Tuesday, July 9, 2019

American Pie at 20: Masculinity Now and Then

An Essay on American Pie, 
written as an application of Masculinity Studies 
for my graduate course in Literary Theory.

The Pressure to ‘Do it’ Right: Normalized Masculinity in American Pie

For men of a certain age, there may be no better connection to the cultural situation of his adolescence than the now legendary 1999 male-centric teen comedy American Pie. It is indeed a cultural artifact and today celebrates the twentieth anniversary of its release in theaters. It is the place we went, likely too young, to learn, and to be rewarded in our inherent budding masculine sensibilities, about “MILF”s, the not-that-shocking escapades of “band camp,” and which all-American baked good most resembles “what 3rd base feels like.” Loved by audiences, it was recently lauded in retrospect by popular film news website Indiewire as one of “The 23 Movies That Define One of the Best Film Years Ever.” Whether that assertion is valid or not, it stands to take a moment to contextualize, in terms of cultural significance, the top box office grossing teen movie (a point at which Indiewire contributor Zac Sharf aims most of his focus) in a year full of important additions to the genre, including Election and 10 Things I Hate About You, which also made the Indiewire list. Sharf points out the two reasons this film stands out, that, in addition to its $235 million box-office take, it was “bolstered by its breakout cast and crude humor.” Receiving mixed critical reception, with many critics dismissing it altogether as raunchy schlock, it stands out as an important film, a decidedly hard-R-rated teen movie that spawned several popular sequels and countless straight-to-DVD spinoffs but also paved the way for smarter movies on the exact subject, like 2007’s Superbad.

The subject in question is the force of perceived masculinity that pressures a young man, particularly in late adolescence, to lose his virginity at any and all cost as a rite of passage--a logical climactic milestone on the road to the imagined free love experience of college, before heading out into the world of career, marriage, and family. Within this is the pervasive party culture that expects late teens to enter such a path. On the darker side, this is an element of late-high school/college life that feels reminiscent, most recently, in broader conversations around sexual consent and focused ones that surrounded the appointment of the most recent addition to the United States Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh.

But American Pie is not dark. Late film critic Roger Ebert, one of the few major critics to praise this film, points to its successes in terms of character, an area of focus for this particular analysis, concluding that “it’s cheerful and hard-working and funny, and here’s the important thing—it’s not mean.” The film’s creators, the screenwriter Adam Hertz and co-directors Paul and Chris Weitz, clearly worked hard to make a comedy relatable to its intended audience, placing scrutiny on all the right characters and situations (barring one big one) through humor, crude and otherwise. It uses its comedy and the niceness of its characters to create a balanced look at both the toxicity of a society’s normalization of male sexual behavior and, with one exception, the willingness of a modern adolescent male to experience the Jouissance of sex in both direct, and comedically inadvertent, opposition to such normalization.

To understand the ways in which different elements of masculinity studies find themselves embedded in the text of American Pie is to meet the five interconnected male characters (a group of four best friends, plus the guy they all put up with) almost equally represented by the filmmakers, in relation to a few specific discursive tenets of masculinity studies. In her chapter on “Men, Masculinities, and Feminist Theory,” Judith Kegan Gardiner cites feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins in a discussion of “the interconnectedness of gender with other social hierarchies…” (42). American Pie is a part of this idea of intersectionality, especially in how elements of socially constructed gender identity seek to oppress those who would try to free themselves from normative gendered expectations. In this case, it is the pressure of losing one’s virginity before leaving high school and thus landing atop the social hierarchy of that great American institution.

Viewers of this film most likely think of Jim as the center-point of the film, and in many ways he is. He is also, along with Finch, a less masculine subject, more intelligent as opposed to athletic, representing the notion of gender as performance. Kevin, the one with some experience and a steady girlfriend in Vicky represents “the right way” to have sex in a male-dominated society. He expects to lose his virginity because it is that that he is owed. It is thus his natural right as an emerging man. Chris Ostreicher, or “Oz,” as it happens, becomes the feminist voice in the midst of the hypermasculinity fueled by his lacrosse teammate and resident entitled beer blast host, Steve Stifler. It is Stifler, really, who plays the role of impetus for the comedic sexual quest the filmmakers set up for the four friends. He is a representation of the “boys will be boys” attitude of the patriarchal society and a direct reflection, even if only taken seriously in various moments at varying degrees, of the late adolescent drive for first intercourse. Expectedly sexually experienced, though completely emotionally stunted and juvenile, Stifler is masculinity as peer pressure, stifling (pun intended by me and the filmmakers) elements of youth, uncertainty, and femininity through humorously over-the-top performed misogyny as all five characters journey towards Prom Night, that ultimate teen movie trope, that ultimate rite of passage.

