A Few Informal Thoughts About “Where The Boys Are,” which is at least among my top ten favorite films about virgins.
I really love this movie. One one of the things that makes Where the Boys Are (1960, dir. Henry Levin) so compelling to me (the fantastic lipsticks aside) is that its rigid female character archetypes are still founded on sexual roles, but not the ones we expect to see in teengirl sex films. I recently watched it in a research seminar on dating and sexuality in the U.S. since the 1950s. Most of my classmates (and my professor) were so busy being hung-up on the fact that all of the girls in the film were committed to virginity (which, to everyone in the class, is a strict sign of oppression) to discuss the dynamics of sex that were actually unfolding in the movie. It’s totally true that all four characters that the film follows are committed to virginity and are also out for a ring. But, you know, the film was made in 1960 and I think it’s lazy scholarship to just to say “yep! it’s all backwards! because they are waiting til marriage to have sex, and some of them even want to get married!” But that’s basically the only discussion anyone was willing to have. I would argue that, although the film is totally screwed up in a very 1960s way, and it perpetuates a lot of heavy gendered tropes and sexual norms, it also contains a bunch of really well-developed adolescent girls who are openly wrestling with their sexualities in really complciated ways. And they have agency! And they get to drop punchlines!
I’ve been saving some of my thoughts about this film—and the experience of watching it in a class full of ~problematic people~—for a more serious and committed post. But I need to talk about some of these things, so you’ll have to forgive me if this is poorly thrown together.
The first of the lady foursome is Merrit, played by Dolores Hart (far left in the photo above). Jon Lewis, in Road to Romance and Ruin, calls her “almost-too-smart-for-her-own-good,” and in the film’s first scene we find her in a college course on courtship and marriage with an unhip professor lecturing on the dangers of “random dating” and “premature emotional involvement.” Merrit stands up to challenge:
Merritt: “Dr. Kinsey says —”
Professor: “We are not discussing Dr. Kinsey. We are discussing interpersonal relationships!”
Merritt: “What could be more interpersonal than ‘back seat bingo’?”
Professor: “Just what do you consider suitable subject matters for discussion in this course?”
Merritt: “We’re supposed to be intelligent, so why don’t we get down to the giant jackpot issue? Like should a girl or should she not under any circumstances ‘play house’ before marriage?”
Professor: “I’d be afraid to ask your opinion on such a subject.”
Merritt: “Don’t be afraid. My opinion is yes!”
Needless to say, at four minutes into the film, I was in love. As the story progresses, we learn that Merrit, smart and questioning, is ultimately uncomfortable with having sex with men she isn’t married to. To my classmates, this meant that Merrit could not possibly be a smart or liberated girl. One of them even said, “all she cares about or talks about is getting married!” even though Merrit is shown reading Russian books on the beach all the time. Basically, as the logic stands, a girl who is not willing to have sex—even though she is actively involved in discussing sexuality and asking questions—is a shallow girl. To which I say, “you brahs are gross.”
Merrit represents a different virginal archetype than one we are used to seeing—she is “virgin who understands her sexuality in relation to her education status” ie, she intellectualizes it. According to Jon Lewis:
“Merrit’s struggle to remain chaste clearly runs counter to her intellectual acceptance of the theoretical foundations of the sexual revolution. She is, the film posits, like a lot of coeds in the U.S., a victim of her own rational developing intellect and of society’s affirmation (via college) of equal opportunity. For example, when Ryder, her paramour, tells her she’s a good kisser, she being frosh queen and all, Merrit takes it as an insult. ‘No girl likes to be considered promiscuous,’ she says. But he counters with a line straight out of sociology class: ‘Sex is no longer a matter of social norms.’ That saying yes (on her part) has something to do with what happens in the classroom is hard to miss.”
Now, don’t get me wrong: Merrit’s characterization is very symptomatic of an early sixties climate of cautionary feminist parables. Essentially, Merrit’s educational liberation makes her unhappy and confused, and she isn’t able to wield the sexual liberation that she’s been granted. This caution makes her question whether she is comfortable in academia at all, as a “good girl.” Merrit’s forced to decide whether she wants academic liberation at all because she feels that it is pressuring her into doing things she doesn’t want to do. In the end, Merrit remains a virgin but finds a cloying compromise in George Hamilton’s character Ryder, a very wealthy Yaley with whom she considers committing herself and maybe even someday doin’ the deed. His Ivy Leaguery gives her an opportunity not to abandon her intellectual dreams, even though he is kind of gross and tries to liquor her up to loosen the deal. And he says his very high IQ is just two points higher than hers. Just to be clear.
