ANDY SELSBERG

“THEY WANT US TO LOOK.”

THROUGH THE LENS OF THE TEEN SEX COMEDIES OF THE EARLY 1980S

DISCUSSED: The Last American Virgin, American Pie, Screwballs, Little Darlings, Kristy McNichol, Tatum O’Neal, Porky’s, Brent Van Dusen III, Mean Girls, Zapped!, Girls Gone Wild, H.O.T.S., Revenge of the Nerds, The Death of VHS, Beach Blanket Bingo, Ralph Ellison, Crabs
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

The Last American Virgin (1982) overflows with quintessential teen-movie hijinks and motifs. There’s the malt shop and the locker room, the best friends jockeying for the same girl, and the crazy party where the fat kid falls in the pool. There’s the car that rolls into the water and the experiment with the prostitute. Bare breasts abound, but the movie’s real money-shot is a lush, full-frontal view of Karen, the curly-topped, painfully cute female lead. This scene takes place inside an abortion clinic.

The doctor, pockmarked and imperious, has just slipped on his gloves. Then the camera, starting at Karen’s thighs—a tousle of pubic hair visible over her panties—tilts up her bare torso to her face. She’s crying. This is a twisted turn-on—if you enjoy it like you’re supposed to, you’re no better than the callous jerk who knocked her up. The film’s obligation to its constituency of horny boys has run uncomfortably into its other obligation, to tell a story. The scene itself is like an adolescent, getting off without regard to context—a scenario familiar to any man who’s had pubescent run-ins with anatomy textbooks or the underwear section of the J. C. Penney catalogue.

Teen sex comedies—each of those words defined incredibly loosely—blossomed from 1982 to 1985.[1] These movies burgeoned in the cultural airspace cleared by ’70s porn, back when porn thought it needed plot. Usually structured around a crude story about a group of high school or college students who want sex, and featuring plenty of nude or near-nude female bodies but no close-ups of genitals, sex comedies are like the nonalcoholic beer of porn. Twelve-year-olds may get intoxicated, but that’s about it. With a lose-our-virginity-or-bust belief system, the films and their characters pole-vault over ethics to get at sex—like they could crash maturity as they would a party. In the mid-’80s, the pole snapped. The movies didn’t have enough heart to make it, though the formula came out of retirement in 1999 to execute one improbably graceful vault in the form of American Pie.

Teens, sex, comedy: sounds like a new holy trinity of American popular culture. But these teens were, as sex-seeking robots, too one-dimensional to be sympathetic. And their ideas about sex were off-balance—a mixture of debauched aggression and deep weakness (even the repeatedly uttered goal of “getting laid” ultimately implies passivity). It’s sex without a connection—male-female relations as a grudge match. And it’s hard to appeal to the groin and the funny bone at the same time; the movies are, with a few exceptions, witless.

Screwballs is a paradigmatic teen titty-flick that, like many of its brothers, hasn’t made the transition to DVD. Casually set in the ’60s at Taft and Adams High, it tracks a group of four everydudes who get a week’s detention thanks to their dealings with the prissy, underhanded supervirgin Purity Busch—whom everyone hates but still wants to have sex with. They make a pact that one of them will get a shot at her body by homecoming, “or at least a glimpse of her tit.” This second goal, the quest to see Purity’s boobs, drives the story. Here, per genre requirements, young men are as sexually motivated by pacts with their buddies as they are by their individual libidos. The sex vow is a convenient device to initiate a plot, but it misrepresents the mechanics of male peer pressure, which are in reality directed more toward discouraging new relationships (“bros before hos”) and encouraging drug use and other clandestine adventures. Boys don’t need each other to goose their sexual ambitions. In life, girls are more likely to make sex-contracts or wagers with their friends. (The female sex drive is the basis for The Beach Girls, Where the Boys Are ’84, and 1980’s Little Darlings, which has what is still one of the hottest movie posters around: Kristy McNichol, Tatum O’Neal, camp ringer T’s, and “Whoever loses her virginity first—wins.”)

