Over the Christmas break, I rewatched the comedy Easy A (thank you, Netflix!). For those who are unfamiliar, Easy A is a teen movie about a girl named Olive, who lies to her best friend about losing her virginity, and instantly becomes the focus of her school’s gossip mill. When a gay friend asks her to pretend to hook up with him to save him from bullying, she sews a scarlet A on her clothes and goes into business as the School Slut, allowing desperate guys to lie about hooking up with her in exchange for gift vouchers and money. Meanwhile, the school’s Jesus Brigade turns on her, determined to force her to leave the school for her sinful behavior.
The film has been praised as a feminist teen movie, with a powerful message about teen sexuality (aka, that it’s no one’s business but your own). And Easy A is a really fun film. But despite its apparently sex-positive exterior, the film is, in my opinion, pretty darn problematic when viewed from a feminist perspective.
Outside of Olive and her family, not a single female character in the movie is likeable. Her best friend Rhiannon forces the initial lie out of Olive, and then turns on her and calls her a whore. The only female teacher we encounter is Lisa Kudrow’s character, who is cheating on her husband with a student. And although “Team Jesus” character Marianne is not presented as a hypocrite, she is still an annoying, judgemental caricature. Of course, most of the male characters in the movie are also pretty unlikeable — the film is, after all, a story about the general horribleness of high school and its approach to sexuality. But the male characters also get to be more complicated. The two likeable characters in the school are her male teacher (who Lisa Kudrow cheats on) and her love interest. Even some of the boys who pay for her lies have semi-sympathetic narratives, like the gay boy who asks Olive to help him end his bullying by making him appear straight.
But the biggest problems in the movie are the lies themselves. Olive becomes a social pariah because she’s labelled as a “slut,” and she embraces that in a fit of defiance and financial opportunity. When she ends the movie by saying that whether or not she sleeps with her new boyfriend is none of anyone else’s business, it feels like a very important, empowering statement. But throughout the movie, we are constantly reminded that Olive doesn’t actually deserve this treatment, because she’s lying. She’s not actually a slut! She’s just pretending to be one! When her mother addresses the rumors, she comments that she slept with many people when she was younger because she had “low self-esteem.” Not because she truly wanted to, mind, or because it would have been an acceptable choice, but because she didn’t respect herself enough.
Beneath the movie’s fun feminist exterior is the idea that Olive’s treatment isn’t unjust simply because slut shaming is a horrible thing, but because she hasn’t actually done anything. Some girls might deserve that treatment (and clearly, most girls are pretty darn horrid), but Olive does not. It becomes less a sex-positive movie and more a story about the horrors of the high-school rumor mill… not a bad premise for a movie, but one that seems to rely on the fact that the rumor mill says horrible things that aren’t true, rather than the fact that these things are actually none of anyone’s business.