Internets, Teen Movie Times (which, for those of you joining us now, is an ebook edition collecting my Teen Movie Times essays, plus bonus content!) has sold eighteen copies! Thank you very much; that is certainly handy.
Here, then, is the promised essay on Easy A, one of two essays written especially for the book. The other, on The Craft, is an ebook exclusive, so if you’d like to have a peek at that, hit up the good people at Smashwords! At 1.99 USD, it’s cheap!
I love Easy A. It’s not perfect. It’s very far from perfect. But it hits so many of my sweet spots that it instantly became one of my favourite teen movies ever.
Olive Penderghast is a nobody, but a fairly cheerful one, who loves 80s teen movies, classic literature, and being witty. She has one real friend, an awesome family, and a crush on the school mascot. One Friday, to get out of a camping trip with friend Rhiannon’s weird hippie parents, she claims she has a date. She does! With a musical birthday card, while she makes shampoo mohawks in the shower.
But when asked to account for her date, a slip of the tongue leads Rhiannon to believe that Olive lost her virginity to the imaginary “George”, and Olive decides to take the misunderstanding and run with it for a little while.
It would be a relatively harmful lie, except that she’s overheard by Marianne, prissy and intolerant leader of the school’s Christian group. The rumour spreads at the speed of cellphone, and Olive is suddenly a somebody. A supposedly trampy somebody that everyone notices!
Olive kind of enjoys having some attention, but while discussing The Scarlet Letter in English, one of Marianne’s horrifying cohorts declares that Hester Prynne brought the various horrors with which she was afflicted upon herself, since she was such a skank.
And then she turns to Olive:
Nina: Maybe youshould embroider a red A on your wardrobe, you abominable tramp.
Olive: Maybe you should get a wardrobe, you abominable twat.
Olive gets sent to the principal’s office, where he sentences her to clean-up detention, and tells her that if she uses a word like that again in his school he will expel her. This reaction to a fairly low-grade insult makes more sense when you learn that the movie script was originally rated R because of all the swearing and was edited down to a PG-13. The scene is much more comprehensible if you imagine that Olive did not say “twat”.
(What happens to Nina, if anything, we never discover, but for the record, anyone insulting someone else in those terms in my classrooms will not do so with impunity.)
Further confronted with how information travels around the school (“I heard you got suspended for calling Nina Howell a dick and punching her in the tit!”) Olive tries to confess to Rhiannon that she didn’t have sex. But Rhiannon refuses to believe it: “Yeah, right. Your secret is safe with me, ya little sexy monkey.”
Olive, properly ashamed of what she said, cleans with a will, and reconnects with old friend Brandon, who is also doing detention detail – for him, it’s because he got punched in the face for being gay (though closeted), and in the ensuing discussion, called the homophobic principal a fascist.
Olive confesses that she made up the sex, and Brandon decides that if she’s willing to lie about sex, she might be willing to beard up and lie about having sex with him. Olive refuses, then sympathises with his very real torment, and agrees. But she’s not doing any of this half-assed just telling people! They stage a (brilliant, ridiculous) raunchy performance at a massive party. Brandon gets admiration and respect!
Olive gets scorn and amused contempt. And a gift card from a grateful Brandon, who is no longer the target of every homophobic bully in school.
And lo, how things escalate.
Rhiannon, who formerly celebrated Olive’s apparent promiscuity, becomes nasty and holier-than-thou about Olive being a “dirty skank”, joining Marianne’s throng of Christian Olive-haters. In retaliation, Olive acquires a new wardrobe of awesome corsets and stitches a red letter A to every one.
It seems as if every miserable male virgin in the school, tormented for his lack of manly sexual athleticism (how the double standards roll), wants Olive to lie for him the same way she did for Brandon. And because she is kind-hearted, she agrees – though giftcards had better be a-coming. (The way in which the value of those giftcards decreases is one of the movie’s most pointed commentaries on how female sexual expression is societally [and grossly] devalued through frequent use. It’s very funny, and very uncomfortable.)
And the guidance counsellor, Mrs Griffith, who is married to Olive’s favourite English teacher, reveals that she’s been having an affair with an (of age) student. When the student, Micah, is diagnosed with chlamydia, he tells his raging parents that he contracted it from Olive Penderghast.
