Recently on Nerve, Cord Jefferson tracked the changing attitudes of sexuality in teen movies from American Pie to New Moon. As he contemplated New Moon's pro-abstinence subtext, Cord longed for the attitudes of the Jason Biggs comedy: "It was crass, silly, and immature... but more amusing and relatable to us were the movie's frequent invectives against virginity." It's a noble sentiment, but to be honest, I'm glad that times have changed. I was a virgin when I saw American Pie, and it fucked me up.

When the movie came out in the summer of 1999, I was four months away from the legal viewing age of seventeen. In that interval, the film became a pop-culture juggernaut, a 235-million-dollar success. Picking up Entertainment Weekly, I read that Pie reflected "a major shift in contemporary teen culture... sexually speaking, playing catch-up is what being a teenager is all about, and movies like American Pie are, by now, an essential part of the ritual." This was more than the light summer comedy I'd expected; clearly, its ninety-five minutes contained a lesson about teenage sex that everyone but me was discovering.

On December 21, 1999, American Pie came out on VHS, pay-per-view, and that expensive new format, DVD. I finally got to sneak a viewing in the privacy of my bedroom, like a young monk seeking enlightenment on the mountain. There, I learned that lesson: I needed to lose my virginity by the end of high school, or I would become a huge loser.4

Marketing sex to youth is an old trick, but was there ever a movie for teenagers that was that blunt about sex? Porky's, maybe, but it was also poorly written and featured no likeable characters. Fast Times at Ridgemont High treated teen sex realistically, but seemed to distance itself; it was more for adults looking back at adolescence. Cruel Intentions was soap-opera trash.

American Pie, however, was a unique hybrid; glossy pop filmmaking with a mix of gross-out humor and a real sweetness. The movie got laughs from the struggle to get laid, but depicted the actual moment of losing your virginity surprisingly tenderly. In the sexual Tet Offensive that was high school, it suggested that your first time could still be perfect and romantic. As clueless as they could be, the four protagonists weren't about racking up points; they were just looking for that right girl.

Roger Ebert wrote that American Pie contained "a great deal of sexual content that in my opinion is too advanced for high school, and a lot of characters who are more casual about it than real teenagers might be." But I couldn't see the movie as simple escapist fare, because the characters dressed, talked, and drank just like my own classmates. And just as in American Pie, every story about sex, from my own high school, was ridiculous. Chris bragged about nailing girl after girl on the basement floor of his family game room. (He also warned me that IcyHot was no good as lube.) Lindsay earned the nickname "Road Head" from a large group of boys who'd given her rides home. Mike proudly displayed the come-stain he left on the senior-lounge sofa, the result of an after-school tryst with his girlfriend. As I overheard those stories, Ebert's grandfatherly words rang hollow.

Commentarium (24 Comments)

Dec 16 09 - 3:02am

As far as your assessment of "American Pie" goes, I completely agree. It's one thing to make a movie about 4 teenage boys who are obsessed with having their first times before the end of high school. It's another thing to make a movie in which this actually comes to pass for all 4 of them. It does send a message to kids that you're somehow abnormal if you don't manage to have sex before you graduate--a message which unfortunately seems to have hit home with a lot of guys. I can't tell you how many completely normal, attractive men I know in their late 20s or 30s who have confided in me that they were "late bloomers" for having had their first times in the 18-22 range. They all seem to believe that they were the only one and it's ridiculous. I've always felt that the tendency in movies and TV towards depicting teenage sexuality as so rosy and exciting and gratifying is unrealistic and irresponsible, precisely because it gives perfectly normal kids inferiority complexes. But I part ways with you when you seem to imply that the "Twilight" ethos is a better alternative. I've got no problem with sending the message that deciding to have sex is a big step but you can do that without all the "purity" crap and stone-age gender roles that Twilight shills. In a way, the two points-of-view are not all that different. Sex is dirty either way, it's just that in the abstinence ideology that means you shouldn't do it and in the raunch ideology that means you should. I take issue with the entire premise.

