You hear a lot, in some circles, about how difficult it is to teach children about values in the face of persuasive and abundant media depictions of violence, licentiousness and other bad crap, including sexual violence and predatory behavior toward women that is often dressed up as romance. I'm looking at you, Edward the vampire. What was that character's last name? Crap, now I have to go check.
Aaaand I fell down a Renesmee rabbit hole. BOY is that character a mess. Talk about a plot Band-Aid, jeez. Need to tie something up? Get Renesmee to do that thought-projection thing and everybody's all up to speed.
The Twilight books and movies are indeed remarkable in the number and variety of bad relationship behaviors that they romanticize. Endangering oneself to get attention? Bella. Stalking? Edward. Treating a potential romantic partner as an attainment? Heyyyy werewolf and vampire, I see you guys dick-jousting over there.
I use this image to illustrate some of the less-popular traits of adolescence in our Something Wicked This Way Comes of Age presentation. In that talk, we discuss how the popularity of horror fiction among teens makes perfect sense given the evolutionary imperatives that drive their neurological and emotional development. The whole MUST MATE thing, mostly.
Must mate - and confused as hell about it. Which is why it's so frustrating when movies and TV aimed at them furnish so very many examples of What Not To Do With, To, or Around the Object of Your Affection; How Not To Refer to Your Guy or Lady; What Not to Ask Them To Do; etc and obviously I could go on all day. But good moments in media exist too. I was inspired to run a few of them down because... well because we took the kids to see Deadpool this weekend. We're bad, we know.
Or are we? I was frankly surprised by the excellent relationships modeled in that movie. But first, let me explain our reasoning behind taking our under-18 sons to this R-rated movie. According to the MPAA rating, Deadpool has:
Strong language: Ok yeah, Wade Wilson is one pottymouthed motherfucker for sure, sometimes managing three or four f-words in one sentence (#goals!), but at ages 12 and 14, my kids (and probably yours) understand proper deployment of swear words (i.e. not where I can hear you unless you have burned yourself or dropped something heavy on your foot). And I don't think they could become more desensitized to their use - I am sure that, out of adult earshot, they and their friends swear like Peter Capaldi with his nuts in a vise.
Strong violence: I've pretty much given up on this one. Now what I watch out for is viciousness. Viciousness and psychopathy. And torture. Ok, viciousness, psychopathy, and torture. And gratuitous violence toward women. Including, certainly, rape. And this chair. Ok. Looks like I was wrong. Clearly I haven't given up on caring about the violent images my sons are exposed to. But Deadpool, ok yeah there's a little torture, but otherwise, almost 100% of the copious COPIOUS violence in this movie is played for laughs. Kristen Page-Kirby of the Washington Post put her finger on it: "The violence has all the atrial spurting of a Tarantino film, but without the lascivious meanness."
Without the meanness, and that's important to me. Plus, nobody's trying to excuse it either. Some movies get very tiresome - not to mention convoluted to explain to kids - the way that they pit the hero against somebody who's ACTUALLY bad, oh look the BAD guy kills people in a BAD way whereas the HERO has god on his side. Or the good of the many. Or the law. Naw, Deadpool boasts none of that murky malarkey - Deadpool murders a whole bunch of fellas because he's pissed that this other fella ruined his life, and we're reminded repeatedly that what he's doing is not ok, mostly by him. Easy to explain to kids: "Don't do that."
And while Deadpool was definitely a psychotic character in the comics, in this movie he is crazed but not (probably) crazy.
Sexual content: AND HOW. When Ryan Reynolds first meets Vanessa (the glorious Morena Baccarin, aka Inara from Firefly, about whom my son asked, "Holy cow, does she not AGE?" and let me tell you when my 12-year-old boy notices something like that you know it must be true facts), he pays $275 for 45 minutes of her time. "Uh oh." I thought. "We fucked up."
But no! They play skee-ball for 42 minutes, because, as Wade tells her, he likes to get to know a person first. Then they have plaster-cracking standup sex for three minutes, which apparently seals the deal for Vanessa, because what follows is what Pajiba calls "perhaps the most fantastic sex montage ever... wherein they celebrate every holiday in exquisitely funny and filthy dirty fashion." For Halloween, he goes down on her wearing plastic vampire fangs (something I am pretty sure Edward Cullen never does with Bella, and that guy had real fangs); on International Women's Day she straps one on and puts it in his corner pocket; for Lent, they sit and read together; and to celebrate the Year of the Dog, they do it doggie style. It's kind of sexy (we do see a fair amount of prime Ryan Reynolds real estate, and Jesus the more Morena Baccarin people see the better the world is). But mostly, again, it's played for laughs.
And GET THIS: the author Carrie Mesrobian reported on Facebook that her husband Adrian took their daughter to see the movie. When they got home he informed Carrie, "Uh, you have some new sex stuff to explain to her." Which, for one thing, that is HIGHlarious - as if Mom bears sole responsibility for sexuality instruction ha ha ha ha RIGHT Adrian??! But the other thing is, he was totally right. Deadpool offers a ton of teaching opportunities! I brought it up pretty much as soon as we left the theater:
Me: Remember the part where he's on his hands and knees and she's behind him? Did you get what was happening there?
Sons: Please kill us. Lord, open up the sky and drop a comet on us RIGHT NOW.
