Strong Women Make Better Dessert
Strong Women Make Better Dessert:
The Power of the Female Characters in American Pie
By Erin Dionne
It’s as American as, well, apple pie. Sex and teen films go together like whipped cream and a frat party. The contemporary teen sex romp has been around for decades—remember Porky’s and Losin’ It?—but none of them have hit a nerve with their audience like the American Pie franchise. Whether it was Jason Biggs’ physical comedy, Finch’s anal persona, or Stifler’s lewd and rude nature, the first movie hit big—grossing over $100 million at the box office in 1999. But although the plot follows the boys quest to lose their virginity, it’s the female characters in the film who help elevate the original American Pie not to the level of high art, but at least to a place that twists conventional expectations. Without them, Pie would be just another sticky, unsatisfying, empty-calorie dessert.
American Pie, for those who haven’t seen it, revolves around four male friends about to graduate from high school. Oz, Kevin, Jim, and Finch don’t want to leave their high school years behind as virgins, and so make a pact to sleep with someone by prom. The only problem is that, outside of Kevin, the other three guys don’t have girlfriends and must start their pursuits from scratch. Stifler, an obnoxious hanger-on, claims to have the most experience of the group, though offers more commentary than help—and from his overblown attitude and lack of finesse, it’s clear that he’s lying. All in all, typical teen fare represented by the guys’ view of sex as uncomplicated and straightforward. As prom grows nearer, and the main characters grow desperate, hilarity ensues.
Even though the cameras follow the boys, it’s the female characters who reveal the film’s real story. They are the ones who ultimately say who, when, and where. It’s the case in nearly every teen movie, of course–without consent from the second participant, there is no lovin’ for our heroes (and the sex comedy would take on a dark, violent mantel). But in American Pie, the plot is not just about how the boys get the girls to accept their advances—indeed, it’s about what the girls teach the guys in the process: that sex is anything buy straightforward, and there’s no such thing as “uncomplicated.”
Tara Reid’s character, Vicky, has been dating Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) for quite a while. He wants to sleep with her, but she wants to know he loves her—which stops him in his tracks.
Oz (Chris Klein), in trying to scope out someone who doesn’t know his lacrosse-playing jock side, ends up legitimately falling for Mena Suvari’s “choir girl,” Heather, and swiftly sees the value in keeping their relationship—and sex life—private.
Stifler (Seann William Scott), in his refusal to learn from the women around him, reminds the audience that not all men—especially teenage boys—understand the dynamics at play between love and sex. So focused on getting laid, his bravado, innuendo, and lewd remarks drive every girl away from him. He’s left with sickening rage as Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) sleeps with his mother (Jennifer Coolidge)—proof that Finch’s relative emotional maturity can attract a bigger prize than Stifler will ever attain.
But it’s Jason Biggs character, Jim, who suffers and succeeds the most with the women in the story. At its outset, he views women as merely vehicles for sex—objectifying them by masturbating to the scrambled porn channel and stripping them of personality or humanity as he obsesses over them. In his first major wake-up call, foreign exchange student Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), object of his obsession, causes him to humiliate himself not once, but twice, in the midst of their tryst. The scene is all the more poetic as Nadia is unaware that the interlude has been staged for the high school population’s viewing pleasure via Jim’s web cam. It’s not until the end of the film, when flaky and annoying Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) not only agrees to sleep with him, but dominates their encounter (uttering the memorable “Say my name, bitch!”) and leaves him, does Jim realize that sex—and women—are more complicated than he ever imagined.
In each case, having the teenaged girls dictate the terms of the encounter not only imbues the guys’ struggle with humor, it also makes the story resonate. Kevin, Finch, Oz, and Jim may be out to “get some,” but what they end up with is far different from their initial expectations. The girls end up getting even more. They begin to understand their sexuality, develop an awareness of the choices they have and can make, and exert a measure of power in their relationships.
Teen sex romps rarely offer feminist undertones, or feature more than the stereotypical blonde bombshell characterizations of women (or if they do, it is through the archaic angel/slut representation, with one “chosen” virtuous woman represented throughout the film is the prize for the hero). After all, there’s plenty of humor to be found in men chasing women and tricking them to fall into bed, or hapless heroines being swept off their feet by a deceptive hero…or so I’ve heard. But pitting powerful women—even to the extent that they don’t know they are powerful— making their own decisions, against a group of guys ups the ante for the audience. And Pie is all the more sweet for it.
Erin Dionne, co-editor of Bread and Circus, is the author of the novel Models Dont Eat Chocolate Cookies from Dial Books for Young Readers. Available in spring 2009.