Film Your Daughters!
Here’s one for you: A teenage girl, as bored and buxom as she is naively powerful, learns some big things about the world as soon as she drops her drawers. We watch as she bounces between the furtive and ultimately unsatisfying gropes of her gangly peers, the boys, and the arrogant talky foreplay of those smoldering and predatory goons, the men. Her matriarchs look on with worldly disdain and disapproval (or jealousy) while she discovers the strangely satisfying allure of short skirts. A few wrong turns and a swift feeling of post-coital disillusionment, and suddenly we feel we’ve grown with this girl-woman. Why do I find myself so mentally turned-on?
I’m a gay man who watches a lot of movies about sex. Teen sex. And typically teen sex movies with fields of ripe female forms. I ask myself why I am attracted to this narrative just as much as I wonder about my continuing fascination with bosoms. I say this with a big heaping of self-awareness, knowing that gay men are still men and often get away with saying and doing just as much as their reductive straight counterparts. Ultimately I realized that I had no business trying to please a woman and embraced who I fully was. After having relished in gay sex for the last five years, I have looked back upon my own teenage years and learned something: I wish I was having sex as a teenager. I was even acutely aware of this in my teenage years, but how could a budding stink-bug of a boy ever expect to have sex with someone when he doesn’t even know how to look another boy in the eye let alone confidently navigate a porn site. I even delighted in the occasional girl fantasy, but the thought of sexualizing my legions of close female friends was even more loaded and ultimately terrifying (I still have stress dreams about my past prom dates). So instead I watched movies. And in a way, it helped me to cope with the boredom and discontent.
But the habit persists. Perhaps I am embracing the dirty bird that I will one day become, but I have been watching more teenage “coming of age” (I’d call it “art soft-core”) than ever, and it’s progressively resembling my real sex life less and less. It wasn’t until recently that I started to think critically about my filmic desire for gazing at teenagers, and specifically females. I also made the discovery that of all areas of the world, no one does it better than the French. The ultimate combination of elitist intellectual and trashy laissez-faire exploits, the French—by virtue of their films—love to look (or should I saw leer) at beautiful teenage girls. I could give a litany of prime examples, but my two favorites are Claire’s Knee (1970) and A Nos Amours (1983). Both are naturally made by straight “brainy” men (Eric Rohmer and Maurice Pialat respectively), primarily focus on precocious and irresistible girls at the cusp of their development, tackle some heavy daddy issues (fathers are either completely absent or vagrant nuisances), and observe the tremors of anxiety felt in an adult word that cannot contain such explosive creatures as these alluring daughters.
The films ultimately have very different kinks, though. Claire’s Knee tells the story of Gerome, a middle-aged brown-haired silver fox who is vacationing along Lake Annecy before moving permanently to Sweden to live with his fiancée. He bumps into old friend and possibly fuck buddy, Aurora, who is also on vacation and staying with a family on the same lake. While visiting Aurora, Gerome meets Laura, the teenage girl who also lives at the house with her mother. Laura develops an instant crush on Gerome with his burly beardo yet sweet daddish demeanor and is not shy about showing it. No Rohmer film is complete without leisure class vacations, an obscene amount of talk with little action, and of course outside meddling forces who delight in watching others make fools of themselves in their pursuit of sex. The sexual tension between Gerome and Aurora manifests in the form of veiled conversations about desire. Aurora being a writer, they both talk about potential juicy subjects for fictional stories that vaguely resemble reality. Gerome pretends to have no interest in young Laura but develops an intimate relationship with her. We discover that Laura is actually infinitely more intelligent and aware than her superiors would like to admit and surprisingly rejects Gerome’s eventual advances knowing full well what he is up to.
The plot further thickens when Laura’s half-sister, Claire, enters the picture. A less forthcoming and formidable subject, Claire is consumed with her himbo boyfriend in tight denim cut-offs (Rohmer throws a bone to us gays) and is more opaque than her curious half-sister. Claire is, nonetheless, beautiful in the way that we expect teenage girls to be: skinny, pert, delicate. Suddenly, Gerome shifts his attention to Claire and, namely, one specific part of her anatomy—her knee. Together, Aurora and Gerome hatch a narrative experiment in which Gerome will “have” Claire in the gesture of a consensual knee rub. Talk about the perversion of postmodern sexuality! Rohmer characters never get off in conventional ways, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether his characters will ever get off because of their convoluted fetishes.
