Disclaimer the first: this essay is written from the belief that both men and women should have fully satisfying and rich sexual lives. While I don’t personally believe this is a controversial stance, I know that there are still a lot of people in the world that don’t believe this statement to be true.
Disclaimer the second: my viewpoint is that it’s normal (and, in most cases, healthy) for teenagers to explore their sexuality.
Disclaimer the third: please note that this essay contains spoilers.
Maggie Carey’s The To-Do List is a movie that should be seen, not because it’s a perfect movie, (I found it fun, and a bit uneven) but because it takes a huge step forward in depicting a woman’s emerging sexuality. We’ve been watching men come of age for decades on the silver screen, but rarely do we see a woman’s exploration and discovery. Mostly when we do catch a glimpse, it is framed from a man’s perspective. Often the female coming of age takes one of two forms: either the true love story, or something tragic happens. This movie not only gives us a woman’s perspective; it also adds a new story to the cannon.
The premise of the movie is this: Brandy Klark, having achieved all she could possibly achieve academically in high school, realizes that she is well behind the curve in the physical side of being a teenager. To remedy that, she makes a list of different activities to do before she leaves for college.
This is probably the time to mention that I attended the same high school as the writer/director, though we did not know each other. I also wrote a mostly “sour grapes” essay earlier this year when I found out someone from my high school had written and directed a real movie.
Here’s the thing about teenagers and sex. Though things have changed in the 20 years since I graduated high school, they haven’t changed very much. This is reflected in movies/television where we still see depictions of male loss of virginity as something to be done (and cheered) while female loss of virginity is still something to be agonized over. Or the alternate story: when women’s loss of virginity is done in a flippant manner it comes with dire results such as pregnancy, STDs or rape.
I’ve been watching the excellent TV series Friday Night Lights and the show reflects this dichotomy perfectly. In season three, Julie, the coach’s daughter, begins sleeping with her boyfriend and her parents find out. Julie and her mother Tami have a talk in which Tami checks in with her daughter about the relationship and birth control and expresses that she wanted Julie to wait. Julie comments that she didn’t want to disappoint her mother. They both cry. It’s a very well done scene (although I want Julie to be using more than just condoms for birth control) but there is a bittersweet nature to it. Contrast that with Landry, a male character the same age as Julie who (presumably) loses his virginity when a girl sneaks into his room and spends the night. Landry’s father catches sight of the girl leaving the next morning, but there is no father/son talk with Landry, (not even about birth control) no worry that he should wait, no check-in to see if becoming sexually active is what he wants. In fact, the sum total of the father’s reaction is to smirk and finish taking out the trash.
Brandy Klark goes in a different direction. In making her list of things to do that have to do with sex, she is taking control of her experience. Her list is vast and includes things I would consider a bit advanced, but the things Brandy Klark gets around to checking off are things I would place each of these acts within the realm of normal adolescent experimentation. They are: dry humping, fingering, hand job, blow job, masturbation, cunnilingus, intercourse and (female) orgasm. Although I’m guessing that female orgasm is still something that is deemphasized.
Most of the humor in the movie is driven by Brandy Klark’s rather clinical way of going about checking items off her list. The hand job in the movie theater was particularly hilarious in that uncomfortable humor way. But I would argue that figuring all this stuff out is pretty funny in general. Women, when they get to talking about early sexual fumbling, have some hilarious stories to tell and I think Brandy’s experiences will seem familiar to a lot of women, although they happen in a much more compressed timeline in the movie than most of us probably experienced.
Another plus is that Brandy doesn’t neglect her own needs. She does her research about how to give a blow job, she checks in with her sister for proper hand job techniques, but she also explores masturbation—which is not something her more sexually experienced friends are willing to admit they do—and cunnilingus. There was an astute commentary that might have slid by many viewers, but cunnilingus didn’t even make Brandy Klark’s original list. She only experienced it because a co-worker needed the practice. When her friend Fiona sees the term on the list, she asks Brandy what it means. Given the male-centered state of adolescent exploration, it’s not surprising that a female who has given oral sex would not have received it, or even know there is a term describing the act.
There is fallout from Klark’s fumbling. Both of her girl friends and her “study buddy” end up angry at her, but she repairs things in the end. She also has a huge realization, which for me was the most radical part of the movie. Brandy realizes that sometimes sex is something profound and special and sometimes it’s just sex. Brandy’s realization marks the first time that I have seen a woman in a film state so emphatically that it’s okay for a female to just have sex for the physical connection, rather than the emotional one.
Before the To Do List, women on film had only two stories to tell about how they learned how to become sexual: the tragic (rape/unintended pregnancy) and the “true love” story. Brandy Klark’s path to sexual maturity shows that there is another path to female sexuality: that when you take proper precautions both physically and emotionally, sexual exploration can be fun and rewarding. This is the same path men have been trotting happily along for years, and I’m glad women have finally joined them.