Lessons in Becoming Heterosexual: Heterosexual culture in People on Sunday (1930) and Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)
‘What do you mean better in bed? You either do it or you don’t’
‘No. There are like variables that I might not be good at.’
Interrupted in this way, it seems that Stacy is about to make the argument that there is more to sex and sexuality than what we do in bed. However, useful as Fast Times at Ridgemont High is to understanding heterosexuality, particularly how it encompasses a broader set of activities than the sex act, the film is not going to fight our battles for us. The word on the tip of her tongue at the point of interruption is ‘blowjobs’, an act that precisely no one will be surprised to learn has something to do with sex. But we don’t see a blowjob in the film. Instead we see people swimming, shopping, flipping burgers and dressing up as Pat Benatar. These are all acts that the film codes as heterosexual and part of a heterosexual culture. Early on in the film a student has a sticker saying ‘I am a homo’ slapped onto his back, reminding us of how there are no openly homosexual characters in the film. However, even if everyone is heterosexual, not everything they do is heterosexual.
In these notes I am going to firstly look at what the film prioritises as important in heterosexuality through the narrative, comic and character-to-character ‘lessons’ it gives. Then I will discuss People on Sunday, a film from a completely different era and country. In looking at its depiction of a group of Berliners as a whole society ‘becomes heterosexual’ I will read the film for clues behind this societal transformation. I will analyse what is distinct about this form of heterosexuality and what preceded it. It too is a film that gives lessons: lessons in metropolitan heterosexuality (how to be heterosexual) to its contemporary audience and lessons about the same phenomenon (how did it come to be) to us. Having used People on Sunday as an opportunity to unpack a culture of heterosexuality richer than the sex act focused on in teen films, I will look again at Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the further significance of Stacy and Mark ‘becoming heterosexual’. How can we use one film’s lessons about heterosexuality to deconstruct the other’s lessons in heterosexuality?
When Mr Hand, the US History teacher in Fast Times At Ridgemont Hight, turns up at Jeff ‘stoned-since-the-third-grade’ Spicoli’s house on the night of the prom, planning to pay him back for a term’s worth of truancy, lateness and pizza-delivery-related-disruption, he estimates that Spicoli has wasted over eight hours of class time. Certainly, in the sequences that take us into the history classroom, their time seems completely given over to displays of authority and displays of rebellion, rather than actual teaching. When Mr Vargas, the school biology teacher, enthusiastically leads a class field trip around the local hospital’s maternity ward and morgue to witness how its doctors ‘take care of us in life and in death’, the irony is that the film’s protagonist, Stacy Hamilton, has recently had a tour of her own when she had her unwanted pregnancy aborted.
For the film’s characters, principally freshmen Stacy and Mark ‘Rat’ Ratner, any lessons are given and received outside of the classroom: how Stacy can exploit her position as a waitress to approach an older stereo salesman; how Stacy can ask him out; how Stacy can have sex with him; how Stacy can give oral sex; how Mark can ‘send out a vibe’ by ‘moving across the room’ in a certain way; how Mark can implement his friend Mike Damone’s ‘five-point plan’ to ensure a successful date. Rather than Mr Hand or Mr Vargas, the real pedagogues are their older friends Damone and Linda, although even their supposed expertise is undermined by the insights we get into their own relationships: the nearest Linda’s much bragged-about mature boyfriend gets to an on-screen appearance is when he fails to escort Linda to the prom; similarly, the only person we ever see picking up on, and responding to, the ‘vibe’ that Damone sends out is his best friend’s love interest, who he then proceeds to have disastrous sex with. Their advice also seems deficient: Linda fails to caution Stacy against unprotected sex while Damone never thinks to mention what an appropriate vibe for Mark to send out might be, in the event of his best friend and mentor betraying him.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s famous blowjob lesson sequence points towards the way in which the film sees how sexual education might successfully be transmitted. Shots of Stacy attempting to ingest the details of Linda’s practical lesson are intercut with three shots of a table of boys watching, giggling and eventually cheering. As the girls realise that their lesson was more of a public demonstration than a private tutorial, they collapse in embarrassment. As when Brad is caught masturbating by Linda, the theme of the lesson is revealed to be not ‘what to do in the bedroom’ so much as ‘what not to do in public’. The lesson is learnt through experience rather than instruction. This holds true for the film’s most important lessons which are offered through comic set-pieces and longer narrative arcs that proscribe the same mistakes that the characters make: don’t have unprotected sex, don’t forget your wallet when on a date, don’t wank with the door unlocked, go for the nice guy not his bad boy friend… But, the film seems to say, if we learn through experience it doesn’t have to be our own. The giggling schoolboys watching Linda and Stacy in the cafeteria provide a not wholly unfair spectatorial model for the film and point to an extra-diegetic resonance for the film’s lessons. In addition to titillation and amusement, the cafeteria episode offers the boys the same lesson as it does the girls. Similarly, the film offers the same lessons to the spectator, through the use of narrative as a surrogate for experience.
