Let’s take a step back. It’s hard to forget There’s Something About Mary, American Pie and the wave of raunchy, male-driven sex comedies that followed in the early ‘00s. Sex and the City aired on HBO at the same time and is remembered today for its casual celebration of wealth as much as it is for its forthright depiction of feminine sexuality. Sex and the City was revolutionary—along with movies like When Harry Met Sally, it helped shift cultural expectations for women, making marriage no longer seem like the default path. Singledom wasn’t so radical anymore. It also inspired its own type of sex comedy, ones written by women and sometimes directed by women, that served as a counterpart to the male-oriented American Pie wannabes. Dismissed by largely male critics and mostly forgotten today, these films offered a rare and brief moment where women’s sexuality in Hollywood comedies was guided by actual women.
What mainstream movies and TV shows depicted women in an overtly sexual way before 1990? The Graduate? From Here to Eternity? Pillow Talk? Mary Tyler Moore was perhaps the most revolutionary, since Moore was a single woman headlining her own TV show. It’s hard to think of many. They existed, sure, but they were the exception and not the norm. Most often, they depicted women sexually for marketing purposes more than anything—as a selling point that panders to a male gaze.
Sex and the City dismantled this idea. For the first time, women on television openly wanted sex, not marriage. They discussed it graphically but conversationally, like friends do in real life. Oh, and they were funny, to boot. As a cultural touchstone, Sex and the City helped solidify HBO as a creator of premium cable content. Of course films were going to follow in TV’s trailblazing footsteps.
A year after Sex and the City premiered, American Pie came out. Reviews were generally tepid, but it signaled a sea change in comedies. Not only was it an overtly sexual movie, it was a movie about sex and not much else. It follows the quest of five high school boys trying to lose their virginities before graduation. The problem is inherent in the synopsis—it follows five high school boys. Tara Reid, Mena Suvari and Alyson Hannigan make appearances as the classmates of their affections, but they’re basically caricaturized window-dressing to the main narrative (and Alyson Hannigan’s character ends up marrying the protagonist anyway in American Wedding, re-enforcing an age-old expectation).
It’s not wholly surprising. The film was written, produced, shot and directed entirely by men. Why, despite the success of Sex and the City, was it still not okay at this point for women to do sexual things onscreen without the presence or approval of a man? It’s hard to say. Sex and the City and much of the female-centric media that followed it operated from the perspective that women have achieved a lot and that feminism had done its job, and films started to freely poke fun at constructs of femininity.
Legally Blonde was one of the first major female-centric comedies of the new millennium. It’s about a parody of the antiquated woman, a sorority queen who wants nothing else except to marry her college boyfriend, so much so that she gets into Harvard Law to prove to him that she’s worthy of his love. We’re meant to laugh at Elle, who is always decked out in pink and seems to only care about clothes—it’s even implied that she only got into Harvard because the all-male admissions staff finds her attractive in her (very sexual) “admissions video.” One of the film’s highlights is a college party scene in which Elle shows up to a party dressed as a Playboy bunny while all the other women in boyish, neutral clothes laugh at her. They consistently look down on and disparage her for the way she flaunts her sexuality.
The initial message of Legally Blonde is a rejection of the uber-feminine Elle Woods type. By the end of the film, as she defies our expectations and uses her niche and highly feminine knowledge to win the court case, the lesson is that there’s no correct way for a woman to act. That representation of women is not black and white, but nuanced; the intellectual Harvard women are just as valid a representation as someone like Elle.
In a lot of ways, The House Bunny is a spiritual prequel to Legally Blonde. It’s the same basic idea: an overtly feminine woman (a Playboy bunny) bumps heads with a group of tomboys. But in The House Bunny, they must enlist her help in order to save their sorority house and learn from her as she teaches them to embrace and flaunt their sexuality. While Anna Faris is the highlight of the film, the rest of it seems to echo Legally Blonde’s general sentiments without adding much to the conversation. But male critics panned the film.
It’s worthwhile to note the demographics of those reviewing The House Bunny. Of the 30 top critics, 17 gave the film a rotten score. Of the top critics that gave the film a rotten score, roughly 70% were men. Of the 13 top critics who gave the film a fresh score, about 54% were women. It seems women were more likely to be on board with the film, whereas the majority of men dismissed it outright. Legally Blonde’s top critic scores were similarly shocking, since only about 18% of the reviews were even written by women—who predominantly gave it a fresh rating, unlike men.
The same problem faced Crossroads and The Sweetest Thing. Both films were marketed as female-centric road trip films with major star power (Britney Spears and Cameron Diaz, respectively). Both films sought to explore female sexuality—the former from the perspective of a teenager coming of age and the latter from an adult woman who is wary of serious relationships. Yet both were panned by critics who were predominantly male. Of Crossroads’s 26 top critic reviews, 23 are rotten and only 3 in total were written by women (1 of which gave the film a fresh rating). The Sweetest Thing is no different: 28 reviews from top critics, with 19 rotten in total but only 2 reviews at all written by women and both women gave the film a fresh rating.
Saved, one of the most iconic female-centric sex comedies of the 2000s, has 40 total reviews from top critics and only 4 were written by women, 75% of whom gave the film a fresh rating while the men gave it a predominantly rotten rating. We could repeat this exercise again and again but to expect a different result would be naïve.
In recent years, the only examples of female sex comedies that stand out include Farah Goes Bang and The To Do List, both indie hits that didn’t manage to quite break into the mainstream. Trainwreck was full of sex and comedy and might kick off the next wave of similar films, but beyond that there have been few this decade. You have to look to TV shows like Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer to see frank depictions of female sexuality by women. Probably the most successful and critically acclaimed female sex comedy in the movies this decade, Easy A, was written and directed by men. On the other hand, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Superbad have solidified male sex comedies as a prestige genre. Is it because women can’t be funny and overtly sexual at the same time? Or is it because men don’t want to see them doing so?
Olga Lexell is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Daily Dot, Splitsider and Reductress. You can find her jokes on Twitter.