Me: Well remember when you asked me about it that one time how I explained that there's no such thing as 'gay sex'? There's just who you love and what you like and what your partner likes and most of the time the two of you will have the right parts to do the things you like but if you don't there are still options?
Sons: Are we dead yet?
Me: Like strap-on sex toys!
Sons: *pretending to be dead*
Me: Anyway what we saw them doing shows you that sexual orientation - who you tend to be attracted to - and sex acts - the stuff you do in bed - do not define each other. Although I guess it would be pretty rare for a gay man to be really into vaginal penetration. Still! You never know.
Sons: *still pretending to be dead but I know they are processing this new and interesting information and becoming better future romantic partners even while their heads loll lifelessly on their shoulders*
And I know this makes me sound like a maniac, but I'm not the only one to see this as a teachable moment: the Refinery 29 reviewer says, "seeing a super-macho, hypermasculine leading man like Ryan Reynolds end up on the receiving end of a strap-on dildo will hopefully demonstrate to audiences that it’s fun and totally okay to experiment with power dynamics during sex, as long as both partners are willing and consenting adults. It’s one small(ish) peg(ging) for mankind, really."
Kristen Page-Kirby again: "The sex is enthusiastic, fun and always consensual... “Deadpool” has all the things teenagers already see and hear in movies they’re not supposed to see, but it presents them in a new, better, more positive light."
The Jezebel review notes a fight between Colossus and Angel Dust, during which he "notices that her breast is exposed. He lets her know and allows her to adjust herself before they continue their battle, all the while standing in front of her so as to obscure her nudity from the audience and keep the joke morally sound. What’s surprising about Deadpool isn’t that it’s a screwball comedy, it’s that it manages to be a responsible screwball comedy."
And we're not totally awful parents. Not all onscreen sex is ok with us. We decided not to share Jessica Jones with our kids the moment that Jones and Luke Cage switched to a second position in their first-episode hookup. That sex was intense and passionate, and it would make our kids uncomfortable. But when I asked the boys if the sex in Deadpool bothered them, the 12-year-old said, "It wasn't too bad," and the 14-year-old said, "It wouldn't keep me from watching the movie again." Yeah I bet it wouldn't!
I wish with all my heart that I could pop a clip of that sex montage in here. Even a GIF. Heck I'd settle for a still photo of Morena Baccarin snapping the straps on her dildo harness. But alas. This creative work is still under lock and key.
You know what's not though? This lecture from Weeds:
I've read - no joke - probably 50 books on puberty and sexuality in the past couple of months for an article I'm writing for School Library Journal. And do you know how much practical advice most books give boys on masturbation? Most books are still telling boys that they won't go blind from yanking their yankee. God, that was already a discredited old wives' tale when I was a kid, and I am OLD.
One book tries to reassure boys "If you're doing it in public, you're probably doing it too much." Don't say shit like that to twelve-year-olds! They don't know enough to know you're making a joke! Jerking off in public is not 'doing it too much,' it's a criminal act!
So Uncle Andy's advice about lube, cleanup, and the benefits of keeping your poker polished is great, good gold-plated television, and I recommend it. Now if only we had the equivalent lecture for girls. I mean, while we're on the subject, you know how much advice GIRLS get on masturbation in most of these books? "Some girls notice that rubbing their clitoris produces a good, tingly sensation." Then the books say that some girls masturbate but some never do, and either is ok.
DEEP CLEANSING BREATH.
FUCK YOU PATRIARCHY.
Here's another moment of responsibility, from that fantastic teen Taming of the Shrew movie, 10 Things I Hate About You:
Damn it! The responsible moment comes right after this scene. Heath Ledger is driving Stiles home after she gets drunk at this party, and they have rather a moment in the car. She very apparently wants to kiss him, and he abruptly pulls back and says goodnight. When asked about it later, he mumbles something about not wanting to nail her if she was too drunk to remember it, but in fact the scene reads as a textbook illustration that consent isn't really consent if one person is too impaired to really be responsible for their decisions - and that his character knows that and abides by it.
Here's possibly one of the WORST decisions ever in the history of musical theater - and that's saying something:
You remember what happens next, right? The rubber breaks, but they're so horny and happy that they do it anyway, and then later Rizzo has a pregnancy scare. Good thing they're both in their mid-thirties.
By contrast, here's what happens in Aziz Ansari's show Master of None when a prophylactic fails:
Yep. He and his date take an awkward cab ride to an all-night pharmacy and awkwardly buy a Plan B pill. Choosing safety over social comfort. I love Aziz.
And no collection of clips illustrating responsible sex and relationship practices would be complete without this one, in which Anglo-American hero John Oliver excoriates the state of sex education in this country. The segment ends with Oliver's own version of a sex-ed video, starring Megan Mullaly, Laverne Cox, Jack McBrayer and many more. I've watched this clip many times, and I use the list of topics that it covers as my standard when I assess books written for teens about sex. I am not kidding. A satirical commentator does a better job informing young people about sexuality than at least half of the "Care and Fondling of Yourself and Others" books out there.
- birth control
- condom use
- considering state of impairment in assessing consent
- ongoing consent
- safe words
If you're looking for my recommendations of which puberty and sex books ARE worth handing to your offspring or including in your library, look for the May issue of School Library Journal. Meanwhile, I'll be mainlining Outlander for more sex tips.