Some heterosexuals learning
By comparing Fast Times at Ridgemont High with the 1930 proto-realist film People on Sunday, I want to suggest that many of these lessons in the film have as much to do with becoming heterosexual as they do with becoming sexually active. People on Sunday opens by declaring that it is ‘a film without actors’ and that the five protagonists had never appeared before a camera before. Philip Kemp’s notes in the BFI edition of the film back this up: ‘the five principals actually worked in the jobs described in the film, taxi driver, music shop assistant, wine salesman, film extra, model[i]’. Without making too much of the film’s apparent realism – the film is still scripted and edited – its location shooting and ‘slice of life’ narrative provide a good opportunity to read it for social and historical change. In Nights Out (2012) her study of cosmopolitan London in the early twentieth century, Judith Walkowitz marks the first decades of the twentieth century as the point at which heterosexuality ‘stepped out as normalized state of erotic pleasure independent of reproduction for both men and women[ii]’. This comment draws on previous work such as Jonathan Katz’s landmark The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995), which takes a lexical history of heterosexuality as a starting point to argue that heterosexuality itself is a relatively recent phenomenon and therefore one that is not fixed or eternal[iii]. These notes are not the place to enter into a debate about the origins (neurological, biological, cultural, social etc) of heterosexuality but what we can acknowledge is that it changes. Even if heterosexuality may not have been ‘invented’ at the beginning of the twentieth century, as Katz provocatively suggests, a different kind of heterosexuality did emerge. This was characterised by an emphasis on sex for the sake of pleasure rather than procreation and, to perhaps an even greater extent, an emphasis on related activities: girl watching, boy watching, flirting, promenading, chatting up strangers, public petting, cinema going, public bathing, personal grooming, fashion, dancing, sun bathing, and so on. Firstly then, the ‘destination’ changed from procreation to sex; secondly, the ‘stepping-stones’ to sex multiplied and became more visible, as courting became less formal and policed and became attached to other emerging leisure activities; and finally, the stepping-stones became destinations in themselves. This is truer of some stepping-stones than others. For example, while fashion and grooming existed outside of heterosexual culture and have always been ‘destinations’, public flirting and promiscuousness have made the transition from things people do before settling down – ‘sowing one’s wild oats– to semi-acceptable things people do all their life.
Taking one city as its focus, Berlin, People on Sunday shows its protagonists adjusting to the rhythms of this new kind of heterosexual life. Filmed two years previously, the experimental documentary Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin: Die Sinfonie Der Großtadt) can be read as a celebration of all the new things that one could see in a modern, industrialised and spectacular city. Over Berlin: Symphony of A Great City’s sixty-five minutes we see traditional staged visual stimuli such as cabaret as well as newer forms such as billboards, advertisements, display windows and street performers. We also see indications of the relatively new ways of consuming visual stimuli favoured by the flâneur, such as clean and generously sized pavements, the terrace seating in cafés and the transitory crowd. However, if Berlin: Symphony of A Great City consistently claims that the city is one of looking and watching, People on Sunday suggests that it is a city of doing. As implied earlier, the film demonstrates how many of these activities are all heterosexual: they either exist as stepping-stone activities to (non-procreative) sex or can easily be co-opted for the purposes of flirting or producing opportunities for bodily contact.
