Book Review – Affective Sexual Pedagogies in Film and Television

Review of Affective Sexual Pedagogies in Film and Television by Kyra Clarke. Routledge. 2017. (HB/eBook). 248pp.

Review by Madita Oeming, University of Paderborn, Germany.

The key dilemma that is the driving force of this book could not be timelier: in a culture where sex education is still limited to heterosexuality,  contraception and STIs, where can young adults learn about other aspects of sex? In popular teen film and television, says Kyra Clarke, early career researcher at the University of Western Australia, in her PhD-thesis-turned-book Affective Sexual Pedagogies in Film and Television. As the title already suggests, one of the book’s major theoretical cornerstones — apart from critical film and queer feminist theory — is the theory of affect; a dimension the author rightly claims to be largely absent from the available public discourse of sexuality in spite of being at the very core of the subject itself. Against this backdrop, Clarke strives to detect ‘intimate pedagogical moments’ in young adult media texts to demonstrate how these ‘hold significant potential for developing affective sexual pedagogies’ (25).   

Addressing this central question, the book is structured into six compact chapters, each of which engages with one or two distinct cultural texts: three Australian films — Looking for Alibrandi (Kate Woods 2000), The Rage in Placid Lake (Tony McNamara 2003) and The Black Balloon (Elissa Down 2008) — and two American — Easy A (Will Gluck 2010) and Juno (Jason Reitman 2007) — as well as one US television series — Glee (Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy 2009-2015) — and one UK — Skins (Jamie Brittain and Bryan Elsley 2007-2013) — all of them produced within the past two decades. Noticing the heavy focus on heterosexual characters and what seem to be exclusively cis men and women, one may wish for more diversity, at first sight. However, the scarcity of non-normative sexual identities in this selection reflects their overall (under)representation in mainstream media. On top of that, it is precisely the author’s point to show that even such heteronormative media texts provide ‘moments of nuance’ (11), which reveal more complex intimacies and transgressions behind seemingly conventional images, characters and scenes. Covering a variety of topics, such as monogamy, teen pregnancy, virginity loss or relationship break-ups, each analysis reveals the inherent ‘messiness’, as the author likes to call it, of sexual behaviour and decision-making in adolescent lives, both on and off screen. 

Clarke’s reading convincingly points to fleeting moments of disruption, challenging the boundary between the public and the private and showcasing how incoherence sometimes awaits where rationality is expected to be guiding us. In some instances, however, the focus on sex education, that is the potential impact of the texts on young adult audiences rather than on film scholars, appears to get lost. The average adolescent movie-goer seems unlikely, for example, to read, or even be able to read, the happy ending of a movie like Easy A as the performative, self-aware ‘fake ending’ Clarke considers it to be (32ff), instead of just falling for its apparent genre conformity. Some of the disruptions seem so subtle, in other words, that they hardly qualify as eye-opening pedagogical moments; they allow for, but do not necessarily evoke, queerness. That by no means decreases, however, the value of taking popular cultural texts seriously and reading them against the grain, as done rewardingly in this book. It proves that the way sex is being screened in mainstream teen television and film can be more complex and disruptive than we tend to assume and, therefore, may invite new sexual literacies into the lives of their viewers.

The author’s innovative approach of looking for alternative, affective pedagogies in texts outside of the classroom is extremely valuable, practical even, in the face of still insufficient, often untimely, information-based and anti-pleasure sex education programmes in the western world. It appears, moreover, to be applicable to a variety of other cultural artefacts we are surrounded by but pay too little critical attention to. As a porn scholar, I would have loved to see the book show awareness of the current debate about the use and misuse of pornography as a means of learning about sex for young adults. In any case, its strength is in the encouragement for us all to keep our eyes open for those surprising moments of irritation that potentially reveal the wonderfully confusing pleasure that is part of sexuality.

Contributor

Madita Oeming is a German PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of Paderborn. With her Master’s thesis, ‘Moby’s Dick,’ Madita has entered the field of Porn Studies, within which she is now pursuing her dissertation project on porn addiction as America’s new moral panic. She has presented papers on porn parodies, feminist porn and her experience as a porn scholar in German academia and has published on labiaplasty and the pathologisation of porn. 

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