Born Sexy Yesterday: Why Does This Male-Fantasy Trope Need to Go?

'The Fifth Element'
'The Fifth Element' Credit: Gaumont
The "Born Sexy Yesterday" trope is a troubling recurrence in the sci-fi genre. Why is it still being written? 

It is in every science fiction film and TV show. There's a gorgeous girl that fell from the sky or was just created in a lab accidentally, and she finds a man who loves her for her childlike naïveté and innocence.

It might sound like a bad trope—and that’s because it is! Born Sexy Yesterday (BSY) is a bothersome trope that has been ingrained into the sci-fi genre since its birth.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) from Tron: Legacy sums up the BSY trope in four words: “Profoundly naive. Unimaginably wise.” 

Pop Culture Detective coined the term BSY for the female love interest that is commonly sexualized to satisfy the male fantasy in sci-fi. The female characters often ooze sex appeal but are unaware of it, and lack the life experiences that most humans have.

His video highlights how sci-fi uses this troubling trope in a broad range of films. Check it out.

Born Yesterday 

In the 1950 film, Born Yesterday, the blonde Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday) is a socialite who has accepted that she is stupid, naive, and ignorant about life, but does nothing to change it because she is happy. Once she becomes an educated woman, she leaves her boyfriend for someone who values her intelligence. But what if she just didn’t learn anything? What if she decided that it was better to not know anything and keep living her life in ignorance?

This is where the BSY trope comes to life. The media trope is both figurative and literal; the woman comes from a different world or they are man-made creations that are experiencing an unfamiliar world for the first time with the help of an average guy.

These women are unaware of their sex appeal due to their inexperience with sexual attraction, and this often gives male writers and directors an opening to let the woman undress in front of the male characters. Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) undresses in front of men without a second thought in The Fifth Element, while Madison (Daryl Hannah) from Splash walks naked through a crowded park in New York City and men run up to take photos of her without her consent. These women are inexperienced and do not understand the implications of displays of nudity, sex, romance, or sexual interactions, and the male gaze in these films take advantage of this. 

Yes, there are men who are considered Born Yesterday, but they are typically viewed as the butt of the joke. Adam (Brendan Fraser) from Blast from the Past learns how the normal world works from Eve (Alicia Silverstone), but she doesn’t fall in love with him because of his inexperience or childlike wonder and fear of the world around him. She loves him because he is kind to her and tries to be the better, more experienced man that she needs.

BSY also stems from the much older media convention of the white male adventure “discovering” indigenous women. Sci-fi replaces the idea of colonialism as the mechanism that drives the narrative with traditional masculine ideologies. Usually, the heterosexual male hero will take the young woman under his wing and teach her everything about the world she now lives in; this includes education on sex and romance. The male hero is projecting his infatuation with the girl on to her by justifying his actions as “teaching.”

'Splash'
Daryl Hannah as Madison in 'Splash'Credit: Touchstone Films

A Justified Version of Lolita

This trope overlaps with the manic pixie dream girl (the one-dimensional quirky girl who exists to teach young men that life can be interesting), except BSY focuses more on the power imbalance between the man and the woman.

The men are often unsatisfied with the women they've known or come in contact with. They want a female that isn’t their equal or as experienced in sex, relationships, or life in general so they can protect her. When the girl falls into his lap (sometimes literally), he can teach her and groom her to what he thinks is the “ideal” woman. In return, the woman thinks the man is the most amazing guy out there, even though he is the only guy in her life. It is the same power dynamic as a teacher and student, or Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze. 

In Woody Allen’s Sleeper, Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) wakes up in the future and is the only man left who remembers how to have sex.

It is also seen when James T. Kirk (William Shanter) kisses alien women after saving them and says that a kiss is a form of helping—and this happens so often!

It’s a trope written for men who fear rejection of women who are equally experienced as men in sexual and romantic experience. The unbalanced power in the relationship is connected to masculinity and the insecurities that men have around sex and sexuality. The women are unchanged and uncorrupted by the attention of other men; therefore, the man avoids comparison and doesn’t have to try to become a better person. Men hold the power over the innocent women, and, to make it acceptable, the love interest is put into the body of a grown woman.

