At The Movies

Gender, Drugs & Rock’n’Roll

In 1999, as the “Porkies” retread “American Pie” hit theaters amidst a flurry of ID checking, another similar movie, “Coming Soon,” appeared. Or at least it appeared in limited release in one theater in LA prior to waiting for DVD release. It had a similar story, with young actors in the roles of teenagers on a quest for sexual satisfaction, quirky parents, good humor, recognizable older talent, and even a few redeeming messages about commitment and self-identity. The difference was that the characters in a rush to throw their virtue to the wind were all girls.

While coming of age movies can feature characters at any age, making profound discoveries about themselves, the teenage sex romp is a time honored sub-genre. But they almost always feature male protagonists. For every “Lolita,” there are a dozen more “American Pie” sequels or wannabes. Even news stories about female school teachers and male students are less likely to illicit moral outrage in a male-dominated barroom than laments of “where were those teachers when I was in school?”  

In sexual conquests, men and boys are more likely to be depicted as the conquerors and women and girls as the victims. Male loss of virginity is cheered by audiences, whether he’s 14 or 40. Female loss of virginity is profound and intimate, and less of a sporting event. The same is true of violence and action: It’s heavily male-dominated on screen, with female characters in action roles played largely for their noteworthy exceptional status, rather than as equal counterparts.  

So it’s noteworthy to have multiple female-dominant films with atypical characters on screen within a week of each other: “The Runaways” telling the true story of a girl band, “Fish Tank” reflecting a harsh life in an English housing estate, and “Kick-Ass,” mostly about a teenaged boy, but dominated by a young girl trained as an assassin by her disgruntled father.  
“The Runaways” is gender stereotype-challenging from the get-go, as it chronicles the rise to fame of girls in the male dominated world of rock. Indeed, it was their gender that formed their unique appeal. Joan Jett is played by Kristen Stewart (of “Twilight” fame) and front-girl Cherie Currie by Dakota Fanning (with more movies than years on her resume). For a major film, with positive although not stellar reviews, the success for the release can be judged in Sacramento, where only two suburban theaters are playing it. The film is well acted, although sometimes awkwardly paced, but its word of mouth is largely based on the extent to which audiences want to watch a 15 year-old (at the time of filming) Fanning, America’s most recent sweetheart, as a drugged-out sex kitten (Whereas the 15 year old sexual exploits of Cameron Crow’s autobiographical character in “Almost Famous” were victories).

In “Fish Tank,” Mia is also 15 and has been raised in a loveless environment, the victim and perpetrator of endless verbal and emotional abuse. It’s somewhat like an English “Precious” or “Bastard Out of Carolina.” It’s a powerful and disturbing film of desperation and desire for escape, full of the kind of violence, drinking, and sexual content more often seen in films about male characters. Interestingly, both “The Runaways” and “Fish Tank” include scenes in which the female leads urinate in unusual places as signs of rebellion and territoriality, another action more likely to be seen from boys, or male animals, than from girls.

The protagonist in “Kick-Ass” is a geeky high school boy who fantasizes about putting on a superhero costume and protecting the weak. But he is weak himself, and not particularly well-suited for the role, even when he, well, suits up. The true heroine of the movie is Hit Girl, a 12 year-old with the skill set of an international contract killer. She’s the strongest 12 year-old female character since Natalie Portman’s outing in “The Professional,” which was heavily edited and toned down in its strong sexual content for American audiences. But the key difference between “Kick-Ass” and both “The Professional” and the other recent releases described here, is that “Kick-Ass” is played for laughs. It’s some fun comic book combination of “The Watchmen” and “Mystery Men,” with a tongue-in-cheek youthful twist. Of the recent three, it will almost certainly be the most successful, and the least controversial as the killer tween is never meant to be taken seriously. It’s based on suspension of disbelief rather than a suspension of highly gendered moral outrage.

In a few weeks time, we’ll be treated to “Sex and the City 2” – in which the sassy group of Chanel’s Angels will again even the playing field between male and female sexuality and relationships, not by raising the standards of the men but by lowering their own standards of behavior to match. It’s an odd exercise in female role-modeling that involves championing women who behave in all the ways women have criticized men for behaving for decades.

Perhaps we’re ready for stereotypically male behavior in adult women from Carrie and Samantha to Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill” and “Lara Croft.” But audiences, who enjoy watching boys being rowdy and horny onscreen, don’t seem to be at ease with girls behaving the same way.  

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