The extent of Stifler’s most juvenile behavior is most readily available in his relationship with Finch, the least clearly masculine and thus hidden character of the film. His body movements alone suggest a sort of queer identity minus same sex attraction, a performance borne of a strong will to be different and which makes him the target of the most direct of Stifler’s performed masculine energy. Finch’s plan to get laid relies on the very nature of the high school social structure. His performance is based on two things: one physical and one discursive. At lunch, he sips mochaccinos and rolls out a putting mat in the quad to express a certain mature manliness for which no high school girl in this film would fall. But he pays his class’ most sage female advisor, Jessica, to start rumors about his sexual prowess that extrapolate through the gossip mill into stories where, among other stories, he once beat Stifler in a fight and is therefore more of a man. Much to his chagrin, Stifler can’t get a prom date as a result. All of his usual dates are holding out for Finch. Stifler, of course, retaliates by drugging Finch’s coffee with laxative, forcing the boy who won’t use the school toilets to indeed do so…in the women’s restroom. It seems Finch is an innocent bystander of Stifler’s hypermasculinity.

However, if we take a closer look, we see the negative effects of societal masculinity within Finch. Finch has been the constant butt of Stifler’s jokes, but he does encourage Jim to broadcast Nadia, the super model-esque foreign exchange student, over the Internet as she changes clothes before their study date. As they watch her undress, the most unabashedly toxic move this movie makes in terms of the misogynistic degradation of women, Finch calmly urges Jim to go back and make a move. “Seduce her,” are his words, breathed with pure sexual desire. That Finch would later get the true last laugh in having sex with Stifler’s Mom (what she will henceforth be known by forever), in the fashion of The Graduate and scored to a pop-punk cover of “Mrs. Robinson,” only cements this movie’s willingness to actually subvert the male dominant sexual experience. This is where Herz’s screenplay really pays off, nodding to a previous cultural phenomenon of late-adolescent sexual desire, allowing the less-masculine nerd to prevail over the entitled hypermasculine jock.

While Stifler’s influence is a bit lighter in his relationship to Jim, the would-be protagonist of the film, it certainly comes through in setting up the conflicting masculinities of the two more typical everyman types in the group: that of Jim, of course, and his best friend, Kevin. Early in the film, Stifler scolds the crew, telling to “remove the shrink wrap” from their penises and “fucking use them,” diminishing their place in the hierarchy of high school sexual experience and placing himself as dominant. Added to this is the notion, later that night at Stifler’s party, that Sherman, a dork on the level of a character Anthony Michael Hall might’ve portrayed for John Hughes in the 80s, indeed had sex with “that chick from Central.” He greets them in the hangover haze of the next morning with nerdy bravado: “Say goodbye to Chuck Sherman the boy and hello to Chuck Sherman the man.” This is a direct reflection of the combined pressure of boys of all types to become men simply by getting a girl to have sex with them. It inspires Kevin to initiate the pact to “get laid” that will drive the rest of the film. Taking Sherman’s supposed luck and Stifler’s scolding as inspiration, his journey starts with Vicky, his serious, Ivy League-bound girlfriend, who so desperately needs him to say “I love you” before they sleep together. How does he get her to have sex with him if he isn’t sure about the love thing?

This makes Kevin that representation of both the normalizing and naturalizing of masculinity in the film. Barring the bit where his older brother, in the form of a bizarre cameo from Casey Affleck, leads him to “The Bible,” a book hidden in the school library reserved to teach one special senior the ways to satisfy a woman, Kevin’s thread is the most boring and typical and wisely painted as such by the filmmakers. There is almost no humor or creativity in his characterization. When his sex finally does come on prom night, it is subdued and rote, devoid of any fun or zest or even love, despite those three words hovering over him and his lover. His asking for consent is to ask Vicky “How do you want to do it?” When she replies, “How do you?”, his immediate response is simply “normal style, the missionary position.” His being what he considers to be a good boyfriend to Vicky, putting up with simple make-outs and oral sex for so long, places him in a realm of naturalizing masculinity, that he is owed intercourse as reward for his good deeds. It is also quite clearly felt that he still doesn’t really mean it when he tells Vicky he loves her right before they have sex for the first time, reinforcing the incorrect notion that all young women need to associate love with sex in order to consent.

The love/sex binary can indeed be the way of a robust first consensual sexual experience, and the filmmakers work to erase the boredom of the Kevin strand of the narrative with that of Chris “Oz” Ostreicher. His relationship with Heather, the “goody-goody choir girl priss,” according to Stifler, is built on mutual and healthy discussions about life and growing up and an actual future of love and sex. There is a strong feminist thread in Oz’s journey to prom, and that isn’t only because Oz is the only character absent from the egregious Internet strip show sequence. Herz’s screenplay under the Weitz brothers’ direction is at its most wise in terms of dealing with a masculinity that can be balanced in equity with feminine sexuality. To open the film, Oz is the first character to introduce the film’s inherent hypermasculinity. After Jim’s escapade with scrambled cable porn and his Mother’s claim that “he is trying to watch some illegal channels,” it is Oz who reminds us that the only illegal channel should be “that channel for women.” His date with a “college chick,” who majors in “Postmodern Feminist Thought” and quickly sees through and wisely, calmly corrects his naturalizing, misogynistic advances that go to the length that he actually demands, in mid-conversation: “Suck me, beautiful.”