'Star Trek'
James T. Kirk (William Shatner) kissing Shahna (Angelique Pettyjohn) in 'Star Trek' Credit: NBC

How to Stop the BYS Trope

First, recognize that a woman with experience is a sexy woman. Innocence isn’t sexy when it is being manipulated. 

The second way to overcome this trope is by having women go on a path of self-discovery and self-realization. Cloud Atlas introduces a BSY, Sonmi-451, but allows her to go on a journey of self-discovery with the help of the love interest. Allowing characters to grow, and be more than the love interest who helps bring meaning to a man’s lonely life, breaks the cycle of this unhealthy trope. Let her have interests and make decisions for herself. Let her be a fully fleshed-out character!

This is a trope borne out of sexism and male insecurity. Having a BSY in the story is promoting that it is okay to have dominance and power over an innocent girl. Audiences should no longer accept this, and filmmakers and screenwriters need to avoid writing BSY.

What movies have you seen that have the Born Sexy Yesterday trope? Let us know in the comments.     

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Your Comment

34 Comments

The video says that a Born Yesterday woman is good at something "men respect" such as "Combat". I often think that the progressive obsession at presenting strong women in film as masculine, punching their way through the world is about as sexist as it gets. Keep in mind Rosie the Riveter was invented by men! by and for men!

I agree with this video and it is finally nice to hear. Our female aspirational hero of the past (Mother Theresa, anne Franke, etc) are replaced by women who can fight the best or even the modern extreme of "be the wettest." We ladies are essentially bragging about big manhood now??? I guess it helps us deal with the Captain Marvel loving boys who want kama sutra on a first date. Accept our fate hand out by the modern world. Modern Femininity has taken its cue from the Born Yesterday Trope. Women aspiring to be whatever men dream of them. Horny powerful fighters with quick wit born to fall in love with their heroes. Ever wonder why Hillary lost when we expect our feminine heroes to walk over and punch the man in the face? Joe Biden is basically Hillary Clinton as an old white man and more people voted for him than voted for Obama. The world is desperate for a real feminine hero! Sorry to rage but this Born Yesterday Trope holds the answer to the modern world, even if I think the author made the point by mistake! I would love to hear the story of a women who thinks for herself instead of the endless retelling of the same Hollywood Epstein/Weinstein social justice slut in a Wonder Women muscle suit punching baddies to turn men on.

December 4, 2020 at 5:04PM

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The video says that a Born Yesterday woman is good at something "men respect" such as "Combat". As a lady I often think that the progressive obsession at presenting strong women in film as masculine, punching their way through the world is about as sexist as it gets. Keep in mind Rosie the Riveter was invented by men! by and for men!

I agree with this video and it is finally nice to hear. The female aspirational hero of the past (Mother Theresa, anne Franke, etc) are replaced by women who can fight the best or even the modern extreme of "be the wettest." We are bragging about big manhood now??? Modern Femininity has taken its cue from the Born Yesterday Trope. Women aspiring to be whatever men dream of them. Horny powerful fighters with quick wit born to fall in love with their heroes. Ever wonder why Hillary lost when we expect our feminine heroes to walk over and punch the man in the face? Joe Biden is basically Hillary Clinton as an old white man and more people voted for him than voted for Obama. Sorry to rage but this Born Yesterday Trope holds the answer to the modern world, even if I think the author made the point by mistake! I would love to hear the story of a women who thinks for herself instead of the endless retelling of the same Hollywood Epstein/Weinstein social justice slut in a Wonder Women muscle suit punching baddies to turn men on.

December 4, 2020 at 5:04PM

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Thought police alert. Writers should write whatever they feel like writing. To try and control and constrain how people should act and behave is the single most scary aspect of these messed up last couple of decades. Fifth element is a great movie, now it should be cancelled because a few people take issue with it? Nuts... bring back the ‘80s....

December 4, 2020 at 11:30PM, Edited December 4, 11:30PM

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Bishop
251

Respectfully, one might argue that the single most scary part of these "past messed up decades" is how little people seem to understand that the exploitation described in the article is a damaging male fantasy trope. It hurts and denigrates people. We did this throughout the 80s (and before and since).

