It was by accident that I discovered watching movies as a way to broach the “sex talk.”
A few years ago, my nine-year-old daughter and I attended her Little League’s screening of the 1993 film “The Sandlot.” I had actually never seen the movie, so I was taken aback when one of the boys pretends to drown so the female lifeguard will give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He then grabs her head and starts kissing her until she pulls away in disgust.
Afterwards, his friends are impressed by his nerve, and one of them in a voiceover says, “What he’d done was sneaky, rotten, and low—and cool” because he’d had the “guts” to “kiss a woman” “long and good.”
I was stunned at how blatantly this scene suggested that “no” did not mean “no.” I turned to my daughter and whispered, “We should leave.”
But of course, she was completely absorbed in the film and had no interest in leaving. So, we stayed. But the next day, I explained to her why what that boy did was not okay. It turned out this scene offered me an opening to discuss the complexities of consent.
It can be tough to re-watch our old favorite teen films—they are often a minefield of racist and sexist jokes, homophobic slurs and sexual violations. Some, like “Sixteen Candles” and “Grease,” seem fairly irredeemable. But there are a few films from our past that still offer opportunities to broach the topics of consent, sexuality, gender, race, intersectionality, abortion and pregnancy.
Here are five teen films with female protagonists from the 1980s and 1990s (in date order) to get your conversations started. Maybe in their imperfection, you can find moments that will spark dialogue and reflection.
“Just One of the Guys” (1985)
In this teen comedy, directed by Lisa Gottlieb, Terry believes she has been overlooked for a journalism prize because of sexism. To prove it, she disguises herself as a boy at another school.
The Good: Terry stands up for herself and what she believes in despite the sexist adults around her. This film is also one of the only teen comedies in its era that depicts the pliability of gender.
The Bad: “Just One of the Guys” features adult male teachers who ogle teen girls—essentially, this is part of the setup that causes Terry to believe sexism to be the reason that she hasn’t gotten the journalism job. Plus, like many teen comedies of this era, the film portrays a completely white world. It’s also ultimately a heteronormative story—Terry is not actually transgender, and much of the comedy derives from the confusion of genders.
Also problematic is the character of Terry’s brother, Buddy, a sex-obsessed teenager who objectifies women. Finally, there is the unfortunate culmination at the end of the film, in which Terry takes off her top to reveal her femaleness.
Okay, admittedly, that’s a lot of “bad”—so see for yourself if the conversation starter is worth it.
The Conversation Starter: I think this film offers potential to address head-on the considerable differences between transgender identities and Terry’s gender disguise. Also, a scene where Terry’s brother “teaches” her how to act masculine highlights the performativity of gender—a concept Judith Butler describes by stating, “Gender is kind of imitation for which there is no original.” In the scene, Terry mimics her brother’s masculine performance, but he has merely copied some other male performance, and on and on.
“Dirty Dancing” (1987)
“Dirty Dancing” tells the story of Frances “Baby” Houseman who discovers her sexuality the summer before college at a Catskills resort.
The Good: “Dirty Dancing” is one of the only films from this era that depicts a girl’s embracing her sexual desire and agency—without regret.
The Bad: In the film, Baby is either 17 or 18 years old and Johnny is 24. Still, even today, Baby would be over the age of consent in New York. Also, Baby’s sister Lisa has intercourse for the first time, and she discovers later that her partner was simply using her for sex.
The Conversation Starter: The aftermath of Penny’s abortion offers a way to talk about the ongoing controversy over abortion and emphasizes the urgency of safe, legal and accessible abortion for women. This film also delves into class frictions in a way that most teen comedies avoid, and as such, it also offers an opportunity to talk about privilege and oppression—although not through the lens of race.
“Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” (1992)
This teen film, directed by Leslie Harris, won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance for its depiction of Black teen Chantel Mitchell who navigates the pressures of sex, parental expectations, friendship and eventually teen motherhood.
The Good: Chantel is a confident, tough, smart and vocal character with aspirations of attending medical school. She also owns her sexuality—and ultimately the consequences of her choices. Most importantly, this film charted new ground in its depiction of Black female girlhood, and for that alone, it is worth watching and discussing.
The Bad: Chantel’s boyfriend, Tyrone, pressures her into sex without a condom, which is how she ends up pregnant. She then vacillates on whether to have an abortion, and when Tyrone gives her money for one, she impulsively spends it on a shopping spree.
The birth scene descends down a truly morose path—Chantel puts the baby in the trash (only to be subsequently rescued). In other words, this is not your typical light teen fare, and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish whether the film gets real or just falls into negative and stereotypical depictions.
The Conversation Starter: Well, there’s teen pregnancy, which this film tackles head-on. But this film offers much more in its nuances—Chantel seems confident, but ultimately, she doesn’t assert herself when she needs to most. Furthermore, the characters outwardly discuss race and gender stereotypes, which provides an opportunity for viewers to do the same.
The film also can be a launchpad to discuss race and gender inequities in the film industry. Despite the film’s resounding success, Harris was unable to get funding for her subsequent film.
“The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love” (1995)
This lesbian teen coming-of-age comedy directed by Maria Maggenti depicts the burgeoning romance of Randy and Evie.
The Good: “The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love” depicts consent between the two girls as exploratory and mutual, offering a positive depiction of female sexual discovery. The film also presents their coming together despite opposite social, ethnic and economic backgrounds—Evie’s mom is Black, heterosexual and wealthy, while Randy’s moms are homosexual, poor and white.
The Bad: Early in the film, Randy makes out in a gas station bathroom with her older married fling Wendy. Although we later learn that Randy hasn’t been that intimate with Wendy, their significant age difference raises questions of consent. Then, although the sex scene between Evie and Randy is mutual, they get high and drink wine beforehand.
The Conversation Starter: The film doesn’t shy away from showing the discrimination the girls encounter as a result of their sexual preferences, and it is one of the first films in the genre to show the complexity of discovering one’s sexuality. When Evie’s friends gang up on her to say she doesn’t “seem” gay, Evie replies, “I didn’t say I was gay. I said I was in love. Underneath it all, I’m the same person.”
This groundbreaking depiction of Evie’s not wanting to label herself offers a way of discussing young adults’ exploration of sexuality and sexual identity.
“Coming Soon” (1999)
This independent (and oft-maligned) teen sex comedy directed by Colette Burson presents three high school girls on a quest for orgasms.
The Good: Filmmakers have often shown a lack of imagination in depicting sex. As Director Greta Gerwig has observed:
“If [movies] show sex … it’s usually a two-shot from the side and you know the moment his penis goes into her because she kind of arches back, and it looks so weird and fake.”
“Coming Soon” resists all of that, showing instead how unsatisfying sex can be for girls. And it’s refreshing to see a film put the female orgasm front-and-center, especially in a genre where it’s usually depicted comically or absent entirely.
The Bad: The film shows several scenes of girls participating in compulsory sex. In one scene, protagonist Stream and her boyfriend kiss on his couch, and he pushes her head down to give him fellatio—and after resisting twice, she ultimately relents. Although the filmmaker clearly means to highlight an imbalance in their sexual relationship, the scene also unfortunately depicts nonconsensual sex without any consequences.
The Conversation Starter: The female orgasm! I mean, how many sex education courses do teens and preteens sit through that never mention the female orgasm—as if it didn’t exist or didn’t matter. Shouldn’t all parents (of girls and boys) try to raise this topic with their children before they begin sexual exploration?