Love and sex have been central to stories for as long as stories have been told, and even in the Hays Code era some filmmakers managed to include some frank, if not explicit, recognition of hetero-normative female sexual desire. (LGBTIA sexual expression in film will have to wait for another essay.)
But today’s portrayal of female sexuality, desire, and power are very different from the ‘60s-’80s era films that often focused on happy endings with a near-miss preservation of virginity. “Sunday in New York” had Jane Fonda as a girl who breaks up with her fiancé because she won’t have sex with him and then impulsively decides to have sex with a stranger (Rod Taylor) because she has discovered that her brother (Cliff Robertson) has not been honest with her and is having sex with his girlfriend. The stranger won’t go through with it when he discovers it is her first time, and then the fiancé arrives unexpectedly, sees the stranger in a robe, and assumes he is the brother. The happily ever after has Fonda’s character safely not having sex with anyone for the time being. And in “The Moon is Blue” (the first mainstream film to use the word “virgin”), the central character is wooed by three men and ends up with the one who respects her purity.
Perhaps the weirdest of all of the non-sex sex comedies of the era is “The Impossible Years.” Like the aforementioned films it's based on a play, this one by Arthur Marx, the son of Groucho. David Niven (one of the failed seducers from “The Moon is Blue”) plays a psychology professor obsessed with his daughter’s virginity—in a sex comedy kind of way but still pretty creepy. Spoiler alert: She is safely married by the time she has sex (with her father’s young professional colleague/rival, hmmm, wonder what a psychology professor would make of that). And somehow the act of having sex instantly transforms her into a mature, thoughtful, responsible person as well, just in time for her dad to start worrying about her younger sister.
Other movies feature the tragic consequences of pre-marital sex. In “Where the Boys Are” Yvette Mimieux is not only raped but also hit by a car as the consequence for her decision to have sex on spring vacation in Fort Lauderdale. Worst of all, “they’re not even Yalies.” Meanwhile, Dolores Hart, who intellectually is in favor of sexual autonomy and freedom from shame for young women, maintains her purity and thus achieves the ultimate—an invitation to the spring dance from handsome Ivy Leaguer George Hamilton.
In “Splendor in the Grass,” Natalie Wood has a nervous breakdown over not having sex with Warren Beatty, while his character’s sister is ruined by having been “wild.” In “A Summer Place,” Sandra Dee suffers the most frequent consequence of movie premarital sex when she becomes pregnant. While her mother is portrayed as unnaturally frigid and hysterical about sex, the movie reflects society’s view that girls should be pure until the wedding. Her character’s father is recently re-united with his onetime teenage love, whose marriage was destroyed on their wedding night when her husband discovered that she was not a virgin.
During the Hays Code era, from 1934-68, female characters were generally either unaware of sex, uninterested in sex, or punished for having sex. This continued even after the MPAA rating system allowed films to explore more adult material. While the films of the late '60s and early '70s featured some reflection of the era of “free love” and the sexual revolution, with films like “The Harrad Experiment,” “Butterflies are Free,” and “Lovers and Other Strangers,” it was also the beginning of the era of slasher films where it was the teens who had sex who had to die. Hideous deaths seem to be retribution for having sex, and the maniacal killers are almost a personification of the teens’ collective unrestrained ids.
And then two movies, “Clerks” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” now both celebrating their 25th anniversaries, were, for better and worse, a turning point. They were very different in tone, genre, production values, and intended audiences, but they had one key innovation in common.
Kevin Smith made “Clerks” for under $30,000, black and white, the very essence of what a few years before might have been called an underground film but is now considered an indie. It has a gritty, improvisational, episodic flavor. One element of the storyline concerns the distress of one of the title characters, a clerk named Dante (Brian O'Halloran), when he finds out that his girlfriend, Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti), has given blow jobs to “something like 36” guys. (“Wait, what is that anyway, something like 36? Does that INCLUDE me?” “Ummm ... 37.”)
Dante is horrified. But what is remarkable here is that it is not because he thinks Veronica is ruined or slutty. On the contrary. He is horrified because he thinks he cannot possibly be on her “level.” He is horrified because, though he does not see it in these terms, he is impressed. Even in movies where young women had sex, it was almost always because they were in love, and almost always with just one partner. The idea that a young woman would own her sexuality by having encounters, apparently positive, with many partners and that a movie boyfriend, or even a real-life boyfriend would consider this an intimidatingly impressive relationship resume and not an instant deal-breaker (think of how many denigrating terms for women relate to accusations of having sex), was downright revolutionary.
“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” written by Richard Curtis, has very little in common with “Clerks.” It is a glossy mainstream romantic comedy even though it was not a big budget film with mostly then-unknowns in the cast, including a breakthrough role for Hugh Grant as a handsome but romantically hapless and perpetually late young British man who falls for an American played by Andie MacDowell. They meet at a wedding and exchange barely a hundred words before they have sex, and then she leaves for America. When he sees her again, she is engaged to someone else. Nevertheless, after he runs into her on her way to select a wedding gown, he impulsively tells her, in “the words of David Cassidy in fact, while he was still with the Partridge family, ‘I think I love you.’”
What is remarkable, even revolutionary about this is that they have just come from a conversation in which she has recounted the details of her many sexual encounters (“less than Madonna, more than Princess Di”), and, like Dante, he is impressed and intimidated. Indeed, he follows his charming but equivocal David Cassidy-esque outburst with, “I’m just a git who’s only slept with 11 people.” He is not at her level.
This idea that sexual experience was evidence of a healthy, confident ownership of sexual expression was an enormous shift, the foundation for later films like the raunchy but sweet-natured sex comedy “American Pie” (1999), also revolutionary in the female characters’ ownership of their sexuality, compared to “Porky’s” (1981) or “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Sixteen Candles” (both 1984), where the perspective is all about male sexual gratification including voyeurism, sexual assault, and a boy selling a look at a teenage girl’s underwear.
2018’s “Blockers,” like “The Impossible Years,” also featured parents who were way too invested in whether their daughters were going to have sex. But this time, the point of view of the movie was very much on the side of the girls and their ability to make their own choices. Series like “Big Mouth,” “PEN15,” and “Broad City,” have characters who may make some bad decisions and suffer the consequences, but they do not pretend that sexual desire is wrong or bad. They follow in the steps of "Clerks" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral," as those two films provided a turning point for healthier depictions of women and our right to our feelings and our choices.