Has anyone else noticed that articles like this one in New York Magazine don’t get written about young female actors?  “The Brainy Bunch” is about five young men (Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Fassbender, James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy) who, according to the journalist, bust a bunch of stereotypes because they play twitchy, complicated, and most of all brilliant characters.  The author marvels that these smart actors “bring the raw nerve of indie sensibility” to the screen; moreover, “in so doing, they are reimagining the mainstream.”  Articles like this one are inevitably about men — not because actresses aren’t smart, but because they’re not playing smart onscreen.  This has lathered me up into a rant because I think this is yet another example of the exceptionally disturbing moment we’re living in, during which women’s primary value is their hotness, not their smartness.  Considering that I grew up in an age when the tomboy/ smartypants Jodie Foster was the pre-teen It Girl — a multilingual woman who graduated magna cum laude from Yale — I’m not prepared to let men be smart while women commit their energies to being hot.

Yet I’ve been putting some muscle into coming up with a similar list of remarkable young female actors who play smart onscreen and it’s really hard.  Not hard for older women, mind you; as a culture we seem perfectly willing to grant brains to women over 35 (witness Helen Mirren, Holly Hunter, Tilda Swinton, Charlotte Rampling, Frances McDormand, Judy Davis …).  The one vivid exeption to the rule is Mia Wasikowska (above), she of that remarkable 1st season of In Treatment, Alice in Wonderland, as the teenaged daughter in The Kids are All Right, and the upcoming Jane Eyre.  Other than that?  Can you think of a single young actor who plays smart onscreen from one role to the next?

I can’t.  As much as I loved the fast-talking smarts of Carey Mulligan in An Education and Emma Stone in Easy A this year, there’s one thing that ruins those tales for me:  ultimately these smart characters are shown to be dumb when it comes to men and sex (respectively).  Get it?  Smart girls aren’t smart about everything. I can think of a couple of one-off performances this year — Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone and Noomi Rapace in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, but I have yet to be convinced that these actors can translate one excellent part into the kinds of careers that New York Magazine‘s favorite young men have achieved.  Consider the career of Harvard grad Natalie Portman, who’s now getting close to 30 (and therefore into the age range wherein Hollywood allows women to be brilliant) — has she ever played smart onscreen?  And don’t even get me started on the fact that the last time I saw a smart young Latina, Asian, Native American, or black woman onscreen was Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson (2006) — and where have the roles gone for Epps in the meantime?

If any of you doubts the perversity of this trend, consider one of the prevailing cultural anxieties appearing in major media of the past six months:  the idea that boys are falling behind girls (or, in Hanna Rosin’s trademark hysterical terms, THE END OF MEN).  At the same time that we watch smart boys and hot girls onscreen, we’re also supposed to feel anxious about the fact that girls do better in school and young women are going to college in vastly larger numbers than boys (they make up roughly 60% of college populations).  This has prompted Rosin and her ilk to proclaim that women are “winning” some kind of battle against men.  Thus, the fact that our films persist in peddling some kind of retro fantasy about boys’ smartness seems to reject our anxieties that girls might be pretty and smart, and reassures us that smart dudes will always bag the hotties.

If you need an explanation for my bleak mood, it’s because I just finished reading Gary Shteyngart’s incredibly disturbing dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story.  In this America of the future, women wear clothes made by the JuicyPussy brand, Total Surrender panties (which pop off at the push of a little button), and have their hotness level perpetually broadcast to everyone around them via a version of a smartphone called an äpparät.  It’s a brilliant characterization of the future (I cringed and laughed at the fact that the hero’s love interest, Eunice Park, majored in Images and minored in Assertiveness in college — we all know that’s where we’re heading) but ultimately one that reiterates that tired trope:  shlubby, bookish, imperfect, aging hero falls for very beautiful, very young, very anti-intellectual woman — and wins her, at least for a while.  You know what?  I love shlubby men in real life (hi, honey!), but I have grown to despise their perpetual appearance in narratives.

