On Nostalgia, American Pie and Otherness in the Early “Aughts”

Like many people, nostalgia runs my life. As a child of the swinging 90s, who came of age in the first half of the aughts, I have a particular affinity for certain cultural products. From Boy Meets World to Batman: The Animated Series, that era’s media is something I find undeniably compelling, even if its overall quality may be inconsistent or debatable.

More recently, I have become attached to a specific film genre from the time period: the late-90s/early 2000s teen film. With their affluent, Southern California settings; color-blind attitudes; and stories generally free from political, social and existential strife, this genre lends itself perfectly to sentimentality and nostalgia. Its offerings are essentially fantasies, diametrically opposed to contemporary life. Additionally, many of these films function as idealized portraits of their respective era. Their heightened, Clinton-period atmospheres of wealth and privilege provide the perfect foundation for young, white males to soul-search about life and love.

It’s not that this genre is completely devoid of substance, with particular attention being drawn to the dichotomy between men and women in several films. One such film – or series of films in this case – is the American Pie franchise. With its all male and all white central cast (a homogenous quality shared by its directing, writing and producing team), the franchise depicts the process of growing up and settling down for four young men. It does this by often drawing its protagonists into contact with what can only be described as “the other,” which here is anyone who exists outside of the above mentioned demographics.

What’s most intriguing about American Pie is that while the series makes room for the other in certain respects (such as its cast of strong-willed and sexually- empowered female characters), it also displays a casual, alarming indifference for other marginalized groups. This is particularly obvious when one approaches the film from a contemporary mindset, which draws the entire concept of nostalgia into question.

I. American Pie’s Progressive Lens

Although male dominated, the original American Pie is a film that makes room for female characters. Even more laudable is that it often characterizes them positively, juxtaposing their mature outlooks on love and sex against the infantile behavior of main character Jim Levenstein and his friends Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), Oz (Chris Klein) and Finch (Eddie Kay Thomas).

This progressive treatment is applied with some degree of consistency. From Natasha Lyonne’s knowledgeable and detached Jessica, to the sexually experienced and empowered characters played by Alyson Hannigan and Jennifer Coolidge, many of American Pie’s female players are unequivocally given a powerful sense of agency.

To some extent this is the only way they could have been presented, particularly if the film wanted to come off as a credible portrait. In the first American Pie, women are firmly positioned as the other, and during a majority of the film the leading characters relate to them solely as unobtainable objects of desire. This is entirely accurate to the mindset of teenage boys, who often view their women counterparts with lust yet also with fear.

However, what is so admirable about the series’ initial installment is that most of the story’s women do not remain relegated to being the other and are not mired in archetypes and cliches. Instead, the film’s main male cast slowly grows to see them as human beings, a move consistent with what one would hope would be the growing maturity of the average adolescent male.

This is most starkly shown in how the film’s male characters relate to the bodies of women, namely how they consider them initially to be something solely inert and passive, like dolls or automatons which exist solely for their pleasure. One can see this infantile perspective through the behavior of each main character. In one of the first scenes focusing on Oz, for instance, the character is seen attempting to solicit oral sex from a slightly older woman. In relating to her, and in attempting to initiate sexual activity, we see Oz reduce her essence to pure sexual functionality, namely her ability perform fellatio.

Paralleling this is the arc of Kevin, specifically his relationship with his girlfriend Vicky (Tara Reid). This relationship is shown to be explicitly sexual in nature, with an early moment at a Steve Stifler (Seann William Scott) party also revolving around oral sex (Vicky giving and Kevin receiving). In Kevin’s case, it is not until nearly the halfway point in the movie that he becomes cognizant to the idea that Vicky has sexual needs of her own.

In order for this to occur, Kevin requires not one but two interventions from key confidantes. One of these comes from Lyonne’s Jessica, who educates a clearly clueless Kevin on how Vicky’s appetite for sex is more than likely contingent on her receiving pleasure. This is corroborated by Kevin’s older brother (played by a then unknown Casey Affleck) who advises Kevin to educate himself on female pleasure by visiting the local library.

