Chasing Amy revisited: A Spotlight post
[Spotlights contain spoilers.]
We have a rule in my house that if the kid wants to watch something that’s a bit over her level or age or anything, an adult reviews it first and then we figure out where to go from there. When she wanted to read Twilight in middle school, she had to be willing to learn and discuss the signs of abusive relationships and how that related to the book. When she wanted to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we went slowly season by season, and discussed everything in there so that by the time we got to season six, it was easy to have conversations about the (bad bad bad) choices the characters were making. Now that she’s sixteen, and has jumped through all these hoops and shown her maturity and continues to discuss things of importance, often without us bringing them up first, I generally let her have free reign over her media consumption. I did, however, screw up big time a while back and watched Clerks with her awfully early. I didn’t do the recon; I decided my memory would suffice. I was wrong.
My husband, who found out after the fact (he was military by then, and in training here in CT while we were still wrapping up in NJ) was appalled. I was…surprised by how raunchy it was. No, seriously. Look, I’ve seen it a bunch of times, but that was a long time ago, and since then of course movie makers have been influenced by Smith’s envelope-pushing and have made movies with similar amounts of sexual discussion. But I forgot that Clerks was THE movie that started it all. It wasn’t a sex comedy, but it was the most blatant sexual dialogue out there. It had to fight for an R rating.
How that slipped my mind, I don’t know.
So we ended up instituting the once-a-year Kevin Smith movie rule: we’d go in order, but only watch the movies once a year, giving her time to get way older before hitting, say, Dogma.
So we (just the kid and I) sat down and watched Chasing Amy yesterday, as she had a snow day and wanted to watch it while her dad was out. That’s just how these things go.
I have quite an attachment to Chasing Amy, even though I hadn’t seen it in probably a decade and a half. For me, it was the movie that felt most like my own life. I too was a suburban Jerseyite (although not central/North, like the characters in the movie) who ate at diners and played skee ball down the shore and loved comics and tried to live life on my own terms, not the ones that were handed to me. Unlike Alyssa, I didn’t go to school in the city to seek out girls who liked girls, and ended up sort of stagnating in the ‘burbs because of it. I also didn’t have any of the experiences she did, because, like Holden, I was fairly conservative for someone who wanted to seem, and be, open-minded. But I certainly could relate to a lot of what she said and the choices she made, and the fallout and reputation gained from the kinds of mistakes you make when you’re a teenager and navigating relationships and sex for the first time.
I did expect to see it differently this time around, being in my mid-30s. After all, I felt like I’d seen it a totally different way even the second time I watched it, let alone the third, and there was probably a 4th and 5th in there as well. What I didn’t expect was to feel like “Well, what’s changed?”
Holden and Banky, as Holden points out, are navigating a very new world themselves: one that has lesbians in it, something they’ve seen before only in porn. They do have a token gay male friend (who is also their token black friend) but, as Banky flat-out says and Holden suggests at the playground, male homosexuality is understandable. It involves penises being the focus of sex and, of course, penetration–this is their limited understanding of sex, what Alyssa might call “suburban sex.” Or “straight sex.” I like how Smith creates an Alyssa who’s never too condescending or mean about their viewpoints, as she was molded in the same area, but he also shows how two, or really three or more, people who grow up in the same place can take away from different perspectives. She doesn’t mind schooling them, and she can’t help occasionally laughing at their naivete, but you also get the feeling she’s also laughing at herself.
My daughter, being of her generation and not mine, was appalled at Holden’s ignorance, but I really do think that’s a generational thing, although my husband says he thinks it’s still pretty common for people to grow up not knowing anyone who’s anything but heterosexual. My daughter, however, grew up After Ellen, and also in the Age of the Internet, so now it seems like the kinds of dialogues that were once between college-educated city people are leaking down to teenagers. The things that the minority characters talk about (minority here meaning gay, black, lesbian) are the kinds of things I talk about with my friends, but that came about ten years later than when this movie was made and a lot of my friends are six to ten years younger than me. It was a whole different world for them out there. It’s easier to seek and learn and come across people who are nothing like you.
On the other hand, there are a lot of things that haven’t changed either, like hetereosexual relationships as slut-shaming and game playing.
Ultimately, Alyssa chooses the very game she had opted out of playing a long time ago, and it does nothing for her. Not one thing. Alyssa, despite the praise I’ve given her thus far in this post, is just as blame-worthy in the inevitable destruction of their relationship as Holden. When she chooses Holden, she chooses a flawed system that brings nothing for her to the table except, as Banky would say, “deep dicking,” which is fine except that she buys so far into its brokenness that it never occurs to her to try to play it any other way but broken.
