On the eve of American Reunion, we debate the legacy of the teen blockbuster.
Back in 2009, we ran two responses to the tenth anniversary of American Pie. One, by Cord Jefferson, remembered the raunchy hit fondly, as a far more progressive take on teen sexuality than Twilight. The other, by Eric Larnick, remembered American Pie as a disaster for shy teenagers everywhere. American Reunion hits theaters today, but, uh, we're not sure we have anything new to say about pie-fucking. So please enjoy these classic pieces instead.
Teen movies have regressed since American Pie
In 1999, when I was a junior in high school, American Pie premiered and became an instant hit. Today ranked forty-ninth on Bravo's list of the hundred funniest movies of all time, the teen romp — and really, there's no better word for it than "romp" — ultimately grossed over $100 million domestically, $8.50 of which came directly from my pocket.
The film's premise was as simple and jaw-clenchingly American as its title: four Midwestern teenage boys agree to do everything in their power to lose their virginities before they graduate high school. Hi-jinx ensue: a semen-laced beer is chugged, a warm fruit pie is humped, and a busty foreign exchange student draws forth a premature ejaculation (twice). And in the end, on prom night, everyone gets laid.
Fittingly, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High before it (and Animal House before that), American Pie handled sexuality the way an inexperienced young man might a lover: aggressively, assumingly, and traditionally, as if following directions from a book called Engaging Horny Teenage Boys for Dummies. It was crass, silly, and immature, just like me and my friends, and we quoted it loudly like drunken parrots at many a keg party. Sure, it was fun to say "MILF" — a term that hadn't yet been co-opted by sad housewives — but more amusing and relatable to us were the movie's frequent invectives against virginity. When Stifler, Pie's lovable but obnoxious jock character, demanded his friends "locate [their] dicks, remove the shrink wrap, and fucking use them," it was as if he was talking directly to me, in my little Arizona movie theater, where virginity was a condition more grave than any STD known to man.
Less beloved of my personal brat pack and I than Pie, but still in the same throbbing vein, was Cruel Intentions, another 1999 teen blockbuster. Marketed as a stylish modern take on Les Liaisons dangereuses, Cruel found a frequently shirtless Ryan Phillipe out to deflower the virtuous new girl at his Upper East Side prep school. If he succeeded in his quest, his duplicitous stepsister had promised him anal sex. Writing about the film for the New York Times, Rick Marin asked, "[I]s it just me, or have some of these movies become so sexually explicit (in language, if not nudity), so slutty (in male and female promiscuity), that they're like soft-core porn, without the clever dialogue?" My girlfriend and I saw Cruel Intentions on the day it came out; afterward, we had sex — a not uncommon response, it turns out.
According to the CDC, in 1999, rates of teen sexual activity jumped higher than they'd been in years, while incidences of teen pregnancy continued a steady decline. In other words, a decade ago, young people were eagerly exploring sexuality, spurred on by films filled with characters not just having sex, but actively pursuing sex, constantly.
Fast forward to this month.
By the Sunday after New Moon opened, it was official: the second installment in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series was now the third-largest opening movie in American history. Ticket buyers, half of whom were under twenty-one and eighty percent of whom were female, drove the film's take well past the expected $100 million range, to a final total of $140.7 million. To help give that number some context, think of it this way: that's almost as much as American Pie made in both ticket sales and rental fees ten years ago, and it's more than three times Cruel Intentions' entire box-office gross.
So, what's all the shrill, teenage squealing about? Would you believe a coven of kindhearted vampires who make their home in the Pacific Northwest? Would you believe an epic werewolf-vampire-human love triangle? Crazier still, would you believe it has nothing to do with sex?
The facts are these: Bella, the Twilight series' youthful, taut protagonist, is madly in love with Edward, the handsomest vampire/perma-teenager in Forks, Washington. The feeling is mutual, of course, and the interspecies couple's attraction is greatly enhanced by the fact that Bella's blood — her very life force — is so deliciously fragrant that even the most levelheaded vampires lose control in her presence. Edward himself, normally the picture of restraint, has admitted to Bella that he's never wanted any blood as badly as he wants hers ("Your scent — it's like a drug to me," he says to her in Twilight).
