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American Pie: what ‘that scene’ can teach us about toxic male privilege in 2019

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Gareth Watkins
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American Pie

As the stars reflect on the 20-year anniversary of American Pie, one scene has aged particularly badly, but it’s still worth discussing says writer Gareth Watkins. 

Let me paint you a picture. It’s October 1999, Christina Aguilera’s Genie In A Bottle is number one in the charts, Tracey Emin’s My Bed is on show at the Tate, the Millenium Wheel is being winched into place, and a film has just been released in the UK which will change EVERYTHING.

Well, that last bit isn’t strictly true. Just like the millennium bug (which was going to cause planes to fall from the sky and cashpoints to spit out money like fruit machines), American Pie later proved to be the sort of cultural phenomenon about which history has since winced and sadly shaken its head over.

For starters, imagine someone trying to pitch that movie today: “So, we’ve got a group of five white, middle-class, suburban teens who make a pact with each other to lose their virginity before they graduate…” 

“OK…”

“And there’s this girl who has a sexual experience at band camp with her flute, and this other guy films a girl masturbating in secret and then blows his load! Fun eh?”

“Get the hell out of my office.”

Yes, there’s little doubt that this film would not get made in 2019: the gross-out teen movie is well and truly dead, long live the intelligent, nuanced, diverse coming-of-age comedies like Lady Bird, Patti Cake$ and Booksmart

But there is still value to be found in unpicking the movie, and, in particular, that scene. No, not the one in which a boy assaults a pie. Nor the whole band camp schtick. 

No, the one we’re talking about is the one where the central character – Jim (Jason Biggs) – secretly films foreign exchange student Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) without her consent as she gets changed in his bedroom. 

So far, so bad. She then finds Jim’s collection of porn mags and begins to pleasure herself while flicking through the dog-eared collection. Overcome with pent-up lust, Jim rushes to his bedroom convinced he will pop his cherry, but instead discovers he has accidentally broadcast the naked bedroom scene to his entire school, who watch with gleeful disgust as he prematurely ejaculates… twice. Lovely.

The outcome of this? Nadia is sent back to eastern Europe as a punishment for her transgression.

“Gosh, do I get sent home?” Elizabeth asked, when quizzed about her character’s fate during a recent Page Six interview. “If this had come out after the #MeToo movement, there would definitely be a problem. I think that it would have gone down differently.”

Well, quite. But perhaps one of the many, many disturbing things about this scene is that it tries to underplay the invasion of privacy by making Jim the butt of the joke – the hapless ejaculator is a clown. Today, he would be presented as a dangerous criminal.

American Pie: premature adulation
American Pie: premature adulation

Look, it’s fine: we know we’re supposed to think we’re laughing at him, that he is the victim. That if you choose not to get the joke then that’s your call to get offended (it was the 90s, guys).

Jokesplaining aside, though, it’s not that simple, is it? Because there is something far more insidious here than at first meets the eye. There’s a clever piece of misdirection at play, and it’s a narrative trick which is still being used in 2019… only, nowadays, it’s not funny at all. 

Nadia’s punishment in American Pie puts an end to her education. However, the inference is that Jim’s fate – humiliation in front of his peers – is far worse. And it’s this reframing of the male aggressor as the victim which is still happening right now. Indeed, it’s a trick straight out of the Trump playbook.

When women accused POTUS Donald Trump of sexual assault way back in 2016, when he was on the campaign trail (something which has become all too familiar since), he claimed to be the victim of smear campaigns. And he’s not the only one.

“This has destroyed my family and my good name, a good name built up through decades of very hard work and public service,” said Brett Kavanaugh, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, when he testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It’s why Harvey Weinstein hires lawyers who say that they believe Weinstein “has been railroaded” and that “movements allow emotion to take over and they’re devoid of fact and evidence,” and why R Kelly rages like a wronged child in front of a female reporter.

Damage to a man’s reputation is still seen as something far worse than damage to a woman’s body, mind, career, future. And this is in spite of the fact that he may easily bounce back from it, while she may struggle for years with the repercussions. 

Back in the 90s, this belief was buried so deeply in the collective unconscious that we didn’t see it. Now, thanks to campaigns like #MeToo, it is close enough to the surface to be called out.

Natasha Lyonne, perhaps the most successful alumni of East Great Falls High School who has gone on to star in Orange Is The New Black (alongside Biggs) and Russian Doll, describes the 90s in an interview with The AV Club as “like this other era, where for some reason it was OK.” 

In many ways she’s right: the internet was still just a toddler, we were less enlightened, but there wasn’t an outbreak of teenage boys doing unspeakable things to apple pies – the past is a more innocent, simpler time is a cliche which is patently untrue.  

The point is that the movie, on closer inspection, raises very pertinent questions that can’t be dismissed as just being a product of its time. 

Pop culture is important historically as it can shine a light on cultural assumptions and norms that still persist today. We can use the past as a lens to examine the present, even if it is something as seemingly innocuous as American Pie. 

That said, we’d still watch this over American Pie Presents: Band Camp any day

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Gareth Watkins

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