14 March 2011

18 Year Old Virgin

United States – 2009
Director – Tamara Olson
Video Company, 1989, DVD
Run Time –1 hour, 26 minutes

It didn’t hit me until about a third of the way in that this film is unlike almost every other teen/highschool sex comedy. As a whole, the genre is infused by one simple concept; the act of sex as a rite of manhood for the teenage boy, and the woman as the means to that end. In essence the entire genre revolves around the objectification of women and their instrumental value. It is not normally part of my repertoire to write about contemporary films, even if they had been isolated in the VHS format, but 18 Year Old Virgin was intriguing to me because its different perspective on this "classic" plot has really stuck with me for the last week. Not because of its titular star Olivia Alaina May, but because of what it says about “becoming a woman”. 

18 Year Old Virgin was written and directed by women, Naomi Selfman and Tamara Olson respectively which may explain the different angle on the genre, but if the end result tells us anything, it’s that a different perspective on the same paradigm doesn’t change the paradigm. Twenty five years earlier a couple of women, director Martha Coolidge and writer Kathleen Rowell made a goofier and tamer film, 1984’s The Joy of Sex (from which 18YOV appears to lift its plot) and came to a similar “conclusion” with somewhat less irony and bare breasts.

Typically the focus in the teen sex comedy is on the teen boy’s attempt to lose his virginity, not as an experience to be had, but in order to prove his nascent manhood and heterosexuality to his friends. He has to prove that he can fit in and behave as men are "supposed" to. In 18 Year Old Virgin the lead protagonist is a woman however, and the film goes some distance towards illuminating, with rather dopey humor, what that experience might be like for her. The story follows slightly nerdy Katie’s repeatedly awkward attempts, mostly at the behest of her “friend” to lose her virginity and attached pariah status. Although the film points vaguely at the banality of what Katie feels she is supposed to do to be accepted by her peers and acceptable to a man, it does so rather uncritically. Even its simplistic (if accurate) send up of men’s shallow posturing and self-serving manipulation is done with a knowing complicity as if, while tiresome and often predictable, it is still just part of the game. Through all of this persists the basic plotline that Katie must prove her womanhood (and also like her male peers in other films, her heterosexuality) by putting out. While her male predecessors proved themselves by objectifying and taking women by hook or crook, Katie effectively does the same, to herself, and in the end takes her appropriate place as a “normal woman”.

Women it appears are also caught up in, and complicit with socialized patterns of gender normative behavior and patriarchy. Though it makes light of Katie’s attempt and eventual “success” in conforming to patriarchal standards, it doesn’t seriously challenge them. Nor does it illustrate the absurdity of her socialized “need” (or "our" social requirement) to be acknowledged as an acceptable hetero-woman by actively seeking and willingly stepping into subjugation.

2 comments:

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