You know as well as I do that there should be quotation marks all over that last paragraph, because not even Oscar Wilde could have thrust more innuendo into a plot-line. And there's the rub — in fact, New Moon (and the entire Twilight series) has everything to do with sex — the complete avoidance of it. In language and in deed, the film shuns sex the same way Stifler shunned his virgin pals ten years ago, and it's the latest example of a sea change in teen films: it's cool to keep it in your pants.
For proof of this, look no further than Edward's constant shame regarding his desire for his girlfriend. In the first film, he tells Bella he once hated her because of how much he "wanted her." And in New Moon, he continues that thought, warning, "Every second that I'm with you is about restraint, and you're too fragile."
In my teen films, restrained lust was not a virtue, but a liability, a hindrance on one's way toward frat-house threesomes. Now, it's the trademark of young America's favorite undead heartthrob.
And what if a teenage boy's self-control fails him, leading to intercourse and — heaven forbid — a pregnancy? If 2007's breakout teen hit Juno is to be believed, nothing. In that film, sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff considers abortion for all of thirty seconds before deciding to have the baby; she then does so with the full support of her parents, all her friends, and her frightfully clumsy boyfriend, who stays with her even after the baby is sent to adoptive parents. Compare them to Mike Damone in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, who, when he discovers his one-night stand is pregnant, immediately goes collecting old debts to pay for an abortion.
So perhaps it's unsurprising that a recent study showed teen sexual activity is down in America, while teen pregnancies are up. Undoubtedly, the Bush administration's abstinence-only sex-ed policies contributed to those figures. But with vampires warning the kids off lust and quirky pregnant girls talking them out of abortions, I can't help but consider the numbers and wonder how much Stifler, Mike Damone, and the whole Delta house changed my life.
American Pie Ruined My Adolescence
By Eric Larnick
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.
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.
In Pie and in life, having sex by prom night was a huge imperative. The only confirmed virgin at the end of the movie was the Sherminator — a jerk and a loser. The countdown to prom became my personal doomsday clock. Through no luck of my own, I actually got a prom date. An unrequited crush of mine set me up with a girl who had just moved to the school. That girl assured me that she was going with me as "just a friend." And I still thought I needed to go for it.
A couple of weeks before the event, my date got into a car accident. I didn't go to my senior prom out of sheer embarrassment; showing up alone was worse than not going at all. By the standards of American Pie, my high-school experience was a failure. But I wasn't the only one who couldn't get laid. Did we all consider ourselves failures?
Turning eighteen and going to college magnified my neuroses about virginity. I felt so alien, so insecure, so… un-American. My first time couldn't be like something out of the movies, so I determined to throw it away as soon as possible. Drunk after a party, I finally lost my virginity to a girl I wasn't attracted to; I was just tired of missing out on sex.
It didn't feel like a 235-million surprise achievement. Honestly, it felt more like a direct-to-DVD sequel — forgettable, poorly executed, and devoid of charm. I actually can't remember the date; all I remember was that it was technically winter. The fact that I still remember the day American Pie came out on DVD suggests that my priorities were out of whack.
There's a lot to hold the Twilight series accountable for; maybe it is just a thinly-veiled Mormon abstinence parable co-opted by Hollywood. But somewhere in that film, there's a message my teenage self really needed to hear, and never did: "Sex is an otherworldly, fantastical, and terrifying experience. Once it happens, you are changed forever. Don't rush." Yes, that message shares space with glittery vampires and ab-crunching werewolves. But I'd still rather show that to my little siblings than a movie where a confirmed virgin is laughed at by everyone at his senior prom, to the point that he pisses himself.
Now I wonder what happened to my peers who couldn't have sex before the end of high school, no matter how hard they tried. When I was a confused adolescent, I needed to lose my virginity as soon as possible because a movie told me to. A whole generation of actual teenagers, looking for answers from anyone but their parents, watched American Pie. A decade later, we're out in the world, trying to be adults. We're trying to meet people, to be part of the world, to feel alive. And when we were younger, we took advice from a movie where Jason Biggs fucked a pastry.
Want to meet a partner with more to offer than your average baked good? Nerve Dating's got you covered.