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Category: Art and Entertainment, Girls

"Easy A": Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

September 20, 2010

Amanda Bynes & Emma Stone in "Easy A"

The newest high school comedy to attempt Mean Girls status is Easy A, which takes the plotline of moral righteousness from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s nineteenth century novel The Scarlet Letter and transplants it to a present-day California high school. Olive Pendergast (the seriously likable Emma Stone) is a nonentity at her high school, prone to falling over and scaring people off with her elevated vocabulary. Her life changes when she tells her best friend that she lost her virginity to excuse missing a camping trip…and the aggressively anti-premarital sex Marianne (Amanda Bynes) happens to overhear. 

Before she can process her own lie, Olive becomes a new object of interest to the student body that didn’t want to help her gather her books from the ground three days before. Why? Because having lost her virginity, Olive’s open for business. If you’ve noticed the rampant sexualization of girls in the media or seen television shows and films in which girls gain attention from being sexually adventurous, then maybe you won’t be surprised that Olive doesn’t hate the notoriety she gets from her faux-affair. Infamy, after all, is still a kind of fame.

Easy A takes pushes its Scarlet Letter roots even further, though, when a gay classmate asks Olive to fake an affair with him so he can survive high school without daily beatings. As this plays right into her newfound appreciation for being the school “tramp” and Olive thinks his playing straight could save him, she accepts.

This decision spirals again into something much bigger than anticipated when all the school’s downtrodden boys come to her for similar help. Having fictitiously slept with several classmates, the school decides that she’s toxic. Olive furiously decides that if they want a slut, that’s what she’ll give them, and she remodels her wardrobe to include only lingerie and an accessory—a sparkly red A, stuck daily to her chest.

Though Easy A is a high school comedy (and a well-written one, at that), its exploration of what sexuality means for adolescents is disturbing because it rings depressingly true. I didn’t go to a high school with as strict a caste system as Olive’s, but I was a teenager, and have just graduated from the college culture that encourages sexual assault and warped sexual expectations. The fact of the matter is that today’s society, helped by popular culture and generational precedent, is one that pressures both boys and girls to conform to their respective sexual ideals.

We tell men and boys that they must have heterosexual sex in order to be accepted, causing insecurity and panic in those that either aren’t ready or aren’t interested. But if he can manage to have multiple sexual partners, a boy can become The Man—so why not try? As Olive quickly discovers, girls and women get a more confusing directive. You won’t become The Man if you sleep around; instead, you lose your Humanity card and gain the powerful but contentious Slut card. It’s near impossible, it seems, to carry both at once.

The concept of “slut shaming” is unfortunately nothing new, and even more unfortunately comes from all sides. One thing Easy A does really well is look at the instances of woman-on-woman shaming, as Olive loses her female best friend and becomes the target of hatred for women, students and adults alike.  As PWV alumna Jaclyn Friedman noted in her piece, “My Sluthood, Myself,” the problem of shaming a woman for her sexual behavior can even extend beyond cliques to judges of rape cases who decide the woman was “asking for it.”

So while I truly liked Easy A, I was disappointed that the only aspect of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” problem that Easy A doesn’t cover is whether you truly are “damned if you do.” As Olive didn’t actually have sex, the protests and open hostility she had to endure were obviously wrong. But what if she had? Would facing “JEZEBEL” signs be okay if she was as promiscuous as supposed? The jury, as always on this crucial issue, is out.

For more information on how to combat sexualization of girls in the media, check out the SPARK Summit project’s website, or follow SPARK on Twitter. Easy A trailer: