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.

Appreciate our work?

Vote now! And help Rewire earn a bigger grant from CREDO:


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.

Commentary Media

Let’s Talk About Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Gender, and Sexuality

Erin McKelle

If Kimye can show us anything, it’s that we still have a long way to go when it comes to smashing gender roles.

Erin McKelle is a student studying at Ohio University and one of Rewire‘s youth voices.

If you aren’t living under a rock, you’ve probably heard the big news that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West got married, following on the heels of being featured on the April cover of Vogue, with Kardashian wearing what seems to resemble a wedding dress.

There is a lot to celebrate about Kimye’s relationship. They are not playing by society’s traditional rules for relationships and don’t seem to care what anyone thinks about it. For example, they not just became pregnant but had a baby before their wedding and yet avoided the stigma that often goes along with premarital pregnancy. Further, they are both successful entrepreneurs in their own right.

I’ll admit it: I’m a huge Kardashian fan. I’ve been following the family, watching their many TV shows, and wishing that I’d been born with a name that starts with a “K” since 2009. So, I’ve closely watched the relationship between Kardashian and West unfold since they became a couple, and I’m interested in how their relationship as viewed through the public eye reveals that society has enduringly negative approaches to gender and sexuality.

Appreciate our work?

Vote now! And help Rewire earn a bigger grant from CREDO:


One of the first things I noticed after they started dating was Kardashian’s drastic wardrobe change. You might remember her in the past having worn a lot of body-conscious dresses, belted tops with leggings or jeans, and bright colors and patterns. Soon after she started dating West, she was seen wearing almost all neutral colors, a lot of leather, and different cuts and fits. Her makeup also became subtler, as her previously signature smoky eye all but disappeared from her look. On Keeping Up With the Kardashians, there was an episode that featured the inner workings of this change, as West and his stylist threw away most of the contents of Kardashian’s closet and brought in new, high-fashion designs. She was so upset that at one point she started crying. While I understand that as a television show this was probably staged, it just really didn’t seem like a change that she wanted in her own right. In fact, the way it was staged, it seemed to me like Kanye West was making her his personal Barbie doll.

This is not to say that the clothes she wears (or doesn’t wear) define Kardashian; from what we can gather about her in the media, fashion has always been a huge part of her life and her career. Before her fame, she owned a clothing store with her sisters (that now has expanded to include sister stores) and was a wardrobe stylist for celebrities. Now, she has her own clothing line with her sisters, owns jewelry companies, and recently launched a kid’s collection. Fashion is a massive part of her image and something she’s clearly passionate about. What she wears is a big deal to her, or especially her public persona. The public persona distinction is important because Kardashian is a reality TV star, which means that everything she chooses to put on camera is not necessarily who she is but rather a carefully curated image presented for the consumption of others.

As the relationship has progressed, Kardashian seemed to show less of her pre-Kanye personal identity to the public. She was noticeably not as active in her career, and West was noticeably not on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. I almost cringed when his name was brought up on camera, since every other partner she has had appeared on the show, and it seems reasonable to expect she probably wanted West to be a part of it. After she gave birth to their daughter North last year, she took leave from her career (although she had a few brief appearance on the show), later joining West in touring around the country. I saw Kardashian putting West’s career ahead of her own, which is not at all like the Kim Kardashian of a couple of years ago.

While Kardashian was briefly married to Kris Humphries, it was reported that he wanted her to move to Minnesota with him and stay home to raise any children they were going to have. She vehemently disagreed and ensured Humphries that she was never going to move to Minnesota and that her career came first. At the very least, this was the perception she chose to present to the public on her reality show. 

Kim Kardashian seems to have changed. Now, if these are things Kardashian wants to do, or are just a part of her personal evolution, more power to her. But there’s something about this that feels … strange.

She has in many ways highlighted (even if not intentionally) the ways in which her relationship with West reflects traditional, sexist ideas about marriage and parenthood. She recently said on Ellen that West “is not a diaper changing kind of guy.” And although she insisted he would in an emergency, she made it very clear on the show that she is the one doing the care-taking. This sort of declared helplessness is a gendered behavior that contributes to sex segregation at work and home, since men are viewed as ignorant and above doing “women’s work.”

During West’s Yeezus tour last year, she joined him for a radio interview he was doing with Angie Martinez. She said she was tagging along to be “wifey for the day,” to which West responded that she was “wifey for the life, now.” That’s fine, but why isn’t West showing up to support Kardashian’s ventures and business dealings? It seems that being “hubby for life” has a different set of rules and criteria—rules that reflect patriarchal ideas about gender and sexuality. It also seems like she’s trying to simultaneously appear as a businesswoman who is in control of her brand and image, while also being a loving partner and mother. This metaphorical pull-and-tug comes across as a bit confusing to her audience.