Lastly, there is the series’ main character himself. Throughout the American Pie Franchise, Jason Biggs’ Jim is often portrayed as a bumbling everyman, clearly shown to struggle with social ineptitude. Despite these issues, Jim still views himself as a viral sexual being and is visibly shocked when Hannigan’s Michelle leaves him after the pair sleep together on prom night. Exclaiming, “Oh my god she used me,” Jim reveals how limited his conception of women has been. The thought that he Jim could be distilled down into a body, on which another person could take sexual pleasure, had apparently never occurred to him. Jim reveals his affable, likable nature in moments like this, delighting in the knowledge of what happened to him. Like most of the main characters in American Pie, Jim is a character capable of growing, of maturing, of understanding that women are not just inert or unconscious but capable of exerting their own sexual agency.

II. American Pie as Regressive Time Capsule

All gushing aside, American Pie is hardly an inclusive cinematic experience. It also readily dismisses other characters who could be classified as the other. The film also never seeks to critique or hold accountable the main male characters for the harmful behaviors they engage in during their initial pursuit of sex.

For example, nearly every action taken by Oz, Kevin and Finch in their journey towards self-deflowerment is predicated on deceit or coercion. Oz joins the school choir and begins to pursue Heather (Mina Suvari) – a somewhat chaste singer – under the guise of being a sensitive, emotionally mature guy, interested in her personality rather than her body. Kevin spends nearly the entire film subtly but relentlessly twisting Vicky’s arm, and even his self-education on female pleasure is ultimately designed around accruing more for himself. Lastly, Finch enlists the help of Lyonne’s Jessica in order to spread rumors around the school regarding his sexual prowess.

What all of this implies is that although the young men at the heart of American Pie are forced to eventually see their female objects of desire in a more human light, there is still a great deal of objectification going on, which the film fails to criticize or even broach. As this article outlines, the story’s allegiance to the anxious, insecure male is the cause of this. The film may be willing to show its male characters being occasionally embarrassed, but in the end it will absolve them of their toxic behavior. Lastly, it will ensure that the needs of the male characters are the ones addressed in the climax, with nearly every member of the gang successfully losing their virginity on prom night.

Nowhere is the film more complicit in protecting its white, male characters (at the expense of others) than in the scene where Jim films the Czechoslovakian exchange student Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) without her knowledge or consent. Nadia is perhaps the first film’s most striking example of the other. Not only is she female, but she is positioned as a sort of unobtainable goddess by the male characters. She is turned into the other not just by her female sex and good looks but also by her international status (indicated here through one of the worst movie accents of all time).

The film’s dubious treatment of the character reaches its apogee during the scene where Jim films Nadia changing in his room via webcam. The filmmakers rationalize this plot point by having it be Jim who is most egregiously humiliated. Jim is the one who returns to the room and pre-ejaculates when Nadia attempts to engage him in sex.

Still, the film never even attempts to comment on how Nadia’s naked body was still broadcast to the entire school. This is a fact which makes her abrupt disappearance from the story’s setting of East Great Falls following the incident, not to mention the franchise itself (minus brief cameo appearances), feel all the more realistic.

The lack of critique offered by American Pie regarding Jim’s actions feels especially raw when one considers how the film’s release date coincided with the rise of the digital age. This is relevant because the young men involved in Nadia’s exploitation (Jim, Kevin, Finch and Stifler) belong to the first generation that would grow up with hardcore digital pornography being ubiquitous and immediately accessible. This cultural shift, while in some ways a boon (cause nobody really likes a porn theater on their block), has also had a corrosive impact.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with pornography. When consumed appropriately porn can enhance someones sexual life. It can even expand one’s knowledge and interests. But there are those out there whose porn habits have been detrimental – in both a physical and emotional sense. In the context of the Nadia scene in American Pie, one can see how clearly dehumanized she has become for Jim and the gang. These young men, who have retreated to another house to watch Nadia undress, are clearly not cognizant of how what they are doing is not only immoral but perhaps even illegal.

