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Chivalry and Sexism: Is ‘American Reunion’ Hypocritical?

American Reunion
Universal Pictures

A lot of movies want to have their cake and eat it too. ‘Dinner with Schmucks’ parades a bunch of freaks around for laughs before it tells us we shouldn’t make fun of these eccentric individuals. ‘Avatar’ condemns certain technological advancements at the same time it is, itself, a product of groundbreaking technology (though as the new documentary ‘Surviving Progress’ shows us, man’s scientific development is a tricky enough subject that James Cameron’s seemed hypocrisy may be warranted). And just about any modern studio effort involving sexuality, especially if there’s some moral ground at play, tends to feature some insensitive apology for its own sexist offenses while ultimately still catering primarily to the male viewer’s fantasies.

Specifically, let’s take a look at this past weekend’s ‘American Reunion‘.

‘American Reunion’ is a movie none of us would expect to have feminist tendencies in the first place – no argument there – but which nonetheless can’t even be firm on the level of decency it dwells in. I guess it is silly to talk about decency with a movie that features someone defecating in a beer cooler, a man’s genitals mashed up against a transparent pot lid and oral sex in a cinema that is implied by the up and down movement of a popcorn bucket. And I don’t mean to suggest the ‘American Reunion’ sequel makes any grand moral message other than a general statement of boys will boys, even when they’re men.

Still, ‘American Reunion’ does have a slight ethical center in the character of now-married-with-child Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs), one of five thirty-ish male protagonists with whom the audience is to identify. He’s the primary hero and the best in terms of his fidelity and wholesomeness. Like many modern comedy leads, he is the guy whose faithfulness is tested by way of an attractive young woman who throws herself at him, typically enough to allow him a handful of naked breast before he rises above the situation. In this movie, Jim’s seductress is a drunk high schooler (Ali Cobrin), and once he gets his peek and then feels bad, he makes an effort to cover the topless teen and shield her from the eyes of his friends.

The movie itself is not so chivalrous.

It wants to expose the naked birthday girl, as barely legal as is possible, to be gazed upon at length by the viewing audience. She takes her clothes off, Jim covers her up anew, and then the movie yanks her garment right back off, via a branch or something. This is of particular delight to the most immature and immoral of the five guys, Steve Stifler (Seann William Scott), who had just been trying to cop a glance at her hardly blanketed body before Jim scolded him. This madcap misogyny reminded me of a similar moment in 1988′s ‘License to Drive’ when Corey Haim stops Corey Feldman from peeping on the passed out Heather Graham. That movie stuck by the virtues of its main character by not showing the audience any skin.

There ought to be some discomfort from the audience, at least, because the lens through which we see the film’s one nude female character is that of older men’s eyes. I don’t mean those of the filmmakers. I mean the main characters. In a teen comedy like ‘American Reunion’, no matter the age of the viewer the identification is with horny teenage boys. So it’s somewhat acceptable for that movie to have a teenage female character exhibited without clothes for the viewer’s gaze, alongside the boys’ gaze. With ‘American Reunion’, though, we are to identify with 30-year-olds, and so the sexualized teen girl, first exploited while she’s still only 17, is rather disturbing. You can tell that some of the guys agree, even if they do find some guilty pleasure in the initial sight of her.

Heck, I don’t mind the nudity in and of itself, and given that the actress is actually in her early 20s relieves some of the inappropriateness of the sequence and our experience of it. The issue I have is with the movie’s confused moral perspective, which is something I consciously note whether the product is a stupid raunchy comedy or a highbrow art film. It’s the reason I forgive the shaky cam and lack of explicit violence in ‘American Reunion’, which requires a moral perspective in tune with a protagonist who is against the glorification of the killings, as well as looking at it herself.

Most of the other juvenile instances in ‘American Reunion’ can be excused by the overall point of having the characters grow up in some way following a nostalgic or fear-based obstacle of development. Even the very idea of Jim having some sexual attraction to an 18-year-old, especially one he can have conflicting thoughts about since he used to babysit her and therefore he feels even older and naughtier, is an okay plot point. But the way the movie visually presents the situation counters the way we should be made to feel about it, considering the movie’s apparent position of principle, and that’s a shame.

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