The Screwballs fellas are, to the movie’s credit, a relatively inclusive group. They range from preppy jock Brent Van Dusen III, who carries his tennis racket even while trysting with the bio teacher, to nerd Howie Bates, who wears taped-up glasses and finagles the hallway mirrors so he can see up skirts, to chubby horndog Melvin Jerkovski, who gets busted for masturbating in the “germ-free meat locker” that happens to be “the pride of T&A High.” Also part of the team are the New Kid and a Smooth Operator. This egalitarian model of friendship—there are no divisive issues of class or coolness— is one lost aspect of the ’80s sex comedy worth lamenting. Subsequently, most high school stories have tended to amplify and even celebrate separation by class and clique, a value memorably flaunted in the Mean Girls lunchroom scene, where the newbie is made hip to the school’s inviolable demographic barriers. Each table is revealed to be a sovereign, xenophobic nation: Nerdistan, Gothsylvania, Jockland, Cheerleadia, The United Sluts. The Screwballs boys may be united solely by a desire to strip Purity, but at least they’re an example of (mild, white) diversity at work. Despite their divergent positions on the social spectrum, they eat together, go to the movies, and tool around in convertibles. (Topless cars still recur in almost every teen movie as shorthand for a spirit of sexual adventure, and teens regularly wreck these cars as shorthand for their inability to handle the adult responsibilities that come with sexual adventure.)

While there are a few killjoys on the T&A faculty, like Principal Stuckoff, the only real antagonist is the clothing that covers Purity Busch’s chest. This enemy is defeated not through suave seduction, but by turning the gym into a giant electromagnet that churns a pep rally into chaos and tears off Purity’s rigged dress as she sings the national anthem. The credits flash over a shot of her erect nipples. The promise has been realized. This is what passes for a happy ending. (Zapped! puts forth an almost identical vision of denuding as comeuppance, in an almost identically pandemoniac climax in a high school gymnasium.) This involuntary striptease is like the romantic comedy’s closing kiss, though it is hardly consensual.[2]

Presided over by the climate of Animal House (1978), the teen sex comedies have taken nudity cues from ’70s grindhouse teensploitation (e.g. The Cheerleaders and, to a lesser extent, H.O.T.S., an inferior precursor to the college-farce masterpiece Revenge of the Nerds), which is basically soft-core pornography, and they draw also, especially for setting, from the sweeter nostalgic vein typified by American Graffiti and TV’s Happy Days. It’s an unstable mix that couldn’t last—nudity got in the way of narrative, and narrative got in the way of nudity, so the two main justifications for teen cinema were severely compromised. The teen sex comedies can be seen as a bridge genre between the quasi-porn and nostalgia pictures of the ’70s, and the more chaste and substantive post-Hughes teen comedies of manners that have ruled for at least the last decade (everything from Clueless [1995] to Ten Things I Hate About You [1999] to Mean Girls [2004]).

Visually, the teen sex comedies, loaded with bikini montages and ample female nudity, lie between pinup and pornography. They aim more for titillation than full-on arousal—people don’t get off to wet T-shirt contests. The parade of boobs is crafted for adolescent boys who, revved by desire, want nothing more than an in—any in—with the female body. To erotically satisfy a non-porn adult male audience, it’s more important to contrive desire than sate it. Better movies do this more effectively via clothing (especially tight T-shirts—for recent examples see Thumbsucker and The Squid and the Whale) and a teasing psychic distance than through nakedness. There needs to be an ache. With the exception of The Last American Virgin, in which the main character longs (and is left longing) for his dream girl, teen sex comedies are acheless.