This is a troubling moment that the film doesn’t respond to in any adequate fashion. It is also emblematic of a culture which failed to have the requisite conversation about how to use pornography appropriately as the technology developed. Finally, the scene also colors your opinions of not only the characters but the morality of the film itself. Watching it I could feel my own hostility gradually grow, especially towards the character of Finch, who appreciatively moans when Nadia begins to undress: “God bless the Internet.” I don’t think Nadia would say the same thing you little prick.

III. American Pie 2, American Wedding and Gay Panic

I don’t think I risk an argument when I say that the sequels to American Pie are a decidedly mixed bag. Like their predecessor, American Pie 2 and American Wedding struggle occasionally with inclusivity, although this time regarding issues of sexual orientation more than gender.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the characterization of Bear (Eric Allan Kramer) during American Wedding. Kramer plays a gay man that Jim and the gang meet during a brief interlude in Chicago. He initially comes off as semi-realistic and interesting, openly chastising Stifler for his gay panic and informing him that all gay men don’t want to sleep with him. However, he quickly descends into the type of mindless caricature which contributes to that exact type of panic. Far too quickly after rebuffing him, Bear emphatically engages Stifler in a dance off scene and then quickly becomes more and more physically expressive, grabbing hold of each main character in a way that is obviously to their chagrin.

This abrupt change pales in comparison to the film’s mind-numbing bachelor party scene. This sequence firmly highlights Bear as the other by depicting him cross-dressing. Now, cross-dressing in itself is not the issue. Instead, it is the tenor of the film during this moment. Bear’s cross-dressing is unequivocally positioned as a source of mirth, a loathsome example of the whole “homosexual as clown” trope commonly found in films of the late-90s and early aughts.

What solidifies this is the writing that composes the scene, not to mention the comically over-the-top way that Kramer plays it. The cross-dressing act is predicated on nothing, because, quite simply, Bear is not really a character. It is again an exploitative moment, where the film is entirely complicit. Even worse however is Stifler’s reaction to Bear’s antics, which amounts to the horrified exclamation of, “What the fuck Buffalo Bill!?” This exchange further corroborates the notion that American Wedding, despite including a gay character, is not actually interested in diversifying the demographics of its subject matter.

By utilizing such a dated reference (which conflates the character of Bear with the psychopathic killer of 1991’s Silence of the Lambs) American Wedding reveals not only its intellectual limitations but also its lack of empathy. It dates the film horribly, casting Bear into the 1980s-2000s pit Hollywood seemed to have reserved for its LGBT characters. In this dumping ground, all LGBT characters were essentially assimilated into an amorphous mass of the perverse, the weird and perhaps even the dangerous. They were still visible, but only as caricatures, not characters, puppets instead of people.

A similarly unsettling treatment of orientation also appears in American Pie 2. Undoubtedly the most weakly-plotted film of the franchise, this sequel functions as little more than a profile of the main characters during a summer they spend at a rented beach house. At one point the characters (who have all gotten jobs as house painters) encounter the two female owners (Denise Faye and Lisa Arturo) of a house they’ve been painting. These women openly display an almost comical level of physical intimacy towards one another, which unsurprisingly sends all of the men into some sort of baboon-like heat. By the time the dust settles, Jim, Stifler and Finch have found themselves inside the home of the two women performing minor acts of sexuality with each other in order to elicit similar behavior between the two women.

The film depicts the two women as being visibly squeaked out by this experience. It also frames the whole sequence under the idea that the women are playing a joke (by pretending to be homosexual) on the young men, a sort of retaliatory payback for sneaking into their home and making assumptions about their orientation. If the film would have left it there it might have been fine, and one could perhaps just dismiss it as another example of idiotic “American Pie hijinks.”

Yet, these two women come back in the film later on, appearing to have been titillated by the experience of performing for series’ main male characters. This is indicated through their continue to use walkie talkie frequencies in a sultry way, which they had been inadvertently broadcast on during the earlier scene with the American Pie gang. Even worse, they then inexplicably agree to a three-way with Stifler, who is easily the series’ most homophobic and sexist character.

Now, what’s going on here isn’t entirely clear to me. The sexual orientations of the two women, not to mention their motivations and their relationship with one another, are thinly-sketched and ambiguous to say the least. What is clear however is that their overall characterization feels ugly. Similar to Kramer’s Bear, the “characters” played by Denise Faye and Lisa Arturo depict homosexuality as something laughable or as a source of cheap titillation. It also characterizes the only good type of ambiguous sexuality as being one receptive to heterosexual male desire.

