One lame Tom Cruise joke aside, trailers for teen sex comedy-cum-“Scarlet Letter” allusion-fest “Easy A” were highly promising. A high-school flick about a lady, played by a lady, Emma Stone, with evident comedic chops, no less! If you love teen movies but lament the way contemporary versions of the genre feature an almost ritually male-centric attitude towards sex (with “Juno” and “Mean Girls” as the adored exceptions), then the sight of that big female face on movie posters might be enough to reel you in. And if you’re a geeky feminist English major, the film’s references to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s nineteenth-century masterpiece of symbol-laden Puritan-bashing don’t hurt either.
Thankfully, “Easy A” lives up to expectations, particularly, as critics have noted, in introducing to its star, who was merely a love interest in dude-fest “Superbad” and now gets to flex serious comedy muscle in a way that’s usually denied to actresses in such films. Stone takes full advantage of the opportunity, from quips and eyebrow-raising all the way through musical montages, exaggerated sobs, mimicry and simulating sex while jumping up and down on a bed with a gay pal.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, “Easy A” is the story of Olive (Stone), a smart-aleck nobody at her West Coast high school, the kind of place with pep rallies, cliques, raging parties at big houses with swimming pools, and gossip that spreads like wildfire through whispers and texts. Olive has a big mouth, and a small reputation–most people don’t know who she is. Until one afternoon, in a moment of pseudo-serious messing with her best friend, she makes up a fib about sleeping with a college guy. Jesus-loving alpha female Marianne (who, as others have pointed out, channels Mandy Moore’s fantastic performance in “Saved!”) overhears the lie and spreads it. Soon Olive is the object of a lot more curiosity and attention in the hallways, and she kind of likes it. So she agrees to the above-referenced fake nookie-session to save her gay friend from being bullied. She promises she’ll make him seem like a stud, and at a weekend party, they initiate the quite hilarious bed-jumping sequence as the entire school listens in at the doorway.
The movie’s most spot-on critique of the double standard which goes way beyond the teen years occurs just after that scene, when Brandon, having just gotten fake-laid, is given knuckle sandwiches and high-fives galore, while Olive is mocked and stared at to the extent that she feels she has to leave the party. Her “easy” reputation is cemented, with consequences as well as benefits. Most people think she really did it. But one misfit guy after another catches on to the real favor Olive did for Brandon, and in exchange for gift cards to various local retail outlets–but really because she pities them and perversely enjoys being sought after–she lets them brag about their own made-up sexual exploits with her.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Olive’s class is coincidentally reading the Scarlet Letter, as most high school English classes do. Ironic to the core, Olive affixes a Hester Prynne-like “A” to a series of corsets, and starts stalking the hallways in stilettos, with her red hair bouncing off her bare shoulders, looking like a modern day Belle Watling. She’s wearing her (imaginary) sins with pride, as intrigued by tampering with her image as all teens are.
Of course, things eventually spin off the rails for our virginal heroine who has discovered “slut pride.” One seemingly-harmless boy thinks Olive’s proclivities are an invitation to sexually assault her. Others blame her for their STDs which arose from other sources. An absurd subplot featuring Lisa Kudrow as the school’s brittle, lying, adulterous guidance counselor feels like it was plucked from another, far inferior movie, but it lands Olive in the path of an angry anti-skank picket line. Never fear. Our heroine has a talk with her quirky yet loveable boomer mom who informs her daughter that she herself was actually promiscuous in her youth, had a reputation, and moved beyond it thanks to the family sense of humor. And with the help of a goofy good guy waiting in the wings (played by Penn Badgely of Gossip Girl fame), Olive redeems herself with a stunning public finale and then a long, live webcast, which provides a convenient framing device for the film. Olive uses social media, which has served to spread her bad reputation, to salvage it, explaining the whole sorry situation to the entire internet and rather contradictorily telling them to stay out of her business. And then she rides off into the sunset like a character from the 80’s movies she, and the film’s creator, admire so much.
The film isn’t a feminist rallying cry, and it certainly manages to have it both ways by making lots of jokes about sex and sluttiness without actually featuring a single female teenager who has lost her virginity. As Jezebel’s Dodai writes:
What would happen if Olive did sleep with a few guys in her class? Would she cease to be a heroic character? Survey says: Yes… It seems that for girls today, even on film*, you can talk about sex, pretend to have sex and joke about sex — but if you want a happy ending, you can’t actually have sex.
Still the film’s own adherence to Hollywood double standards about teens and sex doesn’t stop it from busting other stereotypes–about genuinely, goofily funny women, about sexual double standards, about high school movies that don’t have to center on gross-out jokes or a passel of dudes banding together to lose their V-cards by prom. “Easy A” goes down like its title, nice and easy, challenging the status quo in a pleasantly understated, and often truly amusing, way. One can hope that it will lead the way for more teen comedies with girls at their center, and even more aggressive critiques of our still-Puritan attitudes towards young women’s sexuality.