West raps about Kardashian in many of his songs, mostly in sexually explicit and misogynistic ways. A recent example of this is in the remix of “Drunk in Love,” in which West says he knew Kardashian could be his spouse when he “impregnated” her mouth. His valuation of Kardashian as a potential spouse based on sexual performance is an example of objectification.

In his new song that will be featured on Future’s album, he calls her his “number one trophy wife.” He also says about Kardashian’s sisters, “You could look at Kylie, Kendall, Kourtney and Khloe. All your mama ever made was trophies, right?”

You don’t have to read too much into that to see the sexism. West is turning Kardashian into an object, while also erasing all of her and her families’ accomplishments. Let’s not forget all the reality stars that have been discarded by the public. It takes some skill to build a multimillion-dollar reality TV empire. So with this savvy, it’s curious that Kim does not address Kanye’s lyrics about her or other things Kanye-related, beyond him being her partner. Clearly there is more happening than meets the eye.

This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to celebrate when looking at their relationship, however. They are an interracial couple in a nation where only 15 percent of new marriages are interracial (this represents some progress since interracial marriages weren’t even legal in all 50 states until 1967). I think their relationship represents working against what is still considered “the norm”—they’ve faced some public racism against their pairing, with one man harassing Kardashian in a parking lot, allegedly called her a “n- lover.”

It’s also important to note that Kardashian represents a woman using her sexuality for her own gain. Most women who are objectified and praised for their beauty and sexuality (like Kate Upton, for instance) are in industries run by and for men, which is part of a system of exploitation. They are a part of a patriarchal society that treats women as sex objects, that tells them to be sex objects, while simultaneously shaming them for being too sexy. Kardashian has been in control of her own career, and while her sexuality has been a central component of it, she’s always been in the driver’s seat. No one can argue that Kardashian has been a victim of the industry. She’s reinvented it.

West similarly has become one of the most popular rappers of this generation. He clearly has a lot of musical talent and didn’t come from money or prestige. He’s a self-made man who became a household name in music.

They are two people who have made a name for themselves in their respective industries.

This brings me to their recent Vogue spread and cover.

Looking at the photos from that photo shoot critically, a few distinct patterns emerge. For one, in every photo that includes their baby, West is the one holding her, which is a welcome change from the traditionally gendered nature of their relationship. The photos create a transgressive narrative of gender and sexuality, as fathers typically aren’t seen as primary caregivers in society, and pictures tend to act as symbols for wider cultural conditioning. I can’t think of many pictures that feature a heterosexual couple with a baby in which the father is holding the child.

The spread also features Kardashian in a variety of white gowns, seemingly representing wedding dresses. Importantly, the outfits don’t appear particularly sexualized. This is a rarity in a culture of objectification.

The interview itself focused on the dynamics of their relationship. Kardashian was definitely where the interviewer focused though, which was refreshing to see, since the dynamics with heterosexual couples usually place focus on the man, because of our culture’s implicit emphasis on masculinity. Usually the audience is reminded that the woman is feminine—and femininity is devalued in our broader culture even if it is exalted in fashion magazines like Vogue. Interviews that aren’t inherently based in sexism, but reinforce gender, place women in a bind, so that the audience devalues them because of their femininity, and doesn’t respect them. It is, in a word, misogyny.

Kimye’s relationship as represented in the public eye offers fans some possibilities for new models of relationships, but ultimately reenacts many of the traditional dynamics of heterosexual relationships. They are both presented in very gendered ways and they themselves are seen acting out assigned gender roles. For Kardashian, this interacts with misogyny as she is scrutinized in ways West will never be. Gender roles are becoming increasingly destabilized, but if Kimye can show us anything, it’s that we still have a long way to go.

Sex::Tech Conference on New Media, Youth and Sexual Health

Brady Swenson

Watch the Sex::Tech conference as health and technology professionals, youth, parents and community leaders discuss new media and its impact on sexual health. 

Sex::Tech 2011 is a two-day annual conference hosted by ISIS, Inc. that brings health and technology professionals together with youth, parents and community leaders to advance the sexual health of youth in the U.S. and abroad. Sex::Tech is the only conference event that showcases high-tech educational content (mobile, social media, Internet) developed by professionals, highlights national and local program successes, and puts youth leadership at the forefront.

Watch the live stream of the Sex::Tech conference here, the conference’s schedule is below.

Plenary #1 Friday 8:30-10 (All times Pacific)

Appreciate our work?

