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Easy A gets an A!
by Karma Waltonen

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Has anyone actually read THE SCARLET LETTER? I mean, has anyone who references it in movies ever actually read it?

I didn't end up reading it until graduate school. Two things surprised me—one, the story starts after the whole affair is over, which was disappointing. Two—the book never specifies what "the letter" is. In popular imagination, it is an "A" for adultery. This is a logical assumption, but it is an assumption, which is another "A" that should be avoided. It's sort of like reading THE BIBLE and being surprised that there's no mention of an apple in the garden (which there isn't).

EASY A plays on the popular A assumption, and well it should, actually, because the letter being an A is basically the only thing that the average person thinks they know about that text.

You don't have to know anything about THE SCARLET LETTER to enjoy EASY A. They give you a synopsis and show clips from the very early version and even tell you what's wrong with the Demi Moore adaptation.

However, what's great about this film is that while they recognize that you probably haven't read Hawthorne's tale of abjection and punishment, you're still smart, because the script is smart. The little references, whether they're to Hawthorne, german remakes of THE SCARLET
LETTER, or John Hughes's films, are all there for you to get and enjoy at whatever level you wish. And even if you don't get a few of the more obscure ones, you'll get enough to feel culturally literate and to enjoy the way in which the references resurface later in wholly satisfying ways.

In addition to being well written, this is well acted. Thomas Haden Church totally pulls off the "favorite teacher" role, while Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucchi are the most adorable parents I've ever seen in a teen-centered piece. Watching the film, you want more of them, and you're sort of surprised that every teenager in the neighborhood hasn't figured out a way to be in their kitchen in the afternoon, basking in the glow of their witty quips.

Emma Stone is winning as Olive, our Scarlet Woman, and her love interest, Penn Badgley, is cute, though he's not given all that much to do. Since the film really isn't about whether they get together, he is allowed to woo her by simply being supportive and then enacting every 80s teen romp stereotype (self consciously, at least).

If it's not about the would-be lovers, then what is it about?

A rumor gets started about Olive, and then she feeds it to help out a friend—what better way to assure that a guy is seen as
masculine than to pretend to sleep with him? As the situation escalates, Olive is pulled between embracing the role of school slut and bemoaning the fact that everyone believes that she is one.

As an audience, we can sympathize with Olive because the movie makes it clear that she is far from slutty—she's never even had a date, apparently. But I wonder what would happen if we tried to make a film in which we were asked to sympathize with a girl who actually was sexually active and enjoyed it.

Arguably, JUNO shows us a teenager who has sex—but it's just once, it's with the guy who turns out to be the love of her life, and she's totally punished for it by getting pregnant.

Two female characters—both adult women—admit to having sex in this film. One is made to suffer in a few ways—and the audience won't mind at all. The other is happy, but does say that she had many partners in her youth. Just as I was starting to feel like the movie might be getting somewhere interesting, they had this character remark that the sex was due to self-esteem issues.

The film has things to say about judgment and trust and even social networking, but it's fundamentally conservative about sexuality.

I went to see the film because I thought it might be an interesting
companion to a book I read several years ago: SLUT: GROWING UP FEMALE WITH A BAD REPUTATION by Leora Tanenbaum. The book starts with two fascinating lists—a very brief list of words we use to label sexually active men (very few of which have negative connotations) and a very long list of derogatory terms for sexually active women. Tanenbaum's text goes on to explain how most women who get labeled as a slut don't even have the most important characteristic that fits the label. For example, many women who were early developers had rumors started about them, regardless of whether they'd had actual sexual interactions. Many of the women that Tanenbaum studied had had sex, because they were raped. These women were first victimized by their rapist and then by their peers. Female peers (and EASY A does actually show this) were the worst. Tanenbaum posits that if you can decide that a rape victim is a "bad girl" or that she asked for it or deserved it in some way, you can convince yourself that you won't be victimized in the same way. If good girls would never be put in that position, and you're a good girl, you're safe.

Ultimately, the film didn't end up going into these issues, and I guess I shouldn't expect a comedy to do so. But what it does do, it does exceptionally well.

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Oct 4, 2010 7:48 PM
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I just reviewed the film myself, and while I did enjoy it as well, I share your disappointment with the script, especially the scene when Olive's mother admits her sexual experiences were due to low self-esteem. Why can't she just like to have sex? We never say that guys who slept around in high school did it because of low self-esteem (even though it's sometimes true).

Also, while the film does show the sexual double standards (guys are studs; girls are sluts), it doesn't actually DO anything with it. And that's too bad.

Also, was the whole chlamydia thing necessary?

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Comedies with Dr. Karma
Every other Wednesday

Dr. Karma discusses all things comic, from the classics to what may become classics. Laugh with, but not at, her, please.

Other Columns
Other columns by Karma Waltonen:

Goodbye -- Dr. Karma

The Dictator and Dark Shadows

Pirates and Whedon Movies: In Theatres Now!

A Touch of Cult

Our Random Favorites

All Columns

Karma Waltonen
Dr. Karma is a silly, nerdy know-it-all, but in a good way. She brings all her overeducation to discuss that which truly matters: comedy. As some famous guy once said: “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘tis that I may not weep.” Or something like that.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Karma Waltonen by clicking here.

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