A crowd forms around a street trader in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)
On a Saturday afternoon Wolfgang wanders the area around Bahnhoff Zoo, spies Christl, circles her and approaches her. The two go for a coffee and make plans to meet up the next day. Christl may or may not have been waiting for a date. Later that evening Erwin and Annie discuss going to the cinema. On Sunday Christl and her friend Brigitte travel out to Wannsee to meet Erwin and Wolfgang. The four swim, eat sausages and wander around the forest before Wolfgang and Brigitte break off together. Later the four take a pedalo out onto the lake, where the men flirt with a different set of women. At each point in this very simple narrative, the film signals the potential for banal activities to become sexed: strolling can be a way of girl watching and or even sharking (the Flaneur becomes a Drageur); drinking coffee can be a way of asking a girl out; cinema going can be a romantic night out; swimming can be a more physical form of flirting; a forest trek can be a prelude to sex; riding a pedalo on the lake can become flirting (again). This demonstration can be considered a kind of introductory class, a twentieth century heterosexual propaedeutics, indicating further necessary lessons: how can women like Christl avoid the attention of ‘gigolos’ such as Wolfgang, how can young couples like Erwin and Annie make their relationships work, how might Brigitte better read Wolfgang’s intentions etc…
People on Sunday offered a 1930 audience an introductory class in metropolitan heterosexual living. Today, it offers us some clues into what changes helped introduce the metropolitan heterosexual. The most readily apparent are economic changes. The film’s ‘Sunday’ narrative is framed by sequences of a Saturday at work and a Monday at work. Each of the film’s protagonists are employed in relatively new jobs that centre on the leisure and entertainment industries: record shop assistant, taxi driver, film extra, model, gigolo and wine salesman. Arriving hand-in-hand with the economic freedom to enjoy the hetereosexual leisure activities depicted in the film was the necessary leisure time: between 1925 and 1932, the average working week for a Berliner fell from 50 hours to 41 hours[iv].
As leisure time, economic freedom and the city’s population increased, the city’s government responded. Mathew Gandy describes how urban lakes on the city’s boundaries, such as the Wannsee, became the focus of political and social debates about access to nature for the working class[v]. ‘No longer restricted to functional or ornamental domains, a new set of interactions between water, the human body, and urban space can be discerned[vi].’ New activities involving water emerged: sun bathing, swimming and enjoying pedalos and boats. As Berliners learnt to enjoy water rather than simply use it, some of the pleasures derived were distinctly sexual. Wolfgang and Erwin for example, quickly take advantage of the opportunities for social and physical contact that the lakes provide, flirting first with Brigitte and Christl and then with some other women they meet on the lake. Sequences of the four enjoying the water are intercut with sequences of hundreds of other Berliners also enjoying it: families, children, elderly men and women. Comparing the four to other city-dwellers enjoying a Sunday by the lakes arguably legitimises and normalises their sexual use of the space and activity. John Henry MacKay’s The Hustler: A Story of Nameless Love (1926) provides an alternative mapping of the city, highlighting boy bars and pick up spots around Friedrichstraße, sites where homosexual activity has been driven underground. In contrast, the lakes the four travel out to on busy transport links are distinctly overground; heterosexuality is depicted simply as something that people do on Sunday.
