It was a surprise to read in i-D this week that The Diary Of A Teenage Girl has had an 18 classification upheld by BBFC following an appeal, despite being focused on the life and experience of a 15 year old. The article, rightly, makes the point that representations of sex among teenagers have been a Hollywood mainstay for some time and this film is if anything, being penalised for bearing an uncomfortable (for the exclusively male BBFC panel, at least) resemblance to reality.
Teenage coming of age regularly appears in such films through male eyes, presenting young women as a prize to be attained rather than having their own sexual interests and wants. The Diary Of A Teenage Girl has been particularly praised for giving a positive and reassuring message about female sexuality and agency - rejecting slut shaming and championing body positivity.
It’s our belief that talking about sex, its glories and awkwardnesses, can help people develop healthier attitudes to sexual relationships and STIs. Media images can powerfully influence young people and indeed, anyone, in their expectations of sex and sexuality. Sex is a part of everyday life; it deserves representation through screen sex that reflect the diversity of many kinds of lives - not just what a few men deem appropriate based on their own sexual standards. It's through these different perspectives we challenge the unrealistic perceptions and expectations of sex which permeate through both society and much (but not all) pornography.
With this in mind, here’s our best in class for television and cinema with a more realistic take on sex and relationships:
When asked why her character, Hannah was naked so much, Lena Dunham responded “because it's a realistic expression of what it's like to be alive”. This attitude runs throughout the show including a case of (STI) HPV, Hannah and her on/off boyfriend’s sexual role play and bi/gay character Elijah’s tryst with a female character that fails to hold his..err.. imagination.
A film that opens with a female stand-up talking about what the substance inside of a pair of a woman’s knickers at the end of the day is like (something you’d find in the fridge) was never going to end with hand holding on the banks of the Paris Seine. Instead, the film documents the aftermath of a one-night stand (the knicker joke makes an appearance again) which includes an unwanted pregnancy and the consequent abortion. It’s refreshingly free of the hysteria and drama that can surround this choice in other films/shows.
“I wanna go fast”. Sometimes partners are selfish in bed. Where a typical Hollywood romance might depict a woman being passively pleasured by a suitor, Bridesmaids’ heroine Annie sought comfort sex with a good looking casual partner who put his own needs above hers - even when she asked for what she wanted. A montage of scenes of uncomfortable and often boring looking sex concludes with Annie resignedly saying, “I think you and I are on different rhythms”.
While the fictionalised account of life on a Manchester council estate was sometimes challenged as unrealistic, the same could not be said of the sex scenes. The kitchen encounter between Steve (James McAvoy) and Fiona (Anne-Marie Duff) in the opening episode demonstrates an urgency other shows shy away from, actor McAvoy replete with the kind of flushed, sweaty cheeks you only get from sex or a certain kind of gym session. So realistic was it, life ended up imitating art and the actors married 2 years after beginning work together on the show. Aw.
Y tu mama también
We’re possibly cheating with this inclusion, as world cinema is often more frank in its representations of sex, but the film telling the story of the build up and eventual threesome between a woman and two male teenage friends stands out. The threesome is fumbling and awkward, reflecting all the participants' inexperience with this situation and culminates in the release of sexual tension between the two friends that has built up through the film. It’s well worth a look (the guys are pretty too).
Looking is about the lives and relationships of three gay men in San Francisco. The show normalises condom use (how many films/shows do this without it being a major plot point?) and has the characters address when they haven’t used condoms in the context of fidelity. HIV testing, PrEP and one of television’s few HIV positive characters all feature as part of the wider relationships and community the friends live in.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is released in cinemas on 7th August.