So to cleanse my palate of the oily aftertaste of Super Sad, I’ve plunged myself into Muriel Barbery’s wonderful novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which moves back and forth between the interior monologues of two brilliant women:  the autodidact Renée, who hides behind her mask as an unkempt, sullen concierge in an elegant Paris apartment building; and Paloma, the precociously intelligent 12-year-old who lives upstairs and despises the pretentions of her family, teachers, and classmates.  They seem to be on a path to discover one another — but I’m at the point in the novel when I’m so enjoying just listening to them think out loud that I’m not sure I care whether the narrative goes anywhere (Paloma has a diatribe about why grammar is about accessing the beauty of language that’s so wonderful I’m thinking of plagiarizing it for use in my classes).

Here’s what it would take to cultivate a generation of young actresses known for their braininess:

  1. Just jettison the smart vs. hot binary for women onscreen already.  If I see glasses used as the “smart” signifier one more time…
  2. Write some stories in which young women aren’t just interested in dudes all the time, but have wholly stand-alone loves of language, art, math, con artistry, biology, music, sports, comic books, religion, killing demons, other girls, or food — even drugs or booze, for gods’ sake — just like actual women.
  3. Stop resigning smart girls to the sidekick position in kids’ films like Harry Potter, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and TV shows like Buffy, etc.
  4. Show that smartness isn’t just a magical quality endowed by nature, but is something that takes work.
  5. Show that smartness can pose a problem beyond scaring off potential dudes — when young women face idiotic, paternalistic bosses, teachers too tired to teach to the top 1% of a class, or families in which no one has ever gone to college.
  6. Let girls play brilliant anti-heroes along the lines of Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg — or, hell, just weird antisocial types like Lisbeth Salander.
  7. Let girls play funny.
  8. Let young female actors fail occasionally in a part the way we just keep forgiving failures by Jonah Hill, Zach Galifianakis, Ashton Kutcher, even Robert Downey, Jr. — the list goes on — without career consequences.
  9. Give me a central female character besides The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who’s a computer whiz.
  10. Display explicitly feminist characters onscreen, and have them explain their opinions.

Maybe then we won’t experience that odd whiplash of suddenly having our actresses arrive at the age of 35 and suddenly become smart (does this read as unattractive and/or ball-busting to male viewers, I wonder?).  I, for one, am looking forward to my movies looking a bit more like reality.

Here’s what I like about this movie:  it’s funny; Emma Stone makes an adorable, smart, eminently watchable star; and it sneaks in a literary tie-in to Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (what can I say? I’m a geek).  About a year from now when it appears in heavy rotation on Sunday afternoon cable TV, I’ll watch it and laugh all over again.  But don’t get me wrong:  this is not a great high school sex comedy in the vein of “Clueless” or “Say Anything” — it just doesn’t quite hold together, especially after about the midway point.  Watching it made me realize two things about this genre:  that these films rely on perversity to explain the absurdity of high school, but that viewers’ credulity can only be stretched so far.  

Oh, it starts so well.  Olive (Stone) is smart, overachieving, and pretty, but invisible in her Ojai, CA high school.  Smart in a good way, that is:  when her English class is assigned The Scarlet Letter, she rants to us that all her peers have rented the Demi Moore adaptation — which, she explains, isn’t just unfaithful to the book but a bad movie, especially compared with the original film, a 1926 silent with Lillian Gish.  (You see how much this was working for me?)  But this isn’t a geekfest, it’s a sex comedy:  she then proceeds to tell us, both to her webcam and in a series of flashbacks, how everything changed.

One day in the girls’ bathroom, Olive finds herself making up an elaborate tale about having sex with a college guy rather than admit she just didn’t want to go camping with her best friend, Rhiannon, and her nudist parents.  It convinces Rhi, but is overheard by the school’s sanctimonious queen of the super-Christians (Amanda Bynes) — and soon the word is out, as the camera pans to find everyone on campus whispering and texting furiously.  First misstep:  who ever heard of a high school where no one is having sex, much less in Ojai, CA?

