My son is nine years old: I expected to have an uncomfortable conversation this holiday season, but I thought it was going to be one about a guy in a red suit. I misjudged which uncomfortable conversation was coming.
It all began when the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” came on the radio and my thirteen-year-old immediately said, “Isn’t this the date rape song?” Then the third-grader chimed in: “What’s date rape?”
I felt a lot like Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, trying to explain the context of his case to Scout, only without the gift of rhetoric or a legal background.
But I did my best.
“Well, date rape is when someone is in a social situation, like a date, and is pressured to have sex when they don’t want to.”
Since the concept of sex is still a hazy one at best for my youngest, that didn’t quite cut it.
“Why would someone pressure someone else to have sex?” he asked.
By this point, I was really wishing that anything else, even “Santa Baby,” had played on the radio instead.
“Sometimes one person is more interested than the other person, and the person who is interested feels like it’s OK to try to talk the person into doing something they don’t really want,” I said. How to talk to your kids about sex: An age-by-age guide
Now the thirteen-year-old was getting involved. “But how does one person know that the other person isn’t interested?” he asked, leaning forward in that way that shows a teenager is, for once, really invested in a conversation. I knew I had to get this right.
“She says ‘no.’ If someone says no, you have to accept that. Immediately.”
“But the song keeps going,” he said. “Why does she stay?”
Welcome to the debate, kid.
As my children get older, I’m noticing that popular culture is chock-full of confusing references and plot lines.
We are a geeky family. We attend conventions, and we go to early-preview screenings for Star Wars and Marvel films. Our lingua franca is movies. This is how we can talk about the thorny issues of consent and the modelled behaviour my sons see: the good, bad, and—sometimes—downright ugly.
It’s been eye-opening, to say the least, to realize what I’ve been internalizing all these years. Older movies—the nostalgic ’90s ones from my high school years, that I was so excited to share with them—have provided instructive examples. Then there’s the Disney movies (those early princesses don’t get much agency), to the film classics that influenced my ideas about “romance.” (Example: the now cringe-worthy swoon, collapse, and sweep up the staircase scene in Gone with the Wind.) There’s a vast pool of social and cultural conditioning that I’ve been swimming in my whole life. And now it’s my job to drain that pool for my sons.
So, did I ease into this? Oh, no. I unwittingly jumped into the deep end when my teenager begged to watch Bladerunner. We were mostly OK until the big seduction scene between Rachel and Decker (Sean Young and Harrison Ford). There was no way to avoid it because Decker shoves Rachel into a wall in what was clearly meant to be a display of force-as-passion. At one time, it probably looked hot. Now, it’s the kind of thing I need to be sure my son understands is not the way you treat women. Ever!
We stopped the movie to talk about it. We started by asking him, “What was wrong there?” He was 13 and dealing with the normal kid embarrassment of having watched a sex scene with his parents. (Plus, now we were making him talk about it.) But, as with so many other scenarios in parenting, I’ve found that a calm, neutral demeanor helps to cut the anxiety. We weren’t squirmy or squeamish, so he relaxed enough to be able to analyze the scenario along with us.
The Empire Strikes Back was a PG extension of this approach, and one we could use with our younger son as well. Nine may seem a bit young to be addressing coercion and the use of force in sex (sidenote: that became a whole other conversation when the ads for the new Fifty Shades movie started running), but it’s definitely not at all too young to talk about respect. People love the Han and Leia kiss, but here’s what happens: she tells him to stop and he doesn’t listen. It’s a good illustration of paying attention to what someone says. We’ve long perpetuated the idea of romantic resistance, but in order to respect someone, you have to listen to them. End of discussion.
Movies have also given us the opportunity to talk about the need for sober consent (thank you, Mean Girls and 10 Things I Hate About You). We’ve covered the inappropriateness of using shame or peer pressure as leverage (unfortunately, this often masquerades as a joke: “Aw, come on, you know you want to”) which occurs in Beetlejuice, of all movies.
Then there’s the “nice girls don’t…” trope. Just think about how many movies portray the evil female as sexually bold, often dressed in a manner far more provocative than the “good girl.” In Ghostbusters, Dana (Sigourney Weaver) is buttoned-up and in control of herself and her actions. When she becomes Zuul, though, her clothing is provocative and she’s sexually aggressive. At least Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) acknowledges that she’s not herself and refuses to accept her advances—despite the “joke” that he is strongly tempted.
We need our children to understand that much of what they see on screen no longer fits with what we want them to know about the world. It’s bewildering to hear one idea from parents and educators, and to see something completely different modelled onscreen. But when we talk about those discrepancies, pointing them out and explaining why they don’t add up, they become an opportunity for clarity instead of confusion.
The good news is that movies are changing. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Finn continually seeks to protect Rey at their first meeting, which happens to take place when they’re under attack from the First Order. She finally turns to him and snaps, “Stop taking my hand!” My nine-year-old was puzzled as to why she didn’t want help.
“Who seems to need help here?” I asked him.
He said that Rey seemed to be doing fine protecting herself.
“So why does she need Finn to do the job that she’s actually accomplishing just fine?” I asked.
He thought about that for a minute, then conceded that, in fact, Finn seemed to be more in need of her assistance than the other way around. Exactly.
Our movies reflect who we are and, it seems, how we change—and that’s absolutely worth the price of admission.