This encounter, however, sends him on his route to making good on the pact, which, stems initially from a feigned masculine view of feminine sensitivity. He joins the choir as a way into an “untapped resource” where he will “work the sensitive angle,” which is how he refers to his decision in the wake of the chorus of his Stifler-led crew of buddies chiding his manhood. But Heather and the choir, it turns out, become true sources of inspiration for Oz, helping him to navigate a true new sense of himself that seeks to find love and, ultimately, leads to a realization that his naturally masculine athletic abilities are not all he has to offer, that he, as one of the film’s more powerful lines of dialogue expresses, can “win” without feeling like he has to “score.” This is a true engagement with sensitivity and equity. When Heather confronts him about a perceived dive back into the hypermasculine, after she sees Stifler miming sex acts as she walks away, Oz’s facial expressions and body language break down to a serious vulnerability to which no other character in the film comes close. When Oz and Heather make love after the prom, it is in stark contrast to the scene between Kevin and Vicky, not in a closed room, sealed up and uncomfortable but on a beautiful lakeside dock, open and free. Natural in an equal way.

Can generations of young men encounter a positive masculinity from a movie like this? Most certainly. Yes. And they will need to do so. This is a type of movie that doesn’t get made much anymore. Last year, a major studio released a film called Blockers, which takes this exact prom night virginity loss premise and flips it to a crew of female characters. A feminist move, it seemed. That movie, however, became all about the parents trying to stop them from having sex. American Pie doesn’t get everything right, especially in its non-consensual Internet strip show, but it wisely leaves parents either aloof or in roles of true support and encouragement. In that way, it empowers its teenage characters to experience sexual awakenings despite pressures and without barriers. If it seems this analysis has missed Jim, the clear main protagonist of the film, allow for, in closing, a look at the issue of teenage sexual behavior in this way: This normalized expectation of teenage boys to perform their gender and seek heterosexual intercourse in certain ways is marred by anxiety, experimentation, and humiliation. He represents all of that for the everyday American teen.

Jim is not naturally manly in appearance, like Oz or Stifler. He is neither “interesting” nor antisocial in the way of Finch. He is not Mr. Perfect like his best friend, Kevin. He is the embodiment of teenage sexual mishaps, as evidenced in the opening scrambled porn scene. But he also has that famous Dad, who awkwardly walks him into discussions of masturbation and pornography and sex, and perhaps encourages the more normative masculine sexual behaviors a bit too much. He is mostly there to be embarrassing, making Jim sweat and us laugh. Jim's plan for the Prom Night pact is Nadia, a girl decidedly out of his league appearance-wise, but who, in all honesty, actually seems to like him. She, in fact, makes the first move in asking for a study partner. His premature ejaculation episode in front of the whole student body is fodder for the nightmares of teenage boys everywhere.

And then there’s Michelle, the “band geek,” who comes at him full steam and shocks the world with one line about her flute and where it went “one time, at band camp.” Like Finch, Jim’s loss of virginity comes from a place of pure feminine power, as Michelle is a young woman with full feminine agency and ownership of her sexuality. Jim doesn’t need to bow to the pressure. He just needs to find the kind of girl for him and to place the power in her hands. Just before the post-prom party, Jim had resigned from the pact during prom, blowing up at Kevin continual pushing of the pact. Jim reacts, answering the very question of this movie and the power of teenage masculinity, speaking to a necessary point about needing to have sex: “I’m so sick of all the bullshit pressure. It’s just not that important.” Jim’s willingness to accept that fact, that it is just not that important, that sex can come naturally and in ways unexpected and consensual when an individual is ready, is at the heart of what American Pie gets right, even for all it does get wrong.

Works Cited

Ebert, Roger. “American Pie Movie Review & Film Summary (1999) | Roger Ebert.
          RogerEbert.com, 9 July 1999, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/american-pie-1999.

Gardiner, Judith Kegan. “Men, Masculinities, and Feminist Theory.” Handbook of Studies on
          Men and Masculinities. Ed. Connell, Raewyn, et al. SAGE Publications, Inc, 2005.                              EBSCOhost,search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=46709&site=
          ehost-live.

Herz, Adam, screenwriter, and Paul and Chris Weitz, directors. American Pie. Universal, 1999.

Sharf, Zack. “1999 Retrospective: The 23 Movies That Define One of the Best
          Film Years Ever.” IndieWire, 3 Apr. 2019, www.indiewire.com/gallery/best-1999
          movies-best-year-film/#!17/american-pie-1999/.


2 comments:

  1. I think it's a film that still holds up as does the entire series (not counting the godawful straight-to-DVD spin-offs) as it is about growing up and trying to define the idea of masculinity and what it is to be a man. Yes, Stifler is an asshole but he does have a few redeeming qualities and in the last film. He's just a guy that just wants to party and hang out with his friends. Plus, I think Jim was right about Stifler in the third film. Underneath all of those shits, fucks, and blow-mes is a sensitive person waiting to come out.

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  2. Bravo!!! I never thought so deeply about the characters from this movie. I've always been a fan of it, but you've shed a lot of light on it and made me want to watch it again. Great job!

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