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hen I was fourteen, I had one fantasy above all others: that an older man would fall madly in love with me. It was clear that the hot substitute science teacher, or perhaps the dad I babysat for, would be able to see what no one else in my life seemed to have noticed: I was a sexy, mature, brilliant woman trapped in the body of an eighth grader.
The first scene of the thriller Hard Candy (which you can watch here) plays out a lot like my adolescent fantasy: fourteen-year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) and attractive middle-aged photographer Jeff (Patrick Wilson) meet at a coffee shop after chatting online. They engage in wary flirtation, with loaded glances between casual words. She expresses her longing for a car, her love of literature, and the fact that she's already a bit smarter than him. He tells her about all the places he's been that she can't yet go, he buys her dessert, and he eyes her with shy, embarrassed longing.
As soon as this dynamic is established, the film (spoiler warning) begins to deviate. Hayley convinces Jeff to take her home, where she refuses a glass of water pours some vodka, and insists on modeling for him. Then the drugs she slipped him kick in, and he's tied to a chair. Hayley, you see, had this friend who disappeared shortly after meeting someone online, someone very Jeff-like. She tears up Jeff's house, identifying everything she sees as evidence against him: his portfolio of underage models, a stack of old love letters, a porn stash left to the audience's
Perhaps it's too much to expect a film about pedophila to be subtle.
imagination. Hayley takes drastic measures to get a confession from Jeff, including a harrowing mock-castration, and by the time we really feel sorry for the poor bastard . . . he confesses. And Hayley, after admitting that every bit of personal information she ever told him was a lie, tells him that she is the embodiment of every little girl that he ever lusted after, seduced, hurt and killed.
Perhaps it's too much to expect a film about pedophila to be subtle. But it seems to me that the opening scene of Hard Candy made a promise that the film didn't keep: to acknowledge the complicated sexual dynamic behind the internet-predator phenomenon. In the ultimate logic of Hard Candy, Jeff is guilty through and through: the fact that he chats up young girls on the internet logically leads to his raping and killing them. Hayley, conversely, is purely innocent: she is an avenging angel, doing only what must be done to rid the world of evil. So there we have it, the good girls and the bad guys, spelled out as clear as Cliffs Notes.
But how does this add to the discussion? Recently, a Dateline special got parents up in arms about the dangers of MySpace. The fear: those suggestive photos teenage girls may be noticed by, well, men looking for suggestive photos of teenage girls. Yet considering how badly they want to protect these girls, neither the MySpace protestors nor the producers of Dateline nor the makers of Hard Candy seem interested in what the teenage girls are thinking. And that seems to me to be a crucial oversight. Why is a fourteen-year-old girl's totally normal sexuality more frightening to look at than the stunted deviance of a pedophile?
Fourteen year olds fall into that precarious gap between children and teenagers. As a society, we're okay with teenagers' sexuality (to a degree), but we're very uncomfortable with the idea that tweens have sexual thoughts. Hard Candy starts out acknowledging the idea that Hayley has sexual urges and curiosities of her own. But by midway through the film, she's lecturing Jeff: "Just because a girl acts like a woman, and talks like a woman, does not mean she's ready to do what a woman does." Yes, but it doesn't mean she's simply good at impressions, either. A fourteen-year-old girl is trying out a role that she is preparing to fit into, testing the boundaries
The internet not only allows her to express her sexuality, it lets her have complete control over how much she reveals.
of what is acceptable, what is comfortable for her. Unfortunately, there are very few acceptable outlets with which to do this, and very few guidelines to follow. This is frightening, uncharted waters for most girls. Their emerging sexuality is searching for expression while their parents turn their heads, society pretends to look the other way, and boys their age are either intimidated or oblivious. But the feelings are there, and they're undeniable. So where is a girl to turn?
The internet has always been a place where people are free to carve out spaces for themselves, irrespective of their day-to-day lives. A girl may not be allowed to wear makeup to school, but she's free to identify herself with a pouty, lipsticked picture on MySpace; she may say all the wrong things when she talks to a crush, but she has the opportunity to be a smooth operator over instant messenger. The internet not only allows her to express her sexuality, it lets her have complete control over how much she reveals. And compared to the many ways that teenagers experiment with boundaries, that degree of control makes the internet seem comparatively safe.
In my teenage older-man fantasy, all of my complicated sexual feelings were not only acknowledged, they were mirrored back at me. Sex would stop being a source of shame and become a source of power. I imagine that's what draws teenage girls to internet trolls, what drew Hayley to Jeff . . . or what would have drawn her to him, if the filmmakers had given Hayley a chance to be an actual character. Instead, Hayley becomes what eighth-grade girls so often become in the media: sexless, confused kids in need of protection. And if the only people acknowledging their sexuality are creepy guys in the internet . . . well, is it any wonder that we have a problem? n°
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Gwynne Watkins is a consulting editor of Nerve and editor of the urban parenting website Babble. She's also a playwright and lyricist. Her most recently produced plays were about Wonderwoman and space pirates, respectively.|