Hi everyone! We're using the hashtag #popsexed to talk about reproductive rights in pop culture. Chime in on that hashtag or follow the conversation here on Branch.
Thanks for this insightful discussion, everyone!
Judy Blume is always the big name in YA books, but for me it was Norma Klein. She wrote explicitly feminist stories about young women coming into their sexuality and navigating first loves and relationships in such a matter-of-fact way. It was incredibly eye-opening. Punishment never followed sex, even if confusion did, and the characters also referenced the way that sex was talked about punitively in the pop culture *they'd* grown up on. Pretty meta, really.
I grew up in Berkeley and went to public schools in Berkeley & had GREAT sex education. In HS, we learned about birth control, STIs, abortion, sexual assault, sexual orientation, drugs. My teacher had a giant diaphragm & on Fridays would put it on her head at the end of class & tell us if we were riding bikes to wear our helmets & if we were having sex to use protection. So I had great, reality-based sex ed in school. Media taught me all the sexist, unhealthy emotional messages about sex and romance. Everything from reruns old Anette Funicello movies to Three’s Company to Charlie's Angels. So there were two tracks in my upbringing. The reality-based info track, and the completely screwed up media/fantasy/emotional/romance/sexy track.
I do also recall having HORRIBLE experiences seeing images of sexual violence. My parents took me to see Saturday Night Fever when I was 9, and there was that awful rape scene. Then I saw a movie called Nighthawks when I was a pre-teen, and it was a "mystery" but had these awful graphic depictions and descriptions of vicious violence against women. My parents controlled the TV I watched, but couldn't quite filter the movies very effectively. What I learned from those two films (and subsequent films) was that women were targets for rape and just awful bloody violence.
That rape scene in Saturday Night Fever SCARRED me too, Aya!
In music: My dad was a total homophobe who LOVED Elton John, which is funny enough in retrospect, and I remember being in the car singing along with my brother to the song "Big Dipper," which is about cruising. It's hilarious to me now. But MTV is definitely where I started to put a lot of sexuality and sexual-expectations-for-women stuff together, in both good and bad ways.
The book that was most influential in terms of actually learning how awesome sex is would have to be Snow Falling on Cedars. There is a sex scene--if I remember correctly and I do because I read it approximately 1 million times--inside of a tree that is really hot. I bookmarked the page and for years that was my main masturbatory aid. I think if you go to my bookcase in my childhood bedroom, it will still be there and fall open to that scene on its own.
To Sarah's Judy Blume question: Blume was definitely influential, but because she used somewhat coded language (never mentioning the word "masturbation," for instance, but alluding to it) not always totally satisfying to my curiosity. Besides Norma Klein, there were other YA writers who dealt well with teen sexuality—M.E. Kerr, Paula Danizger, and some others. But my friends and I always knew to turn to mass-market paperbacks for the hard stuff. Harold Robbins books were big for explicit sex that was SUPER misogynist, though I didn't realize it at the time.
I have vivid memories of the sex scene in The Terminator. Like they took a break from this relentless being hunted by a technological monster and had this hot moment. Decades later, the image of their hands gripped in climax and then relaxing stays in my mind. And then, of course [SPOILER ALERT] dude gets killed & she ends the film pregnant...
Oh, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show! It used to show at midnight on Fridays at a rep theater in our town. In junior high, my friends and I would get all dressed up and go. It was definitely the place I explored a sense of sexiness that was a mash-up of self-objectification as a woman, queer imagery, camp, and spectacle. We knew all the things to yell out, and we did the Time Warp in the aisles. But compared to other stuff, it was tame, consensual, and more about the idea of sex than graphic in any of its depictions. It was more like musical theater than anything else. And very white. After a while, my Puerto Rican mom caught on and shut it down-LoL! She said it was inappropriate for us to be out so late doing that in junior high.