There's two sort of answers to your cancel question here - first, these films aren't "cancelled", but hopefully you see them through a new and more inclusive lens. Long Duk Dong was a horribly racist stereotype in a movie that also celebrated Anthony Michael Hall's date rape of a pretty drunk girl (16 Candles). Doesn't mean we cancel the movie, but the fact we DIDN'T NOTICE then was problematic, and that's the point. It's awareness.

Second, if you are trying to get work most studios and creative money sources pay attention to these things precisely because they don't want their new content (the stuff that should know better) to be cancelled. Because people are more aware. That's good thing. Watch some TCM and notice the horrible racist and sexist crap in old movies. We've moved on. That's good.

You can rail against it, but the criticism raised in the article is legit.

December 4, 2020 at 11:48PM

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Trying to make everything safe and sterile for everyone is understandable but will just produce weak people. At some point, everyone has to suffer in order to grow - and the mating rituals will always be full of disappointment and negative feelings.
Weak people who had no real opportunities of growing through suffering will just become narcissistic tyrants. The more we try to take away the obvious dangers, the more we postpone real growth and the more indirect and convoluted the dangers of the mating world will be.

December 5, 2020 at 12:28AM

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you can play and spin the ideological card as much as you want. But I can foresee where these "respectful and inclusive" desire will end: boring and inimaginative filmaking.
What we are talking here is a woke version of the Hays code.

December 5, 2020 at 1:26AM

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OniBaba
15

Unimaginative filmmaking? The article describes a trope - literally an unimaginative story shorthand fallback. This one doesn’t require any notion of human reality - it’s a crap shorthand to a male fantasy that objectifies women and adds no actual imagination to any story... lamenting the loss of simple mindedness seems counter-intuitive to the argument that awareness of this trope means “creative restriction”.

So, for years, films were openly racist, filled with damaging tropes. Do we miss those good old days too?

The article says know what you’re presenting and then provides a way to do it without lazy, false, damaging tropes. I do not understand this reaction.

December 5, 2020 at 4:04PM

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yes, movie are a fantasy. Sci-fi expecially.They do target an audience. As weel as chick flicks.
Bridget Jones is a fantasy too.
Male superheroes and Wonder Woman are fantasies, neither is "damaging".
So what? You can watch documentaries if you need educational and "neutral" entertainment.

December 7, 2020 at 4:43AM

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OniBaba
15

Great point about thought police.

December 13, 2020 at 5:15PM

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"..Audiences should no longer accept this, and filmmakers and screenwriters need to avoid writing BSY..."
Here we go. The militant audience.
Guided by those who have an upper knowledge.
We are going down the Potemkn Stairs of Re-education camp for filmakers and screenwriters.

December 5, 2020 at 1:33AM

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OniBaba
15

Good article - refreshing to see intelligent analysis and ideas about how to move on from these tedious tropes. Film has constantly evolved and will carry on doing so regardless of a few butthurt men who mourn their safe sexist spaces or cry about the onslaught of SJWs - thankfully , women in film are too busy making the new movies than arguing the toss over whether the film world is becoming too 'safe and sterile'.

The future of film is more diversity, stronger characters who are women and POC, a broader range of storytelling - all good =)

December 5, 2020 at 2:37AM

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John-Paul Bichard
Artist / photographer
50

This! 'Allowing characters to grow, and be more than the love interest who helps bring meaning to a man’s lonely life, breaks the cycle of this unhealthy trope. Let her have interests and make decisions for herself. Let her be a fully fleshed-out character!'

December 5, 2020 at 2:55AM

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John-Paul Bichard
Artist / photographer
50

John-Paul, when you use words like "butthurt", are you really trying to have an honest conversation? Also, do you ever use the combination "butthurt women", or is it just reserved for men?

December 8, 2020 at 2:30AM

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You are very angry toward men. Some deeper issues with your father are surfacing here in public. Someday as your yin and feminine-centric energy becomes over saturated and your life/ art become imbalanced you will miss the raw strength of the masculine.

Your comments contradict your whole “inclusion/ H&M” movement argument by excluding all beings including white men, Asians, and Arabs in your list of those making new movies.

You are instantaneously throwing under the bus and canceling all of the gifts, sacrifices and offerings that millions of male ancestors have brought to you. Are men perfect? No. But when this anti-Trump hysteria airplane descending blimp in time is over you will most likely regret all of the men you threw under the bus bc you were triggered (by daddy? What did he do to you?... Remember not to project. That’s not such a nice thing to do).

