🎶 Welcome to a special Halloween edition of Middlebrow, please listen to some spooky music while you read about teen sexuality. 🎶
Know what's so weird? Teens! Like, they are just some exotic species only loosely related to all of us non-teens. They talk in emojis and they have so many feelings and they know how to use Snapchat. But more terrifying than all of that put together is this: Puberty.
It can be hard to remember the experience of pubescence, especially for people in writer's rooms working on pretty much anything besides "Diary of a Teenage Girl." Teenage sexuality, especially female teenage sexuality, is treated as some mutant, removed thing in pop culture, often ignored, trivialized, or -- worst of all -- exploited.
There are so few intelligent meditations on the tricky realities of coming of age. That is, outside of the teen horror sub-genre. With all the lazy, uncomplicated iterations we see grounded in reality, some of the most striking representations of teen sexuality are supernatural.
The most recent example is "It Follows" (2014), in which the "monster" is an ever-morphing presence that plainly represents one's sexual history and the looming threat of STDs. But we've had these themes of teen sexuality intermingle with horror since "Carrie" (1976, and, unfortunately, 2013).
In this reading of the Stephen-King-novel-cum-film, the pot of blood dumped on Sissy Spacek's head is almost too on the nose. What we get from the subsequent iconic prom massacre (the ultimate, if homicidal, revenge for bullying) is a devastating portrait of the convergence of the disastrous intensity of becoming an adult in terms of physical and social changes.
It's a fascinating look at the way terror can be linked with coming of age. This theme is perhaps most obvious in "Ginger Snaps," in which the titular character gets her first period at the same time she starts transforming into a werewolf.
"I'm sure it seems like a lot of blood," the hapless school nurse tells Ginger and her sister. "It's a period!"
"But really it was like a ... geyser," they explain, shaken and confused.
"Everyone seems to panic their first time," she says, reassuring Ginger it's all "normal" and mimicking the lack of openness that surrounds the shame-y stigma around periods.
Soon, Ginger's natural and supernatural bodily changes are merged in a way that can't be clearly distinguished, and her urges are tied up in fear. The inability to ask questions or get clear answers is hit at a disturbing register across the sub-genre.
Consider "Teeth" (2007). The black comedy centers around Dawn, a purity-obsessed young woman, who is a total stranger to her own body. She only discovers her personal version of the vagina dentata myth when a friend tries to rape her. She's been denied any understanding of her anatomy -- the lady parts are covered with a giant sticker in school textbooks -- so she must set about a path to discovery from a point of being no more familiar with the presence of incisors in her vagina than her labia.
"From the beginning, she has a subconscious awareness that something's lethal down there," explained writer and director Mitchell Lichtenstein on the phone. "So, she joins the abstinence group to delay knowledge of that."
For the male version of that exploration, we have "Idle Hands," in which young Anton's horniness becomes an agent of destruction in the form of his right hand. Initially, he attempts to control himself, tying his hand up in a love scene with Jessica Alba (his love interest). But when it grows too powerful, he self-amputates, treating the appendage -- and the desires it represents -- as something outside of himself.
"I think that scene [with Jessica Alba] is the most explicit metaphor for that moment when you're trying to control your sexuality," said director Rodman Flender. "Everything about it is terrifying. What's happening to your body is scary and different and you try to control that."
The toxic masculinity at play is obvious: when men can't control their impulses, the results are dangerous.
In "Ginger Snaps," "Teeth" and "Idle Hands," the connections are so clear, "teen sexuality" may as well be a subtitle. Although the intermingling of magic and puberty are also present in less obvious examples.
Witchcraft is a strong symbol of the simultaneously mystifying and frightening realities of growing up. In the more tame (and so very '80s) "Teen Witch" (1989), Louise uses her newfound magic because she is "tired of looking like a little girl." Influence over her peers is directly linked to her developing into a woman and pursuing intimacy for the first time.
"The Craft" is a more haunting example. As transfer student Sarah bonds with her newfound coven and discovers her powers, their witchcraft morphs into a chaotic force threatening agency and individuality (see: that face-changing scene). Writer Peter Filardi directly linked adolescence with magic as a forceful yet unpredictable tool. "Teens have the need and they have the emotion, but they don't have the knowledge," he said of the film's version of the metaphor.
"I think when you're in that phase of your life, what you're going through doesn't feel real," said "Beyond Clueless" writer and director Charlie Lyne, emphasizing the importance of "The Craft" among the 200-something teen movies in his documentary.
"It feels so extreme and otherworldly," he continued. "So, science fiction or horror feels like a perfectly reasonable analogy for what's happening."
A perfectly reasonable analogy, and sometimes a better, more striking and honest version than the ones grounded in real life. If only there was a spell to change that.
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Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca
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