Sex is fairly straightforward and more typically pathologized in A Nos Amours. This film is all about the sixteen-year-old volcano that is Sandrine Bonnaire in her first screen role as Suzanne. There may not be a more auspicious teenager on film than Sandrine Bonnaire. Her hair is still in tomboy snarls and she has yet to outgrow her chipmunk-cheek smile, but baby girl is certainly growing. We see a lot of Suzanne, but we also see the blossoming of a powerhouse persona for which her world is not prepared. Summer theater camp has come to a close and Suzanne just can’t follow through with screwing her sweet and cherubic boyfriend Robert. Instead, she hits up the local bar in her striped one-strap tube dress and picks up a sailor boy. What follows is several years of exploration of her sexual partners all the while chronicling the troubles at home after her father moves out. This primarily observational yet didactic film presents defining moments in the developing sexuality of Suzanne, some sexy, some very much not. We listen to her pillow talk with her countless boy toys about how she seeks solace in men. However, she can’t allow herself to fall in love with a boy as she instinctually thinks about whether her father would like them before rejecting the boy out of loyalty to pops. But daddy has fled the coop and left a mess at home. Big brother has assumed the role of man-of-the-house and demonstrates a rather volatile Napoleonic complex. Not only that, but he seems all a little too bothered (perhaps “hot and bothered”) by the sexual attention that Suzanne offers to other boys. Mother is demonstrating a mild personality disorder, flying in rages when she is confronted by Suzanne about her missing dress (said striped one-strap). Perhaps the most interesting twist to this story is that Daddy is played by Maurice Pialat, director and Daddy of the film itself. Pialat makes a rather risky social critique that is nonetheless worth considering. What causes one to live promiscuously? And why do we only care if it’s girls? A Nos Amours seems to be saying that precociously powerful girls who also happen to be hotties run a large risk of being run over, particularly by men. How can a girl learn about the ways of men at the same pace as she is learning about being a woman? Where can she turn when that prime living example has left home?
These can be fairly reductive questions that assume a lot about what girls need—and this is not boys. To further grapple with this francophilic gender identity theory, I’d like to turn to my favorite bad girl of French Second-Wave Feminism: Elisabeth Badinter. Daughter to an advertising mogul and wife to a former French Minister of Justice, Badinter is most famous for some rather inflammatory statements on womanhood. Her claims include the maternal instinct to be nothing but a sham and the condemnation of breastfeeding to be damaging to the development of the psyche. My favorite moment in Badinter’s career came when she delivered a lecture at Princeton University in the early 1990s. Badinter claimed that the audience was already prepared to tear her apart and misinterpreted a lot of what she was trying to say. But according to scholar Joan Scott, she was arguing “banal things about how the French were sexier than Americans, better at sex, how American women washed too much, how they were embarrassed by their bodily odors, by oral sex.” This is not to throw any shade on Badinter as a woman, for she certainly knows a great deal more on the subject than me. But I am absolutely fascinated by the implications of that statement (whether inaccurately quoted or not). True, I think that confident sexuality is essential to a modern, urban state of mind, but do people need to take power through sexuality? Is that the best way for women to come out on top? Did I also mention that she is close friends with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, nanny-screwer extraordinaire? You have to wonder what type of sex she’s talking about and/or is accustomed to.
These are the thoughts that tempt me while I watch. I create vaguely intellectual distractions perhaps as a knee jerk reaction, fearing that my celluloid joy of looking is simply part of a subconscious act of ownership. Maybe I am looking back upon a time where I was made to feel desire for girls where I felt none, or at least felt vastly incompetent. Now, maybe I look at girls and enjoy it because it feels natural. But ultimately what I think is so great about these films is that girls are imagined as powerful beyond control; powerful because they put people into a place of sexual subjugation. Powerful in ways that I want to be now, and enough to perhaps force me out of homo-normative desire. Which is awesome.
And complicated. Because as Badinter demonstrates, the culture of powerful women vis-à-vis their sex brings us back to square one, where women can only get ahead by being sex objects. The eternal struggle is whether one can be a sexual object while also being the aggressor. Ultimately, women will probably always mature earlier and more “gracefully” than men, so it is natural for us to look at teenage girls curiously and carefully. Perhaps I’m just justifying an appetite that has become so superfluous that it is almost impossible to erase. Plus, of course I’d love to see more flicks about beautiful budding boys. But we’re a long way from having that be okay for a broader audience. I for one deeply hope that the future will show more women telling this story for themselves and perhaps even forcing us to look at boys in the same way. Hopefully this story’s inevitable and continued prominence in popular culture will force us to look at teen sex as something more than just kink but as a mirror on the sexual malaise that we carry into adulthood. Either way, there’s no harm in looking, right?