What I'd really love to see is teen entertainment that deals with the experience you talk about. That period of being keenly sexually aware, even sexually ready, but of not yet having a way to explore that new awareness--and all the curiosity, wonder, fear, anxiety, and insecurity that goes with it. I think that's a far more truthful take on adolescent experience than wanting the Perfect Prom Night and getting exactly what you want. Adolescence is stressful and scary and often just plain lame.

The movie I've seen recently that came closest closest to that level of truthfulness was, oddly, "Superbad." Now if only somebody can bring adolescent female sexual desire into the fold, another thing which American Pie, like most movies about teenagers, sorely neglected.

Dec 16 09 - 3:53am

Look, I'll fully admit that movies such as Animal House and Nerds and Van Wilder totally fucked up my perception of how college was. (it more resembled Art School Confidential, minus the serial killer part)

But as far as movies about High Schoolers, I knew it was bullshit. The kids who had access to that much booze were usually the fuck ups. The guys who got laid that much were generally date rapist types. And i went to a fairly large school (500+ in my graduating class) so there was a good cross section to follow. The guys who were getting laid frequently were doing it with their long term girlfriends. Were they virgins going into these relationships? usually not. Most people had hooked up with so and so they were dating and it just happened.
I lost mine at 16, to a long term girlfriend. Since it was her first time as well, there were stipulations about romanticism, most of which were fufilled in my poor kid way. It still wasnt magical. Not bad, just...whatever. This was in 2000, and i had already seen American Pie several times.

Now back to the movie. Yes the boys succeed...mostly. Did anyone forget that Chris Klein and Mena Suvari actually DIDNT have sex? They were intimate, and had that nice "blanket on the dock at dawn" scene, but no sex. So really, the movie didnt say everyone needs to get laid or else.

As far as Twilight, i dont even know where to start. i really don't because i refuse to watch them. i have a moral issue with stupidity.

Oh and i agree with LydiaSarah about Superbad. Its like those kids are trying to create their own American Pie scenario and reality keeps smacking them in the face, with hilarious results.

Dec 16 09 - 5:57am

I loved your post, LydiaSarah

Dec 16 09 - 8:47am

What is abnormal is for a 17 and a 1/2 year old kid letting an R rating stop him from seeing a movie about sex! The author seems more than deserving of his virgin status!

Dec 16 09 - 10:01am

I agree NN!

Dec 16 09 - 10:10am

I always knew Jason Biggs wielded a powerful influence.

Dec 16 09 - 10:36am

@Matt - I always took it that Chris Klein and Mena Suvari did have sex (they're naked under that blanket right?) and Klein just says he didn't do anything to his buddies.

Dec 16 09 - 11:17am

I lost my virginity with someone I wasn't that into the very first change I got, and I'll agree that it was more like "straight-to-DVD" than a big box office release, as far as experiences go. But, maybe blaming American Pie is a bit like blaming the symptom on the disease. Which is to say, did American Pie make 17 year old boys horny and restless and obsessed w/ sex, or did it accurately portray an extant phenomenon? Because Twilight might be showing super-virginal teens, but last I checked, kids are still having sex and impregnating each other all across this great land...

Dec 16 09 - 11:49am

I reacted in the opposite way to American Pie. That stupid pie cock blocked my boyfriend. We had just graduated from high school, and I finally wanted to have sex with him. Physically, emotionally, intellectually, all the pieces fit. Then American Pie came out I just couldn't do it. The kids in the movie were too close to our age, and their high jinks cheapened the experience.

Dec 16 09 - 12:22pm

I've got news...if American Pie filled you with unrealistic expectations and caused you near-constant anxiety that broke down your capacity to make good decisions, it didn't ruin your gave you one. Feeling alien and insecure are the hallmarks of the teenage experience and these feelings are usually awkwardly tied to a young person's sexual awakening. Most of us lose our virginity in a less than ideal situation. In fact, many people go on to regret most of their sexual partners. That's not cynicism...that's a part of modern life, like learning the truth about Santa Claus.

