In my constant search for pop culture artefacts that aren't horrifically sexist, perhaps I've become desperate or lowered my standards, but re-watching American Pie as it happened to pop up on my TV the other night, it struck me that what is often seen as nothing more than a gross-out teen movie is actually surprisingly sex positive.
Caveat: obviously it's a film about nice-looking, able-bodied, white, heterosexual kids in one of the richest countries of the world. We're not going to be able to get away from that, I'm afraid. But for what it is, I was struck by how, nearly 18 years since I first went to see it at the cinema, this film contains a lot of secretly feminist attitudes to sex.
1) It acknowledges that girls masturbate and have sex drives of their own
Firstly, through the conversations between Vicky (Tara Reid) and Jessica (Natasha Lyonne), which also propel the movie past the boundary for passing The Bechdel Test. Granted, they start off talking about whether Vicky's boyfriend Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) has ever given her an orgasm (and pretty realistically for a 17/18 year-old couple without sexual experience the answer is no), but the conversation then moves on to the more likely scenario of Vicky giving herself an orgasm. Jessica clearly has played solo before, Vicky is slightly scandalised at the thought of loving herself. And the exchange premiered the wonderful euphemism for female masturbation "to double click one's mouse." Women not talking about men but instead about how they can please themselves? Feminist and sex positive tick!
Secondly, through Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth)'s explorations when she's on her own in Jim (Jason Biggs)'s bedroom, a scene which also acknowledges that women also look at, and get off on, porn as she helps herself to some of his magazines to aid the experience. And finally, through the revelation Michelle makes when Jim is sitting next to her at the prom after party, bored senseless by her band camp stories, and she tells him that she used her flute as a dildo, causing him to spit his drink everywhere in shock. She shrugs "You think I don't know how to get myself off? That's half of what band camp is," speaking to a million horny teen girls tired of not seeing their own desires, but rather only those of boys, represented on screen.
2) It tells teen boys that they're douchebags if they try to pressure girls into bed
So, the boys' sex pact may seem a bit problematic: Kevin's rousing speech ("No longer shall our penises remain flaccid and unused!") contains some elements of entitlement, as if the boys are owed sex and girls should give it to them. However, the whole premise of the film is that it isn't going to be that simple; the boys are going to have treat girls like human beings if they stand a chance of getting themselves sexual partners.
This is emphasised on several occasions. Firstly, through Jessica's conversation with Kevin, where she tests him by advising him that telling Vicky he loves her is the best way to get her into bed. "That's how I was duped," she adds, and Kevin immediately responds that he doesn't want to "dupe" Vicky, but rather to please her. Jessica recommends giving her what she's never had before...
...which leads to Kevin calling up his older brother Tom for advice. Rather than us seeing blokey blusterings, the two have a surprisingly sensitive conversation where Tom says he's not interested in helping if Kevin is just trying to get his girl into bed. Again, Kevin emphasises that this isn't the case, and. as if Kevin has proven himself worthy of the knowledge, Tom then gives him access to the 'bible' of sex tips hidden in the school library, compiled by generations of boys. The most important section? The "Home of the Tongue Tornado", which although slightly terrifyingly named, leads me to the fact...
3) It acknowledges that for many women, oral sex is the best way to an orgasm
It's already been established that Vicky hasn't experienced an orgasm, either at her partner's hands or her own, but this all changes once Kevin goes down on her. Cue the pretty shonky joke where Vicky's dad comes to her bedroom door to call her down to dinner, and thinks her cries of "I'm coming, I'm coming!!" are her response, when of course it's because Kevin's down south working hard with his tongue. But considering how many books or movies make out that penetrative sex alone will always and easily lead to an orgasm for women--Yo, Sex and the City! Yo, Fifty S***** of ****!--American Pie is pretty damn good at emphasising the reality; that for the vast majority of women, just having a penis inside them ain't going to cut it. When Vicky and Kevin later do have sex, it definitely doesn't seem like an orgasmic experience for her--which again, is a pretty realistic depiction of first time sex, especially between two inexperienced teenagers.
4) It emphasises safer sex
Think how many sex scenes you've seen on TV or in films interrupted by characters stopping and searching for a condom (not including the likes of Grease or Knocked Up, where lack of protection is central to the plot). Then think how many more you've seen where contraception is never mentioned, hinted at or used at all, but the characters just glide from kissing to foreplay to penetration with nary an awkward scrabble around in the nightstand or the guy stopping to put a condom on. I'm guessing the latter group is much bigger. The amount of films that never show even a quick "are you on the pill?" or "have you been tested?" conversation is depressing, and makes it irritating that the porn industry gets blamed for irresponsible sexual behaviour when Hollywood carries just as much of that blame, if not more, for making out that contraception and STI protection somehow magically happens without anyone ever talking about it or hopping out of bed to "wrap it up before you slap it up" (copyright Tim Westwood, some terrible lost time in the 90s). American Pie, by contrast, shows the four boys making their sex pact official by swearing on a box of condoms, which they all then take some of, and we later see Jim having a good old look at one of his rubber friends, Kevin pocketing a condom before the prom, and also Michelle having brought her own condoms to the after party.
5) It shows first time sex in a variety of ways, good and bad
Hollywood is rarely good with nuance, and subtlety definitely isn't what you expect from a gross-out teen sex comedy. Yet by showing the four different teen boys having four very different experiences, American Pie dodges the trap of depicting first time sex as either all doves cooing and choirs singing or all awkwardness and inconvenient bodily fluids. As mentioned above, Kevin and Vicky's experience is a bit quiet, a bit painful, but nothing terrible; it's pretty much how you'd expect it to go for two first-timers. Oz and Heather have the more stereotypically sensual experience with lots of slow, lingering touches and loving looks, all against the background of a beautiful lake, but (we later find out) don't 'go all the way'. Which is kind of nice in itself, seeing how goal-focused and phallocentric our definition of sex can be; it's important to see all the other things you can do with a partner depicted as appealing, without it necessarily having to end in PIV. It also sees Oz telling Heather about the sex pact and admitting he doesn't care about it; being with her is more important than reaching a 'goal' of sex to impress his friends (could we ask for any more 'right-on' behaviour from a horny teen boy?!). Finch, as we all remember with a smirk, discovers a mutual attraction with Mrs Stiffler and, having found an older woman the right match for his maturity (which is usually read by his peers as eccentricity) ends up having great fun on a pool table. And of course Jim is met with the highly sexual, confident Michelle, which again emphasises that teen girls have sex drives all of their own and a sexuality that isn't constructed as a passive response to male desire.
So yeah, there's still the pie scene, and the jizz-in-the-beer scene, and the coining of the term "MILF", and the usual homophobic ribbing one expects from teen boys (although this is confined to Stiffler, who we're generally supposed to see as an idiot anyway). But in amongst all that are a lot of sexual politics more progressive than in many films I see today, 18 years later. While some things need to stay in the late 90s - dial-up internet, belly chains, Aaron Carter's pop career, all-white, all-straight teen movies - there's clearly a lot of other stuff that we in the jaded 21st Century could still stand to learn from the class of '99.