While a few of these pictures, most famously and especially Porky’s, did big business in theaters, their true home is on VHS and the dark corners of cable, the two types of media that helped pave the culture for such wet dreams. In the ’80s, parents of adolescent boys weren’t quite sure how to operate VCRs or cable, so sex comedies that failed in theaters could still be made and routed to their proper audience. VHS, unlike celluloid film or vinyl albums, is an unmourned medium. It is hard to imagine a store for cool-cat VHS aficionados opening up in Greenwich Village. Artisans don’t repurpose or pay tribute to videotapes as they do albums, cassette tapes, and film stock. The crackles and flaws of VHS aren’t viewed as signs of authenticity.[3] They are now seen as the charmless objects they are (though in their defense, they are analog and will therefore degrade more gradually than digital media). But in the 1980s, at a Ma & Pa rental store, like maybe Video Update in Shawano, Wisconsin, tapes of sex comedies were forbidden magic to young boys, their lurid covers keys to the secrets of the universe. This is where these movies conjured an ache.

In the way that the American International Pictures beach movies with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon can’t possibly live up to the winking, erotic promise of titles like How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and Beach Blanket Bingo, the posters and box covers of the ’80s teen sex comedies express the ethos of these films more eloquently than do the actual movies. Boys exist to look at and chase girls. Girls exist, primarily as discrete body parts, to run coyly from boys. For these covers, women have their heads cut off and their bodies exposed and enlarged, and men get shrunk. The iconic Porky’s poster represents woman as a shapely arm and thigh pressed against white shower tile, while maleness exists merely as an eyeball in a hole in the wall. Neither sex has any real agency; the male gaze means little without the male. For Hot Moves, the four main dudes have been miniaturized, and they fly through the air as they hang on for life to the red bikini bottom of a running giantess. To a high school boy, this perspective is accurate: the power of the female ass is irresistible and larger than existence. Life has a new and dizzying scale, and one could easily get crushed. The Lilliputian motif continues on the cover of Losin’ It, where the convertible full of tiny dudes zooms beneath a pair of shapely legs bent in the manner of a triumphal military arch. This theme culminates on the cover of Spring Break, where the miniature gang has scaled a mountain of sweet bikini butt, and pose like Iwo Jima as they thigh-plant a flag that reads, what else, Spring Break. Lust is a battlefield.

Nothing is more important than looking at female body parts. The boys in these movies will employ any method, except sincere courtship, to get an eyeful. They will leer though holes in the girls’ locker room (Porky’s, The Last American Virgin). The Porky’s shower peep is to the teen sex comedy what the graceful airborne duels in The Matrix are to modern movie fights; they both set examples for their medium. In the Porky’s peep, the boys are voyeurs, crouched in darkness, and the girls snap each other with towels and do nude shower-room calisthenics (“Up! Down! 1-2-3-4 Up! Down!”). And when they realize they’re being watched, instead of feeling violated, the girls wrap towels around themselves and start flirting with their secret admirers. As Pee Wee, the antsiest scopophiliac of the bunch, declares, “They’re hot! They’re hot! They want us to look! They want us to look!” Thus any compunction about unauthorized looking is washed away. Women feed off the male gaze. Why else would the girls’ swim team of T&A High (they might be the cheerleading squad—it’s unclear) stand in a field stretching their arms while chanting, “We must, we must, we must develop our bust. The bigger the better; the tighter the sweater; the boys depend on us”? This feels a little like the overconfident, if not solipsistic, thinking behind Empedocles’ theory of vision, which posited eyeballs as the source of light. That is, teen sex guys are able to project their own notion of reality. So of course women will exercise in the shower and work toward a breast-expansion that could only hinder their swim times. It’s a man’s world; women cavort in it.

To get the coveted glimpses, guys will use magnifying devices or hidden cameras (The Big Bet, Hot Moves, Getting It On, Fraternity Vacation, Loose Screws, Revenge of the Nerds). They will pretend to be women, renouncing the very maleness that drives them (The Party Animal, Private School for Girls, Screwballs, Loose Screws). They will impersonate doctors (Screwballs, Loose Screws) and fashion photographers (Hardbodies). They will visit strip bars, where they usually end up brawling in addition to bearing the dishonor of having to pay for a peep (Porky’s, Losin’ It, Screwballs, The Wild Life). They will acquire and use mad-scientist powers (The Party Animal, Zapped!). They will even die; in School Spirit, stud Billy Batson, while driving back to a rendezvous after fetching a condom, is killed in a head-on collision. But death is not a time for peace, terror, or mystic revelation. No way. Death is an opportunity to take advantage of being a ghost to check out what the ladies are up to in the sorority house bathroom. And who’s to say that isn’t some sort of mystic revelation?

