In the aftermath of the recent midterm elections in the United States, I suppose the film Easy A is not the most significant thing I could write about concerning religion in the public sphere. Nonetheless, I think it is relevant. Hear me out.
I went to see this movie because I was in the mood for a chick-flick/high-school-coming-of-age-comedy-type movie (not that I feel the need to justify it). What I was struck by was the Christian antagonist Marianne, played by Amanda Bynes. Though her performance lacked the nuance of, say, Mandy Moore in Saved, I was struck by the fact that I so readily had another film character to even compare her to. Like Saved, Easy A uses a foil character that defines their public identity as a Christian to signify historically rooted conformity and moralism from which to rebel. This signification relies upon the audience’s memory of the high school movie in which the unspoken norms of Christendom reigned and adults were the ultimate authority, as well as familiarity with the identity politics that followed Christendom’s fading and were a reality in many areas of life for several decades before eventually being reflected in this genre. Marianne’s type of Christian identity can only exist in a post-Christendom plurality, where she represents a historical establishment, though one that has lost its monopoly on a culture rife with dissent.
Easy A is, in a nutshell, the story of Olive (played by Emma Stone), who pretends promiscuity, originally with a gay friend to protect him from bullying, but eventually in exchange for gifts from social outcasts at her high school. The story is juxtaposed with her English class’s study of The Scarlet Letter. (Here I would like to point out that the main character in Easy A did not do the things her small rumor-ravaged school believes, thus carefully dodging a host of moral and ethical issues.) Within the context of the Scarlet Letter juxtaposition, Marianne’s condemnation and resulting campaign to save Olive’s soul and/or drive her from the school is supposed to be a sort of statement about how women’s sexuality is still judged by Puritanical standards—or at least this is how I read the main message.
What interests me more than the message is that a Christian prayer group is so readily incorporated into the landscape of a cinematic high school. Throughout the film, there are repeated self-conscious references to John Hughes movies, seemingly to acknowledge the movie’s place within/in opposition to the genre. What stood out to me in opposition to 1980s high school movies was that proselytizing Christians were an acknowledged social group.
In a movie like The Breakfast Club, the social strata of high school consist of the popular “good” girl, jock, weirdo artist type, nerd, and damaged “bad” boy. None of these characters are put in the context of a church, religion, or relationship with any deity. Even with the groups left out of that particular movie, I don’t think the absence of stated religious context for characters is limited to this one movie or even that decade. Even in the mid-1990s (Clueless comes to mind) characters’ religious backgrounds are generally not mentioned.
I think it is significant that nationally released mainstream movies have characters that are defined as individuals within a group identified as Christian. In the case of Marianne, she is portrayed as mean-spirited in her zealotry, but also naïve and earnest, surrounded by hypocrites and Christians of convenience. Her most notable identifier is Christian. It is as though groups of characters self-identifying as Christian has come to have a place with the jocks and stoners in the cinematic landscape of the American imagination, another clique in which to belong.
Like any teenage movie clique, Christian groups are of course stylized artistic representations designed to resonate with an audience who can understand what they are meant to represent. To be a social group or a plot foil in a genre like the high school movie, the audience must be able to read the shorthand for the motivations, beliefs, and stances of the characters and their group. While evangelical Christianities were moving further into the public sphere as a mainstream media presence in the 1990s, it took until the turn of the millennium for Christian youth movements to be widespread and media-represented enough to be usable as a plot device in teenage movies.
What surprises me is that it took the film industry so long to catch up. Obviously, the presence and relevance of Christian youth communities varies from school to school and area to area in the United States, but to some degree Christian youth groups and movements have been present and relevant since the outbreak of HIV in the U.S. was acknowledged as a threat to teenage health
Condoms and “safe sex” have been an expected part of the high school movie climate for some time (American Pie, for instance). As reactions to the impact on youth of the HIV epidemic and the growing discussion of STDs, the part played by Christian youth in these discussions quickly made it onto MTV (google “Christine O’Donnell” and “masturbation”) but not into the fictional stories we tell ourselves on the silver screen.
At one point, Olive goes to several religious institutions for guidance about her recent lying, which is a search notably to no avail (it is on this journey that Olive and the audience find out that Marianne’s father is a minister). The film is clear in its emphasis on the shakiness of the ground from which the school’s Christian group casts judgment, but the hypocrisy of some adult authority figures is also exposed along the way.
I have encountered in academic circles a lot of talk about the “end of Christendom.” In traditional outlets of popular culture it plays out in subtle but noteworthy ways. In the past, one could argue for an assumed Christian context for all high school movies, with examples like Molly Ringwald’s character’s sister getting married in church in Sixteen Candles, or her character in The Breakfast Club being established as a “good” girl because she is a virgin. The possibility that Christendom has recently come to an end can be seen in the reflection of several decades of U.S. identity politics finally showing up in the new high school movie. Rather than most characters being assumed Christian by default, it is now a declared position within a plurality that does not uncritically accept being judged by one group’s “Christian” standards of morality.
Despite the presence of plurality, in an echo of the larger U.S. public sphere, confessing Christians in high school movies are not just one group on an equal footing with all others. In Easy A, the movie has it both ways. Marianne’s group is disliked by adult authority figures in the school whose reactions to the promiscuity rumors include insisting Olive take a handful of condoms. However, Marianne is also the movie’s antagonist because as the daughter of a minister and in her connection to Christianity and the Christian church, she represents the establishment—if not the school establishment, a larger cultural establishment going back to the time of The Scarlet Letter.
What I am uncomfortable in calling “the culture war” is nonetheless a very real phenomenon and is being played out in more areas of the public sphere than just Fox News in order to become an assumed part of our fictional landscape. In Easy A, the Christians are the foil because movies with teenagers are always about rebellion. While the presence of plurality is a sign that Christendom has come to an end, the usefulness of Christianity/Christians in signifying rebellion betrays the depth of Christendom’s mark on the cultural landscape.