Questionable Consent: Teen Rom Com Edition

Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh that he sexually assaulted her at a party in the early 1980s has brought forth myriad conversations in the past few days about the behavior of high school students, the rules of consent, and the ramifications of violating those rules. While these conversations have largely involved the now-adults and the long-term effects of Kavanaugh’s behavior, the topic of teenage consent is being addressed in new and increasingly complex ways in entertainment as well, namely on the small screen.

In the weeks since the much-anticipated teen movie Sierra Burgess Is a Loser came out of Netflix, much has been written and said about the glaring lack of consent present throughout the film. Titular character Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purer, of Stranger Things acclaim) is the kind of protagonist everyone wants to root for. Shy, smart, and perpetually unpopular, Sierra has an unrequited crush on high school quarterback Jamey (Noah Centineo). When popular mean-girl and cheerleader Veronica (Kristine Froseth) hands over Sierra’s phone number to Jamey in place of her own, the football star begins a texting exchange that echoes the Cyrano de Bergerac story.  When Veronica and Sierra (in the Cyrano role) team up, the ruse deepens, culminating in a scene in which the two girls trick Jamey into thinking he’s kissing Veronica, while the kiss actually lands on Sierra.

The disrespect of bodily autonomy throughout the film provided an opportunity for the creators (Lindsey Beer and Ian Samuels) to highlight the value of consent, as well as address the grey areas of deception at the onset of burgeoning romance. Instead, the film not only glosses over those concerns, it rewards the deception as Jamey ends up taking Sierra to the homecoming dance.

Interestingly, the topic of consent is up for review in another recent Netlfix film, the surprise hit To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Released about two months prior to Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, To All The Boys features a relationship contract between its two young leads: Laura Jean Song Covey (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo). With clear definitions of what physical contact is and is not acceptable, this contract forms the basis of their relationship that, while initially a plot to benefit them both in terms of other relationships, turns heartfelt. While the teen rom-com is not devoid of problematic scenes (for example, a video of Lara Jean and Peter kissing in a hot tub is illicitly spread throughout the school) producers address consent as if it is a given, while eviscerating the character suspected of disseminating the nonconsensually obtained video. The progressive nature of the film is epitomized in the final scene, as Peter asks Lara Jean to have an honest conversation about the future of their relationship and they share an obviously consensual smooch.

Lack of consent and of frank conversations are no strangers to the teen movie genre. Back to the Future, Sixteen Candles, and Ghostbusters, to name a few, display a complete disregard for the bodily autonomy of the many young characters, be they protagonists or background characters. (And yes, Judge Kavanaugh was the target audience of these films when they debuted.) However, in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, it’s time for Netflix and other production companies to step up to the plate for the multitude of young people watching and modeling these movies. Accurate and honest depictions of consent and conversations about consent could make the difference between a bad teen movie and one that goes viral for all the right reasons.