And when you search in your mind and body at a later date for an inner source of masculine energy you will instead face the uphill battle of karma for dismissing the countless good, well meaning and wholesome men who fought in battles, created effective laws, and innovative technology that you are presently reaping from as a spoiled western, probably nature-deficient, brat.

December 13, 2020 at 5:56PM

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“No, I am supreme being, I protect you”
I believe this to be a key quote from the film, the fifth element, spoken by the female lead to male action hero Bruce Willis in response to him telling her his job is to protect her.

When this film was made, to have a female character, albeit, young, beautiful and on the surface, childlike, as you quite rightly make note of, be the character that saves the male action star Bruce Willis and then the entire world, (pretty much the same thing in Hollywood!), was quite radical. The film actually in many ways plays with and eventually, partly subverts the very tropes you’re highlighting. The male characters are all seen as bumbling and single minded, driven by their ego or greed. The female character of Leeloo knows more about the universe and the goal of the plot than anyone else. She physically saves the male characters many times over. She is the hero of the film. But it only goes so far and you’re right to point out the limiting aspects of this character type but I also think it pays to go deeper and ask where this character type comes from and why it’s ‘appealing’, mostly to a male audience. For that we all need to start having a much deeper conversation and exploration of very early, human developmental psychology and how we all cope in very different ways with the central ‘problem’ of the mother figure and our separation from that figure in our early pre-verbal and then adult lives. The societal attitudes we all have towards each other often sub-consciously grow from this early, pre-verbal conundrum. And each pathway has its issues and challenges for all of us to overcome throughout our lives. It’s good to question these archetypes but also so important to take it further and understand what deep longing they ‘satisfy’ and why stories have so often included them.
I think we have to try and go deeper than overly simplistic, surface ideas of the male gaze to get to the root of the drive.

Stories tell us about our secret selves but they do it in code. If we are to genuinely evolve, rather than simply outlawing or changing the stories we tell we need to go back to the moment we crawled out of the sea and find out the true origin of why we were driven to tell them in the first place.

December 5, 2020 at 3:49AM

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Paul fern
Film maker
388

I agree with your sentiments. I find this article thought provoking, but what I recalled re The 5th Element was the lead-in to the usual BSY, but as a bait and switch.
The seeming set up of gender norms - and then breaking of those norms - esp. given the (at the time outrageous) over-done masculine vs feminine traits, the costumes, the affectations of men in the film as well- the pace of the edit- the score- everything came as sort of a shock.
And the slow unveiling of the truth- that the seemingly naive "sexy born yesterday she" was not only thousands of years old, but also the only being in control. I recall thinking in the middle of the film- I was not even sure she were "female" - I think that was intentional. She was given a female humanoid form . . . but she was possibly the first presentation of "they" - long before we even used that term or concept in general pop culture.
And it was only when she realized the power of love that she relented and agreed: humans and the earth were "worth saving".
It was the classic love story, wrapped in a choice of destruction vs. salvation. Told many times before, but in a fresh and daring way. Great entertainment.
I rewatch it about once every 2 years. Learn or notice something new every time. And to think Besson wrote it initially at 16. Directed it in his 30's - and oh- then married his star. Ha.

December 5, 2020 at 4:54AM

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Richard Gerst
Freelance stills + motion work.
151

This reminds me of the article written about the Joker, equally misguided and choosing to attack something that could be celebrated. Some people just want to makeup a fake narrative. Next I would not be surprised if movies like Alien(s) and Terminator end up getting attacked. If you don't like certain movies that is fine but It does seem like many completely miss themes and messages these films have. Spend more effort not just spit balling things you want to apply to a film when it is an extreme spin on what it is trying to say.

December 5, 2020 at 7:24AM

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Darren Orange
Director/Producer
211

This is a really insightful article, and points out a very real trope that I wasn't quite aware of. Basically a twist of the pygmallion myth/trope where a guy falls in love with his sexy sculpture that comes to life.

