Film: Girls just want to have fun

In US teen movies, boys' sexuality is routinely and grossly celebrated. But when girls get raunchy the censors make cuts and complain of threatened family values. Why the double standards? By Alissa Quart
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In the film Coming Soon, a caddish teenage swain cons the 17-year- old heroine into believing she has had her first orgasm. "Oh, that's what that was!" the cherubic blonde, Stream Hodsell, murmurs. Ingenuous Hodsell bears little resemblance to her best friend, from a private school, who notes the high calorific content of sperm and has wonderfully, ridiculously stylised sex.

These celluloid moments are no longer quite the same, as Coming Soon's director Colette Burson had to cut them a lot to get an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Initially, she received the dreaded NC-17 rating, a rating between R and X that's like a killer's kiss to a film aimed at teens.

Burson is angry about this. Her film is far from NC-17 fare; it's a blithe comedy of manners, starring Mia Farrow as Stream's New Age mom and Gaby Hoffman as Stream's catty best friend. It's about college admissions, social class, Nick Drake, and enjoying sex. Before the rating, it looked as if it might sell for millions. Now she can't get it released.

"The woman at the MPAA Board explained the 17 cuts and the initial rating as based on American parents' standards," says Burson. "She said that they judge girls' sexuality differently from boys' and as they have this double standard, they would have found Coming Soon unacceptable as it was.

"I was made to understand that they didn't like a girl having an orgasm on screen," says the director, referring to one of the film's set pieces, where Stream finally has an orgasm in a Jacuzzi. She isn't naked on screen, and it's a vaguely comic and deeply human episode (most of the sex scenes with boys are comic and sad). "I was told it was too lurid."

She is not alone in having her movie about girls' desire mistaken by the rating board for a licentious film. This year, another woman-directed indie debut film about teen girls earned an NC-17 rating - Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader. This broad but brave comedy stars the teenage star Natasha Lyonne as a baby dyke whose parents (Bud Cort plays Dad) ship her off to a rehab camp for young homosexuals. At the camp, she suffers the weeks of deprogramming from a camp "counsellor"(RuPaul) but gets crushed out on a fellow camper, a girl named Graham. The two sneak off to a gay bar and have sex, for which Lyonne gets kicked out of camp.

According to Babbit, the MPAA told her to remove the line, "You ate Graham out", and also to cut much of a scene in which a clothed Natasha Lyonne masturbates. As in Burson's case, the MPAA informed Babbit that there was a "double standard" regarding teen-girl sexuality in the American family; the MPAA had to represent the family's interest. Babbit, like Burson, eventually succumbed to the cuts and her film got an R.

The MPAA's response to these films certainly relates to gender. This summer saw a number of potty-mouthed boy teen smashes, such as American Pie and Big Daddy, which sailed past the ratings board. American Pie revolves around a pact between high-school boys to lose their virginity; the MPAA didn't seem to have a problem with the boy hero jerking off into a pie, or sharing a copy of Hustler with his dad. And the MPAA wasn't flustered by the girl in that movie masturbating to pornography - unwittingly for the delectation of a bunch of googly-eyed boys.

And anyone who suffered Detroit Rock City will have seen topless fans cavorting around boys, and a boy having sex in a confessional booth. There's even a cameo by that wizened Playboy centrefold Shannon Tweed. She comes on the film's main man - a horny high-schooler - outside a male strip joint and has sex with him in a car.

The different treatment of girls is not new. The 1982 smash Porky's, with its high-schoolers ogling babes, raiding brothels and telling filthy funnies, paved the way for lewd teenage boy films so lowbrow they verged on unibrow. Since that sweaty feature, "the teen film plot line has all too often been about boys coming of age, either by losing their virginity or by learning to drive," says Frances Gatesward, a lecturer in film at the University of Illinois.

Few American teen films have shown teenage girls' sexuality in its own terms, rather than for the pleasure of boys. When the studios first recognised the American "teen pic" market in the Fifties, they turned out rock'n'roll, horror, and socially-concerned-teen-anomie movies. Girls were usually on the sidelines. The few films that did focus on girls' sexuality were leering (Kubrick's Lolita) or boy-crazy (Where the Boys Are). In the Eighties, Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High offered a relatively frank portrait, when a raw Jennifer Jason Leigh ventured into and resisted being used sexually. Recently there's been a smattering of films about girls' true romantic lives emerging from the independent film movement - Alex Sichel's 1997 All Over Me, an indie almost-romance between two girls; The Incredibly True Story of Two Girls in Love; Slums of Beverly Hills.

But just because these films are few and far between doesn't mean girls don't want them. Jill, 15, says that neither "girl romantic movies or guy sexy films reflect me. I can't relate to the characters in either kind of movie. My general opinion about movies as of late is that they all sicken me... Women in movies are either maternal or sexy seducers. I realised this this year and I've been very angry at almost every movie I've seen because they all seem sexist to me... Hollywood thinks teenagers are stupid and want to watch pretty people going to parties, instead of real feelings."

Is Hollywood ready for girls with real feelings? Given the small number of silver screen female executives, the movie industry may, in a mirror of the teen boy films themselves, overlook the desires of female viewers and simply view girls as objects of desire whom the heroes lust after and the villains kill slowly. Perhaps the sheer number of American teen girls today - a sizeable number of the estimated 31 million sees each film two or three times over - can change what is deemed acceptable girls' film.

Before films like Coming Soon can connect to their teenage girl and women viewers, they have to be released; Colette Burson worries that Coming Soon may be shelved for good. After she made the MPAA's cuts, a number of big Hollywood studios courted her briefly, then dropped the film. "It would reach some male movie executive at the top that said there was no market," says Burson, who surmises that the bright schoolgirls in her film "looked a lot like these middle-aged guys' daughters". None the less, the film has already garnered a cult following among teens and adult women.

Like Burson, Babbit has yet to find domestic distribution for her film and still encounters "LA industry types" asking her to "take out that scene of where the girl plays with herself", as it makes them uncomfortable. Babbit is hopeful about the film's international distribution as it is selling well in Europe - But I'm a Cheerleader will probably be released in Britain next spring.