So American Pie presented representations of teenage life that was too good to be true. In other news: women don't look like Victoria's Secret models and families don't all act like the Cosbys. Media images present a world that seems natural, integrated, and complete. Even villains seem to be a part of some natural order of things...they BELONG there in a way we never felt like we belonged anywhere. We want to be a part of that world...we want to feel that sense of wholeness. That's why the entertainment industry and the advertising industry are so closely linked--once people have a nameless desire, you can sell them just about anything. But part of growing up is about learning that that world isn't real and that the longer you stare at the spectacle the more fractured and alone you feel. That's true of American Pie, it's true of Twilight, Juno, Superbad, Wall-E, and every other commercial release you can think of.

I say this because it doesn't sound like you've stopped believing in that spectacle. Sure, you now realize that American Pie was "unrealistic," but you still believe that there was a possible ideal adolescence that you missed out on. This hypothetical adolescence was one where you felt whole and integrated, where you were a part of something you enequivocally BELONGED to, where you experienced a constant sense of flow with yourself and the environment around you. Isn't that the other side of your "alien" "failure" high school experience? Well, guess what? It didn't happen for any of us.

By the way, I'm one of those peers who couldn't get laid in high school (It turns out we were the majority). I couldn't get laid in college, either. I remember it seeming very important at the time. But I long ago gave up on the idea that I missed any "normal" experience, as there doesn't seem to have been one. Now I'm 30, working on my PhD, and teaching teenagers. I watch movies when I can, and I enjoy them...but I don't desire to belong to them anymore. I'm not just trying to be an adult; I'm being one.

Dec 16 09 - 12:36pm

I get the whole "I can connect with American Pie" thing. I mean growing up, my group of buddies took the movie for what it was but it still "got the ball going" as far as talking about sex. I don't understand how something like New Moon can have the same impact teens.

Dec 16 09 - 2:49pm

Matthew, I don't think the author is complaining he didn't have an ideal adolescence or first time. I think he's complaining that he didn't have somewhat healthier views of relationships and sex. Which I think is a perfectly tangible and realistic goal for our culture to have. American culture has never been good at teaching teenagers about these things, but doesn't mean we can't get better.

Dec 16 09 - 3:09pm

I couldn't read this essay with out rolling my eyes. As a tennage girl I was CONSTANTLY exposed to media images telling me I was abnormal. If I had taken serious stock in every movie, tv show, song, magazine, etc. that told me I needed to be skinnier, hotter, sluttier, dumber than boys, a virginal good girl, athletic, not too athletic!, demure, submissive, and I forget the other twelve, I would have gone crazy. However, while all these media influences did put pressure on me and make me feel not very good about myself at points, I took them for what they influences.

If you were so naive and ignorant about the meaning of sex as a teenager, why not blame your parents for not telling you better, your school's sex ed program for being less comprehensive? Or, hell, blame the entire way our culture publicly conceives and talks about sex. That might enter people into an interesting dialogue. But to blame one movie because it made you want to have sex really badly (as if there is nothing else in the universe that would make a teenage boy feel that way), it seems a little weak.

Frankly, I'd rather show my younger sisters American Pie and have a laugh with them over how obsessed and silly you can genuinely feel over sex when you're a teenager then show them New Moon. Much as I love stereotypical gender roles encouraging women to be chaste little girls with little to no agency...

Dec 16 09 - 5:24pm

EJC, you're great..."Much as I love stereotypical gender roles encouraging women to be chaste little girls with little to no agency…". Too good. That's what keeps me from enjoying most of these films.