My take is a little more moderate than a lot of the other commentators. There are certainly unsavory aspects to this (male) fantasy, but shouldn't cinema be a safe arena to explore your fantasies, good or bad? Conscious and unconscious? Clearly the reappearance of this trope expresses some deep truth about some men's desires, beyond lazy storytelling. The fact these movies exist has given us an opportunity to reflect on those desires, and that shouldn't be dismissed. That said, the moralising call to reject creating more movies with this trope seems like a step too far. Movies are filled with much more disturbing and heinous tropes (see any slasher movie) and if you think that suppressing their expression will improve society, I suggest you start with those first.

December 5, 2020 at 9:38AM, Edited December 5, 9:42AM

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Greg
81

Unimaginative filmmaking? The article describes a trope - literally an unimaginative story shorthand fallback. This one doesn’t require any notion of human reality - it’s a crap shorthand to a male fantasy that objectifies women and adds no actual imagination to any story... lamenting the loss of simple mindedness seems counterintuitive to the argument that awareness means “creative restriction”.

So, for years, films were openly racist. Do we miss those good old days too?

The article says know what you’re presenting and then provides a way to do it without lazy, false, damaging tropes. I do not understand this reaction.

December 5, 2020 at 10:51AM

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yet another article written by an insecure woman. Men and women are equal by very different, this is something people like her find hard to understand. Few men respects a feminist, but all appreciate feminine women, it's very natural and makes for a great trope and universally liked and sells.

December 5, 2020 at 9:11PM, Edited December 5, 9:11PM

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I believe there is a big point missed in all this nonsense and that is the story. The narrative arch of the hero who rescues the naive princess is as old as... well as stories. But we forget that this kind of storytelling is based on a very basic actant model (no one ever read the narrative of Greimas?). I hear people going back to old racist movies, the structure of those is based on the same kind of narrative (and reflect a different era - not defending this, it is what it is).
Get all these characters, lose their names and background and they play exactly the same roles as any other character would in any other story. I don't believe there's a excess of male sexist and misogynistic writers pushing this so-called "BSY" genre. I believe there's a lack of people using this same structure to create different stories with the same narrative arch but with whoever they want playing whatever actant role, as narratives are not limited to who should their characters be, only real people seem to be this limited (and that's why we read nonsensical articles like this, unfortunately).
Instead of saying stuff like "Audiences should no longer accept this, and filmmakers and screenwriters need to avoid writing BSY", perhaps the message should be to let people write whatever they want but perhaps to consider switching roles if this can help their narrative in any way or make it more interesting (and please, not pushing agendas).

And if you feel offended by any kind of media, don't consume it, it's that simple. I'm tired of this new wave of people who are the enlightened ones and make it their quest to tell other people what they should or should not do according to their own morals. They are just as full of sh*t as everyone else. And I am not surprised to see this article in NFS, not impressed either.

December 6, 2020 at 11:20AM

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Pol
206

That last paragraph is the truth right there. Well said. That sums up the whole problem with this most unfortunate time period we find ourselves in. I feel sorry for kids growing up now. It’s sad and unless people stand up to this preachy bullying then we’re all living in a world where freedom of speech and expression do not exist.

December 6, 2020 at 1:25PM

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Bishop
251

Why ban what works? Girls don't like sci-fi anyway, right? Maybe I am wrong and girls enjoy that born sexy yesterday trope?

December 6, 2020 at 2:31PM, Edited December 6, 2:31PM

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Regis.U
Filmmaker
273

I'm wondering what the "trope" is for female fantasy stereotypes that portray men in an unrealistic way? I seem to remember something about double standards in this modern wode movement. Is it the litany of impossibly stupid male characters that seem to be only good for going to work and being the butt of powerful female and then family-wide jokes? Are there possibly negative society-wide repercussions for these kinds of idiot-male stereotypes? Or those impossibly unrealistic doctor/surgeon/lawyer billionaire wild sex adonis characters who must always be tamed by the feminine, somehow emasculating them into female servants by the end of an exceedingly thin "plot". Apparently "Beauty and the Beast" literally is the construct of the female fantasy from a psychological perspective - and probably explains the success of stories repeatedly rehashed to predominantly female audiences generation in and generation out.

December 6, 2020 at 9:53PM

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Alistair Cotton
Digital Marketer | Videographer | Photographer
115

One problem at a time I guess.
White men built the modern world and set a lot of these rules.
We're only now starting to question those rules, and of course the people who got the short end of the stick got there first.

