Watch: Science Fiction and the Problem with the “Born Sexy Yesterday” Trope
Here at TMS, we’re big fans of smart pop culture critique like Feminist Frequency’s Women Vs. Tropes in Video Games series – which is why I was excited when I ran across Pop Culture Detective’s “Born Sexy Yesterday” video over at io9.
The video analyzes a trope that’s particular to science fiction and fantasy, in which – thanks to the power of science or magic – a woman “has the mind of a naive yet highly skilled child, but in the body of a mature, sexualized woman.” The woman is fully grown physically, and is often skilled at something male-coded like combat or coding, but she has little experience of sexuality or social norms. The video’s writer/producer, Jonathan McIntosh, cites The Fifth Element as “probably the most quintessential example,” but also includes footage from films like Splash, Enchanted, Stargate, The Time Machine, and My Stemother is An Alien.
While the video is structured around the characterization of the female character, the women aren’t actually McIntosh’s main problem with the trope. Instead, he points out that this is ultimately a relationship trope – and that’s where it gets really patriarchal.
As McIntosh summarizes, the male character in these films is usually a “straight, red-blooded” man who finds himself alone and disenfranchised. He “either can’t find or doesn’t want a woman from his own world, a woman who might be his equal in matters of love and sexuality.”
And yet, the woman who is Born Sexy Yesterday falls head-over-heels for him, just because he knows how to act like a normal, everyday human being (something she doesn’t know how to do). “It’s precisely her naivety and her innocence that allows her to see something special in him,” summarizes McIntosh, “something that other, less innocent or more experience women, cannot.”
This emphasis on sexual innocence and power imbalance is the heart of what makes Born Sexy Yesterday so troubling. “The crux of the trope is a fixation on male superiority,” McIntosh says, “It’s a fantasy based on fear: fear of women who are men’s equal in sexual experience and romantic history, and fear of losing the intellectual upper hand to women.”
“By definition, characters Born Sexy Yesterday have no past lovers, and no previous sexual experiences,” he explains. “The male hero therefore avoids even the possibility of being compared, of being judged, of not measuring up. At the end of the day, this is a male fantasy about escaping the humiliation of rejection. Since he’s the first and only man in this woman’s life, he gets to be the best by default, which means he doesn’t even have to try to be a better partner, a better boyfriend, or a better lover.”
(While McIntosh focuses on this trope as it appears in science fiction, he acknowledges that it draws from older, racist narratives about indigenous women and white men.)
In short, “Born Sexy Yesterday fetishes the stark power imbalance between a wiser, more experienced man and a naive, inexperienced woman. It’s the ultimate teacher-student dynamic.”
McIntosh closes the video with a call to action: “We need media where men enthusiastically embrace women who are their equals.”
We sure do.
What did you think of the video? Have you encountered other examples of Born Sexy Yesterday? Or do you think it’s too similar to Manic Pixie Dream Girl to count as its own trope?
(Via io9; featured image via screengrab)
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