Vote now! And help Rewire earn a bigger grant from CREDO:


Youth Reflect: Masculinity, Film and Social Media


 This live brainstorming session features three incredible young women, Treviny, Angelica, and Angileece, who each won a Scenarios USA screenwriting contest with a script about the meaning of masculinity today. The diverse screenplays cover difficult topics such as family, sexual orientation, and aspirations as they affect young men of color coming of age. Each young woman will have 10 minutes to pitch her film, after which a roundtable of youth experts will give ideas and advice on how to use social media to advance each film’s social cause. [NOTE: The format was this panel is based on BBC’s The Good Pitch, which brings together filmmakers and organizations to further coalitions and social causes all over the world.]

The Films

The Man in the Mirror

Written by Treviny Marie Colon

Directed by Joel Schumacher, Shot by Lee Daniel, Produced by Jonathan Schumacher The film is about Jason Gutierrez, a Puerto Rican from New York City and the quintessential all-American guy. Status comes at a price as rumors spread that Jason is gay. With his identity questioned, Jason is pushed to understand who he is and prove how far he will go to prove that he’s just “one of the boys.”

Life’s Poison

Written by Angileece Williams

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee, Shot by Noel Maitland, Produced by Debbie Stratis

The film is about Eliyah Howard, an 18-year-old who thinks he knows what it means to be a real man. He learned nearly everything from his abusive father. But family, love, and tragedy test the lessons he inherited. Eliyah tries to re-define what a man really is.

A Man Made Early

Written by Angelica Hernandez

Directed by Cruz Angeles, Shot by Naiti Gámez, Produced by Megan Gilbride

A Man Made Early is about a high school senior, Tony Rodriguez, who struggles with the decision of attending a college close to home or accepting a scholarship from a university in another state. Tony confronts peer pressure, cultural limitations, and family expectations to make his own decision.

Roundtable Participants

Moderator: Anastasia Goodstein, YPulse Founder, Author Totally Wired

Youth Experts:

Rachel Allen, National Alliance for Media, Arts and Culture (NAMAC)

Angelica Arreola, New America Media

Jimmy “Swift” Chen, California Chapter, DoSomething!

Amanze Emenike, New America Media

Anders Jones, Teens4Tech

Valerie Klinker, New America Media

Shelby Knox, Change.org

Bernadette Montez, TILT, Ninth Street Independent Film Center

Chantal Renous, Conscious Youth Media Crew

Jason Wyman, Youth Workers Collaborative

TECHsex USA: Friday 10:00-10:30

Deb Levine, Executive Director and Founder, ISIS

ISIS, Inc. received funding in 2010 from the Ford Foundation to begin a dialogue and better understand the environment at the intersection of youth, technology/social media, and sexual health. We wanted to dive deep… learning how youth and young adults, especially urban youth of color, use technology for their sexual and reproductive health and to figure out where the interest lies in new digital programming. ISIS, Inc. produced a white paper, now available for download at www.isis-inc.org. Deb will give an 18-minute TECHSExSF talk with highlights of this work for the first time to the audience at 2011 Sex::Tech.

Plenary #2  Friday, 2:15-3:15

mHealth: Text Messaging and Beyond

Moderator, Miles Orkin, American Cancer Society

Yin Ling Leung, Applied Research Works

Jen McCabe, Contagion Health

Amanda Mills, AOL Mobile

Jody Ranck, mHealth Alliance/ UN Foundation

Robin Whittaker, Commonwealth Fund Harkness Fellow

Caught wind of mHealth? It seems to be the hot new topic these days. [mHealth is the delivery of healthcare services via mobile devices.] While some of us have been integrating mHealth into our programs and services for a few years now, all of us are in need of a primer on the field and where it’s headed for the future. Listen to the mHealth experts talk about trends, devices, and best practices for mHealth, then consider how to apply what you’ve learned to advancing the field of youth sexual health.

Plenary #3 Saturday, 8:30-10

Behind the Scenes: 16 and Pregnant

Moderator: Dr. Jeff Livingston, MacArthur Ob/Gyn

Morgan J. Freeman, MTV

Dia Sokol Savage, MTV

Amy R. Kramer, The National Campaign

Katherine Suellentrop, The National Campaign

The MTV sensation “16 and Pregnant” had over 2 million viewers for its second season finale. The sister series of “16 and Pregnant”, “Teen Mom” and “Teen Mom 2,” rank as some of the most watched primetime cable programs for young people aged 12-34.  There’s no question these shows have stoked a national conversation on teen pregnancy.  Yet, many professionals and lay people criticize them for glamorizing teen pregnancy, perpetuating abstinence-only messaging, and class stereotypes and judgment.

This panel will take the audience at Sex::Tech 2011 on a journey of understanding the core values of “16 and Pregnant,” the depth of the partnerships developed for production of the show, and the proven research and educational value of cutting edge programming for youth around sexual health.


Vote for Rewire and Help Us Earn Money

Rewire is in the running for a CREDO Mobile grant. More votes for Rewire means more CREDO grant money to support our work. Please take a few seconds to help us out!


Thank you for supporting our work!