Everybody’s got hungry eyes. Men hunger as much for a look as for a touch. Girl watching is an end in itself—a nourishment that fulfills without physical contact. Girl watching opportunities are why men move to cities, and why men who live in suburbs have extensive cable packages and high-speed internet (broadband indeed). This is like dogs’ ability to lead a rich, sensual existence solely through what they smell. In Private Resort, Jack (Johnny Depp) declares his love for a woman when the entirety of their relationship consists of him watching her from behind as she bends over in an aerobics class. Beyond wisdom or virtue, the emotion rings accurate: Go, Johnny, go. In a few decades, teen comedies will exploit the scatological side of the bathroom peep—the toilet scenes in Not Another Teen Movie (2001) and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) remind voyeurs that women have (occasionally explosive) excretory as well as reproductive functions. It’s difficult to say whom the joke is on here—or which, if either, sex is liberated.

Set in repressive, openly racist 1950s Florida, Porky’s is the category’s elder statesman, still cited in reviews of any comedy in which young people get laid. Porky’s, and thus the genre, opens not with the standard flesh montage, but a more appropriate and telling scene of sexual anxiety—the virgin Pee Wee wakes up, measures his penis, and marks the results on a “growth chart.” Instead of a skin mag, he stashes this monument to self-obsession under his mattress. It points to the real focus of teen male sexuality. As boys often refer to women metonymically by their genitals, here they also voluntarily reduce themselves to walking sex organs; Pee Wee is Pee Wee, and a member of his crew is nicknamed “Meat.” It’s all about the guys. Pee Wee and his buddies will never be off the chart.

At the start of the movie, Pee Wee is targeted for a prank because he had the audacity to wear a condom to his big date with Wendy, the school’s alleged slut. Insulted by Pee Wee’s presumptuousness, she enlists his buddies to teach him a lesson. (In other movies, like Mischief and School Spirit, men are chastised or punished by women for not having condoms.) The prank is an elaborate one that takes Pee Wee and his gang out to the boonies for sex with a nympho bleakly named Cherry Forever, and ends with the dupes being chased naked into the night by a black man hired to pose as Cherry’s psychotic boyfriend. The guys are game, as shown by their willingness to strip naked and stand in a line while Cherry issues rulings on the size of their genitals. It’s a twisted version of the already twisted lineup of boxers for racial and sexual humiliation in the Battle Royal scene of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—except that in Porky’s the victims have volunteered and the menace has been hired. The job of the black man in both works is to function as clued-out muscle.[4] As much as the boys in these movies obsess about female body parts, they are equally passionate about surrounding themselves with friendly wieners. The four buddies in Spring Break embrace group urination. The Last American Virgin has a locker-room penis-measuring contest, in a scene that easily racks up the highest number of visible erections of any teen sex comedy. The unapologetic boners are refreshing, as they are usually a source of embarrassment in these movies, things to be hid from teachers and classmates.

Rarely do the boys in these movies look for intercourse via the standard secondary-school route: locker flirtation, cafeteria chat, movie cuddle, backseat consummation. When a guy has a steady girlfriend from his peer group, she’s invariably reluctant to go all the way, and the guy must forge outside the safe confines of high school. Nice guy Mike in Hot Moves storms Venice Beach for action, while Woody (Tom Cruise) in Losin’ It (dir. Curtis Hanson) goes to Tijuana. The damaging effect of this pattern is that it paints sex, and all intimacy with women, as existing outside the bounds of everyday experiences and institutions. Woody and his buddies’ crossing of the Mexican border is a literal example of the transgression that the movies agree is necessary in order to lose one’s virginity.

