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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.