by Abby Plener
During a discussion about how the media contributes to teens’ sexual education, a classmate of mine in a feminist political theory seminar declared “I learned everything I needed to know from American Pie. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the 1999 hit teen comedy, the movie follows four male friends who make a pact to lose their virginities before they graduate high school. As their ringleader Kevin astutely puts it:
Kevin: “All right, I got an idea. But it’s gotta stay between us. It’s really simple, we have just gotta make an agreement—or, no, it’s more than an agreement.”
Jim: “A bet?”
Kevin “A pact—no money involved, more important than any bet. Here’s the deal: we all get laid before we graduate.”
[other characters shrug at suggestion]
Oz: “It’s not like I haven’t been trying to get laid.”
Kevin: “Think about when you work out, Oz—you gotta have somewhere there right, someone to spot you, someone to keep you motivated. Well, that’s exactly what we can do for each other. We’ll be there to keep each other on track. Separately we are flawed and vulnerable, but together we are masters of our sexual destiny.”
Jim: [voice imitating Kung-fu movies in racist fashion] “Dungeon master kung-fun we strong, but our dragon style will defeat it.”
Oz: [similarly racist imitation] “The Qiao Lin masters from east and west must unite, fight, and find out who is number 1.”
Kevin: “Guys, come on, you’re ruining my moment here. I mean, this is our very manhood is at stake. We must make a stand here and now. No longer will our penises will remain flaccid and unused. We will fight for every man out there who isn’t getting laid and should be. This is our day. This is our time, and by god, we will not stand by and watch history condemn us into celibacy.”
Kevin: “We will take a stand, we will succeed.”
Oz: “”Bout time!”
Kevin: “We will get laid!”
As Kevin puts forth his manifesto, he sets the tone for the rest of the movie and other films like Superbad which would successfully follow it. In both films, the protagonists feel that sex is an experience that has been unfairly withheld from them, and their primary motive is to correct this injustice at all costs. With their sites set on reaching the finish line, they often fail to consider how their all or nothing attitude will affect their potential partners, who are (unsurprisingly) always women. As they bond with their male friends over their shared sexual insecurities, their female counterparts are objectified, tokenized, and are always left in the background while the locker-room worthy banter takes centre stage.
Sitting in that feminist theory class, I was pretty annoyed that a male peer of mine would consider American Pie educational, and that he had the gall to announce his feelings in this setting without taking note of the film’s problematic premise. In retrospect, though, I’m not at all surprised. I can certainly imagine why this movie and its millennial successor Superbad resonated with so many young, white, male, straight viewers. The insecurities the characters express are felt by many, especially their concern with their lack of sexual experience and how they understand their masculinity. The leads in these movies are portrayed as awkward, non-threatening, well-intentioned, nice guys who are often set in opposition to more confident, take charge characters. Consider how the obnoxious, homophobic Stifler acts a foil to Kevin and buddies in American Pie, or how the leads in Superbad have to deal with intimidating cops and tough guys as they trek their way to a party.
However, while our protagonists are seemingly harmless compared to those other jerks, they still believe they need to be more macho to get laid, and often reinforce their envy of alpha-maledom by calling each other “fags” and “pussies,” and by being condescending to women. While I understand that many may identify with these characters’ insecurities, I have to question how these anxieties manifest themselves. If these movies are held in such high esteem by so many people, what exactly are they learning?
Both films are based on the assumption that the universe has unfairly discriminated against these characters by withholding sex from them – a reflection of the protagonists’ privileged outlook. These young men perceive themselves as marginalized when they are anything but – they are all white, middle-class, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied dudes with an active support network of friends and family. In fact, part of the reason they’re so insecure about their lack of experience is because they fear they’ll be social outcasts at college if they arrive on campus as virgins. Equipped with an ample sense of entitlement, these boys believe that all they have to do to claim their prize is to put in the effort and seize the right opportunities.
For the leads in American Pie, it’s all about strategy. Oz joins choir to score with the music chicks, Finch spreads rumours about himself so that he’ll sound more interesting, Jim finds the one girl in school who is unaware of his embarrassing reputation, and Kevin finds a book on how to perform oral sex so he can convince his girlfriend to take the next step. While the boys of Superbad don’t scheme quite like their forefathers do, they do share the belief that sex can be achieved through social capital. In both movies, the leads make strategic alliances so that they get invited to the right parties and meet the right people. They believe that gaining access to these privileged spaces is key to providing them with the opportunity for sex. In Superbad, after McLovin gets a fake ID, he and his friends leap at the chance to buy alcohol for a party in the hopes that their crushes will be drunk enough to pay attention to them.
But despite all their deceitfulness and calculating plans, these men are absolved of all their sins because they reveal that their obsession with getting laid is just a reflection of their deep insecurities. While Kevin spends the majority of the movie pressuring his girlfriend to have sex with him, in the end he realizes that he too is nervous about sex. When they finally do it, its portrayed as a bittersweet farewell before they leave for college. Likewise, even though Oz only joined the school choir to “work the sensitive angle” with songbird Heather, he accidentally ends up falling for her and his focus on sex is portrayed as a fear of commitment that he’s finally overcome. Even after Jim films a foreign exchange student undressing in his room without her permission, and she ends up getting deported because of the scandal, he is never reprimanded for his actions. Instead he laments about the horrible luck he has with women and how embarrassed he is that he too ended up on camera. And finally, when Seth from Superbad admits to Jules that he thought he only had a chance with her if she was drunk, she’s charmed by his insecurities and his anxiousness to impress her. No matter what, these films stubbornly insist that these nice guys’ only crime is being self-conscious, all the while completely ignoring how harmful their actions are.
These films promote the false notion that worrying about sex is a uniquely masculine problem that deserves a bromance-friendly solution. By assuming that someone’s masculinity is defined by their sexual experience, and sympathizing with those who envy this heteronormative brand of masculinity, these movies condone behaviour that make people unsafe. In reality, these characters are far from harmless. It’s not okay to get someone drunk to compensate for your own insecurities. It’s not okay to go to a party, feeling entitled to have sex because that’s what you think people do in those spaces. And it’s not okay to pretend that actions don’t have consequences just because there are other similarly-minded men with whom you can bond over your shared anxieties.
Abby Plener is a communications professional and sometimes writer from Toronto, with a B.A. in English Lit from McGill University. Her work has been published in Bitch and SCOPE magazines. She aspires to cook without burning things, find more free things to do in the city, discover cheap fitness classes, and finish reading that book weighing heavily on her night table.