The Ms. Q&A: Consent Culture, Teen Films and Coming of Age—With Michele Meek

“the way we think about sex comes about through scripts we tend to absorb from institutions, pop culture, movies, and then we enact through interchanges with others,” said filmmaker and writer Michele Meek. “I would like us to do a lot more reflecting on how consent operates in the real world.” (Instagram)

In her new book Consent Culture and Teen Films: Adolescent Sexuality in U.S. Movies, just out last month, independent filmmaker and scholar (and Ms. contributor!) Michele Meek engages in an accessible and trenchant analysis of consent culture in contemporary teen films. In it, she challenges the idea of consent as a straightforward concept and questions the messages about consent and teenage sexuality reflected in films of the last 20 years.

Crucially, Meek broadens her scope to include both popular Hollywood and streaming films like Superbad (2007) and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018), as well as lesser known indie titles like Boy Meets Girl (2014) and The Tale (2018), where writers and directors are often more willing to explore stories beyond the typical cis, heteronormative scripts and delve into more complicated narratives.

(Indiana University Press)

Aviva Dove-Viebahn: What made you want to write this book?

Michele Meek: For many, many years, I’ve been interested in sexuality studies. I actually had been studying consent before #MeToo. When I was doing my graduate work, I was really interested in ambiguous moments of sexual consent. I think it comes from my own experiences and knowing that there’s a lot more gray area than we talk about in terms sexual experience. I was fascinated by that at first. And then when #MeToo went viral, I had to think more about what is it that I’m trying to say in this current era because that really solidified the fact that we are in a consent culture.

We understand that, ideally, ‘Yes means yes.’ But there’s still these complex negotiations that happen, and it can be much more confusing and ambiguous in practice. Looking at that through teen films was one way of looking at adolescent sexuality without directly looking at adolescent sexuality because it’s not actually adolescents playing, for the most part, the teens [in these films].

Dove-Viebahn: Why focus on teen films in particular or films about coming of age? And you do draw that distinction. Not all of these films are even made for teens.

Meek: For me, the issues around agency are more intriguing for young adults because they’re negotiating agency in so many facets of their lives, especially when they’re not considered legal adults yet. So, what does it mean to have agency when you’re not of age? Yet I know from my own experience that I felt very strongly that I had agency—and I had sexual desire and curiosity and I had all of those things.

I think I’m still kind of fascinated by trying to reconcile what feels like the absence in our culture of an acknowledgment that children don’t just wake up at age 18 and now have sexual agency and desire. That’s not how it works, and we all know it.

Teen films become this interesting area to look at: all right, what do adults think about youth sexuality? Because really that’s what it’s about. It’s not even so much about what youth are thinking about their own sexuality. What are adults putting out into the discourse in the larger world and what’s the story we’re telling about youth sexuality? That’s what youth are growing up with.  So, how can that story be changed and who changes it?

Children don’t just wake up at age 18 and now have sexual agency and desire. That’s not how it works, and we all know it. … So, how can that story be changed and who changes it?

Michele Meek

Dove-Viebahn: You describe in the introduction of the book a transition from rape culture to consent culture and use the example of two SNL skits and the response to them: one making fun of date rape from 1993 [a spoof about Antioch College’s ahead-of-its-time affirmative consent policy] and a 2015 skit that implies boys are always consenting [roundly criticized by viewers].  

What do you think has changed that accounts for the difference in response to these two skits?

Meek: When that first affirmative consent skit came out, the whole idea of affirmative consent seemed sort of ridiculous. The idea that you have to give me permission for each act, that just seemed so preposterous. You know, it doesn’t seem preposterous anymore. Affirmative consent is the policy on many college campuses at this point, and it’s understood more widely that you should be getting consent before you do anything—and that someone can consent to different actions and they can say no at any point and consent can be revoked. There are all these aspects of consent that we just didn’t accept widely as a culture [in the 1990s].

The second skit to me becomes more representative of the fact that we’ve made this mistake as a culture of just switching the gender roles as if that solves the problem. “Oh, okay. I see we need consent from girls and women, but we don’t need consent from men and boys,” which is also not how it works.

To speak quickly to the idea of rape culture [transitioning to] consent culture: The first instinct was to eradicate sexual assault. That was the impetus initially in the conversations around consent. So, this idea of “No Means No” became a mantra of sorts. The shift came when a pro-sex movement came about where they wanted to make sure that women and girls felt like they had agency and could say yes and that they were driving sexual interactions. That’s where “Yes Means Yes” comes from. Both totally well-intentioned. There’s no problem with “Yes Means Yes” or “No Means No” as long as we understand that there’s a million interchanges in between those two mantras we need to also contend with.

