After numerous years of research from examining teen films, peer reviews, and other means of research in a project that Michele Meek has called “Consent Puzzles,” she has written a book on “Consent Culture and Teen Films: Adolescent Sexuality in US Movies” in April.
According to the author, it starts a conversation on the need for more open discussions on the ambiguity of consent and how complicated it could be.
“After #MeToo, when there was so much emphasis on consent and it was clear that we were really entering into a consent culture where consent mattered or at least when we said that it mattered… I had to re-think what I wanted to say about contemporary films that were taking consent into account,” she said during an interview I had with her on June 16.
“I’m looking at how consent is operating in contemporary films,” she told me.
“They are operating in a way that views consent as a complicated thing which is helpful because it illustrates how we say “yes means yes” and “no means no.”
She refers to a scene in “Good Boys” where Max is going to kiss a CPR doll, which is, in actuality, a sex toy, and Lucas stops for him to ask for consent.
This scene is viewed as comedic, implying that “consent is looked at as ridiculous” by the audience.
“In these films, we see that it’s way more complicated in practice,” Meek said.
In the same movie, there’s a kissing party where some kids opt out to play virtual reality games, and some participate in the kissing activity, so “consent is taken in stages.”
“Are there any examples of contemporary media forms where consent is taken seriously?” I asked her.
Meek refers to a book named “Sex Appeal,” where the main character builds an app allowing people a positive sexual experience. The book is based on the film with the same title.
It still ends up being a disappointing experience because she’s not interested in the boy, which Meek deems to be “ironic.”
“Booksmart” is another film that displays how complicated consent can be in a scene when Molly kisses a girl when they are drunk and there’s no explicit consent.
Meek refers to a scene in “Ladybird” where the girl gets lied to about the boy being a virgin after sexual intercourse.
Films like “Alex Strangelove” have depicted how complicated consent can be, showing us how we can’t simplify how consent is, distinguish how we feel after or consent verbally in what we say.
In the film, “Alex Strangelove,” the protagonist, Alex, is gay, and he consents to having sex with his girlfriend, but it’s clear that he doesn’t want it because of his sexual identity.
“Other films are problematic such as “Kissing Booth,” according to Meek.
It depicts one moment of consent no matter how you behave. The film shows an inappropriate message because Noah, the love interest of the protagonist, Elle, is toxic. The film shows him as an appealing character.
The impact of these teen films like “Good Boys” and “Lady Bird” normalize verbal consent, which influences how teens view consent as part of the sexual experience.
I asked Meek what kind of message she wanted to convey to her readers, and she started responding to how teen films and pornography are the only media that depict sex.
“A lot of interactions, body language matters, but it’s clear that silence/laughing is not consent,” she said.
“I do believe checking in as much as possible is important” because without that, then sexual assault is more likely in such interaction.
Meek refers to how consent is gender-based in popular teen films like “To All of the Boys I’ve Loved Before” on streaming platforms.
The two characters, Peter Kravinsky and Lara Jean, engage in a relationship masqueraded as a sexual contract.
She kisses the boy, but he rejects her, which the film does not see as problematic. Later, he kisses her, and the film sees it as inappropriate. These scenes imply that consent culture is gendered, according to Meek.
“Films are showing sexual female empowerment at the expense of boys,” said Meek.
Examples of this idea include “To Do List” as “… it’s problematic both ways which I appreciate” and “American Pie: Girl Rules.”
Meek doesn’t know if these films expose these issues intentionally or are forcing their own agenda on their viewers.
The overall message Meek wants readers to get from her book is to have more open conversations about the ambiguity of consent and how complicated it can be.
It’s not black and white, combined with no middle gray area. Teen films have exposed those complexities that will continue, but adults have policed the youth’s sexuality to the point where it is not authentic.
This concept is because “…we want to protect youth, but at the same time, we have to develop ways that we talk to youth about sexuality to inform them about consent at an early age; it’s difficult to have the conversations in schools because of the backlash in liberal/conservative communities….”
“Schools have to be brave which is why parents have to talk about it, otherwise, where else are they getting these images and messages of consent?”
Meek would like to see gender-diverse youth in a variety of sexual orientations as “no big deal” as in the movie, “Princess Cyd.”
The protagonist goes through her own sexual, romantic journey one summer she spends at her aunt’s house, who articulates her own asexuality.
Meek advocates for more films like this, in addition to more collaborations with the actual youth.
She plans to do that with her own short film, “Bay Creek Tennis Camp,” which she collaborates with her own children, Chase and Miro, who were 11 and 15 when Meeke made the film.
The short film will be distributed at film festivals this summer or fall.
Afterwards, she plans to screen the film at schools, camps, and other educational programs while hosting conversations about building a more inclusive way forward in youth sports.
Editor’s note: This interview article was updated to reflect minimal changes in content and clarity.
Edited by: James Sutton