Whether it be on social media or in the cafeteria, it has been nearly impossible to escape talks of the Netflix Original movie, “The Kissing Booth”. However, this seemingly high school rom-com has underlying tones of sexism and represents relationships in a regressive way. The movie follows the current trend of teenage-aimed movies that employ these two themes in their plots. This film, in particular, aims to give teenagers an idea of how their lives should be. Despite its attempt to create an ideal life for teens, the film fails to criticize the negative aspects that teenagers face and instead almost encourages it by depicting sexual harassment, frequent slut-shaming of its leading lady, and attempting to romanticize a “bad boy” love interest.
Throughout the duration of the film, viewers watch as the leading male roles confront messages encouraging them to disconnect from their emotions, devalue authentic friendships, objectify and degrade women, and resolve conflicts through violence. These gender stereotypes create a maze of identity issues boys and young men must navigate to become “real” men. This film attempts to tell men how they should act while telling women how they should expect to be treated. Both of these implications are extremely detrimental, especially in films made for a younger audience. Throughout the film, these stereotypes are best exemplified through Noah’s actions, Elle’s reactions and the norms that are being portrayed.
Noah, who is the brother of Elle’s best friend, is a “hot”, “popular” football player who has a negative reaction when the boys at school begin to show Elle attention after summer break. On the first day of school, Elle tears her only pair of school pants and is forced to head off to her first day back wearing a too small, two-year-old skirt. The moment she walks on campus, she is berated with catcalls from nearly all of her fellow male students. Elle is groped by another student, leading Noah to physically assault him. In a weird of turn of events, Elle lands in the principal’s office and, instead of being treated as the victim, she is reprimanded. Both Lee and the school’s principal tell Elle that she was “asking for it” by wearing the skirt. How is it fair that a woman, short skirt or not, can get into trouble for actually being assaulted just based on what she is wearing? Talk about unequal treatment. This is a real “boys will be boys” moment and a great example of how women can be judged harsher than their male counterparts based on the clothing they wear.
Noah begins to tell every guy in school not to talk to Elle, or they will “regret it.” Here, it is clear that Noah’s power over Elle gives him the satisfaction of control. When a painting project goes awry, Elle stumbles into the girls’ bathroom to clean up and takes off her shirt before she realizes she’s actually in the boys’ locker room. In the next moment, Elle opts to dance around provocatively with her shirt off. Elle is neglecting Noah’s power over her and taking control of her own sexuality, but at the same time, she is giving the other boys the satisfaction of having a girl dance all over them in the locker room only to get a rise out of Noah.
Violence is a huge part of this film, and it is introduced early on that Noah is known for getting into fights (often very brutal ones). Elle even lays down a rule that he can’t fight anymore if he wants them to be together, and later gets him to admit that his family has struggled to deal with it, even sending him to counseling with no lasting impact. It’s “kinda just how I’m wired,” he muses, and that’s all there is. Later, Lee briefly worries that Noah has hit Elle, a jarring moment in a film marketed as a fluffy rom-com for teens. And Elle constantly consents to him, even when it feels dangerous. The fact that Lee automatically assumes that Noah hit Elle is a seriously messed up assumption. How is that the first thing that comes to his mind? Well, that’s how Noah has always been; violent, controlling, and aggressive. Even though Noah would never do such a thing, his own brother thought differently just because of his status and past situations.
While The Kissing Booth has all the right ingredients to be a romcom for teens—a trio of mean-girl villains, the elusive bad boy, and the life-long best friend who seems to get in the way of true romance—its troubling treatment of the female body and unrealistic representation of high school hinders its ability to accomplish anything meaningful. Despite these problems, this film was extremely popular. As a result, it is difficult to end these harmful stereotypes from being perpetuated when the media allows the younger audience to watch films like this one. Ideas are then created in their head that they should dress and act a certain way to “fit in,” make friends, find their place in society and the cycle continues. As young people and consumers, we need films to call for the industry to challenge the status quo, create change for the next generation and not merely repeat the old and offensive stereotypes.