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The 80s were a weird time in American history, because they were far enough along to recognize the problems of the 1950s but not quite far enough along to change almost anything about them. From the standpoint of 2020, both the 1950s setting of My American Cousin and its slightly critical but often good-naturedly indulgent 1980s perspective were kind of freaky to me. While the protagonist of My American Cousin is able to explore her sexuality and her identity through the escapades of her rebellious cousin, there are lots of creepy parts to her journey.
The most obviously creepy part is the age difference between the titular American cousin and the girls who he spends most of the movie flirting with. It is disturbingly unclear whether the film means to condemn or brush off the way Butch, and 18 year old, flirts with Sandy, a 12 year old. There are scenes where Butch is flirting with either Sandy or her friends and people say things like “isn’t she a little young for you,” and in general Butch’s behavior toward women is depicted as being pretty seamy. In the end though, the film means for us to see Butch as a vehicle for the positive sexual awakening Sandy experiences during the film, which undermines any attempts the narrative makes to frame his behavior as inappropriate.
There is a disturbing tradition of female coming-of-age stories that involve the main character being sexually assaulted as a way for her to discover her sexuality. Some of these narratives position the main character as consenting to situations of statutory rape, making it seem like these situations are okay. Even though this film is written and directed by a woman, and perhaps because this film is directed by a woman, I am just as turned off as ever by this trope. I wish Sandy Wilson, who tellingly shares a first name with the protagonist, had made it clearer that a six year age difference means Butch has a responsibility as the older kid to not be creepy to his cousin.
I also have problems with the fact that Sandy’s “coming of age” is basically just her having a crush on Butch while Butch drives the plot most of the time. While part of Sandy not having much agency comes from the fact that she is a child in the 50s, it’s also sad to see her portrayed as becoming independent when really her whole plotline is dependent on Butch. It’s his car that lets her go out and see the world, but it’s also his love that she’s trying to gain the whole movie. It’s like she’s an empty vessel at the beginning of the movie and Butch comes along and fills her with all his American music and ideas. While I get that older kids can make a huge impression on younger ones, I would have wanted a feminist movie to give Sandy a little more character of her own.
Finally and relatedly, I resent that Sandy’s coming of age means her making herself available and attractive to men. It makes sense that as a teenager Sandy is boy-crazy, but does she have nothing else going on? She doesn’t seem to like her job picking cherries at her parents’ farm, which by the way is a pretty obvious and crude sexual metaphor. She seems excited by American culture, but generally spends most of her energy trying to get closer to Butch, often using American culture as a way to connect with him. It’s just hard to call this film feminist if the protagonist is so wholly centered around a man. I believe this film does not pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, because virtually everything the women in this film talk about is men.
All in all, while I get what My American Cousin was going for, I’m pretty deeply dubious about it. When I was in high school I saw more than one freshman date a senior, and it really really really wasn’t a positive thing. I think movies like this cast older actresses to play young girls and in so doing erase the fact that young teenagers are still children. This obviously also plays into the general exploitation of women as soon as society deems the mature enough to be objectified, which is sooner and sooner with each passing generation.
Sandy Wilson may have spoken her truth with this film, but that can still be harmful when the person speaking their truth is framing their experiences as desirable such that young people could end up getting hurt through imitation. The sexuality of young teens and preteens isn’t invalid and there is a conversation to be had about how they can explore it in a safe way without feeling as repressed as Sandy feels by her parents in the movie. However, My American Cousin clearly isn’t thinking about the issue on that level.
Top Photo: Butch stands by his car.
Middle Photo: Yet again, Butch stands by his all-American car.
Bottom Photo: Sandy and Butch stand by Butch’s apparently-cool car.
Photo Credit: Sandy Wilson.