For the past year, there has been a very public conversation surrounding what is and isn’t appropriate to make jokes about and now, with Hollywood’s sexual assault revelations. These conversations call into question how much bawdy humor crosses the line, particularly in sex comedy movies. Even John Hughes’ “muse” Molly Ringwald is looking at back her work in the genre with nostalgia, confusion, and discomfort. Plenty of high-profile comedians have claimed that PC Culture is destroying comedy and considering that studios appear more and more afraid to put their money behind raunchy humor you might initially think that those comedians are right. However, when you have a box office success like the sex comedy Girls Trip, and the strong critical response to this year’s Blockers, it signals a change that more people in Hollywood should be paying attention to.
Sex comedies were first popular in film in the late 1950s and ‘60s, where with the decline of the Hays Code, more and more sexual plots could be depicted on the big screen. Initially, the genre was defined as romantic comedies like Pillow Talk, Seven Year Itch, and Some Like It Hot, featuring either men as playboys or perpetually awkward and struggling to get laid. In the late 1970s and ‘80s, the genre took a turn. After National Lampoon’s Animal House any romance was largely left out, instead focusing on the conquest for sex like in the movies Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds, and John Hughes’ films like Weird Science and Sixteen Candles. The stars were nerds, or “nice guys” who are always looked over by their love interests. The romance returned a decade later in teen comedies like Can’t Hardly Wait and the American Pie series before the casts were finally allowed to grow up again in the 21st century with Wedding Crashers, 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Trainwreck.
It appeared like the genre had finally come full circle as it was once again adults, looking for sex but ultimately finding love, much like in the age of Rock Hudson and Doris Day. However, the genre of sex comedy feels stunted and isn’t as celebrated as it once was and the answer is really simple and obvious. In all those movies listed above, the story is limited to heterosexual relationships between white people, and almost always from the male perspective. Naturally, after fifty years of repetition, they’re losing their luster and feel largely repetitive.
Let’s start with the fact that the relationships depicted are usually between two straight people. Some movies feature gay couples, but it is rarely a central plot for mainstream studio comedies. In fact, it is more likely that you will see a man have to vehemently defend his sexuality as a straight man than for there to even be the appearance of a gay man in these films. Masculinity is one of the main traits in the genre, but it doesn’t make sense in 2017 when the idea of gender is no longer as strict as it was when Hugh Hefner helped create the image of a sexual savant. In GLAAD’s annual poll, Accelerating Acceptance, they found that 20% of millennials identify as LGBTQ, as acceptance of gender and sexuality grows for those outside of binary heterosexuality, it makes no sense for representations in film to reflect that.
Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon, a romantic comedy centering on a gay teen, was the first of its kind from a major studio and wound up receiving tremendous reviews. Mainstream sex comedies barely begun to delve into the humor couples outside of heterosexuality face. The genre has existed throughout film history because there are universal truths in dating, sex, and relationships, but now we’ve seen the same stories repeatedly, it’s time to see those same truths in a different perspective. LGBTQIA stories shouldn’t remain the subject matter of dramatic Oscar films. Life is humorous, there are situations specific to those who identify outside what movies depict as the “norm” that, if seen on the big screen, would bring just as much understanding about people as the tearjerkers that their stories have been relegated to.
Speaking of gender roles, the most common storyline for sex comedies is the journey for a young man to lose his virginity. Except that many view the idea of “virginity” as a social construct that has contributed to the idea of men as predator and women as prey. If virginity is tangible then it’s something to lose, creating a competitive atmosphere that shames women and celebrates the men who conquer them. Universal’s new comedy Blockers taps into this typical way of thinking. The movie has been receiving strong reviews and centers on a trio of parents who learn their daughters are making a sex pact to lose their virginities on prom night. The movie is much more about parents accepting their children as the adults they’ve raise them to be, but there’s an interesting question that the premise raises in 2018: could you make this film with teen boys instead of girls? The issue isn’t that women have to be “the aggressors” but rather that we still feel the need to protect women from sex while celebrating men. This way of thinking is, in fact, what leads to sex being viewed as a competitive sport where women wind up the losers.
Even if the protagonists are not “virgins”, there are still plots like in Wedding Crashers where it’s a game to sleep with as many people as possible, and deceiving them in order to do it. This raises the question: if women don’t have all the information, can they really consent? How many of the situations in Wedding Crashers (which has had a sequel long in development) are consensual? The only time something in the film is directly identified as rape is between two men, thus creating another opportunity for gay storylines to be viewed as less than or “wrong”.
In recent years, there have been films that flip the script and depict women seeking out sex with men, but they don’t typically get the mainstream attention or success. That is likely to change with the success of Girls Trip which showed women going after sex. There is a difference between how the women of Girls Trip seeking out sex and openly discussing their sexuality vs. the most famous sex comedies where men don’t take no for an answer or resort to manipulations and coercion to get a woman into bed.
Other female-led sex comedies have been made before, such as The Sweetest Thing (critically panned-turned-cult hit) and The To Do List (indie film) but female sexuality has found more success on the small screen, most notably with the groundbreaking Sex and the City, which still had a very limited perspective since all four central characters were white, financially successful women. Telling stories from these female perspectives is refreshing, but they have to be careful to not fall into the habits of their predecessors of remaining primarily white and heterosexual.
Blockers director Kay Cannon touched on this need for evolution, in front of and behind the camera, in her interview with Ed Douglas. “I don’t think this movie would have been made five years ago,” said Cannon. “I definitely don’t think I would be the director of it, but now that we’re calling people out and taking them to task, we need to start telling underserved stories, showing different kinds of people, making things more diverse. I hope the movie does well, because I hope it opens up doors to having more types of movies like these exist.”
The industry also has to give credit where credit is due. Girls Trip is a massive success, but there have been other sex comedies starring black casts that have done well such as Think Like a Man (and its sequel) and Why Did I Get Married? But the industry attitude is often that these films have done well “for a black movie.” Meanwhile, in successful mainstream sex comedies, if there are black roles on screen they exist solely for the white characters to embarrass themselves (Animal House, Weird Science, Can’t Hardly Wait).
Sex comedies are one of the most popular genres of the past sixty years, but their stories have stagnated. It’s time for them to evolve with their audience. More stories depicting diversity. Fewer stories about straight white men. What would a sex comedy centering on someone who is asexual look like? How do different cultures affect attitudes towards sex besides hyper-conservatism? How does technology affect sex and dating? The options are endless and if you’re a producer who doesn’t know what those stories look like, I guarantee you there are creators out there who do and are dying to make those films.
One of the most common excuses lately for those who behave badly in the industry has been I was born in a different time. Except if that was true, then only your generation of men would be affected, but what we’re seeing is people of all ages engaging in hostile behavior towards women, people of color, and LGBTQIA. Predatory behavior has been taught for decades by the industry, and it doesn’t need to continue with the help of big screen comedies.
Emily J | Managing Editor