Is This What 17 Year Olds Need to be Taught Again and Again and Again…?

This is crossposted from Amplify!

17-again117 Again has been hailed as “a big deal” and a “nice movie” , primarily becase it stands as ” openly and sincerely in favor of teenage abstinence.” I’m all for Hollywood bringing light to the consequences of unprotected sex, however, when you lump all unmarried sex, even safe sex, into that “dangerous” category… that’s where you lose me.  The framework in which 17 Again’s message is presented in is anything but ideal, as the consequences for irresponsible sex are simply portrayed as the consequences for teenage sex period, making this movie a simple mouthpiece of the abstinence movement – a movie that won’t have much of an impact on changing teenager’s hearts and minds, or keeping them safe.

The basic premise is as such: Mike O’Donnell got his teenage girlfriend pregnant when they were just 17 (a fate that could have been avoided with just the use of a condom but, of course, this movie fails to mention that)  and must give up on his dreams of becoming a basketball star as a result, even though there obviously were other options open to the couple (adoption, abortion…) Through  some weird twist of events he ends up 17 again, just in time to attend his kid’s high school, awkwardly bond with them, and then “learn his lesson” in time to reconcile with the wife he had been neglecting as a result of his dissatisfaction with the way life turned out.

Here is the part that bothers me most:

“Next day, at school, entering class, he sees Stan and Maggie in liplock. He breaks it up innocently and sits. The subject for the day is Abstinence. Mike announces that it’s a great idea and everyone should make a pact to abstain from sex. He gets a bunch of amused giggles and incredulous looks from the others. However, the teacher knows that no one’s going to abstain, so, to emphasis safe sex, she passes a box of condoms around, much to Mike’s horror. Stan grabs a handful. Mike says he doesn’t need any because he’ll only have sex with the girl he loves. And sex should be had by married people, to have kids. Forgetting himself, as he describes the joy of having a baby, the other girls are touched. They return the condoms immediately. Stan grabs more and forcibly kisses Maggie. Infuriated, Mike launches himself at Stan and the two fight, with Mike getting beat down. The fight is captured on videophones and sent around the whole school.”

In under ten minutes 17 Again manages to:

1) Paint an unrealistic portrait of the effectiveness of the abstinence movement (young girls giving back condoms after hearing a romantic portrayal of abstinence until marriage… who wants to bet that, in real life, those would be the same girls who choose to have unprotected sex because of a romantic moment? Why can’t we work to portray protection as romantic?)

2) Push sex as a reproductive technique, rather than a pleasurable activity that, in a safe context, can promote bonding between couples and make people feel good.

3) Finally, Mike’s attack of Stan cements his role as the “protector” of his daughter’s virginity. This is problematic because it encourages the idea that women should not be trusted to make wise decisions and take care of themselves, including their sexuality. Truly responsible parents would want their daughter to have all of the information about sex (rather than, wait until marriage alone) so that they could make wise choices for themselves.

Instead of taking a plot-line that, while contrived, could teach teenagers a valuable message about protection and the responsibility that goes with sex the people involved with this movie sacrificed a teaching-tool to the altar of abstinence-only and that, is truly disappointing.

In addition, this movie is fairly sexist. Can we just for a second consider what would happen if this movie had been flipped and it had been the mother of these children who had been dissatisfied with her life? How often do we see women who are unhappy with the turn their life took after having children? More importantly, how often are these dissatisfied women treated with sympathy from the directors/audience? Not very often. In fact, I’ve written about this before with the movie Marley & Me. Dissatisfied husband, resigned housewife… the stereotype is ingrained in our minds because its ingrained in the media (and vice versa). This movie had the opportunity to defy that stereotype, the plot could have worked either way, but… it didn’t.

The portrayal of younger women in this movie isn’t much better. Take, for example, Mike’s daughter Maggie, who callously dates one of her brother’s tormentors, before throwing herself at Mike (her dad, ew.) when Stan dumps her for refusing to have sex with him. While I admire her character for sticking to her convictions, the implication that she needs a man (Efron) to validate that decision is not one I appreciate.

Not to mention the teenage girls at a party, throwing themselves at Efron, begging him to:

Nicole: Don’t respect me.
Jaime: No! Don’t respect *me*.
Samantha: You don’t even have to remember my name!

Really, I mean… really? This doesn’t even need commentary, there doesn’t seem to be a single redeemable young female character in this movie… what says it clearer than that?

To make matters worse, 17 Again misses an important opportunity to speak out against bullying on top of everything else. Instead of working with the bullies who are after his son Alex (the basketball team, predictably enough) to teach them sensitivity, Mike trains Alex in basketball, until he is good enough to make the team. Thus, Alex is cool and the bullying is no longer an issue. The message that viewers walk away with: bullying can’t be helped so the way to deal with it is to change yourself in order to become more accpetable to the bullies.

It ends on a sweet note I suppose, with Mike recanting and rejoining his wife, realizing that he should not blame his family for his personal failures… but with the amount of sexism and messed up messages we had to go through to get here, was it really worth it?

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