Growing up in the 90s and 2000s, the most influential sexual educator in my life—and maybe yours, too—was not my parents or friends or the “Family Life” teacher at school. It was the TV and movies, the glowing screens that gave me access to an adult world I couldn’t participate in otherwise. As someone who grew up with an impenetrable purity complex, collecting information about sex from TV was especially appealing to me, as it meant I didn’t need to a) engage in conversations that made me uncomfortable or b) reveal my curiosity towards a realm that threatened my Good Girl sensibilities.
But because you cannot ask the screen “wait, what is he doing?” and expect to get a proper answer, TV and movies also became my biggest source of sexual confusion. Along with some basic misinformation about sex only being acceptable when had by thin, straight hotties who could orgasm mutually in the context of a grand love narrative where the man plays aggressor and the woman plays receiver, I picked up a few more falsehoods, ranging from bizarre and benign to downright traumatizing. So if you thought The Magic School Bus was an educational haven or Superbad was everyone’s favourite, I’m here to offer a different perspective.
Scene: The jeep. Rose (poor little rich girl) and Jack (actually poor) defy class barriers by consummating their love inside a car inside a ship destined to sink and devastate the maritime travel industry. Then, near the film’s conclusion, a hypothermic Jack delivers his last words to Rose: “Listen Rose, you’re gonna get out of here, you’re gonna go on, and you’re gonna make lots of babies, and you’re gonna watch ‘em grow.”
The takeaway: Jack impregnated Rose several times in the car and he’s happy she’ll go on to bear all the resultant children later in life.
This did not turn out to happen for Rose and I was very upset, having been tricked. I was 5 years old when I saw Titanic, and so I’ll chalk the misunderstanding up to my own ignorance instead of blaming the filmmakers.
Star Wars Episode V: Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The scene: Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewie are visiting Luke Skywalker in a hospital following his altercation with a space yeti. Han Solo is being a real prick and bragging about an alleged steamy moment between himself and Leia in the “South Passage.” Dignity affronted, Leia gets revenge by planting a big one on Luke (the male rival). “Well I guess you don’t know everything about women yet!” Leia says, blissfully unaware that she just made out with her own brother.
The takeaway: Kissing your brother is chill?
To be fair, Luke and Leia’s siblinghood had yet to be revealed at the time of their kiss, and so they weren’t exactly driving toward incest knowingly. But as a young child who watched the Star Wars movies out of order and didn’t really understand dramatic irony as a plot tool, I concluded that kissing your brother was just a natural part of the romantic journey. I never acted on this misconception but I do recall a certain tension existing between my brother and me when we dressed up as Luke and Leia, which was often.
The Magic School Bus Season 3, Episode 8: “Goes Upstream” (1996)
The scene: After the bus shape-shifts into huge robotic salmon (classic), Miss Frizzle drives it into the river so that her students can witness a salmon migration and learn how fish have babies. Miss Frizzle kicks things up a notch by turning all the kids into fish eggs and ejecting them through a hole in the floor of the bus/salmon. “The bus just laid eggs, and we’re in them!” yells Ralphie, who’s a bit slow. When a big dad salmon comes along and sprays the kids with “fertilizer” (resembling a cloud of pee), time speeds up and all the kids hatch into little fish.
The takeaway: Eggs are fertilized by pee, and women get pregnant because men pee into them.
This myth was not debunked for me until I was in the twilight of my elementary school days, at which time our sex-ed teacher broke the news of a second penile substance, called jizz. Sitting there in the green American Eagle hoodie I wore everyday, I thought, so it’s not just…pee? I became hyper-aware of my potential knowledge gap. I learned that asking questions about sex meant potentially looking very stupid, which is the last thing you want when you’re 12. (Or 13, or 15, or 18…)
The scene: Almost all of them. This movie is a barrage of innuendos crammed into a series of jams about horny American teens trying to devirginize a young Australian. Lyrics like “did she put up a fight?” (as in, was it rape?) and “the chicks’ll cream to greased lightning” may have sailed over the head of my younger self, but the drive-in scene definitely did not. When a lustful Danny throws himself on top of Sandy, she screams at him and struggles to break free. Escaping from his “sin wagon,” she slams his dick in the door and throws away his class ring. “You can keep your piece of tin!” she yells, storming off.
