Sexy Beasts

As our world unravels hysterically around us, it is perhaps unsurprising that internet audiences have turned to seemingly lighter fare for succor. Netflix doesn’t release audience data—why would they? It’s so valuable! But their chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, told Vulture that their original teen romcom The Kissing Booth (released on May 11 2018) is “one of the most-watched movies in the country, and maybe in the world.”

As I watched this unicorn frappuccino of a film for the first time, I had a strange, sinking feeling that I was being punk’d. This suspicion came into its full efflorescence in the scenes that feature the typically talented Molly Ringwald. She plays the mom of the male love interest in a casting decision clearly meant as homage to the Hughes era of teen-driven dramedies, but why, I wondered, was she so terrible here? Perhaps her acting chops had dulled?

But then I realized that some of her lines would be nearly impossible to deliver well. In a pep talk she gives to the teen female lead, who’s on the outs with her best friend, she tells her, “Elle, I was friends with your mom for over 20 years. She was my best, best friend. But if you think that we didn’t fight sometimes, you got another thing coming.” You got another thing coming. What actual adult talks like this?

None is the correct answer here, which I arrived at by discovering that the film is based on a novel written by the fifteen-year-old Beth Reekles. Not only did the teenage Reekles compose the story, she did so serially on the social publishing platform Wattpad, taking reader suggestions as she went. She told Forbes magazine,”I think it helped that while I was posting, I tried to interact with readers as much as possible, through author notes at the start and end of each chapter as well as sending responses to some individual messages. I used Twitter and a Tumblr blog to promote the book and talk to readers, too.”

The Kissing Booth is a collective teenage fantasy—PG-13 porn by, starring, and for children based on the Disney logic of their media diets. This is why the easy and explicit gratification it offers is so disgustingly delightful to watch. References to “Beauty and the Beast” are as ubiquitous as the barn doors on HGTV. The male love interest, Noah, struggles with anger problems and is constantly in trouble at school for picking fights. In a heart-to-heart between the young lovers, Elle asks him why he’s always getting into these fights and he confesses,

“I guess it’s just kind of how I’m wired.”

“You could change,” Elle says, wide-eyed and holding his hands.

Besides fostering the dream of changing the violent guy with her innocent, true love, Elle is at least a full foot shorter and a hundred pounds lighter than Noah, and their many, many make-out scenes are as cartoonishly disproportionate as the animated Disney dance number between Beast and (B)elle. This physical difference reads as sexy because it underscores her physical danger. When Noah holds Elle’s little face in his giant hands with tenderness, you can’t help reflect that he could easily crush her. What he does instead is push her gently to the ground.*

There is a moment in the also much-watched 2017 live action remake of the Disney cartoon starring Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as Beast that hints at this appeal. At the end, the Beast has his kiss of true love from Belle and changes into a conventionally handsome and reasonably sized blonde man. But Belle lets him know at their celebratory ball that, sexually, she still prefers a beast.

“What? What is it?” the now-human Prince asks her playfully in response to her stares.

“How would you feel about growing a beard?” she says, crinkling her nose.

He knows exactly what she really means and his response is to growl.

Sure, this is some light and potentially harmless sexual play, but what it signifies in the greater context of the movie is that she wasn’t attracted to Beast in spite of his violent, “beast”-like rage, but because of it. Belle tells her unwanted suitor Gaston before he dies in battle with Beast, “He’s not the monster, you are!” But the truth is that both of her love interests are violent monsters. They are, after all, fighting one another to the death. Beast just fights a shade fairer, has better taste, more books, and a castle he’s trashed in his rages in which he traps Belle until she realizes that his sexualized violence is actually something she likes.

This is exactly what happens in “The Kissing Booth” as well. Like Beast, Noah reads literature (!)** Like Beast, he lives in a palatial mansion where Elle spends most of her time. And like Beast, he manages to bed her through a set of non-consensual circumstances.

