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The Plot Reversal that Never Happened: On Cleavage and Conformity

December 24, 2008

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I recently saw The House Bunny, starring Anna Faris from Scary Movie and Emma Stone from Superbad. I really like Anna Faris, particularly her performance in one of my favorite movies, May. One of the great things about her is that, as an actress, she goes all in. That is, she’ll do the stupidest, craziest, most humiliating stunts imaginable—and she makes them work.

My expectations were low for The House Bunny. I mostly hoped it wouln’t be as bad in its objectification of women as films like American Pie, Van Wilder, Road Trip, and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Given its PG-13 rating, it was bound not to have the sort of gratuitous nudity contained in the latter films, right? And the trailer made it seem as if the plot wasn’t oriented around correcting an adolescent boy’s unfortunate state of virginity.

The story opens with a Playboy bunny (Anna Faris’ character, Shelley) being kicked out of the Playboy mansion. Shelley ends up taking a job as a “house mother” at a college sorority house. The sorority is full of what we might call social outcasts: a nerd type, a woman who is so introverted she hides in her bedroom, a woman who wears a back brace, a woman who is vaguely goth, etc. They’re about to lose their sorority charter because they’ve had no new enrollment in three years. Shelley decides she’ll help them get new enrollment, so they can save the charter.

Here’s her plan: 1) give each of these girls makeovers, 2) so boys will like them, 3) and so other girls will be interested in the sorority and join up. On the face of it, the plan is absurd: let’s get boys to like us so girls will want to be with us.

I had faith that a reversal was forthcoming. Surely the women in this sorority would, in the end, find out that by conforming to the popular culture they were “selling out” and would return to “being themselves.” This sort of reversal employs a conformity/authenticity binary I’m suspicious of, but it beats the full-on recommendation of conformity.

So, predictably, there is a musical montage where Shelley takes the girls in the sorority out shopping. They buy “sexy” clothes, get haircuts and manicures, get lessons on how to flirt with boys (“You’re too smart; boys don’t like girls that are too smart”), and top it off with water bras that show off their cleavage.

Here’s Emma Stone before:

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Here’s Emma Stone after (second from right):

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After these “sexy” upgrades—and I think this movie could probably get an award for most uses of the word “sexy”—they throw a big sorority party and immediately became the most popular women on campus.

The viewer doesn’t have to wait long for the reversal. When they’re choosing which of their pledges they’ll accept, one of the sorority sisters objects to the superficial nature of their criteria:

“Look at you people! Honestly, is this what you’ve become? Judging other girls on their appearance? Calling them weird? I’m sure glad I joined when I did, because honestly I don’t think I would make the cut these days—and neither would a lot of you.”

She goes on to point out that they’ve become just like their rival sorority, “a bunch of snooty bitches.” The group takes the objection seriously and soon thereafter they accuse Shelley of turning them from “individuals” to “stupid bimbos.”

However, the reversal never actually happens. In a later conversation, the girls agree that they can’t reject Shelley’s lessons: “So, we’ll be half Shelley and half who we really are.” But with few exceptions, for the rest of the film they stick with their new clothing, new hairstyles, and new behavior.

As a result, the viewer sadly learns the following lessons:

  • All girls want boyfriends.
  • Being popular and having a boyfriend should be the chief concerns of women in college.
  • Conformity is necessary to be popular or to have a boyfriend.
  • It is good to say conformity is bad.
  • It is good to conform.
  • Conformity requires you to be a consumer, to buy the latest clothing, the latest push-up bras, and the latest makeup.

By contrast, the message of Anna Faris’ May is that conforming to what others want you to be leads to disaster.

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