How the Raunch-Com Shaped Millennial Masculinity, For Better and Worse

On the complicated legacy of American Pie and other late-‘90s and early-aughts teen comedies

November 30, 2020 5:45 am
american pie lessons
"American Pie" delivered lessons on friendship and fatherhood ... but also troubling models for consent
Universal Pictures

When I was 10 years old, I asked my dad what a blow job was. It’s not that I was a sexually precocious fifth grader, but Bill Clinton was president, Howard Stern was still on FM radio and, one fall morning, the subject just kind of came up. 

My dad’s answer, that it was “something grownups did … sometimes” was boring enough to appease my curiosity. He hastily changed the station and we continued the uneventful ride to school. That was in 1998. One year later, a raunchy teen comedy taught me the truth about oral sex. 

My first encounter with an R-rated film was a clichéd experience. It was a sleepover party at a friend’s, the one whose parents were always the most permissive, and we took turns chugging two liter bottles of cola and ogling his brother’s Playboy collection. Later that night, sprawled on bean bags with Cheeto-crusted lips, we watched American Pie. It was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. 

I’m not being facetious. Over the course of 96 minutes, I learned more about sex than I had in my 11 years on earth. All of these strange words and phrases I had overheard but never understood suddenly crystalized: virginity, blow jobs, third base, masturbation, shaved. I even learned new ones, like flaccid, cum and MILF

To be clear, there was also a lot I missed. I was too green to understand some of the film’s bluer moments, and the subtler emotional cues sailed right over my head. For instance, I had no idea what Jim intended to do with his tube sock in the opening scene, or why it was so hard for Kevin to say “I love you” back to Vicky all movie. 

Epistemological gaps notwithstanding, American Pie quickly became a monolith for me and my friends. We watched it on repeat before, during and after puberty — not just to gape at Nadia’s boobs or snicker at Stifler’s irreverence, though we did both — but because it showed us how to act if we wanted to pass as cool, normal and streetwise teenage males.

There is nothing unique about American Pie in this respect. The raunch-coms of the late ‘90s and early aughts, just like their cinematic forebears (Porky’s, Animal House and, to a less bawdy extent, the John Hughes canon) served as formative texts for their target demographic. For impressionable boys coming of age at the turn of the century, American Pie, Road Trip, Van Wilder and their ilk provided an authoritative blueprint for millennial masculinity — for better and, all too often, worse.

Their overtly didactic tone lent them much of this weight. “Write that down,” Ryan Reynolds, playing the charismatic Van Wilder, repeatedly tells his fawning classmates. As Van dispenses wisdom on life, love and sex, his peers take notes. So did his audience. We learned valuable lessons through his whimsical aphorisms. “Don’t be a fool, wrap your tool,” taught us how to avoid VD. And Van’s Buellerian warning, “Don’t take life too seriously, you’ll never get out alive,” was a relatable mantra for teenagers whose lives seemed like babels of drama and stress. 

But while these films often gave us sound advice, their messaging wasn’t always simpatico with cultural norms. During a memorable sequence in Road Trip, the characters take fidelity, a black-and-white concept, and paint it gray. We heard that it’s not cheating if you hook up with someone in a different area code, or two girls at once (because they cancel each other out), or if you’re too drunk to remember (because it never happened), or if you spread peanut butter on your balls and let your dog lick it off (because it’s your dog!).

Imbued with pathos, these films drew us into their worlds like hormonally charged magnets. The ensemble casts allowed (white, upper-middle class) male viewers to identify with at least one of the high-school archetypes. As they won and lost in pursuit of lust and love, we laughed, learned and commiserated. We also aspired. 

Buried under rubbles of raunch, these movies all transmitted heartfelt messages about the importance of male friendship. No matter how hard a character fell or how badly he was humiliated, he could always count on his friends to have his back. We longed for this kind of camaraderie and sought to create it in our own lives. 

Perhaps even more impactful were frequent depictions of a son’s relationship with his father. Jim’s dad in American Pie rivals The OC’s Sandy Cohen for greatest screen father of all time. (The fact that these roles are played by Eugene Levy and Peter Gallagher, respectively, suggests a strong correlation between killer eyebrows and paternal prowess). As a parent, Jim’s dad is clumsy, embarrassing and quietly ball-busting, but he’s also proud, emotionally available and unconditionally loving. These traits frequently merge to generate tender father-son moments out of disturbing situations, none as indelible as the scene where Jim’s dad walks in on his son gaining carnal knowledge of a warm apple pie. When the shock subsides, the father suggests they keep the incident from the mother. It’s not the last time they make this kind of agreement. 

Although the individual interactions between Jim and his dad are often mortifying, the compounding effect, for both the characters and viewers, is poignant. Jim comes to see his dad as a confidant he can turn to at his most vulnerable points, and his dad proves that his willingness to love, console and educate his son is unassailable. 

On the other side of the screen, we saw their kinship — honest, sincere and playful — as one worth striving for with our own dads, many of whom I suspect took note as well. I’ll never forget the time my friend’s dad picked us up from our first dance wearing a bathrobe and slippers. He drew a striking resemblance to Eugene Levy as he high-fived our friends spilling out of the gymnasium and greeted his son with a bear hug and noogie. Was it embarrassing? Absolutely. But even then we saw it as endearing. 

