What ‘American Pie’ and ‘The Hunger Games’ Teach Us About Underestimating Boys and Romance

I was quite struck this weekend by a piece in the New York Times this weekend by Amy Schalet, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who chronicled her research into how boys decide how to have sex for the first time. She wrote:

The Dutch boys I interviewed grew up in a culture that gives them permission to love; a national survey found that 90 percent of Dutch boys between 12 and 14 report having been in love. But the American boys I interviewed, having grown up in a culture that often assumes males are only out to get sex, were no less likely than Dutch boys to value relationships and love. In fact, they often used strong, almost hyper-romantic language to talk about love. The boy whose condom broke told me the most important thing to him was being in love with his girlfriend and “giving her everything I can.”

Such romanticism has largely flown under the radar of American popular culture. Yet, the most recent research by the family growth survey, conducted between 2006 and 2010, indicates that relationships matter to boys more often than we think. Four of 10 males between 15 and 19 who had not had sex said the main reason was that they hadn’t met the right person or that they were in a relationship but waiting for the right time; an additional 3 of 10 cited religion and morality.

It’s not as if popular culture is totally immune to these ideas. When American Pie came out thirteen years ago, of its four protagonists who were hoping to have sex for the first time, both Oz and Kevin were deeply in love with the girls with whom they had sex for the first time, and Jim later married Michelle, to whom he lost his virginity. There are many, many ways in which teen comedies and sex comedies have generally failed to build on the foundation laid down by American Pie, and that’s certainly one of them.

I also wonder if that’s one of the reasons The Hunger Games has been so successful across gender lines. It’s not just a movie with a badass female heroine who boys as well as girls ought to be able to identify with, because who doesn’t love awesome displays of archery? It’s a story about male romantic suffering. Both Gale and Peeta love Katniss, but they’re constrained in their ability to act on those emotions. Katniss is snatched away from Gale just as their friendly and collegial feelings appear to be developing into something greater, and it’s the very trauma of that parting that heightens their feelings. Katniss’s departure means she has to ask Gale to take a formal role in protecting her family. Peeta’s interactions with Katniss in the past have been constrained by shame, dependency, and class, and his declaration of love for her is simultaneously a gallant piece of strategy and profoundly awkward and unfair to Katniss. The books and the movie are about the difficulties of all three characters communicating their emotions and navigating towards what they want, rather than simply the fantasy of being desperately wanted. And as a result, I suspect they give boys a way in to the story in a way that Twilight doesn’t. Studios that want to recapture that magic might do well to think about boys’ emotions as well as snazzy weaponry.