That doesn't mean they're adversaries, but the last becomes the first, and yes we should draw attention to the fact that we, as men, aren't much in control anymore either, and that we also deal with similar problems.
But not like you do. We should all be in this together.

December 8, 2020 at 12:35AM

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How exactly were "we, as men" ever in control? The control always belonged to a tiny elite, while the average men had the sharp end of the stick reserved for him - being sent off to die or become crippled in wars, having to peform dangerous and unhealthy work, a much shorter life expectancy than women in gerneal etc. pp.

December 8, 2020 at 2:42AM

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Tell that to all the Cosplay-Girls who love those characters: "stop wearing this and put on a marie-curie costume! Where's your Anne-Frank hat?". You are actively promoting the abolition of freedom. Like a priest complaining about the length of women's skirts. In the end we must perform Mass-Masectomies to equalize the playing field, right?

December 7, 2020 at 6:09AM

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Since the most recent example you can give is from 25 years ago, and that I don't see another in the comments, I think hollywood is already done with that.

But that was a great read, really eye opening.

December 8, 2020 at 12:26AM

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I just find astoundingly ironical that the hypocrite who wrote this article uses lipstick and eyeliner to sexualize herself made a case against a sexualized female hero !
Plus, isn't the aim of wearing an oversized tshirt on your avatar photo is to accentuate a childlike naïveté and innocence style ? Which is at the core of the problem pointed at...
Talking about core problem, I would extrapolate that maybe the origin of such article is just a lack of confidence in the auteur's own deflated chest, hidden under an perfectly flat ironed white shirt.
Therefore I believe there lies the real conflict which opposes a proud fully developped capable woman to a screaming preteen weak spoiled child that insists against growing up. Which in my humble opinion illustrates the core porblem of our society today.

December 10, 2020 at 6:29AM

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Martin Brewer
Director, DOP
629

I realized as I watched the clip that (with the exception of the animated stuff) I had seen and enjoyed every one of those films. Honestly made me want to watch some of them again.

December 10, 2020 at 9:53AM

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I swear CT advocates spend so much time 'deconstructing' films they forget to look up and see the world as it really is. How old are these films referenced here? This is a nit-picking of the past through a lens of self-righteousness. No intelligent filmmaker today would consider writing a 'trope' as framed in such a narrow-minded supposition. I agree it can be tiresome to see (and downright cringeworthy the further back you go), but the explanation for such occurrences I suspect has a much deeper and more complex truth, that might surprise us all.

December 10, 2020 at 1:57PM, Edited December 10, 2:33PM

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Derek Boyes
Writer/Director
113

Oh, Alyssa. You weren't born sexy yesterday. Get over it and quit trying to spoil our fun.

December 10, 2020 at 4:53PM

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Marc Strong
Producer
187

This video is an embarrassing, immature statement, brushing on highs school level psychology. It is driven by shallow statement commentary floating on a new wave of "Political Correctness," which in the way is nothing else as a castrating factor of any art and demagogy of self-perpetuated CENSORSHIP.
Yes, it is sad to see those shallow comments...
Where is the ART of film making?

DOP for 30 years - MFA in Cinematography Film School proffesor.
Ciao guys, ;)
Jacek

December 11, 2020 at 12:03AM

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Jacek
Director Of Photography
18

The author is not offering a perspective but forcefully imposing her view as a fact in the name of morality which leaves the most grotesque, cringeworthy feeling in my mouth. You are mixing church and art. The female character in this film is a) tough as nails and b) represents innocence. That is a beautiful and timeless archetype that you will beg to reclaim later in life after being submerged in contentious political correct arguing. Your words and your ideas sound like cookie-cutter regurgitated ideology with trendy keyword phrases. You have no yin and yang to your argument, no complexity, no grey areas, which points to a lack of maturity.

Art and film in this country have been taken hostage by political correctness because your life feel void of meaning and raising your fist in the air gives you a temporary feeling of being alive. The worst part is your feminist ideology has become institutionalized so nearly every decision in film is now based on “how can I not hurt anyone’s feelings and be correct morally.” That is the foundation for tyrannical group think media where many, many parts of the human psyche will become oppressed. I get the sense you are in your late teens but as you get older you will discover what Carl Jung said is true, “that which resists persists.”

December 13, 2020 at 5:34PM

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