Research shows that millennial dads are more involved in their children’s lives than their own dads were, and the rise of the “bromance” reflects an increased appreciation for the benefits of platonic male friendships. Teen raunch-coms deserve some credit for these trends thanks to their aspirational portrayals of camaraderie and fatherhood. When it came to representing other elements of masculinity, however, these films did not always serve us well. 

As much as I still love watching them, each of these films contains moments — if not entire viewpoints — that are tough to defend. Casual misogyny and homophobia are tolerated if not tacitly condoned. Take American Pie’s Stifler: a kind of proto-fuckboy who unapologetically objectifies women and emasculates men, Stifler is the personification of toxic masculinity. The other characters find him insufferable, and the film finds ways to punish him, but the bottom line is that Stifler’s prominence signals that it’s okay for someone like him to exist. When the film came out, he was easily the most imitated character roaming my school’s hallways. 

A more complex problem is how these films taught us about sexual norms. In her 2017 book, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, Vanessa Grigoriadis examines the forces that have shaped contemporary masculinity.

“From the moment he’s conscious to his high school graduation,” Grigoriadis writes, “the average U.S. male has been fed a broadband message through every medium: sex is everything, and real men make sure they get as much as they can.”

American Pie and similar raunch-coms played a pivotal role in delivering this message. Just consider the film’s central premise, voiced through Kevin’s monologue:

“This is our very manhood at stake. We must make a stand here and now. No longer will our penises remain flaccid and unused. We will fight for every man out there who isn’t getting laid and should be. This is our day. This is our time. And by God we will not stand by and watch history condemn us into celibacy. We will make a stand! We will succeed! We will get laid!” 

Although this sounds like something you’d find on an incel subreddit today, it was a mainstream pop-culture talking point in 1999. As boys, we were basically told we’d have to live in special dorms if we went to college as virgins, so we turned to these films to guide us to the promised land. And they did. But as Magdalene Taylor recently wrote for MEL, they weren’t always the most accurate sex-ed teachers. 

Beyond anatomical lessons, they passed along warped views about sexuality and gender. Thanks to Stifler’s lecture on “the rule of three,” we learned that guys tend to exaggerate their number of sexual partners while girls downplay the same metric. Through Kevin and Vicky’s relationship, we learned that girls enjoy giving oral sex, but boys need an instruction manual and a strong stomach to return the favor. Millennial Men: think about how scenes like these shaped our attitudes and behavior — especially toward women — as we sought to become sexually mature beings. 

Perhaps most damagingly, these films gave us bad information about consent, and the infamous webcam scene in American Pie is a flagship example. When Jim’s friends learn that exchange student Nadia plans to change in his bedroom before their study date, they encourage Jim to covertly film her. He is reluctant, but Stifler applies pressure. “Get some fucking balls,” Stifler says. “If you don’t have the guts to photograph a naked chick, how the hell are you ever gonna sleep with one?”

What comes next is surprising. Where the film’s four other leading men typically roll their eyes at Stifler’s depravity and then move on — which is itself a problematic and underwhelming response — this time, they encourage him. Finch, Stifler’s ideological nemesis and the group’s most progressive, enlightened voice, even weighs in with, “I don’t like the guy, but he has a point, Jim.”

And that settles it. Without a second thought about Nadia’s consent, the boys move forward with their plan. The film’s apparent endorsement of this violation — it’s one of the signature set-piece gags, just like the pie or the tube sock — is compounded when Jim accidentally sends the webcam link to the entire school. We see all of the different cliques, including a cameo from Blink-182, laughing and leering at Nadia. Jim eventually joins her, and becomes a punchline himself when he experiences an episode of premature ejaculation.

Disciplinary consequences follow — just not for the character who deserves it. Nadia is most severely punished, forced to withdraw from school and leave the country within a day. Jim, meanwhile, gains a school-wide reputation as a “minute man” — a humiliating status for a high-school senior, to be sure, but one he ultimately recovers from. When he finally loses his virginity to band member Michelle, she mentions that she only accepted the date because she saw the video and knew Jim would be a “sure thing” in bed.

So to recap the outcome of webcamgate: the sexual harassment victim gets blamed while the perpetrator gets laid. Of course, the film doesn’t present Nadia or Jim as either of those things; in fact, she has a pleasurable experience until Jim blows it. Which is exactly the problem. American Pie and so many films of its ilk conditioned a generation of men to think of consent not as an imperative, but a nice-to-have or, worse still, an obstacle. Even in situations where it is not explicitly expressed — Who knows? — she might like it.

Of course, this is all wrong. Morally and legally. Just ask the man who was sentenced to 30 months in prison for filming Erin Andrews through a hotel-room peephole, or the college football players who were expelled for watching one of their teammates have consensual sex with a girl who didn’t know she was being watched. There’s a good chance several of those young men were familiar with the webcam scene and genuinely didn’t think that what they were doing constituted sexual harassment. 

I don’t mean to pick on American Pie. Along with other R-rated teen comedies of the era, it was simply projecting existing social views, albeit through a raunchy lens. Compared to the previous generation’s raunch-coms, one could argue they’d even made great strides. The famous angel and devil scene from Animal House, for example, is essentially a joke about a young man’s “to rape or not to rape” inner monologue. A few years later, Porky’s cleaned up at the box office while literally featuring a locker-room peephole — a major plot point — on its theatrical poster.

Art imitates life. That’s widely accepted. But life can also imitate art. As boys, American men worshiped these films, and assimilated their messaging. Some of it helped them become better friends, sons and fathers, but much of what remained steered them in a dangerous direction. It’s those latter lessons they must unlearn.

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