Sex Education, Hollywood Style: Gender, Sexuality and Identity in the Girl Next Door

Article excerpt

 
  Films do more than entertain, they offer up subject positions, 
  mobilize desires, influence us unconsciously, and help to construct 
  the {cultural} landscape. Deeply imbricated within material and 
  symbolic relations of power, movies produce and incorporate ideologies 
  that represent the outcome of struggles marked by the historical 
  realities of power and the deep anxieties of the times: they also 
  deploy power through the important role they play connecting the 
  production of pleasure and meaning with the mechanisms and practices 
  of powerful teaching machines. Put simply, films both entertain and 
  educate. 
  (Giroux 2002, p.30) 

Cinema, Sex and the Young

Commentators as diverse as Henry Giroux (1989; 1994; 1997; 2002), David Buckingham (2003), Cameron McCarthy (1998; 1999) and Peter McLaren (1994; 1995) have contributed towards an understanding of how popular cultural texts such as films, television, music and magazines help to shape young people's worlds, and how they exist as pedagogical sites where youth learn about the world. The respected ethnographer and cultural theorist Paul Willis, for example, argued some time ago that popular culture is a more significant, penetrating cultural force in young people's lives than schooling:

 
  The field of education ... will be further marginalised in most young 
  people's experience by common (i.e. popular) culture. In so far as the 
  educational practitioners are still predicated on traditional liberal 
  humanist lines and on the assumed superiority of high art, they will 
  become almost totally irrelevant to the real energies and interests of 
  most young people and have no part in their identity formation. Common 
  culture will, increasingly, undertake, in its own ways, the roles that 
  education has vacated. 
  (Willis 1990, p.147) 

More recently still, Nadine Dolby has claimed that popular culture is not simply fluff that can be dismissed as irrelevant and insignificant; on the contrary, 'it has the capacity to intervene in the most critical issues and to shape public opinion' (Dolby 2003, p.259).

Given that the popular is a site where youth are invested, where things happen, where identities are worked out, performed and negotiated, and where are futures are written, for better or worse, it is always an instructive (and frequently entertaining) exercise to examine how popular films function as markers and transmitters of contemporary values. It is particularly pertinent to examine the manner in which cinema, and particularly the genre of the 'teen film', plays a part in the organisation of social identity. Generally speaking films play a notable role in the placement of particular ideologies and values into private conversation, and offer a pedagogical space for addressing how a society views itself and the public world of power, events, politics and institutions. Henry Giroux has described film as a form of public pedagogy, a visual technology which functions as a powerful teaching machine that intentionally tries to influence the production of meaning, subject positions, identities and experience, using spectatorial pleasure and symbolic meaning to shape young people's identities outside of school (Giroux 2000, p.6). As Toby Miller notes in Global Hollywood, the cinema is a 'twentieth century cultural addition ... that sits aside such traditional topics as territory, language, history and schooling' (Miller 2001, p.15). Glyn Davis and Kay Dickinson argue that most teen texts are created 'to educate and inform while entertaining; to set certain agendas in this delicate time just prior to the onset of a more prominent citizenship; and/or to raise crucial issues (of adult choosing) in a "responsible manner" that is entirely hegemonically negotiated' (Davis and Dickinson 2004, p.3). Given the mass-culture saturated nature of teen social life, and the extensive range of influences such as television, advertising and the Internet, it would indeed be excessive and injudicious to overstate or exaggerate the impact of film; nonetheless it is clear that film is nonetheless an important cultural product with the potential to influence young people's ideas and values. …