Map from The Hustler: A Story of a Nameless Love (1926)
Despite the film’s emphasis on the novel practice of going out to the lakes, probably the most popular leisure activity to emerge in this time was cinema going. As a culture, cinema going then, as it does now, was about more than just the act of watching films, taking in a broad set of overlapping activities: dating, socialising, eating, drinking, buying fan magazines, discussing stars, emulating stars etc… Some of these are of course heterosexual: a young couple, Annie and Erwin plan to visit the cinema on a Saturday night. The cinema is a space where (not to the full extent implied by the term) they can be heterosexual, much as the lakes of the Wannsee are. Cinema’s emergence also constitutes a further cultural change that effects a new kind of heterosexuality, one that forms a cult around love. Narrative cinema, particularly Classical Hollywood, almost always privileges a heterosexual pairing as one of two principal ways of resolving a narrative. In addition, the rise of the star system provides models of quintessential heterosexuals for men and women like Erwin and Annie to aspire to meet, attract, be like and look like. Annie’s collection of headshots of stars such as Greta Garbo and Willy Fritsch, and her career as a model, is a reminder of the links between the fashion industry and the star system. At the same time, the sequence that intercuts shots of her getting ready to go out with shots of the her collection of memorabilia is reminiscent of Judith Walkowitz’s interviews with Soho-ites who came of age in the twenties and their accounts of emulating Hollywood stars before going out[vii].
Annie in front of her postcards of film stars
Emulating film stars in make up and dress, a heterosexual in a metropolis such as Berlin would also have opportunities to emulate their behaviour. In 1903 Georg Simmel described the psychological effect of metropolitan life as a ‘the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift in external and internal stimuli[viii]’. Between 1850 and 1900 the population of the city more than trebled from 418,733 to 1,888,848, while the city continued to grow in the twentieth century to 4,024,286 in 1925. Although this final spike is attributed to the widening of the city’s borders in 1920 with the Greater Berlin Act, infrastructural developments would have continued to see an increase in the total number of people circulating through the city centre. Traffic, noise, crowds and the kinds of proliferating spectacles seen in Berlin: Symphony of A Great City all created a barrage of stimuli that have been read by first and second wave modernity theorists for psychological effects such as disorientation, estrangement and alienation[ix]. While life in the modern city would at times have meant unpleasantness and awkwardness, the sequence of Wolfgang and Christl’s meeting makes clear that it would also have created opportunities for fleeting relationships.
Wolfgang sees and approaches Christl in the street
Wolfgang’s day out takes in three different spaces: a shop window display, the street and a café terrace. His journey and his meeting with Christl signal another important change – first technological and architectural and then cultural – that facilitated heterosexual meetings. The transition from horse drawn carts to motor cars, and the infrastructural developments to facilitate this new traffic, resulted in wider cleaner roads and wider cleaner pavements. The invention of electric lighting gave a whole host of things to look at from these pavements, as shops competed with more and more extravagant window displays, and in addition helped make these new spaces safe for both sexes. Sixty years previous to the making of the film, Christl would have had no reason to find herself idling in the street (to the extent that Wolfgang assumed she was waiting for someone), and good reasons to avoid doing so, such as hygiene and personal safety. Janet Ward’s analysis of the Weimar display window as the ‘primary mise-en-scène of the designs and desires of Weimar consumerism’ in Weimar Surfaces talks about ’the daily acts of (commercial) seduction’ [x] that occurred on these sites. However, as attractions in their own right (think Selfridges at Christmas time) they were, like the cinema, bar, fairground or park, no doubt sites of another kind of seduction entirely. Between Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) and Janet Ward’s Weimar Surfaces, much has been made about the links between an emerging consumerism and an emerging spectacularisation of modern life. To this I would like to add a third strand, an emerging heterosexuality.
