I have long been interested in the concepts of sexuality and agency and in particular how that pertains to youth. My looking at teen films is a way of following a thread throughout cinema’s history to see how ideas around youth and sexuality have changed.
Dr. Michele Meek sees movies as much more than a leisure-time activity. To her, they represent a lens through which to explore and analyze societal norms. That’s what Meek does in her latest book, Consent Culture and Teen Films: Adolescent Sexuality in U.S. Movies.
“I have long been interested in the concepts of sexuality and agency and in particular how that pertains to youth,” said Meek, a Bridgewater State University assistant professor of communication studies. “My looking at teen films is a way of following a thread throughout cinema’s history to see how ideas around youth and sexuality have changed.”
Meek began researching topics related to consent a decade ago. For this book, she watched dozens and dozens of films, oftentimes more than once to gather notes on the characters and plots. While the book is grounded in scholarly research and theories, Meek said it is accessible to those outside of academia.
Meek also brings these discussions into the Bridgewater classroom through courses such as the seminar Sexual Consent and Violence in Film, which attracts students from a variety of majors. She aims to foster an environment where students are comfortable sharing their individual views.
“It enriches the experience for the whole class,” she said. “It’s not just a media studies class. It’s about more than that.”
In her new book, Meek chronicles the evolution of teen films from 1980s movies that treated consent as irrelevant to modern productions that prioritize consent. The movies, which are produced by and star adults, offer a window into adults’ views, Meek said.
“I’m also looking at how these films expose problems with oversimplifying consent,” she said. “We like to emphasize how yes means yes and no means no. It’s often more complex than that.”
One chapter focuses on queer teens who may question their sexuality and participate in encounters they do not actually want. Many movies portray consent in a gendered fashion with women as gatekeepers who must say yes or no. But consent is equally important when the roles are reversed, Meek said.
“If we value consent, then it should be for everyone,” she said.
Meek encourages parents to watch films with their teenagers as a way of sparking conversations about relationships and other coming-of-age topics. Well-produced films (such as Amy Poehler’s Moxie, which follows a teenager who calls out sexism at her school) and problematic ones (such as The Kissing Booth, which critics described as misogynistic) can spark discussions about otherwise uncomfortable topics.
“Movies and television can be an opportunity to have those conversations in a lower-stakes way,” Meek said. “It’s not about you or them. It’s about these characters.”
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