CinÉireann Issue 8 - Page 32

It seems like pop culture has recently found itself embroiled in a culture war. Perhaps it is a reflection of the turbulent times in which we live, or perhaps it's simply a new skirmish in a conflict that dates back beyond living memory.

Whatever it it, it seems like just about every form of media is tied up in a debate about progressive and liberal values. Comic book fans were outraged when Marvel dared to replace most of its central cast of straight white male characters with a more diverse ensemble. Gamers responded to the encroachment of feminists and progressive critics with an organised campaign of harassment. Even in the world of cinema, movies like Black Panther and The Last Jedi have become open wounds, where it seems impossible to voice an opinion about either without becoming embroiled in some life-and-death argument coded in references to "SJWs" or "diversity." The scare quotes are not optional. In film, all warriors are culture warriors.

In most cases, this cultural conflict is an expression of a predominantly white and predominantly male (and predominantly straight) establishment pushing back against what they see as an erosion of their own cultural authority, as if media is a finite resource and the reapportioning of focus within the media landscape is a zero sum game that might deprive them of the platform and attention that they so sorely need. Words like "feminist" and "strong female character" are wielded like cudgels that might be used to beat opponents into submission.

It is, perhaps, interesting to wonder whether this is a subset of the large culture war represented by the resurgence of the political right in both America and Europe, or whether that is simply an expression of the same deep-set and inarticulate rage that drives these (comparatively) minor cultural skirmishes. After all, the election of Donald Trump and the victory of Brexit are often framed in symbolic, rather than literal terms. It does not matter that either has yet to accomplish any of their actual political goals. They exist as a rebuke to "the establishment" and to "political correctness", as a rejection of progress and liberalism.

However, some of the most interesting battles are being waged at the edge of the frame, in the most unlikely of places. In particular, modern grossout and juvenile comedy has become an unlikely champion of progressive values and of feminist causes.

In many ways, broad studio comedies aimed squarely at the teenage market seem an unlikely standard bearer for progressive values.

Part of this is down to the genre's history. As a rule, these comedies tend to be crass and vulgar, often told from the perspective of young (white) men who desperately crave sex and are willing to do anything in order to get laid. The sexual politics of the genre are often as messed up as those underpinning the slasher genre, another genre which has historically positioned itself as both voyeuristic and puritan at the same time. Slasher movies invite the audience to watch attractive young people having sex, while also promising that they will be punished for it. (Not for nothing does Scream articulate the rule that the final girl is expected to remain "pure" - or "chaste.")

Historically, these teen comedies have adopted an attitude that amounts to "boys will be boys" with regards to young teenage boys and their pursuit of sex; think about the antics of the characters in Porkies or the "rape by mistaken identity" that is treated as a harmless prank in Revenge of the Nerds, story beats that are played for laughs at the expense of the female characters. There were classic teen comedies with well-developed and nuanced female characters, such as Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Richmond High, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

32 CinÉireann / June 2018

The Progressive Politics of the Teen Sex Comedy

Words: Darren Mooney