But for the moment I suspended disbelief because this is where high school sex comedies invariably take us:  they explain for us the perverse and surreal internal logic of its cliques, unspoken rules, hopeless crushes, humiliations.  Whether it’s John Cusack trying to kill himself over and over in “Better Off Dead” (1985) or Winona Ryder hooking up with a Jack Nicholson-esque Christian Slater to kill their high school’s douchebags in “Heathers” (1989), these stories work because high school is so bizarre on its own.  It makes sense in “Easy A” that Olive not only shoulders her new reputation, but uses it to poke her fellow students in the eye when her friend Brandon, who’s tired of being harassed for being gay, begs her to pretend to be his girlfriend.  (Again, in Ojai?  Why not set the story in Idaho if you need an anti-sex, homophobic locale?)  She agrees, but ratchets it up a notch:  they show up to a big party, lock themselves in a bedroom, and pretend to have the noisiest, most raucous sex they can muster.  She’s saved Brandon’s reputation by turning herself into a full-fledged school slut — so, being a wry, irreverent, smartypants type, she buys a bunch of naughty bustiers, pins on a big red A, and wears them to school.

Okay, so the literary tie-in doesn’t work, because it’s not possible to translate The Scarlet Letter into a high school sex comedy, especially when our heroine hasn’t had sex at all.  This is no “Clueless” (1995), for which director Amy Heckerling translated Jane Austen’s Emma; nor is it “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999), a movie that improved on Shakespeare’s misogynistic Taming of the Shrew, if you ask me.  But the movie goes beyond high-school perversity when all manner of overweight, acne-scarred, hopeless boys at school ask Olive to work her fake-slut magic on their reputations — and she agrees, but only if they’ll give her gift cards.  That is, in exchange for a $50 gift card from Beds-n-Things, she’ll say she made out with you; for a $100 card for Macaroni Garden, she’ll say you had sex.  Why gift cards?  Because it somehow keeps it outside of the formal definition of “sex work”?  The movie doesn’t know what to do with this, and neither do we — it’s a bad, weird mistake.  If the movie is so eager to tell us that Olive is a virgin, why does it turn her into a prostitute by having her demand gift cards from eager johns?

Most of all I wished I knew more about Olive’s motives.  We’re vaguely aware that she sort of likes Todd (Penn Badgley), the improbably hunky guy who humiliates himself publicly and frequently as the school’s woodchuck mascot.  Despite being characterized as sort of a lovable dweeb, Todd shows off his ridiculously beefy torso and huge biceps way too frequently (he hardly ever seems to have his shirt on) to pass as a high school student.  (I walked out of the theater spluttering that he looks like he’s 32 years old, but in fact the actor is not quite 24.  Still.  Remember “Grease,” in which all the actors look like the parents of high-school age kids?)  But Olive’s interest in Todd doesn’t really emerge clearly till the end.  Nor is it clear why all the adult characters (and what actors! Patricia Clarkson, Lisa Kudrow, Stanley Tucci…) in the film are living such happy sex lives, but their kids are so puritanical.  All of this strains credulity.

So yeah, it has its problems, but it makes you look back fondly on a lot of those earlier films.  If I were the “Filmspotting” guys, I’d host a marathon of great high school sex comedies to think more broadly and theoretically about what works — and with that in mind, let me tell you some of my favorites that lie just a little bit outside the genre but ultimately make it better:

  • Flirting (Australia, 1991, with Noah Taylor and Thandie Newton as the luminous leads)
  • Gregory’s Girl (Scotland, 1981, with John Gordon Sinclair as our bony, awkward hero)
  • Dazed and Confused (Austin, TX, 1993:  ensemble cast of a generation)
  • American Graffiti (Calif., 1973, a beautiful film)
  • Rushmore (Houston, 1998, in which Max Fischer stole my heart)
  • Saved! (middle America, 2004, in which the Christians learn to ease up on the dogma)

But maybe for the short term I’ll watch “Say Anything” again and relive my high school fantasies about John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler.  And then give myself a dose of “Clueless.”  As if!