A Modest Proposal: In defense of ‘Easy A’

The other day a friend of mine posted the following on his Facebook page:

Okay, so the basic conceit of “Easy A” is that a high school girl gets tagged as a slut for having sex. In 2010. Nobody, outside of the goddamn Amish, would give a shit about a high school girl giving it up in 2010. I graduated in . . . a long time before 2010 and nobody cared then and that was in Catholic school. And since in Emma Stone is wandering around in a skintight black tank top, I’m going to assume this community is not Amish and the school is not Catholic.

As much as I’d like to think that slut-shaming is irrelevant or even non-existent in modern-day teen life, unfortunately, I know that’s not true. While Easy A might not be a perfect teen comedy, I and other feminists have applauded the satire for pointing out the double-standards of sexual activity (or, in the protagonist’s case, a lack of activity) amongst genders.

Never seen the movie? Here’s my quickie recap (with spoilers): A modern-day retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, protagonist Olive becomes the subject of the high school rumor mill when — in order to appear cool and appease peer pressure — she lies to her best friend about having sex. (Olive is a virgin for the entire movie.) Her lie is overheard by a religious-zealot who then spreads it around the school and demonizes Olive. As Mean Girls so aptly put it: There’s some girl-on-girl crime, as all the players in the set-up are girls. But instead of being shamed by the rumor, Olive embraces it and (here’s the satire part) goes over-the-top with it, dressing seductively and pretending to have sex with different boys (one of which is a bullied gay student who desperately pleads with her to help him appear straight). It gets out of hand. And in the end, Olive puts a stop to it with some advice from her mom and a very supportive family. (No damsel-in-distress or change for the sake of getting a guy here.)

The reason so many feminists like this movie is because it takes slut-shaming and blasts it open with satire and such ridiculous scenarios — ala A Modest Proposal — that you’re laughing, but thinking, too. Why is it that Olive’s gay friend Brandon is high-fived after his supposed sexual conquest of Olive but she has to endure the “walk of shame” as she exits the party? Why does Olive’s new identity as a slut mean she must be, in fact, easy and obligated to put out, as suggested in one date scene? And isn’t it interesting that it’s the girls, more so than the boys, that reinforce the strict social rules of maintaining an identity of being a non-slut? (Bonus points: The movie steers clear of all-out indictments of any gender as all-bad or all-good; likewise about those who have sex or don’t.)

Of course, it’s not a perfect movie:

  • My friend points out Olive’s ridiculous outfits. True. They are over-the-top and even emblazoned with an “A” — an obvious reference to The Scarlet Letter (in which a Puritan woman must wear a red A on her at all times as a mark of an adulterous for sleeping with a man — who has no similar consequences). But isn’t that the point of satire? And, might I add, Olive’s outfits (with a couple of exceptions) actually cover up more of her body than her non-slutty contemporaries. (I think the religious-zealot girl might be wearing a mini-skirt the entire movie.)
  • One very valid criticism is that this movie is very lily-white, set in an affluent, white, middle-class community. I have no defense of this. There is no reason why this movie is set in and populated with whites other than institutionalized racism, which we all know is as rampant as sexism in Hollywood.
  • And even though the movie is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter, I see no reason why everyone in the movie who identifies as religious is shown as a zealot. GOP pipe-dreams aside, while funny, this is not a fair representation of people of faith.

Frankly, I was a bit surprised by my friend’s attitude about the movie. He’s the parent of a young girl who, I’m sorry to say, will encounter some form of this whether it is in her own lived experience or in witness to others.

I’m not going to let him off the hook with the “in my day” business, because he and I are roughly the same age. I grew up in Alaska — which in the pre-internet days of my youth had to be one of the most culturally isolated places in America — and I vividly remember when one of my sixth-grade classmates became the school slut. A tall, black girl, she got breasts first and from then on was the butt of every slut joke. The label dogged her all the way to high school. And people where very cruel. I always thought that she, like Olive, was a virgin throughout that experience, since I never heard of anyone actually dating her or having any kind of sexual experience with her. It was just a “known” thing. (A subject explored in great depth — more than I can do justice to here — in Emily White’s book Fast Girls>.)

(And speaking of the 1990s: Remember Monica Lewinsky, an adult woman who was so demonized for her sexual activity that her name is the very definition of slut on Urban Dictionary? The witch-hunt might have been about embarrassing President Clinton, but the stigma of the incident stays firmly attached to the woman.)

I think we also can’t discount the vast difference between being a teenager in the internet age and when my friend and I were kids. When you have young people committing suicide because of bullying, especially cyber-bullying, you have to acknowledge that today’s teenage life is different.

Genese at SlutWalk Las Vegas 2011.

Then I thought about the situation more and I wondered if race was a part of this. My friend is black and I am white. And, as the controversies around the SlutWalk movement showed us, there’s a world of difference between the cultural expectations of different races when it comes to sexuality and activity. Indeed, Racialiciouswent so far as to suggest that “slut” and slut-shaming were the almost exclusive domain of white women:

So maybe the best way to deal with the debates about re-appropriating the term “slut” is the way I deal with the whole n-word debate…. For me, so it is with the word slut. It is off-limits to me. But for those who have been shamed, and disciplined, and violently abused on the basis of its usage, they have the prerogative to determine whether to reclaim or not to. As a word used to  shame white women who do not conform to morally conservative norms about chaste sexuality, the term very much reflects white women’s specific struggles around sexuality and abuse. Although plenty of Black women have been called “slut,” I believe Black women’s histories are different, in that Black female sexuality has always been understood from without to be deviant, hyper, and excessive. Therefore, the word slut has not been used to discipline (shame) us into chaste moral categories, as we have largely been understood to be unable to practice “normal” and “chaste” sexuality anyway.

But perhaps, we have come to a point in feminist movement-building where we need to acknowledge that differing histories necessitate differing strategies.

Fair enough. Perhaps there is some unchecked white privilege in the conversation about slut-shaming. But I can’t shake this notion that even the idea that women of color are automatically branded deviant and hyper-sexualized (like my friend in sixth grade), is a facet of this discussion. Maybe black women aren’t called sluts. But is the shaming of a black woman being called a ho or bitch by another black person really that different from my experience being called a slut by a white person? Sure, those words might be front-loaded with some different cultural baggage, but the end result is to silence, shame, and oppress.

Sure, Easy A is not a perfect movie. But this flawed satire has spurred a lot of meaningful conversation, and I think that’s A-worthy.

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