Teens Talk Gender and Sexuality and Hollywood Listens

Sarah Seltzer

A film contest results in production by Hollywood professionals of three scripts written by female teen authors exploring the powerful and damaging messages about what it means to be male.

A Hispanic high school senior struggles to reconcile his image as the big man on campus with his secret suspicion that he might be gay. A promising student–his class’s valedictorian–from Texas’s Rio Grande Valley has to decide between a scholarship to Stanford, pressure from his community to stay among them, and pressure from his mom to be the man of the house. A young African-American man whose father was abusive, withholding  and stern finds himself tortured by a masculine ideal of “hardness” to which he ultimately can’t live up.

These were the premises, loosely summarized, of three new films written by teenagers (all female, incidentally) in high schools from under-served pockets of our nation that premiered in New York last week. All three scripts were were penned in response to an open-ended question about gender identity: “What’s the real deal with masculinity?” The three young women submitted scripts to their teachers, won a major nationally-judged contest–and then had their scripts produced and directed by Hollywood regulars with all the attendant editing and professional finesse.

The entire process–school curriculum, contest, film-making process–is part of a program called “The Real Deal” from Scenarios USA. In a fascinating twist, the curriculum and contest was actually inspired by similar programs in France and West Africa, programs which utilized screenwriting contests to help students deal with HIV and AIDS and get them talking about prevention in realistic scenarios, as opposed to abstract ones. But of course, the American version of the program, which this year focused on schools in New York, Cleveland and the Rio Grande Valley, has the heft of Hollywood to give it an extra sparkle. Eventually, the winning films are screened on local TV station and networks like Showtime, as well as at the kind of glitzy premiere replete with open bar and red carpet I attended in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood last week.

The films I saw at the Scenarios USA New York premiere Tuesday night were raw and in one case, literally bloody, but lightened with endearing flecks of teenage humor and an overwhelming earnestness. A viewer sitting near me me told me he had to leave the room because (at least he intimated) that one of the films spoke so powerfully to him he needed some air. A feeling of dread hangs palpably over all three young male protagonists as they confront their ideas about manhood; one can literally feel their futures in the balance. That verisimilitude comes from the fact that the scenarios in the film mirror the lives of the young women who wrote it, and the men around them. When an audience member asked why these women felt privileged to comment on masculinity, one of them wisely responded that the media’s impossible-to-live-up-to image of masculinity is degrading to women. “It affects our lives,” she explained.

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In the past, Scenarios USA participants have been given topics beyond masculinity, including HIV and AIDS, pregnancy prevention, body image, sexual identity and more. Instead of being squeamish or embarrassed as they might in a typical health education class, participants tackle the most complex, painful, shadowy corners of these issues.

Students have chosen to focus on abusive families, abortion, condom usage, bullying, eating disorders, and sexual pressure from partners. Watch a few films from past years here (of particular note to Rewire is The Choices We Make, in which a young couple struggles over whether to have an abortion). Personally, I’ve found the films available online totally addictive. The scripts are written with broad strokes, and occasionally seem contrived or didactic, but so do most Hollywood scripts written by industry professionals. On the other hand, the Scenarios USA films are tantalizingly, brutally honest and they offer a genuine glimpse into the minds of the most thoughtful, imaginative teens who are actively thinking about all the nuances and issues that we in the reproductive health community talk through all the time. And one of the major insights we get from the films is teens’ thoughts on parenting–every kind of parent from abusive to absent to supportive to overbearing shows up in these films.

The program has great implications for sex education in our country. The contest itself is a self-perpetuating cycle of education. Teachers use previously-produced films to broach those previously-tacked topics with students, and Scenarios USA even provides lesson plans to accompany the films. Students then enter the new contests, using their own creative faculties to spin tales relating to the chosen issue.

It’s impossible to replicate Scenarios USA’s program in every single classroom in the country. And as a former teacher I believe that creative projects need to accompany serious analysis. But what’s most instructive about the model is that teaching students about sexuality and gender issues, even more than teaching them math or English, needs to focus on relevant, real-life scenarios generated by students themselves. And the final product of the films shows that when we ask teenagers to respond to difficult topics, they’ll step up to the plate.

Watch one of this year’s winners discuss her film at the NYC premiere below:

Writer Treviny Colon talks about the film MAN IN THE MIRROR from Camino PR on Vimeo.

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