No matter who's to blame (I'd say it's the designer of human beings), it's up to us to shift reality--through inspiring discourse. Thank you, Nerve, for providing a place for us to get practice expressing our commitment that sex be enjoyable and empowering to all people, especially the teenagers that we all were at one time.

Dec 16 09 - 6:18pm

EC, I agree with you that we could have healthier views of sex and relationships. But I also think that expecting mainstream movies to do that for us is like expecting the restaurant industry to teach us about nutrition. And blaming American Pie for your attitudes towards sex is like blaming McDonald's for making you fat.

Dec 16 09 - 6:23pm

McDonalds made me fat.

Dec 16 09 - 7:17pm

I knew a guy who learned how to act tough watching Clint Eastwood movies. Then one day he got the snot beat out of him. Many of us have wasted a lot of time letting other peoples' ideas of what should be right for us influence how we think and act. TV and movies are fake and the sooner people figure that out, the better.

Dec 17 09 - 12:21am

"Much as I love stereotypical gender roles encouraging women to be chaste little girls with little to no agency…”
I think Twilight is poorly written, but to be honest, if I didn't already know that the author is Mormon, I would not have picked up on female chasteness given the fact that Bella is constantly begging Edward for sex and making out with him. She's an annoying character in other ways, but she does express desire. All teen movies are geared toward boys and only depict large tits and male desire, so it does tend to not deal with female sexuality in a way that girls can relate to...

Dec 17 09 - 7:14pm

nicely written

Dec 18 09 - 11:33am
Cat Brother

You only felt the need to lose your virginity because you saw that nasty American Pie? In fact, it ‘ruined your adolescence?’ I know Nerve needs some grabby headlines to get people to read, but What.The.Fuck.
Starting at, oh, about age 15, I wanted sex, not because of Madison Avenue/Hollywood, but because young men’s horniness is one of the strongest drives there is. I was in high school 80-84, we didn’t have internet porn or even porn video, but we did have Penthouse forum (scored a big pile of paper porn back in ’81), somebody’s older brother who wanted to act like a big shot, and sketchy advice from each other, all fueling that drive and generally pointing us in exactly the wrong directions. There was no Golden Age when losing your virginity, or jonesing about when the hell you would lose it, was easy like a Sunday morning.
Movies featuring teen sex were, often are still, full of staid clichés where the girl gets knocked up or fucked up, ‘cause she’s a bad person who’s having sex, and We All Learned A Valuable Lesson. Or producers learned from the Porky’s franchise that tits on screen = Big $; I must’ve watched ‘Spring Break’ 3 or 4 times, where the characters got more tanned ass than a Florida bicycle seat, and they all came out fine. But ‘Spring Break’ et al made me want to have sex about as much as a Domino’s commercial makes a starving man want pizza.
Almost NOBODY’s first time is great, because nobody’s good at sex off the bat, and 99.9% are not with someone they’ll be with longterm. “Sex is an otherworldly, fantastical, and terrifying experience. Once it happens, you are changed forever.” Dude, I can’t think of a worse thing you could have believed as a teen... Omigod, this is the Crucible! My whole life will change! It’ll be like going to Venus in a rocket! Aaaand….wait. That wasn’t so great. I’m still pretty much the same person, and that wasn’t even as good as several hundred of the times I got myself off in the bathroom….Oh shit, I did it wrong! Epic Fail!
Teens will have sex, whether mouthing abstinence platitudes (cough Bristol Palin cough) or not. Real life Bella and Edward are doing oral, probably anal when they’re drunk and Edward begs. Teens should be fully cognizant of the risks and repercussions of sex. They absolutely shouldn’t think that it’ll change their lives, make them Grown Ups, or make everything better.

