The To-Do List

By Jared Young

Mailed on August 02, 2013

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Dear Luther Campbell
Lead Singer of 2 Live Crew

Dear Luther,

I have a problem, Luther. I feel like I'm unqualified to provide a fair perspective on the new high school sex-comedy _The To-Do List. _Not because I don't possess the necessary analytical faculties (clearly I don't), and not because the thematic complexities of the film resist easy interpretation--it's because I'm a dude, and how can a dude like me comment on the authenticity of a film that, even in its broadest, most absurd moments, seems to be revealing something heretofore unspoken about the sexual attitudes of teenage girls.

If there's anyone who knows something about the murky intersection of identity politics and sexual expression, it's you. So let me ask you, Uncle Luke: am I allowed to say that The To-Do List is a mediocre flick? Or should I acknowledge that maybe I'm missing something.

No, no. It's not that the film is built to appeal to an (assumed) female sensibility in the way that, say, Pacific Rim is built to appeal to the (assumed) sensibilities of a pubescent Japanese male. It's trickier than that. As rote and formulaic as_ The To-Do List_ often feels, there is, in that roteness and formula, a vague sense of something subversive happening. The premise and plot are the stuff of modern myth: high school senior, anxious about post-adolescence, makes conscious decision to gain multitudinous sexual experience in the summer before college. Except here that senior is a girl, a neurotic perfectionist played by Aubrey Plaza, who offsets her usual deadpan, zero-sum allure with a bit of cute and clownish bluster. And so it goes: she stalks a group of pervy boys and allows herself to be finger-blasted, dry-humped, and cunnilingized before eventually getting her chance with the chiseled, gold-skinned head lifeguard--only to realize that maybe sex isn't as important as she thought. So on, so forth.

That hint of subversion comes, I suppose, from the fact that we're getting a girl's-eye view of the post-grad sexathalon that has been a rite of passage for movieland teenagers since the early 80s. Indeed, first-time writer and director Maggie Carey (to whom I am crediting, maybe mistakenly, a significant measure of authorial intent) seems eager to subsume the common elements of the modern gross-out comedy: the awkward nudity, the spilling (in this case, spitting) of bodily fluids. But I don't want to categorize her film as some sort of girl's version of Superbad because, frankly, it's not quite as funny, or self-immolating, or clever as Superbad. But I understand, too, that much of what I find funny and self-immolating and clever about Superbad - in particular the way that the film slowly, surreptitiously evolves into a panegyric about male friendship - is rooted in how much of the detail I find familiar, how much I identify with the characters and their universal (to me) struggle. There are probably a lot of details in The To-Do List that will very feel familiar to many female viewers. Probably. Maybe.

In her essay on Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, British author Zadie Smith writes of her initial resistance, as a precocious fourteen year-old, to liking the novel simply "because she's black." Smith observes: "White readers often believe they are colorblind…identification [is] so natural to white readers that they believe themselves above personal identification, or believe that they are only identifying only at the highest, existential levels…"

This is true, too, of male moviegoers. The teenage boy's perspective is the default mode for the high school sex comedy. Even a film like Fast Times At Ridgemont High - which was directed by Amy Heckerling and in a few terrific scenes manages to relay some uncomfortable truths about what it's like to be a teenage girl (I think) - still feels, in its worldview, decidedly masculine.

But perhaps I'm answering my own question by introducing Zadie Smith as a variable. When I read her novel On Beauty, wasn't I moved, most of all, by Zora's middle-child insecurities? Wasn't the impressionistic third section of her latest novel NW, which follows Natalie Blake from childhood to adulthood (occasionally into some very unique forms of sexual experimentation), the very best, most empathetic thirty pages of prose I read last year? And aren't Manhola Dargis and Dana Stevens two of the film critics whose opinions I value the most? Doesn't it matter just as much to me what they have to say about Pacific Rim as what they'll say about this picture? I don't expect them to equivocate their judgments because they don't identify with a pubescent kaiju-geek's cosmological views in the same way I do. Why am I being so hard on myself? I suppose the difference is that _The To-Do List _doesn't seem interested, as Zadie Smith is, in exploring larger issues of character or class. It is content, rather, to exist as an object, and, simply by existing, laying claim to the thesis that your most famous album so intrepidly articulated in its title: "that girls, too, can be as nasty as they wanna be.

Sorry, Luther. I'm sure you're all like: why does this even concern me? Well, as you may know from the fine print on your royalty cheques, the elaborate opening credit sequence of film plays out over the beats of your recidivist 1989 hit "Me So Horny." It's a montage that emulates the awkward materialist nostalgia captured in the opening credits of Napoleon Dynamite, but gives us, instead, the detritus of early-90s youth culture: kaboodles and swatches and trapper-keepers and the like. When, in the final verse, Fresh Kid Ice asserts, "Put your lips on my dick, and suck my asshole too!" two things occurred to me: first, how shocking that line must have been when it was first uttered two decades ago (one almost sympathizes with Florida Judge Jose Gonzalez, who, in 1990, declared your album obscene and told record store owners, "if you sell it, you're going to jail"); second, just how far the prevailing culture has come in its tolerance of casual sexual obscenity. Right now, the number one song on Billboard's pop singles chart is Robin Thicke's jaunty, melodic "Blurred Lines", a mainstream pop hit that features lines like "must wanna get nasty," "do it like it hurt," and "I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two"--all delivered in a sweet falsetto, like a Frankie Valli ballad, like the chorus of a Bee Gees song. Two spots behind it, at number three? Former child star Miley Cyrus's minimalist dance tune "We Can't Stop," the self-conscious vulgarity of which defies description (you kind of just have to watch the video). How quaint "Me So Horny" sounds by comparison.

Quaint, but still pretty catchy. It's a concordance of everything great about the adolescence of rap music; the 4/4 time signature, the 808s and snares, the funky running bass-line. But it lacks the equivocation of these newer tunes. You guys tried a little too hard to be offensive, Luther; your demagoguery was all conspicuous and shit. The To-Do List makes this mistake, too, I think; it strives a little too much for gender parity, and so fails to be the smart, bawdy, feminist comedy it wants to be. There's not a moment that feels as real and funny and frightening as Jennifer Jason Leigh losing her virginity on a dugout bench in Fast Times.

But, still, I can't help but come back to that feeling, sitting in the theater, that I was missing something--that there were certain moments that might have clicked with me if I had lived a different life, if I'd had my bikini top snatched off at the swimming pool, if I'd passed out drunk at a party and woken up with a boy on top of me, if I'd ever possessed that weird mix of power and powerlessness that every woman must eventually learn to wield. But I didn't. So all I can say is that The To-Do List is a pretty mediocre flick.



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