The takeaway: Sandy is a crazy bitch, and women should always appreciate male attention.
As a 10-year-old, I thought Sandy was ungrateful for throwing away the ring. I thought she was mean for slamming his penis in the door. I thought she was stupid for blowing her chance with the hottest guy in school. My backwards thoughts were a product of a larger cultural belief that consent just isn’t sexy, but also of the film’s positioning of its characters throughout: Danny is a nice boy, and Sandy is a prude who needs a voluminous hairstyle and a sex life fit in. All of this planted in me the idea that speaking out against a Hot Guy or a Nice Guy—whether because I felt threatened or simply uncomfortable—meant I was blowing an opportunity to be liked and maybe even loved. And what was I if not likable and lovable?
The Notebook (2004)
The scene: Noah and Allie attempt to have sex in a dusty fixer-upper, but once they’re ready and naked and horizontal, Allie freaks out and kills the mood by asking Noah what he is “thinking.” The next time they try, Allie communicates with only her body and it’s totally mind-blowing.
The takeaway: First time sex is awkward but after that it’s gravy. Also: shut up and bang already.
Before watching The Notebook as a tween, sex in movies had mostly been presented to me as either a) an amorphous event behind the scenes, or b) natural and easy and possibly prefaced by a portrait session ( Titanic) or a tango ( Dirty Dancing). The fact that losing your virginity could be embarrassing and emotionally confusing had never been portrayed to me so plainly in a movie before. The problem with this glimpse of realism was that it was spliced into a movie that was otherwise fantastical. If you recall, Allie and Noah’s second crack at sex occurs years later after their rain-soaked adventure with the geese. This time, things are super hot, mostly because Allie remembers to zip it! Actual communication? No thanks. He’s a bird and she’s a bird. Talk would be pointless.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
The scene: Ennis (Heath Ledger) takes Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) from behind roughly in a tent at night. A groundbreaking and eye-opening presentation of queer love.
The takeaway (as gleaned from friends who saw it upon release): Queer sex is taboo. Also, beans before anal is a good idea?
The fact is, I didn’t actually see this movie when it came out, largely because people warned me it was shocking and my sheltered ass was like, OK, I’ll just watch Legally Blonde at home again instead. Friends talked about Brokeback Mountain the same was they talked about the first Saw movie, as in, they’d clearly watched it for shock value—a motivation that passed as legitimate back then but was actually quite homophobic. Then came the jokes. “That’s so Brokeback” became a cousin of “that’s so homo,” applied to freshmen who wanted to join the wrestling team or dudes who dared to have emotions. Brokeback Mountain did some serious cultural heavy-lifting in terms of redefining masculinity and making queer love visible. Too bad most of us were too dumb to grasp that.
The scene: Seth (Jonah Hill) is very jazzed because he’s been tasked by Jules (Emma Stone) to buy alcohol for her party. In the middle of the soccer field, he confronts his bff Evan (Michael Cera): “She wants to fuck me. She wants my dick in and around her mouth…she looked at me in the eyes and said, ‘Momma’s making a pubic salad and she needs some Seth’s own dressing.’ She’s DTF. She’s down to fuck, man.”
The takeaway: Everyone knows more about sex than me, everyone is super horny and I’m not, everyone is able to joke about sex but I can’t/don’t know how/don’t really want to.
Actually, these takeaways were pretty accurate. Although Superbad confused me, it didn’t exactly misinform me. It was a wake-up call that, yeah, I was naive, and not in on the generational jokes. I mean, I had no clue what “Seth’s own dressing” meant, and lines like, “You don't want girls to think you suck dick at fucking pussy” might as well have been gibberish. Meanwhile, my friends seemed to find these quips extremely funny, which made me feel like both a prude and a moron, a combo that was not cute at all and, oh my god, what if I’m never brave enough to have sex and what if people can tell that I’ve never heard of a “pubic salad” before and what if they think I’m just an uncool virgin with a closet full of chastity belts? Well, guess what, nobody actually thought those things. Because at that age and forever, everyone is too obsessed with their own shit to think about yours. They might pretend like they’re #instagood, especially in high school, but like, no. Everyone lies. We’re all losers. You do you.
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