Dec 19 09 - 5:58pm

The best antidote the media influence is family influence. I'm a woman who was lucky enough to have parents who spoke openly to me about sex, so I took everything that TV, movies, and commercials said about it with a grain of salt. If you want your siblings to grow up with a healthy attitude about sex, you'll watch those movies with them and give them an alternate interpretation for what they're seeing. I also had enough information about sex that by the time I had it, in college at the age of 19, I wasn't drunk, I knew how to do it safely (ie condoms), it wasn't probably wasn't going to great the first time, and it wasn't going to make me a bad person. That sure as hell beats some 2 minute rutting in my friend's basement in highschool.

Dec 20 09 - 12:48am

Rem, I agree with you. But I personally never got a sex talk from either of my parents. The closest it came to The Talk was my mother saying: "You be careful, because boys only want one thing..." and I only got that after I had already lost my virginity (I never told her when). Way to go, Ma. But that's what you get from a subset of a generation whose mentality about talking about sensitive subjects is to avoid them, irregardless of whether or not one acknowledges that there is a real threat that must be addressed.

Regarding the article; I don't understand what is up with all the ad hominem attacks on the author. He's sharing a personal story and it doesn't seem to me that he is trying to assert that his experience is the norm. American Pie smacked him at a fragile time in his life that played more to his fears than his logic (higher reasoning in the brain develops last, after all). I don't think it's a leap to say that he knew that "it's just a movie" when he saw it but there are also biological and psychological factors that have to do with self perception that just latched onto some nuance about the high school experience and shame. THAT might be a shared experience, though.

Additionally, he is writing about his younger self who (seemingly) didn't have the benefit of an authority to give him the heads up about sex. He listened to an "authority" that is, unfortunately for us, omnipresent and illustrative in ways that a parent cannot be.The author's parents may have likewise avoided sexual education as mine have. You might say it's the parents responsibility to make sure kids don't become emotionally scarred from seeing those kinds of masochistic failure-fantasies! But I'd bet there are far more people who lack that openness with parents about how to understand sex so these probably do have a real effect. I never studied sociology or psychology, so maybe I'm saying things that are really obvious to those that know about this.

To me, this confessional poses an interesting question; how do teen movies affect males and male self perception? Portraying girls as sex objects is one obvious issue. Reinforcing a certain kind of masculinity is another issue I think really hasn't been addressed too frequently. Personally, and speaking as a female, I took up a very hardened view early on to the horrors of marketing to females. Whether or not this is normal, I really don't know.
I also don't know about Twilight. I haven't read any of the books and I spent the first movie laughing too hard to pay attention to valuable life lessons.

Dec 20 09 - 2:11pm
Cat Brother

Not sure exactly I’d call my point of view ad hominem; it’s more, man, these alternatives that you wished you had? And the influence you think fucked things up for you? One wouldn’t have been any better, and the other was just a minor note in a chorus, much of which was coming from your own reptile brain, telling you to get laid.
When young people think that sex is this mind-bendingly great experience that they have to experience with The One, they often, I’d say usually, end up super-horny with someone who most definitely is not The One, but whom they conflate to One-ness, to get the go-ahead to get it awwwn in a justifiable fashion. Hey, if I’m fucking them, they must be The One, right? Wrong, and people end up in LTR’s or marriage with the wrong person, because they were desperate for sex but had to self-justify with Twilight thinking.
Saying that the movie ‘ruined his adolescence’ seems kind of….histrionic, and I say that as a guy who, like most others, spent a good amount of time in class trying to disguise a raging hard-on, or trying to kill it before the bell rang and I had to get up (16-year old erections are harder to put down than the Terminator.) Porky’s was the thing when I was in high school, but the thought of taking it as an edifying documentary, vs a way to separate teens from their money by showing racy scenes, did not cross my mind.

Sep 14 10 - 5:07pm

Really enjoyed reading this, a very well written and very clever post. Reminds me of the days I studied Media and had to analyse films in a way like this, the difference being I think you found a really good point about the American Pie series.
It certainly gives the viewer the feeling of escaping from reality (which cinema is all about) thus giving a perspective of high school that is not entirely false, just exagerrated I think.