This summer’s movies, like all the summer movies before, have been about men. In the last few months we’ve seen boys come of age in The Way, Way Back; Mud; The Kings Of Summer, and At Any Price. There were about 25 minutes back in June when people were talking about Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy’s movie The Heat, but then we lost interest and went back to the men.
For gender reasons alone The To Do List will turn heads. Maggie Carey’s debut film is a sex comedy, but unlike the boys-will-be-boys movies we’ve grown used to in this genre, Carey turns out a film that is shaped by, and about, women. Carey both wrote and directed the film, and cast Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza as her star; all ladies, if you’re keeping score at home. The plot is pretty straightforward: Brandy Klarke (Plaza) a nerdy valedictorian begins a sexual journey, trading in the usual pre college to do list (packing, course selecting) for a sexual to do list: “tea bagging” (“must be British”), “get a pearl necklace” (“sounds classy”). Were the film about a teenage boy it would feel raunchy but not subversive; as it is about a young woman the movie feels progressive in a way that is unsettling. Movies about a teenage girl’s sexual discovery are rare, and the amount to which this one jars, speaks volumes about societal acceptance, and our ever-stunted sexual norms.
From a societal perspective, the fact that the film is about a woman rocks the boat; seeing an on-screen woman so pointedly seek out the physical, puts cracks in more than a few glass walls. On film, female sexuality is often used as a weapon, a lure, a fatal flaw, or a measure of purity – rarely is it treated, as it is here, as a normal symptom of personhood. While from the audience vantage point these choices are noteworthy, within the film the gender-norm bending is treated with a coolness that’s commendable. To the characters in The To Do List Brandy’s quest is rarely judged; in fact, the only time it is judged is when feelings are involved – it’s never scorned because she’s “being slutty,” or because she’s a girl. The movie’s other female characters are also depicted as sexual (just like real people, you guys). Brandy’s mother (Connie Britton) is not afraid to discuss the birds and the bees at breakfast, her sister (Rachel Bilson) talks freely of her many sexcapades, and her two best friends (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele) wear their experiences (or alleged experiences) like capes of bravado. By my count the word “slut” is only used twice in this film: once by Brandy’s conservative father, a man so sexually squeamish it’s comical, and once by one of Brandy’s friend who in a moment of anger uses the sharpest verbal arrow she has, but doesn’t even seem to mean it.
The To Do List also hints at two very real aspects of sex that are rarely depicted in movies about women: the cringe or gross-out factor, and the fact that sex doesn’t always mean something monumental about love. Certainly these topics have been broached before, especially on shows like Girls, but unlike many female-centered movies, The To Do List deals with sex and virginity loss not through the lens of love, but instead from the curiosities of the body. Brandy gives and gets head, dry humps, and (spoiler alert) loses her virginity to a guy not because she loves him, but because he's hot. Plaza is also front and center for a full body masturbation scene that is as bold as anything. Bottom line: Brandy does a whole slew of sexual and unsexy things that in this context have absolutely nothing to do with romance. In the sexual sense, Carey doesn’t deify or glorify her female characters (a la Emma Stone on-a-pedestal in Superbad), or turn them into over-the-top male fantasy (like Shannon Elizabeth in American Pie). Instead, she creates sex-comedy female leads that are awkward and honest, and sometimes hard to watch. In the male characters she casts broader strokes but still manages to create fleshed out personalities for whom sex is as real and unsexy as it is for all the girls.
By bringing all of these sexual issues front and center, The To Do List turns the mirror on its audience. Brandy Klarke, and her list, might not be a new archetype and certainly do not solve all of the problems surrounding women and sexuality in movies; but the character and the film do take steps in the right direction. Carey has made a successful sex comedy, one that is crass, and curious, and focused on the experiences and desires of a girl. It shouldn’t be shocking for a teenage girl in 1993 (when the film is set) to be depicted as sexual, and it certainly is shocking that in 2013, illustrating those desires is still seen as barrier breaking. Brandy is not the first woman in film we’ve seen on a sexual quest, and I am still waiting for a sexually active female character who is not a) in a relationship, b) one-dimensional, or c) a little sad (a note of which I felt in Brandy). But as Bridesmaids set a new standard for women in crass comedy, The To Do List could be the first in a wave of female sex comedies: a new genre where, yes, boys-will-be-boys, but girls will also be girls.