The Problem with Gender-Reversed Teen Sex Comedies
Flipping the Heterosexual Script Still Overlooks Issues of Consent
Gender role reversals have long been a trope in romantic comedies. In The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter, Kathleen Rowe suggests that “unruly women” have been a constant throughout Western cultural history and notes how Shakespearian comedies often portrayed a strong or “unruly” woman (at times disguised in men’s clothing) who ultimately would be “tamed” through domestication. Certainly, film plots too from their earliest days drew from this long-standing pattern of gender role reversals.
In Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre, Tamar Jeffers McDonald notes that while the “basic plot of all mainstream romantic comedies is boy meets, loses, regains, girl,” a main theme in film sex comedies over the last century has been “reversions” or “inversions of the ‘natural order.’” McDonald explains how in Bringing Up Baby (1938) for example, protagonist Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) uses deception, diversion, and bribery in pursuit of her love interest David Huxley (Cary Grant).
McDonald describes that the comedy of such an inversion “lies in the incongruity of the events, the reversal which creates the man’s passivity and the woman’s action, because, it is assumed, men are not passive, and women are not in charge.” In other words, such reversals can be played for their humor because they are not believed to be common. The joke lies in the swapping of normative gender behavior—such premises are only funny because the heterosexual script remains the presumed norm.
The teen sex comedies of the 2010s and 2020s that present girl protagonists’ driving the plot and initiating sexual interactions are not the first to do so. Little Darlings (1980) tells the story of 15-year-old girls Angel and Ferris who make a bet to see who can be the first to lose their virginity, and Joy of Sex (1984) depicts high school senior Leslie, who, thinking she only has a few weeks left to live, embarks on a furious quest to lose her virginity. Despite how it was marketed, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) also could be characterized as a girl-driven sex comedy since Stacy, a 15-year-old “virgin,” seeks out sexual interactions, hoping to catch up with her supposedly more sexually experienced friend Linda.
However, none of these comedies depict sex in the freewheeling way that the masculine-driven sex comedies of their era did. For many of the girls who achieve their goals, such as Stacy and Angel, sex turns out to be a disappointing experience—nothing like the ecstatic romps boys experience in sex comedies like Risky Business (1983) or the Canadian film Porky’s (1981), which was heavily marketed in the United States. For girls, the moral often suggests a relationship, not sex, is a more worthwhile and gratifying goal.
The same year as American Pie, Colette Burson’s teen sex comedy Coming Soon (1999) was also released. The film remained relatively under the radar and has received mixed reviews. However, the plot offers a fresh take on the genre. Here, protagonist Stream does not just want to lose her virginity—she wants to orgasm. In other words, Stream has no trouble finding a sexual partner, but it turns out that an attentive sexual partner interested in pleasing her is harder to come by. She makes her way through several unpleasant—and coercive—encounters with her boyfriend, who seems to only have his own sexual satisfaction in mind.More recent girls’ teen sex comedies have swung further in this direction, depicting girls as not only sexually eager but forceful.
In one scene, they kiss on his couch, and he pushes her head down to give him fellatio—and after resisting twice, she relents. In the docuseries episode “Indie Sex: Teens,” the director of But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), Jamie Babbit, describes this scene, stating, “I think all girls can relate to that scene because they’ve all been through it. I mean it’s like, hello? Can you put your head down?” Babbit suggests it was no accident that Coming Soon neither found widespread distribution nor received acceptance into major film festivals, stating that “the culture wasn’t quite ready to deal with” a movie about girls who just “want to come, they want to come, they don’t want to just be fucked, they want to come.” Coming Soon might have remained in the fringe, but it epitomizes some of the concerns coming into the 21st century—young women’s sexual desire, pleasure, and agency.
More recent girls’ teen sex comedies have swung further in this direction, depicting girls as not only sexually eager but forceful. In an obvious nod to girls’ sexual empowerment, these films intentionally shift young women into the role of initiator of sexual encounters instead of placing them in their more traditional gatekeeping role. On the surface, this change feels like a consent culture win, and in many ways it is—it has become more conventional to show girls’ embodying feminist tenets of sexual equality. Girls in teen films are shown routinely making the first move and believing themselves entitled to sexual agency and pleasure.
However, rather than creating a story of mutual exploration and desire, many of these films simply flip the heterosexual script—imagining girls as aggressors who pursue boys without considering boys’ consent. For example, in The To Do List, straight-A student Brandy Klark creates a sexual “to do list” to complete before college. Brandy lusts after the older Rusty Waters, and believing an attempt to be with him failed partly due to her inexperience, she decides to pursue other boys for sexual experience, checking items off her list along the way.