Sex often requires enduring a kind of hell. The Tijuana of Losin’ It is lawless, violent, and dark—a land of con men and switchblades. Everything is on the down and down. The brothel they go to is a dingy place where Woody picks a woman old enough to be his mom, then balks. One of the friends ends up beaten and jailed; another finds himself swinging from a crane while an insulted local swings a blowtorch at his crotch. (“You think we’re dirty because our town’s dirty… but this is your town… without you and people like you there’d be no Tijuana.”) They ran off the pastures of the suburban high school practice fields for this? Their white middle-class privilege had to be checked at the border. Perhaps this is the “it” they’re losin’.

The group in Porky’s takes a similar journey outside school to the brothel on the pier owned by Porky—a good ol’ bad boy. The scene at the club is a nightmare: leering, beatings, a midget MC, and two bucks for a peek at saggy breasts. The guys pay for some hookers but are instead led to a trapdoor that drops them into the water. The battle escalates, and the guys get their revenge by burning Porky’s down. The problem is, it’s hard to cheer for their triumph. While Porky may be a bad man, he was right to obstruct underage high schoolers from patronizing his strip club/brothel. They should’ve stuck close to school, home, the drive-in, and gotten what they could.

A few generations later, the sex pilgrimage lightens up, fills out, and moves to friendlier territory. The new model is American Pie—the title alone points not outward, but inward to homeland and hearth. It borrows from the ’80s teen sex comedies but has matured (though not fully, which would be ruinous). Still, guys make a pact to get laid. Kevin’s speech in Pie (“Together we are the masters of our sexual destiny”), a misguided paean to teamwork’s role in sex, is lifted almost directly from Hot Moves (“Let’s make a pact that the four of us get laid before school starts in September… teamwork, you know, Musketeer spirit”). Only now, American Pie knows to make a few qualifications: the sex must be consensual, and no prostitutes. It’s as if they watched the earlier films and saw that hooker confrontations usually go bad—the guys in Hot Moves are priced out, encounters in My Tutor and The Last American Virgin both lead to such self-disgust that characters vomit, and the guys in Virgin get crabs. So in American Pie the action takes place among classmates, in the bright land of high school in the suburbs. No trip to the underworld is necessary. Females are characters whose emotions and orgasms must be taken into account.

The new era still requires a peep, but now it’s via webcam (the new hole in the global locker-room) of the exchange student. The regulars, “real” girls, do not appear nude in American Pie. This echoes National Geographic’s boob valuation system, where domestic tits are too precious to expose, but when the women are from another continent, it’s open season. Still, the view here is only a flash, even in the “Unrated!” DVD version. The new teen comedies show far less flesh than the ’80s crop. Teenagers are now able to mainline pictures of nude women via the internet, so teen sex comedies need to bring something other than female bodies—they need to have story, characters, jokes. Fifteen years later, American Pie vindicates the teen sex comedy formula.

While a movie like Screwballs has enough exuberance and self-knowledge to justify a transfer to DVD, most of the teen sex comedies languish justifiably, hunted down only by aficionados and those searching for a pathway back to an early ’80s adolescence. But that past, like all pasts, is irrecoverable. As time machines, these movies are clunky. Those that have been re-released into the world are often coasting on the strength of a soundtrack: The Last American Virgin is like a new-wave survey course, and The Party Animal validates itself with the Buzzcocks’ “Why Can’t I Touch It?” Mournful and driving, like a sad football player, the song (“Well it seems so real I can see it… so why-y-y-y-y-y-y can’t I touch it?”) conveys the yearning to enter the girls’ locker room, as well as the desire of an adult to reanimate that yearning, far more articulately than does the movie. Actually, it’s hard to think of a single thing that doesn’t express young male desire more eloquently than teen sex comedies (’70s model Corvettes, wobbly shopping cart wheels, drags on cigarettes… name it). The main failure of these movies, their inability to comfortably integrate sexual desire into regular life, reflects a larger human and cultural failure to accomplish that task. That’s why, when these movies surface on late night cable, it’s worth taking a brief, critical look at this version of ourselves. “Meaningless sex” is a meaningless phrase. No matter how awkwardly or foolishly dealt with, sex always means something.