The central thematic device and plot fulcrum of The Kissing Booth is, surprise, a kissing booth: a carnival game predicated on non-consensual sexual encounters. The kissee at the booth is blindfolded and therefore forced to kiss person after person after person—whomever is next in line—regardless and indeed without knowledge of who that person might be.

As uncomfortable as this setup now sounds in the era of recounting Brett Kavanaugh’s party “trains,” some version of the blind kissee has long been a plot driver of the mistaken-identity lust of the Disney romance. Cinderella turns out to be the rushed hottie at the ball! Prince Charming is that stranger encountered in the woods! Prince Ali and the mysterious street urchin Aladdin are one and the same!! Mulan, the truculent soldier, is actually a girl who Captain Li Shang can get down with heterosexually!

I’m hardly the first person to remark on the Disney model of romance and its consequences for our collective understanding of gender, but I think many Disney films (and other children’s programming –Disney is a monolith but not the only thing going) model a pretty heartily distorted picture of what sex is and should be like via the implied sexual relationship between romantically paired characters.

The ubiquitous trope of hidden identity within the context of romantic encounters is a G-rated rape fantasy wherein what matters is the passion of the pursuer and what is erased is the subjectivity of the pursued. (You can’t consent to an encounter when you’ve been misled about who you’re encountering.) Even when the gender roles are reversed, the position on consent remains the same. It’s easier, when you’re a teenager especially, to exercise sexual desire when the recipient remains anonymous, hence the teenage sexual obsession with unknowable celebrities. There are fewer feelings to deal with when all of the feelings are yours. But when we transpose these benign tendencies into actual sexual encounters, the results are disturbing.

The kissing booth is the device that catapults Elle and Noah into a forbidden lust affair. Elle is forced into the blindfold and the hot seat against her will by a group of female bullies. The preamble to her explosive (really – the lightbulbs on the wall inexplicably shatter) first kiss with Noah is a rambling history of her own sexual innocence: “Truth be told, I’ve never kissed anyone before. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, don’t get me wrong.” She continues, demonstrating yet again how, in the film, sexuality is always mixed with violence: “For example, I punched Ron Getler in the sixth grade during Seven Minutes in Heaven . . .” –and then, in the middle of her spiel, Noah grabs her face and forcefully kisses her.

Elle doesn’t know it is Noah who kisses her, but, far more importantly, Noah does know it’s Elle. He is able to exercise what we understand to be his longstanding desire to kiss her without her knowledge or consent, without caring whether or not she wants to kiss him. And during this blindfolded kiss, Elle’s internal voiceover tells us “This isn’t so bad. Not so bad at all.” Reader, she likes it.

The kiss ends with Elle, now divested of her blindfold, and Noah, simultaneously turning to face the large assembled audience of their peers, who burst into applause, communicating to the viewing audience what our appropriate response should be. This isn’t so bad. Not so bad at all. Against our better judgement, we like it too. Elle is horrified by the public nature of the kiss, if not the revealed identity of the kisser;

“Everyone just saw that, didn’t they?” she says to Noah while still gaping at their audience, “Oh, my God! Kill me now!”

“Come on,” Noah responds, “It was just a kiss.” And nonchalantly leaves the stage, casually slurring, “All right. So, I’ll see you around.”

Even though she tells him she’s never been kissed, even though she expresses that the publicity of the encounter is humiliating to her, he is able to brush it off, to minimize the significance of the experience for her, despite all of her attempts to communicate otherwise. But the film still casts this moment as the start of something great: her sexual fantasies realized.

To The Kissing Booth’s credit, Elle is depicted as a sexual person, one with deep desires of her own—not merely an empty vessel into whom the desires of the dude are poured. But so is Belle. And that, to me, is what’s so interesting about the message here.

It’s not merely that she is overpowered by the giant, violent, controlling guy. It’s that she wants to be. Time and time again she makes choices that would be baffling otherwise. After he throws a tantrum at a beach party and punches the hood of car while angrily shouting “Elle, get in the car!” she gets in the car. Then, in the next scene, she has sex with him, under the conditions that he stop controlling her, that their love affair remain secret, and that he stop getting into violent fights – all of which are almost immediately broken. There is something very raw in the depiction of this kind of sexuality, something that its many, many watchers (and rewatchers – Decider tells us that its rewatch rate is 30% higher than the average film on Netflix) are drawn to.

