thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Not Such an Easy A: A few thoughts on the Scarlett Letter  update

In race on September 10, 2011 at 10:45 am

Phoebe Bronstein

I finally watched Easy A last night and it was fairly hilarious. That said, I have a few issues with the film, which I will elaborate on shortly.

Easy A is a modern day teen adaptation of The Scarlett Letter with Emma Stone (as Olive) and Penn Badgly (ie Dan from Gossip Girl), and a plethora of delightful and awesome supporting cast members. These include, but are not limited to, Lisa Kudrow as an adultering guidance counselor, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s father and mother respectively, and Amanda Bynes as Marianne, Olive’s bible thumping nemesis. Truth be told, I kind of have a soft spot for Amanda Bynes, which developed somewhere around the time I saw What a Girl Wants and Sydney White. Plus her performance is oddly reminiscent of Mandy Moore in Saved. But moving on.

Easy A is a fun romp through the traumas of the high school rumor mill. Here’s what happens: Olive (Stone) lies to her BFF and tells her that she has lost her virginity, a conversation that is overheard by Marianne (Bynes). Marianne then spreads the rumor all over the school. Next thing we know, nerdy boys want to pay Olive (usually in gift cards and coupons) to pretend that she kissed, went to second base, had sex with them—an endeavor that begins when she agrees to help Brandon (Dan Byrd), who is gay, pretend he is straight by having loud fake sex at a party. The film humorously details the consequences of this lie (ie Olive starts showing a little more skin and then sews an A to all her clothing), which (to fast-forward for a moment) ends with a guy getting the wrong idea and actually trying to pay her for real sex with a Home Depot gift card. Not to worry, she makes a tell-all web cast after a sexy performance with her longtime crush (Penn Badgley), and then they ride off into the sunset on a tractor.

All in all, the movie is quite funny and I found myself enjoying it a great deal. I mean, how can you go wrong with this puritanical plot? However, I was left with a few things that made me both uncomfortable and confused and feel less laudatory, mostly surrounding issues about race.

Firstly, Olive’s family who are white have adopted an adorable second child, Chip (Bryce Clyde Jenkins), who is African American. Perhaps this role was blind cast, but either way, Chip’s difference is constantly asserted in the film. It feels at times as if he is there as a means to show how progressive this particular white family is. Further, in the film his blackness is used to signal that he is adopted. Although his character has very few lines (although is in almost all the family scenes), his presence is always punctuated by dialogue, like “but I’m adopted,” or Stanley Tucci jokingly asking him, “where are you from?” At once, the film signals that Chip would notice that he looks different than the rest of his family and so it does not erase that difference, which seems like a good idea. However, it also uses that difference to signal both the family’s whiteness, but also that they are not the average white family from Ojai, California. But rather, Chip is used to indicate that they are just a little offbeat, in line with Madonna and perhaps Angelina Jolie.

Secondly, the storyline involving Brandon feels oddly frustrating for a variety of reasons. Granted the film takes on bullying, reminiscent of Glee (remember Kurt attempts a day or two as straight and wears a trucker hat to signal it), but the solution Easy A proposes feels strange. Either pretend you are straight to avoid bullying or run away with an older tall black man. Brandon attempts the first, but then decides on the latter, which is accompanied by a plethora of references to Huck Finn (also we see the couple watching an old Huck Finn film together). To me, this feels like a problem. This choice seems to mock stereotypes of the oversexed black buck or at least unsuccessfully try to (for more on this see Donald Bogle’s work). However, by pairing Brandon and his unnamed lover’s story with that of Huck Finn, the film evokes some problematic parallels between these two white and black couplings. By evoking the Twain novel, the film unexpectedly presents a parallel between Jim, who is a slave, and Brandon’s unnamed lover, one which suggests a reading of Jim and Brandon’s lover perhaps as predatory (particularly given the age difference).

Taken together, I think these two instances both function to produce whiteness in the film, at the expense of the black characters. Whereas Chip’s presence signals the whiteness of the family via the reiteration of his difference, so too does Brandon’s unnamed African American lover and his parallel with Huck Finn, suggest both Brandon’s whiteness and a relationship between a white boy and an escaped slave. In both these instances, difference is forcibly asserted, which in and of itself is perhaps not a bad thing, but it is when African American bodies are used seemingly for the sake of producing whiteness. Safe to say, this is nothing new in filmic representations of race, but the casual use of black bodies in Easy A to suggest various things about the white cast seems worthy of pointing out.

Within the scope of the film, the use of Huck Finn fits into the genre of updating and mocking a classic novel. But for the previously mentioned reasons I don’t think it works. I imagine there is much more to say here, but I would be delighted by any or all feedback, as these are just my initial thoughts. Easy A is fine when the plot sticks to the white characters (after all it is the Puritans they are mocking), but its treatment of bodies of color, specifically African American men, is worrisome perhaps at best.

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