Predators don’t get a Pass
Let’s make one thing clear: underage girls have always been sexualized to a disturbing degree. With Jeffery Epstein’s predatory crimes at the forefront of the public’s consciousness, it is time to re-examine how our culture perpetuates problematic ideas about the sexuality of teenage girls. Just look back to artists like Iggy Pop, who boasted about his sexual exploits with then thirteen-year-old baby groupie Sable Starr in the opening line of the song “Look Away”. It can be easy to write off those actions as simply being, “from a different time” — but have things really changed? Of course, the public responds with revulsion when presented with the details of Epstein soliciting sex from underage girls. However, we don’t always take issue with the portrayal of teenage girls in movies, and often turn the other cheek when gross comments are made under their Instagram posts. It could be that we have become desensitized to the way in which we sexualize teenage girls. Teenagers having sex with other teenagers is normal, but when we allow men to lust after underage girls it’s not. It is time to shift away from promoting these predatory actions, and finally allow girls to simply be girls.
One need not look far to find films that present a teenage girl as the love interest for a tortured male protagonist. American Beauty is a cinematic staple, perhaps less so in the wake of Kevin Spacey’s alleged misconduct, that holds an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and an Academy Award for Best Picture. It is a beautifully made film, which can make the subject matter seem romantic, when in reality it is deeply flawed. The film follows a bored middle-aged man named Lester as he attempts to reinvigorate his life and essentially find his youth again. He becomes infatuated with his teenage daughter’s friend, Angela, whom we never really get to know fully. The film makes her appearance what defines her character and refuses to dig deeper and present her as a nuanced and complete person. Viewers are privy to Lester’s sexually charged fantasies of Angela, with the image of her covered in rose petals even making the film’s cover. She is reduced to a physical form for Lester to project his desires on— and nobody seems to mind. Angela is collateral damage along Lester’s self destructive path, her personal struggles simply background noise. This characterization feeds into the idea that teenage girls are more objects than people. It is nearly impossible to view a situation objectively when you are only looking at a small part of it. For Lester, he only sees Angela’s body and seemingly vapid personality. He is not viewing a girl with passions, struggles, talents, and a lack of lived experience— but simply a girl with beauty. This allows him to lust after her without being reminded of things that may force him to recognize that this lust is inappropriate.
Angela’s characterization is not unique. Films that reduce teen girls to their bodies send a strong message about the relationship between sexuality and the body. Teen girls are often seem as sexually mature once they undergo puberty and are thrust into a world of sexualization that they are not emotionally or intellectually ready for.
Woody Allen’s Manhattan is another critically acclaimed film which follows a forty-two -year-old man named Issac, played by Allen, as he navigates relationship struggles and love triangles, all while dating a high school student named Tracy. Tracy is seventeen, but the film presents her relationship with Issac as legitimate, never truly acknowledging the power imbalance that exists between them. Tracy seems to find her own path after Issac leaves her, but the film ends with Issac making one final attempt to rekindle his relationship with her. Even this scene plays out like a very normal conversation between ex-lovers going in different directions, not as a conversation between a middle-aged man and the teenage girl that he groomed. This film was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay, a sign that we have deemed relationships between underage girls and middle-aged men as somewhat acceptable. It doesn’t matter if Tracy was genuinely attracted to Issac; it should’ve been his responsibility to recognize that attraction to a minor cannot be realized into a physical relationship. For Issac to treat this as a mature and normal relationship is inherently wrong.
Even more unsettling is the fact that Mariel Hemingway, the actress who plays Tracy, was pursued by Allen after filming. She was just sixteen, yet Allen invited her to go to Paris with him alone. Her parents even encouraged her to go, although she ultimately refused. Allen is still making films today and receiving award nominations, with many in Hollywood eager to work on his films. People can try to discredit Dylan Farrow’s account of being molested by her father, but through analyzing his body of work and his own actions, like marrying adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, it is apparent that Allen views young girls as sexual beings and not children who cannot consent. The acclaim that both he and his films continue to receive is evidence that we need to be more conscious of the media we consume, and analyze the ideas transmitted through it. American Beauty and Manhattan attempt to create a world in which sexual maturity and youthful purity can coexist, but much like Lester’s depictions of Angela, such a world is simply fantasy.
These films deny teenage female characters their voice, focusing the narrative around their bodies and illicit sexuality. When we do this, we put girls in uncomfortable positions which can have lasting effects. Sexualization of young girls can cause a lot of problems with body image and identity. Girls can feel that they don’t measure up to the body ideals presented to them and can even become ashamed of their bodies after being subjected to sexual comments or catcalls. This is not to mention the lasting effects of abuse by men in power like Jeffery Epstein. Epstein trafficked vulnerable girls who were seeking financial or personal assistance and used his assets to lure them into his trap. He lies at one end of the spectrum in terms of power, but one could argue than most older men hold power over underage girls. Epstein used his power to receive an incredibly light charge and sentence in 2008 and evade capture until earlier this year, but many other predators with significantly less power walk free today.
This problem isn’t just a result of the Jeffery Epsteins of the world: it is a result of every older man who has preyed upon a teenager. When we allow the media to sexualize young girls we validate the lustful thoughts older men may have about them— and too often those thoughts become actions. Girls deserve to grow up in a world where sexuality is not forced upon them, where they can wear whatever clothes they like in school, where they can feel comfortable passing older men on the street, where they can simply live and grow at their own pace. We need to hold the media accountable by thinking critically about the way teenage girls are represented in popular movies and television shows and make our voices heard when these works are flawed. This is imperative if we are to truly protect girls and give them the freedom to simply be girls.
Rachael Chalachan is a second year Psychology major who thinks that Annie Hall should not justify Woody Allen literally marrying his daughter. You can reach them at email@example.com.