot lately since I've been giving some talks on media literacy and how to talk about gender roles and sexuality with youth in fun, interesting, and accessible ways. Media texts offer valuable starting off points to help open discussions about what we know about masculinity, femininity, and valued forms of sexual expression in schools and youth culture. In this post, I'm going to focus on two specific films that explicitly uncover some dominant lessons about gender and sexuality: Just One of the Guys (1985) and She's the Man (2006). These films are unique in that they present a lead female character who cross-dresses to prove something to herself and her peers. Because of this element these movies provide interesting insights into the prevailing cultural messages about gender and sexuality, and the persistence of these messages over time.
Lesson 1: Breasts, Bikinis & Boyfriends: Establishing "Het Cred"
In the opening sequence of both films the viewers are introduced to the lead female protagonist's body in various states of undress. In the opening sequence of Just one of the Guys
), the camera slowly pans up a pair of naked, fair, thin, hairless legs to reveal our heroine, Terry, sleeping
in lacy, two-piece lingerie. Within the first two minutes the audience is also introduced to her White, blonde, college boyfriend, who picks her up in his sports
car to take her to school. In She's the Man
), the opening sequence focuses on a beach scene where the lead character, Viola, is shown playing soccer in a string bikini and celebrating a goal with a kiss from her White, blonde, athletic boyfriend. These two sequences position the heroine as feminine and a source of heterosexual desire by presenting her thin, hairless, mostly naked body and immediately pairing her with a Hollywood version of the ideal male.
Lesson 2: Walk Like a Man: Proving Masculinity
"You've got balls now, use 'em!"
The make-over sequences in both films identify basic elements essential to masculinity. The basic physical elements are: short hair, flat chest, lower voice, and a different walk. In StM
, the walk is described as a "strut" whereas in JootG
, Terry uses gym socks to pad her crotch and is coached by her brother, Buddy to de-feminize her walk. He explains, "Guys take up space, you gotta look tougher...you got balls now, use them"! Both characters initially "pass" as male, however they fail in effectively performing a valued, or hegemonic masculinity, and are subjected to teasing, exclusion, and hazing. Viola describes herself in a low moment as a "huge geek, loser, deviant". Her male confidante, Paul, assures Viola that he can improve her social status. He orchestrates this by situating her masculine persona, Sebastian, as a womanizer and an object of feminine heterosexual desire. He stages a scene in a popular pizza joint that presents Sebastian as a guy who is successful at attracting desirable, feminine, girls and who isn't emotionally involved with any of them. In this scene, Viola-as-Sebastian dismisses three different young women who are vying for her attention and objectifies them in front of her more popular male peers. Viola-as-Sebastian mutters, "I'd tap that" then grabs the buttocks of one of the young women, then grabs her own crotch. After this public display of apparent heterosexual dating
prowess, and emotional detachment from sexual relationships, Viola-as-Sebastian is suddenly accepted by the popular guys on the soccer team
, and receives applause, admiration, and greatly improved social status at school.
Lesson 3: GLBTQ people should be shunned and laughed at
These films are not violently homophobic, but they demonstrate how heterosexism and homophobia operate. In both films, romantic interests provide comic moments for the audience who are "in the know" about the female sex of each character, but also illuminate how same-gender desire is marked as scary, gross, or threatening and is to be avoided at all costs. These situations are acceptable and presented as comedic to the audience because Terry and Viola's feminine "het cred" was established in the first frames of the film and was never in question; therefore, there is never a real "threat" of queer desire or behaviors. However, using same-gender desire as a comic device that encourages the audience to laugh at these situations exposes the homophobia in the text. These moments of apparent same-sex intimacy are presented as inherently frightening and uncomfortable. Thus, these films situate any deviation from heterosexual desire and relationships as negative and teach viewers that it is to be avoided at all costs.
Lesson 4: Proving It: Re-asserting Feminine Legitimacy
"I love you, Duke" Viola-as-Sebastian declares on the soccer field in the middle of the big game. He appears disgusted, confused and angry until she lifts her shirt and flashes her breasts. She then removes her wig, fake eyebrows, and sideburns and explains why she went to these lengths by saying, "I wanted to prove I was good enough". Terry makes a similar declaration to Rick at their prom and then kisses him. In this scene, they are both wearing tuxedos, and so other students observing this interaction read it is a gay kiss. Rick initially starts to distance himself from the kiss, yet accept his friend Terry as gay, until she opens her shirt and flashes her breasts. He then walks away in anger
and confusion telling the bystanders, "Its okay, he has tits". In both of these situations, the female character's breasts and her desire for a male are the defining features of her femininity. Thus, these anatomical features, combined with her "het cred" are the essential criteria at Hollywood High for being marked as feminine. The message this sends to young women is that if you have small breasts or no breasts, you are marked as failing at femininity. Also, if you experience desire for and share intimacy with someone other than a masculine male, this will also call your femininity into question.
Part 1 of 2 - Next post: Lesson 5: A post-feminist happily-ever-after and talking about these issues with your students/children.