In his recent article “Selling Teen Sex,” Michael O. Powell claims to remember seeing “American Pie” and “The Girl Next Door” but I have to wonder if he recalled watching “Superbad,” the third teen sex comedy he singled out for condemnation.
While there are many films worthy of attacking for trivializing the realities of sex, “Superbad” is not one of them.
Yes, the plot line of the film involves two high school seniors’ pursuit of sex and alcohol but those who actually watch the film to the end will find a clear example of a recent trend I dub “stealth conservatism.” (Warning: spoilers follow.)
Much of the point of “Superbad” is to subvert the traditional hedonism of teen sex comedies. At the film’s climax Evan (Michael Cera,) finally has the opportunity to enjoy the sex he and his buddy Seth (Jonah Hill) have chased for the entire film. He has a willing – and drunken – Becca (Martha MacIsaac) in bed, eager to consummate their lusts. And suddenly he has an attack of conscience. Evan realizes A) he’s drunk, B) she’s drunk, C) this is not how he wanted his first sexual experience to be, and most importantly, D) this isn’t right.
For Powell’s easy reference the scene in question is chapter 24 on the Unrated DVD, about 92 minutes into the film. There’s that “Damascus moment” he was unable to recall when responding to his first “Superbad” defender in his article’s comments.
“I think we’re not thinking clearly,” Evan says. Becca then proceeds to throw up on the bed. If this is a sales pitch for teen sex then I’m Billy Mays. A film that lures audiences in with the promise of celebrating drunken debauchery ends up instead condemning it. Isn’t that a message that Powell wants teens to see?
This trend of conservative themes seemingly hidden in R-rated sex comedies isn’t limited to “Superbad.” Its especially prevalent in the work of the film’s producer, Judd Apatow. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Apatow’s 2005 blockbuster comedy seems at first to be making fun of the idea of waiting to have sex. By the film’s end, though, the choice to wait for the right person has been affirmed as entirely legitimate, even preferable to the promiscuity of the protagonist’s friends.
Apatow’s follow-up to his success, 2007’s “Knocked Up,” was also a stealth conservative wolf in a sex comedy sheep’s clothes. When a night of thoughtless, drunken sex between a slacker pothead and a career-driven E! Network anchor results in an unplanned pregnancy the reluctant couple decides to keep the baby despite pressure to abort. This responsibility ethos isn’t limited to sex. In the Apatow-produced “Pineapple Express” two stoners actually come to realize the folly of their weed-based lifestyle. Only through sobering up will they be able to overcome the challenges into which they’ve stumbled.
But stealth conservatism isn’t limited to the House of Apatow. Cult writer-director Kevin Smith’s most recent film, “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” also had conservative themes for those who could get past the nudity and profanity. Audiences going in are expecting a movie that will celebrate the XXX world, instead by the film’s third act the characters have been mugged by sexual reality. They begin the film thinking of sex as a meaningless force but when best friends Zack and Miri finally do the deed they learn that the act has consequences – it changes everything in a relationship. Suddenly they can’t accept the other having sex with someone else for the film. Surely this is a message Powell would want teens to hear.
Powell doesn’t really have a very coherent idea for reforming the culture of promiscuity in America and its alleged Hollywood representations. Totally without any evidence at hand he blames films like “Superbad” for teenage STD rates. He also doesn’t think condoms should be readily available to teenagers, believing that that will only encourage teens to have sex more. He instead offers vague notions of how “Youth should be encouraged to build strong relationships, independence, and most importantly, to get jobs.”
Powell is halfway there. Teens certainly do need to have the right ideas in their heads about sexuality, relationships, and personal responsibility. But how are we going to get them there? It’s not going to be by bashing their favorite movies but rather by promoting better movies like “Knocked Up,” “Zack and Miri,” and, yes, “Superbad.” (Powell is already going down this path with his promotion of such excellent films as “Bad Santa” and “Juno.”) It’s going to be by respecting their intelligence and not thinking of them as puppets on Hollywood’s strings. That’s a strategy that might actually be effective in winning minds and saving lives.