At Video Ranger, the tiny video store in the town where I grew up, the selection of R-rated teen-sex titles drew pre-teens (both boys and girls) like a magnet. My best friend and I, at age 11 or 12, returned almost every Saturday night to rent another tape to sneak past our parents and into the VCR. Zapped! Private Resort. Private School. Porky’s. Losin’ It. The Last American Virgin. So, so many more. On many of the box covers, women were merely body parts foregrounded to represent the enormity of the challenge posed to teenage boys in almost all of these titles: Lose your virginity, gain status with your friends. In some cases, the male figures were shown scaling a giant version of hips or breasts, planting a flag in claimed territory for all to see.
They promised a lot, these R-rated movies. But almost invariably, watching them was a letdown that left me, at least, feeling a mixture of embarrassment and sadness. I suppose that’s inevitable when you’re watching something whose entire premise is that, as a girl or woman, you exist only as a pesky delivery system for key body parts or a frustrating gatekeeper fated to be overthrown, by hook or by crook, by the dogged tenacity of male hormones.
What each of these films had in common, with few exceptions, is that they ignored the possibility that female people should have any agency at all in the arena of sexuality. The idea that women might even desire sexual contact was simply a bridge too far: The belief that the ladies need to be either tricked into sex or, on the flip side, punished for not giving it up was at the center of many teen sex comedies of the 1980s. Baldly coercive behavior, nonconsensual surveillance in shower and locker rooms, and drugged drinks were not, in the context of these movies, considered the criminal behavior we know them to be today, but simply the logical tools of boys and men who believed sex to be their rightful reward.
The premise of 1982’s Zapped!, for instance, is that horny high-school nerd Barney (Scott Baio) acquires telekinetic powers that he quickly uses to peep at, ogle, and expose unsuspecting female bodies. The final scene, meant to ape the prom massacre in Carrie, punished the hottest, snobbiest girl in school by stripping her nude. Elsewhere, 1983’s Private School features a trio of guys who dress in drag to infiltrate the shower room at an all-girls boarding school, and in a key scene in 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, one titular dweeb combines surveillance, tricks, and punishment by following the hot blond homecoming queen into a carnival tent and pretending to be her boyfriend in order to have sex with her. (Afterward, when he reveals himself beneath a Darth Vader mask, she’s so impressed by his prowess that she fails to notice the criminal skeeviness of the “seduction.”)
The sex-loving female characters in these films, meanwhile, existed as caricatures—horny teachers and tutors, randy divorced mothers, and Kim Catrall’s gym teacher in Porky’s, who is nicknamed “Lassie” because the right ministrations make her bark like a dog. The pursuit of sex by teenage boys may be single-minded and lead to rash and idiotic behavior; for girls and women, however, it’s just a joke. It’s telling that the scant few sex comedies that engaged with desire and agency from a female perspective—1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High and 1980’s Little Darlings—were by far the least slapstick.
Isn’t there room in the ’80s sex-comedy canon for comedies that let girls be just as goofy, hedonistic, and—perhaps most important—consequence-free as their dumb-fun boy counterparts? There is—it’s just that it hasn’t come out until now.
The premise of Maggie Carey’s debut film The To-Do List is that Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), a soon-to-be college freshman and unapologetic dork, finds her libido awakened all at once by a hunky coworker and embarks on a crash course in sexual experience with the aid of a Trapper Keeper and the wisdom of her more experienced friends (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele). The setting of the film in 1993 is a treasure trove of visual gags about pagers, skorts, and step aerobics, but also preserves a sense of pre-Internet innocence—in 2013, Brandy would have been able to Google “rim job,” rather than fruitlessly search a dictionary for the term. Once she gets started, Brandy isn’t cowed by her lack of knowledge, and her quest to tick off the boxes on her list fits with her feminist leanings and prim, grammar-correcting smarts. What’s more, she’s got an understanding mother (the mighty Connie Britton) who doesn’t want her daughter to feel as repressed as she herself has been—Brandy’s father still believes he was her first—and who ends their heart-to-heart about sex by giving Brandy a package of lube.
Characters like these should not be nearly as revolutionary as they seem. But while we’ve seen teen boys get falling-down drunk, maim themselves, crash cars, outrun dogs and teachers and cops, swim through mud, scale walls, and endure a whole roster of humiliations in the pursuit of pussy, American movies have rarely dared to engage with the far simpler idea that sex is something teen girls also think a whole lot about. The To-Do List isn’t without precedent, of course. It’s just that in a popular culture that has always prioritized the sexual experiences of men and boys, sex comedies that feature teen-female protagonists have been treated as outliers—if they’re acknowledged (and released) at all.
The case of 1999’s Coming Soon is instructive: The film boasted a great mix of rising stars (Ryan Reynolds, Ashton Kutcher), indie stalwarts (Gaby Hoffman, Spalding Gray) and household names (Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal), but its premise—high-school girl finds her first time unsatisfying and sets out to educate herself in matters of orgasms—put more focus on female pleasure than the MPAA was willing to acknowledge. Though the ratings board had given that year’s American Pie, with its nudity, pie-fucking, and general raunchiness, a simple R rating, it slapped Coming Soon—which contained zero nudity or sex with pastry—with a dreaded NC-17. When director Collette Burson pointed out this glaring double standard, she was told, basically, Yep, deal with it—and even with some grudging alterations, the film was ultimately released in only a handful of theaters.
That same year, the lesbian coming-out comedy But I’m a Cheerleader met a similar fate. Threatened with an NC-17 due to the film’s frank acknowledgment that teen lesbians exist, director Jamie Babbit eventually managed to finesse an R by significantly trimming a scene in which the protagonist, played by Natasha Lyonne, stands in her nightie against a wall, masturbating. Another film starring Lyonne, 1998’s Slums of Beverly Hills, was dinged for a scene in which the teen protagonist takes her cousin’s vibrator for an exploratory spin; director Tamara Jenkins knew she was on notice when a studio executive pushed her to cut back on the film’s “female grossness.” (You know, grossness like having meaningless nooky with a person you don’t care about, the focus of nearly every male-focused teen sex comedy ever.)
You can argue, and some critics have, that equal-opportunity raunch isn’t necessarily feminist progress. But The To-Do List does something beyond matching the graphic language and gross-out gags of every teen-boy sex comedy in history: It normalizes the idea that teen girls not only have the same desires as their male counterparts, but use the same language to discuss them.
In the teen-sex comedies of the past, the common goal shared among hormone-crazed guys was also a form of bonding with their friends. That’s echoed in the support, understanding, and relief with which Brandy’s friends, and even her snarky sister, greet her project. Brandy’s not an outlier; she may be baffled by sex itself, but she’s not embarrassed to want to know all about it, and she’s not afraid of being punished for her curiosity.
I’m not the only one who would have been relieved by this knowledge at the time I most needed it. The messages that media transmits about sex, “normalcy,” and shame are particularly sticky, and with double standards as pervasive as ever, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if The To-Do List becomes just another sex comedy that future generations hide from their own parents. It’s a small thrill with big implications.