If, as I suggest, The Kissing Booth is PG13 porn by and for children (wherein the actors are implied to engage in actual sex but we only ever see them rounding second base), its themes are not that far removed from porn for adults. We already know that lots and lots of ladies (and plenty of men and non-binary folks, too) enjoyed Fifty Shades of Gray. According to pornhub data, it is users who identify themselves as female that more frequently enter the popular search terms “gangbang” and “rough sex.” There’s not necessarily anything wrong with these kinds of fantasies and I certainly don’t want to pathologize a particular sexual predilection. But it is of interest bordering on concern to me that this kind of violent, power-imbalanced sexual encounter also seems to be the preferred fantasy of children and teenagers, most of whom, let’s be honest, are probably watching and therefore searching for porn, too.

And it remains true that, despite the violence, the bad writing, the clichés, and the predictability of it all, The Kissing Booth remains really pleasurable to watch. This may have a lot to do with the talent of the charming actress Joey King and the beautiful body of Jacob Elordi, the gigantic Australian model who plays Noah—but there are other reasons, too. As Nate Jones at Vulture points out, “even though the movie’s pretty bad, it’s bad in a comforting way. Most of the plot points and supporting characters are blatant rip-offs of earlier teen films, which gives the film a similar quality to those pop songs that build their hooks by sampling previous hits.”

This is why the rewatching rate makes lot of sense. The Kissing Booth is like a pop song—one you’re not too keen on when you first hear it but then eventually warm to and start singing along with. On my subsequent rewatching, all of the problems kind of receded to the background and the familiarity of it became more soothing than disturbing. It’s the kind of movie that offers no more nor less than what its audience brings to it. It doesn’t educate you or surprise you. It is you. Perhaps this a function of the semi-collective authorship of its creation or its almost compulsive references to the fairy tales and teen romance films that have formed our collective ideas about love and sex.

Which brings us back to Molly Ringwald. Just a month before “The Kissing Booth” was released on Netflix, Ringwald wrote an op-ed in The New Yorker subtitled “revisiting the movies of my youth in the age of #MeToo.” In it, she criticizes the toxic sexuality of the Hughes films, citing in particular the scene in Sixteen Candles where the “hot girl,” Caroline, gets black-out drunk and is unsure of whether or not she had sex with the geek, Ted. When asked if she enjoyed it, she responds, “You know, I have this weird feeling I did.” (Apparently, like Elle, she liked it.)

Ringwald describes a set of present-day exchanges she had with Haviland Morris, the actress who played Caroline, reflecting on the sexual politics of the scene. Initially, Morris hemmed and hawed, “I’m not saying that it’s O.K. to then be raped or to have nonconsensual sex . . . but . . . that’s not a one-way street. Here’s a girl who gets herself so bombed that she doesn’t even know what’s going on.”

Later, she elaborates, writing to Ringwald, “the more I think of it this evening, oddly, the less uncomfortable I am with Caroline. Jake was disgusted with her and said he could violate her 17 ways if he wanted to because she was so trashed, but he didn’t. And then, Ted was the one who had to ask if they had had sex, which certainly doesn’t demonstrate responsible behavior from either party, but also doesn’t really spell date rape. On the other hand, she was basically traded for a pair of underwear . . . Ah, John Hughes.”

Ah, John Hughes.

Ringwald takes a similar, if more critical “Ah, John Hughes” stance, stating that she respected and admired Hughes but is now deeply troubled by the films. “How are we meant to feel about art that we both love and oppose?” She writes, “What if we are in the unusual position of having helped create it? Erasing history is a dangerous road when it comes to art—change is essential, but so, too, is remembering the past, in all of its transgression and barbarism, so that we may properly gauge how far we have come, and also how far we still need to go.”