My mother was right about Rocky Horror being inappropriate. It turned out to be a safe place to explore some of this, but it could easily have gone another way. We were an unsupervised group of 13-year olds at a midnight movie in a town (and theater) full of frat boys and who knows who. It could have been dangerous, but we were pretty inexperienced, wary of strangers, and not using alcohol/drugs. Plus, our parents knew where we were.
I went to the Rocky Horror show a few times, too. The first time, the friends I was with announced that I was a "virgin" to the show and the entire audience threw things at me and a guy ran up and jammed a pair of men's BVDs down over my face. It was unsettling. This was in Greenwich Village in the late 1980s. I already knew what a transvestite was from reading 'Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex,' and I expected the film to be much kinkier than it was.
Yay for lists for the future daughters!! As a woman with a current daughter, I am shocked at how little supervision my parents had of what I was reading/watching/listening to. I'm a totalitarian fanatic about images/stories/media with my daughter. I have a total ban on Disney/Barbie, and monitor stuff as carefully as I can. I know she will have access to more crazy stuff as she gets older, but I want to keep the misogyny/obsessive romance/sexy princess bodies at bay as long as I can.
Andi: Yikes! Having stuff thrown at you & underwear shoved over your head? Awful! One of the differences between Berkeley & NYC. Here, people just yelled "virgin" and got on with it. It would be interesting to see what license to target women came with that film in different venues and geographical locations...
Jasmin: yes! And that was part of the turnoff for me. I needed the woman to have her own thing, separate from the dude in order for me to invest in the story. Likely this reaction is part of being the kid of a single mom. The dream with the man in the middle of it looked unstable. As an ending, felt unrealistic and unsatisfying.
Okay, let's talk about reproductive rights specifically. Maya, in the article you published this week, you look at how women who have abortions in movies are more likely to die than women who have abortions in real life. What do you all remember about stories in pop culture that dealt with abortion, birth control, and reproductive politics? (or the lack of such stories!)
Again, YA books were good in that the handful I read that dealt with abortion portrayed it as a practical decision that wasn't about good and evil, and sketched an aftermath in which the people involved were changed, but not damned. And at the time in the '80s when I was growing up, abortions weren't portrayed (or not portrayed) the way they are now. Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Last American Virgin were the first two movies I saw that included an abortion scene. They made it seem unfamiliar, but not capital-S scary. And they had clinic scenes with neutral practitioners.
And when there were POC, there were other problems. Like Spike Lee's rape scene in "She's Gotta Have It," which Lee recently apologized for. Gee thanks. On the positive side, it was the first depiction of a woman of color who wasn't interested in building her life around one man. But the film was built around her sex life, and the multiple men she dated. She had this job, and we saw her at work for like 20 seconds. Did she have any friends? Other than the homophobic depiction of the "lesbian" who was trying to holla...
I don't remember seeing anything about abortion or unintended pregnancy growing up, which, again, could be because I was pop culture illiterate until late in high school. But I was actually just the other day rewatching Dawson's Creek (a regular thing) and the abortion story line there isn't too terrible actually. Dawson's mom doesn't go through with the abortion in the end, but there's a good scene where Gretchen teaches Dawson to stop making his mom's pregnancy about him and have some fucking empathy, which was nice. And Gretchen's abortion isn't portrayed as the end of the world.
I think the biggest message in pop culture about abortion is that people are falling spontaneously into bed with each other with no discussion of protection, and for the most part, the consequences don't include unplanned pregnancies or STIs. In my novel, people are always using condoms. Like, every time. One of my freelance editors was complaining that the condoms were like another character. But I insist on condom use for my protagonists!
Andi: yes! I have written a bunch about Knocked Up because it's so toxic. I feel like I finally drank the antidote w/ Obvious Child. And I agree that "protection" is often code for pregnancy only, particularly use of the pill, since it means no involvement/complication for male partners. Full sexual access to woman, with no consequences...for them.
Thanks for this insightful discussion, everyone!
Thanks for your feedback! Team Branch