Which makes her a liar.
Why does she do it? Why does she keep her past from Holden? Why does she, as she later tells him, let him feel special with lies? She argues that it was the only way for him to feel good in a relationship where he saw imbalance, where he felt forever insecure, but I’ve never been one to err on the side of lying. It never seems to work out. It certainly doesn’t with Alyssa and Holden. Holden’s insecurities are only heightened by Alyssa’s withholding of information, which is tantamount to lying. If you pay attention, Alyssa never says flat-out that Holden is the only guy she’s been with. She plays another version of “the pronoun game” with Holden, but of course, unlike her friends, he has no idea how to recognize it. She’s much more subtle because it’s a game she knows well, from her time back home, when she was just bisexual. Or maybe just “slutty.”
When Holden decides to level the playing field by asking for a threesome, we’re given that situation that anyone who’s been on a poly forum or read fan fiction knows pretty well: why not solve everything with a multi-partner sexual experience or relationship? Holden’s reasons for asking for this scenario are incredibly well thought out. I actually was incredibly impressed with Smith’s writing here, and Affleck’s acting. (Although I said to my daughter, “You know that’s our next Batman.” “NO!”) And Alyssa’s reasons for turning him down are sound as well. But it’s incredibly problematic what she ends the conversation with:
“I’m not your fucking whore.”
Maybe THIS is why I never believed Alyssa during the “Finger Cuffs” reveal when she responds “I used THEM” to Holden’s accusation that she was used by her guy friends. “I’m not your fucking whore” undercuts the Finger Cuffs speech AND the absolutely lovely speech she makes about getting to Holden “on [her] own terms.” It tells the viewer that, while Alyssa swears what she did were her choices and she’s fine with them, she really isn’t, because of that inevitable slut-shaming line.
Alyssa doesn’t lose her lesbian friends because she chose a guy; she loses her lesbian friends because she chooses a lifestyle they all know is broken, and they know she’ll play by its rules, because they don’t see any other way around it. But Alyssa SHOULD know a way around it. She says she wasn’t issued a map at birth during the Finger Cuffs scene, but she WAS. Growing up in suburbia, having suburban values played over and over again in the media, she knew exactly what that map was, and she tore it up, only to snatch and grab it again when offered the chance by Holden.
As an adult, the scene where Alyssa goes to Holden after his declaration of love, instead of walking away, is heartbreaking, but she’s just put herself on a path that can’t lead anywhere good, and I knew it, and my daughter knew it too. Everything Alyssa had said to Holden before that in the movie was destroyed by that action. So it’s not like there wasn’t precedent for the “whore” comment.
Alyssa knows she likes Holden right away. She doesn’t want his friendship just for his friendship, otherwise she wouldn’t have asked him to give up going to Boston for her. She’s a typical manipulative, flirty dater in the phone call scene. A friend wouldn’t say “Toss away your work plans for me!” A girl trying to see what kind of influence she can have over a guy does. This is standard sexist bullshit, and both of them just fall into it as if Alyssa had never left the suburbs. But she never once says, “I’m bisexual.” She makes him, without recognizing that she’s doing it, work for her.
But I do think they are friends. I think they’re a good couple, if you can set aside the bullshit game system they’re playing in.
Alyssa really should know better. But she doesn’t. Is it nostalgia? Is it being too long out of that game? Is it because, despite all her bravado about doing things on her own terms, she still buys into the suburban mindset of her being slutty, slutty Finger Cuffs?
It was very sad. As an adult watching, or maybe even just a modern viewer, it’s even more sad.
I wanted to yell at the TV, “Don’t do it!” to Alyssa when Holden pours his heart out to her. My daughter didn’t expect Alyssa to cave, and I think it really ruined the movie for her. The entire movie turns there, and then it turns again with the hockey (Finger Cuffs) scene, and then it turns again when Holden asks for a threesome.
Alyssa’s response is, in essence, “It doesn’t work. Sex isn’t a band-aid.”
But what she’s really saying–indeed, some of these are her actual words–is, “I had these experiences. I found them empty. I found happiness in the very system I rejected when I was a teenager. Heteronormative monogamy has sated me in a way nothing I did with women did. And if I did those things again, knowing this, I would be a whore.”
That’s so disappointing. She may as well be reading straight from the map.
(For more on Chasing Amy by the writer himself, go here.)