- Abstinence Cinema: Virginity and the Rhetoric of Sexual Purity in Contemporary Film by Casey Ryan Kelly
Casey Ryan Kelly's Abstinence Cinema: Virginity and the Rhetoric of Sexual Purity in Contemporary Film explores the proliferation of youth-oriented plots about abstinence in contemporary cinema, arguing that such films make up a broader popular media phenomenon that reflects cultural anxieties about the legacies of feminism and sexual liberation.
The case studies analyzed in each chapter cover "abstinence cinema," what Kelly defines as an "emerging constellation of disparate film texts from 2000 to the present that collectively articulate circumscribed meanings of sexuality, gender, and family within the symbolic and discursive repertoire of the abstinence movement."1 Kelly argues that different facets of neoconservative politics and evangelical Christianity are reflected and refracted in diverse contemporary feature films ranging from straight-to-DVD teen comedies to globally distributed action films. Working within a cultural studies interpretive framework, the author understands contemporary movies as privileged "site[s] of ideological contestation" that engage in a "cultural proxy war over what kind of sexual morality should govern public and private life."2 Through the interpretive protocols of ideological critique and textual analysis, Kelly uncovers the conservative ideological dimensions of current films that engage, on textual and subtextual levels, youth sexuality and virginity loss. Kelly argues that these filmic discourses emerge from the rhetoric of contemporary evangelical purity [End Page 172] teachings and resonate with the sex-negative politics of the religious Right. As a result, abstinence cinema registers conservative cultural attitudes that valorize female purity, heteronormative masculinity, and traditional coupling.
Abstinence Cinema shows how a corpus of film texts refracts the sexual and gender politics of contemporary American evangelical Christianity. Establishing the tenets of abstinence culture in the book's introduction, Kelly explains that abstinence outside of wedlock is a core biblical value, and one recently enjoying mainstream visibility, as illustrated in the popularity of abstinence organizations such as True Love Waits and the Silver Ring Thing and through high-profile celebrities, notably Selena Gomez, who previously publicly discussed purity-ring ceremonies and abstinence pledges.3 Of course, the abstinence movement has made gains in public policy as well. As Kelly shows, abstinence-only sex education in public schools was promoted in the 1980s by the Christian Right (many of whom who were also combating pornography and gay rights at the time) and has continued in the United States throughout the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
Kelly presents the corpus of abstinence cinema as the collective cultural manifestation of the anxieties, fears, and moralism that drive purity culture, as well as a phenomenon that has emerged in recent years. The book's introduction briefly charts a lineage from the "white slave" films of the teens, through the Production Code of the studio era, and toward a resurgence of raunchy teen comedies of the early 1980s. Soon after, public awareness of AIDS prompted Hollywood to abandon sex-positive representations, resulting in the disappearance of "the 1970s rhetoric of sexual liberation" from mainstream movies.4 Kelly argues that the early 2000s saw Hollywood "revisit[ing] virginity … this time with a host of films that overinflate the personal and social value of remaining chaste, imploring audiences to think more carefully about the potentially dangerous repercussions of sexual activity."5 The case studies in Abstinence Cinema, which range across releases from 2005 to 2012, reflect Kelly's periodization and represent a diverse range of films, not limited by production context, intended audience, or genre.
The book's five main chapters are used to illustrate the pro-abstinence rhetoric of recent mainstream feature films. Kelly analyzes the rhetoric about family, sexuality, and gender in The Twilight Saga (2008–2012), The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Judd Apatow, 2005), The Possession (Ole Bornedal, 2012), and Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008), as well as across a recent cycle of low-budget teen sex comedies that includes American Virgin (Jean-Pierre Marois, 2000), American Virgin (Clare Kilner, 2009...