Brigitte and Wolfgang in front of shop windows
What is my purpose in bringing together these very different texts from very different historical periods? Throughout these notes I have been using the term ‘lesson’ to describe different kinds of inter and extra-diegetic messages and latent textual readings. Mr Hand and Mr Vargas give lessons about discipline, History and Biology; Mike Damone and Linda Barrett give lessons about courting and sex; the experiences of the characters in Fast Times at Ridgemont High are narrativised into easily digestible social and sexual lessons; People on Sunday offered lessons in ‘how to be a metropolitan heterosexual’ to its contemporary audience, and offers lessons in ‘how a metropolitan heterosexual came to be’ to us. My intention is that, even allowing for the shift in place, by understanding what was novel and distinct about heterosexuality in the early twentieth century, we might understand what was taken for granted about heterosexuality in the early 80s. The ‘lessons’ in Fast Times At Ridgemont High focus on the narrow ‘destinations’ of sex and love. ‘I’ve finally figured it out’, Stacy tells Linda. ‘I don’t want sex. I want a relationship’. However, the film’s protagonists actually emerge into a culture of heterosexuality as rich as that seen in People on Sunday.
The film’s opening sequence for example shows us how heterosexuality can encompass a much broader range of activities than sex itself. Like the ‘stepping stone’ activities in People on Sunday, we see Damone eye up a girl tying her shoelaces, a pair of girls watching Brad walk into the mall, Linda and the other waitresses watching and then discussing an older stereo salesman, unnamed teenagers flirting in restaurants, cafes and arcades, Stacy flirting with the stereo salesman, two unnamed teenagers walking with their hands in each others pockets, the camera panning across an array of female bodies crouched over arcade machines and Brad and his girlfriend flirting behind the counter at work. At one point Mark Ratner complains to Damone that ‘all the action is on the other side of the mall’. His problem is not that his job cuts him off from the kind of social encounters that the girls in the restaurant have. The previous shot shows how his job brings him into contact with streams of people. He has simply failed to grasp what seemingly everyone else has: how to transform benign activities such as waitressing, flipping burgers or shopping into heterosexual ones.
People doing heterosexual stuff
‘Just take his order, look him in the eye and if he says anything remotely funny, laugh like you’ve never heard anything like it before’
His opposite, Stacy, ‘becomes heterosexual’, not when she sleeps with the stereo salesman but at the moment when she resolves to flirt with him. No one else in the film is shown having sex, not even her older friend or older brother. In this way, becoming sexually active excludes rather than includes her: shots showing her having sex in part of an abandoned sports field, Mark Ratner getting cold feet and walking out on her, Damone ejaculating prematurely and also walking out on her and most of all her lonely trip to get her pregnancy aborted. In contrast, the moment when she is most included is when she enters the rich culture of heterosexuality that we see in the film’s opening shots and that Mark feels cut off from. This includes talking about sex and engaging in stepping stone activities but not actually doing it.
In contrast to say, Brad’s fantasy of Linda which casts her as a gleaming centrefold, Stacy has sex and ends up looking like Manet’s Olympia.
The first finding from comparing the two films is that the culture of heterosexuality in Fast Times At Ridgemont High is richer and more varied than the lessons of Linda, Damone and the film’s narrative would have us believe. The second, by looking at how heterosexuality in People on Sunday is imbricated in the moment of modernity, is that heterosexuality in Fast Times At Ridgemont High is also imbricated in a similar moment, that of post-modernity. When the film’s titles appear in the opening credits there is an obvious mistake: we are not looking at a high school but a mall. However, this dislocation between image and text, appears more as an attempt at correction than an error. The mall, what Anne Friedberg calls ‘the key topos of postmodern urban space[xi]’, turns out to be the site on which heterosexual culture plays out in the film, not the school. A quick survey of other high school films suggests that this isn’t always the case: In Porkys (1982) ‘fast times’ do take place in the school and less successfully at the eponymous strip club; in American Graffiti (1973) sex is policed in the school dance but less so in the characters’ cars; in Dazed and Confused (1993) teenagers are shuffled from a suburban party to their cars and then to an outdoor party. The spaces of sex in teen films deserve a study of their own. My feeling is that, as a premature version of hetero-normativity, teen sex is almost always depicted in semi-underground spaces, in house parties, cars and houses that have been vacated for the weekend rather than in say nightclubs or public toilets, as gay sex might be.