In one scene, Brandy’s friends encourage her to tackle the “hand job” next, and the film cuts to Brandy and Cameron in a movie theater. Without asking, she takes his popcorn from him and unzips his pants. He asks, “What are you doing?” to which she responds, “What do you think I’m doing?” She begins touching him, but then abruptly stops after she discovers something unexpected about his penis. He asks, “Why’d you stop?” and she doesn’t answer but gets up, goes to the lobby, and calls her mom. Instead, she reaches her older sister, who gives her advice on how to handle an uncircumcised penis. She returns to her seat after getting a handful of butter from the popcorn stand. Cameron asks her, “Is everything OK? Did I do something wrong? Are you sure?” She then unzips his pants again and starts touching him, at which point he asks, “Do you want me to touch you?” As he climaxes, he yells out, “I love you!” and he leans his head on her shoulder while she examines the semen in her hand.
Cameron clearly has more than a sexual interest in Brandy—he appears to want a relationship with her—but to her, he is simply a convenient prop to check an item off her list. As such, it would be difficult to imagine a contemporary teen film depicting this comedic scene with the genders reversed. The abruptness of Brandy’s actions also directly contrasts with the way Cameron obtains consent from her in an earlier scene.
While they kiss on the couch, she tells him, “I’m so wet. Touch me,” and then getting impatient, she demands, “Finger me already” at which point he admits to being confused by her skort—“Are these shorts or a skirt?”—and asks, “Over or under?” When she says, “Under,” he again confirms her consent, asking, “Are you sure?” and she says, impatiently, “Yes!” Only then does he proceed. Despite how carefully Cameron is depicted as checking for Brandy’s consent to touch her, she neither asks nor tells him before she touches him. As a result, The To Do List perpetuates the false idea that men and boys are always already consenting.
Blockers, too, pairs an ambivalent teen boy with an aggressive teen girl for a comedic effect. Along with her friends, Kayla has vowed to lose her virginity the evening of prom. When her date Connor offers her alcohol, she says, “Before I do drink this, though, I just want to let you know that I am fully planning on having sex tonight—with you.” He says, “Wherever the wind blows us,” to which she responds, “Well the wind’s going to blow us there.” Again, he expresses hesitance, saying, “Wherever the night takes us,” and she says, “It’s going to take your penis into my vagina.” He then says, “OK, if the universe wills it,” to which she responds, “And the universe will will it,” to which he finally concludes, “Thanks for letting me know, I guess.”
In another film Yes, God, Yes, sex-obsessed Alice actually physically attacks the strait-laced Chris. At a religious retreat, the older Chris comes to check on her, and Alice slowly touches his arm. Clearly, Chris is not consenting to additional touching based on the confused look on his face, but Alice abruptly kisses him, climbs on top of him, and proceeds to hump him. At first, he kisses her back but then gets up abruptly and stammers, “W-w-what are you doing?” and when he sees her staring at his crotch, he pushes down his erection, saying, “You know that I get turned on like a microwave,” reiterating a line from their abstinence workshop.
These moments depict an exaggerated form of girls’ sexual empowerment for comedic effect, but they seem to rely on an assumption that young men cannot be harmed by nonconsensual sexual behavior. Such scenes simply would not work amid consent culture with the genders swapped because it would no longer be acceptable to make a similar joke about girls’ nonconsent. Both Chris’s and Connor’s consent is a nonissue. Kayla even seems to suggest it is only her affirmative consent that needs to be addressed, which is why she states in advance of drinking that she consents to future sexual intercourse even if she gets drunk later (although, ethically intoxication could invalidate her consent).
While these scenes of girls’ sexual aggression seem meant to embody feminist ideals, they demonstrate that affirmative consent is perceived as only necessary for boys and men to obtain from girls and women, not the other way around. Later in Blockers, the joke culminates with a scene in their hotel room: Kayla and Connor decide mutually not to have intercourse. However, Kayla says that she is “still down for pleasure,” as she points to where he should direct his attention. He smiles, kisses her, and then the shot cuts away as he begins to move his head down, presumably to perform cunnilingus on her.
As we understand it later, no other sexual act besides this one occurs between them that night. But one cannot help but wonder how this scene would be viewed if the roles were reversed. Even if we do not read this scene as nonconsensual, Kayla’s forceful demeanor and their subsequent one-sided sexual interaction make light of a troubling dynamic that has existed in films for decades, albeit with the genders reversed.
Excerpted from Consent Culture and Teen Films: Adolescent Sexuality in US Movies. Copyright © 2023 by Michele Meek. Used with permission of the publisher, Indiana University Press. All rights reserved.