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Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Maturing Moviegoer: Sex and “The Virgin Suicides”


I love movies. They reveal, they entertain and they stimulate us in ways both conscious and subconscious. I love stories. They put flesh on bone. There is no way to illustrate a theme better than a story.

So what do we have here? We have great films. We have stories. And we have the themes that shape those stories. Films. Stories. Themes. Let’s add one more ingredient to the mix before you get back to staring aimlessly at your phone. Coming of age.

Everybody says that it’s harder now growing up than it ever was. Certainly there are components of our culture that former generations couldn’t even dream of growing up with (twerking). But what generation hasn’t experienced this? We are blossoming sprouts, coming into our adult lives whether we like it or not. We are also crash test dummies for new challenges along the way. Sounds fun.

Movies provide the perfect venue for trying to understand what we are going through. After all, if movies weren’t relatable on some level, we wouldn’t watch them. And although the story may change, the themes stay the same, time and time again. Let’s explore!

The Virgin Suicides is a 1999 film by Sofia Coppola, adapted from the 1993 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. We are presented with the tale of five sisters, the youngest of which commits suicide. But through a kind of sad beauty, and a surprising grin-inducing humor, we whimsy our way into the lives of the remaining four sisters, as well as four boys who find themselves captivated by their mystery.

One of the boys mentions how girls know all about things like love and death and that boys are often there to merely add the noise that entertains them. That boys never can truly understand these things like a girl can.

I’m not so sure about that. But maybe that’s just proving the point. Can it be possible that men are so unilateral in intention and desire that girls have us figured out from the get-go? Maybe this is true of girls looking upon pre-pubescent boys, but as males foster their abstract mind, it surely cannot be possible that women will reach into the minds of men so wholly as to leave us sitting on our asses.

Sofia Coppola gives a story in which those humans endowed with penises are observers of those other humans endowed with vaginas. It is true that girls become women earlier on than boys become men. I suspect this creates a kind of wonder in boys, who have yet to mature. And I believe this wonder looks different with each generation.

In 1970s Michigan, the time and place in which The Virgin Suicides is set, we can see a difference in the way boys learned about women. The four boys in the movie peeped through telescopes to see sex in all its moist, passionate and slightly awkward glory. Now, boys peep through the internet to sites where their cravings can be satisfied by professional and amateur pornographers alike.

Porn can create illusions for many young men — illusions that can persist. Sure, there was Playboy and Hustler back in their hey-day, but today’s sexual media makes those magazines look like chastity manuals.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that I am nostalgic for a time I did not live. That would be impossible. Peeping through telescopes for sexual gratification is far riskier than waiting until you’re alone in your dorm room with nothing but tissues, some lotion and a working internet connection.

So where is the silver lining here? What do we learn from The Virgin Suicides, other than that Trip is a terrible name for the most handsome dude in the movie? Well, that is hard to say. Movies that give us ambiguous endings tend to leave people feeling crazy. But somehow, we are left with more when less is said for us.

And in this thought we find a parallel to our modern predicament. Pornography is similar to the grandstanding politicians of today — full of answers and no questions. Because that’s what people want. Answers. But considering the ubiquity and subsequent dilution of sex in today’s culture, sexual coming of age may be better endured as trial and error fraught with natural embarrassments and ambivalences that can only be laughed upon as we reflect on our experiences.

Spring is in the air, the birds are chirping, the bees are buzzing; it’s time to perk up your ears, open your eyes and read my column. I hope you join me as we try to figure out all the ways we leave our youth behind.

If you want to tell ELI FLESCH that he knows nothing about sex, you can reach him at eliflesch@ucdavis.edu.


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