That’s not a high school
However, we’ve already established that we’re talking about something broader than teen sex: heterosexuality. This takes place in the mall, where the five main characters are so assimilated into a post-modern capitalist society that they are not just consumers, going to the mall to shop and be heterosexual: they are workers. Mark, Stacy, Linda, Damone, Brad all hold positions of responsibility in the mall that distinguish them. When entering heterosexual culture, these positions seem more important to the characters than the classical high school archetypes as Damone and Linda each use their younger friend’s job titles to reassure them: ‘You’re the assistant to the assistant manager’ etc…. Indeed, apart from Spicoli who is heavily coded as the school slacker, it is unclear how everyone else fits in. How closely heterosexuality and capitalism are intertwined is clear when Brad’s dismissal from All American Burger precipitates his downward spiral: he loses his job, his girlfriend dumps him, he is caught masturbating and is then ridiculed for the pirate outfit he wears in a less prestigious fast-food job. Throughout all of this the fact that he is a senior and that he drives an expensive car seem to make no difference. At the same time, out of the film’s principal characters, the one who is least active in the culture of heterosexuality depicted is also the one who is most outside of a capitalist system: Spicoli. He is a desiring heterosexual, dreaming about being flanked by women and decorating his bedroom with centrefolds, but seems to make no efforts to date anyone in real life. As Brad points out, he has no money because he has no job and when he is rewarded with a lump sum, he ‘blows it’ by hiring Van Halen to play his birthday party. In Fast Times and Ridgemont High capitalism and heterosexuality seem to maintain each other.
I have tried to show how the shock of bringing together two very different films can help us when thinking about something that is so obvious, so pervasive and so taken for granted that it is almost invisible. Looking at heterosexuality in People on Sunday when it was novel, can help arm us with the right research questions to understand it fifty years later and in an entirely different context. This is not however, a history of how the filmic representation of heterosexuality changed in those years. The full story would need to look at a bigger corpus of films (which luckily exists in the case of teen films). Bringing the two films together also points to other pressing questions: as indicated earlier, a sustained analysis of sex spaces in teen films. Stacy’s narrative, where she seems to go too far by actually having sex and finds happiness in a sex-less relationship, makes me wonder how often teen films seek to distinguish and separate heterosexual acts from sex. This would create a ‘safe’ culture that had it both ways, playing on erotic pleasure but without having to show what for some would be unthinkable.
Always worth seeing again
[i] Kemp, Philip. ‘People on Sunday’, BFI, 2000
[ii] Walkowitz, Judith, Nights Out: Life In Cosmopolitan London, Yale University Press, 2012
[iii] Katz, Jonathan, The Invention of Heterosexuality, University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 12
[iv] Hoffmann, Walther, G. Das Wachstum Der Deutschen Wirtschaft seit der Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts, Springer-Verlag, 1965, pp. 214 cited by Ward, Janet. Weimar Surfaces, University of California Press, 2001, pp. 33
[v] Gandy, Mathew. ‘Borrowed Light: Journeys Through Weimar Berlin’, in The fabric of space: water, modernity and the urban imagination” (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013). pp. 57
[vi] Gandy, Mathew. Ibid. pp. 53
[vii] Walkowitz, Judith. Ibid. pp. 186
[viii] Simmel, Georg. The Metropolis and Mental Life. 1903. pp. 1
[ix] Singer, Benjamin. ‘Modernity, Hyperstimulus and the Rise of popular Sensationalism’. taken from Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life ed. Schwartz & Chaney. 1994, pp. 53
[x]Ward. Janet. Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany. University of California Press. 2001
[xi] Friedberg, Anne. Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. University of California Press. 1993