Characters, Gender, Movies, Reviews

Easy A: A Study in Slut-Shaming, Part I: Olive

If you haven’t seen Easy A, stop reading and go watch it right now before I spoil the hell out of it with this post. No, seriously, I’ll wait. Your life is in dire need of this movie. It’s witty and intelligent, it’s meta as hell, it passes the freaking Bechdel Test which shouldn’t be as remarkable as it is, and it stars Emma Stone, one of the very few girls I would happily discard my sexual orientation for. Basically everything about it is perfect, so gogogo right now.

easy A

Have you done it? Are you finished? I hope so, because if you haven’t seen this film then my blog is not going to make a lot of sense for the next few weeks while I hash this thing out. Originally I was going to write just one post on it, but frankly it’s too brilliant and requires an entire series, so you’re just going to have to deal. Now, without further ado, we’re going to talk about slut shaming in the context of this movie, starting with the protagonist, Olive. Wheee~~~

First, a brief definition of “slut shaming.” This is when an individual, who is pretty much always a female so we’re just going to use female pronouns from here on out, is judged to be of low moral character or otherwise lacking in basic human rights because of what she wears and who she chooses to have sex with. Essentially, it reduces a woman to a sex object, and then vilifies her if she has the gall to take ownership of her own sexuality. This is especially relevant right now with some of the complete bullshit that’s been going on in the news. You probably know what I’m talking about, so I’m not going to link it because it will just make me mad again. Plus, way better-educated people than me have already said all that needs to be said on that subject, so I’m going to stick with my forte and talk about a movie instead.

Easy A is a movie about slut shaming, in all of its various forms. It treads a very fine line between highlighting and perpetuating, in that it clearly demonstrates just about every form that slut shaming can come in, but is always careful to critique those ways of thinking. Almost every character’s relationship with Olive is demonstrative of one particular aspect of slut-shaming, so in this series of posts I’m going to talk about each one specifically. This is going to take many weeks. Again, if you want to play along and you haven’t already, go watch the movie. Do it right now.

To start off, I’m going to talk about the film’s protagonist, Olive Penderghast. Olive is a virgin, feeling anonymous in her California high school, until one day she makes up a story about having lost her virginity. The fact that losing her virginity is a lie is key to this film: it puts her squarely on the “virgin” end of the virgin/whore dichotomy that sexually aware women face. Because she is a virgin, it is easy for us, as people conditioned by a sex-negative society to regard sexual liberation in women as dangerous, to sympathize with her. Olive is clearly marked as an innocent victim who made a mistake, and the treatment she faces thereafter is clearly delineated as undeserved. Audience sympathy is necessary for this story to work.

Additionally, Olive only makes up the initial lie because her best friend Rhiannon pressures her into it, which is example number one of the kind of bullshit I’m talking about. Even though Olive has not had and does not want to have sex, she feels pressured to pretend she has done it, to be cool. When reflecting on the lie later, she says, “I don’t know why I did it. I guess maybe it was the first time I sorta felt superior to Rhi.” Fabricating a story of sexual experience gives her a sense of worldliness, like she’s more adult than her friend, thereby giving her a power she’s never had before. This is not a unique story. This is the reality of being a girl growing up in a society that both fetishizes and demonizes female sexuality: you have to somehow be both innocent and sexual, even though those two things are defined as mutually exclusive. Olive stumbles into the perfect balance, entirely by accident, although no one in-world realizes it. And then it goes bad really fast, because this ridiculous double-standard is fifty shades of impossible-to-achieve bullshit.

The other key point to note about Olive is that she is fiercely intelligent, independent, and very much aware of the thoughts and motivations of the people around her. This allows her running commentary in the film to serve as a guideline for the audience’s experience of it: she is always there to remind us that the things people are doing to and saying about her are wrong, and would be wrong even if it weren’t all a lie. Her narration is deeply entertaining, but it also grounds the story, constantly reminding us that these things are happening to an intelligent, intensely lovable, worthwhile human being who is not defined by her sexual identity.

As the story progresses, Olive comes into increasingly disturbing contact with the realities of a world that only sees her as a sex object, and refuses to acknowledge her humanity. Next week, I’ll talk about the first and most obvious of her detractors, the resident holier-than-thou religious nut job Marianne (played by Amanda Bynes). After that, I’ll work my way through Brandon, Rhiannon, Mrs. Griffith, Anson and the school’s population in generalRosemary, and finally finish with a revisit to Olive. Again, if you haven’t seen this movie, freaking go watch it right now.

Easily yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“The rumors of my promiscuity have been greatly exaggerated.” -Olive, Easy A

P.S. I am also, for some godawful reason, seriously considering participating in Blog Every Day in April (BEDA). Thoughts? If you don’t want to spend the next month and a half hearing about nothing but Easy A, you should probably vote yes on this plan, as it will ensure that I’ll be exhausted of this topic by the end of next week at the very latest.

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