Don’t give a damn about your reputation

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Where to start with a movie like Easy A? A witty, intelligent high school girl gets tangled up in social politics. It’s been done, surely, and there are any number of angles this review could take.

I could discuss the literary basis for the movie, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, but I’m afraid I’ve never read it.

I could talk about how virginity is treated in teen comedies, but that’s already been done far more eloquently than I could ever manage.

I could focus on the John Hughes movies Easy A both recalls and emulates, but I’m not enough of a fan to make a really good point.

But the main character’s red hair — now there’s something of substance.

In pop culture, redheads are feisty, passionate and risqué. Temptresses in a sea of brunettes and blondes. For Olive (Emma Stone), the girl whose sexual identity lies at the heart of the film, it seems as if casting did not really have a choice in the matter. Like Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles and Alyson Hannigan in the American Pie franchise, even when inexperienced, the redhead has her eye on a boy and through the laws of Hollywood he ends up looking right back at her. The same scenario also happens to Lindsay Lohan’s character in Mean Girls, still fresh in the memory of many critics, and the comparisons between her and Stone are apt. Despite where Lohan is now, Stone should be flattered.

Easy A certainly owes a debt to Mean Girls, but while that was a story about revenge, Easy A is about helping people — the bullied, the nerdy, the unappealing — motivated by compassion and gift cards. Her own reputation in tatters after a rumor spreads about her losing her virginity, Olive helps boost the reputation of others because a double standard exists both in real life and in the movies: sexually active men are studs and women are sluts. For a fee, Olive will lie about going to any number of bases, and only the popularity of the boy involved benefits. She, on the other hand, is harassed and teachers call her into their offices out of concern.

Getting the short end of the stick doesn’t seem like fun, but Olive is not easily shamed and tries to make the best of it. She decides to own her unearned reputation by dressing provocatively and sewing a scarlet letter “A” on her shirts. Her message is a progressive one to make, even in a post-Sex and the City world (why should women be shamed for their sexual history?), but the reality of high school must be intelligently addressed as well. Even for such a confident person, the rumors become too much. Olive becomes a means to an end instead of a person and the attention she receives isn’t the kind she wants. Like the ’80s movie heroines Olive so admires, she laments the lack of a Jake Ryan or Blane McDonough in her life. Boys are the problem and the solution. Isn’t that always the way in a story like this?

Like most redheads at the centre of a teen movie, Olive has a blonde arch-nemesis, an outspoken Christian girl named Marianne (played as annoyingly as only Amanda Bynes can), who spread the initial rumor. Marianne is the Regina George to Mean Girls’ Cady Heron; the Benny Hanson to Pretty in Pink’s Andie Walsh.

Usually the high school nemesis role boils down to the character just being a terrible, terrible person. But unlike those other girls, Marianne is motivated by religion and her desire to see Olive judged for her actions. This different take is decidedly contemporary in the wake of oft-stereotyped Evangelical Christianity in the United States, but the demonization is done heavy-handedly. There is no counterpoint to Marianne and her friends’ religious fervor, and her character never gets redeemed, only judged herself.

Easy A is a good vehicle for calling out a number of issues present in society: the difficulties of being bullied in school, double standards and religious hypocrisy. And the advice it offers? Don’t give a damn about your reputation — a message every teen comedy seems to make, but done here with skill in an enjoyable and unpredictable way.

A for “awesome,” indeed.