Dove-Viebahn: In the book, you talk about using a “sex critical approach.” Can you discuss what that means in terms of thinking about consent?

Meek: There’s two parts to it. One is the part coming from a “radical” feminist perspective: How can women and girls even consent in a culture where they’re so objectified and sexualized at every turn right there? How can there ever be any consent? We take what we can from that approach and say, we hear that, but also, we are not going to accept the idea that women and girls then have no agency in interactions with women and men. The sex critical approach is understanding the critiques of a radical feminist approach while also making sure that we recognize the pro-sex movement’s need to acknowledge women and girl’s sexual agency.

The second part for me is that everything should be critiqued—in the sense that the way we think about sex comes about through scripts we tend to absorb from institutions, pop culture, movies, and then we enact through interchanges with others. That means that even the way we negotiate consent shouldn’t be something we just take for granted as fact or true or easy, that we should also be thinking, “What does it mean to say this is what consent looks like?”

Dove-Viebahn: I really like how you include a historical overview and then move between Hollywood/mainstream productions and independent productions. Why did you choose to mix Hollywood and independent film in your choice of topics?

Meek: I was actively looking for media outside the traditional Hollywood narrative for several reasons. That’s often where we find the most groundbreaking work, where filmmakers are testing out different ways of thinking about things. And youth sexuality is no exception to that.

Also, we are continuing to live in an era where mainstream media is highly dominated by white cis men. To focus only on [Hollywood] would be telling only one kind of story. The book I did before was Independent Female Filmmakers, and I really take seriously my own call to action, which is that as scholars we should be engaging with work by a variety of people. It’s hard though because it’s really easy to find a nice through-line for the white, cis, heteronormative adolescent sexuality story and not so easy to find anything other than that.

Dove-Viebahn: What would you say your favorite film to write about was—which doesn’t have to mean your favorite film, but one that you found most compelling or perhaps most challenging?

Meek: The filmI found most challenging to write about was Adam. The whole idea of the film is that Adam is a cis heterosexual boy who disguises as a trans man to get a girl who actually identifies as a lesbian, but later identifies as bisexual. That film really had me in a head spin. I ended up hiring two separate readers, in addition to the book’s peer review process, to read that chapter and provide feedback. They helped me think through some of the ideas about that film from a trans person’s perspective that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around and was maybe a little afraid to even talk about. That was the most challenging.

I really, really enjoyed working on the chapter on Diary of a Teenage Girl and [The Tale], because I think to me, that really gets at something that feels like it’s been all but erased in our culture. This idea of girls’ curiosity, even with older men, that we know is deeply disturbing. But where do they locate their agency in these stories? Those two filmmakers [Marielle Heller and Jennifer Fox, respectively], the way they addressed their individual stories, I think was so powerful. I just enjoyed thinking through the unique work those films are doing.

Media outside the traditional Hollywood narrative … [is] often where we find the most groundbreaking work, where filmmakers are testing out different ways of thinking about things. And youth sexuality is no exception to that.

Michele Meek

Dove-Viebahn: That also gets at some of those nuanced questions you were talking about earlier, right? Trying to find a through-line between different ways of thinking about consent and sexuality. What do you hope people will take away from this book?

Meek: Can I have more than one hope? [laughs]

Dove-Viebahn: Of course.

Meek: The first thing I hope is that we can do some reflecting on what it is that we’re trying to accomplish through a consent culture, because I do value consent.

I also recognize that oversimplifying consent is as problematic as ignoring consent. Right now, the framework that we’ve devised is highly gendered in that it prioritizes girls’ consent over boys’ consent. It also doesn’t really take into account queer teens who are navigating complex situations where they’re forcing themselves into heterosexual interactions when they clearly have no desire for that. What does that mean? And for trans individuals, this idea of disclosure.

We need to be careful about what we’re saying because it affects people across the board, and I don’t think we’ve done the work to think through some of these aspects of consent and what we mean by disclosure. So, I would like us to do a lot more reflecting on how consent operates in the real world.

The second thing is that we need to contend with how we really feel about youth sexuality and ways that we can acknowledge it as a normative experience. For most youth, they’re growing up becoming sexual individuals. I think we’ve done so much work to protect children through anti-child pornography legislation that we’ve erased all normative childhood sexuality from our visual culture. We’re so threatened by the idea of youth sexuality that we assume that it’s attractive to adults, which means youth are growing up in a vacuum around their sexuality, especially knowing that we don’t have really good sex education. So, what are we really telling youth about sex? How are they learning about sex? And what do our deeply ambivalent feelings as a culture around youth and sexuality as being this toxic combination mean for actual youth?

Dove-Viebahn: Thank you so much for talking to me!

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.