Olive, aghast at the thought of the marriage breakup, tells Mrs Griffith that she’ll confirm Micah’s lie. And Mrs Griffith lets her.
Unfortunately, Micah is Marianne’s boyfriend, and she steps up her harassment campaign to the point of picketing the school, demanding Olive’s expulsion. And a guy that Olive thinks is inviting her for a date hands her a giftcard… then gropes her. Olive explains that she doesn’t actually do anything, she just says she does – and he tries again. “I paid you!” he yells at her when she shoves him off and oh my god, it’s awful. So awful.
Fortunately! Adorable mascot Woodchuck Todd, upon whom Olive has the big crush, offers to drive her home. He doesn’t believe the rumours, and he remembers that she was once a nice little girl who lied about kissing a scared little boy to protect his reputation. He asks her out, and she demurs, for the moment. Because she has to set the story straight!
So Olive approaches the people for whom she lied, wanting them to help her out.
She lied for them; will they not tell the truth for her? No! Because they are being gross dickbags. Brandon, upon whom Olive thinks she could rely, has run off with a big hulking black guy, leaving behind a note for his parents reading, “I’m gay, bitches!” and is therefore unreachable. And Mrs Griffith has decided it would be better to play a game called “Who would you believe?” rather than come clean.
Olive goes straight to Mr Griffith.
Olive: “Your wife has chlamydia! And she’s been sleeping with a student and she gave it to him and she’s trying to blame it on me.”
Mr Griffith: “…what?”
Olive: [backing away] “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
And then Olive runs home, the place where she is always safe and accepted.
Her mother, who is awesome, gives her a pep talk and actively claims a past identity as a slut: “I slept with a whole bunch of people – a slew, a heap, a peck!” (And, which I note with approval, while she didn’t enjoy people saying awful things about her, and credits incredibly low self-esteem as the reason for “getting around”, she doesn’t evince any regret for the actual promiscuity.)
Olive: Stop! Stop! Can you not see that I’m a mess?
Mom: No, you’re not, Olive. You’re wonderful.
With this encouragement, Olive decides that rather than relying on others to clear her name, she will tell her own truth.
To kick things off, with the assistance of Woodchuck Todd, she performs an awesome musical number before the basketball game – just like an 80s teen movie! – wearing her most skin-baring outfit, emblazoned with red ribbons and black lace.
And no scarlet letter A.
“Tune in to FreeOlive.com!” she yells, and heads home to tell her story.
Which is what she’s been doing, all through this movie.
At the very end, Todd turns up to to stand on a ride-on lawnmower and play “Don’t Forget About Me” through his ipod speakers, like an updated 80s movie hero, and it’s all very cute.
The Message: A genre-savvy heroine is a joy forever
Oh my god. Olive Penderghast. I am in love with her.
Olive Pendergast is literate, in exactly the way I like best. She’s familiar with classical literature (The Scarlet Letter), teen literature (“Judy Blume should have prepared me for that”) and pop culture (John Hughes movies). She’s intellectually curious, and she relates her lived experience to the created experiences she’s watched or read about. She’s intelligent (shown, not told!), linguistically sharp, and confident in her assessment of cultural works.
She’s also a fake redhead happy to spend a weekend at home painting her nails and singing in the shower.
I was basically that girl at seventeen. I’m pretty much that girl now; only with more experience and independence, always a plus.
The thing is, as Olive points out, cultural products really do reflect and affect our lives. Sometimes mean gossip really does take over and you become the talk of the school and it’s total lies. Man, the crap I used to gullibly believe about my fellow students. No one was giving their boyfriend blowjobs in the bushes by the senior common room, 14 year old Karen! That would have been beyond stupid, and also you attended an all girls’ school.
Olive is aware of the genres she inhabits (teen movie, romantic comedy, literary retelling), and thank goodness. We can understand that Cady Heron is too culturally ignorant to know that her life is a teen movie staple, and it’s entirely believable that Cher Horowitz is so self-absorbed that she totally fails to realise she’s living out one of the greatest works in the English language. But we couldn’t forgive the intelligent, perceptive Olive for not being clear-eyed enough to recognise that her experience bears a close relationship to that of Hester Prynne.