IV. Conclusion: On the Meaning of Nostalgia

What becomes brutally clear in returning to the American Pie franchise is that, with a few exceptions, the films struggle to transcend their time. There are certainly some progressive images on display, with at least a handful of sexually liberated and empowered female characters appearing throughout the story. There is also at least an attempt to depict growth for its cast of young male characters, particularly in their understanding that women also have their own agency.

However, the series’ collective failure to hold its characters accountable for their destructive, immature behavior completely eclipses these laudable features. While several of the series’ young males experience chronic humiliation throughout the various films, the franchise continues to ultimately absolve them of any sins and ensure that their needs are met. Additionally, the film falls succinctly into a time period that may have included LGBT characters but only as a source of mirth or grotesque perversity. In short, there are no unhappy endings in American Pie, but you have to be male and straight.

For me, reviewing the franchise 15 years or so after it began has proven to be an interesting experience, if only for the way it has prompted me to question my fixation on nostalgia. In ‘The Carousel,” one of the best episodes of the TV show Mad Men, Don Draper describes nostalgia as the vehicle that allows us to return “to a place where we know we are loved.” To me, this seems like an accurate summation, in the sense that the general time period of the films’ release coincided with the middle years of my adolescence.

This was a time where, despite the general volatility of the world (primarily the post-9/11 fall out), the circumstances of my small life were defined by love, especially if we can define love as having a sense of belonging, a certainty that personal needs will be met and hope for a future that seemed intangible and exciting. I don’t mean to imply that I don’t have those things now, but my relationship to them is certainly more complex. Feelings of security and belonging have been tested by the normal processes of life. Relationships have failed and dreams have been compromised. My hope for the future is still there, but it is filtered through a perspective that better understands life’s finite, ephemeral and deeply frustrating nature.

Things aren’t going to stay the same. In the past week or so an acquaintance of mine got married and a good friend got engaged. People are moving on. They’re building lives that are very much theirs, separated almost entirely from the dynamic we once shared. People are getting older, and soon some will even start dying.

I’m well aware that human beings are almost incapable of feeling overly comfortable in their present day circumstances. I also understand that it’s difficult to not view the past as a mythical time where things were better or at least less rancorous. This turns my attraction to films like the American Pie series into something fairly self-explanatory and rather boring. They came from a time where my life was wildly different than the way it is today. They are also devoid of the types of conversations and battles about inclusivity and equality that are now commonplace in our culture. In fact, the social veneer of the series’ setting makes it seem like those debates had long ago been settled. There is a serenity to the proceedings but only on the surface and only for some.

Ultimately, one’s nostalgia for a specific era is influenced by the larger power structures that defined their experience at the time. As a white, straight male, born into economic circumstances probably only one tier down from the affluence enjoyed by main cast of American Pie, it is no surprise that the franchise would offer me a nostalgic reprieve. Applying this to a larger perspective, it is no surprise that nearly every political pundit (well, primarily every socially conservative pundit) evokes a nostalgic view of the past, characterizing it as a time when things were exponentially better. This occurs with such frequency for a simple reason: Things often were better for these people during past eras, or these were times where they felt perhaps more confident in their power.

This seems to lead us then to the fundamental lesson to take away about nostalgia: You must examine your reasons for why you feel it. This is one of the clearest ways to develop what I feel is a healthier relationship with the past. It also provides a better understanding of how feelings of nostalgia are ones predicated on a fantasy. They call you back to a time that may have been sublime to you but was undoubtedly still marked by harmful, ugly or perhaps even oppressive attributes.

If implemented, this can allow one to not frequently indulge what Draper calls that “place where we ache to go again.” It will color these periods of indulgence, like it did for my return to American Pie. It turned what was once simply comedic, innocent, and emblematic for a time where my life was simpler, into something that would be considerably more inflammatory if released today. It showed me that one can’t really expect to stay on the carousel of nostalgia for very long and, really, one shouldn’t want to.

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