Blockers, the raunchy new comedy coming to theaters this weekend, has already received strong reviews from critics, who praise the movie as a subversive story about parenting’s difficult truths. While, yes, the film deserves credit for its nuanced depiction of what it’s like to raise a child, it also deserves to be commended for its portrayal of teen girls. Even if what most people remember from Blockers is John Cena participating in a butt-chugging contest, the film’s lasting impact might be in the delicate, nuanced way it does away with the one-dimensional female experience seen in so many coming-of-age films.
Blockers‘ lead trio of girls — Julie (Kathryn Newton), the ambitious overachiever, Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), the loudmouth goofball, and Sam (Gideon Adlon), the quirky nerd with a giant secret — are life-long friends who decide they want to lose their virginity on prom night; their parents (Cena, Ike Barinholtz, and Leslie Mann) soon find out and try to put the kibosh on the sex pact.
Thankfully, this cliché-stuffed premise is a clever front for a deep and progressive movie, as Kayla, Julie, and Sam are allowed to grow far beyond their simplistic, tired archetypes. All three become fully developed characters who, like all teens, are still figuring out who the hell they are. They are interested in sex, yes, but it doesn’t define them as much as the unbreakable bond they have formed over a decade of friendship. In turn, that allows them to comfortably share any confusion or fear they might have, without worry of judgment.
The girls are also refreshingly raunchy, and hilarious as both individuals and as a group. Several of the film’s funniest scenes revolve around the trio just sitting around and bullshitting. At one point, while discussing the prospect of losing their virginity on prom night, Kayla, the most outlandish of the three, waxes philosophical on the ugliness of dicks by comparing them to plungers, saying both are for use rather than being looked at. Together, Julie, Kayla, and Sam are every bit as immature and stupid as they are intelligent and compassionate, and while that may feel like a disservice to the characters, it actually represents a massive step in the way teen girls are perceived by society.
Why is this so important? While the “boys will be boys” narrative encourages young men to seek out adventure and experience in the name of finding themselves, girls are often told to let life find them. Passivity has long been taught as an inherently female trait, and this insidious value system has made their way into television and movies, especially in the coming-of-age genre.
Given the prominence of male directors and screenwriters, it’s hardly a secret that the majority of coming-of-age teen films revolve around dudes. Just think about your favorites; unless they were made in the last few years, they probably revolved around a group of bros getting themselves into all sorts of mayhem and mischief in order to crash the biggest party of the year, or make sure prom is the most epic night of their lives. Superbad, Dazed and Confused, American Pie (plus its 12 sequels), and countless others live here, allowing the boys to engage in wacky antics while the girls sit around and hope they are lucky enough to finally get noticed by their immature counterparts.
Even in high school movies that feature major characters of both genders, such as the Perks of Being a Wallflower or Say Anything, the female characters are often only understood through the male gaze, making them into little more than objects to be attained rather than human beings with their own thoughts, feelings, and life experience. In the majority of high school films, girls are only allowed to be characterized by their relationship, creating a manic pixie teen girl whose sole purpose is to act adorable as our lovable, slightly awkward protagonist endearingly tries to win her over.
Hell, most classic female-led coming of age films still primarily define their protagonists by their relationship with men. There, are of course, exceptions: Heathers, Juno, Mean Girls and the first half of Neighbors 2 come to mind. The problem is that these films have always felt more like outliers than a reflection of cultural norms. Even a moderately modern portrayal of teen girls feels out of place in a society that has long informed the passive coming-of-age female experience.
In Blockers, the girls flip the script and finally get to act like a bunch of obnoxious, potty-mouthed assholes on prom night, to hilarious results. They drink and smoke (a little too much), because that’s what teens do on the “most important night of their lives.” As with any great coming-of-age crew, Julie, Kayla, and Sam grow as friends through these new experiences and, by night’s end, are closer than ever before. It’s a journey we’ve seen before, but now it’s the girls’ turn to have a bit of irresponsible fun in the name of being young, wild, and free.
The positive response from critics indicates that society may finally be ready to admit the coming-of-age experience is every bit as weird and hilarious for girls as it for guys. Of course, it would be naive to believe that there isn’t much progress left to be made, but even the existence of something as seemingly inconsequential as Blockers might represent a genuine shift in cultural attitudes. While a filthy studio comedy revolving around a prom night sex pact is unlikely to change the world forever, it could usher in a new era of coming-of-age films where the girls are allowed to be as wild and free as the boys.