I can’t help wondering how these could be the words of an actor who had just wrapped on The Kissing Booth. In one scene, Elle gets black-out drunk as well. She wakes up in Noah’s bed assuming that they’ve slept together. “Nothing happened,” he assures her. So is this how far we have come from the “barbarism” of the past? The fact that while her knee-jerk reaction is to assume she’s had nonconsensual sex, (because that’s what Beasts do?) she blessedly has not? What is the trope of the black-out drunk scene but a PG13 version of a kissing booth, or of Sleeping Beauty, the story of an unconscious, virginal princess who is waiting to be kissed by whoever might come along and find her lying there?

Perhaps we like these kinds of stories because they fantasize an experience of female sexual pleasure that can be had without asking for it—that female sexual desire is still so taboo, especially for young women and girls, the only way to experience it completely free of guilt or shame is if the female character is completely passive? If that’s the case, we need to be talking more positively about sexuality (especially female sexuality) along with all of the conversations we’ve been having lately about male barbarism. If sexual desire is made to seem less taboo, will there eventually be fewer narratives that celebrate the fantasy of getting to experience sex without having to consent it?

For now, I’m interested in what it means to be drawn to these narratives. How can we take a stand against sexual violence publicly when so many of us still enjoy it, at least in fantasy, privately? And have enjoyed those narratives, it’s worth pointing out, since we were children ourselves.

I don’t think the problems of toxic masculinity will be resolved by a culture of shaming and censorship. Nor do these problems begin and end with men. This is far from saying, as one of the characters in The Kissing Booth does, that by wearing a short skirt you are “asking for” sexual harassment or that “no” ever means “yes.”

What I’m suggesting here is that the desire for the violent beast, the unconscious kiss, the “unwanted” encounter is so deeply absorbed from our very earliest experiences of narrative as to be firmly imbedded in the recesses of our own private desires and longings. It won’t be eradicated by ostracizing villains or pulling their works from our screens and libraries. It is there in our childhood play, the images glowing on our late-night laptop screens, the games enacted in secret with our lovers. In addition to performing outrage, we might also consider asking why, as a culture, we like it too.

 

Arielle Zibrak: Team Maleficent

 

*I should add, here, that I worked for a few years as an editor of romance novels at a major trade publisher and hence am no stranger to the marketability of fictions geared toward female audiences that feature sexual fantasies laced with physical and emotional violence. Once, when I was trying to come up with a title for a very formulaic novel, my boss suggested it needed “more sex and more danger.” Why does sex always need danger to be sexy? I wondered, and sarcastically suggested Kiss Me While I Die, which is actually not far from the title that the book ended up having. Elle and Noah’s rain-soaked kiss in a gazebo is undoubtedly a kind of Kiss-Me-While-I-Die moment, as is their first kiss, where, as I described, she literally says “kill me now” after being kissed. (And their second kiss, suddenly interrupted by the flashlight beam of a nightwatchman, causing Elle to inexplicably say “we’re going to die.”) All of the “sex” scenes in this movie are laced with “danger” – danger of being harmed by the large and violent Noah, danger of being caught, danger of getting in a motorcycle accident, danger of exposure, danger of falling out of a window (twice). If you haven’t seen it, I’m not making any of this up.

**Noah is shown to be reading Balzac’s The Black Sheep, a novel that, like the film, is about the rivalry between two brothers. The Kissing Booth is also about the rivalry between brothers, and it would be a disrespect to the great theorist of sexuality Eve Sedgwick if I didn’t point out that there’s a reading to be had of this film wherein Elle is just the object on whom Noah and his brother Lee project their beef with one another. Also, NB, like Belle, Elle is surprised by the civilization of her beast. When she spies him reading the novel she sends a flirty text: “I didn’t know that you could read.” One of the many aspects of the Beast narrative that is damaging to young boys who consume it is that being a strong, sexy man means you should be ashamed of literacy or intellectual and cultural accomplishment. Noah is strangely bashful about having been accepted to Harvard and swears Elle to secrecy on this acceptance for reasons that are never explored.