Luckily, we don’t have to. Not only does Olive realise that The Scarlet Letter is directly applicable to her situation, she makes explicit reference to it by pinning a scarlet letter A to every piece in her new scandalously sexy wardrobe. Take that, everyone who didn’t read the book! (Which includes me – I have the feeling Hawthorne is only really canonical to American institutions. Any Hawthorne fans reading? Make your case!)
This cultural literacy doesn’t mean Olive can’t be surprised or hurt or make mistakes in response to just how horrifying the (apparently school sanctioned!) slut-shaming of her becomes, but it does add an excellent meta-awareness to her struggles. And it means she has the sense of humour and spectacle to put together an awesome musical number, “for no apparent reason”, with the very apparent reason of attracting eyeballs to her webcast.
The other thing I love about Olive is her strong moral compass. She makes a lot of mistakes, but the majority of them are out of simple self interest, or a desire to make life better for others, not malice. Her only two truly spiteful actions are calling Nina a twat and telling Mr Griffith about his wife’s infidelity, and in both cases she was more than provoked.
Of course, she is not entirely altruistic. Olive’s initial lie to Rhiannon that she had a date was because she didn’t want the drama of camping with her friend, and the movie does an excellent job of showing how easily lies multiple and oppress the sense of self.
Olive consequently feels complicit in what has been done to her – she has been lying, and partially in pursuit of the notoriety that her fictional sexual exploits has given her. But, perhaps because she underestimates the prurient source of that notoriety, claiming the reputation of a slut ends in others making her miserable. There’s a sense of bafflement in Olive’s distaste at how quickly the situation has got out of hand.
Why should being a slut – or having the reputation of one – result in this emotional disaster? There’s nothing inherently immoral or malicious in being sexually promiscuous, something the movie underlines in the person of Olive’s mother, who has not had youthful promiscuity mar her ability to be an excellent parent and warm, witty woman. Why should it matter how sexually promiscuous Olive is or isn’t? Why should anyone care?
The problem is that even in these ostensibly non-Puritan times, people make it their business to police the sexuality of teenagers – especially that of teenage girls – and it is entirely and inexcusably disgusting. From picketing outside the school (seriously, where was the principal?) to lying nonconsentually about your activities with someone else (you SUCK, Micah) to comments in class, it is all gross, because unless what’s happening is illegal or consensually dubious, it is the sole interest of the parties involved.
Olive, by telling her story, by expressing the meta implication of her story, by making the act of telling her story the narrative structure of her movie, is actively claiming ownership over both the story and her sexuality. This is her final message: what she does with her virginity and her body is nobody’s goddamn business.
Olive cannot alter the minds of others, nor stop what they say about her – but she can stand witness to what she did and what was done to her, and make it clear that whatever they think or say, she knows what is right. That is an excellent thing for a young woman to realise, and a wonderful message to impart to others.
I especially love that the audience, as much as her classmates, don’t get to see what happens next. We have, like them, been invited to this account of her fictitious sex life, but when Olive Penderghast says her actual sexuality is nobody’s business, she means us too. We don’t get to know when and if she ever loses her virginity. We don’t get to make judgements; we don’t get to care. She and her new boyfriend kiss and ride off on the lawnmower, and that’s all she privileges us to know.
– This movie is set in California and is, despite this, kinda super white, with the sole notable exception being Olive’s brother, Chip. He is a delightful notable exception but it is… California. So. Yeah.
– Let us consider Mrs Griffith. She: 1) Slept with a student 2) Refused to listen to Olive telling her she wasn’t sexually active, instead pushing condoms on her 3) Allowed Olive to lie and say that she had contracted and transmitted an STD in order to protect her job and crumbling marriage and 4) Would not confess even when Olive’s life became terrible and she was facing potential expulsion. Worst guidance counsellor ever or WORST GUIDANCE COUNSELLOR EVER?
– On a POSITIVE NOTE, Olive’s family, best family ever, y/y? Her parents are wise, supportive, funny. They’re willing to let Olive do her thing, but there for her whenever she wants them to be. It’s a non-nuclear family – Olive is her mother’s biological daughter, but unrelated by blood to either her stepfather or her adopted brother. I want Stanley Tucci to be my stepdad, as well as my heroic inspiration as super serum races through my body, my civil servant husband as I learn how to cook French food, and my genial yet evil interviewer at the Hunger Games.
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