Compare Merrit to Tuggle, played by Paula Prentiss (the brunette above). Whereas Merrit’s tensions are between her own sexuality and her intellectual understandings of sexuality, Tuggle doesn’t think of herself as smart or capable, and instead sees herself with only one option. “That’s my ambition: to be a walking, talking baby-factory.” That line is maybe the film’s most infamous few seconds, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that in the original theatrical release, Tuggle added, “Legally, of course, and with union labor.” She was making a joke! Of course it’s problematic that she didn’t grant herself many options, but is it really less problematic for contemporary DVD releases to cut out lines to recontextualize the sexuality of these women? God forbid we recognize that girls in the sixties had a degree of awareness about their social binds, God forbid they aren’t two-dimensional archetypes of repression. I think it’s really saying something that this cheap early sixties teen schamltzfest was capable of showing women that understood that their fates were constrained. But, again, all the brahs in my class (and even my too second-wave professor) can say is “she wants to have babies! she is shallow!”
One scene finds Tuggle lounging in a chaise by the pool with her date, TV. He asks her if she is a good girl—meaning, you know, a girl that isn’t gonna have sex with him—and she says yes. At that, TV halts the necking and gets up to leave. What happens next, instead of grovelling or compromising or moping over broken romance, Tuggle shrugs and is all, “suit yourself, dog, I’m out.” She is totally comfortable with him not loving her because she is unwilling to have sex with him. It was kind of one of the most badass scenes I’ve ever seen. My classmates disagreed, of course, and again cited her “repression” as the cause of her not willing to have sex with someone she doesn’t want to have sex with. Anyway, I’m all, “lord, if I got at a part with any of these dudes I would be UN. COMF.” Because, to them, the only way you can be a fully developed female character is if you have sex under any circumstances, apparently.
Whereas Jon Lewis characterizes Merrit’s relationship with her virginity as an intellectual struggle (not between wanting to have sex and knowing she shouldn’t, but between not wanting to have sex and intellectualizing sex as something she shouldn’t feel uncomfortable with), he describes Tuggle as having a different choice to make. Because Tuggle doesn’t think she has a very wide-open future, she understands that marriage is an inevitable. To Lewis, then, Tuggle’s compromise is between her impending adult responsibilities and her discomfort with that role. So, he says, “she clings to her adolescence (here defined by sexual inexperience, because such are the rules of the game for girls in youth culture).” Virginity, to her, was a way to stave off adult responsibilities she wasn’t ready to have.
Again, Tuggle’s struggle was binaristic, but it wasn’t a simplistic spectrum from “having sex = liberated” to “not having sex = shallow” just as much as it wasn’t a virgin/whore situation. And, mostly, Tuggle is hella developed. (Unfortunately, the last quarter of the film derails everything I loved about Tuggle. In short, she’s like, “oh TV! come back to me! I love you even though you did a series of really fucked up things to me! no one else will love me because I am a tall brunette!” When really she shoulda been like, “TV! I’m gonna stab you to death on the beach right now!” which is the film I plan to someday make.)
The film focuses on two other girls: Yvette Mimieux’s Melanie and Connie Francis’s Angie. The former is the only girl that has sexual experiences by the end of the film, and her story is so full of baggage that it deserves its own post.
As for Angie, the situation is basic: Where the Boys Are spends an hour and a half trying to convince us that Connie Francis is way too unattractive for anyone to possibly date, so she mopes around batting her eyes at brahs and stealing shit from diners and getting called “short one.” Mostly, you’re like, “what? Connie Francis is not rolling in the cock? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure Connie Francis is a major sexpot in any context,” which is totally true. So the film hits you over the head with how poor she is, so that you could believe in SOME UNIVERSE SOMEWHERE there was a dude who didn’t want to spend his life with the Magnificent Ms. Francis. Anyway: ambiguously Italian, hockey-playing, gum-chewing, “jive-talking,” and otherwise 1960-déclassé (and, basically, my perfect woman). She winds up on the arm of a blind dialectic jazz performer her treats her like shit, but she still wins because she’s fucking Connie Francis.
I would highly recommend watching the theatrical trailer for some choice bits and a feel for the movie’s tone.