Easy A and the History of Sexuality
A couple years ago, I taught a class on postmodern revisions of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter, and I also have used his novel as a prooftext for teaching my introduction to literary theory class. The list of literary and pop cultural revisions is really long, including three novels by John Updike, two plays by Suzan-Lori Parks, and episodes of TV shows The Simpsons and Popular, just to name a few. So, not surprisingly, when the movie Easy A came out a couple weeks ago, several of my former students asked me if I intended to see it.
And of course I did. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the trailer:
As you might guess, the movie (which, by the way, has been quite successful at the box office) is pretty typical of teen-drama adaptations of Hawthorne’s story. The good-hearted but delightfully cynical Olive is rumored to have lost her virginity even though she hasn’t. The rumor spreads with lightning speed via cell phone text messaging. Later, to protect her gay friend Brandon from constantly getting beat up at school for being gay, she decides to use the rumor to Brandon’s advantage and pretends to have sex with him. (And this turn of events should remind you of Hester Prynne protecting Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter.) In saving Brandon’s reputation, she loses control of her own, as the school erupts into a hysterical, puritanical rage, and soon everyone is using her as their scapegoat, blaming their own indiscretions on her. Just as in the “Caged!” episode of the show Popular (produced by the same person as the more successful show Glee), the high school students are reading the novel in their English class at the same time that events in their lives appear to mirror the novel’s main themes — in this case, the theme that religious conservatives are hypocritical jerks. Simple?
No, not so simple. Nevermind that Hawthorne’s novel is infinitely more complex than that — an obvious point and not very interesting; the movie also is infinitely more complex than that. So, let’s just talk about the movie on its own terms for a moment. The clever counterpoint to the puritanical hissy fit thrown by her classmates is the behavior of her parents and the parents of her friend Rhiannon. They belong to the 60s hippy generation, and the movie is set in the famously hippy-esque town of Ojai, California. Their own sexual permissiveness, devil-may-care worldview, and supportive expressions of love for their daughter no matter what she does is the antithesis to the rigidly judgemental behavior of her high school peers. So, what do we make of the dialectic between excessively oppressive judgement and the excessive lack of judgement in the movie? Is one good, the other bad?
To throw yet another monkey at the wrench (hahaha), one big difference between Hawthorne’s version and Easy A is that the geeky boys all claim to have had sex with Olive in order to upgrade their own reputations. So, in addition to the social pressure to remain virginal, there is at the same time the social pressure to score. In fact, some of the boys in the movie are almost on the verge of tears because of their reputations as unattractive virgins who will never get a girl. Is this merely a gender role double standard where boys are supposed to get as much action as they can and girls are supposed to remain virgins until marriage (or, at least, until true love)? No, it’s trickier than that. At the beginning of the movie, her friend Rhiannon is also pressuring Olive to lose her virginity, but then once Olive becomes the “sex star” of the school (instead of Rhiannon’s prominent and always-on-display boobs), then Rhiannon turns on Olive and joins the religious conservatives. How is Rhiannon so easily able to switch sides?
What the dialectic between extreme judgement and extreme permissiveness in the movie reveals is that they are not quite as opposite as we might think. Though Olive’s parents would appear to tolerate anything she does, she is unable to tell them the truth about what’s going on, and so she speaks through the scarlet A as a symbol of her inability to speak and her inability to successfully negotiate the contradictory expectations of her society. In so-called olden times, the patriarchal father is supposed to be the one to lay down the law, so we would hide our transgressions from him, but in our liberated postmodern world the lawlessness of the new-age father also traps us in his open-ended expectations. What do we say to “the law” when we aren’t sure what the law wants from us?
Now, let’s back up just a bit and think historically. The typical reaction of readers to The Scarlet Letter is “golly gee, them Puritans sure were tough; I’m glad we live in these here more progressive-like times.” So, what is a revision that sets an old story in our present context supposed to do? Does it show us how things are different now, or does it show us that things are basically the same? Or is the revision commenting on the older text, making an improvement, suggesting that the earlier version wasn’t quite right, that it was missing something, or that it just wasn’t fair to one of the characters? In any case, a common tendency is to read the older text with the assumption that our world has progressed and therefore is less repressed.
However, as two very different philosophers of culture Slavoj Zizek and Michel Foucault have argued, maybe something else is going on. For Zizek, what seems to be a liberal permissiveness is actually just a new demand — the demand that we must enjoy. The law of this seemingly new-age permissive father is actually the cultural logic of our age of consumer capitalism… the logic that says we absolutely must pursue happiness at all costs. For Foucault, especially in his classic book The History of Sexuality, volume 1, the apparent sexual revolution of the 1960s was nothing more than an intensification of the discourse about our sexuality. In other words, Foucault argues against what he calls the “repressive hypothesis”; this is the hypothesis that back in olden days before the liberatory work of Freudian psychoanalysis, things were more repressive. Instead, for Foucault, the cultural codes, institutions of morality, and modes of discourse — in other words, the way we talk about the sexual acts we’re not supposed to talk about — are not simply something repressive that we now pretend to liberate ourselves from. Rather, the repressive apparatus (e.g., the church, the school, doctors, etc.) actually invogorates and directs our desire. In other words, society is not just repressive of our desire; it is productive of our desire. In effect, the discourse of sexuality places us in the midst of paradoxical, conflicting demands that are perhaps even more intense now than they were before…
….and this is what I think the movie Easy A is about. In our supposedly liberated, post-60s world, things are not so “easy” after all.
And where does the movie end up? Exactly where you might expect — not the politically radical ending of Hawthorne’s novel where Hester refuses to capitulate to the hypocritical social order and where she instead invents an alternative ethos. Rather, it ends with Olive confessing “the truth” in public and finding exactly the safe romance that everyone wanted for her in the first place…. Sigh. Oh well, it’s still a good movie, full of the surrealistic, postmodern pastiche that we all love.
Now, what I haven’t said anything about in this blog post is another bit of cleverness in the movie — its allusion to another American classic often taught in high school. While Olive expresses herself by alluding to The Scarlet Letter, her gay friend Brandon expresses his own sexuality by alluding to Huckleberry Finn as he runs away from town with a black man. There’s a lot more to say here, but I’ll leave that thread for someone else to unravel.
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