  1. 1982: The Beach Girls, Beach House, Fast Times at Ridgemont High,* The Last American Virgin,** Porky’s, Spring Fever,*** Zapped! 1983: The First Turn-On!, Getting It On, Joysticks, Losin’ It, My Tutor, Private School for Girls, Porky’s II: The Next Day, Risky Business,* Screwballs, Spring Break. 1984: Hardbodies, Hollywood Hot Tubs, Hot Dog… The Movie, Joy of Sex, Paradise Motel, The Party Animal, Revenge of the Nerds,* Snowballing,*** Where the Boys Are ’84, The Wild Life. 1985: The Big Bet, Fraternity Vacation, Hot Moves, Loose Screws, Mischief,** Porky’s Revenge, Private Resort, School Spirit.

    * Too good to count as a teen sex comedy proper, but incorporates elements of the genre

    ** On the line between teen sex comedy and real movie

    *** Teen sex comedy in title and box cover art only

  2. To mitigate the arguable offensiveness of this conclusion, the tone is bawdy slapstick, and Purity is ultimately an actress, not a Girl Gone Wild. The Girls Gone Wild series is the inevitable descendant of movies like Screwballs, representing a darkly efficient cinematic equation—no scripts, no S.A.G.—just aggressive cameramen, cities full of inebriated girls with exhibitionistic tendencies, and a world of men who want to see breasts. Though it would be nice, capitalism can’t be expected to know better than to take advantage of drunken girls. (Young women do need to be taught that their exposed breasts are worth far more than a T-shirt.) As with everything sold on late night television, GGW is better as an ad, a dream, than a product. And everyone would be better off if, in these ads, the black censorship bar migrated from the nipples to the eyes. Give the guys nipples and let the girls keep their identities.)
  3. There is little unconditional love for new technology. People admire what the forms can deliver but not the forms themselves. Many express deep affection for their iPods, but this affection expires when a new model arrives.
  4. Minorities are on the margins here. Hot Dog… The Movie has a Japanese character so backwards (“Your tits are as beautiful as Mount Fuji.”) as to make Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles seem progressive. The Beach Girls features a hapless Hispanic gardener who’s always peeping and falling down stairs; he ends up doing battle with a karate-crazed Asian “rimo” driver. The only memorable black character in Risky Business is Jackie, the transsexual hooker who’s just a step on Tom Cruise’s journey to Rebecca DeMornay. Spring Break has as foils a goofy, ethnic bellhop and a psychotic Hispanic pot dealer who works out of the back of a van. Farouk, the exchange student from Abu Dhabi in Joy of Sex, wears a suit to high school and thinks “gimme five” is a request for cash and “getting stoned” refers to the death penalty. In The Big Bet, the Asian woman who works as a receptionist at a gay sex spa enlightens the protagonist with “an old oriental adage.” The only blacks in The First Turn-On are a group of jive-talking purse-snatchers. The Italian woman in The Party Animal, while under the spell of a fart potion, crosses herself and says “Mamma mia” repeatedly as she passes gas. The Hispanic housewife in The Last American Virgin is happy to do the pizza boy and his buddies. Spanish Fly—the mythical aphrodisiac that’s a manifestation of stereotypes of Hispanic sexuality (sizzling) and character (sneaky)—makes appearances in Losin’ It and Screwballs. America didn’t become less racist in the following decades, like it didn’t get any less greedy or status-obsessed. We just got subtler about it.

Andy Selsberg has also written essays for the Village Voice and GQ. He blogs at citizentruth.blogspot.com.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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